Postmodernism is a word that I have heard people throw around for years. I think I first came across the idea when I read a book by Ravi Zacharias in high school, but I had very little idea of what it was all about. It sounded like it meant nothing more than moral relativism, meaning, we can’t know right from wrong, or no objective moral standard exists. As I went on through college and graduate school, I spent many hours trying to understand what postmodernity is all about and whether it’s dangerous to Christian faith or its ally.
I’ve read and listened to people, both Christian and non-Christian thinkers, who have argued pretty persuasively on both sides. The difficult thing about postmodernism is it is incredibly difficult to understand because it is very multi-layered and the degrees of nuance within it are vast. Whether we love it or hate it, postmodernism has embedded itself deeply in western culture, even if most people couldn’t articulate what it is.
What I want to do, is sketch out a VERY brief and simple outline of what I understand postmodernism to mean, what I think it gets right, and what problems it presents. I’m going to do this over a series of posts and I’m going to try to make it very clear, accessible, and easy to understand. My hope is that as I refine my thinking, I can help others get a basic working knowledge of the ideas at hand.
The postmodern philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, defined postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”
Basically, a meta-narrative can be understood as a story we tell about how the world is, why it is the way it is, and how we should act within the world. The Christian faith provides a metanarrative that explains the way things are and where they are going. Other religions do the same thing. But a metanarrative doesn’t also doesn’t have to be religious in nature. Marxism also provides a metanarrative that allows us to understand the world. So does scientific naturalism, the way of looking at the world that says science can explain all and is the “truest” form of truth out there.
Postmodernism claims that every metanarrative, is merely an interpretation of the world that is embedded in the limits of human knowledge, language, and culture. The number of interpretations is infinite, so, they ask, who is to say that one interpretation is better than another? A metanarrative understands itself to have something of a “God’s eye view” of reality, but postmodernism challenges that idea that we can ever achieve that.
Postmodernism forces us to recognize that all of our knowledge is in many (if not all) ways dependent on the communities that have produced the body of knowledge that we operate within. It also points out that “knowledge” and “truth” are often manipulated or presented as such by those who are within power to acquire more power and retain that power. For postmodernism, the suspicion of truth claims and interpretations of the world is closely tied to the question of who has power, and how are they exercising that power to oppress other voices and keep them subdued.
In the next post, I will detail what I believe is helpful about postmodernism, and in the next I will bring up some of my major reservations.