Whether it's the story of the prodigal son or Freud's Oedipus complex, the testimony of human experience is that sons are often at odds with fathers. A young man struggles to establish his independence, his father attempts to shape the emerging identity, and the two come into conflict. It's a universal experience, but it surprises every father and enrages every son, as though they're enacting the tension for the first time in history.
In the realm of ideas, this father-son conflict is more self-conscious. The established Zeitgeist (spirit of the age) recognizes its roots, and grows out of rebellion against those origins. The Reformation was a reaction against the secularization of the Renaissance; the Enlightenment was a humanistic reflex against the Reformational doctrine of divine authority; and Romanticism was an escape from the pure rationality embraced by Enlightenment thinkers.
Perhaps no ideology has been more hypocritically rebellious, however, than postmodernism. For those who think relativism was invented by the postmoderns, it's shocking to learn that it was the Modern era that first fully embraced relativism in all its forms. In fact, there's very little originality or newness in postmodern thought, and yet its chief proponents abuse, attack, slander, and ridicule the modernism that gave them birth at every available opportunity.
The big question is invariably, What is postmodernism? To answer that, it's essential first to understand modernism. Modernism is the direct ancestor of the Enlightenment, and is the system of thought that gave rise to Darwinism, Marxism, Nazism, atheistic secular humanism, etc. Modernists were mostly deists, believing that some supreme power had got things going and then left the scene to see how things would play out.
This deism led philosophers, scientists, and artists increasingly to seek answers outside of divine revelation or authority. If there was a God (which many of them doubted or denied altogether), he didn't have much to do with his creation, and therefore it was up to man to discover his purpose, his destiny, and his morality. So, they set about explaining those things, devising a metanarrative of atheistic evolution, dialectical materialism, and ultimately moral nihilism.
Having been so utterly cut off from God, the heirs of Modernism were left with a bleak landscape. Modernists like Marx and Freud at least remembered a time when God was a reality, but they forgot him entirely in their writings, which became the unsacred scriptures of those who came after. With no final authority for truth or reality, these men and women fashioned the cosmos in their own image, and proclaimed it meaningless.
The first, most consistent, and most poetic of the postmodernists was Friedrich Nietzsche. Technically he was the father of atheistic existentialism, but existentialism was really no more than a prelude to postmodernity. His philosophy centered around the meaninglessness of life without God, and the superiority of the so-called "morality of power" as opposed to the Christian "slave morality" which led men to selflessness and weakness.
What many of Nietzsche's followers focused on in his thought was the "death of God" in Western civilization, and the consequent absence of truth, absolutes, and meaning. Few of them noted Nietzsche's regret at this turn of events, instead embracing the consequences of the idea: not only could moral restraint be thrown off, those who tried to impose it on others were actually evil and should be marginalized.
It wasn't obvious that this was going on right away. The fifties were a shockingly immoral decade in Europe and the United States, but there was enough residual moralistic modernism in its nuclear communities that those who wished were able to turn a blind eye to the chaos. Now, in the 21st century, we're seeing the fruit of both the postmodern trajectory and the wilful ignorance of those cut from more conservative cloth.
But we need to back up again, to the early 20th century. A group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle convened to construct a new epistemology (the theory of how we know what we know) that was entirely freed from metaphysics. In other words, instead of rooting human knowledge in a source outside itself, these men decided that there was no ultimate source of truth or knowledge: there is only what we can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste.
The resulting epistemological system was called logical positivism, and out of it grew a new interest in language, not as one aspect of God's creation, but as an evolving invention of mankind. Words, in logical positivism, had no inherent meaning, only the meaning attributed to them by humans, so that skunk could just as well mean heaven, and spoon could just as well mean vomit....so long as the community in question chose to define those words that way.
By this time, "postmodern" was a word in limited use, but it primarily referred to a movement in architecture. As the ideas of logical positivism began to pervade Western culture, more and more academics and philosophers adhered to its claims, and began to shape them into something more full-orbed and complete. Men like Martin Heidegger, Claude Levi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, and (most preeminent among them) Jacques Derrida began to form complex theories about language that made words the expression of power, and those who controlled them the power brokers of their communities.
In this way they out-Nietzsched Nietzsche himself. They stripped meaning from all realms, even language (and many of their writings demonstrate this quite vividly), and then made everything about the will to power. This process they called "deconstruction," and it worked like this: for every locus of power, there's a difference, or a binary opposition. For instance, "male" is often seen as a power locus, and "female" is its binary opposition.
To deconstruct a text, then, is to discover the binary oppositions within it, to pit them against each other, and to uncover the "meaning" of the text by learning about the community of its author. This process makes the author unimportant and even non-existent; Foucault even went so far as to talk about the death of the author. Instead, it's the community in which the author exists that is of supreme importance, because the author himself is simply the product of his environment.
This means not only that there is no author, but that there is no universal human nature. The existentialists had already posited this by saying that "being precedes essence," but the postmoderns were more radical and more rabid. For postmodernists, anything that is accepted (and is thus in power) within a community is truth for that community, and an individual is subermeged within this context and becomes entirely the product of it.
The implications of all this are far-reaching. In essence, postmodernism is a direct attack on orthodox Christianity, which affirms the supremacy and truth of the Word of God, whose call for individual salvation is both metaphysical and absolute. If the author is dead, and words mean nothing, then God is dead and Christ means nothing. Christianity is only tolerated by postmodernists if it becomes something that isn't Christianity, that admits that its truth is limited and not absolute.
Seen in this way, postmodernism isn't a philosophy of acceptance, tolerance, and human kindness as its proponents like to present it; rather, it's the philosophy of oppressive Communism, Nazi Germany, and Khmer Rouge Cambodia, in which individuals are made to bow to the will of the community. In 21st century America, postmodernism is the religion and philosophy of the political Left, which sees tolerance only in terms of celebration and affirmation.
Within a milieu like this, so hostile to biblical truth and sound reason, it is imperative that Christians hold to the truth of God as found in the Bible, breathed out by the Holy Spirit and affirmed by Jesus Christ. The answer to postmodernism isn't to embrace it, nor is it to embrace modernism (which is the father of postmodernism): the answer is faith in Jesus Christ, a faith founded on truth and revelation, in which authority is outside ourselves or our human communities, and is instead centered on Christ Himself.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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