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Postmodernism

UNDERSTANDINGPOSTMODERNISM

PART ONE

WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM?

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

But while there are differing definitionscirculating, there is a general consensus about some core elements of thisphilosophy.

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

Second, postmodernism can be defined in relationto time in terms of the modern philosophy that preceded it.   MichaelKohler says, “Despite persisting controversies as to what constitutes thecharacteristic traits of the new area, the term ‘postmodern’ is now generallyapplied to all cultural phenomena which have emerged since the second world warand are indicative of a change in sensibility and attitude, making the presentage ‘post the modern.’”

Third, postmodernists claimthat we cannot know reality, therefore the concept of absolute truth is adelusion.  One philosophy text states, “Postmodernism challenges thefundamental assumption of modern philosophy and science – the possibility ofdiscovering the truth about anything.   Postmodernists claim that anyattempt to verify the truth of a claim by its correspondence with reality is animpossible illusion.”   When knowledge of reality is unattainable, realtruth is only a daydream.

Fourth, postmodernism denies “metanarratives”which are comprehensive stories explaining the world.   AsJean-Francois Lyotard, the French postmodernist author, writes, “Simplifying tothe extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towardsmeta-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 embraceclear contradictions.   Lyotard declares, “Postmodern knowledge is notsimply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences andreinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.”   The world isfull of contradictions, so we must simply accept them.

Sixth, postmodern “truth” is constructed bysocieties using language games.   As Groothuis explains, “In anutshell, postmodernism holds that truth is not determined by its connectionwith objective reality, but by various social constructions devised fordifferent purposes.  Put another way, various cultures have their own‘language games,’ which describe reality very differently.  However, wecannot adjudicate which language game or which linguistic ‘map’ correlates morecorrectly with reality, since we cannot get beyond our own culturalconditioning.  There is no objective reality apart from our language andconcepts.”  So there is no objective truth, only “truth” that is createdwithin the language of a community.

What is the result of all of this?  Groothius points out, “Texts, whether religious or otherwise, do not have anyfixed, objective meaning; therefore they are neither true nor false inthemselves (Jacques Derrida). Truth is what one’s colleagues will let one getaway with (Richard Rorty) or what the power structures deem to be so (MichelFoucault). 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 abook of history and revelation of God dealing with mankind, but a collection ofstories 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 adifferent 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 arecalled oppressive, imperialistic, even dangerous.   While toleranceand inclusiveness are celebrated as the highest virtues, intolerance andexclusivity are loathed as the worst vices.   Does this sound familiar?

 

PART TWO

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

DESCRIBING POSTMODERN

There are aspects of postmodern thinking that needto be understood.

First, postmodernism tells us to embraceskepticism about our culture.   Certainty must be abandoned.   Weneed to discard the notion of truth as objective, we are told, because thisidea is as outdated as the philosophy of modernism which accepts it.  Postmodernists say that modernism has failed our society, therefore we mustreject modernist beliefs, including the belief in objective truth.   “Wecannot be certain of anything,” they will tell us with certainty.

Second, postmodernism undermines religiousviews, especially Christianity.   The essence of postmodernism is the lackof belief concerning truth, absolutes, certainty, and an overallexplanation (“grand narrative”) of the world.   This is the polar oppositeof Christianity, the foundation of which is declarations of truth, absolutes,and the Christian worldview.   All religions are built upon some set ofteachings which are proclaimed as being objectively true, but in the postmodernview there really is no such thing as a set of teachings which are objectivelytrue.   In a postmodern world, no religion, especially Christianity, makessense.

Modernism

In order to understand postmodernism better, it ishelpful to compare it to modernist philosophy that preceded it.  Modernistthinking arose in the era known as the Enlightenment in the 16 th and 17 thcenturies.

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

This critical spirit possessed by manyEnlightenment thinkers led to, in the name of rationality, the questioning ofall beliefs that had been passed down through the church.   Theirambition was to abandon superstition and religious dogma in favor of knowledgebased on scientific discovery and rational investigation.   This becameknown as “modernism.”

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

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

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

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

While modernism claimed to be the path to continualimprovement in society and the end of hunger, war, strife, and poverty, itfailed miserably.   Veith continues, “In our own time, it has become clearthat 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 arationalistic, materialistic theory – communism – fell to pieces.  Technology continues to progress at breakneck speed, but, far from reaching theheavens, it sometimes diminishes our lives.”

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

To summarize, what began in modernism asrebellion against the authority of the church developed into rebellion againstthe authority of God.   In modernism, God was removed in practiceand the ability to know His revelation was undermined.   Inpostmodernism, God has been removed in principle and the ability toknow anything has been undermined.  

Next time we will contrast modernism andpostmodernism.   The differences are stark.

 

PART THREE

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

MODERN vs. POSTMODERN

According to postmodernists, the problem with themodernist view is not its uncritical dependence upon human reason alone (apartfrom God’s revelation), but its assumption that there is such a thing asobjective truth.   Postmodernists deny objective truth, assertingthat 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-defeatingclaims.   These are assertions that contain information withinthemselves that defeat the assertions being made.   For example, theperson who says, “I cannot speak a word of English” has just proven hisassertion false by making the statement in English.

When postmodernists claim that we cannot knowtruth because we cannot know reality, how do they know that?   Theyassert that one cannot know the world as it is, but one can only know hisperception of the world.   Yet this is actually an assertion about thereal world, namely that it cannot be known.   This is like saying, “Wecannot know anything about our galaxy beyond Pluto.”   One would have toknow there was something beyond Pluto to claim that anything beyond Plutocannot be known.   It is self-defeating.

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

Now let’scompare modernism and postmodernism.

Modernism says there is a metanarrative, a grandstory that explains our existence.   Most modernists hold an evolutionaryview of the universe, so their comprehensive story is that we are here byaccident.   Postmodernism says there is no metanarrative, only manynarratives which compete with each other.

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

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

A typical secular modernist says that God isunnecessary or nonexistent.   A postmodernist claims that God iswhatever you want him to be.

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

Science and reason alone bring truth according tothe modernist, while the postmodernist says each individual alone creates hisown truth.

Most secular scientists today are modernists whobelieve 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 modernistwho has critiqued postmodern thinking.   “Postmodernism is the ultimatepolar antithesis of the Enlightenment.   The difference between the twoextremes can be expressed roughly as follows:   Enlightenment thinkersbelieve we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can knownothing.”

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

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

Modernism asserts that man does not need God forhis existence; postmodernism stresses that Godneeds man for His existence.

Christianity is rejected by modernism because itsclaims are considered to be untrue and therefore nonsense.   Christianityis rejected by postmodernism because it claims to be true and istherefore narrow and offensive.   The assertion by Christians thatJesus is the only way to heaven is seen by moderns as being a myth and bypostmoderns as being mean.

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


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Jordan Peterson on Origins of Postmodernism


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