(December 2002 – Volume 8, Issue 9)
“Postmodernity and Society”
Having raced far too briefly through an overview of postmodernism, we will now turn our attention to an equally brief account of this worldview’s impact on society. Let’s begin with Western culture. Since absolute truth has been rejected, how does a postmodern society function? There exists a number of identifiable pillars propping up the postmodern vision – each of these pillars depend upon the others to prevent collapse of the system. As we will see, postmodernity is an inconsistent philosophy at best.
Truth Is Communal
We documented in an earlier paper that while postmodernity rejects absolute, universal truth, it does not reject all standards of truth. Drawing from the well of existentialism, which championed individualized truth, this newer worldview (which by the way claims to reject worldviews) believes in communal truth. That is, each culture creates its own truth, and the citizens of that culture are expected to adhere to their community’s concept of truth with its attached morals and values.
Of course, it does not take a genius to recognize that such a view is fraught with irresolvable problems. First, if multitudes of communities each have their own version of truth and those versions are at odds on many issues, then “true truth”, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, cannot exist. Postmodernists recognize this little problem which is why they claim there is no true truth, only stories (or narratives). All pronouncements of truth are ultimately fiction. There is no final truth. If this is the case, the next problem to be faced is the dialogue between communities. As Groothuis states, “With these assumptions locked in place, any meaningful communication between, say, Aborigines and white Australians or white Americans and Native Americans would be impossible in principle. Each culture creates truth through its language, and language cannot refer to extralinguistic realities.” This leads to a third problem. What happens when cultures, with their own fictional version of truth, clash? Americans call terrorism murder, but Islamic fundamentalists call it justifiable casualties during time of war. Who is right? Under postmodernism right or wrong can’t be determined because each culture operates under a different system of truth. A consistent American postmodern disciple might mourn the events surrounding 9/11 (based upon the Western society’s value on life) but they could not denounce the actions, which are rooted in the Islamic fundamentalist subculture’s value system. Living with a postmodern worldview is complicated, and when all the rhetoric is over, ultimately impossible.
It must first be admitted (and postmodern thinkers do so) that Western culture is still deeply dependent upon the borrowed capital of Christianity, along with its moral fiber and handle on truth and values. For example, a consistent postmodernist would have to agree that if a subculture found it morally acceptable to murder babies, gas Jews or enslave Blacks, then no one has the right to object. But of course postmodernists can’t live with such consequences of their own philosophy. They are grateful, for the time being, that they have a backup system such as Christianity, or else total anarchy would reign.
Still, the postmodernists cling gamely to the ideal of pluralism. We are told regularly by the media that we live in a pluralistic society, thus we must live and let live. At all cost, we must not even insinuate that we have the truth, for not only are such pronouncements offensive to others, they are downright arrogant. Carson writes, “Philosophical pluralism has generated many approaches in support of one stance: namely, that any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior (emphasis in the original).”
Once again this reduces all of life to the telling of fictional stories. How can people with such an understanding of life make decisions and navigate without extreme frustration? They can do so only because they have accepted the idea of contradictory thinking.
By the way, a new understanding of tolerance is in vogue under postmodernity. Tolerance of people, even while rejecting their ideas was one of the linchpins of early democracy. Tolerance now means we must accept everyone’s ideas as equally valid. To be critical of anyone’s ideas is a sign of intolerance – which cannot be tolerated (The irony is obvious).
D. A. Carson gives the following example of the first generation raised in a postmodern age: “It is said that baby busters do not want to be lectured; they expect to be entertained. They prefer videos to books; many of them have not learned to think in a linear fashion; they put more store than they recognize in mere impressions. As a result, they can live with all sorts of logical inconsistencies and be totally unaware of them. How many times have I tried to explain to a university-age young person who has made some profession of faith that it is fundamentally inconsistent to claim to know and love the God of the Bible, while cohabiting with someone?”
