Sunday, April 13, 2008

Post-modernism: What is it and Why Must I Hate it?

In the theistic debate the word “postmodern” is often juxtaposed against Christianity. It has become the equivalent of circumcision of Paul’s time, or Rock-n-Roll of the 1970’s. We see:

We have been watching the postmodern mind in its development, and it is now well developed. Not only do we see the themes of postmodernity taking hold of the larger culture, but we understand the challenge this pattern of thinking poses to Christian truth and Christian truth-telling. Tolerance is perverted into a radical secularism that is anything but tolerant. There is little openness to truth, and growing hostility to truth claims. Indeed, the postmodern mind has a fanatical, if selective, dedication to moral relativism, and an understanding that truth has no objective or absolute basis whatsoever.

I might read:

The philosophical maneuvers borrowed from postmodern theory provide a mechanism for transcending the defensive posture against Enlightenment criticism that mainstream Christianity has had to assume for most of the last 300 years. By denying that truth is propositional, Emerging Church theorists avoid and renounce any responsibility to defend many of the doctrines long considered essential to the Christian faith.


The fact of the matter is that, in their own minds, these young men had good “reason” to do this. Is it any wonder that our postmodern young people, with a lavish lifestyle that their grandparents could have never dreamed of, are so dark and miserable? Why is it that our young teenagers, who have their own TV’s, Stereos, Cell Phones, Game Boys, etc., who have never had to fight in a World War, are so angry at the very people who have spoiled them?


Now postmoderns no longer recognize and respect someone who has a differing belief when it comes to the issue of tolerance. Instead, in their quest to be “tolerant” they are unjust because they are being intolerant of someone just because they have a different belief when in the past that would have been tolerated. So justice and “positive tolerance” are incompatible. They are, in fact, antithetical.

O.K. I am starting to get it. Simply put:

Postmodern = Bad.

J.P. Moreland defines it as:

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.

Are you getting it?

Well…to be honest…me neither….

Wikipedia (at best only a good starting point) hits it dead-on with this one. It heads its article in bold:

”This article or section is in need of attention from an expert on the subject.”

It certain is.

Everyone seems to agree this thing “postmodern” exists. Everyone seems willing to use the term and debate upon it. Everyone seems to agree it is very difficult to define. Yet I find no consistency in its use.

As near as I can tell (and I might be quite wrong) postmodernism is a question as to the perception of reality. Is it real because it exists, or does it only become real once we perceive it? And because we perceive things differently, is reality equally different?

The classic example of this is the old adage, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Does the “reality” of sound require a recipient?

Seems like a fun philosophical question to debate at 1 in the morning over a glass of wine. Along with “How many angels can dance on a head of a pin?” or “If you went back in time and kept your parents from meeting—what would happen to you?”

But that is ALL it is--a philosophical mind masturbation. As all can see, even by voicing the statement “reality is not real” becomes a contradiction in itself, since it is making a statement as to the realness of reality! It is a question; not an answer.

Yet it has now become the bogeyman of the theistic debate. It appears as if I genuinely disagree with your position, it is equated with saying reality is not real, and therefore I am a “postmodernist” and am bad. It works as follows:

Christian: The Jesus of the Gospels is a historical fact.
Me: There is an element of myth within the Gospel accounts.
Christian: Since the Gospels are “truth” and “real” by your questioning their historical accuracy, you are saying “real” is relative and “truth” is relative, and therefore you are a postmodernist, and therefore you are evil and bad and a Satanist and I don’t have to listen to you.

I also see that “postmodernism” is considered the same as relative morals. It works like this:

Christians: Morals are absolute:
Me: Prove it.
Christian: Since you don’t think morals are absolute, you think morals are relative and since morals are the same as truth, you must also think all truth is relative, and therefore you are a postmodernist and evil and…

What I see is the term “postmodern” is used like a scarlet letter, and even the person using it doesn’t understand what it means, but they DO understand by labeling someone as a “postmodern” all the people who agree with them (i.e.—other Christians) will dismiss anything they say.

So you all are smart—you tell me. What is “postmodern” mean, what do I need to believe to be a “postmodern” and why am I against it?


  1. I find it helpful to get the context of the term. Post-modernism is a reaction to modernism. Here's a chart contrasting modern attitudes with post-modern attitudes in a variety of spheres. Here's a discussion of modern and post-modern writing styles.

    Basically, the difficulty comes in when you start looking at the bible as a text. If you're looking through modernist eyes ("history as a 'narrative of what happened' with a point of view and cultural/ideological interests."), it is a historical text, full stop. If you're looking through postmodernist eyes ("questioning the representation of history and cultural identities: history as "what 'really' happened" is from one group's point of view"), it's a mix of history and religion and prophecy and hero-stories. There's lots of symbols interweaving and it's not at all cut and dried. You start noticing what is missing (the perspective of women, for example) and that becomes a crucial element of the text (e.g. you highlight patriarchal motivations of the writers). You start doing intertextual analysis, noticing how Gilgamesh and Attis are echoed in the bible. You don't take the writer's word for it; you question what he might be trying to sell.

