by Rev. J. Martin
Under the post-modern onslaught, all boundaries and distinctions rapidly fall. Some of the losses associated with the collapse of traditional distinctions have been trivial, but others have been earthshaking, and there seems to be no way to distinguish between the two in a post-modern context. People no longer know where the lines fall.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." To be sure, many of us have uttered these words at some point in time. But few of us have really thought about the implications of this little phrase. What it tells us is that there exists no objective standard for beauty; what is beautiful and pleasing to the eye depends on the observer. What may be beautiful to you may not be beautiful to someone else, and what one perceives as ugly may be truly exquisite to another. Now someone may say that this is simply nit-picking away at an innocent little phrase that has seen many adolescents through the more insecure years of life. That is probably true. But what this little phrase implies is becoming more and more the worldview of many in America today; only they are not simply restricting it to beauty.
It is becoming more and more common to read that truth, as well as beauty, is also in the eye of the beholder. Truth is not something "objective," that exists apart from us, rather it is "what works for us." This emerging perspective says that there are no standards or foundations for truth; truth, as it were, is relative to individuals or cultures.
One of the advantages of the ministry I do is that I get to work on the college campus. As I talk to students about Christianity of all the questions (or subtle objections) I get, the most common is "Why do Christians believe that there is only one truth?" For these folks, it seems reasonable that if there is a "God," it is fine. In fact, George Barna found that 62% of all Americans believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings, 70% believe that there are no absolutes! Such a lack of foundation among Americans is reflected in the fact that Barna's current book of statistics is entitled Absolute Confusion. These beliefs, while they seem to be so outrageous, reflect the mind-set of many college students, as well as their professors, and are certainly in tune with the spirit of the age in America at large. A new worldview is emerging, a worldview that supersedes all worldviews. It is called Postmodernism, and it calls into question the traditional notions of truth, structure, and reality. It dislocates any center of discourse to the edges of human preference and subjectivity, and reinforces the belief that absolute truth was once a viable belief, but has turned out to be little more than a passing fad.
So where did this come from? For many of us the notion that there is no objective truth seems silly, and yet this notion is becoming more and more entrenched. After all, who would question the scientific truth that light travels at 186,282 mi/sec., or that the law of non-contradiction is a fundamental rule of logic? Better yet, who would question that "2 + 2 = 4," or that interpretation of John 14:6 that says Jesus is the only way to the Father? Answer: more and more people. Those beliefs may be true for some people, but not necessarily all. What we are seeing today is a shift; a shift in worldview. We are seeing the shift from the Modern to the Postmodern.
In this essay we will examine the elements that gave rise to postmodernism, look at the essentials of postmodern thought, and examine and critique postmodern thought in light of the Christian worldview.
As many scholars have shown us, a shift in worldview is nothing new. Western thought has managed to move through a plethora of outlooks. As Gene Veith puts it:
One worldview follows another. In the eighteenth century the Enlightenment challenged the Biblical Synthesis that had dominated Western culture. With the nineteenth century came both Romanticism and Scientific Materialism. The twentieth century has given us Marxism and fascism, positivism and existentialism.
And the list goes on. But before we can discuss postmodernism, we need to first take a look at the periods that preceded it: the premodern and the modern.
The premodern, as it is called, is the period in intellectual history that would encompass all thought from the birth of philosophy in Thales, through the Renaissance and the Reformation, up until the dawn of the Enlightenment. Premodernism, like modernism after it, was an important phase of Western culture that cannot be characterized by any one worldview. It was, as Veith puts it, a ". . . complex, dynamic, tension-filled era [which] included mythological paganism and classical rationalism, as well as Biblical revelation." But for all of its diversity, one commonality that most outlooks shared was a strong belief in the supernatural, and that there existed absolute truth. Plato, for example, saw the world as manifesting so much diversity and change that another world, the world of the forms--which exist beyond the senses--must exist to bring coherence and purpose to the world of experience. With the rise of the Medieval period, the Christian worldview came to dominate the majority of the scholarly landscape. It is God who is the foundation of truth, and the purpose of man was to discern his relationship to God. Many of the great Christian theologians, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Luther and Calvin, flourished during this period. Belief in absolute truth and the supernatural was non-negotiable. It was the basis for their worldview; the foundation for reality as a universe and not a multiverse.
