Minding The Times: An Exposition On Postmodernism, Part 1
By: Frederick Meekins
One might say the future is here — and we might want to send it back for a refund. Having waited years and wondering at times whether mankind would even survive to see the day, the world now finds itself on the other side of a new millennium. In some ways, it is everything optimistic futurists dreamed of in terms of faster modes of transportation, improved forms of medicine and almost instantaneous global communication. However, one would hardly consider it the quaint but technologically sophisticated world of George Jetson whose most formidable challenges consisted of navigating Mr. Spacely’s fickle temper and making sure Rosie the robot maid stayed adequately oiled. Instead, inhabitants of the early twenty-first century worry if their children will even return home alive from school in the evening or how much longer they have until turbaned fanatics turn the accumulated glories of Western civilization into a smoldering atomic wasteland.
Somewhere along the highway leading from intentions to actuality society seems to have taken a wrong turn and gotten lost along the way. When finding oneself in unintended surroundings while road-tripping across the country, one pulls over to the shoulder of the road to look at a map to determine where one’s navigation went astray. Likewise, when a culture begins to display signs of being out of kilter, the time has come to examine the sociological roadmap in terms of the philosophies, beliefs, and ideas individuals use to live their lives and those in authority employ to oversee events.
The observer of intellectual trends might note the contradictory nature of today’s philosophical scene. For while proponents of the status quo purport to be characterized by a considerable latitude of conscience, such professed flexibility ultimately turns back on itself and bears down harshly upon any dissident daring to question the system’s most cherished assumptions. The prevailing outlook can be characterized as a pragmatic Postmodernism.
Postmodernism can be looked at as a worldview holding that truth as an objective overarching reality does not exist and is instead a subjective linguistic or conceptual construct adopted by an individual or group for the purposes of coping with existence. As such, no single explanatory narrative is superior to any other. In light of such characteristics, Postmodernism is pragmatic in the sense that ethical propositions are judged by how well they work rather than how they stand up to standards of right and wrong. Postmodernism is relativistic in that each propositional expositor is self-contained since it is inappropriate for an individual to judge someone else or another group by the standards to which he himself subscribes. James Sire notes in The Universe Next Door that to the Postmodernist the use of any one narrative as a metanarrative to which all other narratives must submit as to their authenticity is oppressive (181).
As is deducible from its very name, Postmodernism is more a response than a set of original insights. Sire argues, “For in the final analysis, Postmodernism is not ‘post’ anything; it is the last move of the modern, the result of the modern taking its own commitments too seriously and seeing that they fail to stand the test of analysis (174).” In other words, Postmodernists are basically Modernists having grown tired of maintaining the illusion that things such as values still matter even when the issue of God does not. Therefore, one can gain significant understanding into the Postmodernist mindset by examining the outlook’s Modernist roots and where these systems ultimately diverge from one another.
As a derivative of it, Postmodernmism shares a number of assumptions with its cousin Modernism. Thomas Oden observes in Two Worlds: Notes On The Death Of Modernity In America & Russia that both outlooks embrace autonomous individualism, reductive naturalism, and absolute moral relativism (33-35). Both systems are naturalistic in the sense that in them all reality is reduced to and originates from physical components; nothing exists separate or independently of matter. As such, man is an autonomous being since, without God, man can rely only upon himself and his institutions to provide purpose, guidance, and meaning for his life. Since this is the case, all ethical and social thought is predicated on finite human understanding and therefore subject to revision in light of changing circumstances or the accumulation of additional data.
Even though the Modernists sought to set out on their own without holding God’s hand, many of them endeavored to maintain a system of behavioral standards and social norms reflective of the Judeo-Christian ones embedded in the cultural consciousness but now resting on an alternative foundation. Rather than seeing the niceties governing civilized conduct as arising from the character of God and discoverable through the study or application of His Holy Word, these courtesies were seen as coming about through the unfolding of trial and error, a process most akin to biological evolution. While most Evangelicals are aware of the links between Darwinism and Nazism and Communism (both vile forms of totalitarianism), most are not as cognizant of the links between this theory of origins and what many would consider stereotypical British traditionalism. Alister McGrath writes in Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths, “Darwinism achieved popular success in England…because Darwin’s ideas happened to coincide with advanced Whig social thinking relative to matters of competition, free trade, and the natural superiority of the English middle class…Darwin’s science provided a foundation for Victorian liberalism (161).”
It did not take long for the hopes, dreams, and promises of Modernism to break down and disappoint many of its enthusiastic adherents. Psalm 127:1 says, “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain (KJV).” Instead of utopian brotherhood as promised by Marx, millions found themselves enslaved behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains. Instead of the sexual liberation promised by the likes of Freud, for tossing aside restraint and embracing the wilds of passion, just as many found their bodies rotting under the curse of diseases unheard of just a few decades ago. Still others discovered that a life of constant entertainment was not quite as entertaining as originally intended. As John Warwick Montgomery so eloquently summarized through his courses in Apologetics at one time offered through Trinity Theological Seminary, in the nineteenth century God was killed and in the twentieth century man was killed.
