The primary feature of Western Culture since the 17th Century ‘enlightenment’ has been the rationalistic or scientific approach to knowing and understanding life and the world we live in. There was a huge optimism that human ability and reason alone could answer our big questions about life and bring resolution to our major problems. The ‘scientific method’ was to be used to discover natural laws and pave the way toward a better world for all. Within this worldview there was an underlying belief that an ideal objectivity was possible for the ‘researcher’ or ‘observer’, and that which he ‘observed’ was separate from him. Within this framework it was believed that such ‘objective knowledge’ would lead to progress, and single rationalistic explanatory systems would be able to explain all phenomena.
Then came the 20th Century and two World Wars. Concepts like Hitler’s fascism revealed the ugly underbelly of humanistic rationalism reigning supreme. A single rationalistic explanatory system (later called a ‘meta-narrative’ by postmodern philosophers) had empowered a group of people to treat other people in inhumane ways. There arose a deep skepticism about any such ‘meta-narrative’. There was a shift away from looking for an objective understanding of the world we live in. Individuals and smaller groups of people began to construct their own world; their personal stories became their way of interpreting life. Knowledge was understood to come through experiences. Things began to be probed and experienced rather than proved. A general pessimism emerged about the hope of human progress. Now everyone was understood to be subjective: now the ‘observer’ is understood to be a part of ‘the observation’. This approach to understanding life is often referred to as ‘post modernity’.
In cultures dominated by modernity many Gospel preachers taught through sharing a series of principles or ‘spiritual laws’ that fit fairly well into a culture that looked for ‘objective knowledge’. This is not nearly so effective in a culture where post modernity prevails, where personal narratives are understood as the path toward some meaning to life. The good news is that the Bible is not a book of abstract principles; it is made up of individual stories that bring us to God’s disclosure of himself and his ways in the fabric of human experiences. Knowing God through Christ cannot be a reality in one’s life through rationalistic processes alone. It must also be discovered experientially, emotionally and spiritually. In a postmodern culture people tend to seek engagement and dialogue with others. I believe this is a primary reason the Alpha Course has been so effective in many places. One’s own story and the faith stories he holds in his heart can now be seen to have a legitimate place at the table with the all the other stories being told.
Some might argue, “Yes, but by telling God’s Big Story from the Bible aren’t you bringing in another distrusted meta-narrative?” Some postmodern thinkers would tend to say that this is so. However, the Biblical story that our faith depends on does not fit into that category as defined by postmodern thought. It is unlike the ideologies behind such meta-narratives as Capitalism, Scientific Naturalism, Communism or Fascism where the ‘knower’ can look upon the ‘observed’ with a haughty objectivism and justify the use force if necessary to push his ideology through. Believing the stories of the Bible always calls for humility. Time and again the stories show that our confidence has to rest on the faithfulness of God and not our own knowledge. Such a confidence is inseparable from humility before God and our fellow human beings. In other words, to begin to see God’s Big Story from Scripture is to realize that we are characters in his story who totally depend on him for mercy and are not the ones who make the story happen.
Leslie Newbigin put it this way, ‘If the biblical story is true, the kind of certainty proper to a human being will be one which rests on the fidelity of God, not upon the human knower. It will be a kind of certainty which is inseparable from gratitude and trust.’ [From; Proper Confidence –Newbigin P. 28] Our confidence in bringing this message to others is not in our own knowledge but in God’s faithfulness and love. We tell the story in humility knowing that it is God’s grace that brings those who hear to the reality the story speaks of.
A good illustration of this happened to Marlene and me recently during our morning Bible reading together. We were reading the story about Second Coming of Jesus from 1 Thessalonians. As we pondered the account of the Lord coming down from heaven with a loud shout from an archangel and a trumpet call of God, with those who are dead rising first, we spoke with each other about what that would be like. We both finally had to plead ignorance because this part of the story has not happened yet and it certainly is not a part of our current experience and knowledge. There will come a day when all this will be clear to us as the Lord continues to unfold his great salvation plan. We agreed that here and now our place is to take confidence in God’s gracious plan for us both now and in eternity. Our confidence is not based in our present understanding of all these things but in the faithfulness of God. The Second Coming of Christ is an amazing story to tell, and we will tell it, but we could never do so with an attitude that claims full understanding of these things or that we could ever make it happen with our own understanding and power.