Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The P Word

This morning my son asked, “Dad, could you define postmodernism for me?” My short answer was, “No.” That didn’t cut it with him. I tried the clichéd, “Defining postmodernism is kind of like nailing Jello to the wall.” No good, he wasn’t buying that either.

If I was smart, I would tell him to read Gene Veith’s Postmodern Times and be done with it. I’m not smart, though; not if I’m attempting a brief definition of postmodernism on a blog. This is for my 13 year old son, Josh. He has the advantage of asking me questions in person. If you have questions, buy Veith’s book.

Postmodernity was labeled as such in the philosophical world in the 60s, though it didn’t get much traction in the wider world until the 90s. There is nothing new under the sun, though, and some would call Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) an early postmodernist. There are similarities.

The word postmodernism means, “that which comes after modernism.”  Brilliant, eh? However, some of the most insightful commentators have argued that postmodernity is the logical outworking of modernity. In other words, they are saying that postmodernity is overrated when it is called a new category of philosophy. That, naturally, begs the question, “what is modernity?” Well, if you are familiar with that old enemy of Christianity, secular humanism, you know about modernity.

One admittedly simplistic illustration of all this is found in the metaphor of the Copernican revolution. Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) is best remembered for his insistence that the earth revolves around the sun, not visa-versa (don’t jump on me for not getting into the historical “rest of the story here,” this is a metaphor). How does this relate to postmodernity?
  • In premodern times, truth and reality all revolved around the sun of the divine. God was the center of all things; everything else took its meaning from this center.

  • In modern / Enlightenment thought, man (as in humanity) became the measure of all things – the sun of the solar system. Confidence regarding the universals of truth, beauty, scientific method and etc. were maintained because of a belief in the stability of the universe and its laws, including the exalted reason of man.

  • In postmodernism, the stability associated with modernity came crashing down. The universe is not as uni (one) as modernists maintained. Postmodernism challenges the source and definition of truth asserted in Enlightenment Rationalism. The Copernican Revolution in this case moves from universal human reason to the individual within his community. Reality is defined by a million little stories instead of one grand story. This means that in literature, the focus shifts from the author to the reader. In philosophy and spirituality the center moves from the uni to the many. In science, postmodernity moves from confidence in order to the acceptance of chaos.  

In one sense, postmodernity has called modernity’s bluff. The universals of Western atheistic philosophy are built upon the borrowed capital of a God-centered worldview. Without the center of God and revelation, naturalistic universals in terms of truth, beauty, goodness and reason come crashing down.

Some have argued that the postmodern movement has done Christianity a favor in exposing the hubris of modernity. This is true, as far as it goes. On the other hand, that capital modernity borrowed from Christianity (truth, goodness, beauty, etc.) is real capital. When postmodernism rejects modernity, it also rejects all true universal concepts.

Most people don’t care about philosophy, but the effects of this Copernican revolution in thinking that is taking place are real. Philosophical pluralism, the new tolerance, radical individualism and a loss of respect for authority are some of the fruits of this thinking.

There are countless examples in politics, education, entertainment and the media. If you’ve had conversations with people in the lunch room or over the back fence and you’ve been puzzled at their ability to contradict themselves with no apparent sense of concern, then you’ve witnessed the fingerprint of postmodernity. Truth, reality and morality are purely individual issues to the postmodern mind.

The church is susceptible to this yeast of postmodernity. Christians must understand the times and speak God’s truth into our shifting culture. How, then, should we respond?

To be continued.

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