Reaching the postmodern mind

What is postmodernism? Is it an open critique of modernism, a development of the "new worldview" all together, or something else?

Aleksandar S. Santrac, DPhil, is Associate Professor of Religion, Ethics & Philosophy, University of the Southern Caribbean
When students at the University of Paris, in the protests of May 1968, wrote the graffiti,  “Il est interdit d’interdire,”1 they were not aware that they unlocked Pandora’s box of a new sentiment. Postmodernism had already been present in academic circles, but in liberation movements that wanted to do away with obsolete worldviews and their authority, postmodernism took on the dimensions of a cultural phenomenon.

In a philosophical sense, postmodernism could be briefly described as “a denial of the reality of a unified world as the object of our perception. . . Postmoderns reject the possibility of constructing a single correct worldview and are content simply to speak of many views, and, by extension, many worlds.”2 It is a palette of varying philosophic, sociological, hermeneutic, historical, anthropological, ethical ideas. One of the fundamental postulates of postmodernism is that it seeks answers from many sources.3Due to its various forms, many view postmodernism as a threat; others see it as the final solution to all problems.4 Still unaware of the fact that a new historical era has begun, we frantically resist the dislocation of the human condition—a contemporary postmodernist rejection of the modernistic worldviews of Western civilization. We are still resisting the decentralization of self,5 and therefore do not wish to admit that we entered the postmodernist era long ago.

The Postmodern mind

The ambivalence of the arrival of postmodernism is also the ambivalence of its content. One never knows, finally, what is postmodernism. Is it an open critique of modernism, or extension of maturity of modern project, or development of the “new worldview” all together, or everything mentioned above?

Quite certainly, postmodernism rejects the premises of modernism. Historically viewed, it is obvious that one philosophical trend is replaced by another. Michael Epstein accurately noticed: “The postmodern is the state of culture that replaces the new age and throws into the past the ‘modern’ project, the foundations of which were the value of realistic knowledge, of individual self-awareness and rational action, and counting on the individual’s strength in the conscious self-organization of mankind.”6

The characteristics of the modern project that Epstein describes belong to the so-called Age of Enlightenment (“Aufklärung”), in which reason prevailed through the active prosperity of science and technology. One of the essential intellectual and practical reactions to this form of modernism is the romanticism of the nineteenth century. The twentieth century is characterized by “isms” from the assortment of more recent views on the world (Marxism, fascism, positivism, existentialism, nihilism, etc.). Historically viewed, postmodernism followed in the wake of all these trends, “maturing” in the 1970s, when the French school of postmodernism actually created the space of general suspicion of reason or rationality, progress, and objective truth. The modern project of rational “isms,” general belief in progress of human race and, what is most important for us Christians, belief in objective truth per se, are all passé to the postmodernist.

Most Christians perhaps have not comprehended the essence of postmodernism in a philosophical sense. Many have not even heard of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotar, or Baudrillard. However, the church lives in a new cultural setting formed and framed by postmodern philosophy—a setting that here is termed as postmodernity7—a broad cultural matrix of thinking and behavior, not just a set of beliefs. Some of the contemporary realities of postmodernity that shaped our way of knowing and acting are television, the Internet, and globalism.

Virtual realities

Neil Postman affirmed that “television has achieved the status of meta-medium—an institution that directs not only our knowledge of the world, but our knowledge of the ways of knowing as well.”8 Not being aware of these philosophical presuppositions, millions have gone through a transformation in their way of perceiving and evaluating information.

As Jacque Ellulsays: “visionary reality of connected images cannot tolerate critical discourse, explanation, duplication, or refl ection…” Cognitive pursuits “presuppose a certain distance and withdrawal from the action, whereas images require that I continually be involved in the action.”9 Image, instead of words, has become the actualization of postmodern ways of knowing. Reflective thinking exists no more. Appearance and surface reign over essence and depth of meaning. The world has become virtual.

The Internet has changed life in the Western world; the modernistic construction of highways has been replaced with the postmodernist construction of “highways” of information and communication. On the “mental screen” of the computer monitor, the “death of the metaphor” is happening. What was once projected as a mental conception has now, through the Internet, become the anti-metaphorical space of absolute simulation. The Internet is becoming an absolute world in and of itself. What should have been a “map of reality” has become reality. On the global network, ordinary reality is annulled and the hyper real space of absolute simulation is created: Thereby, we lose ourselves and become machines.

