Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Post-Modernism and Its Influence on Christian Thought (1)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." We are all familiar with that expression, IÕm sure. But I wonder how many of us have ever thought about the implication of this statement. Simply put it means that there is no objective standard for measuring beauty; what is beautiful and pleasing to the eye depends on the observer. What looks beautiful to you may seem quite ugly to someone else. This is simply a fact of life and none of us are likely to be upset over it. Whether it is a painting, a music composition or a food item, we donÕt expect that people will be of one mind when it comes to evaluating these things. But it becomes a much more serious matter when this expression is not only used with reference to aesthetics but is applied to all of life, including the notion of truth.

Today we are being told that truth, as well as beauty, is also in the eye of the beholder. Truth is not something "objective," that exists apart from us, rather it is "what works for us," and helps us cope with life and its many challenges. Basic to this mode of thinking is the notion that there are no standards or foundations for truth. Truth is subjective and relative to individuals and cultures.

This is the view held by postmodernists today. In this and two or three more editorials, I hope to explain to our readers the importance of this movement and the impact it is having on theology and the way we think and act.

What is postmodernism? The word is made up of two parts: post, meaning after, and modernism, hence Ò that which comes after modernism.Ó Postmodernism represents a new way of looking at the world and reality as opposed to the world and life view known as modernism. Orthodox Christians have had to battle with the latter for several centuries already and most of us are familiar with this formidable opponent of Biblical religion. During the last 30 years or so, however, a new enemy has appeared which poses an even greater threat to the Christian faith than modernism. The reason why postmodernism is more dangerous than its predecessor, is that it denies the very existence of truth. This core principle of postmodernism has been called a philosophical earthquake that is causing a radical shift in thinking about the world and reality.

What do these shifts in thinking mean? Are they good or bad? And what will happen to our old traditional ways of thinking? David asks in Psalm 11:3: ÒIf the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?Ó When the convictions and values on which we have built our lives are disintegrating before our eyes, is there anything we can do? Yes there is. We cannot stop the movement that is sweeping our culture, but we can and must prepare ourselves and our children for what lies ahead by grounding them in the unchanging and unchangeable truths revealed to us in the Word of God.

Let us examine some of these shifts in thinking that are taking place today and what implications they have for religion and morality.

Renaissance and Reformation
Ours is not the first generation to be shaken up by a culture-quake of epic proportions. The transition from the pre-modern age to the modern era threw people into a similar state of confusion. This transition came in basically three stages, namely the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Renaissance is a French word meaning: rebirth and it refers to a cultural revival that took place in Europe somewhere between the 1300Õs and 1500Õs. Characteristic of this movement was the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art and literature. At the heart of the Renaissance was a new conception of human freedom and a shift in focus from God as the centre of the universe to a more man-centred universe. The Reformation was an attempt to reform doctrinal and moral abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. While it benefited from the fruits of Renaissance discoveries, it was essentially different from it. The Renaissance was a secular movement that looked to pagan Greece and Rome for inspiration whereas the reformers drew on New Testament Christianity and early church fathers for guidance in seeking to restore the church to her original purity.

The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was a 17th and 18th century movement that enthroned reason over what was believed to be vestiges of medieval superstition. According to Enlightenment thinkers, truth could only be arrived at through reason and the five senses. Revelation as a source of truth was rejected and religious faith was relegated to the private sphere. The movement was permeated with optimism regarding manÕs potential for goodness and the conviction that all of societyÕs ills could be overcome by scientific progress.

Although the rise of science did not at first pose a threat to religion--in fact most early scientists were devout Christians--as time went on man began to rely more and more on reason and experimentation at the expense of revelation. As a result, science gradually took on a secularizing aspect. Whereas the Middle Ages have rightly been called the Age of Faith, the modern period became known as the Age of Reason, characterized by secularism and humanism.

It was an optimistic age. Manufacturing flourished; trade and commerce increased, and capitalism took a firm hold. The feudal class system of the Middle Ages gradually made way for freedom and democracy. The West became wealthy and acquired imperial power of global proportions. Although Europeans admired and idealized foreign cultures, they had no qualms about subjugating and exploiting these cultures. They colonized many parts of the world and dominated much of the rest, both politically and economically.

