I was recently tagged in an online discussion where the claim “Christianity has been metamodern for 2,000 years” was being debated. I thought this was an interesting and potentially important topic, so here are my thoughts on the matter.
I don’t think it makes sense to call early Christianity metamodern, unless one is either stacking the deck by choosing a very particular elements that existed across the diverse and multiple early Christian movements and communities, or unless one is defining metamodernism in such an exceedingly broad way that the term has lost a lot of its specificity and come to merely signify something like “dynamic,” “novel,” “rich,” “progressive,” or even just “good.”
What I will absolutely, happily grant: Christianity (along with any of the other “world religions”) certainly has the potentiality to be given a metamodern articulation and formation, and even more than that, the historical emergence of religions like Christianity brought forth many novel elements in the development/history of consciousness that are then taken up in diverse ways and which, in our time, may be indispensable ingredients in a metamodern outlook/spiritual practice.
Though I find some useful material in playing with these dichotomies, I don’t think distinctions between esoteric/exoteric or mystical/non-mystical are all that helpful in this context. It is easy to play fast and loose with these categories in ways where it seems to give one a “God’s eye perspective” on religions, where the analyst themselves is the one who can really intuit the real, essential core to these dynamic and diverse traditions — even more so than the practitioners and adherents themselves.
What of religions such as Confucianism, Presbyterian Christianity, or Salafi-inflected forms of Sunni Islam? Certainly none of these have a strong mystical or esoteric orientation. Those elements are not completely absent, sure, but they are absolutely not prioritized or privileged. Other religious features, such as ethical action, ritual observance, Divine Grace, etc. are far more foregrounded. To squish these traditions into the Perennialist framework of the esoteric unity of religions distorts them into something no longer easily recognizable to those who have the most intimate relationships with these traditions. That should be a red flag.
More to the point, though — I don’t think only the esoteric/mystical elements of religion are aligned with/useful for metamodern spirituality. So to reify this dichotomy is, to my mind, actively against the spirit of metamodernism: instead, I want to “both-and” the esoteric and the exoteric elements of religion in a metamodern spirituality. To deny, denigrate, or dismiss the latter seems to be a reenactment of a decadent two-worlds metaphysics that rejects the messy, worldly aspects of religion in favor of some abstract, transcendent and pure spiritual ideal. I’m more interested in either a thoroughgoing (extended) naturalism (à la Vervaeke, but also process thinkers such as David Griffin) or a non-dual metaphysics where the esoteric and exoteric are mutually interpenetrating and actually co-constitute one another.
One of the most critical features brought on the scene by Christianity (and to some extent, pre-Christian Judaism before it), is a linear view of history. In much later times, of course, this eschatological framework is secularized and taken up via notions of scientific and civilizational progress. This linear view of time is an indispensable ingredient in metamodernism (especially the developmental strands — you simply cannot even think “development” as a concept in any recognizable way without this being present), even as we’re problematizing this, adding nuance, and actively synthesizing with cyclical and other non-linear perspectives on time and history. But this is not some esoteric core of Christianity — this is something which comes through in the basic narrative of the New Testament and which later is given more concrete expression in dogmatic theology. Yet here we find something I think later becomes an indispensable ingredient in (at least many forms of) metamodernism.
But does that make Christianity metamodern? No, I don’t think so. This is only one constitutive element among many which come together to construct a metamodern episteme. Where does one find the dual elements of sincerity and irony so many point to? Perhaps one could broaden these, taking sincerity as the basic orientation towards affirmation and irony as the orientation towards negation. Here, of course, one may map these things to kataphatic and apophatic theology respectively — but even these are somewhat later developments in Christian theology (certainly, anyways, as self-conscious and distinct modes of doing theology), not elements which have been present since the inception.
So, I think this ultimately comes to a basic potentiality/actuality distinction. Christianity — along with the other “world religions” — absolutely have the potentiality to be/become metamodern, especially now when this orientation has been identified and given a particular label. And of course, in the history of Christian thought and practice, one can excavate various phenomena which perhaps preempt the metamodern turn, set the stage for these developments, or contribute particular essential components which will later come to constitute metamodernism. But it is only very recently that a sufficient number of diverse elements (many of which are entirely exogenous to Christianity/the history of Christian thought) have come together in a stable cluster to warrant the emergence of the descriptive label “metamodernism.”
To over-eagerly back-project this term onto early historical phenomena is unhelpful in the same way the phrases “Jesus was a socialist/communist” are unhelpful — it gets us stuck in dead-end debates about terminology and historicity when really what’s at stake is resonance and inspiration. There’s so much richness in Christianity (from its early period to contemporary times) which we certainly want to pay close attention to and draw from in developing metamodern spiritual and religious perspectives, just as there’s clear resonances in the life and ministry of Jesus (as we receive it through the Gospels) which may serve as inspiration for a revolutionary politics. Why not stick with these more humble yet accurate claims instead? This seems to avoid a lot of trouble as far as I can see.