Postmodernityunambiguously has the precise goal of devaluing and lessening the importance of objective truth as such. Meaning and reflection are replaced by artificial surface of reality, symbolized by image. Undoubtedly, the preaching of the gospel in the new contextualization needs to reconsider television, Internet, and global perspective as means for reaching the world for Jesus. On the other hand, we have to confront the question: Have these cultural changes actually created a new contra-culture incompatible with the Christian faith?

Community and mystery

Postmodernism denies the existence of God in a biblical sense. Objective reality and objective criteria of truth and morals are rejected. Therefore, one can never assume that there is any theoretical compatibility between postmodern and Christian views of reality. If postmodern philosophers speak about God, they tell us that God is, resembling this world, virtual. He has no right (says Baudrillard) to be objective criteria for our thought and lives because He is in the realm of simulation. Consequently, God in the postmodern world is completely beyond ethics and our moral obligations.

There are, however, similar (not compatible) concepts, but they are used in completely different contexts. Take for example the ideas of community and mystery so often pointed out as compatible with Christianity. When postmodern philosophers and theologians speak about communal assent to the truth, they emphasize cultural influence in our knowledge of truth. Truth is known exclusively within someone’s community; the community’s perspective is the only known truth.10 Because our personality is always communal, every truth one accepts is always subjective or cultural. Truth is never objective.

In contrast, when Christians speak about community, we speak about communal understanding and appropriation of objective truth of God in the Scriptures. As a community, we do not accept pluralism of subjective or cultural (communal) faiths, as the postmoderns do; rather, we accept a one and only objective truth, that which is revealed in the Christ of the Scriptures. Philosophically speaking, the concept of community in Christianity is not metaphysical, it is epistemological.

Speaking about mystery, postmoderns view it as completely nonrational or even antirational. Ways of knowing become the ways of mysterious and intuitional quests for the truth. Christians, on the other hand, do believe in the powers of reason and rationality in knowing11 the truth as it is in Christ. Christ is a profound mystery indeed, but not a mystery that cannot be accepted by reason.

This is seen, for example, in Colossians 2:2, 3, where the apostle Paul calls for “complete understanding, in order that they may knowthe mystery of God, namely, Christ” (NIV). Obviously, unlike postmoderns, the apostle does not dissociate knowledge and mystery, because Christ as mystery is a revealed mystery, one that is known and experienced.

Of course, the mystery of God and His Spirit is suprarational, never completely comprehended by humans. However, the idea of mystery in the Bible is never emptied of human knowledge and rationality.

Love as tolerance

Lacking the rational certainty of believing, postmodernshave a maxim: “We are on the move from false certainty to true uncertainty.” A knowing of the Scriptures, with inspired texts for developing the doctrines of the church (on which we stand or fall as community and as disciples of Jesus), is not passé. It means that image and symbol are not all that we should offer to postmoderns. Yes, the apostle Paul says that Christ is the image of the invisible God,12 but this is an image of the revelation of truth. Thus, it is not image as understood by postmoderns—the surface of reality without permanent meaning.

Even “love” is understood differently. In postmodern culture, love is always tolerance. However, this tolerance is a theory that basically says that no one has a right to maintain belief in objective truth. If one wants to be accepted in love, they need to accept the idea of subjective truth since objective truth threatens, judges, excludes, and even persecutes. As Foucault would pronounce, “the act of knowing (the truth) is always an act of violence.”13

In the Bible, however, when Christ speaks about tolerance, He never denies the existence of objective truth—namely Himself and all His teachings. If we accept the idea of one objective truth that we do know by the true Spirit (subjectively accepted), and still want to be tolerant and humble toward all human beings, including postmoderns, we walk in the path of Christ and of His cross.

Careful not to compromise

Thus, it is crucially important not to repeat the mistake of the early church. The church fathers did not recognize that evangelism to the pagans is not evangelism to a partially compatible culture. It was, instead, evangelism in the contra-culture of Greek philosophy and mythology, which were radically different from biblical truth. A superb mind like Augustine made this kind of mistake and created a “philosophical theology” that was not based on the Bible. This could be a form of the “careless liberalism”14 that Ellen White warns against.

