One of the few things that can be said with certainty about postmodernism is that there seems to be varied opinions as to what it is and isn’t. Keeping this in mind, it should also be noted that not all postmodernists share the same beliefs, just as individual modernists and Christians may have differing opinions within their worldviews. The main point to be made about postmodern philosophy is that it is a dangerous philosophy, as will be shown.
There are several ways to examine postmodernism. One way is in relation to modernism. Simply put, postmodernism is the idea that the historical period thought of as “modern” has passed. Some would say that postmodernism is actually a reaction against modernism, just as modernism was a reaction against the Victorian and traditional forms (especially artistic forms) of the early 1900s. University of Colorado English professor Dr. Mary Klages tells us “postmodernism is, in general, whatever resists or destabilizes the Enlightenment mode of thought, knowledge, or action.” On the other hand, it could be said that rather than being a reaction, postmodernism is an extension of modernism, or the next step in modernism. To confuse matters further, there are those, such as author Tom Turner, who would say that postmodernism has ended and that we have now entered a post-postmodern era.
Opinions as to the purported start of modernism vary, but Mary Klages picks the mid-eighteenth century (which coincides with Enlightenment thinking), or even earlier with the Renaissance. Not surprisingly then, postmodernism is considered “counter-Enlightenment” according to essayist Isaiah Berlin and others.
It’s helpful to realize that postmodernism and modernism refer more to artistic forms (art, music, poetry, architecture), while purists use the terms postmodernity and modernity to refer to societies, philosophy, governments, etc. In an effort to avoid confusion, I will use the terms postmodernism and modernism exclusively, despite their impreciseness.
I believe a sensible approach to understanding postmodernism’s significance (notice I didn’t say “understanding it”) is to examine it in light of other worldviews, especially the Christian worldview. In The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell quotes Gene Veith: “Postmodernism is a worldview that denies all worldviews”. Given this, it is important to recognize that it is in opposition to Christian and Western belief systems.
When examining other worldviews in the context of time, we see that the Christian worldview started losing its dominance around the advent of modernism, which also coincided with the growth of humanism. Postmodernism then reared its head somewhere between 1960-1990, eroding the dominance of Christianity further. This period was a time of greater social freedom, along with liberation from traditional roles; however, this widespread, rapid social change threw Western and European societies into a whirlpool of social experimentation that is clearly still unraveling the fabric of these societies.
Unfortunately, there are those who embrace the unraveling, not noticing, or perhaps choosing not to notice, the widening holes in the fabric. These are the social experimenters who can’t or won’t see the detrimental effects of their actions on real people. Those who believe the postmodern promises of liberation from everything (from boredom to hell), seem to suffer from an empty, rather disconnected malaise – something is missing. A certain degree of freedom is good, but there is a point where freedom becomes narcissistic and isolating. Could it be that when too many ties are cut, we find ourselves adrift, lonely, and self-absorbed? As singer, Janis Joplin observed in the song “Me and Bobby McGee”, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
When comparing worldviews, we see that the Christian worldview derives truth from God’s revelation – in fact; there are over 200 references to truth in the Bible. As will be seen, all aspects of the Christian worldview relate to God. Modernism’s worldview on the other hand derives truth from science, reason and logic. Although the source of truth appears to be different for Christianity and modernism, it must be noted that Christianity also uses logic and reason to obtain truth. The Bible reveals God’s truth, but it is revealed in a logical and reasonable fashion. For example, we believe that Jesus Christ was who He claimed to be not only because God‘s inspired word tells us this, but also because of the overwhelming validation of manuscript, archeological, prophetic, and statistical evidence. Postmodernism, on the other hand, links truth to subjective experience and maintains that truth does not objectively exist.
The biggest problem with the postmodern view of truth is the belief that it is “relative“, or changing; not fixed. This assertion is illogical: If the postmodernist insists that we can’t know truth, then how can we know that what postmodernism teaches is true? To embrace the idea that truth is relative is a schizophrenic viewpoint. If an individual can’t perceive truth (reality), it’s impossible to function perceptually and morally even within the immediate environment. Likewise, a society or nation that can’t perceive truth will find it impossible to function properly.
The relativist postmodern position is closely related to the concept of cultural relativism, or the belief that when it comes to right and wrong, there are no absolutes. Furthermore, disagreement with the postmodern viewpoint on any topic, but especially morality, may be viewed as intolerance, despite convincing evidence to the contrary.