    Dogma gets nervous when you start peeking behind the curtain.

  2. Query three philosophers and you'll get (at least) six opinions about ideas as (ordinarily) uncontroversial as rocks and trees.

    I'm no philosophologer, but I've written some on postmodernism.

    The good parts of postmodernism reject ideas such as The One Truth, rigidity and singularity in general, rigidity of deductivism, traditionalism, historicism, colonialism, racism, sexism.

    I think one of the most interesting legitimately postmodern ideas is Popper's recasting of the scientific method from determining the truth with certainty (and accepting it), to determining falsity with certainty (and rejecting it).

    Sherlock Holmes motto has a very postmodern flavor: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

    Every interesting philosophical idea has been carried to absurdity by some credential philosopher, and postmodernism is no idea.

    It's one thing to say that we can't determine the truth with absolute perfect certainty; it's quite another to infer then that truth becomes an irrelevant quantity, or that everything must therefore be "true" in some sense. It's one thing to say there's not one and only one Right Way to Live; it's another to infer then that all ways of living are equally appealing or deserve tolerance.

  3. It's ironic, of course, that the whole idea of specifically religious truth — distinct and separate from scientific or empirical truth — is a completely postmodern idea.

  4. My personal favorite definition is from "The Simpsons", when Moe's Tavern gets redecorated into a hip club for yuppies called m. Moe is explaining the decor (including a giant plasma screen TV simply showing an extreme closeup of a human eyeball) as "it's po-mo!" Homer and crew look at him, perplexed.

    "Post modern!"

    More blank stares.

    "Yeah, all right. Weird for the sake of weird."

    "Ohhhhhhh...." saith the dudes.

    Different context I know, but I still chuckle at that.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. I was hoping you would weigh in, The Barefoot Bum.

    As suspected, “postmodern” is not easily defined or specifically determined, yet is constantly used as an accusation against a person who disagrees.

    As you pointed out, The Barefoot Bum, I noticed the correlation between what is claimed about postmodernism and religion specifically in the chart provided by Heather Ann. Time and again, I have confronted theists who say, “I interpret this verse to mean such-and-such” in response to a different perspective.

    In fact, the Bible is no longer what the authors intended it to be (Genesis a true accounting, when it turns out to be wrong; the Gospels a mythologized story and now we must treat them as historical. And the Epistles are bent and molded to conform to our society.)

    I wonder what Christians actually mean when they accuse another of being “post-modern?” I wonder how many times it is really an accusation of relative morality.

    And Flycandler…sometimes Simpsons say it better than a plethora of philosophers or a team of theologians.

  6. This is not really answering your question, but I always get stuck on this "absolute truth" thing. What guarentee does the beliver have that it is the absolute truth?

    I've had experiences with God. But how can I "prove" it's the truth to others? All I have our my brief internal encounters. Other Christians would say that the Holy Spirit will not lead them astray. But how would they know if they were astray, if they can only properly interpet the BIble due to the intervention of the HS?

    Plus ... wouldn't a group that has claims to absolute moral truth have a firmer history? As opposed to using the Bible to support opressing women and slaves? Today, people would say those verses are misinterpreted ... but those living hundreds of years ago would disagree. Which person do I trust in terms of the truth? Both point to the Bible.

    There just seems to be an assumption that the Bible is providing this truth, rather than providing a method to evaluate the truth claims.

    On another note, I don't find "postmodernists" (whatever that is) to be objecting to truth claims. MOst people I know who hold to some type of relative morality do pursue the truth, and want to know the truth. What they object to is truth with flimsy foundations.

    They do respect different beliefs. What they don't respect are those who use an entire religious belief set to make a judgement call on all those in a different religion, and telling the other religion how wrong they are, without bothering to get to know the people in the other religion.

    In my darker moments, I wonder if situations like this -- tolerance actually means intolerance and thus oppression -- is because the NT is very clear on being persecuted for one's faith, and you don't really have that type of persecution in the US. So persecution has to be created.

  7. OSS: Nail, head. You got it.

    My bf, interestingly enough (particularly considering his Baptist upbringing, though he now belongs to the United Church of Canada [a merger of Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists]) fascinated by the idea of a "postmodern church". I still don't quite understand the concept entirely, but I do know he advocates more interfaith dialog and exploration. He lives in Vancouver, where Christianity has been in a gentle decline (as elsewhere in urban Canada), but Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths brought over by immigrants remain strong.

    I think it's interesting that he uses the term "postmodern" to describe this idea. Often when fundamentalists (of any stripe) decry "relativism" they are referring to "sects other than ours".

  8. You are right to try and define postmodernism before discussing it.
    Here's PBS' definition.

    A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

    Postmodernism is "post" because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody - a characterisitic of the so-called "modern" mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philospher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism "cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself."

    It should be self-evident then why it is indeed bad. I don't think we plan our vacations using such logic. Cheers.

  9. Regardless of the application to travel planning (everyone knows that airline timetables are always "necessarily...fallible and relative, rather than concrete and universal") and the reliance on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the ultimate authority on all matters pertaining to earthly knowledge, I don't think that as defined it's necessarily a bad thing in context.