The ability to believe contradictory things simultaneously is a hallmark of postmodern thinking. A few years ago Barna Research Group documented that two thirds of Americans do not believe in absolute truth (this number has recently risen to 78%). To claim to believe absolute truth does not exist is a self-contradiction in itself, for that claim must be based on a belief in something that is true – in this case that truth does not exist (gets complicated doesn’t it?). So the one absolute allowed in postmodern thought is that absolutes do not exist. But it gets worse, for the same Barna poll showed that 53 percent of evangelical Christians believe there are no absolutes. Veith makes this comment about these statistics, “This means the majority of those who say that they believe in the authority of the Bible and know Christ as their
Savior nevertheless agree that ‘there is no such thing as absolute truth.’ Not Christ? No, although He presumably ‘works for them.’ Not the Bible? Apparently not, although 88 percent of evangelicals believe that ‘The Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all it teaches.’ Bizarrely, 70 percent of all Americans claim to accept this high view of Scripture, which is practically the same number of those who say ‘there are no absolutes.’”
This kind of contradictory thinking would be unacceptable in any other age but is common place today, even among Christians. Only in such an intellectual environment could the very same people embrace scores of competing ideologies. Take the field of psychology, which is almost universally trusted in the West. “If you need psychiatric help, you might be treated by a Freudian, a Jungian, a humanist, or a behaviorist. Your treatment might consist of telling about your childhood, recording your dreams, getting in touch with your feeling, or exposing yourself to operant conditioning. The philosophies behind these psychological theories are incompatible – Freud and the behaviorists cannot both be right – and the methodologies are untestable.” But little contradictions like these do not matter in a postmodern era. It does not matter if competing therapies are mutually exclusive, all can be believed, although rational thinking would tell us that this is impossible.
Finally, what about ethics? “’A Zogby International Poll of college seniors came up with a fascinating finding. Almost all of the 401 randomly selected students around the country – 97 percent – said their college studies had prepared them to behave ethically in their future work lives. So far so good. But 73 percent of the students said that when their professors taught about ethical issues, the usual message was that uniform standards of right and wrong don’t exist (‘what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity’)…. Since ‘truth’ is an act of community empowerment, truth is whatever the tribe or the individual says it is.” So we are left with each individual or community choosing his or her own ethical and moral standards. If those standards contradict, then so be it. This is the only generation in history which has been able to declare contradictory and mutually exclusive claims on truth, ethics, morals, and values to be equally valid.
Since the one absolute accepted by postmodernist is that there exists absolutely no absolutes, how do postmodernists view those who claim to possess some form of absolute truth? With suspicion. Whether in the realm of history, religion, science or even medicine, the postmodern thinker believes that all truth claims are attempts to manipulate others. In other words, truth claims are nothing more that coverups for power plays. The only reason anyone would claim to know anything with certainty, since such a thing is impossible, is because they want to empower themselves and enslave others. One author gives these examples, “If the Declaration of Independence declares ‘all men to be created equal,’ it thus excludes women and since Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, it is no doubt a white, European male power play over the rest of society. Since the Bible uses the masculine pronoun in referring to God the Father, the Bible is merely a history of a male-dominated religion that must be rejected if we care anything about women.”
Postmodernist thinkers have covered themselves well. They have denied absolute truth and any who would challenge them are intolerant power hungry tyrants seeking to impose their wishes on others.
Postmodernity in Action
So how has postmodernity changed the cultural landscape of the Western world? Only moderate observation and thought should produce ample evidence of the affect of this worldview on education, morality, politics and religion. Let me mention two consequences, identified by Veith, that might not be as obvious. First, contrast the Civil Rights movement during the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., which stressed the unity of society. King’s goal was for equal rights and full assimilation for blacks in every avenue of American life. The postmodern Civil Rights movement is exemplified by Malcolm X, who stressed the disunity of society. Black nationalism with its recovery of African culture was his legacy. The modernistic Civil Rights movement emphasized integration of blacks and whites. The postmodern movement seeks to develop a black subculture that functions separately from the white world wherever possible.
Another consequence is terrorism, which Veith sees as the postmodern brand of warfare. Here is his argument: “The terrorist cell is in fact a model of postmodernism and its dangers. A group is segmented from the rest of society, insulated by its own self-identity. The group recognizes no values that transcend its own. Fueled by a sense of victimization, self-righteousness, and group solidarity, the terrorist cell will have no qualm about blowing up a building or machine-gunning innocent bystanders. Such bystanders are not seen as individuals, but as members of a group – as Americans or Bosnians or Jews. They share a collective guilt. Group responsibility, group injury, group blame constitute the mind-set of both postmodernism and terrorism.”
Postmodernity is a ridiculous and unworkable worldview, but while it moves its way through our society it will leave much carnage in its wake. Its impact on the church will be our next subject.