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Missing the boat on postmodernism

Postmodernism is big news.  We Christians, with our commitment to truth, have rightly sat up and taken notice.  I went through undergrad reading books with titles like The Death of Truth and Truth Decay.  But I’ve become increasingly unhappy with some responses to postmodernism.  There is now a wide range of disdainful and overbearing reactions online, and even respected Christian leaders, with all due respect to them, are not immune.  Here is a series of Christian myths about postmodernism.

Myth: Postmodernism is relativism. Sheer relativism is certainly one byproduct of postmodernism, but to reduce postmodernism to relativism is a lazy caricature.  Postmodernism is about the recognition of metanarratives and a questioning of objective truth.  That is, postmodernism is not anti-truth but an acknowledgement that truth is not straightforward.  There is no simple one-to-one correspondence between reality and our perception of reality, because our perceptions are always subjective, always bound up in our biases.  We need to take this seriously, especially as modernism has never got to grips with it.

Myth: Postmodernism is a distinct idea that can be denied and refuted. At the core of postmodernism is a reaction to modernism.  Postmodernism, then, is a mood of questioning and rethinking our inherited Western story and its obsessions with the individual, the rational, the objective and the scientific.  Postmodernism is not some simple new heresy to be mocked or knocked.  For all its difficulties, what postmodernism reveals is a world in flux.  The traditional Western authorities have failed and shown themselves to be untrustworthy.  The times are a-changin’.  What is needed is not a ‘critique’ of postmodernism but a new vision.  The question is, will Christians provide one, or are they tied to the old status quo?

Myth: Postmodernism is more problematic than modernism. Christians’ criticisms of postmodernism are often modernistic reactions rather than Christian interactions.  As Christians, we’re committed to truth, but we all too quickly collapse our attempts to defend the Truth into a cheap modernistic defence of ‘objective truth’.  Modernistic truth is not living Truth, and its pretensions that truth is neatly accessible, along with its privileging of certain truth-forms, are at best sub-Christian.  Of course, Christianity speaks of a Truth that is real and accessible, yet its vision is an altogether different one to modernism.

Myth: Postmodernism is hyper-individualistic. True, perhaps.  Yet Christians often make this attack without dealing with their own modernistic commitment to the individual.  At one level, postmodernism is not so much post-modern as hyper-modern: it is the extension of modernism, even its logical endpoint.  It’s no surprise, for example, to find Foucault’s postmodernism flowing out of his reading of Kant.  If postmodernism is individualistic, it’s only because modernism is.  If we’re committed to squashing individualism, we should be aiming first at modernism.

Myth: Postmodernism is of no use. We often act as if postmodernism is simply harmful.  If that’s the case, we’ve probably missed two things: the deep failings of modernism, and the helpful correctives that postmodernism offers.  Truth is not straightforward.  God does not speak out of the sky; we understand God through filters (as with everything).  God has chosen to make himself known through humans, within human cultures, by human languages — a very messy business!  The Bible does not just contain narrative forms but in a real sense is narrative, and Christian living is about story and relationships as much as propositions (‘truth’ in modernism).

To recognise these myths is not to endorse postmodernism but to repudiate modernism, Christian laziness and the husk of Christendom.  Whenever we lapse into modernistic defences of objective truth, our ‘critiques’ are hollow.  There is a real sense in which we need to speak ‘postmodern’, to be postmodern, in order to proclaim Christ in a world in flux.  But more than this, we need a more biblical, more robust vision of God’s living, speaking Truth, which modernism could never provide.

Part of a loose series:

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

22 replies

  1. Good post Arthur. Postmodernism can be a great tool in deconstructing the naturalistic worldview. However I confess I believed some of these myths about postmodernism. I think the real issue for everyone, Christians and non-Christians is distinguishing between tools and beliefs.

    In your estimation Arthur what’s the best book about post-modernism you’ve read, ever?

  2. Thanks for this, Arthur! You clarified a lot of things for me. Actually, I skimmed through the article before I read it properly, and didn’t realise the bold statements were myths!

    Could you clarify/expand on these points?:

    * “At one level, postmodernism is not so much post-modern as hyper-modern: it is the extension of modernism, even its logical endpoint” – how is it at the same time a disillusionment with modernism?

    * What do you mean by modernism’s “privileging of certain truth-forms”?

  3. @Luke
    Best book? I couldn’t say. The books I’ve read (such as the two I mentioned, by McCallum and by Groothuis) have been critical of postmodernism. This was initially helpful for me, but I want to move beyond reaction and naysaying. What I’ve since been looking for is a robust, full-orbed articulation of Christian truth stripped of modern commitments. I’m yet to find something like this, but I haven’t looked far. I know guys like Grenz and Hauerwas have done some work in this area…

  4. @Jack & Andy
    Thanks for asking, fellers.

