What is Postmodernism?
by Michael J. Penfold
“What’s true for you may not be true for me,” encapsulates the postmodern idiom fairly well. Despite its recent origin, postmodernism currently dominates Western 21st Century media, academia, politics and much of ‘the church’. Statistics reveal that a majority of young people in the West hold to the following ‘truth’; “There is no such thing as absolute truth.” A thing may be cool, OK or workable, but to say it is ‘true’ implies something else is ‘false’, a judgment call that assumes a hierarchy of correctness – perish the thought.
How did we get here?
With almost no exceptions, up until the 19th century everyone held to the ‘correspondence theory’ of truth. That is, when a thought or statement properly represents reality – what is real – it is true. Truth may be discovered by mankind, but is never created. Nor is anything ‘made true’ by its acceptance. Some things are always true, for all people, in all places, whether anyone cares to believe or not. So, how was this ancient axiom overthrown?
The history of the last 2,000 years can be divided into three periods. The premodern world (up to the 17th century), the modern world (17th to late 20th century) and the postmodern world (late 20th century onwards). What distinguishes these periods? With notable exceptions, those living in the premodern world (whether ‘Christian’ or ‘pagan’) generally accepted the existence of the supernatural. Premodern society acknowledged a spiritual hierarchy. It was a given that God (or the gods) ruled over creation, and from the King down, authority was to be obeyed without question. Status was defined by position (ruler, head of family etc.). Traditions reigned supreme. People did as they were told, just as their parents had before them. No one felt they were autonomous, all were ‘dependent on God’. Things were ‘true’ because tradition, holy books and those in authority said so.
The Renaissance (14th-17th C.) and the Enlightenment or ‘Age of Reason’ (17th-19th C.) changed all that. The humanistic philosophy that flourished during these periods changed the reigning paradigm from a world perceived to ‘centre around God’ to one centred around man. Reason replaced dogma and tradition. ‘Human values’ replaced religious values. Individualism and free-thinking were encouraged. Status was defined by achievement (property owned, money gained etc.). Mythological paganism and supernatural Christianity were alike dismissed as relics of the past. God was dead – or, at least, if He existed at all, was redundant. With superstition, miracles and a supernatural God removed from the public mind, all the world’s problems began to seem explainable and solvable (by reason and science). After all, humanity was not sinful; just ignorant. Optimism filled the air. ‘Moderns’ rejected disciplines such as theology, metaphysics, morality and aesthetics. 19th century materialism believed only the observable and empirically verifiable were real. ‘God’, ‘love’ and ‘justice’ could not be tested in a laboratory and were therefore meaningless. (Of course, this idea, called ‘logical positivism’, was itself a metaphysical ‘theory’ and was therefore by its own definition meaningless).
Cracks began to appear in modernism with the dawning of the Romantic era (1775-1850) which encouraged subjectivity and personal experience. Building on David Hume’s ideas about the limitations of observation by sense alone, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) popularized the belief that knowledge is ultimately a matter of interpretation. After all, he reasoned, we cannot with any certainty know that our minds are correctly mirroring reality. Kant said, “You kant know.” Agnosticism became fashionable. The ship of reason was holed below the waterline. This laid the foundation for existentialism. If reality was a matter of subjective interpretation, truth and morality were relative not absolute. Existentialists choose their own way – life has no objective meaning.
Existential philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and others, proposed that the most important questions in life were not explainable by science. Science, contrary to public perception, is not a pure discipline where scientists with pure motives search for pure truth. These writers exposed what they felt were the false assumptions and presuppositions behind modernism. Karl Marx (1818-1883) claimed a person’s thinking was influenced and shaped by economic structures; Friedrich Nietzsche by the desire to wield power (truth claims are mere power plays); Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) by unconscious sexually-oriented drives. With all of this psychological baggage in the mind, how could a person ever state with any certainty what ‘reality’ really is? Facts are ‘theory-laden’ and true objectivity is impossible. “There are no facts, only interpretations,” said Nietzsche. (He thereby assumed his own perspective was neutral!). The door to postmodernism had been opened.
