Postmodernism: A House Built On Sand

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It is commonplace to hear in day-to-day discussions between regular people the retort, “Well, that is your truth. That is not my truth.” It is the current zeitgeist: the spirit of this age.

This seems to be the answer given when a position is either weakly held or there is perceived threat of refutation to an expressed opinion. Truth is often not being sought out, but it is claimed. Without substance to back up a claim, it is the shell of truth that remains in much of the current conversation of truth. This is an expression of what is commonly known as “postmodernism” or “poststructuralism.”

How exactly do you define an elusive school of theory that resists structures, is deconstructive in nature, and rejects objectivity? Many attempts have been made. A brief one will be presented here.

The name implies something came before, namely, modernism. This was a period that, broadly speaking, rejected notions of tradition and authority. The Enlightenment’s motto is, according to German philosopher Immanuel Kant, sapere aude, or “have the audacity to think for yourself”1. Religion, authorities (ecclessiastical, political, familial), and tradition were shackles holding human Reason down. There are three basic points that can help summarize this school of theory,2

  1. Emphasis on individual autonomy: every individual must be free to define themselves. Rejection of tradition and authority.
  2. Strong confidence in powers of reason; assumption of the basic rationality of some human beings.
  3. Purity of reason.

In other words,

“Kant puts human rationality, and thus the human subject, at the center of the universe. Instead of seeing the mind as a sponge that soaks up data, Kant says in Critique of Pure Reason that our minds organize (and so interpret) experience via basic concepts”3.

The appeal of modernity was not limited only to the irreligious. One possible definition of modernity is the following,

“A movement to modify Christianity to make it relevant and acceptable to modern peoples, emphasizing both science and social and political teachings. Modernism is closely linked with theological liberalism, but while liberalism is more exclusively tied to Protestantism, modernism enjoyed favor among Catholic intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. See also postmodernism”4.

It is a detaching of all tradition and authority, except that which the mind can achieve in isolation,

“In place of tradition’s authority one should set up one’s own rationality as the authority….Kant reconfigures Christian belief in a rationalistic way that reduces Christianity to little more than its moral claims….since he conceives reason to be objective, Kant assumes that one is able to make rational decisions concerning philosophical and religious belief in a detached manner”5.

Modernity can thus be seen as the dethroning of God’s revelation in creation and Scripture, as well as any other form of authority, including tradition and experience, and the crowning of human Reason as the center of authority: Everything that is must stand judgment before the bar of human interpretation.

It is easy to see how this would open the way to relativism. However, modernists were characterized by the possibility of attaining truth and the existence thereof. Despite the inconsistency of maintaining the centrality of Reason as the seat of truth and knowledge and, at the same time, the possibility of objective truth, one must be thankful that modernity at least claimed the possibility and, indeed, the need and nobility of pursuing truth, dignity, and beauty. But the stage was set for the entrance of postmodernism.

Postmodern thinkers tended to point at what could be perceived as the dishonest goal of modernism: If you free yourself of all sources of authority and claim the only authority over truth to be human Reason, how does that not lead to the death of truth itself? Considering the diverse cultures, experiences, and factors coloring the use of Reason in every mind, how is the attainment of truth even possible? If human Reason is the center of the universe, why not declare truth to be kaput?

In his article “Postmodern Times,” Wilfred M. McClay does a wonderful job summarizing postmodernism,