According to postmodern thought, the dominant, majority culture of the time decides what is “good” or “bad”, which renders these concepts relative. This rejection of absolute truth, with a preference for subjective experience over objective observation is an extension of existentialist thought as taught by philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzche. The obvious problem with the majority morality of cultural relativism is that the majority can be fickle, rejecting tomorrow what was embraced today. For examples, think of slavery, abortion, and Hitler’s Nazism.
The remaining problems with postmodernism are related to its distortion of truth. Since the postmodern concept of truth is that it can’t be known, then what passes for truth in this conceptual framework is distorted. The related components of this worldview are equally warped, as will be seen.
Summary of Truth and Worldviews
Related to God and His revelation
Absolute and universal
Related to science, reason, and logic
Can be discovered by human reasoning
Can’t be known
The concept of humanity or humanness is also different in the three worldviews: Christianity views humanity as worldly (physical, tempted by sin) and spiritual (in relationship to God). Modernism denies the spiritual component of humanity, exalts the rational aspect, and sees humans as masters of their own fate and that of the world. Additionally, the view that we are a superior type of animal, rather than distinct from animals, tends to diminish the sense of worth with which humanity regards itself. Disturbingly, postmodernism descends even further, viewing human beings as “subjects” who offer nothing unique, being mere products of their environment.
Summary of Humanness and Worldviews
Made by God in His image
Marred by sin
Redeemed by God’s grace
Not spiritual beings
Self-determinate through science
We are evolving, sophisticated animals
People are “subjects” – loss of individuality
Humans are a dominant species
Products of culture and environment
In regards to the Earth, the Christian view is again God-centered, while modernism’s view is man/science-centered. Postmodernism’s view has become self-centered (experiential) and Earth-centered. At first glance, postmodernism’s mission to preserve the Earth seems commendable, but again, there are disturbing qualities to the postmodern view: Mother Earth is seen by many as a living organism that actually has a name (Gaia); so we have a universe where planet Earth is elevated to the status of a living being, while people are dehumanized as “subjects“. If dehumanization doesn’t seem alarming to you, keep in mind that it is a necessary step in the continuum that justifies killing. Dehumanization is used when training soldiers for war; prior to genocide; as an excuse to euthanize the imperfect; and before abortions are performed.
The belief that our planet is alive reinforces New Age, pantheistic, and animist beliefs even among educated populations. As an example, in the U.K., there is now what is called the “New Age traveler“, which, according to Encarta Dictionary, is someone “who belongs to the New Age cultural movement and lives a nomadic life, traveling the country, often as a member of a group, to gather at places believed to be spiritually significant.” Again, it should be noted that not all postmodernists share exactly the same beliefs.
Summary of the Earth and Worldviews
Created and controlled by God
Humans to subdue and care for the Earth
Can understand and conquer through science
We are destroying Mother Earth
Must cooperate with her to survive
The three worldviews about the Universe are similar to those about the Earth. Again, we see a postmodern reluctance to comprehend the reality of the universe. Perhaps this reluctance is directly related to the rejection of objective reality – if truth can’t be known, and morality and God don’t exist, there’s really no process or reason to understand anything.
Summary of the Universe and Worldviews
Created and controlled by God
Testament to His glory
Must understand and explore through science
The universe can never be truly understood
Language and Knowledge
Truth, language and knowledge are closely related, and in some aspects, they overlap. In the Christian worldview, language and knowledge reflect God’s wisdom. In modernism, language is rational and is science’s vehicle. Not surprisingly, language is viewed differently by a postmodernist. What is surprising is that postmodernism rejects the very language it uses to describe itself – as with truth, words (even those used by postmodernists to describe postmodernism) don’t correspond to reality. In fact, words have no real meaning, but are only subjective fluid symbols and representations (“signifiers“). This brings us to a hallmark of postmodernism: the invention of new words, called “neologisms“, to painfully describe what was once said in fewer and simpler words.
There are certain buzzwords, some of which are neologisms, that are used frequently
by postmodernists (or others), when discussing postmodernism. Those used in this article are listed to increase the reader’s familiarity with them.
