Bob Saunders, Reader in the Church of England and Open University Lecturer, spoke to Bunhill Quaker meeting on 3.4.2005. These are the notes of his talk. Links to some terms have been made to Andrew Roberts' Social Science History web. The two writers' definitions of terms do not always agree - But we hope the links help more than they confuse.


A new behavioural phase is upon the Western world, and it is affecting the various religions in that world.

I will first discuss and introduce the basic reason for our troubles, this change in the human race of the western world. The talk will then go about exploring the complexities of this new phase and suggests a number of possible causes. (Most of them due to the human beings involved.) I will go on to say something about the human spirit that is causing these changes. To start with, one has to think of the complexity, not only of the times, but also of the people of that western world. Humanity has always been complex, but now it shows, is far nearer the front of our minds, has far more affect on the rest of the human race.

Complex people

Motivation, group formation, team building, synergy, emergence, conflict, cultures - economic sector, profession/trade, country, religion, race, language, 'culture', emotional & spiritual intelligence. All these have changed in recent years.

This area, in all its complexity, is where I start - and finish.


What I hope to deal with today are the following:

I think it is relevant to the discussion that we consider the post-modern (and I use 'post modern culture' to mean after the 'modern culture', the end of the enlightenment) as a synonym for the 'contemporary' world in which we live and work. The change in culture has had its effect on both organisations and on people.

Defining Post-modernism

I am trying to achieve a view of the world of the church in general, and how it can deal with the 'new age' of post-modernity and post-enlightenment thinking. Post-modernism as a philosophical entity is a controversial subject. There are differences in opinion, even within the subject as to whether it exists at all. However, it is necessary to treat the subject seriously, whether or not the actuality of observable fact of the philosophical idea of "post-modernism" exists. This is because it is experientially possible to see the effects that have been labelled as 'post-modern'.

There is a new way of thinking, a behaviour that is and can be seen to be different from that prevailing in the world for the last few hundred years. Since the time of the Enlightenment, (the Age of Reason) there has been optimism about the future, about the worth and general applicability of technology to all our problems. The father of modern thought is said to be Descartes of 'I think, therefore I am' fame. The need and the ability to say this must be the beginning of such an era. The Enlightenment, Newtonian science, with all its certainties, the work ethic, and so much more deterministic thinking all led on from that statement. So the 'control through knowledge' project progressed until the present day, when it is said to be finishing, to have run out of steam and of credibility. Are the changes in society fundamental? Is post-modernism just the logic of capitalism, and if the Enlightenment is ending, will there be a new social order of human mutuality or will there be a lapse into subjective individualism?" There is evidence that one era is dying, another being born, if you draw on examples from the world crises around the major wars, around academia and the arts and a change in the world view of ordinary people. Perhaps we are indeed entering a post-modern era where Descartes message could be 'I consume, therefore I am'!)

The post-modern world is best understood using an organic, not a mechanical model. A model where: -

  • Institutions of all kinds will be increasingly distrusted.

  • The book age is giving way to the screen age.

  • The new culture is pluralist and cynical but spirituality is central.

This culture knows little of the past and plunders it for what it can get out of it! It cares little for the future and lives for the present. Everything is raw material for personal fulfilment. Even belief is a commodity! The result is a breakdown of community and family. Some are happy, some despair! It has been said "we live in a strange paradox, where there is less commitment to traditional values - perhaps because we no longer trust tradition. This is the 'dilemma of post-modernism'." As far as Christianity is concerned, there has been a change in the very nature of an enquiry from some one interested. The question is no longer 'is it true?' but instead 'Does this work, does it feel genuine?' But the numbers interested seem to be drying up, and as the generations pass, there are far less people who have even an inkling of what 'church' means. The idea of 'Common Religion' (Avis 2003) is petering out as the years go by. Some turn to 'New Age' others to fundamentalism. (Anywhere that there seems to be security)


Post-modernism has been defined as a collection of contemporary attitudes. Our pictures of our versions of reality derive meaning by conforming to the way our linguistic and cultural community speaks about them. i.e.