“Since it defines itself by opposition, postmodernism is best described indeed, can only be described—by a series of antitheses. Where modernists believed in determinacy, postmodernists embrace indeterminacy. Where modernists value synthesis and comprehensiveness, postmodernists value deconstruction and fragmentation. Where modernists value the type, postmodernists emphasize the deviant. Where modernists esteem a personal ideal of responsible agency and integrity, postmodernists reject ‘the authentic self’ as an illusion, an attempt to reify a mere collocation and ensemble of social roles. Where modernists esteem the work of art as a serious, self-contained, absolute, and finished work, produced by an autonomous creative artist, postmodernists emphasize art as an arena of playfulness, irony, referentiality, process, performance, and incompleteness, in which the audience participates in the creation of meaning. Where modernists think foundationally, and believe objective truths can be discovered, postmodernists think anti-foundationally. They believe that truths are constructed by social groups and their languages; dismiss science and philosophy as totalizing ‘metanarratives’; and view history as nothing more than ‘a network of agonistic language games.’ Indeed, at the very core of postmodernist ideology is the assertion that language is a self-referential ‘prison house’ which cannot take in truths about the world outside, but can only construct meanings out of itself. There can be no transcendent Logos; the only reality is virtual reality”6.

Truth outside of the individual’s entire human experience is nothing more than an oppressive mechanism of subjugation forcing an individual to conformity. It is a remonstrance, a rebellion against a perceived tyrant. Therefore, to claim the existence of truth and the necessary and possible pursuit thereof is nothing more than the enslavement of humanity to a standard outside of themselves. Thus,

“Christians have one thing in common with modernists: both believe in the possibility of intelligible absolute truths. Therefore both are guilty, in the eyes of postmodernists, of the sin of ‘universal or totalizing discourse,’ the distrust of which is the hallmark of postmodernism”7.

At this point, the reader might ask, “What does this have to do with me or my daily life?” It is a fair question. McClay offers a helpful, sobering response,

“The repercussions of postmodernity, far from being confined to those arenas in which rarefied academic debate takes place, are felt throughout the culture, and are already powerfully manifest, not only in art, politics, literature, architecture, popular entertainment, and law, but in the very rhythm and texture of ordinary Americans’ lives”8.

Without being anachronistic, postmodernism has, in a way, always been a companion of man since the Fall (Genesis 3). The tendency to rebel against sources of revelation and authority outside the faculties of man is not a Kantian or Descartian novelty. The desire to be freed of anything that would hinder the full expression of the sinful human heart without any moral compunction or otherwise is found in the fact that human thought has moved towards postmodernity. It has just been a matter of time. The times we live in are just the fruition of a movement long in process. It is a poison that has guided and corrupted the history and development of human thought from the moment Eve reached out to the fruit in her heart, and from the moment Adam allowed the Edenic intruder to whisper the motto of postmodernity, endemic in every age, “Hast God really said?” The only thing that has restrained the will to release man from all constraints is the merciful common grace of God manifested in the image of God within every human being, which informs their reasoning, experience, and thereby, their sense of morality, albeit twisted by the Fall.

Postmodernism is the haven of all manner of decadence in society, particularly of abortion. Whereas in the past the camp that endorsed abortion would fall more along modernist lines, appealing to science, dignity, justice and truth to defend the indefensible, the landscape today is a much different one. Most of the conversation now seems to point to the fact that truth is not something outside or inside; truth is a malleable, organic, ever-changing currency. It is, in fact, without substance. It is a shell, used to justify any and all actions. As quoted above, any attempt to bring objective truth to bear will be rejected and refuted on the grounds of oppression and subjugation. Thus, truth is what you make it.

In the recent Kern County Women’s March 2020, postmodernism was in full vogue. Resistance and fight against oppression and injustice of diverse kinds of women was at the core of this meeting. Except for the unborn. When met with arguments against the morality of abortion from biological, philosophical, and theological points, the overall consensus was, “We don’t care.” Whether the child in the womb can be proven to be a human person is not controlling. What controls is one’s reasons for disposing of the child. While advancing the morality and dignity of fighting against the injustice and indignity of domestic violence and human trafficking (among others) against their fellow human beings, particularly their fellow women, in an objective fashion, the same people could, without fear of inconsistency (since there is no truth to be consistent to), freely promote the violent destruction of their fellow human beings in the womb for any reason and at any time. The article referenced in this paragraph concludes that, at minimum, this is the height of narcissism. The same is true, at best, of postmodernism.

