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Postmodernism and the Christian Life, Part 2

The current hot philosophy is a breeding ground for self-indulgence, suspicion and anger.

PART 1: Postmodernism and the Christian Life »

In my last article I gave a summary of postmodernism.For those who don’t remember, I said that postmodernism was primarily the rejection of (1) the correspondence theory of truth, (2) objective reality, (3) the existence of universal standards for determining what counts as knowledge, (4) the existence of universal standards for determining something’s value, (5) the idea that an author’s intentions determine the meaning of a text and (6) the existence of any objectively real “self.” In this article, I will analyze four aspects of postmodernism that bear on the possibility of successful Christian growth and discipleship.

There are at least four implications of postmodernism that strike at the very core of Christian transformation. The first two follow from the postmodernists’ rejection of any objectively real “self” or identity.

According to postmodernism, the “self” is a social construction, a creation of language, a reificationReification occurs when one takes something abstract and assumes that it has real, objective existence. For example, suppose that I say, “Nobody can hit better than George Brett” and you respond, “Who did Nobody play for?” — here, by assuming that the word “nobody” refers to an actual person, you have reified it. of the first person pronoun “I.” As such, one’s personal identity is not objectively real, but is a culturally relative, historically conditioned construct. There is no real person, no enduring individual, no single ego in the body. Rather, there are as many personal identities associated with a given body as there are social roles that body finds itself in. For example, “I” (J. P. Moreland) am a professor, a father, a sports fan and so on, and each of these is literally a different self, a different identity. Moreover, each of these (professor, father, sports fan) is a mere social role created by my group and ascribed to “me.” On the postmodernist’s view, I am a bundle of different selves, a group of roles — nothing more, nothing less. As Philip Cushman asserts, “there is no universal, transhistorical self, only local selves; no universal theory about the self, only local theories.”Cushman, Philip. “Why the Self Is Empty: Toward a Historically Situated Psychology.” American Psychologist. 45 (1990): 599.

From this it follows that there is no unity to the self and no enduring ego — that is, no conscious person or identity who remains literally the same over time.For more on the self and the soul, see Moreland, J. P. and Scott Rae, Body and Soul. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000); and Moreland, J. P. “Restoring the Substance to the Soul of Psychology.” Journal of Psychology and Theology. 26 (March, 1998): 29-43. Thus, as you sit here reading Boundless, you are literally a different individual than the one pictured in your second-grade class picture. Rather than an enduring self, “you” are a bundle of social roles and relations, each of which is an expression of the arbitrary flux of whatever group(s) you happen to be a part of, or happen to have been a part of. In my case, on the postmodern view, there is no one self that is a professor, a father, a sports fan and the author of this article. Rather than being a single individual (J. P. Moreland) who is a professor, father, sports fan and author, “I” am literally at least four different individuals: Moreland the professor, Moreland the father, Moreland the sports fan and Moreland the author.I say at least four because this list can be expanded further: For example, we could also add “Moreland the author of this article and professor, Moreland the author of this article and sports fan, Moreland the sports fan and father” and so on to this list of “my” literal selves. There is no individual J. P. Moreland who transcends “my” social role as a professor, father, sports fan and author. Each role is literally a different “me.”

Obviously enough, the incorporation of these ideas into one’s worldview will have disastrous implications for helping him form an identity distinct from his parents, professors and peers, draw appropriate boundaries and own responsibility for his actions. If postmodernism is true, all that can happen is for a person to disown one arbitrary socially constructed identity while standing in another. (One wonders if such a trip is worth the effort.) Further, on this view there is no point in owning one’s problems, since it is always open to a patient simply to distance himself from an arbitrary, fleeting constructed identity in which the pathology is embedded. If a husband was hostile to his wife while watching a football game and afterwards went to counseling with her, he could disown the behavior on the grounds that, in the therapist’s office, he was literally not the individual who mistreated her during the game and, in fact, could claim to be totally against the “sports fan” self who abused her earlier. Genuine accountability makes no sense from this perspective.