"Text means whatever the reader chooses. You have your views, I have mine." (Relativism rules)

But what is this post-modern world?

"The post- modern world is one that cannot define itself in terms of what it is, but only in terms of what it has just-now-ceased-to-be."

Post-modernism is content to accept that two different sets of stories, equally valid, have no meta-narrative to hold them together. An example of this might be the churches view versus the individual view of the 10 commandments.

The over- riding cultural fact in our generation is the end of the Enlightenment, a model of life concerned with 'control through knowledge' and its replacement by 'post-modernism', a lack of any control.' Another 'new science, ' that of 'Complexity Science' as it is becoming to be known, also suggests the end of Newtonian (Enlightenment) Science by denying the existence of certainties and rigid boundaries.

So where does it come from? The 'modern' period has been said to begin with the 18th century 'Enlightenment'. This led to the 'triumph of reason and of rationality' in the 19th and 20th century. Within this lies the root of the advances of science and technology, as well as the belief by the western world that its perception of the faith, development, progress of civilization itself was superior to anything else in the world. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Enlightenment thinking was a release from the authoritarian thinking of the feudal medieval period. This eventually led to the idea that obligation to others is only by personal choice and not, as in feudal times, the right of the governing class and the duty of the peasant. But, in recent years, it has become clear that even the Enlightenment worldview is deeply flawed. Significant change on many fronts has been identified. Two sets of conceptual distinctions have surfaced (among many others although these two will be adequate for the discussion!) - 'industrial' and then 'post-industrial', 'modern' and then 'post-modern'.

The 'post' period is seen as being beyond rather than against the former and that its ideas of plurality of human experience are the most important. There is no single alternative, the days of a 'meta-narrative' are over. Post-modern trends have led to the end of communism, the rise of the ecological world view, a growth in post-Newtonian sciences, as in the new physics, the movements for liberation, for justice, the rise of fundamentalism, the new architecture, literature, the discovery of the 'person', the individual and interconnectedness.

'Community' in a post- modern world is changing to become networks rather than being geographically based. An example of this might be the 'parish' as opposed to the gathered nature of a Friends (Quaker) community. People 'belong' to many networks that are interconnected in a complex way. Nodal points marking the intersections between networks might well be the points at which to engage people.


I use a list that summarises the post-modern state. It suggests that the world acts in a post-modern way when:

And that this can mean:

  • pick'n'mix avoids the difficult and disquieting

  • babble replaces discourse and dialogue
  • pools of ignorance replace founts of knowledge
  • everything is good for a laugh
  • the coinage of qualifications is debased
  • opinion passes for truth.

People say:

  • What we know is a human construction
  • Objectivity & clarity are illusions
  • What counts as knowledge is policed by those who makes the rules.
  • There is no teacher who can show us true meaning
  • Authors do not know the true meaning of what they write.
  • Things are 'good of their kind'
  • Yesterday is a forgotten country

The effects of post-modernism are said to be:

  • Nothing stands still
  • Entrepreneurs are rewarded
  • Attention span is limited to ere and now
  • Present experience is what matters
  • Planning become more difficult
  • Boundaries are blurred, but there are great contrasts.
  • There is only one certainty - uncertainty
  • One cannot choose not to choose
  • In short term autonomous individual more isolated than a dependent one.

Overall, there is an end to any idea of Ideology

  • No longer any over-arching theories or universal guiding principles

  • Objectivity & clarity are an illusion
  • No corpus of knowledge
  • Work is 'good of its kind'
  • Texts are coded embodiments of power
  • There are no privileged interpreters
  • Willingness to live with uncertainty.

