Postmodernism has its roots in a long series of historical developments and philosophies. It has manifested itself in today’s society in such a significant way that it has even managed to infiltrate the minds of Christians. Over the last few decades, there has been an ever-increasing rise in Postmodern thinkers in the church, especially in more liberal circles and denominations. We are not safe from this philosophy, as it has become popular amongst even our closest brethren – those who only a few years ago would have stood with us doctrinally but now espouse some of the most heinous mental heresies in Christian history.
But what is Postmodernism? Why should we care about it? And, most especially, what does the Bible say about it. If there are aspects of this philosophy that contradict the will of God, then it is our duty to confront it and root it out of our midst. What we must always be careful to do, however, is answer the Postmodernist with tact and kindness, knowing that his convictions may be quite genuine, and his motives supposedly pure. What Postmodernism seeks to do is bring the world together in a sort of syncretism – that is, all “truths” are equal, and no single philosophy or doctrine is the sole bearer of truth. In fact, the only thing that a Postmodernist would truly reject is any belief system that claims to be the “truth”.
Postmodernism’s origins date back to the Middle Ages, and an understanding of its roots will help us decipher what it means to us today.
A Brief History of Western Thought
The Middle Ages (1000-1500 A.D.) brought about an interesting mixture of Christianity, classical romanticism, and folk-paganism. Something of a synthesis was reached, with aspects of each contributing to the predominant socio-religious mentality of the day. Middle Age society held to some of the most basic tenants of the New Testament, but sadly catered to popular superstitions. Pagan gods from Western and Northern European tribes were given new names – often the names of Christian saints – and retained the character from their mythical pasts. This seems to be the first hint of a future philosophy of all-inclusion.
The Renaissance broke in after this period and saw a reformation of popular ideas of religion and society. During this period, the Catholic establishment was lambasted on all fronts by “reformed” churches and Reformation thinkers such John Calvin, Martin Luther, and others. There was a marked rise in reliance on Divine Revelation for truth, and the rationalism for which the Greek philosophers were noted once again became popular. The idea that God was the first cause of creation, and was himself uncaused by any other source, was perpetuated. Not only that, culture became more refined and advancements in natural observation led to the formation specific sciences.
As more and more individuals became educated, though, a reliance upon science as the answer for everything began to replace dependence on God. “The emerging sciences had their origins in the Biblical worldview that nature is the good and orderly work of a personal Creator and in the classical view that absolute rational laws govern nature. In the 1700’s the progress of science accelerated so rapidly that it seemed as if science could explain everything. Some saw no limits to the power of human reason operating the data of the senses. The age of reason, scientific discovery, and human autonomy, is termed the Enlightenment” (Postmodern Times, Veith, 33). Enlightenment thinkers rejected superstition and replaced it with dogged rationalism. They argued that reason alone could replace the supernatural. This does not necessarily mean that all followers of the Enlightenment philosophy rejected religion – simply put, they sought to devise a theology based not on revelation, such as the Bible, but on reason and investigation. If God existed, it was not because He had revealed Himself through the Word, but because His evidence was found in nature or design. They sought to devise a religion that was rational, a faith based on science. The result was Deism, a theological movement that argued the existence of God because of evidence in the creation. Rather than being a personal and active God, though, the god believed in by Deists is inactive and, some would argue, wholly indifferent to the affairs of the world. Essentially, He created the universe and let it run its course without interference. Prayer, revelation, worship, etc., all become useless in the Deistic mentality. Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers were Deists, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington, as well as numerous literary masters of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.
As the Enlightenment developed, the idea of Utilitarianism also flourished in Western Society. Because of the broad rejection of Biblical Revelation as the standard of truth, a new basis of right and wrong developed that called for situational judgment of every moral situation. A deed was not wrong because of what the Bible said about it, but because it disrupted the flow of society. Therefore, stealing was wrong because it interfered with normal economic life. Conversely, something is good if it helps society run more smoothly. “Today this Enlightenment ethic is the view that favors abortion because it reduces the welfare roles and sanctions euthanasia because it reduces hospital bills. Utilitarianism is a way of facing moral issues without God” (34). Interestingly, history tells us just what Utilitarianism did for society. It was the sons of the Enlightenment that brought us abusive child labor, slavery, starvation of the poor, and organized slums – all in the name of economic efficiency.
Near the end of the Enlightenment period, the Romantics became the next major social movement. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers paraded reason as the sole bringer of fulfillment, Romantics viewed emotion as the only true way of living a complete life. Self-fulfillment, therefore, not practicality, became the basis of morality. They viewed nature not as a machine, but as a life force that every person needed to get in touch with and understand on an emotional level. They argued that children are born free and one with nature, but “society” corrupts them. In romanticism, “self” becomes not only the Creator, but the Lawgiver. “This sort of romantic ethic manifests itself everywhere today – executives divorcing their spouses so they can have trophy wives; abortion advocates who argue that having a baby might interfere with a woman’s self-fulfillment; euthanasia apologists who believe that those unable to pursue a self-directed life of “quality” are better off being killed” (37). In the end, this philosophy makes self-absorption the noblest form of thinking.
