Emergent Church, Religious Movements

A Postmodern Primer

~ by Robert Hogue

always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. ~ 2 Timothy 3:7

To begin to comprehend the mindset of a Postmodernist it is helpful to start with a basic understanding of what Modernism is and therefore what the Postmodernist has moved beyond.  The scientific method reigns supreme for the Modernist, with the pursuit of information, the collection of facts, the application of reason and the resulting proclamation of certainty acting as the cornerstones of this worldview.

In the religious community, this modernist movement began to have an impact in the mid 1800s as it sought to reconcile the latest discoveries of science, and the current trends in philosophy with historical Christian beliefs.  The application of modern critical methods of Bible study, and the resulting rejection of supernatural events, as well as a more pragmatic approach to the Christian faith as a now wholly human endeavour, would lead to a reaction against modernism in the early 20th Century by the Fundamentalists.

Postmodernism, another reaction against modernism as a worldview, began to take shape in late 20th Century as the promises made earlier by the modernists, of delivering utopia to mankind, failed to materialize.  A century of bloody wars and unprecedented carnage fanned the flames of discontent with the analytical mentality and smug certainty of modernism, into an outright rejection of the idea that objective ultimate truth is knowable.  Seen as simply a means to manipulate people in the pursuit of power, modernism with its self-assumed absolutes began to be viewed with suspicion and contempt.  The postmodern position began to congeal around the notion that we can’t be dogmatic or arrogant about anything as nebulous as truth.  Reality is just a matter of personal perception, objectivity is simply an illusion.

This cynical view of authority and conviction created a preference for ambiguity and doubt.  Postmodernists are generally antagonistic to anyone who makes a universal truth claim.  As they see it no single worldview has it all right, no one knows anything for sure.  Their only goals are to challenge certainty when they come across it, to eliminate clarity when they feel threatened by it and to undermine the very idea of objective truth in every circumstance.  With no interest in affirming a conviction they will go to great lengths to avoid confirming or denying anything and are happiest when they are allowed to simply dialogue and ask questions.

Absolute tolerance is now the ultimate moral virtue and extended to everyone’s worldview; except those who still make the mistake of claiming to know an absolute and binding universal truth.  A truth claim is now handled like a commodity that can be evaluated or assessed for its suitability in each person’s life.  What is understood to be “true” is relative to the situation you are in and determined by the time, culture or common conventions of your circumstance.  This has resulted in people talking about Truth in a completely different way than we did just decades ago.

Under the non-engagement terms of postmodernism we can never insist that the other person is wrong or challenge their beliefs.  We are all unique; therefore the ultimate decision of determining what is truth is left up to each person.  Truth cannot be imported or exported in an unconditional sense since it does not exist beyond each distinct situation.  In the postmodern world there are absolutely no absolutes.  If absolute truth does somehow exist then we can’t know it with any degree of certainty.  But then how can we be certain of the validity of that statement?  The real problem is not that absolute truth claims are wrong, its’ just that so many claims of absolute truth are wrong.  They have, as the proverb states, “thrown the baby out with the bathwater.”

Many recognize the futility of his all-truth-is-valid view because what it really means is that there are no valid, objective truth standards with which to live your life by.  One of the things that this has lead to is the satirizing of this truth-concept with the invention, by comedian Stephen Colbert, of the word truthiness 1 which is defined as a “truth” that a person claims to know intuitively “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.  If there is no way to know with absolute certainty that something is True, then anything and everything can qualify as “true” for you.

The postmodernist truth claim that there can be no certainty is absolutely hostile to what Christianity asserts.  This concept hits right at the very nature and character of God as revealed in the Bible.  By insisting that we can’t be dogmatic about knowing what God has said, the postmodernist manufactures a god that is either unwilling or unable to create beings that can be effectively communicated with.  This god is therefore indifferent or impotent when it comes to revealing the true nature of existence to us.

Postmodernists, by their implementation of systematic scepticism rather than systematic theology, have ignored the clear overarching message, the metanarrative 2 of the Bible.  God has created us and everything that exists.  He loves us and is intimately involved in what happens here on Earth.  God has a plan and a purpose for humanity.  God has always been clear about giving us the facts.

God has made it obvious about how important truth is and the exclusiveness of truth claims.  When Jesus stood before Pilate, on trial for his life, he spoke plainly; “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  To this Pilate replied “What is Truth?” an absolutely postmodern sentiment.

This wasn’t the first time that Jesus made an exclusive truth claim about himself and about knowing God.  As Christians we know that truth is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God in flesh, who entered into time and space and spoke these words.

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

By today’s standards, what Jesus says here is the very definition of narrow-minded intolerance.  These examples alone are ample evidence that postmodernism, with its laid-back acceptance of anything but exclusive truth cannot be harmonized with Christianity.  Jesus is transparent in making it known that God has communicated with us in a way that we can understand and respond to.  Since postmodernism cannot include Christianity in its claim that all truth is relative then it fails as a viable worldview and must be discarded.

The battle over what is true has been waged since the first question, “Did God really say?” was spoken in the Garden of Eden.  As Christians, we need to challenge uncertainty about God’s nature and character each time we encounter it.  We must bring clarity to every situation that threatens to spread ambiguity about what God has said.  We must work to destroy the very concept that objective truth is nonexistent.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. ~ 2 Cor 10:3-5 (NIV)

    1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness
    2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metanarrative

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