Ideologies‎ > ‎

Postmodernism

UNDERSTANDING POSTMODERNISM

PART ONE

WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM?

Trying to define postmodernism can be a little like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.   It can be difficult.

But while there are differing definitions circulating, there is a general consensus about some core elements of this philosophy.

First, postmodernism rejects the idea of objective and absolute truth.   As author Doug Groothius writes, “Postmodernism, broadly understood, has dispensed with Truth and has replaced it with truths.”   Everyone has his own “truth” which may or may not be the same as the “truth” of someone else.

Second, postmodernism can be defined in relation to time in terms of the modern philosophy that preceded it.   Michael Kohler says, “Despite persisting controversies as to what constitutes the characteristic traits of the new area, the term ‘postmodern’ is now generally applied to all cultural phenomena which have emerged since the second world war and are indicative of a change in sensibility and attitude, making the present age ‘post the modern.’”

Third, postmodernists claim that we cannot know reality, therefore the concept of absolute truth is a delusion.  One philosophy text states, “Postmodernism challenges the fundamental assumption of modern philosophy and science – the possibility of discovering the truth about anything.   Postmodernists claim that any attempt to verify the truth of a claim by its correspondence with reality is an impossible illusion.”   When knowledge of reality is unattainable, real truth is only a daydream.

Fourth, postmodernism denies “metanarratives” which are comprehensive stories explaining the world.   As Jean-Francois Lyotard, the French postmodernist author, writes, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives.”   There is no all-encompassing explanation of life, there are only competing stories told by various people and cultures.   There are no meta-narratives, just many narratives.

Fifth, postmodernists encourage us to embrace clear contradictions.   Lyotard declares, “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.”   The world is full of contradictions, so we must simply accept them.

Sixth, postmodern “truth” is constructed by societies using language games.   As Groothuis explains, “In a nutshell, postmodernism holds that truth is not determined by its connection with objective reality, but by various social constructions devised for different purposes.  Put another way, various cultures have their own ‘language games,’ which describe reality very differently.  However, we cannot adjudicate which language game or which linguistic ‘map’ correlates more correctly with reality, since we cannot get beyond our own cultural conditioning.  There is no objective reality apart from our language and concepts.”  So there is no objective truth, only “truth” that is created within the language of a community.

What is the result of all of this?   Groothius points out, “Texts, whether religious or otherwise, do not have any fixed, objective meaning; therefore they are neither true nor false in themselves (Jacques Derrida). Truth is what one’s colleagues will let one get away with (Richard Rorty) or what the power structures deem to be so (Michel Foucault). Finally, there is no ‘God’s eye view’ of anything; therefore, there is no objective truth.”

So in the postmodern view, the Bible is not a book of history and revelation of God dealing with mankind, but a collection of stories not related to reality that can be interpreted in any number of ways.   The Constitution and laws passed by Congress have no inflexible meaning, but they can mean whatever the majority of a court wants them to mean.   And that meaning can change with another court or even with the same court at a different time.   The truths that Thomas Jefferson saw as “self-evident” to all are now reduced to being “court-constructed” by judges.

Those who claim to know absolute truth are called oppressive, imperialistic, even dangerous.   While tolerance and inclusiveness are celebrated as the highest virtues, intolerance and exclusivity are loathed as the worst vices.   Does this sound familiar?

 

PART TWO

Last time we set out to define what postmodernism is.   This time we will describe postmodernism a bit more and discuss the philosophy of modernism which preceded it.

DESCRIBING POSTMODERN

There are aspects of postmodern thinking that need to be understood.

First, postmodernism tells us to embrace skepticism about our culture.   Certainty must be abandoned.   We need to discard the notion of truth as objective, we are told, because this idea is as outdated as the philosophy of modernism which accepts it.   Postmodernists say that modernism has failed our society, therefore we must reject modernist beliefs, including the belief in objective truth.   “We cannot be certain of anything,” they will tell us with certainty.

Second, postmodernism undermines religious views, especially Christianity.   The essence of postmodernism is the lack of belief concerning truth, absolutes, certainty, and an overall explanation (“grand narrative”) of the world.   This is the polar opposite of Christianity, the foundation of which is declarations of truth, absolutes, and the Christian worldview.   All religions are built upon some set of teachings which are proclaimed as being objectively true, but in the postmodern view there really is no such thing as a set of teachings which are objectively true.   In a postmodern world, no religion, especially Christianity, makes sense.

Modernism

In order to understand postmodernism better, it is helpful to compare it to modernist philosophy that preceded it.  Modernist thinking arose in the era known as the Enlightenment in the 16 th and 17 th centuries.

Doug Groothuis explains, “The period of the Enlightenment – which followed the Reformation – is typically regarded as the beachhead of modernism.   To speak very generally, many philosophers of this period began questioning not merely certain Roman Catholic doctrines – such as papal authority and indulgences – but Christianity itself and the idea of divine revelation as a source of authority.”

This critical spirit possessed by many Enlightenment thinkers led to, in the name of rationality, the questioning of all beliefs that had been passed down through the church.   Their ambition was to abandon superstition and religious dogma in favor of knowledge based on scientific discovery and rational investigation.   This became known as “modernism.”

Groothuis writes, “The modernist vision presupposed the power of rationality to discover objective truth.  They desired a rational, scientific worldview over the perceived irrationality and acrimony stemming from religion, and the possibility of progress through humanity’s emancipation from received dogma and superstition.”