Relationships, friendship love, and caring for others are crucially important for every disciple of Christ, but they are not what Christianity is all about. It is true that postmoderns want to belong and have deep relationships, but it is not true that their sense of a belief system necessarily must occur after their sense of belonging. Belief and belonging go in concert. In our evangelistic efforts we have to reach people where they are and not assume that they belong to the defined categories of people whom we want to evangelize. That is why it is sometimes tricky when we speak about evangelism in a strategic sense, because every strategy is partially human and thus not faultless. A strategy of evangelism should point out similarities and compatibilities with popular culture; however, if the content of Christian faith is reduced to the expectations of postmoderns (or moderns, or any other faith or belief system), we jeopardize the message of Christ and the power of “present truth.” If we use postmodern language or nonthreatening vocabulary, we should not do it at the expense of the truth as revealed in the Word of God.

Sometimes it is heard that creating intimate relationships (friendship evangelism) has “greater value” than public evangelism. Yet the fact is, Christ did both. In our human strategies we should never diminish Christ’s strategies and His definitions of values in mission. Postmoderns do need public evangelism. Without public evangelism, there is a danger of folks thinking that community, love, and relationships are what Christianity is all about, because Christianity is portrayed exactly that way. The church becomes a “humanitarian” safe haven with a psychological comfort that other humanitarian agencies can offer as well. Paul did not “make a fool of himself,”15 voyaging throughout the Roman Empire, primarily to “make friends.” He did so in order to preach truth.

In public evangelism, in frontal war between truth and error, light and darkness, Christ and Satan, we are actually involved in gaining “territories” for Christ. In a contra-culture, we must utilize the contra-weapon, and that is the power of Christ’s truth with the love and friendship that His Word fashions. That is possible only through deep conversion and revival of the community of faith by the Spirit, not by strategic wisdom. If Christ’s mission was focused on the strategy “nonthreatening vocabulary,” why did He so often use the scandalous expression of “hell” as a final destiny for the unrepentant? Of course, the truth has to be proclaimed in a humble and loving way, but also with power and conviction. Frequently, we try to minimize the requirements of the faith in order to create a “safe” environment, without skandalon, for postmoderns. That was not Christ’s strategy.

To sum up, living in a contra-culture of postmodernity,16we as Christ’s disciples should fi rst uphold and defend the Christian ideals of believing, revival, and discipleship, while at the same time we should create an environment for those interested in belonging and friendship. We can do both, based on Christ’s Word and the power of His Spirit.

1 “It is forbidden to forbid.”
2 Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996), 40.
3 Within postmodern philosophy, we can fi nd the deconstructive (philosophical and linguistic), liberational
(social and political), constructive (with emphasis on a new worldview), restorational or conservative (with emphasis on the good sides of premodernism and modernism) postmodernism, etc.
4 Compare: David S. Dockery, “The Challenge of Postmodernism” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, ed. David S. Dockery (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 13.
5 Or the decentralization of the ego (a favorite term of Foucault and other postmodernists).
6 Michael Epstein, The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism (National Council for Soviet and East European Research, 1993), 91 (Serbian edition). On the historic relation postmodern/modern, and postmodernism/modernism, see ibid., 147.
7 Of course, there is a wide circulating distinction between postmodernism (as contemporary thought transformed into cultural phenomenon) and postmodernity (as a historical and cultural period after modernity, characterized by rejection of authoritative role of reason and science). Nevertheless, for the sake of this article’s purpose I redefine postmodernism and postmodernity, though not completely, since my definition of postmodernity assumes an historical era as well. The distinction is useful in this article’s exploration of relationship between believing and belonging.
8 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 78, 79, cited in Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 282.
9 Jacque Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, trans. Joyce Main Hanks (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 142.
10 See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989). For Rorty, meaning and belief are contingent phenomena of a particular culture in space and time.
11 Rom. 1:21, 22. Pagans knew who God was. God wants us to know Him. Revelation assumes cognition.
12 See Col. 1:15.
13 Grenz, 133.
14 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Nampa, ID: Pacifi c Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 129.
15 See 2 Cor. 12:11.
16 Or whatever contra-culture means today. After postmodernism comes “deep void” of thought filled with contemporary spiritualism, interest for the supernatural, and religious fiction.

 

 

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Aleksandar S. Santrac, DPhil, is Associate Professor of Religion, Ethics & Philosophy, University of the Southern Caribbean

September 2007

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