“Postmodernism entices us with the siren call of liberation and creativity, but it may be an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide. Foucault has hailed the ‘death of humanist man,’ and friends and critics agree that postmodernism is anti-humanistic. By the same token, it is profoundly antihistorical”9.

It is the beholding of one’s image and falling in love with it. But in so doing, postmodernism eventually falls into the bottom of the reflective water. It is a self-defeating system.

Thus, while those advocating murder in the womb will appeal to justice in some cases (thanks to the image of God within), they will appeal to injustice in other cases. The end goal is not for the thriving of human life, but for the thriving of their desires, and the unbound expression of a sinful life. This is clearly evinced in the decadence in society, long in the making, and now expressed in sexual immorality (transgenderism, homosexuality, adultery, the sexualization of the very young, promiscuous sex and sex divorced from marriage, etc.), as well as in every other facet of the human experience. To modify Gertrude Himmelfarb’s words a little,

“Postmodernist [ethics/morality], one might say, recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle—[ethics/morality] at the pleasure of the individual”10.

The Anti-Humanity of Postmodernism

While postmodernists would rally against this charge, it is nevertheless its logical conclusion. It is anti-human at best, and anti-God at worst. Postmodernism thrives in obfuscation and confusion. Once more, let’s replace the word “history” in the following quote with the words “ethics” and “morality,”

“Its more pernicious effect is to demean and dehumanize the subjects of [ethics/morality]. To deny the generic ‘man’ is to deny the common humanity of both sexes—and, by implication, the common humanity of all racial, social, religious, and ethnic groups. It is also to deny the common [ethics/morality] they were once presumed to share. Traditional historians, even many radical historians, are troubled by the prospect of [an ethics/morality] so pluralized and fragmented that it lacks all coherence and focus, all sense of continuity, indeed, all meaning.
From a postmodernist perspective, this is all to the good, for it destroys the ‘totalizing,’ ‘universalizing,’ ‘logocentric,’ ‘phallocentric’ history that is said to be the great evil of modernity. Postmodernism proposes instead to privilege ‘aporia’—difference, discontinuity, disparity, contradiction, discord, indeterminacy, ambiguity, irony, paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, chaos. ‘We require [an ethics/morality],’ Hayden White explains, ‘that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.’ The modernist accuses the postmodernist of bringing us to the abyss of nihilism. The postmodernist proudly, happily accepts that charge. Paul de Man has been described by his admirers as ‘the only man who ever looked into the abyss and came away smiling.’ In view of the recent revelations about de Man’s early Nazi and anti-Semitic writings, this is a chilling tribute”11.

It would seem that the more one can destroy all structure, authority and constructions, and the more unrecognizable these can be from the rubble, the less possible it would be to reconstruct and to point to “the ancient boundaries.” The more confusion, the less clarity. The more fog, the less focus. All that can dwell in the rubble is the pure, autonomy – not of human Reason – but of all the faculties of man. Thus, whatever would threaten to dethrone the postmodernist, especially God’s moral law and eternal standards, must be militated against. This is why a postmodern can say, “I hate domestic violence because it threatens my autonomy, but I wholeheartedly agree with violating the domicile of the unborn because it also threatens my autonomy.”

The reason why it is most likely to encounter one individual seeking to advance environmentalism and murder in the womb is because of the anti-human nature of postmodernism,

“Postmodernism has profoundly antihumanist tendencies, since it deconstructs both the individual and the general idea of humanity; developments like violent environmental extremism and the animal rights movement are among its quintessential, if not entirely logical, outgrowths. In this respect, nothing could be more challenging to postmodernism than the account of human origins presented in the first two chapters of Genesis”12.

Indeed, if humans other than oneself are not really that important or transcendentally more valuable than any other creature, the logical outcome is a railing against humanity and a rallying for non humanity. Taking care of the world we live in, including creation and creatures, is a good thing. But in a postmodern world where God lies amidst the rubble of civilization, confusion and futility reign supreme. But postmodern or not, all human beings live off a society still ruled in one way or another by the remnants of a bygone world living under structure, under laws, informed by the very nature and character of God.

