Postmodernity 101 - Modernism vs. Postmodernism

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

(This post is part 2 of a 5 part series on postmodernity. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

"A good journey begins with knowing where we are and being willing to go somewhere else."
- Richard Rohr

Postmodernity is a phenomenon that has been discussed by philosophers, theologians, and cultural researchers for decades now. The French have been examining it since the late 1970s. Even though some scholars have claimed that postmodernity has existed since post-WW2, this intellectual and cultural phenomena has been slowly and subtly creeping its way into American life and thought. It is often the blame for all of our cultural woes and has been viewed with a large amount of skepticism by the American church.

A large part of our skepticism toward postmodernity is because we often reduce its tenets to bumper stickers without context. We hyperbolize postmodernity as a rejection of "absolute truth" and paint it as a general rejection of tradition. Neither of these are fair representations. We'll get to that.

But like it or hate it, postmodernism is here... and it's still coming.

Since culture doesn't abruptly change overnight, the shift in thought has been gradual. Those who are of the millennial and Gen Z generation probably didn't even realize that they were a crucial part of this shift until the "Ok, Boomer" and "Ok, Millennial" jabs started.

So where are we right now and where might we be headed? In order to fully understand our current and prospective landscape, we must first understand where we came from. Since postmodernity is in many ways of critique of modernity (hence the name), we must examine our cultural heritage.

Modernity is a land founded on science, reason, and universal morality. Something is true only insofar as it is objective (known by all people at all times). If it can be proven in a lab or agreed upon by a majority of people (or at least those in power), it's true. Reason is universal, intuition and religious experiences are invalid, and hierarchy is largely established as the key to social and moral order.

There are certainly "pros" to the modern way of thinking. If truth is universal, then there is a starting point for our conversations and interactions. Truth can be argued and proven with logic and reason. There is a certain level of trust when it comes to authority figures and systems.

But there are also some major pitfalls. If left unchecked, modernity can easily lead to imperialism and colonialism. After all, if reason is objective and universal, isn't it part of our moral responsibility to enforce our worldview and values upon others? Modernity also idolizes reason as the only true way of discovering truth. What about the things that cannot be explained by science? Can we even trust those who are in power to transmit their findings accurately and without bias? What about the role of faith and spirituality?

Postmodernity is a critique of these ways of "knowing."

If modernity is a well-ordered country with a central system of power and truth, then postmodernity, in comparison, is anarchy. Some scholars have even posed that postmodernity is actually a revitalization of premodernity. Postmodernity argues that reason is not the only way to "know" things. We can discover truth through experience, through spiritual and mystical practices. Everyone has different experiences, and it's unfair and even immoral to generalize a one-size-fits-all truth.

Protagoras, a contemporary of Plato and Socrates (remember what I said about premodernity?), argued that societal "truth" was determined by whatever the majority decided. For example, one person may feel like their office is too warm. Another might argue that their office is too cold. Which perception is correct? The side with the majority opinion gets to change the thermostat (and the majority side was men in the 1960s).

Like modernity, there are pros to postmodernity. All viewpoints are equal and given consideration. Spirituality has a place in determining truth and meaning. A careful stance of relativism can be healthy, because it recognizes that we may not know everything there is to know on a subject yet. It propels us to deeper discovery and exploration.

However, the drawbacks of postmodernity can be destructive. Relativism, if left unchecked, can morph into a form of hyper-relativism where we can't know anything with some confidence. Experience becomes an idol. There is a constant thirst and search for some kind of meaning with no destination in sight.

Despite the pitfalls of postmodernity and modernity alike, we must be careful of rejecting either one in their entirety. Yes, there are some hazards we need to approach with caution. Yes, we must carefully traverse between the poles of absolutism and relativism.

But at the same time, there is nothing neutral in all of creation. God declared the things that he had made "good," and this includes humanity and their ability to bring forth culture.

In other words, there are many things about postmodernity, and the changes we are now seeing, that can be great news for the American church. Instead of fearing that this cultural change will remove us from the "good old days" of modernity, we must actively search for and engage those things that are are good.

Embracing the positive tenets of postmodernity may involve a loss of our control and familiarity, but God's people seem to be at their best in times of "exile." God's people are not at their best when they are secure and in power. When God's people are marginalized, they tend to allow God's Spirit to empower them to live faithfully

Augustine famously said that God's people can "make out with Babylonian loot." In other words, there is no culture that cannot be redeemed and reclaimed for God's kingdom.

How can the American church utilize postmodern "loot"? We'll spend the next few posts in this series exploring some ways we can use postmodern thought to bring renewal to our faith.

1 comment

  1. Love the summary and the visuals to accompany the two outlooks. Very simple imagery that communicates a great deal.
    I think the "port of globalism" and "transmitter of multiple perspectives" are key influencers in the west's, and increasingly, the earth's, culture. I hope the church can benefit from and leverage them for the coming kingdom.
    Keep up the great work!


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