However, man's inherent desire to be autonomous never faded, and that, coupled with the successes of reason and science, made a shift in worldview inevitable. Man no longer needed to be bound by the superstitious, out-dated beliefs of the past. The modern man did not need the supernatural to guide him; reason and science alone could give him the answers he needed to understand the universe and structure the world. The shift from the premodern to the modern had taken place, and the Enlightenment was the proof.
The Enlightenment was the birth of the "Modern" period in intellectual history. Some historians date this period as beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While many Enlightenment thinkers did not completely reject belief in God, they banished him to the remotest of the transcendent. If God did exist, he was neither concerned, nor involved in his creation. Reason and science were now the objects of worship, and redemption for mankind was to be found in their study and application. Modern worldviews such as positivism sought to unify the sciences, and order human life by finding the basic paradigm to explain human nature. Secular Humanism with its strong emphasis on the autonomy of the individual and the primacy of the intellect sought to cure society's ills such as racism and poverty be education and technology. Certain knowledge of ourselves and the world was possible, according to modernity, because nature was seen as a closed, static system of natural laws in wait of being discovered. The only differences among the majority of modernity's worldviews were what that truth was, and how it was known.
Unlike premodernism before it, modernism, by and large, rejected the supernatural. The rational man did not need to trust in anything beyond logic and normal sense experience. In Biblical criticism, for example, this was the presupposition for the higher critical schools of interpretation. Belief in miracles, the incarnation, and other supernatural doctrines were rejected out of hand. Modernist scholars sought to "demythologize" the Bible and free it from the superstitious shackles that had bound it for so long. As Diogenes Allen observes:
In time some went so far as to claim that the Bible was not needed at all. It was useful to the human race in its infancy. But now that we have achieved enlightenment, we can read the book of nature and avoid all the blemishes, distortions, and absurdities that are found in the Bible.
Eventually this new "naturalistic" religion removed God from the picture altogether, and attempted to produce a just and egalitarian social order that would embody reason and social progress.
However, as it turned out, modernity didn't produce the harmony that its prophets predicted. After slavery, two world wars, communism, Nazism and nuclear bombs, people began to question the belief that the pursuits of reason, technology and science would make for a better world. Likewise the notion that nature is inherently orderly, governed by fixed, natural laws, had come under strong scrutiny. In recent years a number of scholars have began to question the idea of absolutes in science and logic, and have become more convinced that nature seems to be inherently disorderly and illusive. In addition to this the idea that man is simply an unbiased observer of nature has been criticized.
The mind is not the passive reflector of an external world and intrinsic order, but is active and creative in the process of perception and cognition. Reality is in some sense constructed by the mind, not simply perceived by it, and many such constructions are possible, none necessarily sovereign. (emphasis mine).
Modernity's idea that man is simply a uniform product of nature was dying fast. The presuppositions of modernity meant a reduction of the human condition to logic and scientific method. There was no human spirit; man was simply the result of a chance-random assimilation of atoms, subject to the laws of nature in a closed universe. Freedom was an illusion; determinism was reality, and there was no way to account for the complexity of man's immaterial tendencies other than that it was, somehow, merely a bio-chemical response.
Modernism had delivered just the opposite of what it promised. Its promises of liberation turned out to be masks for oppression and domination. This has been termed the "dialectic of the Enlightenment." By removing God to the transcendent (and then doing away with Him altogether), and enthroning reason and science, man was now free to do all of the unrestrained evil he was capable of--all in the name of scientific progress. What was intended to liberate man had now become his prison. Modernity, like premodernity before it, was now vulnerable. Reason and technology were not messiahs, and the human spirit was still striving for its freedom and autonomy. The ground was very fertile for a new way of looking at things. Postmodernism was ready to arrive.