As stated before, worldviews are influenced by the understanding of truth. The understanding of truth is then reflected in beliefs about language and knowledge. As we explore postmodern beliefs we will examine a neologism that is important to know, according to postmodernists. The term is “metanarrative” and is used in the writings of philosophers Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Baudrillard, among others. A metanarrative is “the big scheme of things“ – a great story that explains the creation and purpose of the universe and its relationship to its parts (religion, science, philosophy, art, etc.). It is what we commonly call a worldview, which makes one wonder why postmodernists don‘t just call it that. Curiously, while they have invented the term, postmodernists reject the concept of a metanarrative, which makes one wonder why the word was invented to begin with. Despite this denial of the concept of a worldview, postmodernism itself is a worldview/metanarrative.
Postmodernists believe that all metanarratives have some validity, but none is sufficiently valid to adequately explain the universe. Therefore, there are only “little stories” told by groups and cultures. In Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Albert Mohler explains their belief: “Claims to universal truth – the metanarratives – are oppressive…and thus must be resisted.” (Emphasis added).
Language cannot be discussed without mentioning influential French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. He introduced a method to analyze language (texts) called “deconstructionism“. This method is based on the idea that language is unstable and that the reader, not the writer, determines the meaning of a word or sentence. Today, it is applied to any type of media, not just texts. Another belief is that definitions are tyrannical, which is consistent with the postmodern theme of avoiding clarity, but deconstructionists also define. This method may seem to be of no consequence, but I wonder if it influenced President Clinton’s apparent difficulties with word definitions during his impeachment hearings? As an illustration taken from Jurist: The Law Professors’ Network, when questioned in court, this Rhodes Scholar was heard to answer, “It all depends, on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” As another example, he also adamantly stated, “I did not have sex with that woman.” This would seem to be clear cut, but again, truth was distorted by his definition (or lack thereof) of sex.
Wordplay is seen again in the postmodernist use of “binary oppositions”. These are pairs of words that are opposites; therefore, the theory is that we are favorably biased towards one word, but intolerant of the other in the pair. As an exercise, let’s examine “order” and “disorder“. If order is desirable, then disorder is undesirable. For some reason, postmodernists take this observation further to conclude that it must necessarily follow that those who are disorderly/undesirable will then be wiped out. Thus, order is viewed with suspicion by the postmodernist. This suspicion is a recurring theme in many political writings. In another example, that of “male” and “female“, the premise is that if the male is dominant, then the female must be kept subordinate. This disdain for the dominant is a recurrent theme in feminist writings. “Dominance” (frequently called “hegemony” in postmodern circles) is therefore seen as bad because it implies oppression.
Although there is some truth in these social and political analyses, there seems to be an excessive paranoia involved. Words are important, but if we are constantly evaluating certain words with unwarranted suspicion and anxiety, we become overly cautious about using them. They then become fuel for rhetoric. As an example, I recently heard a woman on television decrying the use of the word “alien” when used as part of the term “illegal alien”. She objected to the possibility that illegal aliens might thus be negatively associated with extraterrestrial aliens. This silliness made me wonder what she would say if there were extraterrestrial aliens watching. Would they be offended by her negative, and therefore intolerant, view of them?
Significantly, during her tirade, the word “illegal” was not discussed, perhaps because she didn’t want to remind anyone that this word was the real issue. She ignored the fact that an alien is simply a person who has not become a citizen. It is not a negative or positive word. However, once it is compared to or set in opposition to the word “citizen”, one must, according to postmodern wordplay, choose citizen as the more positive and “dominant” word, since it is usually more desirable to be a citizen than an alien. It is prudent to choose words carefully, but this new foolishness in tiptoeing around words becomes part of the game called “political correctness”. Political correctness is a tactic of manipulation hidden under the guise of sensitivity to the feelings of others, especially minorities. Politicians frequently use this tactic to promote an image of sensitivity and tolerance to whichever group they are trying to influence at the time. We should be sensitive to the feelings of others, but of everyone’s, not just those of minorities. As with anything else, truth shouldn’t be compromised to prop up someone’s political agenda.
Language expresses truth. When language is corrupted, truth is eroded and this is a concern for many reasons. One reason is that truth helps define a person and that person’s relationships: A person’s integrity is defined by his or her truthfulness and trustworthiness, and truth and trust are the bases of relationship formation. Important relational and life decisions depend on truthful information. If we are to have healthy families, healthy connections with others, and healthy work environments, truth is necessary.
Another reason for concern about truthful language is based upon the necessity of a free press in a democracy. Governments that are more open and truthful tend to be healthier than those that are not. When there is erosion of truth, there is no trust; and relationships, whether between individuals, or between governments and citizens, deteriorate.