“For all its putative sympathy for those who suffer and are oppressed, postmodernism often seems little more than a philosophical pose for the comfortable and jaded and clever, those living off inherited capital that they pretend to despise. It seems unlikely that postmodernism will have much to offer them, or anyone else, when times of crisis come, as they inevitably will. If there have been few atheists in foxholes, there will be even fewer postmodernists”13.

Is There An Answer?

Even for those who advocate murder in the womb, postmodernism has nothing to offer their other causes. It is truly a nihilistic world, where neither those who advocate abortion or those who cry out for justice have any value outside of themselves. The answer, however, is not to be found in Reason (modernism), nor in empiricism (experience), nor in fideism (blind faith), nor in postmodernism. The answer is to be found in the one whose imprint surrounds and permeates every rock, every crevice, every molecule of this world. It is to be found in the one in whom “we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

The reason why the conversation on postmodernism is so important is because something so foundational as language is at stake. Language is important primarily because we are made in the image of God. God is a communicative and relational God (Genesis 1:26-28). God is a God of whom none greater can be conceived, for he alone is God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Is. 43:10). One of the reasons human beings have value greater than that of animals or other creatures is because we communicate with words that have meaning and bring about results and actions, similar to the way God spoke and it came to be (Genesis 1). Even postmodernism cannot fully do away with all structures, for words are necessary to convey its premises.

It is the Word of God, identified as the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ, who “was with God” and “was God” (John 1). This same Word is the creator of all things, seen and unseen (John 1:3; Col. 1:16), and the one who sustains all things by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). In him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Similarly, every time a human being utters a word, it can truly be said that his words have meaning and are grounded on objectivity because of the giver of life and fixity. Even the very breath used by the vocal chords to utter words, or the energy required to move the muscles of the hands and arms in sign language, come from the hand of God. Even falsity and self-defeating worldviews can be uttered because of the giver of life, who graciously stays his judgment on an already condemned world (John 3:18) and mercifully calls all to repentance and faith in the Son of God (Acts 17:30; John 3:16).

This is the standard of truth, the one all eyes would be blind to, were it not for the grace of God in Jesus Christ. While postmodernism seeks to destroy words, it is the Word that restrains its free rein and calls all to repentance and life. This is the standard on which it can be firmly said that abortion is murder, and all life is sacred because it is made in the image of God. The gospel, that is, the Word crucified and resurrected for sinners in whom the spirit of postmodernism lies is the answer. This is why language is the most important and foundational starting point in this discussion. This is the remedy against postmodernism.

“Christians, Veith suggests, ought to be able to mount a distinctive challenge to postmodernist platitudes, one that does not simply support or reprise modernist ones, but moves the discussion onto fresh territory. In this undertaking, he recognizes, nothing will be of more fundamental importance than rescuing the dignity of language from its postmodernist detractors and their sometimes unwitting allies in our image-saturated culture. Because of the centrality Christians assign to the Word—spoken, written, and incarnate—the redemption of human language becomes a central Christian task”14.

Works Cited

  1. “Modernity.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, by Walter A. Elwell and Daniel J. Treier, Baker Academic, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017, p. 1571.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Modernism.” Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion, by C. Stephen. Evans, InterVarsity Press, 2002, p. 77.
  5. “Modernity.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, by Walter A. Elwell and Daniel J. Treier, Baker Academic, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017, p. 1571.
  6. McClay, Wilfred M. “Postmodern Times.” First Things, 1 Dec. 1994, www.firstthings.com/article/1994/12/postmodern-times.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History.” First Things, 1 Nov. 1992, www.firstthings.com/article/1992/11/tradition-and-creativity-in-the-writing-of-history.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. McClay, Wilfred M. “Postmodern Times.” First Things, 1 Dec. 1994, www.firstthings.com/article/1994/12/postmodern-times.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.

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