Postmodernism, a rather slippery and ill-defined term, came to prominence in intellectual circles and in popular usage only in the last quarter of the 20th century. It constitutes a conscious critique and rejection of modernism. Modernism in this sense is the rationalistic, humanistic worldview that followed the Enlightenment with its belief that there is such a thing as objective truth and that the human mind can discover it and use it for the benefit of the human race. This view was very successful in advancing science and technology, but squeezed God out of the picture and made autonomous human reason the supreme authority. First of all God was relegated to the remoteness of Deism, the concept of God as the divine watchmaker of the mechanistic universe, no longer able to intervene in creation. Then he was banished altogether in a full-blown naturalism – all there is, is Nature.
In the worldview of modernism, based on naturalistic presuppositions, there was a dichotomy between the world of facts and the world of values. The world of facts was amenable to scientific investigation and verification in the public realm, while the world of values was relegated to the private and individual realm and could not be verified. Modernism generally had an optimistic view of the inevitable progress of the human race. While the worldview of modernism delivered much in the way of technological advance and great benefits for the human race, it also led to social upheavals, ecological disasters and eventually the horrors of twentieth century war and the atrocities of totalitarian Nazism and Communism. With its belief in progress, it has become a global phenomenon, as the developing countries rush to become modernised. Industrialisation, because of the introduction of assembly line techniques, has been accompanied by specialisation, uniformity and standardisation. Factory production meant that work was split off from home and from leisure, in contrast with pre-industrial, pre-modern society. Rationalisation meant that the key to an efficient society was planning, good organisation and bureaucracy. Urbanisation, discipline and secularisation, in the sense of banishing the transcendent to the private sphere, are other hallmarks of modernism.
Despite people enjoying the fruits of modern science and technology in living conditions, medicine, travel, communication and leisure (what Os Guinness calls modernity), modernism as a worldview has been discovered to be dehumanising and alienating. The modernist claim that the human mind could discover “an overarching explanation for everything” (a metanarrative) came to be seen as arrogant and incapable of being fulfilled.
The Rise of Postmodernism
Postmodernism as a term first arose in architectural circles in the 1970s, but came into popular usage only after the publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in English in 1984 (French edition, 1979). He writes,
Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.
He is referring particularly to the metanarrative offered by science, which has become so specialised and fragmented that it cannot possibly speak with a united voice. Because of the triumph of capitalism and the emphasis on efficiency, management is more important than truth; because of the influence of computerisation, performance is more important than value. The collapse of communism has reinforced the postmodernist's denial of metanarratives, because Marxism claimed to be a monolithic system which explained everything. The postmodernist denies that there can be such a thing as a metanarrative – a “big story” which can give an overarching explanation of the world as we know it. Instead each of us constructs his or her own narrative, or reality, usually depending on our own community of knowledge. We have been used to thinking in terms of two competing metanarratives: the Christian one, which consists of the revelation of God in the Scriptures, and the humanistic, rationalistic one of Science, Evolution and Progress. The Christian metanarrative has been discounted by the world for a long time. But it is only in the last quarter of the 20th century that the humanistic, rationalistic one has been questioned radically by the postmodernists.
How has this come about? Part of the reason was disillusionment with some of the fruits of science and technology: the horror of the dangers of nuclear power, the ecological crisis, and the abuse of political and military power by tyrants of the right or the left who claimed to have all the answers. Also the discovery of the Theory of Relativity was wrongly assumed to prove that there is no such thing as absolute truth – everything is relative. This led to an assumption that one belief system is as valid as another. This relativism came to full flower in postmodernism, which has a fixed aversion to claims of absolute truth and insists on relativism as a basic principle. However, this position is open to the simple objection that, if there are no absolutes, how can the relativist make the absolutist statement that there are no absolutes?
