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From Modernity to Postmodernity: A Primer for Leaders – Part 1

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Do you ever glance through a newsfeed and wonder, “how can people think that way?!”

It can be tempting to just look away in disgusted anger. And yet, as Christians who are navigating today’s culture in the hope of influencing others to follow our path to Christ, we would be wise to follow Stephen Covey’s famous advice to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. - Stephen Covey Click To Tweet

The Postmodern Key

Anyone who spends time reading serious analysis of 21st century Christianity, culture, and ministry will come across the term ‘postmodernity’. And come across it frequently. Indeed, much of our understanding of culture is directly dependent on our ability to understand postmodernity.

Though significant, it is often a weighted word used with the assumption that the reader understands the dimensions of its weight.

This series of four articles is designed to provide you with a basic understanding of postmodernity. It will highlight the significance of postmodernity to the conversation of Christianity and culture. At the onset, I’d like to point out the invaluable role that historical theologian Dr. Robert Webber played in summarizing much of this information for a Christian audience, particularly in his book Ancient-Future Faith. Thus, many quotes from Webber are included in this series.

Implicit within the very word “postmodernity” is an explanation that postmodernity came after something. Namely, modernity. Significantly, it is both a reaction to and a natural outgrowth of modernity. Thus, it is necessary to begin this series with a brief step back in time to explore the roots of postmodernity in the modern world of the 18th-20th centuries.

The Role of Paradigms

Several years ago, three families participated in a PBS-sponsored simulation called Frontier House. From late spring until the first snow, these families immersed themselves in the lives of late 19th century pioneers as they were tucked away in a remote valley in Montana. Each family was allotted 160 acres of homestead land. They then set about building their homes, tending their livestock, planting food, catching fish in the creek, and storing enough wood for the winter. The only modern convenience they had was a video camera for video diaries.

The premise of the Frontier House focused on how contemporary families would fare in such an environment. It ultimately came down to a question of survival. Could a contemporary family make enough preparations in the warmer months to survive the winter?

Frontier Living

Families helped one another build their houses, tended to their land, traded for items that they needed, boiled water to drink, learned to make and sell goat’s cheese for extra money, met together for church on the weekends, had a few socials, hired a private school teacher from “out east” who would be willing to teach biracial children (since public school teachers could not do this), and chopped wood. In fact, they chopped a lot of wood. Between working in the field and chopping wood, the men had very little “free” time. Because they wanted to be ready for winter, the men spent all of their spare time chopping wood. Between preparing meals and tending to the house, the women had very free little time. Between school and helping with chores, the children had very little free time.

One of the most notable changes that occurred in the families had to do with their physical bodies. The men in particular noted extreme weight loss. The producers of the show allowed a scale to be brought in one day for the individuals to weigh themselves. After months of plowing fields and chopping wood, the men’s waists had narrowed and their shoulders had broadened. Their weight and body proportions, while a little alarming to them, was found to be typical to that of the average frontiersman in the late 19th century.

Frontier House and Paradigms

From approximately 1750 to 1980, Western civilization was characterized by what is known as a “modern” paradigm of thought. A paradigm is “a set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline.” [ref][/ref] The larger philosophy that encompasses this paradigm is known as modernity. The idea of a paradigm in this context is also closely related to the notion of worldview. Thus, when we refer to a “modern worldview”, we are referring to the reaction that modern paradigm has on how individuals relate to the world.

Frontier House gives us a physical example of how the environment someone lives in shapes that individual. If these individuals had lived on their Montana homesteads for several more years the environment would have likely shaped not only their bodies differently, but their thoughts as well.


An Introduction to Modernism

If we were to put together a graphic representation of modernity, it might look something like this block of colors.

Each block is unique and primary. Each block is its own entity, and yet it makes up the whole. Likewise, when we look at the whole, our eyes are drawn to individual blocks of color.

There is also an absoluteness about the blocks. It is very clear where one block ends and another begins. They are characterized by linearity. Straight lines forming perfect rectangles that can be measured and described in absolute terms. The blocks have a structure to them that can be quantitatively defined.

For example, I am looking at a box that is yellow and rectangular. Its height is about 1.5 times its width. From that simple description, can you determine which box I am looking at? Because modernity is individualistic, linear, and rational, modernity allows for the world to be defined in absolute, quantitative ways.

Foundations of Modernity

The world that surrounds us has the power to shape us. - Amber Riggs Click To Tweet

As is illustrated in the account of Frontier House, the world that surrounds us has the power to shape us. Modernity was ushered in by the changes of thinking brought on by the Enlightenment. On the heels of the Medieval Era, the Enlightenment was a period of time in the 18th century in which science, communications, and philosophy experienced breakthroughs which caused people to look at the world in a different way.