This faith in progress, which characterized the entire modern period, lasted about two centuries. One scholar, Thomas Oden, asserts that it lasted exactly 200 years, from the fall of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The French Revolution razed the past and on its rubble erected a new social order. With the enthronement of the goddess of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral, a new age of liberty, equality and fraternity was ushered in. But it ended in Communism and other totalitarian systems that enslaved millions, ruling the proletariat with an iron fist and setting brother against brother and children against their parents.

Actually, the bubble of modernism began to burst in the early part of the20th century. The First World War, which broke out in 1914, threw a huge monkey wrench into the belief that man was basically good and on his way to perfection. And those who continued to cling to this dream were rudely awakened when the Second World War revealed even more of manÕs depraved nature. Since that time many other calamities, culminating in the September 11 terrorist attack in the United States, have all but extinguished faith in manÕs essential goodness and perfectibility.

By the late 20th century it became clear that science had not answered all questions or solved all problems. Instead, it had given us environmental pollution and nuclear bombs. Not only did the promised utopias--whether of socialism, communism or the Great Society--fail to materialize, but also social problems were increasing rather than decreasing.

No one, of course, would argue that modernism has been a total failure. Science and technology have given us a standard of living beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. Critics may disagree with modernismÕs rationalistic worldview, but they sure like its technological wonders (Osama Bin Laden included).

Still, modernism, despite its huge successes, has left many people unhappy and unfulfilled. Because of its focus on the material world, the spiritual dimension of human beings created in GodÕs image has been ignored. In other words, the goddess of Reason has failed her devotees. It was this disillusionment with the failure of modernism that led to what is now known as post-modernism.

Postmodernism first came to expression in art. The invention of photography in the early 19th century had a dramatic effect on the world of art and eventually on the way people viewed reality. Prior to photography, visual representations of the world were produced through painting, sculpture and woodcut engraving. Artists would strive for realism in their work. They tried to faithfully reproduce what they could see with their eyes. Those who viewed a painterÕs work saw a piece of the world captured on canvas by the artistÕs brushes and paint. But if a photograph can represent the same scene as a painting with equal or even greater clarity, why bother with the older method? So, as the quality of photography improved there was less need for paintings of the ÔrealÕ world.

Rather than trying to produce a ÔcopyÕ of what was out there in the real world, artists began to experiment with new forms of art, like abstract painting, cubism and surrealism. Increasingly, they began to express their own psychological experience of perceiving an object rather than trying to reproduce it. Their random splashes and dribbles of paint on a canvas reflected their mood rather than their model. (Chuck Smith, The End of the World as We Know It, p.28).

By the late 1960Õs the term post-modernism began to appear in journals and magazines, but again it was first used as a description of a new movement in art, particularly painting and architecture. As time went on, however, the term was applied to describe changes in many other areas of human endeavour. The basic, underlying principle of post-modernism is its denial of reality and objective truth. Reality, according to postmodernists, is a kind of lens that cultures construct and through which they view the world, including religion and morality. Every culture accepts its particular reality without question until it is exposed to other cultures. Today, many people in the West are confused because of the challenges from competing cultures. But not only that. We are also under relentless pressure to accept as a fact that all these 'realities' are of equal value.

Closely related to this is postmodernismÕs rejection of the notion of absolute truth or the idea that truth actually exists, outside of individual human minds. Postmodernists claim that each culture has its own metanarrative by which its members live and guide their lives. A metanarrative is a kind of story or myth that assumes universal acceptance and explains the meaning of the world and life in it. Metanarratives are global worldviews, overarching explanations of reality based on central organizing truths. They resemble stories in that they speak of a beginning and an end of history and deal with heroes and common people, with victories and defeats, with conflicts and the resolution of conflicts, in the same way as common stories do (cf. F.G.Oosterhoff, Postmodernism, A Christian Appraisal, p.55). These various metanarratives, postmodernists say, serve to legitimize or justify the belief systems of their societies. People act in a certain way and teach and believe certain things because it is in accordance with their metanarrative, or master story.