Thus, with the realization that finite man was incapable of establishing any enduring standard, the Postmodernist decided that the best that could be hoped for was a kind of compulsory hypertolerance all must ascent to and embrace in order to be recognized as full members of the community. Not unlike the Roman Empire where citizens and subjects were pretty much free to practice whatever religion they wished so long as there was room enough within their beliefs for the emperor as an object of worship, those existing under hypertolerance’s prevailing rule find themselves free to believe whatever they would like provided they are publicly willing to admit that what the next fellow believes is just as valid, no matter how strange or unorthodox it might seem to be.
Such an approach of live-and-let-live might work between neighbors who agree to keep their differences on their own respective sides of the fence for the sake of community tranquility. However, there are instances in life where matters cannot be glossed over simply by closing the door behind you and retiring to your living room, especially when how controversial issues are approached will end up impacting the way in which people live.
After all, the idea of absolutist tolerance exists for purposes beyond mediating athletic rivalries among coworkers and arbitrating those heated debates as to whether chocolate or vanilla is the better flavor of ice cream. The concept, to the Postmodernist, becomes the central organizing social and cultural principle. Harold O.J. Brown notes in The Sensate Culture, “…postmodern man is beginning to create for himself a world filled with…all manner of beliefs that would have been dismissed as absurd superstitions only a few years ago (55).”
Since Postmodernism seeks to rest asunder traditional dogmas and orthodoxies, it inevitably ends up emphasizing outlooks and perspectives not regularly brought before the public’s attention. Sometimes this can be beneficial in the sense that information once overlooked is brought to light that provides a more fully-orbed picture as to what really happened such as when historians expand the scope of their research outward from diplomatic or military concerns to embrace the social realm as well. However, the approach has often sparked more trouble than what it is worth in terms of the conflict that has arisen and the rights that have been trampled upon as activists jockey for position in this moral and intellectual free-for-all.
It is this propensity for Postmodernism to deny the existence of established objective truth that makes the system so dangerous. However, it can also be this aspect that works out to be the Christian’s unwitting ally in the apologetic struggle.
To the Postmodernist, what we construe as knowledge is in reality mere interpretation; the fact is, facts do not exist. Chuck Colson writes in A Dance With Deception: Revealing The Truth Behind The Headlines, “The carelessness about factual accuracy didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from a shift in educational theory…Educators began to downplay facts and focused instead on changing students’ values to solve social problems (47).”
The result of this has been the ascension of increasingly bizarre academic theories and assertions more about promoting trendy causes than expanding the horizons of human understanding. For example, one Feminist professor contends that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is actually about pent-up sexual energy that “finally explodes in the…murderous rage of the rapist”; others of similar mind oppose the scientific method as an approach to acquiring knowledge, claiming the method is based on the subjugation and control of sexual domination (Colson, 55).
Some of this might be cute for a good laugh if it confined itself among a few lunatic professors who were trotted out before the students for an occasional lecture or to write articles for publication in journals barely read by anyone. Like most thinkers, Postmodernist scholars hope to exert influence over minds other than their own. Postmodernists, however, want to do more than alter the focus of classroom textbooks. Dr. James Kennedy warns in Character & Destiny: A Nation In Search Of Its Soul, “In fact at the bottom of the ‘change’ movement is a deep desire to dismantle this nation and to sever average Americans from their heritage of faith and freedom (74).”
It is said nature abhors a vacuum. Something will eventually step in to take the place of something else that has been removed.
In the film “The Neverending Story”, the amorphous adversary known as “the Nothing” operates on the assumption that those without hope are easy to control. Postmodernists might claim to be creating a community of tolerance and inclusion free of artificial hierarchies, but end up imposing a regimen more doctrinaire than anything even the most tightly-wound Fundamentalist would devise.
This is because of what Francis Schaeffer termed “sociological law”, defined in A Christian Manifesto as “…law that has no fixed base but law in which a group of people decides what is sociologically good for society at the given moment and what they arbitrarily decide becomes law (41).” This principle results in a mass of seemingly contradictory policies that are unified only in their opposition to the divine order of innate human dignity. The individual is reduced to the level of a mere cog to be tinkered with to improve the engine of the overarching societal machine.
For example, in the name of elevating minorities, certain programs such as campus speech codes and preferential employment practices turn around and infringe upon the traditional rights of those just as innocent as those these convoluted regulations claim to protect. Conversely, those justifying this social manipulation by such utilitarian standards could just as easily alter their position and justify the wholesale slaughter or detention of entire ethnic groups as in the case of Nazi Germany.
According to the Washington Times, Professor Noel Ignatiev of Harvard argues for the abolition of the White race. So long as Western institutions continue to embrace such blatantly pragmatic standards, one can no more count on the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the precepts of liberty in the end than the Chinese Community Party since, no matter how much we try to dance around the issue, both ultimately draw upon the principle of the state as the final authority. They only interpret it differently at this given time.