For example, the atom was discovered and labeled the “building block of life”. Life could literally be broken down into smaller components. Like the illustration above, defined parts were seen to make up a whole. Discoveries in science brought about advances in the field of medicine.

Guttenberg’s printing press allowed books to become more prevalent and the power of the written word began to increase. While oral culture, with its narratives and relational communication, had been the norm since creation, the availability of books and the newfound reliance upon the written word ushered in the development of written culture. Written culture assigns precise meanings to words. Words no longer existed within just the context of story and conversation. Written words must be more absolute because they are expected to communicate thoughts without non-verbal cues and social context. Thus, words began to acquire more precise meanings.

Modernity was also greatly influenced by the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Descartes is responsible for the famous ideology, “I think, therefore I am.” Thus, Descartes placed the starting point for truth at the level of the individual. Whereas truth had once been considered communal, this philosophy held that individuals could arrive at truth as they interacted with the world through reason and logic.

Putting it all Together

When we put the breakthroughs in each of these disciplines together, we see them interacting in an interesting way. Scientific discoveries brought clarity to many of the world’s mysteries. Secrets could be found out. Mysteries could be solved. The darkness of the Medieval era burst into a light that inspired confidence in understanding things that were once hidden from human knowledge. The Cartesian emphasis on individual reason meant that if individuals looked at the world with a scientific, empirical method, they could arrive at truth through logic. It also reasoned that each person would arrive at the same truth because the precise logic of scientific methodology was so sound that it would be impossible for individuals to arrive at different conclusions. Likewise, because truth was absolute, it could be communicated “through the accuracy of the written word” in a way in which it would not be misunderstood.

In essence, the Enlightenment brought about a confidence and excitement about the future. As progress was made in the areas of science, it appeared that mankind held the key to solving the world’s woes.

Central Features of Modern Thought

Essentially, the modern worldview is a highly scientific worldview. Scientific discoveries, bolstered by changes in communication and philosophy, created enormous confidence in science and reason. There was confidence that truth could be looked at objectively through the scientific method. Thus, by examining truth as individuals, people of modern thought sought to remove themselves from the equation and focus on what could be quantified as facts.

Webber notes that modern thought can be reduced to a few central components: individualism, rationalism, and factualism. Individualism asserts the self-sufficiency of each individual. Rationalism refers to the “strong confidence in the power of the mind to investigate and understand reality” [ref]R.E. Webber. Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 1999), page 18.[/ref]. Factualism brings individualism and rationalism together by maintaining that individuals can arrive at objective truth using reason. There are three additional aspects of modern thought:


Another important component of modernity that can not be ignored is the idea of foundationalism. Foundationalism maintains that because there are some beliefs about the world that are beyond doubt (such as the existence of God), then systems of belief can confidently be formed based on that core belief. Thus, you can begin to see the problem that Darwin’s theory of evolution and the “Big Bang” theory dealt Christianity in the Modern era and why many people stopped seeing God as an “absolute” and embraced atheism.


Structuralism is another modern conviction. Many cultures have recorded their histories in the form of written manuscripts. The Bible is an example of one of these manuscripts. Structuralism holds that these manuscripts are recorded to help people make sense of life. They provide a record of where we came from and how we got to where we are. Within these manuscripts are stories: narrative accounts interacting with historical facts. The collection of these narratives is known as a metanarrative. Modernists hold that the metanarrative serves to provide an objective view of life so that individuals can make sense of the world. Because of the focus of absolute truth, modernity allowed for only one true metanarrative. Thus, although the world had many manuscripts, and each told stories, only one of those stories could be the objective truth. Modernity argues that by reason, we can determine the one true metanarrative.


Modernity is also a pragmatic worldview. Pragmatism is the philosophy that essentially truth is “what works”. Thus, if something is true, it will work. Pragmatism involves going about something practically and logically. We can easily see how this relates to modern science as we go about demystifying the unknown in the world through the step-by-step scientific method. Pragmatism also has a great deal to do with cause and effect. For example, we can look at why certain events in history unfolded as they did by following the logical progression of events.

A Look Ahead

Because the Church does not exist in a vacuum, modern era Christians inescapably began thinking about and worshiping God in very modern ways. Modern era Christianity was in some cases directly shaped by modern thought and in other ways a reaction to modern thought. While the modern era is often stated to have ended in 1980, modern Christianity has shaped many of the ways that the Church as a whole still thinks about and worships God. However, as we shall see in the next few articles, much of the tension in the Church today is related to how we interact with both modern and post-modern thought-forms.

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Amber Mann Riggs
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Amber Mann Riggs lives near Eugene, OR, with her husband and four daughters. She writes at