    1. Modernism “privileges certain truth-forms”. Perhaps I should say truth-sources. Modernism stems from the Enlightenment and the elevation of human capability, which has an ‘equation’ that goes something like this: truth = objective = measurable = scientific. Other sources of truth, like revelation, get caved in.

    Yet many Christians remain preoccupied with the first part of that equation (truth = objective), hanging on to modernistic dichotomies of black/white & right/wrong.

    2. Postmodernism as hyper-modernism. Postmodernism is a reaction against modernism, but ironically/paradoxically, modernism provided the fuel for this — by emphasising the power of the individual and the questioning of authorities. Modernism tore down old authorities (religion, tradition) but replaced them with new ones (the individual, science). Postmodernism takes this distrust of authorities and extends it to *all* authorities, even the ‘new’ modern ones — truly, nothing is sacred!

    (You can probably see why the New Atheists are really the Old Atheists… :P Something for another post.)

    Do keep writing/questioning/commenting… :)

  5. Some of the myths you put forward, Arthur, don’t seem to ring quite true to me. I’ll see if I can say what I’m thinking clearly…

    “Postmodernism is relativism…”

    There’s a big difference between asking if x is True and asking if Truth is True. If one “question[s] [the concept of] objective truth”, then one cannot simultaneously acknowledge that truth “is not straightforward.” Why? Because if truth is not objective, then “subjective truth” becomes useless as a measurement of (decidedly **objective**) Reality – especially when you don’t have an Arbiter of whose perception is more accurate.

    While it is good to look for metanarrative in the Bible, postmodernist Christians often focus much more on metanarrative than the actual narrative itself. This ends up hardly different to the modernist “the Bible is just a bunch of myths” line, just spun as positive instead of negative.

    Also, what does saying “there is no simple one-to-one correspondence between reality and our perception of reality” sounds an awful lot like? Yes, that’s right – a simple one-to-one correspondence between reality and the postmodernist’s perception of it. This is a classic “have cake/eat it too” scenario, and a problem that I don’t believe postmodernism can overcome.

  6. @Arthur
    Ok, interesting…
    you’ve picked up on something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit lately – our tendency as Christian (with a Western, modern heritage) to put truth into boxes or categories (black, white, right, wrong, etc). The truth about God is always objective, but, our perceptions of that truth are always limited and subjective.

    We highly value reasoning, but often miss out on the importance of perception, which filters whatever it is we are reasoning about in the first place! We forget that as individuals, even as communities, we see things from only a limited range of perception – like people looking an object from only one angle. And if someone’s view doesn’t match ours, we are suspicious, and forget that maybe they see a different part of the same truth (doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong, though).

    Which is why I think art and creative forms of ministry are so important and need more of a place in church! They tap into perceptive intelligence, and open our eyes to see things in ways we haven’t before.

  7. Good post Arthur – I suppose the problem is when postmodernism is *taken* as an entity in its own right, rather than as a reaction to modernism.

    In response to &y, permit me the following rambling statements… I believe you are confusing the theory with the metatheory, which (as mathematicians have been happy to point out since the early 1900s) is inconsistent in a rigorous truth framework. The statements that “one questions the concept of objective truth” is a metatheoretical statement about the metatheoretical concept of “truth of theoretical statments”. Similarly the statement “truth is not straightforward” is essentially a statement in the metatheory.

    Within this metatheory, one can consistently establish a different concept of truth, if one wishes, with which the above statements are true.

    On the other hand, if we assume that these statements also apply to the metatheory, that is, they are meta-metatheoretical statements, we can do the same, constructing a meta-metatheoretical truth concept, under which we can assert these statements about the metatheory. Proceeding along this path, either there exists a meta^n-theory where we have a firm truth concept, or there exists no such theory.

    Making the latter assertion (that there exists no meta^n theory with a firm truth concept) is not inconsistent, but simply prevents us from being able to make assert the truth of (meta)theoretical statements in any metatheory.

    Is this useful? perhaps, perhaps not. But it is perfectly valid as an approach. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you want to ever be able to make a statement about the truth of something (including statements about the concept of truth), or whether you do not believe such statements are reasonable (and if so, Arthur, shame on you for attempting to make such a statement!)

  8. @&y

    Hope I can clarify. *Nods at Sam for mathematical wizardry* :P

    Firstly, let me reiterate that I’m not advocating postmodernism. And I think you’ve rightly highlighted a shortcoming of postmodernism: it cuts the untenable moorings of modernism, only to leave us in limbo, without arbitration.

