Defining Postmodernism

The term postmodernism is often used but seldom defined. I hope to clarify its meaning. I hope to define postmodernism and culture and discuss the role culture plays in my theological mind, and discuss specific ways that theology/ministry is contextualized in a postmodern world.

Jean-Francois Lyotard is credited as the first author to present the term “postmodernity” in his book Postmodern Condition in 1979.  Lyotard positions postmodernism as a cultural shift following the Enlightenment period.

Alister McGrath’s cites Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Hans-Georg Gadamer as figures who influenced the philosophical foundations of postmodernity. McGrath states that the underlying theme of these authors is “their rejection of the need for an ultimate foundation of human knowledge by recognizing that philosophy rests upon commitments whose truth has to be assumed and cannot be demonstrated.”[1]  This was a shift  away from the Enlightenment and instead arguing that not everything can be completely understood by humans through our own information or demonstrations, but instead that there are certain things that can be committed to be supposed to be correct. In other words, the overview for modernism is “understanding seeking faith”, while the overview for postmodernism is “faith seeking understanding”.

McGrath goes on to proclaim, “the Enlightenment had tried to legitimate itself by telling a story of how its thinkers overcame ignorance and superstition thanks to their appeal to reason.”[2]  Postmodernism turned from this and challenged the idea that human reason is absolute and universal, and that “metanarratives are merely narratives that have secured influence through power structures.”[3] The idea from Enlightenment that truth is something that can be collectively understood and rationalized is challenged and is no longer favorable with the turn of postmodernism.  Postmodernism supports the thinking that reason and truth is not something that is collectively understood and universal in all contexts.  Postmodern thinking promotes a high degree of cynicism and skepticism, particularly about anyone’s ability to know universal truth.  Truth is redefined and applied and interpreted in different contexts.  Postmodernism pushed for more contextual and communal thinking.  Furthermore, postmodernism promoted the outlook of life with a more holistic view and that everything is connected.

Another way I think of this is that our own human knowledge is filtered through our own lenses.  Our filter or lens is created from our own experiences and settings.  This I agree with.  Just like there are many different definitions of success in the modern world, based on experience and setting.  Someone in an affluent area may define success as a having a career with a six-figure salary and a big house.  While others, in a different area, may define success as simply having a paying job.  The underlying attributes might be similar, yet the specificity of the definition is different.  This is an example of how postmodernism can be viewed as having an impact on culture.  There is not necessarily an absolute and universal definition of success.

Another example of this, in my own life, is the education system.  Going through school, I was only taught one view when it came to the history of the earth and humans.  The theories of The Big Bang and Evolutionism were the only views taught, with no mention of alternatives.  To me, this implies they are absolute and universal truths.  When at best, they are only theories that some, not all, believe are true.  These theories are what I accepted as truth early on because I was not consciously aware of any alternative.  I had been taught aspects of Genesis, Noah’s ark, and the global flood in church; but not enough to completely understand the implications and context, considering Creationism and how it opposed The Big Bang and Evolutionism.  The school system wanted us to trust and accept The Big Bang and Evolutionism where universal truths.  Postmodernism would argue this truth was the product of those in power and should not be trusted. Postmodernism argues no external authority should be trusted.  Now that I am old enough to have found information on my own and studied each of these views further, I am now strongly leaning towards Creationism, rather than Evolutionism.  This is a personal example of another agreement I have with an affect postmodernism has had on our culture.  I support the argument for why metanarratives and external sources may not be worth trusting.  My view is not necessarily one of distrust, but I am going to do my research on alternative thoughts before I form my own opinion or pick a side.

Another distinct way postmodernism challenged critical thinking, was the way text was interpreted. Alister McGrath claims two methods of thought developed with the new postmodern method to written word:

  1. Anything that is written will convey meanings which its author did not intend and could not have intended.
  2. The author cannot adequately put into words what he or she means in the first place.[4]

This shift in thinking has significant implications on the Christian approach to interpretation of Scripture.

McGrath notes Frank Kermode and Harold Bloom confronted the notions of “institutionally legitimized or scholarly respectable interpretations of the Bible.”[5]  These ideas became highly questionable during postmodernism and Stanley Fish’s shift introduced the idea of “interpretive community.”[6]  This shift in thinking supports the idea that interpretations are more up to the reader, and even leads to communities being formed around different interpretations of the text.

Another distinction of postmodernism is the affect it has had on systematic theology.  As indicated with the attitude towards meta narratives, anything involving “systems” is questioned, along with the idea of anything having any absolute meaning within theology.  Thus, everything is open to your own interpretation. McGrath notes that Mark Taylor develops some postmodern ideas about theology as such: “Taylor argues for the elimination of such concepts of self, truth, and meaning. Language does not refer to anything, and truth does not correspond to anything.”[7]  This doesn’t even support the idea of pluralism, which claims there are multiple ideas about what is truth.  What Taylor says eliminates truth altogether.

His viewpoint sounds to me like you can believe whatever you want about anything because there is either no right or wrong and we can all agree to disagree about anything. This is absurd.  If this were true, there would be no morality and no order.  Everything would be chaos.  For example, if there is no truth and language does not correspond to anything, what would traffic look like?  What would be the point of traffic signs?  Everyone would be running stop signs, speeding, and there would be complete chaos that would put everyone in danger.

If we look at this Biblically, John records a statement from Jesus about truth: John 18:37 (NIV)

“’You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’”[8]

Therefore, truth does exist, and it is absolute and universal in this context.

Another major characteristic of postmodernism is the concern for the “other”, which is evident from the rise of liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology, and gay theology.  The thought is, before postmodernism, these groups were not recognized enough and postmodernism promotes the acknowledgement of these “other” groups.

The real irony of the postmodern views of highly questioning systems, meaning, and meta narratives is a system, meaning, and meta narrative in itself.  Even claiming that there is no absolute and universal truth is an absolute and moral truth in itself.  The very things postmodernism is questioning, it is creating.

Although I believe that there are some truths in Christianity that are meant to be absolute and universal (such as creation, the fall, substitutionary atonement, The Trinity, Jesus being fully divine and fully human, Jesus being the Son of God, inerrancy of the Bible, etc.), my view of postmodernism is that it is a healthy movement because it helps us all to open our minds to diverse ways to look at truth.  The ideas of having multiple truths or the idea of rejecting all universal truths, I would disagree with.  However, I would not be surprised if this postmodern turn has brought people closer to Christ because they are able to believe in Christ without having to agree with the same absolute and universal truths that I believe in.  To me, if someone is becoming closer to Christ, that is progress.  One cannot be expected to go from 0 mph to 60 mph in a heartbeat.  Everyone must start somewhere with their beliefs, thoughts, and understandings; and we do not all have to agree on everything.  Just as I have started studying at Dallas Theological Seminary so I can learn more about what I do not already know or have not thought about God, and knowing I may not agree with every viewpoint of every professor; others must start with some knowing and believing and progress at their own pace on their own path as well.

[1] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2017), 64

[2] Ibid., 64

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2017), 64

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2017), 64

[8]  The Holy Bible: New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.)

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