The Cause of Postmodernism
By the 1960’s a whole generation of young people had begun to question the results of reason and science, with their cold technology, pollution, weapons of mass destruction and socially intrusive ‘control’. The optimism of the modernistic worldview had been shattered by two World Wars, the Holocaust and Vietnam. Despite all the material gains there was still a hunger for the spiritual. A desire to be free from any kind of intellectual demand or moral restraint led to experimentation with drugs, mysticism and the occult. Two centuries of ‘reason’ had blown away any persuasive foundation for ‘morals’. When Nietzsche pronounced the death of God in Thus Spake Zarathustra the inevitable happened. Society’s taboos simply gave way. All that remained taboo was taboo itself. In came the sexual revolution aided by medical ‘advances’. Homosexuality and abortion were legalized. The Press was uncensored, leading to an explosion in pornography. Divorce became easier. The gods of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll rushed in to fill the vacuum and the rest is history. Every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Judg 21:25).
The Concept of Postmodernism
In a short article like this, it is impossible to adequately give expression to the diverse and detailed characteristics of postmodernism as taught by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Michel Foucault (t986-1984), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Jacques Derrida (1930-1904) and Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996). However, put as succinctly as possible, postmodernism is a reinterpretation of what knowledge is and what counts as knowledge. According to postmodernism there is no such thing as absolute truth. ‘Reality’, rather than being something that exists independent of the language or theories anyone may use to describe it, is something constructed or made-up by society. ‘Language’ creates reality, but since language changes and word meanings vary, what is ‘real’ for one group of people may be ‘unreal’ for another. Not only is all thought merely ‘socially and historically conditioned’, but even the very ‘laws of logic’ (identity, non-contradiction and the excluded middle) are ‘Western constructs’ which must not be taken as universally valid, and certainly cannot be imposed on people of other cultures.
The historically accepted dichotomies between what is true and false, right and wrong and good and bad, are not omnipresent realities but social constructs that may change from culture to culture, without creating any logical contradiction or conflict. Postmodernism also rejects the idea of an ‘authorial text’. For example, the meaning of the Gospel of John is not determined by John. Indeed it has no fixed meaning. The reader may choose what meaning to put on it (as the Serpent did to God’s instructions regarding the tree in the garden of Eden).
Postmodernism not only dethroned human reason, it rejected human values (humanism). Human beings are no longer to be thought of as the ‘centre of everything’. There is no centre. Instead of building on a foundation of God, rationalism or will-power, postmodernism simply says there is no foundation. While existentialism left one free to choose one’s own meaning, postmodernism says no one is free (all are imprisoned by society’s language) and there is no meaning.
The Consequences of Postmodernism
In a perceptive internet article, the late Christian philosopher Ravi Zacharias explains: “Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault may well be the definitive bookends of this twentieth century. Both brilliant yet tragic figures…Michel Foucault…was a leading French intellectual who by virtue of a very promiscuous life, died of AIDS at the age of 58. He was a lover of Nietzsche’s writings, who ironically had died at 54, in the wake of his pitiful bout with venereal disease and insanity.” In postmodernism man senses no personal need to live a righteous life, after all, what is righteousness? He has no sins. He simply lives his life the way that works for him. Postmodern culture is omni-tolerant and anti-judgmental.
Even in today’s evangelical culture, preachers rarely say anything negative or critical. Congregations don’t want to hear about anything they can’t enjoy. Satan facilitates their depraved desires by serving up a diet of ‘spirituality’ and pop psychology, while all the time deceiving them into what they were never warned about – hell. In Schools, teachers are not to mark wrong answers with a cross; that’s considered a put-down. Art, films, plays, music and architecture, influenced or driven by postmodernism, no longer feel the need to exhibit objective meaning corresponding to reality. ‘Truth’ itself is only a ‘story’.
Status for postmodern man is now defined by style (the right clothes, the right music etc.). Wall to wall 24/7 exposure to the visual media (Social media, TV, internet, Computer games) blurs the distinction between truth and entertainment. Image takes precedent over substance in many areas of life, especially politics. Even in ‘the church’, what works, rather than what is right and scriptural, carries the day, all in an attempt to boost numbers. Preaching that involves linear thinking, cerebral arguments and theological terminology is boring. Postmodern churchgoers want to experience the supernatural and feel the music – not learn and study truth. Evangelistic courses that discuss Christianity in groups ably suit the postmodernist mindset. A one-way conversation from a pulpit is far too hierarchical. Worship services have changed to make them more emotional and entertaining, perfectly reflecting the ‘style over substance’ postmodern paradigm. Salvation by ‘making a decision’ also corresponds well to postmodernism’s ‘choose your own destiny’ mentality. The fact that true salvation is dependent on God supernaturally drawing a sinner to Christ by conviction of sin and repentance is foreign to the new thinking (John 6:44, 16:8).
