Exactly what is "postmodernism?" I've heard a lot of talk about it lately. Supposedly it's a great threat to Christianity in contemporary culture. Unfortunately, I haven't found a comprehensive and easily understandable definition of the term. How would you describe the basic beliefs associated with "postmodernism?" Can you name some of the primary philosophers and thinkers behind it?
We'll be more than happy to summarize some of the key components of the postmodern perspective. But be forewarned: this is a complicated subject. It would be difficult, for instance, to name the "primary philosophers" responsible for promoting postmodern ideas. That's because postmodernism is not the invention of a particular individual or group of individuals. In a very real sense, it's the culmination of more than two centuries of modern secular thought.
There's a wide variety of opinion concerning postmodernism and its cultural significance. Observers even have different ideas as to when the modern era ended and the postmodern began. Christian scholar Thomas Oden (in Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia) says that the modern age lasted exactly 200 years: from the fall of the Bastille in 1789 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Architectural critic Charles Jencks ( The Language of Postmodern Architecture) thinks the postmodern era began on July 15, 1972, when the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis – a model of rationalistic and utilitarian design – was blown up by protesters who found it uninhabitable and dehumanizing. Other pundits trace the beginnings of postmodernism to the 1960s counterculture movement. These experts pinpoint the "student revolution" of 1968 as a crucial turning point.
In actuality, the roots of postmodern thought stretch back much further than this. It would be fair to say that it all began with the 18th Century Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Hobbes, Spinoza, Voltaire, and Jefferson rejected the supernaturalism of the premodern era (this is the name often given to that period of western history which was dominated by Christianity and classicism). They championed the idea that human reason alone is capable of answering every question and solving every problem. This was the beginning of the modern era.
The Enlightenment spawned two reactions. In the 19th century, Romanticism, exemplified in the works of Kant, Rousseau, Byron, Shelley, and Goethe, opposed Enlightenment rationalism. These writers emphasized the emotions as the key to human fulfillment. Then, in the 20th century, existentialists like Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger revolted against the mechanistic materialism of Hegel, Marx, and Darwin. They said that objective reality is "absurd" and advanced the idea that meaning is a purely private and personal phenomenon. Romanticism and existentialism paved the way for postmodernism. They did this by dismantling the concept of absolute truth and elevating relativism to an honored place at the center of popular culture.
The essence of postmodernism, then, is a rejection of Enlightenment claims concerning the pre-eminence of reason. This is symbolized in the fall of the Berlin Wall because Marxism is a rationally and materialistically based system. Similarly, the Pruitt-Ingoe housing development was "scientifically" conceived and carried out, and for this reason its destruction was characteristically "postmodern." The same thing can be said about the countercultural movement of the 1960s: like the romantics and existentialists, the hippies and radicals emphasized relativism and made personal experience the test of meaning and significance. Other factors have also contributed to the demise of Enlightenment rationalism – for example, pluralism, multiculturalism, and developments in the world of science, such as quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry, which seem to suggest that reality itself is not rational.
Christianity has no quarrel with postmodernism where rationalism is concerned. Both worldviews deny that human reason can solve all of man's problems. But they clash over the question of absolute truth. Christians say that absolute truth has been given to man by revelation. Postmodernists, on the other hand, deny the existence of both truth and revelation. They also reject any system of thought which, like rationalism, claims to provide a key to the meaning of existence as a whole. In postmodern jargon, such systems or worldviews are dismissed as mere "narratives." They are also sometimes described as "universal or totalizing discourses" or "social and linguistic constructions."
Author Gene Veith sums all this up by saying, "Postmodernism is a worldview that denies all worldviews." It's a philosophy that explodes all comprehensive systems without offering to build anything new in their place. In place of purpose, design, logic, and meaning it affirms and embraces uncertainty, anarchy, chaos, and chance. It considers any effort to impose order upon the world or human life as purely provisional and arbitrary. It asserts that "truth" can vary from person to person and group to group.
For further insight into this subject, we recommend that you take a look at Gene Edward Veith's book Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. This resource, which is published by Crossway Books, is available through our ministry and can be ordered via our Online Store.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss your questions at greater length with a member of our team, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
Christian Research Institute