    Christianity does teach that human beings are necessarily fallible and prone to being led astray. The "ultimate reality", God, is defined as being indefinable and unable to be understood by humanity. Postmodernism, as the definition above posits, takes Man down a peg by pointing out that he does not have the capacity to know everything as modernism suggests. It could be argued that postmodernism is the ultimate attempt to reject the serpent in the Garden of Eden. You can try to make yourself all-knowing, but you'll ultimately fail. The Bible is full of examples of God bitch-slapping people who try to become as knowledgeable as God. In one important way, postmodernism is an act of faith: the understanding that we could be 100% wrong about everything but still having the intention of pressing on regardless.

  10. Jim Jordan,

    I am not certain a two-paragraph statement is sufficient to fully cover what is meant by “postmodernism.” And of course—the question remains how exactly that plays out in society.

    We all seem to agree there is this thing called “love,” yet what exactly that means differs from person to person. Is that an example of postmodernism, or the inability of language to fully articulate meaning?

    And pragmatically, what is the difference between a (religious) belief there is an absolute reality which is unknown, and (postmodern) belief there is no absolute reality? I would think the stronger position falls on there being a reality which we can sometimes determine with a great deal of precision, and other times cannot.

    You ought to read The Barefoot Bum’s articles on good and bad postmodernism.

  11. Flycandler,

    I, too, notice the similarities between what is technically defined as postmodernism and many religious beliefs. Is that because our entire society (including religion) has permeated with postmodernism, or that postmodernism can be so broadly defined almost anything can fall within it.

    I think the best way to get to the bottom of this sink hole is ask every person who uses the term, especially in a derogatory fashion, what it is they mean by it.

  12. Hi Dagoods,
    There is much we can be sure of, and every type of pomo thinking I've encountered, good and bad, undermines the very idea of settled truth. Perhaps that is not the fault of postmodernism per se but more the personal preference of the person that is employing the post-modern process [using it more as a tool in a language game]. If we really want to get to the bottom of some truth statement, I think we can be very successful. But pomo helps people go sideways in my opinion. I'll take you up on checking out Barefoot's blog articles.

    You are right to say that we can't have absolute knowledge but God gave us senses that don't lie (unless we drink too much or otherwise abuse). I just hope we're not giving up on common sense. Btw, my wife plans the vacations and sually doesn't tell me till the last minute. That's post-modern planning perhaps....

  13. God gave us senses that don't lie (unless we drink too much or otherwise abuse). I just hope we're not giving up on common sense.

    That's a pretty radical (and relatively recent) theological and philosophical statement. Francis Turretin first expounded on this, and the Scottish Common Sense advocates expanded on it. It's this idea that there is a finite reality, and our senses are an unbiased window onto that reality. Therefore, there is a "common sense" that any reasonable person should have, because we're all viewing the same unchanging reality. The problem with this thinking is that "common sense" tends, then and now, to be completely in the eye of the beholder. Ergo, Scottish Common Sense tends to reflect the opinions of 17th-century Scotsmen.

    And yes, the senses do lie, all the time. For some fun examples, check this out. For a deadly example, 40% of general aviation accidents are caused by spatial disorientation, when the senses "lie" about the actual orientation of the pilot. Some infamous cases include the crash the claimed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper; the crash of John Kennedy, Jr.'s plane; Air India flight 855, which killed 213 people; and Flash Airlines flight 604, which killed 148.

    I do agree with Dagoods that "postmodernism" is rarely well-defined by those who use it as a slur, and admittedly by those like my partner who advocate it in the Church. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting's definition does not "self-evidently" describe a bad phenomenon. To most people, and I'd argue even most Christians, it describes something that makes sense (pardon the expression).

  14. What those plane flights you list missed was an extra pair of eyes or two. One person can be deceived which is why I've been focusing on Wittgenstein's argument against private language over at my blog.

  15., that's not true. Two people in the same aircraft in a lengthy, perfectly coordinated turn will get the same disorientation effect.

    This is pretty uncontroversial outside a fringe religious group: senses are imperfect and do in fact "lie" pretty often. They are biological systems providing information to a biological system (the brain). The potential for corruption of information along the way is enormous. The eye cannot "see" certain wavelengths of light, and the ear cannot hear certain frequencies of sound. Ask someone with fibromyalgia or parasthesias about the accuracy of the information being provided by their sense of touch.

    Our understanding of reality is constantly changing. This should come as a surprise to no one. Is there a fundamental, unchangeable "Reality" out there? Maybe, but the thrust of the CPB definition of "postmodernism" is that we as human beings can't actually perceive it, because our means of sensing it and comprehending it are so imperfect. And as Heisenberg postulated, the more precisely we humans try to measure something, the more we change it.

  16. And as Heisenberg postulated, the more precisely we humans try to measure something, the more we change it.

    Hmm, sounds like we need a Heisenberg Compensator.

  17. Yes, which is why Scottish Common Sense belongs in the realm of Star Trek and other fanciful fiction.