As the apostasy in Christendom grows ever wider, 21st century evangelical Christianity increasingly resonates with postmodern concepts. The following trends are widespread – the minimization of absolutes, the rejection of didactic preaching, the belief that the unevangelized can be saved without the gospel, the acceptance of homosexuality, the teaching that God loves us because we are worth it, that sin is merely a loss of self-esteem etc. True Biblical evangelicalism is all but dead in the water.
The Contradictions of Postmodernism
If postmodernism boasts a mantra, it would have to be, “There is no such thing as absolute truth”, a statement that collapses under its own self-contradictory weight. “There is no absolute truth” is a statement of absolute truth! Again, relativism is either true or false. If true, that is the same as saying, “it is an objective truth that there is no objective truth.” If false, the game is up. Again, postmodernism is pluralistic. It says that no one view is uniquely correct. But if no single view is correct, is pluralism correct? Again, postmodernists claim to have a neutral perspective and be able to take a detached bird’s eye view of all other views, while condemning all other views as biased constructs. Again, postmodernism does not believe in worldviews (what it calls meta-narratives). But since it has a theory about life’s meaning, truth and morals, it qualifies as a worldview itself. That makes it a worldview that challenges the validity of worldviews!
The contradictions are endless. Postmodernism tolerates everything but intolerance. Its proponents expect us to listen to what they say as if it were absolutely true, while denying the very concept of absolute truth. They expect us to take their authorial intent to heart, while denying the authorial validity of other texts. They use language carefully, expecting us to catch the essence of what they are saying, while simultaneously denying that language has universal weight. They outline the dichotomy between modernism and postmodernism, claiming that the latter is superior, while rejecting any such hierarchy of ideas exists. As a theory postmodernism was a provocative idea: as a workable model for life it is useless. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that folk who deny the existence of an absolute moral law still become upset when you take their seat on a bus.
The Cure for Postmodernism
In 2 Cor 10:5, Paul tells Christians to destroy arguments that rise up against the knowledge of God. This will be impossible unless, like Paul, they understand at least a little of ‘where the world is at’ and begin to interact with unbelievers in ways they can understand (Acts 17:22-31). Christians must realise that society has rejected the notion of truth. Its objections to the gospel have done a complete somersault. Back in the modern era (17th-20th C.) the secular world argued that Christianity was not true. They denied Christianity. However, in the postmodern era (post-1990) the secular world objects to Christianity not because it is wrong, but because it dares to claim to be the only truth.
The Christian must continue to press the exclusive claim of the gospel which has been revealed in the Bible in precise, meaningful language (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Tim 2:5). The changeable ideas of men cut no ice with the enduring and eternal word of God (Isa 40:68, 1 Pet 1:24-25). Biblical truth is absolute, objective, knowable and eternal. Christianity must be expounded as a worldview that is true for everyone, whether they believe it or not. Status, for a Christian, exists in being ‘in Christ’. Worth and acceptance is ‘in Him’ alone (Eph 1:6). Postmodernism, filled as it is with dozens of ludicrous contradictions and fatal flaws, must be exposed as a fraud and resisted at every point of entry. Gospel preaching aimed at the conscience of guilty 21st century man, awakening him to the reality of the righteous wrath of a sin-hating God, is still the God-ordained way.
As we witness to the uniqueness of Christ and the Bible, let us pray that God will bring conviction and repentance to those hopelessly lost in postmodernism and every other false philosophy of man. Let us also learn the lesson of history. Ancient Roman Society was supremely tolerant culturally and scrupulously fair legally, except to Christians. Since they would not worship the Emperor as well as Christ and because they claimed to possess unique truth, Christians became public enemy number one. Persecution followed and may yet manifest itself on a wide scale in our own Western society.
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