Stanley Grenz, in the first chapter of A Primer on Postmodernism, illustrates the difference between modernism and postmodernism by comparing and contrasting the two series Star Trek and Star Trek: the Next Generation. In the first series the crew of Enterprise, from different human backgrounds, all worked together for the good of humanity. One of the heroes was Spock (half-human, half-Vulcan), who illustrated the perfect ideal of Enlightenment man: he solved all problems by rational thought and was not swayed by emotions or any sense of the transcendent or mystical. The second series had a crew from much more diverse backgrounds, including non-humans. The rational input is from an android machine, Data, which longs to be human with human emotions. There is much emphasis on the transcendent and more attention paid to the emotions and feelings. Rationality alone is no longer enough to solve problems. Counsellor Troi is a woman who has the gift of knowing peoples’ emotions and is an important member of the crew. The presence of other life forms means that humans are no longer the centre of the universe, only a minor part.
Forerunners of Postmodernism
David Lyon, a Christian sociologist, in his book, Postmodernity, traces postmodernism to the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Lyon uses the term postmodernism to refer to the cultural, and postmodernity to refer to the social aspect of this movement. Nietzsche spent his life exposing the hollowness of the Enlightenment hopes. “Nihilism stands at the door”, he wrote. He said that those who claim to have discovered truth are showing a “will to power”, because their knowledge leads them to dominate others. He proclaimed “the death of God” and he saw the inevitable corollary of that – no basis for value or distinction between truth and error. No guarantee or grounds of such distinction exist apart from our language and its concepts. We have no access to any objective reality. There are multiple realities.
After Nietzsche, Lyon sees Martin Heidegger (1899-1976) as an important forerunner of postmodernism. He was an existentialist who held that the study of Being, rather than the question of truth, is what should concern philosophers. He rejected the Enlightenment model of the thinking “self” confronting the objective “world out there” in favour of a unitary concept of “being-in-the-world.” He saw that humanism had replaced God with man at the centre of the universe. This has led to technology taking over our lives as a means of controlling and dominating the world. He thought that Western thought was in a twilight zone, but that it was a time of opportunity to reconstruct society. He saw the way forward not in metaphysics, humanism or technology, but in coming to terms with our condition in concrete situations of action. Thus there is no pre-given human essence. Instead, as self-interpreting beings, we are what we make of ourselves in our active lives. In his later writings Heidegger explored the concepts of truth and language and his views have proved influential among postmodernists. He rejected the common concept that there is a correspondence between our statements and the reality outside of ourselves. Language thus assumes great importance, as it is the reality within which we live.
This emphasis on language was developed further by various figures in the 20th century, such as Ludvig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). He formulated the concept of “language games.” We use language in self-contained and separate systems with their own rules, depending on what we are talking about. It is only a short step from this concept to denying that language has any necessary relationship to reality. It also denies the individual's grasp of truth, as the individual is dependent on the socially produced rules of the language game.
An important element in the rejection of the Enlightenment view of science was the change in perception of the scientific method introduced by thinkers such as Thomas Kuhn. Following his work (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962) science came to be seen not only as constituting its own language game, but as socially constructed. The modernist view of the scientist as a neutral observer discovering truth in an objective manner was rejected. Scientific knowledge was seen not as a statement of objective universal truths, but as a collection of traditions based on the language game of the particular research community to which the scientist belonged.
A very significant aspect of postmodernism is the hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation, associated with it. Foremost here is Jacques Derrida who advocates a deconstructionist approach. Basic to this is a view of language that sees it as whimsical and capricious and incapable of disclosing meaning in itself. Language is a kind of game that we play by certain rules to accomplish a certain function. Language is no longer seen as necessarily relating to realities in the external world. Language consists of signs which have no necessary relationship with the thing signified. What is important is the human signifier – the interpreter. It is impossible to discern the author’s intention and meaning from reading a text. The interpreter brings her own meaning to it. All interpretations are equally valid or meaningless, depending on your perspective. Stanley Fish stresses the importance of the interpretative community in the process of interpretation.