Revelation from Scripture was rejected as a source of truth and knowledge in itself.   Only those truths that could be confirmed by science and/or reason apart from the Bible were acceptable.   While not all Enlightenment thinkers were atheists, the removal of biblical revelation led many to abandon theism (God is active in the world He created) and to embrace deism (God created the world but plays no role in it).  

This set the stage for a transition from the Christian worldview in which miracles are possible to a naturalistic worldview in which the supernatural is impossible.   Everything must be explained in terms of natural causes and processes.   The rejection of life as the special creation of a loving God and the rise of Darwinian evolution were birthed from the maturation of Enlightenment (modern) thinking.

Christian author Gene Edward Veith describes the modernist view of the world.   “The culture that built the Tower of Babel parallels the modern age.   Confident in their human abilities, their reason and scientific knowledge, the modernists had no need for God.”

While modernism claimed to be the path to continual improvement in society and the end of hunger, war, strife, and poverty, it failed miserably.   Veith continues, “In our own time, it has become clear that reason, science, and technology have not solved all of our problems.   Poverty, crime, and despair defy our attempts at social engineering.   The most thorough-going attempt to restructure society according to a rationalistic, materialistic theory – communism – fell to pieces.   Technology continues to progress at breakneck speed, but, far from reaching the heavens, it sometimes diminishes our lives.”

In response to the failures of modernism, many have embraced postmodernism as the best way to view the world.  

To summarize, what began in modernism as rebellion against the authority of the church developed into rebellion against the authority of God.   In modernism, God was removed in practice and the ability to know His revelation was undermined.   In postmodernism, God has been removed in principle and the ability to know anything has been undermined.  

Next time we will contrast modernism and postmodernism.   The differences are stark.

 

PART THREE

Previously in this series we have defined and described what postmodernism is.   This time we will contrast it with modernism and show some self-defeating aspects of postmodernism.

MODERN vs. POSTMODERN

According to postmodernists, the problem with the modernist view is not its uncritical dependence upon human reason alone (apart from God’s revelation), but its assumption that there is such a thing as objective truth.   Postmodernists deny objective truth, asserting that since we cannot know the real world (a false and self-defeating claim) then we cannot claim to know truth objectively.

We have written often about self-defeating claims.   These are assertions that contain information within themselves that defeat the assertions being made.   For example, the person who says, “I cannot speak a word of English” has just proven his assertion false by making the statement in English.

When postmodernists claim that we cannot know truth because we cannot know reality, how do they know that?   They assert that one cannot know the world as it is, but one can only know his perception of the world.   Yet this is actually an assertion about the real world, namely that it cannot be known.   This is like saying, “We cannot know anything about our galaxy beyond Pluto.”   One would have to know there was something beyond Pluto to claim that anything beyond Pluto cannot be known.   It is self-defeating.

The fact is that we can and do know the world as it is.   No one could live or function for long if this were not the case.   When you drive a car, step onto an elevator, or jump into a swimming pool, you do so because you inherently recognize that your perception accurately tells you where the road is, that the elevator is solid, and that there is water in the pool.

Now let’s compare modernism and postmodernism.

Modernism says there is a metanarrative, a grand story that explains our existence.   Most modernists hold an evolutionary view of the universe, so their comprehensive story is that we are here by accident.   Postmodernism says there is no metanarrative, only many narratives which compete with each other.

Moderns generally believe that truth exists and it is objective.   Postmoderns claim there are many “truths” which are merely subjective (“you believe one thing, I believe the opposite, and we are both right because we are sincere”).

While moderns believe we can know reality, postmoderns say we can create reality.   A modernist believes he must yield to the world as it is, while a postmodernist thinks he can command the world to be what he wants it to be.   A modernist slogan would be “Life is hard, and then you die.”   A postmodern saying is “I’ve given up on reality.   Now I’m looking for a good fantasy.”

A typical secular modernist says that God is unnecessary or nonexistent.   A postmodernist claims that God is whatever you want him to be.

During the Enlightenment modernist skepticism led to the questioning of church authority.   During our age postmodern skepticism has led to questioning all authority, including God.

Science and reason alone bring truth according to the modernist, while the postmodernist says each individual alone creates his own truth.

Most secular scientists today are modernists who believe that truth claims are necessary to understand the world.   Postmodernists charge that truth claims are power plays to oppress the world.

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson is a modernist who has critiqued postmodern thinking.   “Postmodernism is the ultimate polar antithesis of the Enlightenment.   The difference between the two extremes can be expressed roughly as follows:   Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing.”

Modernism focuses on the intellect and reason; postmodernism emphasizes the will and emotion.   Moderns generally believe morality is decided by societies (majority rules), while postmoderns believe morality is decided by the individual (relativity rules).

Revelation by God is rejected by modernism, but postmodernism will allow for revelation from God as being strictly personal to the individual.   To the modern mind, a comprehensive worldview is essential but may be depressing, since our very existence is only a cosmic accident.   To the postmodern mind, a comprehensive worldview is incoherent and impossible.   While the modern asks “Is that all there is to life?” the postmodern declares “Have it your way.”

Modernism asserts that man does not need God for his existence; postmodernism stresses that God needs man for His existence.

Christianity is rejected by modernism because its claims are considered to be untrue and therefore nonsense.   Christianity is rejected by postmodernism because it claims to be true and is therefore narrow and offensive.   The assertion by Christians that Jesus is the only way to heaven is seen by moderns as being a myth and by postmoderns as being mean.

Modernists believe it is appropriate to share truth with others, while postmodernists feel it is arrogant to force “your truth” on others.   The modernist says we can know everything without God, but the postmodernist declares we can know nothing - period