It should be said that while premodernity and modernity dominated the intellectual landscape of their time periods, it should not be assumed that there were no challenges to them. The roots of modernity can be easily seen in the Renaissance thinkers desire to return to the humanism of the Greeks, negate the vertical relationship to God, and emphasize the horizontal relationship with man.Likewise, modernity's voices of dissent would become the seeds of the postmodern. Romanticism, with its roots in Kant, rejected the pure rationalism and empiricism of the Enlightenment, and emphasized the power of the imagination and the reality of the transcendental. But the strongest, and perhaps the most influential reaction to modernism came in existentialism. Here all absolute meaning was called into question. The quest for any ultimate meaning was seen as a fools errand. Nature was not ordered ultimately, and reason was not a guide. Both of these influential movements are at the roots of Postmodernism.
Stephen Connor says that the "concept of postmodernism cannot be said to have crystallized until about the mid-1970's . . ." Modernity had received some strong criticism, and it was becoming more and more tenable to assert that the postmodern had come to stay, but it took some time before scholarship really jumped on the bandwagon. At this point it is important to distinguish between postmodern and postmodernism. Postmodern refers to a period of time, whereas postmodernism refers to a distinct ideology. As Veith points out, "If the modern era is over, we are all postmodern, even though we reject the tenets of postmodernism.
So exactly what is postmodernism? The situation is profoundly complex and ambiguous. But basically speaking, postmodernism is anti-foundationalism, or anti-worldview. It denies the existence of any universal truth or standards. Jean-Francois Lyotard, perhaps the most influential writer in postmodern thought, defines postmodernism as "incredulity towards metannarratives." For all intents and purposes, a metanarrative is a worldview: a network of elementary assumptions. . . in terms of which every aspect of our experience and knowledge is interrelated and interpreted. Metanarratives are, according to postmodernist scholar Patricia Waugh, "Large-scale theoretical interpretations purportedly of universal application." The postmodernist's, it would seem, would tolerate having a coherent worldview so long as it is kept from being asserted as universal in its application. This is not the case though. The goal, so to speak, of postmodernism is to not only reject metanarratives, but also the belief in coherence. Not only is any worldview which sees itself as foundational for all others oppressive, belief that one may even have a coherent worldview is rejected as well. Nevertheless, there are many worldviews around today, and the postmodernist finds it to be his responsibility to critique, or "deconstruct" as they call it, such worldviews and "flatten them out," so to speak, so that no one particular approach or belief is more "true" than any other. What constitutes truth, then, is relative to the individual or community holding the belief.
As we have seen, for the postmodern thinker, there are no absolute truths or foundations to work from. Properly speaking, then, postmodernism is not a worldview per se; it does not attempt to construct a model or paradigm that orders reality; reality alludes attempts at conformity for the postmodernist, and so he deconstructs all attempts at creating such absolute foundations. Modernity and Christianity debated as to which view was true; postmodernism attacks both Christianity and modernity because they claim to be "true." Christianity affirms certain necessary beliefs that must be assumed in order to make sense out of the world (e.g., that the triune God exists, that he is both transcendent and immanent, that the Bible is his Word). Postmodernism rejects the idea that reality makes sense in any absolute fashion, and reduces any construction to personal or cultural bias. Truth is a social construct, pragmatically justified, so as to make it one of many culturally conditioned approaches to the world. Postmodernism, then, is not so much an orthodoxy (a positive belief system or worldview), as it is an orthopraxy (a series of methods for analysis).
In continuing to remove the possibility of any ultimate knowledge, postmodernism confuses the traditional distinction between the subject of knowledge (the knower) and the object of knowledge (the thing being known). Man does not sit back and passively receive knowledge about the world; rather, man's interpretation is, ultimately, the way the world actually is, as it is revealed to him, or to a culture. This confusion of subject and object has earned postmodernism the labels of nihilism and relativism. Logic, science, history, and morality are not universal and absolute; they are the constructs of our own experience and interpretations of that experience.