Existentialism came to the foreground in the Twentieth century. As a result of romanticism, the meaning of life was questioned and many people concluded that, in fact, no meaning existed at all for humanity. Life had no inherent purpose, and could not be discovered because of objective, exterior evidence. Meaning, therefore, is derived from within. Life means what we each want it to mean, and the existentialist would argue that the individual can create meaning for himself without any bearing on others. Existentialism created the rationale for contemporary relativism. Because everybody creates his or her own meaning, every meaning is both equally valid and equally inapplicable to others. “We disagree, but we are both right” became the peculiar standard, and it is this philosophy that set the stage for the development of postmodernism. It has invaded our culture and has become pervasive in all areas of media, literature, and even the legal system.
Postmodernism and Culture
One of the first individuals to use the word “Postmodernism” was the historian Sir Arnold Toynbee. While studying the history of civilizations in the 1940s, he began to see a pattern in the rise and fall of great cultures, all the way from Rome to Imperial China, from Babylon to the Aztecs. More often than not, Toynbee noted, it was not an exterior force that caused the meltdown of these great societies, but problems within. Seldom overrun by some other power, all famous cultures of the past have committed a kind of cultural suicide, characterized by the very tenants that Postmodernists live by. Cultures that are on the verge of disintegrating, according to this man, display the following characteristics:
· They fall into a sense of abandon, that is, a yielding of once strong morals to base passions. People stop believing in truth and live by their impulses, even at the expense of their well-being;
· They succumb to truancy, or escapism. They try to avoid their problems by hiding from them in recreation and distraction;
· There is a sense of drift, wherein citizens yield to meaningless determinism, as if their efforts do not really matter. They believe they have no control over their lives;
· There is self-loathing as a result of moral abandon;
· There is promiscuity. Not just sexually, but in the indiscriminate acceptance of anything and everything. There is an uncritical tolerance for immorality.
Postmodernism, according to Toynbee, is the fourth and final phase of a society, and the one that eventually causes a civilization’s implosion. In the Twentieth century, he asserted that this would manifest itself in a time of great moral ambivalence. Knowledge would no longer be critical but only functional, and life would be viewed not from an objective truth, but from subjectivism – truth and meaning come from within and never without. Disruption comes from micro politics, language games, parodic skirmishes, irony, fragmentation.
The hallmark beliefs of postmodernism can be defined in three different ways:
There are no absolutes
Christianity is rejected by the postmodernist for the exact reason that it claims to be the truth (John 8:32, Colossians 1:5, 1 Timothy 4:3, 2 John 4). Of course, as anybody with a clear mind can see, the very assertion that there are no absolute truths is, in itself, a supposedly absolute truth. The motivation behind this idea is unclear. Perhaps it is a genuine disinterest in moral truths that leads one to reject truth altogether. Perhaps there is some sin that a person refuses to repent of – for if there is no moral absolute, then that sin is not wrong. But whatever the reasons, a Christian would be hard-pressed to find somebody who actually takes this philosophy to its logical conclusion. Even Postmodernists believe in some absolutes, and should be grateful for those of us who live by them thoroughly. Surely it is absolute wrong for a thief to steal something precious from a Postmodernist! Surely a Postmodernist has to admit that mass murder of innocent children is absolutely despicable. What Postmodernist would feel nothing at all if his or her spouse became involved in a lengthy affair? Either there are absolutes or there are not, and the truth of the matter is that the Postmodernist just wants to pick and choose absolutes when it is suitable or convenient.
Even in the church this idea is becoming pervasive. It is not even the most “left” of our brethren who espouse this doctrine. For example, in 1996, William Banowsky, former president of Pepperdine University, spoke at a lectureship at Abilene Christian University. The main thrust of his speech was the advocacy of fellowship with the denominations. He decried the church’s longstanding rejection of denominational cooperation, and asserted that the church of Christ could not be the only true church. Max Lucado has given similar speeches at ACU, going so far as to offer an apology to the denominations on behalf of the “churches of Christ” for years of arguing that we have “all truth.” In contrast to this, Christ states through Paul that we can know the truth fully (1 Timothy 2:4). The local congregation is supposed to be the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Paul was so zealous for truth that he refused to bend on even one doctrinal controversy (Galatians 2:4-5). There are moral absolutes, friends, and the truth of everything that we need to know about life and godliness can be found in the Gospel.