There is no hope of discovering any objective meaning. There is no absolute truth. We construct our own reality, our own values, indeed our own stories or narratives. One would think that this interpretative principle would result in the complete breakdown of communication. Why should postmodernists think that we ought to understand what they mean by reading their writings if, as they claim, it is impossible to discern the author’s intention from a text? If scientists were to apply such methods of interpretation to scientific papers, it would lead to the end of science as we know it. The postmodernist, despite attacking every aspect of humanistic science, is content to enjoy the fruits of scientific advance, which depend on the modernist view of knowledge and communication. This inconsistency must be pointed out.
We should of course be grateful to postmodernism and its predecessor, the New Hermeneutic, for pointing out the importance of the interpreter in the interpretative process, or hermeneutical circle. We tend to be too influenced by modernism, thinking that we can approach a text in a completely objective manner, without bringing our own cultural and linguistic baggage to it. But while acknowledging this, we must insist that the intention of the author and the grammatical-historical method remain of paramount importance in the interpretation of Scripture.
Postmodernists such as Michel Foucault deny the Enlightenment belief in objective truth which is value-free and can be used for the benefit of all humanity. He believed that the idea of “truth” has grown out of the desire of the powerful to protect their own interests. This leads to the oppression of the weak. There are no objective criteria for deciding what is right or wrong. Each society decides on the basis of its own interests. Yet Foucault himself seemed to have some absolute moral values, even though he denied that there are such things and lived a very unconventional lifestyle. He was passionately committed to the belief that repression is wrong and freedom is right. This seems to be on the basis of sentiment rather than principle. Here is one of the weak spots of postmodernism. If all views are equally valid, why should society draw any line against any belief or its concomitant behaviour? The postmodernist has no real answer to the totalitarian, such as Stalin or Hitler, who claims to know the truth and forces his ideas on others. Only the Christian view of truth as revealed by God can give real meaning to human life and the concepts of human freedom and dignity.
The Effects of Postmodernism
David Lyon analyses the social effects of postmodernism – postmodernity as he terms them. Post-industrialisation and the information society (based on computers and new methods of electronic communication) were still based on the Enlightenment idea of progress. But in postmodernity the emphasis has shifted from production to consumerism. There is a growing inequality in society and a growing capacity for social control in these new technologies. There is also a blurring of distinction between reality and image, due to the influence of TV and computer simulation, which further emphasises the loss of meaning. In modernism Providence gave way to progress and Revelation to reason and it was assumed that human reason could adapt to all new situations and maintain progress. Now this is seriously questioned.
Lyon sees consumerism as a hallmark of postmodernity and affecting every area of life, cultural, intellectual and religious as well as commercial. Shopping is no longer a necessary chore, but a leisure activity. This is encouraged by urban and shopping-centre architecture and accentuated by TV and the communications revolution. The city is the focus of this change and urbanisation is going on apace.
Many Christians have welcomed the retreat of modernism, with its arrogant claim to the ultimate authority of human reason in providing answers to everything. But postmodernism, despite its exposure of the weaknesses of modernism, is no friend of Christianity. Before, in witnessing to someone who had a modernistic outlook on life, you would get a very definite response – usually a brusque rejection on rational grounds, such as “Science has disproved creation”, “Miracles don’t happen”, “There is no way of proving there is a God.” Now a postmodernist would listen to you very politely (so as not to hurt your feelings – postmodernists are usually very polite in private, though not necessarily in public debate) and say something like, “Well, I’m glad you have found something that is valid for you. It doesn’t appeal to me; I prefer my own view.” The idea that you are telling him truth that has a claim on him is ruled out of court as being meaningless.