Why do the postmodernists draw these conclusions? As we saw above the idea that reality was orderly and that man was simply a passive observer was called into question. Kant's "Copernican Revolution" in philosophy argued that the mind "brings something to the objects it experiences . . . The mind imposes its way of knowing upon its objects." It is the object that conforms to the mind, not the mind to the object. It would seem then that reality is what we perceive it to be. Charles Mackenzie observes:
If in knowing an object the human mind virtually creates knowledge, the question has been raised then, What is the external world when it is not being perceived? Kant replied that we cannot know a thing-in-itself (ding an sich). The world, as it exists apart from our experience, is unknowable. (emphasis mine).
As such reality, as it really is, is unknowable. The "thing in itself," cannot be known. The only thing that can be known is our personal experience and our interpretation of that experience. Since each person's experience is all that can be known, it cannot be concluded that man can know anything in any absolute sense. All one has is his own finite, limited experience. Logic, science, history, and ethics are human disciplines that must, and do, reflect human insufficiency and subjectivity.
Another reason the postmodernists draw these conclusions comes from the fact that the existentialists, with their rejection of rationalism and empiricism, focused philosophy on the human experience, especially as it is communicated through language. Language is the way man expresses these experiences of the world, therefore to understand the world, as best we can, we must look to what is said about reality. But subjectivism is all we can have since the best we can do is experience and interpret what others have experienced and interpreted reality to be, and so the spiral continues downward. Thus, for the postmodernists, any assertion of absolute knowledge is seriously questioned and ultimately rejected. Therefore history is seen as a series of metaphors rather than an account of events as they actually happened. After all, the one recording the events was writing and recording the events as he saw them. Someone else may have seen it differently had they been there. In issues of morality no one particular view is seen as foundational. Rather, each culture's, and ultimately each individual's, view on ethics is just as valid as the next. This view is the basis for the assumptions of "Multiculturalism," and the "Political Correctness" movement in today's society. Rather than affirming any one morality as absolute, every person's moral persuasion is to be respected no matter what it is, and language must be revised so as to not favor any one outlook and thus offend another.
To be sure modernity's assertion that logic and science alone are certain methods for acquiring truth, and that man is a passive "subject" of knowledge were wrong. One cannot, in light of the developments in the philosophy of logic, science, and ethics conclude any longer that, humanly speaking, these are unquestionable, uniform disciplines for man to simply fall in line with. This extreme ought to be rejected. But postmodernism, with its rejection of modernity's claims, pushes another extreme. With its quasi-nihilist rejection of any and all forms of "foundations," or "absolute truth," it is in itself a position not beyond question. On what basis ought the postmodernist view be taken as true? Is its affirmation that absolute truth is impossible itself absolute? In other words, how can the postmodernist claim that his way of looking at things is "true" without constructing some kind of metanarrative? As James Harris points out:
What if some member of the heteromorphous group insists that Lyotard prove his claims to the satisfaction of the members of the group? And what if the members of that group refuse to admit the reasonableness of Lyotard's claim and treat it as a "paralogical" metanarrative?
All the while denying being a worldview, it is in effect a worldview. It is not just an orthopraxy, for even an orthopraxy must have a view on reality, knowledge, and morality in order to discern and justify its methods. It too is riddled with assumptions, all in need of as much scrutiny and evaluation as any other worldview. While attempting to do away with totalizing discourse and belief, the postmodernist must absolutize his claims to get his system going. This kind of extreme relativism is impossible; it affirms what it denies. Likewise, if language is all there is to reality, and all interpretation is subjective, then why do postmodernists write books? Why believe that there is any possible way to communicate the ideas of postmodernism? How do we in fact know that the reader's interpretation was the authors intent? This view of language, then, becomes the prison house of postmodern thought. In other words, how does the postmodernist get beyond deconstructing deconstructionism?
