The Postmodern Turn

May 2015 Pulse

‘Postmodern’ is a word that seems to appear very frequently in both print and conversation these days. This dreadful coinage can be traced to the 1930s, but it was probably not until the 1970s that it began to receive wide and serious attention in academia and popular culture.

Postmodernism is a complex idea because it refers not only to cultural sensibilities but also to the way we have come to look at reality itself. It points to a sentiment as well as to a philosophy. Postmodernism in fact signifies a monumental shift in outlook that has affected every aspect of contemporary culture, including science and the arts.

In addition, the prefix does not indicate a peaceful and quiet departure from modernity. Rather it is iconoclastic: it points to the radical demolition and rubbishing of everything that modernity purports to cherish. As David Harvey puts it, postmodernism represents ‘for the most part … a wilful and rather chaotic movement to overcome all the supposed ills of modernism’.

However, this view of postmodernism – as a virulent crusader against modernism – sometimes obscures the fact that despite its loud protestations the former is in some profound ways parasitic to the latter. As Ihab Hassan has so perceptively pointed out in The Dismemberment of Orpheus, ‘The postmodern spirit lies coiled within the great corpus of modernism … It is not really a matter of chronology: Sade, Jarry, Breton, Kafka acknowledge that spirit’.

Christian theologians have in some measure welcomed the postmodern critique of what may be broadly described as the ‘Enlightenment Project’. For example, theologians concur with postmodernism’s rejection of the reductive rationalism of the Enlightenment that has excluded important human experiences such as religion. In similar vein, theologians have also endorsed postmodernism’s critique of scientism, the exaggerated estimate of the competence of science that is so pervasive in western cultures.

These important agreements notwithstanding, there is also much in postmodernism that Christians must not only criticise but also roundly reject.

According to Jean-François Lyotard of the Institute Polytechnique de Philosophie of the Universite de Paris in Vicennes, France, postmodernism can be chiefly characterised as the incredulity toward metanarratives. By metanarratives, Lyotard refers to ‘any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectic of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working spirit, or the creation of wealth’.

In rejecting metanarratives, postmodern thinkers insist that no single worldview, ideology or vision of reality can claim universal assent. We find in postmodernism a kind of naïve egalitarianism, a ‘democratisation’ of worldviews that prohibits the privileging of one over the other.

According to postmodernism, Christians cannot insist on the universal significance of the Gospel because the narrative of the salvation of fallen humanity in Jesus Christ must be seen as just one religious account of reality among many others.

Closely related to the rejection of metanarratives is the postmodern aversion to the notion of objective truth. Just as there is no grand scheme within which reality must be understood, so there is also no objective truth, no truth-claim that can command universal allegiance.

Truth is relativised and inextricably tied to communities, ethnic groups, and other contingent factors. There is no such thing as Truth, only truths. There is no absolute dogma, but only a plurality of disparate, incommensurable and conflicting truth-claims.

Postmodern relativism extends beyond philosophy and epistemology to include morality as well. Walter Stace defines moral relativism thus: ‘Any ethical position which denies that there is a single moral standard which is applicable to all men at all times may be called a species of ethical relativism. There is not, the relativist asserts, merely one moral law, one code, one standard’. Underscoring the implications of this, Richard Brandt describes the moral relativist as someone for whom conflicting ethical opinions are all valid.

The postmodern rejection of objective truth also has implications in hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation. According to some postmodern philosophers, there is no inherent meaning in a text. Others would argue that even if there is one it cannot be gleaned by the reader, especially one that is historically removed from the text. Consequently, meaning is not supplied by the text but by its reader whose reading of the text is profoundly influenced by his own historical and cultural locations and existential questions from which he cannot extricate himself.

All this has profound implications for the Christian church – its gospel, Scriptures and doctrine.

Needless to say, Christians could neither affirm the postmodern rejection of objective truth nor its moral relativism. The Christian doctrine of revelation asserts that the Church’s truth-claims concerning God is objectively grounded in the divine self-disclosure. And while Christians concur that certain metanarratives like that of hegemonic secularism stemming from Enlightenment rationalism must be challenged, God’s plan for the world as disclosed in Scripture cannot be subjected to postmodern incredulity.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.