Postmodern Religion

Leda Luss Luyken, Wikimedia Commons

How might Christianity, and religion in general, respond to the ongoing gradual shift from the “modern” to “postmodern” paradigm in Western society?

What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is an approach to philosophy, art, and culture that emerged in the 20th century. It questions the dominant paradigms and assumptions that built the foundations of the “modern” era (about 17th-20th centuries). These include the ideas that absolute knowledge exists and can be uncovered through reason and observation and that humanity is on a slow, but inevitable, march toward progress and improvement. Modernists also place faith in institutions (religious, political, societal, cultural, etc.) as legitimate repositories of authority and knowledge. Postmodernists tend to question each of these assumptions, arguing instead that truth is subjective, that progress is not guaranteed, and that authority and knowledge are most approximately discerned through networks and subjective experience.

Along with premodernism, these three epochs of philosophical history can be summarized like this:

Approximate period of dominancePre-17th century17th-20th centuriesPost-1950s
Theory of knowledgeUltimate Truth is revealed to authoritative sources (philosophers, kings, prophets, etc.)Ultimate Truth is accessible through scientific method, reason, and logic“Truth” is subjective, relative, and contingent; many legitimate kinds of knowledge accessible through diverse approaches
Nature of authorityHierarchical/vertical authority; religious institutionsHierarchical/vertical authority; political and academic institutionsDiffused/horizontal authority; multi-nodal

Postmodernism and religious institutions

As it stands, most contemporary world religions are products of the premodern epoch of world intellectual-philosophical history. After the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment eras, many Western religions adapted modern paradigms and structures to one extent or another but still represent a blend of the premodern and modern worldviews. Many believe that the transition to postmodernism is inevitable and thus Christianity (and all other Western religions, for that matter) must find a way to adapt to a postmodern paradigm or face eventual irrelevancy and extinction.

Phyllis Tickle and others have argued that the structure, organization, and conception of authority in religious institutions always exists in a historical context. In other words, they are largely products of the surrounding economic, political, philosophical, cultural, and social environment. Why is the Catholic Church structured hierarchically with successive waves of lower authorities, each of which are responsible for the authority immediately below but accountable to the authority immediately above? Tickle and colleagues would argue that it is because the Catholic Church was shaped and development in the context of European feudal political environments which placed a king at the apex of several layers of authorities (lords, knights, peasants), each of which was responsible for the one beneath but accountable to the one above. (See her book The Great Emergence for more on this topic and her argument about the shift to postmodern religion.)

What does a premodern/modern religious worldview look like? According to Diana Butler Bass:

Not so long ago, believers confidently asserted that God inhabited heaven, a distant place of eternal reward for the faithful. We occupied a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, where God lived; the world below, where we lived; and the underworld, where we feared we might go after death. The church mediated the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator, wherein God sent down divine directions and, if we obeyed the directives, we would go up – eventually – to live in heaven forever and avoid the terrors below. Stories and sermons taught us that God occupied the high places, looking over the world and caring for it from afar, occasionally interrupting the course of human affairs with some miraculous reminder of divine power. Those same tales also emphasized the gap between worldly places and the holy mountains, between the creation and an Almighty Creator. Religious authorities mediated the gap, explaining right doctrine and holy living. If you wanted to live with God forever in heaven, then you listened to them, believed, and obeyed.

Diana Butler Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World, pg. 4

A postmodern religious worldview, in contrast, radically “flattens” the picture. God is not so much “above” as “among,” “around,” or “within.” The role of the church is not so much to act as the “vertical” elevator operator but instead to foster “horizontal” community and religious experience.

Postmodern religious practice

Believers in a postmodern paradigm are concerned less with correct doctrine (because all sources of authoritative knowledge are subjective, limited, and relative) and more with authentic religious experience, just action, and vibrant community. No one single authority (scripture, prophets, individual revelation, etc.) has a monopoly on religious truth. Instead, everyone has a “piece” of truth which reflects their particular perspective and orientation. Postmodern practitioners actively “mix and match” religious rituals, identities, doctrines, and ideas that best help them connect with an experiential God who is active in their lives.

