By David McClister
The good news is that secular humanism is on the way out. The bad news is that something worse is taking its place. That something worse is called postmodernism.
Before we can define and understand postmodernism, a few words about modernism, its precursor, are in order. “Modernism” is a term that is loosely applied to several philosophical systems including rationalism, empiricism, existentialism, and logical positivism. Don’t let those terms scare you. They are all philosophical systems that have in common the idea that the supernatural either does not exist or if it does it is not a source of significant information for man. In other words, these systems were attempts to do away with God and the miraculous in man’s thinking. Rationalism made reason the determiner of truth. Empiricism said that the only things we may know for certain are the things we know through our senses. Existentialism said that truth is wholly subjective, and what is important is your own self-realization. Logical positivism was empiricism with a twist. It said that no statement has meaning unless it can be verified (usually by some kind of sense observation). It would not be too much of a generalization to say that the goal of these systems was to do away with the idea that man must be subject to revelation from God. Truth, according to these systems, does not come from God.
Modernism has borne its fruits in the last 50 years in several ways. The atheistic, humanistic, evolutionary view of human origins, political structures that emphasize material success from human effort alone (such as Marxism), the idea that morality is relative to culture or situation, the near deification of science and technology as man’s savior, the rise of radical liberal biblical criticism that strips the Bible of all that is supernatural, secular humanism that makes man the god of this world — all of these are just some of the fruits of modernism that we have seen in our lifetime.
Modernism produced a despair, however. Man denied that he could find anything useful in a supernatural realm (that is, from God). In his search for truth and meaning the only other place man could turn was to this world and to himself So man looked to the secular world, but the problem was that he found no significance in what he found there. Modernism thus reached a dead end.
The dead end of modernism has now given rise to a world view known as Postmodernism. Post- modern- ism asserts that there is no order or rationale to anything, there is nothing that is absolute. Man’s dead end search for truth means that there is no truth in this world. It asserts that order (the idea that things are a certain way) is our creation, our doing, that order is what we impose on the world, but the world itself has no order to it. Furthermore, the order we create and impose on the world is provisional and relative. It can be changed or replaced, it is not permanent. Consistency is not a concern to the postmodernist, for consistency is order and postmodernists reject the idea of a knowable unchanging order in anything. Postmodernism is thus inherently pluralistic. We are beginning to see this in the people around us. Some people object to abortion and still claim to be “pro-choice,” some people claim to be “Christian” in their thinking and also accept the idea of reincarnation, etc.
This is the effect of Postmodernism. Without any order or absolute truth, people are free to believe what they want whether it fits with other beliefs or not.
One of the first results of this kind of thinking is that there is no room for any system of thought that claims to be true. Since there are no absolutes there is no absolute truth, and since there is no inherent order, any system of thought that presents itself in an orderly way is dismissed as only one arrangement no better than any other. In short, Christianity, with its systematic presentation of the truth, is the first thing to go out the window with Postmodernism.
Some Basic Tenets of Postmodernism
Postmodernism is the old relativism in a new suit of clothes. But it is not the stock relativism we have seen in the past. Existentialism and secular humanism said that truth is relative to the individual. Each person decides for himself what is true or right. Postmodernism also asserts relativism, but says that truth is relative to society. Society determines what is true and right. Things only have the significance that societies give to them.
Technically, a postmodernist would object to our use of the words “true” and “right,” because those words imply absolutes and postmodernists reject any notion of absolutes. They prefer to speak of “significance.” Accordingly, they do not speak of thought systems. They speak of narratives instead. And instead of truth claims, they speak of fictions. The idea is that what we know and believe is not absolutely true or right. It is just that our society has made these ways of thinking significant, our society says they are important (but they are not really true or right). They are, in the end, just our way of looking at things (thus they are narratives, fictions) and they are no better or worse than any other way of looking at things.
This way of thinking has thoroughly pervaded the way literature is read and taught in the major universities of this country. In literary circles the approach is called structuralistic hermeneutics. That’s a fancy way of saying that no literary text (such as the Bible, but any text, such as Melville’s Moby Dick is included) must have one meaning. Even what the author himself says he meant is irrelevant to this approach. I recall sitting in a course one time in which various interpretations of a book were being battered around. When one student argued that the author himself could not possibly have meant all of the various things that were proposed, the teacher responded, “What has that got to do with anything?”
Coupled with this belief that society is the source of what is significant is the idea that societies are fundamentally concerned with their own survival, and thus when a society says something is significant it is only manipulating things to retain its power. The expressions of a society (such as its institutions and its literature) only perpetuate that society’s manipulation of power. There are sinister motives behind it.
This leads to the idea that these institutions need to be viewed not for what they say on their surface, but for what they are trying to protect and what they are trying to control. This approach to things is called Reconstruction. A deconstructionist approach to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States would say that our country’s founding documents are not about guaranteeing absolute rights, freedoms, and values to all people in our society, but that they are simply tools to legitimize the power of the upper class white men who wrote them. They are actually oppressive documents according to the postmodern deconstructionist reading. We have heard the same things about how history books need to be rewritten, traditional families are obsolete, etc. All of these things, according to postmodernism, are just ways societies manipulate others, and thus they have to go. Included in their sights is the faith, the truth we have from God. Modern theological literature is filled with deconstructionist readings of biblical texts that claim the biblical documents were written only to legitimize the people who wrote them. Thus the Bible, they claim, is just another oppressive document that cannot be taken too seriously.
With the emphasis on society, postmodernism also denies that man is the most important thing in the world. Secular humanism’s exaltation of man has no place in postmodern thinking.
Before we applaud the death of secular humanism at the hands of postmodernism, we should realize that the post- modernists deny that man has any special significance at all. People are no better or no more important than anything else in the world. This is where the modern animal rights and ecological movements have gained their strength. Man is just another living thing on the planet, no more noble and with no more “rights” than spotted owls or pine trees. Man himself is insignificant. Perhaps you can see where this is going. If human life is no more valuable than any other life, then there can be nothing wrong with infanticide, abortion, geriatricide or any other means of population control. Even the so-called ethnic cleansing of Hitler and, more recently, in Bosnia would not be wrong to the postmodernist.
This has been a brief introduction to some of the major tenets of postmodern thought. For further information consult Gene E. Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway,
1994) or Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996). A fuller treatment can be found in Donald Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).
The fruits of postmodernism are all around us. The Seinfeld show is a television show in which the comedian Jerry Seinfeld plays a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld. The line between fiction and truth is completely obliterated. It is also a show that prides itself in having no plot to any of the episodes, a reflection of the postmodern idea that there is no real order. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” depicts a world in which time is not linear, reason cannot be trusted, and appearances are not reality. One of the main characters is a robot named Data who is the perfect rational machine who mourns his lack of non-rational abilities. Talk shows such as Springer, Riki Lake, and Maury Povich feature only people in bizarre situations. Perhaps the best daily display of this philosophy in action is the nightly news.
It ought to be clear to every Christian that postmodern- ism is a serious threat not only to our society but to our faith. Our children will receive heavy doses of it in the public schools and universities, and the workplace will be more and more influenced by it. It is time for us to be strong in the Lord in the face of such a great enemy.