Postmodernism - An Introduction

Posted with permission from Sunesis.

We live in a society dominated by a philosophy of change, a departure from human values, and the rise of anti-authoritarianism. We hear “post” frequently in terms such as post-Christian, post-liberal, and post-conservative; this is also a time of globalism and neo-paganism. Philosophers call the philosophy of this age Postmodernism. Before we look at just what this movement is all about, and how it affects each of us today, a little history is appropriate.

Premodernism was the worldview (whether people understood it as such or not) dominated by authority (in the West this authority was the Catholic Church) and a respect for that authority. It routinely included a belief in a deity and man’s responsibility toward that deity. Angels and demons, the miraculous, and the spiritual were an assumed part of life.

Modernism followed. With the Enlightenment of the 17th century came the rejection of the authority of tradition in favor of human reason and natural science. The autonomous human was the source of meaning and truth, and human ability became the god of this age. There were good things that came from the Enlightenment. It was foundational to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights. It broke the power of Catholicism in Europe. It restored dignity to the individual. Modernism, however, had significant problems. It assumed that man could do anything, including putting himself on the moon and launching himself into the universe. Thus Star Trek became the ultimate in modernist scientific thinking—man could even overcome the laws of physics. With the rise of reason and science, however, came a rejection of the miraculous. There could still be a god, if man felt he needed one, but it would have to be a god subject to the laws of physics and nature. Deism rose at about the same time as Modernism. It was a good fit, for the god of the Deist was one who set in motion the universe as we know it and left it to itself. In the modern worldview, there was a confidence that truth could be discovered and demonstrated as true. The debates, therefore, centered on metaphysical realities—is there a God or is there not? Is Jesus God or is he not? Did miracles happen or did they not? In these debates, it was assumed that there was a definitive answer which could be demonstrated by science, reason, and argumentation. Baptist individualism rose, especially in America, with the rise of the emphasis on the person. For Baptists (and others in the New World), meaning and truth were based on the human conscience and intellect informed by biblical truth. Bible believers were unwilling to give up the God of the Bible or His truth, but the interpretation of that truth was no longer based in tradition.

Postmodernism rose in the ashes of late 20th century modernism, for modernism demonstrated dramatically its lack of ability. A destructive civil war in the United States, two World Wars and continuing major conflicts, unresolved poverty and repeated famines have revealed that mankind is not quite the god he thought he was. The rise in technology paralleled a decline in values. We know far more information today (or at least have access to that information), but have far less ability to do something constructive with it.

Some have suggested that “postmodernism” is actually only the final throes of modernism, and that concept has merit, for modernism still remains as a strong influence in much of the western world. For the sake of these posts, however, we will speak of postmodernism as an independent and competing philosophy.

Postmodernism is a rejection of the sovereign and autonomous individual of modernism. Authority in postmodernism comes from collective, anonymous experiences (consider the anonymity of the Internet). The philosophy rose initially in the arts, architecture and literature in the universities that had long ago abandoned religion and most things related to God. Architects rebelled against the attempt to perfectly combine form and function and the sameness that came as a result. Instead, it became an “art,” emphasizing experimentation and at times uselessness for the sake of variety. Modern art had set the stage, for modern art departed from reality. Literature followed, arguing that the meaning of a text comes not from the author, but from the reader. Instead of one meaning for a text, there can be as many meanings as there are readers. “John Wayne” individualism is dead, and postmodernism is a radical rejection of any attempt to authoritatively define humanity. Postmoderns rejected the ultimate “modern” church—the mega-church. Authority in postmodern churches is not to be found in a text or a preacher, but in a shared experience. Early on, therefore, the postmodern churches were purposefully small and interactive (although some of the new postmodern churches have become mega-churches themselves).

It must be understood that in every era Bible believers have accepted and rejected elements of the prevailing worldview. Bible believers accepted the God of premodernism, but rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. They rejoiced in the individualism of modernism, but rejected its elevation of man to deity. There are elements of postmodernism that are attractive to the Bible believer, as well, although there is much to reject. We will examine these elements in a later post.

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mitrellim's picture

Larry,

Good post. Everyone should be aware of the meta-worldview our Western world presently holds. In a recent interview, Justice Antonin Scalia plainly indicated the effects of postmodern thinking on the court. He said that while his interpretive method is Author based (e.g., what did the original author mean), only one other person on the court shares his conviction. Later in the interview he said that some are more accepting of a text based method (e.g., the text says has an authority of its own regardless of the intention of the original authors). The only method of interpretation left is the reader based method. I shudder to think of the significant cases that will reach the court this year in light of the postmodern shift in thinking on the court.

Thanks again. 

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