Diana Butler Bass has pointed out that critics sometimes pan this approach as “Cafeteria Christianity” (or “cafeteria” religion/spirituality more broadly). This criticism is based, though, on the assumptions of the premodern and modern worldviews that there is a single authoritative Truth to which individuals must conform and that authoritative institutions or leaders possess an infallible knowledge of that Truth. Postmodernists might respond by challenging this assumption and argue instead that the “cafeteria” approach is exactly what self-actualizing, autonomous individuals should strive for as they navigate the endless series of competing religious narratives in a horizontal world of imperfect and incomplete authorities of knowledge. This is the difficult (but noble!) work of using one’s mind, heart, and Spirit to take ownership of one’s moral framework, personal values, and ethical system. To do otherwise would in many ways be an abdication of personal autonomy as one instead chooses to “outsource” his or her moral and ethical thinking to some other authority, becoming a person who is “acted upon” instead of one who “acts.”

Postmodern religious identity

How does postmodernism conceive of individual identity and the concept of self?

In modern thought people are separate, coherent individuals—or ‘selves’—who think and act independently of all other individuals. … In postmodern thought, this construct is being called into question. …

In the everyday world, the modern idea of individuality was replaced long ago. People have more than one way of being, and they have relationships and connections with one another. They are also made up of many, often conflicting, parts. As they move in and out of different contexts, cultures, and sets of ideas (and/or between the different parts of themselves), they think differently, and behave differently in relation to others. They know that there are different rules of conduct in different contexts, that they are constructed—and can construct themselves—differently in these different contexts, and that they perform better in some contexts than in others.

The postmodern person is thus a hybrid. They have, not one core, permanent self, but many selves. Their self—and their identity—are not fixed, but continually in process, as the boundaries between themselves and others, and between the different parts of themselves are negotiated. (Source.)

In other words, the premodern and modern paradigms assume that everyone has One True Identity/Self just as there is One Ultimate Truth. Many postmodernists, however, would argue that each person has multiple identities/selves that are subjective and contingent on the context and nature of the interaction.

In her book Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass talks at some length about the increasingly common phenomena of “multireligious identities,” a concept which is right at home in a postmodern world. “In the same way that some people are biracial or multiracial, she writes, “others are describing themselves as multireligious. Recently, I spied an advertisement in a major American airport that read, ‘Who says you can’t be devoted to more than one religion?’” She goes on to describe individuals in a focus group that she conducted as they talked about their multifaith identities. “A proud Methodist confessed that he was also a Roman Catholic. … An Asian American in the group interpreted his Christian faith through the lens of Japanese culture. … One women is both Christian and Muslim and participates fully in both communities and sets of practices. ‘Becoming a Muslim,’ she told me, ‘has made me a better Christian.’” (60)

As of right now, roughly 6% of Americans tell surveyors that they claim more than one religious identity and most of them “actually practice or believe in multiple faiths at the same time.” This may increase in the near future, though, as young people are increasingly disillusioned with institutions and an increasing number are claiming no religious identity at all.

Tensions between postmodern identity and religious institutions

Some people struggle with the tension generated when they feel that their “authentic” selves come into conflict with dominant religious cultures that they perceive to value community, conformity, obedience, and (to a degree) anti-intellectualism. While they might value and honor their religious identities and heritage, they may eventually chose to disassociate from their church, places of worship, and/or their religious identity in an effort to alleviate the cognitive and emotional dissonance generated when their religious institutions take actions or make priorities that they perceive to be incompatible with their core values or religious identity. Alternatively, they may choose to disassociate from these institutions and communities altogether as they feel that they cannot in “good conscience” remain associated with an organization whose values, choices, or policies differ vastly from their own.