This leads to Creative destruction or economic cleansing

  • An enterprising culture cannot be stationary
  • It values autonomy
  • The turnover times gets shorter
  • Commodities need to be instantly available and disposable
  • Familiar landmarks have gone,

All this can lead to a change of view about one's own church -

My research has led me, therefore, to wonder, and to explore, the effect of post-modernism on any kind of organisation and on teams in particular.

    e.g. Communications - the requirements and some of the complexities, and a complex situation - the structure of a post-modern organisation

    Synergy - What you get if the team works. But how can it, if it cannot form, storm, norm and perform?

I have thrown in some thoughts on post-modern thinking here. Firstly, a view of the framework of any organisation, Church of England, Friends, what ever.


This is how it works, but in a complex world, it becomes more and more difficult.

When you think about cultures, there are national and tribal cultures, then lower level cultures of all sorts, but all break down into these four classifications -

power system person task

When you start talking about people, you have to think about them as individuals, and their personal perspectives. Their viewpoint, perspective, their weltanschauung.

Contemporary society - all those people with their perspectives and Weltanschauung, have even caused a fundamental change in the Work Ethic. A few years ago it was as it always was, then, we have Tomorrows ethic, but in line with the idea that the rate of change is also increasing, I am not sure that what is here is still valid.

So the rule must be, if we are to be able to relate to anyone, to meet complexity with complexity - what we are supposed to do, But how?

How then are we poor ministers and people of this faith of ours to deal with this post-modern world? A world where Christianity and the church seems to be losing its way, where Sundays are family time, not church time, but where the interest in 'spirituality' is stronger than for many years.

What does it all mean? It means that we are faced with a new type of people and a new type of organisation (e.g a 'new economy organisation') all painted with the same brush. Certainty vanishes and overarching truths are no more for the people and their organisations. So what might help us to deal with uncertainty and complexity?

Some of those phrases and thoughts:

    Meet complexity with complexity
    Small beginnings can have large results
    Think globally, act locally.
    The Post-modern mindset, plus Globalisation means increases to the number of perspectives one has to face, and therefore the complexity.

So there we have it. An introduction which has possibly left you wondering, possibly, an hopefully left you with an urge to explore further, if only to find out what it was I was talking about. I have added a bibliography that might help you explore 'postmodernism' in rather more detail.

We have looked at contemporary society, and what is happening to the mind set of people in it. You will, I am sure recognise that your mind and thinking is perhaps not so very different from what I have described. Use what I have said as a template to explore your own, and other peoples minds and thinking.


Avis P. 'A church drawing near' 2003, T&T Clark International.

Bauman, Zygmunt, 'Postmodern Religion?' (in Heelas Chapter 'Back into the future')

Boje D. et al 'Postmodern Management & Organisation Theory', 1996. Sage

Capra, F. 'The Turning Point' 1983, Flamingo

Craig Y, Green,Jones, Russell, Watkins & Cundy. 'Tomorrow is another country' 1996 Church House Publishing.

Flanaghan & Jupp (Ed) 'Post-modernity, Sociology and Religion', 1997, McMillan.

Heelas, Paul, 'Religion,Modernity & Postmodernity, Blackwells, 1998

Ingham M 'Young, Post-modern & Christian', 1996 'The Reader'

Kumar.K. 'From Post-industrial to Post-modern Society'.1995 Blackwell, Oxford.

Lakeland, Paul, 'Postmodernity - Christian Identity in a fragmented Age' Fortress Press, 1997

Laurence, Bruce, (in Heelas, Chapter 'From fundamentalism to fundalmentalisms: a religious ideology in multiple forms')

Millar, Peter 'A reflection on our Ministry on Iona.' 12/1996, MK & Malvern Papers.

Montefiore, Hugh, 'Credible Christianity - the Gospel in contemporary culture' Mowbray, 1993

Mingers.J 'Separating the wheat from the Chaff: a modernist appropriation of the postmodern'. In 'Systemist' 1994, UKSS.

Thiselton A.C. 'Interpreting God & the Post-modern self' 1995, T&T Clark, Edinborough

Mission Theological Advisory Group, (MTAG)'The search for faith and the witness of the Church'.1996. CHP

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