Understanding Our Metamodern Moment
Maybe you are familiar with the terms modernism and postmodernism…or at least you’ve heard them before. But how about the term ‘metamodernism’? Have you ever heard someone describe the cultural moment we live in as ‘metamodern’? Probably not…but it’s time we wrap our minds around this fairly new terminology. Let’s start by refamiliarizing ourselves with modernism and postmodernism:
The modernist era – late 19th and early 20th centuries – was a movement that, in terms of religion, was largely defined by the idea that science and reason had overtaken faith. It’s almost like modernism was saying we know too much and we’ve learned too much to believe in religion anymore. The famous Nietzsche quote represents this era well: “God is dead, and we have killed him.” Nietzsche meant that we have progressed with science and reason to the extent that we have killed off any thought of the divine being real.
For quite some time philosophers, sociologists, historians, theologians, and artists have agreed that we moved beyond modernism and we have been living in a postmodern moment (starting in the mid-twentieth century).
Postmodernism claims that conflict in the world surrounds the common theme that there are many people who claim absolute truth in many ways. Because these people know the ‘truth,’ they try to enforce this knowledge on others. Knowledge is used as power, and thus ‘truth claims’ are used as forms of control. Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism and is ultimately defined by its cynicism. When cynicism dominates, everything is relative. Ever heard the phrase, “I just have to live my truth?” That’s a product of postmodern thinking.
In a postmodernist framework there is complete suspicion of any ultimate truth claim. A large reason why living missionally as a Christian is difficult in the postmodern era is that people are very suspicious of the gospel, which is the Truth claim of all truth claims.
A taste of postmodernism’s interaction with the Christian faith is illustrated well in the exchange between Jesus and Pilate in the gospel of John:
“Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38)
Postmodernism offers the predominant idea that there isn’t really any ultimate truth. It leaves us grasping for something concrete, yet never really finding it. It ultimately leaves us yearning for more, but at the same time, it asks the question: what use is there in yearning?
Here is a different kind of question: Does postmodernism have the final word in our cultural moment? I’m convinced it does not.
Since the early to mid-nineties, artists, particularly in literary spheres, began to recognize that something else beyond postmodernism was afoot. They sensed that artists were moving and gesturing beyond the dominant postmodernist framework.
The ‘New Sincerity’ movement in the late eighties and early nineties started to break away from traditional postmodernism. One of the authors on the forefront of this movement was the prolific author David Foster Wallace. In the early 1990’s, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay, E UNIBAS PLURAM: Television and U.S. Fiction, where he articulated this shift:
“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles…The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”
Wallace suggests this new thing, movement, terrain…or whatever it is…is post-postmodern. The ‘new rebels’ gesture to an oscillation between irony and sincerity, between cynicism and hope, between apathy and nostalgia, and between relativism and truth.
This ‘thing’ is not just a back and forth between these two eras…the oscillation requires something new simply because there’s a dialogue of the two with each other and not a simple one-way, singular rejection of postmodernism to modernism. Something new is formed, and whatever this new movement is, it transcends beyond what we have known thus far. This thing has now been labeled as an entirely new era known as metamodernism.
Metamodernism is as global and as big as modernism and postmodernism. It encompasses philosophy, social science, politics, and more. That means just like modernism and postmodernism, it’s difficult to encompass in a blog. It’s better that I try to illustrate it for you with another example from a recent work of literature.
Here’s an excerpt from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s famed work, My Struggle. The final segment of his three thousand six hundred page novel was published in 2011. His novel won over twenty international awards, and the Guardian called it “the most significant literary enterprise of our lifetime.” The New York Times called his writing “arrestingly beautiful.” Here’s a brief excerpt, where Knausgaard’s main character (himself) is wrestling with the Christian faith:
“... when I read the writings of Christian mysticism or the Church Fathers, pervaded as they are with the rapture of religious excitement, I find myself confronted by something utterly alien to me, which does not occur at all in my life or in the world around me, other than the occasional glimpse offered by TV into some ecstatic religious movement… the kinds of experience that were once the most important of all, meditations on God and the divine, holy rituals and cults, visions and raptures occurring in lives wholly devoted to God and the divine mystery, this resolve to seek meaning, this fervor, with all its spectra of intuitions, moods, and emotions, is no longer sought or, if it is, then only on the peripheries of society, outside our field of vision, perhaps occasionally evoked in respect to some odd and obsolete phenomenon in TV entertainment: So, you’re a monk? What’s it like not having sex? When we closed the door on religion, we closed the door on something inside ourselves as well. Not only did the holy vanish from our lives, all the powerful emotions associated with it vanished too. The idea of the sublime is a faint echo of our experience of the holy, without the mystery. The yearning and the melancholy expressed in romantic art is a yearning back to this, a mourning of loss.”
Knausgaard is grappling… but can you recognize with what or with whom? In this quote, Knausgaard embodies a metamodern framework: he’s cynical and yet sees both sincerity and hope in faith. He’s noticing the apathy of his world toward faith, and yet for some reason, at the same time, he’s nostalgic for faith. Knausgaard believes in relativism, but he’s not satisfied with it, he yearns for truth. We see the oscillation.
A characteristic of metamodernism is a willingness to engage something that might carry with it a truth claim. Knausgaard is yearning for more than postmodernism and suggests he is open to more.
Here’s where I think it gets concrete for us: people in our world are yearning for more. People in the west are skeptical of religion, and yet paradoxically, in fact are often very open to it. People feel like something was lost when we did away with religion in the eras of modernism and postmodernism.
As I live my life in downtown Kansas City, engaging many different kinds of people from different walks of life within my sphere of influence, many are often skeptical of faith but they aren’t opposed to it. Most commonly, people are very intrigued about my vocation as a pastor and my journey of faith into the pastorate. The notion of being a person of faith draws them in. It’s almost as though there’s a desire pointing them beyond the apathy they’ve known into a place where sincerity and hope lives.
Here’s the question we are left with: how do Christians – how do we – live on mission in this kind of metamodern cultural moment? How does the church live on mission in a world that is suspicious of Christianity and yet paradoxically very open to faith?
What metamodernism engages that postmodernism doesn’t are things like hope, real actual hope, and the potential for truth claims to actually be, well… true. Within metamodernism there’s a resurgence of sincerity in chasing after truth, while still not forfeiting all that was learned from postmodernism. Metamodernism is the great yearning for authenticity and real truth at the same time.
I don’t know all the answers on how to navigate this complex reality. But – in a very metamodern type of way – I think this new era should give Christians hope. Metamodernism tells us that there are fresh ears open to the gospel and eager to hear what it has to say. Maybe we’ll have the confidence to share it.