These belief systems are not true in any absolute sense, postmodernists claim, but they are simply cultural constructs used for the purpose of consolidating and protecting the values and interests of a particular group. Any group that claims that its belief system is based on absolute truth must realize that such a claim has validity only for that group. It is a locally, rather than universally, accepted truth. The narratives or stories of a culture are passed down from one generation to the next and define reality for the group and help to enculturate the children into the community of adults. These stories preserve the worldview of the culture, give meaning to life and help each person locate him or herself in society. (Chuck Smith, Ibid. p.50-51).

According to postmodernism, the Christian worldview is only one of many metanarratives. Christians live by what they have been taught about the creation and fall of man and their faith in the saving work of Christ whom they regard as the Son of God. At one time everybody in the West lived under that worldview, but today that is no longer the case. Since the Enlightenment, most people, certainly the educated classes, live by the metanarrative constructed by humanism with its faith in science and progress towards a better society. The result has been a thorough secularization, not only of the Christian West, but of much of the rest of the world as well.

Science has given to mankind a dominion over nature that no previous metanarrative has ever been able to provide and it has done so without recourse to any supernatural assistance. It convinced people that a heavenly city could be built on earth by human resources and ingenuity alone and that neither God nor religion were necessary.

This rationalistic-scientific metanarrative dominated the modern era until recent times. Postmodernism, however, rejects this worldview. In fact it rejects all metanarratives or master stories whether scientific, spiritual, social or economic. Postmodernism does not only have a quarrel with Christianity, but with all systems based on an all-encompassing world view or belief system. Modernity did not reject the idea of a comprehensive worldview. It simply sought to replace the Christian worldview or metanarrative with its own. In the words of Stanley Grenz:

The modern outlook claims to have replaced myths with rational
postulates, but postmodern thinkers assert that the Enlightenment
project is itself dependent on an appeal to narrative... The
modern era viewed itself as the embodiment of a narrative of
progress--a myth that legitimated technological invention and
economic development as the means of creating a better world for
all human beings. What makes our condition ÔpostmodernÕ is not
only that people no longer cling to the myths of modernity. The
postmodern outlook entails the end of the appeal to any central
legitimating myth whatsoever... Consequently, the postmodern
outlook demands an attack on any claimant to universality--it
demands, in fact, a Ôwar on totality.Õ (Quoted by Brain Carrel in
Moving Between Times, p.105).

New Views of Truth and Nature
We have already seen some of the reasons for rejecting the scientific metanarrative. Science has not lived up to its promise of solving societyÕs problems; in fact, it has made them worse. But the most important reason is that postmodernists do not believe that science can lead to truth. In fact many scientists themselves admit as much. Recent developments in quantum physics and EinsteinÕs theory of relativity have led to a radically new understanding of the nature of the universe and reality. One result has been that truth, at least scientific truth, is said to be relative and subjective. But postmodernists are now applying the same idea to all of reality, including religion and morality. Truth is something that you create and that societies create to make sense of life and reality, but also to gain and retain power over others.

Thus postmodernists charge that Western civilization has used its scientific metanarrative to exploit the rest of the world. Modernism, in spite of the humanitarian reforms it introduced from time to time, was at bottom elitist, oppressive, patriarchal and ethnocentric. It was the white, heterosexual, western male who occupied the privileged position in modern society and everybody else was marginalized. The alleged victims of Western maleÕs dominion are women, blacks, natives, members of minority religions and of course, homosexuals.

We should add that, according to postmodernism, nature itself became the object of Western cultureÕs exploitation. Because modernism had a mechanistic model of the universe, it viewed nature as a nonliving thing that could be abused with impunity. Postmodernists, on the other hand, view nature as a living organism that has to be treated with respect if it is to flourish. Because modern society has failed to do so, postmodernists place nature in the same league as women, blacks, natives and gays. The comparison with women is especially interesting. Many environmentalists see nature as female. They often speak of our planet as mother earth and some see it even as a mother goddess. This view is especially prevalent among new age advocates and radical feminists.

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