On a societal note, postmodernism, while it tries to enhance understanding of the diversity among people, actually creates a new tribalism. Multiculturalism says that the traditional idea of America, for example, being seen as an assimilation of cultures is false. America is not a "melting pot," it is more like a "salad bowl." So education, morality, politics, etc. is defined by cultural interests. History, for example, no longer is an acquisition of knowledge of past events, rather it is revised so as to enhance the self-image of a particular group that has been excluded or "oppressed." As Veith observes:
Contemporary scholars seek to dismantle the paradigms of the past and "to bring the marginal into the center" (rewriting history in favor of those who have been excluded from power-women, homosexuals, blacks, Native Americans, and other victims of oppression. Scholars attack received ideas with withering skepticism, while constructing new models as alternatives. Those who celebrate the achievements of Western civilization are accused of narrow-minded "Euro-centrism;" this view is challenged by "Afro-centrism," which exalts Africa as the pinnacle of civilization. Male-dominant thought is replaced by feminist models. "Patriarchal religions" such as Judaism and Christianity are challenged and replaced with matriarchal religions; the influence of the Bible is countered by the influence of "goddess-worship." Homosexuality is no longer considered a psychological problem; rather, homophobia is.
It does not matter what actually happened; that is impossible to know and as such is irrelevant. Accuracy is not the desire of postmodernism; power is. Remember postmodernism rejects the idea of any universal truth, whether it is history or logic.
Perhaps the central prophet of the postmodern condition was Freidrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche anticipated the emerging nihilism in Western Culture. Life is absurd, according to Nietzsche. There is no truth, no value, no concern. All that is left is "The Will to Power," which is more than just a will to survive; it is an inner drive to express a vigorous affirmation of all of man's powers. For postmodernism, like Nietzsche, there is no ultimate meaning, and each individual or group of individuals must exercise their will to overcome the oppression of others. The irony here is that while postmodernism rejects any ultimate morality, and affirms the primacy of power, it sees oppression as a "bad" thing. The belief that "One ought not oppress others" is itself an ethical judgement. Again, on the postmodernist view of things, why not? Why should there be any attempt to correct the injustices of the past, so to speak? And if morality is ultimately to be relative to cultures, then what is the basis for the postmodern multiculturalist abhorring all of the things it tries to correct (e.g., oppression, injustice, Patriarchal practices, totalizing, absoluteness, etc.)? After all, there are no proscriptions, or metanarratives, to prohibit anyone from doing anything. It is dialectical tension between reactification and anything goes. As Gertrude Himmelfarb points out, postmodern multiculturalism has the pernicious effect to demean and dehumanize the people who are the subjects of history. To pluralize and particularize history to the point where people have no history in common is to deny the common humanity of all people, whatever their sex, race, class, religion.
In effect, everyone is so disconnected, convinced that their way of looking at things is true for them, that there is no room for common discourse or reason for understanding differences. In short, postmodern multiculturalism, while trying to raise awareness of diversity, exalts it so to the point that, ultimately, it destroys what it sets out to do.
Irving Kristol, a fellow at the American Enterprize Institute, describes the current time as "a shaking of the foundations of the modern world." Allen says:
A massive intellectual revolution is taking place that is perhaps as great as that which marked off the modern world from the Middle Ages . . . The principles forged during the Enlightenment . . . which formed the foundations of the modern mentality, are crumbling.
The collapse of Enlightenment Humanism is imminent, and the attacks on it are from all angles. From religious conservatives to scientific liberals, the desire to overhaul the presuppositions of modernity is a shared goal, although the motives differ greatly. Christians welcome the opportunity for credible public discourse concerning their faith, and many scientists are eager to see a shift in scientific outlook that will account for the anomalies that modern science has avoided. These are exciting times, times when the church should be alert.
In a postmodern world Christianity is intellectually relevant. With the demise of the absoluteness of human reason and science, the super-natural, that which is not empirical, is once again open to consideration. The marketplace of ideas is wide open, and opportunities abound. It is important that the church understand these important times in which it finds itself. But in addition to opening the door once again to the Christian faith, postmodernism, with its critical apparatus, has a few lessons for the church to learn.