Second, as postmodern critic Terry Eagleton points out,Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), pp. 27-28. if the self is a passive social construction, then active agency and free action disappear under the postmodern cloud of constructivism. In other words, there is no free will, no genuine choice, no real responsibility. This is one of the reasons why, in postmodern culture, guilt and responsibility are replaced by the view that one’s behavior is determined by his environment and genes. Thus, postmodern thought is not only on a collision course with Christian ethics in general but with important recent developments in psychological theory that have emphasized the self as an active, free agent. Moreover, as Immanuel Kant wisely noted, the goal of the moral life (and, presumably, of therapy) is the production of a good will, of a person who freely and rationally chooses to live a virtuous life that honors the moral law. If this goal is removed from our sense of our lives, as it must be for postmodernists, it becomes opaque as to just exactly what people — especially Christians — are trying to accomplish when they “attempt” to change their behavior, beliefs or feelings. And with this comes an absence of motivation to do so.

The third implication of postmodernism is an institutionalization of indiscriminate anger, and this is facilitated by postmodernism’s rejection of the idea that that one’s intentions determine the meaning of his or her utterances and writings. Postmodernists often practice a “hermeneutics of suspicion” in which they interpret body language, speech and written communication, not in terms of the communicator’s own intentions, but in terms of his or her attempt to victimize and dominate a putatively oppressed person or group. (See, for example, “feminist” and “gay” interpretations of Paul’s comments in Romans.) As a result, postmodernists are preoccupied with the power struggles that surround language use and social practice, and they see themselves as part of a missionary movement to liberate powerless, oppressed victims from dominance. To be sure, power issues are a legitimate aspect of language, though one hardly needs postmodernism to see this. But by making power struggles and victimization a central focus of the postmodern crusade, the movement dignifies indiscriminate anger by institutionalizing it and placing it on ideological high ground, and it creates such anger by fostering relational suspicion according to which there is a victimizer behind every instance of communication. As anybody with international travel experience could attest, America is a country of unduly angry people. Postmodernism is to be blamed for its share in creating this situation.

The final implication of postmodernism follows its rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, according to which a proposition is true only when it corresponds to reality, when what it asserts to be the case is actually the case.

Through its relativization of truth, postmodernism contributes to the absolutization of satisfying one’s desires. With truth dethroned as guide for life, something has to take its place — and the heir to the throne is the absolute importance of doing what feels right or good to each individual. Postmodernism supports the absolute importance of desire satisfaction with its denial of truth and reason, along with its promulgation of a naïve and destructive notion of tolerance.The word “tolerance” is used by postmodernists to signify a refusal to pass negative judgments on another’s beliefs or behavior. Properly understood, however, tolerance presupposes the passing of negative judgment — an act of genuine tolerance can only occur downstream from a negative judgment that’s already been passed. This is why, while it makes sense to say, for instance, that we tolerate those with false beliefs, it doesn’t make sense to say that we tolerate those with true beliefs, those who do good deeds or anybody else about whom we have passed positive judgment. Christians know that some beliefs and behaviors (child molestation is a painfully obvious example) should not be tolerated, and they also know that a healthy person is one who can cultivate good desires and control bad ones. But with no higher priority than satisfying desire, we are left no moral or ethical resource against our own vices or against those who would harm us in order to meet their own wants. Ironically, due to the ideological implications of postmodernism, while it seeks to liberate victims it actually creates conditions under which that liberation is ethically unjustified. This should be a matter of concern for us all.

At the end of the day, a disciple of Jesus embraces truth, objective reality, a real soul with an eternal destiny, and a life of genuine moral responsibility and opportunity for growth. These ideas were part of Jesus’ worldview and his followers have no choice but to seek to believe as Jesus did. By rejecting these ideas, postmodernism sets itself on a collision course with Jesus Christ Himself. I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty clear to me which side of that encounter I want to be on.

Copyright 2004 J.P. Moreland. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. He has contributed to over 40 books, including Love Your God With All Your Mind and over 60 journal articles. Dr. Moreland also co-authored The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life.

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