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5 Things You Should Know about Postmodernism

Are there a hundred other things you would rather talk about than going over postmodernism again? What if I promise that this is the last article you ever need to read about postmodernism?  I can’t make that promise because that would not be very postmodern of me. So let me give you a reason why it is important to continue to work away at understanding the problem of postmodernism.

Philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s famous phrase raises an important point: “The owl of Minerva takes flight only with the coming of dusk.” Hegel’s image asserts that wisdom or understanding about a particular idea or epoch can only truly come after its time has already passed. Philosophy thus becomes a historical discipline (at least if you agree with Hegel). To change the image: It is hard for a fish to understand what it means to be dry while it is still swimming in the ocean.  In many ways, this applies to postmodernism. We need to keep wrestling with it because we are still swimming in it. Many of the ways we have understood postmodernism––the ideas, issues, and figures––need to continue to be reinterpreted and assessed, especially as postmodernism continues to assert its influence in society.

With this in mind, allow me to describe postmodernism in five different ways, each important to consider as we continue to engage postmodern culture, politics, and self-understanding:

Postmodernism is not a single, unified, definable collection of ideas, goals, and purposes.

And this makes sense. Much of modern philosophy––influenced by the goals and methods of science, or working in conjunction with it––seeks generalized knowledge, abstracting from particulars to subdue the chaos of our experience under theoretical laws or logics. In contrast, postmodernism returns us to the particulars of human experience;  as a result, different thinkers are preoccupied by different issues and go about their tasks with many different methodologies. This makes discussing postmodernism very difficult because we often need to be able to generalize in order to summarize. If we are talking about postmodernism in a sermon, a lesson, or a conversation with a friend, we really don’t have the time to slice all that baloney. But we must at least be aware––and make others aware––that we are simplifying the situation.

Postmodernism is related to the human sciences.

History (as per Hegel’s owl) is vitally important in helping us understand ideas because ideas do not arise in a vacuum. Much of the framework for postmodernism was laid in the work of historian-philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey made a famous and important distinction between the natural sciences and the human sciences. He attempted to place the sciences focused on human beings on the same methodological grounds as the natural sciences. However, Dilthey ultimately determined that the methods and goals of the human sciences have to be different than the natural sciences––humans, history, and culture clearly do not follow laws in the rigid and predictable manner of nature.

From this fundamental dichotomy we can begin to understand the strange tension in our society today between the apotheosis of science as able to discover hard facts, and the simultaneous rejection of such standards in areas pertaining to art, literature, morality, and ethics, as well as any other discipline that does not fall under the category of natural science. Dilthey’s determination led to another famous distinction being made between explanation and understanding. Where explanation is based on the discovery of rules linking cause and effect (or anything similar), understanding involves progressive discovery through the interpretation of meaning, which is inherently subjective (think of the real differences between cultures) and never-ending, even within our own culture. This second dichotomy *creates a new vocabulary for talking about human beings and the structures and institutions we inhabit. But this vocabulary––at least in some cases––has been warped into a rather naïve form of relativism in humanities departments and society at large.

Postmodernism is all about language.

As noted above, coming to an understanding of human beings does not simply involve deduction from facts discovered through unbiased perception; instead, we are involved in mediating the myriad of meanings that we find in the language in which we think and act. Language does not play the same role in every postmodern thinker’s philosophy or theology, but it is a hallmark of many. It is in its relationship to language and textuality that so much of postmodern philosophy is bound up in what is called hermeneutics. This notion of hermeneutics is very different than the kind we often think of as “best practices” for reading a particular text (such as Scripture). This notion of hermeneutics is interested in the structures that humans possess and utilize to understand ourselves and the world, and the way that these structures simultaneously make understanding possible but cause us to misunderstand people, cultures, texts, and objects. Language is considered to be the structure that human beings use to understand and make sense of our experience. It should be noted that natural languages are vague, often ambiguous, taught by a particular culture, and in need of interpretation. We are very good at interpreting our own language in our own culture. However, sometimes interpretation can lead us into grave misunderstandings as well. We can begin to see why postmodernism takes the particular shape that it does. It is instructive to note that many, if not most postmodern philosophers do not destroy meaning and understanding; rather, they see it as part of a process of ongoing, never-finished discovery.

Postmodernism is the reduction of formal theories of knowledge (i.e., epistemology).

We have inherited a particular way of thinking about ourselves and the world, and it can be illustrated by the way we use the word mind. Our use of mind is inherited from a distinction drawn by philosopher-scientist René Descartes many years ago, whereby the mind is a non-physical “something” that is the “real,” subjective person. Then there is the world of physical reality, the “out there” that is extended in space and time as the object of the mind. Hence we get the terms subjective and objective. The problem: how can the mind truthfully represent (as an image or as a mirror) the reality of the objective world to which it does not belong? In contrast, many postmodern thinkers call this program of epistemology into question. They ask, what is this mind being spoken of? Does the word refer to a real thing, or is it more like a rule we use to understand our experience? And has it misled us into believing that there is such a thing as subjective and objective judgments? If this rejection of a very common way of thinking and speaking is accepted, many things––including poetry, theatre, art, literature, and the imagination in general––regain much of their lost significance for human life and society. And through this domestication of some pure rationality, we begin to see new lines open up for thinking about God, Scripture, and our individual church communities.

Postmodernism is something we can learn important lessons from without having to become full, card-carrying members of the club.

In fact, based on the first description of postmodernism above, I would have to say: there is no club! No cards, no memberships, no agreed-to house rules. This means that we can dip in and take what is good from postmodernism much more easily than from something such as materialism or empiricism, which has established fundamentals, without which we might question whether one is a true materialist. Postmodernism has led to negative results in society and the church, but it has also produced  positive developments. Theologians such as Kevin Vanhoozer are producing wonderfully erudite treatments of doctrine and Scripture that are informed by the work of postmodern thinkers on language and narrative. Having been freed from the shackles of modern critical scholarship, others are working in what has become known as the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, which seeks to read the Bible with eyes of faith, not simply historical criticism. Many of these developments were made possible by the work of postmodernist philosophers––who have expanded our understanding of history, texts, language, and human beings––and can transform how Christians read Scripture and how we engage society.

My hope in providing descriptions of such a particular topic is that we will begin to appreciate that postmodernism cannot easily be generalized, nor can it be underestimated in its significance for the church––good and bad.

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