It could be argued that this tension is perceived largely because both parties involved (the individual and the religious community) are working under the premises of the modernist identity paradigm which assumes that individuals have only One True Authentic Identity, just as there is only One Absolute Truth. This single “True” identity is fixed, exclusive, and exists independent of the context and one is obligated to present their “True” self to others regardless of the context or situation. To do otherwise would be to some extent deceptive and possibly unethical as well.

When the assumptions of a postmodern worldview are considered, though, it becomes apparent that this tension easily dissolves. As described above, the postmodern conception of identity assumes that people are simultaneously constituted of many “authentic” selves. We present ourselves differently depending on our context and company. This is not deceptive as we genuinely possess multiple and differing identities from which we may choose to operate at different times and places.

This idea is not foreign when we speak of racial or ethnic identities in contemporary Western society. We routinely talk of “biracial” or “multiethnic” identities. It is accepted as common and normal for some individuals to present an identity which draws on one ethnic heritage in one context but another in a different context. (This is called “code switching.”)

Consider also that we routinely present different versions of ourselves in different contexts. Most of us do not behave identically when interacting with our children as we do with our spouse or significant other. Our friends and coworkers perceive us as a different “self” than do our siblings and parents. Each of them sees different versions of ourselves which are all part of our same “self” but also different at the same time.

In terms of our religious interactions, a postmodern Christian (or adherent of any postmodern religious identity) might draw from a variety of religious, cultural, and philosophical identities either simultaneously or based on the situation and context to form his or her sense of “self.” They may find meaningful expression and community within a specific religious institution/community/identity but also find meaningful expression in other religious traditions and/or communities as well. For example, an individual may identify as 100% Catholic and 100% Buddhist at the same time with absolutely no contradictionAnother might identify with strains of Protestantism but also aspects of Agnosticism, elements of Islam, some assumptions of secular humanism, and/or bits of atheism. Postmodernism argues that you can authentically be all, some, or none at the same time.

The tension described earlier can therefore dissolve as one rejects the “all or nothing” assumption of the modernist identity paradigm. A postmodern Christian is free to identify with, honor, ignore, or reject the various parts of the Christian tradition and identity that he or she chooses. This may help relieve the anxiety that someone might experience if they feel that in order to interact meaningfully with their religious community they are forced to accept “all or nothing” premise of their personal One True Religious Identity: that they either had to be “fully in” or “fully out.” Postmodernists would argue instead that we are free to actively shape, modify, and present our identities throughout our lives. Our identities, including religious identities, are dynamic and evolving, not static and fixed. We can proactively choose to “code switch” into one of our multiple authentic religious identities in contexts of interactions with our congregations and families and then “code switch” into a different authentic religious identity in another context.

Postmodern religious authority

Many contemporary religious institutions are situated firmly in a premodern paradigm when it comes to its conceptualization of religious authority. Diana Butler Bass has used the metaphor of a “three-tiered universe” with an “elevator” that connects them. God inhabits the highest tier, we inhabit the second, and the third (Hell) is the lowest. The premodern world assumes that we can travel from our tier to God’s tier only through this elevator but someone with the proper authority musts act as the “elevator operator” and push the button to take us up to God’s realm. When God wishes to interact with us in the middle tier, he gives divine authority (“priesthood” in many religious traditions) to a select few (prophets, philosophers, etc.) who are the only ones able to operate the elevator connecting our world to God’s world. These divinely authorized operators are also the ones given exclusive access to God’s secrets: they receive messages from God (scripture, revelation, visions, etc.) and bring it down to our middle tier for us to receive. This is how Western philosophy and religious worldviews operated until the Enlightenment and Modern era when the fundamental structure remained the same, but the authorities changed from prophets and Revelation to scientists and Reason.

In a postmodern world, however, this model of ecclesiastical authority may quickly become obsolete and/or irrelevant. How might a postmodern world consider issues of religious authority? Here are some possibilities:

Authority as a social constructed evolutionary adaptation

Some have argued that the very concept of “authority” itself is a social construct as opposed to an objective absolute. In other words, authority exists only to the extent that we humans perceive it to and constrict our behavior to conform to our perceptions of its existence.

