Does Postmodernism Inevitably Lead to Universalism?

Questioned Proposalphoto © 2008 Ethan Lofton | more info (via: Wylio)


There is a cool new site that has great potential called “Theology and Life in the 21st Century.”  One of the writers, Eric, frequents the comments here on Pangea.  He is insightful and passionate about Jesus.  He did however write an article that I think has some confusing terms and ideas.  He relates Postmodernism to “Universalism” siting a distrust towards “absolute truth.”  My contention is that he is coming from an old dichotomy of object vs subject that I think has some fallacies.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this.  Here is our conversation based on this post...

My original comment:

Eric, I think you are getting at something that is important for discussion.  Universalism is not helpful for the faith.  However, I find your unilateral appropriation of postmodernism to a lack of belief in ‘universal truth’ and therefore to a belief in universalism to be misinformed.  Postmodern thought is much more nuanced than that.  I ascribe to a more ‘postmodern’ view and certainly do not hold to universalism.  I invite you to read my article on Postmodern Biblical Authority here and to get the book s I refer to as sources…

His Response:

Thank you for the link. I greatly appreciate your style and depth of writing and you have given me a lot to think about regarding biblical authority in light of postmodernism. I will definitely be spending some time on your sources as well.

In reference to your comment, I think you may have misunderstood me just a bit. While I do suggest that universalism has roots in postmodern thought, I am not suggesting that the inverse relationship holds true. A person may very easily be a postmodernist without being universalist. Also, I tried to make it clear that this “type” of postmodern thought is only existent in a certain form. It appears to me that those who hold to universalism often have postmodern tendencies, not a fully developed understanding of postmodernism.

I must say though that I do wonder how you understand the biblical authority to be infallible without communicating objective truth. It would seem to me that, if we deconstruct a passage in scripture to the point of irreducibly contradictory interpretations, at least some of those interpretations must be fallible.

Also, while I understand that the origins of Christianity would not qualify as a meta-narrative, that certainly wouldn’t still apply today. Christianity is no longer just a marginalized voice in the Roman empire. Much of Christian theology has been developed in a position of power and authority, which has often been used to silence the Other. If we are to embrace the skepticism toward the Meta-narrative and offer favor to the Other, then on what grounds would we suggest that universalism is not helpful?

My second Response:

Your welcome.

Here is a short answer. Objective vs subjective truth is a false dichotomy of modernity that we teach high school kids in our youth groups, quite ignorantly. I know, I was a product of such ministries and led youth for 5 years. I would urge you to keep exploring other options as it could easily be said that none of the respectable Christian scholars of our day (NT Wright, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, Olson, Richard B Hays, etc) hold to the sort of “positivism” that Objective truth arguments assume. In fact, most scholars would define this view like the following:

Naive Realist – (or Foundational Realist) direct correspondence between truth and experience of, interpretation of truth. There is truth and it can be evaluated objectively (implication is all would be able to confirm, see it same way.)
This basically means that you have: Objective evidence → Objective Truth

A better option would be to hold to something like:

Perspectival Realist – (or Critical Realist, or Post-Foundational Realist) The way one sees the world affects the way truth is seen/experienced and thus how it is judged, articulated, etc. There is truth, but it will be interpreted differently.

Truth can be perceived differently by various viewpoints and various experiences
Bouquet of roses in the middle of a room seen from various angles…

Unfortunately, the issue that I have with your article is not the “type” of postmodernism you are critiquing which I would call:

Radical Perspectivalism – (or Post-Foundational Antirealism) Truth is constructed, perspective is all there is.

My issue is that you assume the “naive realist” categories and seem to play by such rules. I really encourage you to check out the book: Whose afraid of Postmodernism, by James Smith.

Finally, you make a keen observation about Meta-narrative. Yes, Christendom is not a marginal voice… but we are heading there. England has certainly evolved into a Post-Christendom society and the US will catch up as a whole, but is there in many of our cities. I would say that Christendom is a problem, and in itself is a meta-narrative. But, I come from the anabaptist tradition which has always been a counter-voice to the post-Constinian marriage between Empire/Power and Church. Emerging and Anabaptist groups are calling out Christendom for what it is… a destructive force of violence that has hindered the gospel. For more on this see: 1) The Naked Anabaptist – Murray, 2) The Myth of a Christian Nation – Boyd, 3) Jesus for President – Claiborne, and 4) The Shaping of Things to Come – Hirsh and Frost. This critique is not to say that “nothing” good came from Christendom (Meta-narrative faith) but that it has been exposed as oppressive and looking a lot like Rome and not much like the organic first century subversive movement of Jesus radicals.

Hope this helps!

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  • Although I believe that your title is meant to be provocative, I would just like to make it clear that I do not believe that Postmodernism leads to Universalism. I do believe that Universalism has roots in Postmodernism; however, I do not believe that is a causative relationship. I have also suggested that Universalism has roots in Calvinism, but I don’t believe that Calvinism leads to Universalism either.

    • Jay

      I wonder, can something have it’s roots in that which it pre dates? Maybe this is just semantics but universalism is a consistent thought throughout the church history. Majorly disputed and difficult to justify in many respects but nonetheless is not influenced by postmodernism, or that which blossoms from it…

      • You are correct that universalism predates postmodernism considerably; however, I do believe that the reason why people are inclined to accept universalism now is not the same as it was in the first century. As society as a whole begins to approach a postmodernist worldview, we find people who are somewhat “functional postmodernists” who do not have a fully developed understanding of postmodernism. These people are much more willing to start with a subjective view of God which they would like to be true and build their theology around it.

        • Eric, I’m going to go back and comment directly on your blog, but the short version here…I think you may be right that Postmodernism is the impetus behind many accepting (or considering) Universalism today, but to therefore paint everyone who’s questioning “orthodox” teaching about hell, with a Universalist brush is an oversimplification at best and flat-out error at worst. 

          Though I’m just weird enough to not be representative of any group I know of, I’m a case in point.  I have questioned quite a few points of orthodoxy in the past few years, completely rejected some of them, and yet I’m far from postmodern.  I’ll elaborate over at your place.

          • “…to therefore paint everyone who’s questioning “orthodox” teaching about hell, with a Universalist brush is an oversimplification at best and flat-out error at worst.”

            I don’t believe that this is something that I have done. I do, in fact, speak of Universalists as people who question and reject orthodox teachings of Hell because all Universalists reject the orthodox teachings of Hell. The inverse relationship does not hold true. All Californians are in fact American, but just because you’re American doesn’t also mean that you are Californian.

    • @simwaves1:disqus , Great.  Of course its provocative.  Your article is more nuanced than that, but your title suggests a similar provocative idea.  Anyway, I am glad that you and I can have some fun.  I hope this leads to your site getting some of my traffic.  I think what you guys are doing has great potential, even if we disagree on this one topic…. or maybe we both have room to grow???

      • Your article is more nuanced than that, but your title suggests a similar provocative idea.

        Haha, fair enough.