All beliefs are equally valid
According to the Postmodernist, all belief systems are to be regarded as equally valid and plausible. Something is true if it is “true for me.” Essentially, truth comes from within oneself and from nothing objective, neither scripture nor practical application. This philosophy is also quickly creeping into the church, especially in the way many of our brethren gleefully drop doctrinal difficulties into the “Romans 14” category. Suddenly, almost every difference that Christians have fought hard to combat for the last century mean nothing in the face of diversity and opinion. Many Christians are now too reluctant to challenge false doctrines because they have bought into the idea that no two people can read the scriptures alike. As products of the cultural environment that surrounds us, we dismiss our differences (even blatantly sinful ones) as just differences in perception. Studying scripture has now become a matter of “what it says to me,” rather than what the passage actually demands of all people.
People who buy into Postmodern philosophy, however, display a naivety that is astounding. Is it true that all belief systems are equally valid? Is truth for me not truth for you? Does nobody have the right to judge, or dismiss some things as true heresy against even the most basic human laws? Paul makes it clear that many people end up believing lies because they lack the moral honesty to see evil for what it is. They “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). Believers in falsehood have a hard time being honest with the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, 2 Timothy 4:3). While the idea that “truth for me is not truth is you” sounds really good, it is a terrible thing when applies fully. For example, was it not “truth for someone” in the 1930s when millions of Jews were rounded up and put to death? That was, in fact, a supposedly valid truth for many people of that day. But how can that ever be reconciled with the truth in loving one’s neighbors, even Jews? This philosophy is just a made up reality that sinners use to feel better about themselves. But sooner or later, this made up reality clashes with the reality we live in.
Finally, Postmodernism includes the idea that all literary discourses are inundated with ulterior motives. There is an inherent distrust in the heart of the Postmodernist for anything that claims to be truth, most especially, the scriptures. Supposedly, language is so compromised by hidden meanings that a text never actually means what it says, and an author never writes what is genuinely on his heart. In order to understand literature, therefore, we must deconstruct it and dig deeper than what is on the exterior. It is easy to see why this would appeal to some people. Feminists, for example, necessarily employ deconstruction to the Bible to tear away the androcentric ideas that are pervasive in its pages. That is, the Biblical writers were so prejudiced by the ignorance of their times that they wrote a book that is just filled with anti-feminist attitudes. Homosexual advocates argue the same thing when they seek some avenue for reconciling their sinful choices with the clear teaching of the Bible.
This argument breaks down immediately when we realize that, far from being influenced by the prejudice of their eras, the Biblical writers were noted for condemning the evils that existed. It is not that Paul the apostle wrote 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10 because everybody else in his day believed homosexuality was sinful. He wrote those things because of how pervasive and accepted the sin was in Roman and Greek culture! The Biblical writers did not conform to their cultures, but condemned them (Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, 1 John 2:15-17). Even Moses was never influenced by his Egyptian upbringing, in spite of the fact that he was highly educated in their customs and scientific misconceptions. He wrote in Genesis that God created the earth, not that it was hatched from a giant winged egg, as his contemporaries would have argued.
Unfortunately, this attitude does enter the church, especially when we hear the phrase, “We can’t take what was written 2000 years ago and apply it to our time. This was their mail not our mail.” But this denies that the Bible is valuable for all time and all cultures (Matthew 28:18-20). If we cannot take the same Gospel to all nations and in every time period, then it is a lie to think it can save anybody. In contrast, God expects people from all kinds of backgrounds, filled with innumerable prejudices, to come to the Gospel in the same way and find unity in its truths (1 Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 3:3-5, 5:17). An interesting point to note is that those who argue that we all approach the Bible with our won set of prejudices do not apply the same concept to their own writings. Theologians write commentaries about the Bible, asserting that certain passages are open to interpretation and filled with prejudice, but never acknowledge their own prejudices. It is as if they are saying, “Don’t trust anyone’s interpretation – that is, except the explanation that is given in my book.”
· The Biblical view is that if you have the right teaching you will find God (John 8:31-32). Postmodern thinking is that experiencing God proves you have the right teaching. Religion becomes a subjective experience more than an objective truth.
· The downplaying of doctrine helps explain why 53 percent of evangelical Christians believe there are no absolutes.
· Postmodernism in religion encourages sermons that make us feel good about ourselves. It does not convict or condemn sin. Essentially, Postmodernism wants treatment for sin (therapy to make us feel better) and not the cure (conviction with repentance).
· Postmodernism leads us to view God as existing for our happiness and self-fulfillment. Instead of sinners needing justification before God, we make Him justify Himself before us. What has He done for us lately? What can He do to convince me that He exists? Why should I believe in God and not the latest religious fashion trend or bandwagon?