“Postmodernism” is a hot word in many circles, but what does it mean, and why does it matter so much? For answers, start here.
For at least two reasons, the Christian college student must keep in touch with the intellectual currents of the day. For one thing, ideological trends have an impact on the world of ideas in general and on the structure and content of reading material in books and articles in particular. Appraised of those trends, one can be more discerning while reading (II Corinthians 10:3-5). In this way, one can sustain a Christian worldview while doing homework for courses at secular colleges that are hardly designed to help the student think carefully as a Christian!
Further, ideological trends contain ideas that shape our emotions, desires and behaviors, so we need to be very careful what ideas we absorb; otherwise, our emotional life and behavior will be harmed. Currently, postmodernism is an ideological trend Christians would do well to understand. With this in mind, I shall offer a précis of postmodern thought and, in a following article I shall analyze four aspects of postmodernism especially relevant to discipleship.
Postmodernism Generally Characterized
Postmodernism is a loose coalition of diverse thought in several different disciplines, so it is hard to describe postmodernism in a way that captures this diversity fairly. Still, we can provide a fairly accurate characterization of postmodernism in general, since its friends and foes understand it well enough to debate its strengths and weaknesses.
There are two ways to understand the word 'postmodernism.' The first is, simply, chronological. Postmodernism refers to a period of thought that follows, and is a reaction to the period called modernity — the period of European thought that developed out of the Renaissance (14th-17th century) and flourished in the Enlightenment (17th-19th century). Of course, this can be simplistic: the thinkers in the modern period were far from monolithic. Different modernist thinkers have elements in their thought that are more at home in postmodernism than they are in the so-called modern era, and other aspects of "modernity" are very much at home in a Christian worldview (for example, the objectivity of truth, value and knowledge). Nevertheless, setting historical accuracy aside, the chronological notion of postmodernism depicts it as an era that began after and, in some sense, replaces modernity.
But the word "postmodernism" more commonly refers to a philosophical approach. It is associated with thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Francois Lyotard, and is primarily a reinterpretation of what knowledge is and what counts as knowledge. More broadly, postmodernism represents a form of cultural relativism about such things as truth, reality, reason, value, linguistic meaning, the "self" and other notions. On a postmodernist view, there is no such thing as objective truth, reality, value, reason and so forth. All these are social constructions, creations of linguistic practices and, as such, are relative not to individuals (as is often mistakenly supposed), but to social groups that share a narrative.
Six Traits of Postmodernism
In my last article, I explained the correspondence theory of truth, saying that truth occurs when a proposition stands in an appropriate correspondence relation to reality:
proposition => correspondence relation => reality
Postmodernists reject the correspondence theory of truth. Some of them refuse to talk about truth at all. Others redefine it, saying that a belief is true by virtue of its coherence with other beliefs, or saying that whether or not a belief "works" is what makes it true or false. The important thing is that the postmodernist does not define truth in relation to reality; rather, for the postmodernist, truth is relative to a community or culture that shares a narrative. Thus the doctrine of reincarnation (for instance) can be true for the Buddhist but false for the atheist, and evolutionary theory can be true for the atheist but false for the Christian. The "true for you but not for me" vocabulary popular on college campuses reveals a postmodern rejection of the correspondence theory of truth.
Closely related to the postmodernists' rejection of the correspondence theory of truth is their rejection of objective reality. Postmodernists reject the existence of a world independent of human thought, human language and human theories. They reject the idea that there's one way the world (or any part of it) actually is, independent of our beliefs about it. For example, there is no such thing as real gender: Being male, female or homosexual has whatever meaning a culture or community assigns to it, so there is no such thing as maleness or femaleness that transcends culture. Likewise, there is no such thing as an objectively existing God. Whether God exists or whatever he, she, it or they are is totally relative to different groups and their narratives.
Third, postmodernists reject the idea that there are universal, trans-cultural standards for determining the epistemological status of a belief — for determining whether a belief is true or false, rational or irrational, good or bad. According to the postmodernist, if one asks (for instance) whether or not people should believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no universally correct answer. The answer depends on cultures and their narratives. For one culture, the answer is yes; the belief that Jesus Christ resurrected is good, rational and true. For a culture with a different narrative, however, the answer is no; belief in the resurrection of Christ is false, irrational, or bad from some other reason. According to the postmodernist, it is impossible to say that any single belief should be held by all people in all cultures.
Closely related to this, postmodernists also reject the existence of any trans-cultural standard for determining the value of something. For example, according to some narratives, men deserve better treatment than women. But are cultures that don't treat women as well as men wrong? According to the postmodernist, not in any objective, universal or trans-cultural sense. Cultures that don't value women are only wrong relative to cultures with different narratives than theirs.
Fifth, postmodernists reject the idea that any text, sentence, utterance or sign can have an objective, fixed meaning. In a Boundless article, Walt Russell explained that the meaning of any text, sentence, etc., is determined and fixed by its author's intentions. According to postmodernists, however, the author of a text or utterance has no privileged position from which to interpret her own text or utterance. She may have intended her text to mean one thing, but her intentions have no bearing one what the text actually means. Rather, the meaning of a text, according to postmodernists, is determined by a community of readers who share an interpretation. Thus Paul's intentions are irrelevant to the meaning of the book of Romans. In fact, there is no book of Romans. Rather, there's a Lutheran book of Romans, a Catholic book of Romans, a Marxist book of Romans, and so on — but no book of Romans in itself.
Finally, postmodernists reject the existence of any unified, objectively real "self." For the postmodernist, the self is a construction of language. It is a bundle of social roles, such as being a student, a son, a brother, a basketball player, and these roles are created by the linguistic habits associated with them. Because language is social and not individual, there are no individual selves. Selves are social and only exist relative to the cultures they find themselves in.
Is Postmodernism True?
My purpose in this article has been to provide a précis of postmodernism; it has not been to provide a philosophical critique of it. Still, I cannot resist offering one criticism. Put simply, postmodernism is self-refuting.
A claim like "I do not exist" is self-refuting in that it makes itself false — by making the claim "I do not exist," I demonstrate that I do, after all, exist. Postmodernists appear to claim that their own assertions about the modern era, about how language and consciousness work, etc., are objectively true and objectively rational, and they write literary texts and protest when different groups misinterpret the meanings of their writings. But this amounts to saying things like "it's objectively true that there's no objective truth," "it's objectively rational to believe that rationality can't be objective," "my text really means that there's no such thing as real meaning," which can be asserted no more coherently than "I do not exist." In these and other ways postmodernism seems to be self-refuting.
Sometimes postmodernists respond by denying that they take their own assertions and writing to be true, rational, objectively meaningful, and so forth. If these claims are correct, then they would, indeed, save postmodernism from self-refutation. But this response must be rejected. When one actually reads carefully postmodernist writings, it is very hard to avoid the impression that they do, indeed, present themselves as true, rational and so on. In this sense, when on the defensive a postmodernist may deny that his or her writings exhibit these features, but an examination of those writings seems to undermine those denials.
Even so, postmodernism continues to thrive on campus. As I shall argue in my next article, its growing acceptance amongst Christians will have disastrous effects on discipleship.
PART 2: Postmodernism and the Christian Life »
Copyright 2004 J.P. Moreland. All rights reserved.