In my previous two posts I outlined my understanding of postmodernism and what it gets right. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand this philosophy, primarily because it is so polarizing in the theological world. Its influence is felt in almost every area of western culture. For example, the phenomena of news that is tailored specifically toward one’s specific political ideology (Fox News vs MSNBC) as a way of interpreting the world is, in my understanding, very much the product of a postmodern culture. No longer is news and journalism understood to be the pursuit of an objective account of the facts, but is quite openly a tool used to promote an ideological agenda with the aim of establishing cultural power. Liberals and conservatives are both guilty of this.
Books have been written critiquing postmodernism by people much smarter and more philosophically competent than I. My simple critique here is not meant to be exhaustive, but will simply outline, very broadly, why I think this philosophical movement is problematic. It simply represents my three biggest objections . I am highly indebted to the work of the psychologist Jordan Peterson in helping articulate my objections to postmodernism. He has helped me greatly understand both its origins in re-packaged Marxism and its endpoint in cultural and personal chaos.
It all comes down to power.
Postmodernism is largely interested in unmasking power that is used to keep other voices silenced for the benefit of those in power. While this is not a bad thing in itself, at first glance, this becomes highly problematic because it is wedded to the idea that truth claims are simply disguised assertions of power. Now, undoubtedly throughout history many truth claims have been disguised assertions of power used to subjugate others. However, when this is applied to all truth claims, dialogue becomes impossible because all one cares about is beating the opponent and accruing the power.
Again, this can be seen in the competing ideological narratives conservative and liberal news media outlets feed their audiences. Of course, different interpretations of the world are nothing new, and neither is the impulse to use one’s interpretation to amass power for oneself. But, in our culture, we are seeing the possibility of genuine dialogue between the ideological camps become less and less likely. I believe this is in large part due to the radical suspicion toward any objective standard of truth that can be accessed through dialogue and reason. Postmodernism, while claiming to expose power, fails in that it ends up providing people with no real alternative other than trying to accrue power.
It divides the world too simply along lines of “oppressed” vs. “oppressor.”
Peterson’s work helped me understand this strange feature of postmodernism. Simply, because of its entanglement with the idea that truth claims are simply assertions of power to keep certain voices subjugated, postmodernism ends up on a perpetual quest to demonstrate who, in any given situation, is the oppressor who is benefiting off the subjugation of other voices. Postmodernism’s origins in Marxist and far-left political thinking, replaces struggle between the bourgeoisie and the workers, with the broader concept of the struggle between oppressed and oppressor (See this Peterson video for a fuller treatment of this idea at 5:20).
This way of viewing the world, is simply inadequate to deal with the complexities of human nature and culture. Postmodernism is highly critical of Western culture and its dominance and influence on the world. It is critiqued as the product of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation of the natural world. Now, undoubtedly there is an element of truth to that, but postmodernism largely fails to appreciate the fact that no better alternative has been offered of ever existed. What culture has not subjugated others based on their ethnicity, gender, or some other factor? What culture has lived in perfect balance with nature? While western culture is far from perfect and has its history of sins, it has, due to the influence of Christianity, done more to propagate the idea that every human being is of equal dignity before God and the law.
But postmodernism teaches people to view the world in these inadequate binary terms. It is permissible, indeed required, from a postmodern viewpoint to judge and evaluate a person as oppressed or an oppressor based solely on their group identity, whether that be race, gender, sexual orientation/identification, or any number of combinations thereof. The end result is an absurd and infinite cycle of groups attacking one another and scapegoating whoever is identified as the primary oppressor (i.e. the straight, white, Christian male as the paragon of all that is oppressive).
It all comes down to interpretation.
Postmodernism’s radical skepticism toward truth claims and resistance to any universally true account of reality simply is not able to give human beings any meaningful way of navigating the realities of life. The charge of relativism against postmodernism is a powerful one, in my opinion, and relativism is simply an untenable grounding for a society or an individual. Even if one does not believe in any universal account of reality (metanarrative), a person has to live as if such an account exists.
Of course, we should all be skeptical about our own ability to ever fully grasp the whole truth, but we should orient our lives as if that truth exists and can be pursued. As I mentioned earlier, if all truth claims are simply disguised assertions of power, then all of our interactions between each other come down to who has the most power. We do not dialogue, we simply attack the other for their “privilege,” saying, “well the only reason you hold that opinion is because you are a privileged, white male, etc…” Postmodernism leaves us with nothing else to do but grapple over power.
In contrast, if we live and act as if there is an overarching universal truth that can be at least partially accessed by human reason, we have the grounds for dialogue and peacemaking. It gives us a goal to approach mutually, in the hopes that by moving closer to it, we can arrange the world in a way that is better for everyone, overall.
From a Christian perspective, this makes a great deal of sense because the Christian account of the world makes universal truth claims. We worship the One who we believe is the truth (John 14:6), the incarnate universal wisdom (logos) through which God created all things (John 1:1-5). Furthermore, we believe this logos enlightens every person (John 1:9). The Christian account of reality presupposes that while we are limited, finite human beings, there is a universal wisdom principle that exists outside of and independently of human culture. This wisdom is of one substance with the Father and becomes incarnate in the historical, contingent person of Jesus. When we pursue truth, wisdom, right action, and knowledge, we are in a real sense, pursuing God.
What I’ve offered is a very brief, whirlwind critique of what I believe to be the three most problematic aspects of postmodernism. While it has offered some helpful things to the world, in a very limited sense, my assessment is that overall it’s unhelpful and at its worst leads us in a dangerous direction.