Why do we humans have such a strong motivation to socially construct authority and see it as legitimate? There is much fascinating research on the evolutionary origins of human behavior as it relates to authority and obedience. This perspective argues that it was beneficial to our distant ancestors to operate in group hierarchies as it increased efficiency of effort and defense against external threats. “The capacity to obey, which may entail a process as simple as following … has enormous survival value for any immature organism” (175). The drive to be obedient to perceived authority thus was evolutionarily selected upon and now exerts an extremely strong influence on our behavior and perception of the world. (See also here and here.)

If the human tendency to construct and obey authority is ultimately due to the evolutionary advantage it bestowed upon our distant ancestors, it may be possible that the concept of “authority” is actually foreign to God and is instead merely a framework through which our brains perceive God. Perhaps we are even unable to perceive God in any other way than through the paradigm of hierarchy given how firmly entrenched the frameworks of authority and obedience are in our DNA.

Or perhaps because authority and obedience are ultimately the result of evolutionary adaptation, it is one of the strongest “desires of the flesh” tendencies that we must ultimately learn to overcome to become closer to God and “live by the spirit.” The need for authority thus becomes a weakness to overcome instead of a virtue to pursue.

Interestingly, some research has shown support for the argument that men evolved to prefer hierarchies in their social relationships while women evolved to prefer cooperative and egalitarian social arrangements. Perhaps the reason Western religion has predominantly viewed religious authority as a vertical hierarchy is because men have traditionally wielded the influence to structure religious institutions and organizations. One wonders how religious organizations would have developed in Christianity over the last 2,000 years if women had been the primary religious authorities.

Authority as an interactive dialogue

What is happening is something much closer to what mathematicians and physicists call network theory. That is, a vital whole – in this case, the Church, capital C – is not really a “thing” or entity so much as it is a network in exactly the same way that the Internet or the World Wide Web … are not “things” or entities. … The end result of this understanding of dynamic structure is the realization that no one of the member parts or connecting networks has the whole or entire “truth” of anything, either as such and/or when independent of the others. Each is only a single working piece of what is evolving and is sustainable so long as the interconnectivity of the whole remains intact. No one of the member parts or their hubs, in other words, has the whole truth as a possession or as its domain. … It is how the message runs back and forth, over and about, the hubs of the network that it is tried and amended and tempered into wisdom and right action for effecting the Father’s will. 

Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, 152-153

Whereas the premodern and modern paradigms are vertical and hierarchical, the postmodern paradigm is radically horizontal and decentralized. What might religious authority look like as it adapts to a postmodern environment?

It might include the realization that no single part of any religious institution or community has a monopoly on religious truth or ecclesiastical authority. Instead, of the traditional authorities of scripture, clerics, tradition, reason, and personal inspiration, a postmodern religious authority may emerge as a networked interaction between clergy and laity, scripture and blog post, tradition and innovation, ritual and individual adaptation, scholarly evidence and dogmatic belief. These conversations will then interact with other authoritative conversations in other religions as well as other aspects of society (philosophy, culture, politics, etc.) leading to even broader and more comprehensive Authoritative conversations.

In a postmodern environment, the conversation and interaction become the new Authorities, and any claim of a single entity to exclusive access to God’s secrets or a monopoly on authority to dispense salvific ordinances will be viewed as a relic of a former age.


One can argue the merits of the postmodern paradigm and its external validity or usefulness. What is difficult to deny, however, is that “the Church has always been sucked along in the same ideational currents as has the culture in general, especially in matters of governance” (151). Postmodern advocates point out that as the Western world continues to move (slowly but surely) toward a postmodern worldview religious institutions will either adapt or become irrelevant and wither away. The question that postmodernism poses for contemporary religious institutions is which course they prefer.