Postmodernism thus claims to give a theoretical basis for the pick ‘n’ mix attitude to religion, worldview, ethical standards, etc., so common today and, superficially at least, appears to give a firm basis for pluralism. In fact it leads to fragmentation of society and destroys genuine public debate. For an insight into the effects of postmodernism on the lifestyle of a young couple two articles by Dominic Smart in the Rutherford Journal (Vol. 4, No. 1&2 – Spring and Winter 1997) are recommended. For examples in pop culture you just need to think of Madonna and her repeated reinventing of her image, her narrative, her reality. Also the way some TV programmes and most music videos are presented, with constant interruption of linear thought and jumbled images illustrates the desire to get away from rational reality and create one’s own reality. The dividing line between image and reality is intentionally blurred.
How Ought We to Respond to Postmodernism?
Our Evangelical forefathers responded to the Enlightenment by using Enlightenment tools, such as the scientific method, the empirical approach to truth and the commonsense realist view of the world. Will we have to change this approach to communicate and defend the gospel in a postmodern world? While we can agree with certain aspects of the postmodern critique of modernism, such as attacking the hubris of the rationalist claim to be able to discover all knowledge and use it beneficially, we reject the postmodernists’ departure from the idea of objective truth. We must insist that there is objective truth, guaranteed to us by the revelation of God in Christ. We cannot agree with the relativism of postmodernism, which would relegate Christianity to one story among many.
Stanley Grenz (p.167) recommends the following contours of a “postmodern gospel” (p.167). By this he means not a gospel changed to fit postmodernism, but a presentation of the gospel applicable to postmodernists. His suggestions are stimulating, though not to be accepted uncritically. He says that our presentation of the gospel should be:
Post-individualistic. Since the Enlightenment the church has focused too much on the individual and failed to apply the Biblical stress on community. While there is a strong Biblical emphasis on God’s care for the individual, and on individual responsibility, there is also the concept of the church as the covenant community existing in the world for the benefit of the whole world.
Post-rationalistic. While we must not abandon the gains of the scientific method and the rational defence of the gospel, we must avoid giving the impression that Christianity is merely belief in a certain set of propositions. The relational and emotional side of our faith must be stressed as much as the cerebral. The current craze for “spirituality” of various kinds shows that people are looking for transcendence, but no longer look to the churches as a source of spirituality. We must counteract this with a strong Christian spirituality which relates our experience of God to real life.
Post-dualistic. For too long we have been influenced by the Enlightenment dualism of mind and matter. We have emphasised saving “souls” rather than having a true Biblical concern for the whole person, in his/her social context. We have to recover a Biblical holism in ministering to the whole person and in caring for the whole of creation.
Post-noeticentric. By this Grenz means that we must go beyond the Enlightenment stress on knowledge for its own sake to the Biblical stress on wisdom. Knowledge is not automatically good, as the Enlightenment assumed. It must be acquired and used in the context of a Biblical spirituality. The Enlightenment stress on activism must be tempered by the postmodern stress on quietism and the inner life. Knowledge must lead to living better lives for God.
Grenz seems rather too optimistic about the benefits of postmodernism as opposed to modernism. However, in the same way that our forefathers adapted to the challenges of the Enlightenment, we must adapt to face the challenges of the rejection of the Enlightenment worldview by postmodernists.
Despite postmodernism’s denial of the possibility of a metanarrative and its insistence on the individual’s ability to construct her own reality or narrative, we must persist in showing how the Biblical metanarrative both fits reality and meets our deepest need. We must resist the siren call of the so-called post-evangelical to “go with the flow” and encourage each seeker to find her own story, her own reality in a quasi-mystical way. We must insist that there is objective truth, while acknowledging that the human mind is not the final arbiter of it – God is. There can be no going back to a pre-modern view of the world as some have suggested. Rather we must engage creatively, from a Christian point of view, with postmodernism to show its inadequacies and inconsistencies. Our best apologetic will be lives which show the reality of our faith, lived out in self-denying, self-giving, Christ-like love.
Prominent in all our evangelism among people affected by postmodernism must be the person and saving work of Jesus Christ, because it is his narrative which gives meaning to ours. The old, old story still has the power to waken people out of their self-centred relativistic world and to face reality in Christ.