In my previous post, I attempted to define the nebulous philosophy that is postmodernism. To reiterate, postmodernism is the movement that calls into question the idea that human beings can access any sort of transcendent, objective knowledge or ethics. Postmodernism forces us to understand ourselves and everything we “know” as embedded within the communities and language that we inhabit. Postmodernism asks us to question how what passes for knowledge is really an assertion of power by those who will benefit from keeping certain voices oppressed.
There are clearly a number of things about postmodernism that are highly concerning, and on some levels, dangerous. I will elaborate on my major objections in the next post. For now, I will now put forward, what I believe are the best things postmodernism has given us. My understanding of postmodernism’s positive sides has been greatly helped by the work of the philosopher, James K. A. Smith, especially his book Who’s Afraid of Relativism (The Church and Postmodern Culture): Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood. This will be a relatively short list, because my overall assessment is that postmodernism does more harm than good, but one must give the devil his due, so to speak.
Postmodernism calls into question the intellectual superiority and dominance of modernism.
Since the Enlightenment and the birth of modernity, the tools of the scientific method have reigned as the dominant method of discovering and describing reality. This has, overall, been a very good thing for the world. For example, the scientific method and trust in its ability to bring about positive results is one of the main reasons why we have antibiotics and no longer practice bloodletting as a way to cure disease.
However, one of the side effects of the Enlightenment was that science became the exclusive arbitrator of “truth.” In order for something to be “true” and worth believing in, it had to be provable using scientific methods. This had very negative implications for religious belief, especially belief in the miraculous. For example, the tools of the scientific method require that phenomena can be repeated to be verified; miracles, by definition are not repeatable, and thus not verifiable. This is largely what put traditional Christian truth claims on the intellectual defensive in the west over the last few centuries. In order for Christian faith to be intellectually credible, it had to measure up to modern science as the final standard of truth.
Postmodernism calls into question the idea that scientific knowledge is the highest form of knowledge. It recognizes its limits and says, yes, it’s a helpful way of knowing, but only under certain conditions. Postmodernity recognizes the value of multiple forms of “truth,” and doesn’t privilege one form over another. Now, there are some serious problems with this, but it does open up the intellectual playing field for religion to be part of the conversation. Think of it this way: in modernity, religion was seen as primitive and the product of an unscientific mindset. Postmodernity sees value in religious experience, making spirituality cool again, albeit typically not in its organized forms.
Postmodernism asks us to take the limits of our ability to know, seriously.
While intelligent human beings since ancient times have recognized their own limits in regard to what it was possible for them to claim to “know,” postmodernism does ask us to take our status as finite “knowers” very seriously.
Whereas modernism, broadly understood the human self to be a thinking brain inside a body that could receive, process, and categorize information, postmodernism understands a human self and what it “knows” as the product of its community and traditions. What someone knows to be true is based on what has emerged as “true” within the community, language, and traditions in which that person operates. No human being is a blank slate that objectively processes knowledge, but is influenced by an infinite number of personal and cultural factors that limits how the truth is expressed in language.
This observation is helpful in that it helps us to take our human limitations a little more seriously. We recognize that much of what we think we “know” is, in fact, due to the communities we are a part of and what they have imparted to us. We recognize there are numbers of ways to interpret the same phenomena, that all could be considered “true” in a limited sense. Truth becomes what “works” within the community.
This puts a bit of pressure on the Christian thinker to ask him/herself how the truth claims that we operate under work themselves out in real time. In part, we have to judge what we say we believe by the fruit it produces in real time. While this cannot be the sole criteria for determining what counts as truth, it does push us to examine and take responsibility for the results of our truth claims, both within the internal community and in the wider world.
These are the two most helpful things that I find postmodernism has to offer, though I’m not convinced that one couldn’t gain these insights elsewhere. Postmodernism has simply highlighted and emphasized these areas to a great degree. If we are going to engage with culture as part of God’s mission to redeem and renew the world, we must learn how to live, think, and speak within a postmodern culture. If we are to offer an alternative, we must know how to present that alternative in a way that makes sense to our culture; that is missiology 101. While there may be a number of things about postmodernism that are objectionable, if we are a people committed to the truth, we should recognize truth where we find it, even if the system isn’t sure what it means by “truth.”