    Secondly (as Sam notes), let me clarify that postmodernism is not a monolithic, discrete entity. It exists (a) as a ‘mood’ and (b) in relationship to modernism. We need to think in terms of modernism cf postmodernism cf Christianity, not postmodernism cf Christianity.

    As I see it, postmodernism is not so much questioning the existence of truth as our ability to get at truth. When I speak of “questioning objective truth” and “truth is not straightforward”, I mean that our *grasp* of truth is not as neat as modernism believed it to be.

    While Tamie encountered postmodernism mostly in her English lit studies, I encountered it mostly in philosophy of science. I wonder if this is more your line. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll lend you ‘What is this thing called Science?’

  9. @Jack
    I like what you’re thinking!
    Modern, Western evangelicalism has been obsessed with legal-forensic categories, propositions and reason. This means that while we have valued revelation, we’ve been concerned with things like codifying ethics, or putting the atonement into some kind of logical system. There may be value in such things, but it can only ever be part of the picture.

    What about all those forms of revelation that aren’t so neat — like parables and poetry? Revelation is not just to be dissected and analysed, but felt and absorbed. This is exactly where the creative arts fit in! Bring it on, I say. :D

    My biblical theology course at CU starts on 2 October, and I’ll be touching on this very thing…

  10. Apologies for the wizardry Arthur – I try and play nice, but sometimes the dark side of the Maths student asserts itself…. and is only calmed by large quantities of tea.

  11. “As I see it, postmodernism is not so much questioning the existence of truth as our ability to get at truth. When I speak of “questioning objective truth” and “truth is not straightforward”, I mean that our *grasp* of truth is not as neat as modernism believed it to be.”

    Aha, that’s a bit clearer, think I get what you’re trying to say now. Unfortunately, most functional postmodernists I talk to take that idea (that we can’t grasp truth neatly) and use it to stop any intellectual discussion about truth/falsehood – ’cause who’s to say whose grasp of truth is better than anothers?

    @Jack:

    “And if someone’s view doesn’t match ours, we are suspicious, and forget that maybe they see a different part of the same truth (doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong, though).”

    Perspective is very important, of course! Most miscommunications (I think, anyway) come from a lack of understanding the angle your conversant approaches the topic from. The danger (as you’ve pointed out) arises when we assume that all perspectives are valid ones; this is when one starts down the relativistic slippery slide Arthur mentioned in his OP.

  12. Just my two cents worth here – I think it is necessary to see the negatives as well as the positives together of anything, including postmodernism. Postmodernism does clash with not just the church’s perception of it but rather its core values. Postmodern espouses to no absolutes, whereas the Bible and the plans of God have always been absolute and unchanging, Jesus being “the same yesterday, today and forever.” There is also a difference between understanding the times and being conformed by them. The dangers and negatives I do think need to also be considered.

  13. Hi Tania, thanks for stopping by. :)

    Remember that I’m not making an endorsement of postmodernism. I’m endorsing a critique of modernism — because it is modernism that we are in danger of overlooking, as the church is so steeped in it.

    One of the things I’m getting at is that postmodernism is not really a belief system, but a very legitimate ‘question’ against modernism. The kind of inconsistencies that you’ve mentioned are not of primary importance (nor even necessarily illogical, as Sam detailed above).

    As I’ve mentioned, the issue is not the existence of truth, but our grasp of it. Sure, God and his plans are absolute, but our grasp of this is not straightforward. I think of the passages that refer to this ‘unclear clarity’, such as Job 28 and Prov 3:5-6. Our faith is about an understanding that is not our own (1 Cor 2:6-16) — which is an entirely anti-modern way of thinking…

  14. I think I see in part what you are getting at but what then is your angle, are you seeing things from a modernist or postmodern point of view? And are you saying that you think it is impossible to reason objectively?

  15. Hi Tania
    Postmodernism is helpful for its critique of modernism but will not get us any further. In the end, both modernism and postmodernism fail because both perspectives are human-centric.

    Unfortunately, much of what we pass for Christian truth is riding on the back of modernism, in the same way that the medieval church had a commitment to classical Greek thought.

    Instead, our angle must be Christian — an angle that starts from in the beginning was the Word.

    Is it impossible to reason objectively? In a word, yes. But let me ask, What good is it to reason objectively? Is it possible to reason our way to God? What we need is not reason but revelation…

  16. Something I’m reading at the moment that is very good on the modern / post modern relationship is

    ‘A primer on postmodernism’, by Stanley Grenz (Arthur I think you mentioned him early on in the comments)

    It covers the main thrusts of the most important thinkers of the last 300 years or so, and is pretty easy reading. The last chapter also address the gospel’s relationship to postmodernism (haven’t read that far yet).
    All in all it is a very good book that makes the topic accessible to an L-plate philosopher such as I

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