Veith likens the current situation to that of the pagans at the Tower of Babel. Genesis 11:1-9 tells us that at that time everyone, the whole earth, spoke the same language. As some were traveling east, they stopped in the valley of Shinar and decided to make a name for themselves by building a tower that would reach into heaven. When the Lord saw what they were doing he came down, and destroyed the heart of their unity: language. As a result they were scattered over the earth, and had no way to communicate. Modern, and to some extent, premodern man built his tower. Dependence on God was superseded by autonomous man's faith in reason and science. These elements bound man together and he built his tower, removed God (so he thought), and placed himself on the throne to be worshipped. What is interesting is that postmodernism strikes at the very same thing God did: language. Without language, logic and science are meaningless; they have no application. As we have seen, its each man for himself in his own private world. The arrogant, pseudo-unity that man had claimed to find was now just one of the many ways of looking at things. Logic and science were now relative to cultural interpretation. Like the people at the Tower of Babel, modern man has been fragmented and scattered. There is no centre of discourse any longer.
In this light perhaps the most significant contribution of postmodernism is that it reminds us of our finitude. It reminds us that God is creator and we are his creation. It tell us that he must be the beginning of all of our thinking, that apart from him we could know nothing. Veith observes:
Without a belief in God . . . it would be difficult to avoid postmodernist conclusions . . . If there is no transcendent logos, then there can be no absolutes, no meaning apart from human culture, no say out of the prison house of language . . . Postmodernism may represent the dead-end--the implosion, the deconstruction--of attempts to do without God.
It wouldn't simply be difficult, it would be impossible. It is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7), not the conclusion of our investigation. In Christ "are hidden all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). This does not mean that we reject disciplines such as logic and science. Rather we see them as tools for us to use to better understand God's amazing creation, not ultimate standards to legislate what is possible, and take the place of God's Revelation. After all, the "gift of logical reason was given by God to man in order that he might order the revelation of God for himself." Science is simply the study of God's creation, so that we might better understand how to care for it, advance in knowledge, and fulfill the Cultural Mandate. In the same way, postmodernism reminds us that theology is, like logic, not exhaustive, but a developing science. That there are many approaches to theology, none of which are exhaustive; that it is the theologian's responsibility to examine carefully all propositions in accordance with God's Word, and press forward to better understand the revelation that God has given. In short, we are to think God's thoughts after him.
For our personal life, postmodernism shows us the futility of autonomy. It forces those of us who know Christ back to the basics of depending on Christ for everything, whether it is salvation or standards. That in him we have meaning and purpose for our lives; he is the vine, we are the branches, and apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:15).
To sum it up, postmodernism need not be seen as a mortal enemy. In many ways it drives us back to complete and total dependence on God. It reminds us that he is the foundation for every area of life, whether it be logic or law. It shows us that there exists no neutral, impartial domains that we can lean on in addition to him. Postmodernism points out that we all have presuppositions, and that no one is unbiased. We all bring our assumptions to our experience; each fact about the world is theory-laden. The question then becomes, "Which presuppositions are true?" The answer is clear: the Christian worldview is true. It alone is the only escape from subjective nihilism, for it alone provides the necessary foundations to make the facts intelligible. This being the case, the Christian is able to glean what is good from postmodernism, and reject the extremes.
Diogenes Allen argues that "Christian theology has yet to become postmodern." It is still being plagued by modern rationalists, on one end, and premodern fundamentalism on the other. The modernist theologian continues to jettison doctrines which he deems unscientific or irrational, and the premodern theologian refuses to allow his doctrine to engage the world. A Postmodern theology is a worldview theology. It critiques rationalism by demonstrating the impossibility of reason apart from presupposing God; it rejects fideism and seclusion because it demonstrates that God is the basis for rationality, and that it speaks to all of life. Are the Christian churches ready to meet the challenge? As Allen says, "They have within their heritage immensely powerful ideas, not to mention a living Lord." Will the church embrace this and engage the world? It must, sooner or later.