Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Post-Modernism and Its Influence on Christian Thought (2)

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
In the December 2001 issue we introduced the subject of Postmodernism and we saw that it represents a world view which denies the very possibility of a coherent all-encompassing world view because supposedly there is no such thing as objective truth. Unlike Christianity and modernism, both of which affirm that truth can be arrived at by revelation or reason and science, postmodernism insists that truth is relative and subjective. Each culture has its own ÒtruthÓ which it preserves and passes on in the form of Òmetanarratives" or grand stories kept alive by oral tradition and in written form. Essential to the survival of these cultural belief-systems, therefore, is the role language plays in the transmission.
Centrality of Language
Here we come to what is perhaps the heart of postmodernism, namely its emphasis on the centrality of language. It is a fact that language is the fundamental institution of society. Without language, life in society could not function properly. Language, therefore, has to be reliable. A word, a sentence, an utterance of any kind must refer to a definite thing, event or idea, and must have the same meaning for all listeners and readers. If not, the result can only be confusion and chaos.

It is this very thing, however--the reliability of language--that postmodernists deny. Language, they claim, is arbitrary. For one thing, there appears to be little or no relationship between words and the objects or concepts to which they refer. There is often so much play or loose movement between words and their meanings that it is difficult to find any meaningful relationship between language and reality. Our words do not always correspond to the things we are describing in a technically precise way. We say for instance, the sky is blue, but what we mean is the sky appears blue. Well, say the postmodernists, this proves we are confusing perception with reality. Since we do this all the time, even where it concerns more weighty matters, it is impossible to come to know the real world through the spoken or written word or any other symbol or representation.

But is this true? Is all language arbitrary? Are there no words or concepts that have objective and universal meaning--a meaning that is the same for everyone? How can postmodernists make such a claim? The answer is: because they believe in a closed universe. Like modernism, which they criticize, they also claim there is nothing beyond this material world. This world may be populated with all sorts of spirits as New Age devotees think, but these spirits all come from below, from within man. But--and this is the crucial thing--there is no God who can give meaning to our words so that they relate to universally valid and eternal norms and standards.

Language as a Tool for Control
According to postmodernists, words and concepts are mere social constructs of the societies that use them. And what are words and concepts used for? Not only to communicate with each other, but also as tools to control and exploit others. Western civilization has employed language to gain control over the rest of the world. Christianity has enslaved entire nations by imposing its beliefs and morals conveyed by means of words from the Bible and church dogmas.

But if Christians could use language to create societies in their image, postmodernists can use the same method to produce a very different society in its likeness. This is exactly what postmodernists are trying to do today. In their effort to transform western culture, they are using a variety of tactics, all of which we are familiar with.

Their first approach is to present themselves as champions of the so-called victim groups in western society--women, blacks, natives, and gays. Their second strategy is to try to change language. For instance, wherever possible, they will replace discriminatory terms with non-discriminatory ones and they insist on using inclusive language. That is what political correctness is all about. Today we no longer speak of mankind but humankind. The word chairman is now chairperson. Abortion is not killing or murder, but simply a measure to ensure reproductive health, etc. A third strategy to wrest power from the oppressors of alleged victim groups in our society is to expose the hidden meanings of written texts. Postmodernists believe that the literature produced by a culture serves to promote the rule of the strong. Thus radical feminists assert that the Bible is written from the male chauvinist perspective and that it reflects a patriarchal society that treated women as inferior creatures.

The Bible, like any other literature, is subject to interpretation. The science that occupies itself with that task is called literary criticism. In ecclesiastical circles the term used is hermeneutics. Every time ministers prepare a sermon, they engage in hermeneutics, at least they should. They select a passage, do some spadework, examining the grammar, the verb tense and the context in which the passage occurs, etc. It is important to find out what the author intended to say in that particular passage and how the original readers or audience would have understood it and how all this applies to us today. So it is important to ascertain the meaning of a Scripture passage, in fact, of any literary document.

Postmodernism, however, takes a radically different approach to determining the meaning of a document. According to them, it is not important at all to know what the author meant when he wrote what he wrote, but how the readers interpret it--how we feel about the passage in question. The key word here is feel. How does the text affect me? What is my response to it? Not what the author meant, not what the text itself says, is important but how I interpret it, thatÕs the thing. The implication is that a text can have as many meanings as there are readers.

This is, however, a sure way to destroy the entire literary output of a culture. And thatÕs exactly what is happening today. Postmodernists believe that the traditions of any given culture are preserved in the texts it has produced--in the works of its poets, playwrights, and novelists, its theologians, historians, philosophers and lawmakers. Postmodernists say that these literary products serve only to bolster the power of the dominant groups. Therefore, to become free from the traditions of oneÕs culture and to rescue the marginalized, one must liberate oneself and others from the texts the culture has produced.

According to them, this can be done in three ways. One is to simply ignore these texts, and that is increasingly being done at universities today. It is appalling to hear how little exposure students are getting to the great books of Western culture, including, of course, the Bible. Today it is possible to graduate from university with no more than a survey course in general history. The emphasis is on social science, business and communication courses, computer programming, and other ÒpracticalÓ subjects.

Another approach is to substitute western history and literature by the histories and literary works of the so-called victim groups: women, natives, blacks, third world authors and homosexuals. That too is being done in many public institutions of learning.

The most effective, and from our point of view, dangerous, method of liberating oneself from the allegedly biased traditions of the West, is to expose the ÒhiddenÓ meaning of Western texts, showing that they are nothing but tools of the oppressor. This radical form of reader-response criticism is called deconstructionism. It is the method whereby the literature of the past, including the Bible, is deconstructed or taken apart to get at the real motive behind the document is. Invariably, the conclusion is that whatever the literary genre may be, whether it is a novel or a poem, a play, a law or a Scripture passage, it was inspired by the authorÕs drive for power.

What many Christian parents do not realize is that in the university setting the greatest challenge to the faith of their children is no longer presented in the science department, but in the literature department. Evolutionism is not the mightiest enemy anymore. Today, we are facing a much more sophisticated foe: postmodern literary criticism called deconstructionism.

Deconstruction is exactly what the meaning of the word implies; it is the taking apart of texts like peeling away the layers of an onion. The text or passage is examined from all possible angles so that individual bits and pieces of information are extracted and separated from each other. The assumption is that every text is conditioned by a network or web of relations, each of which affects the meaning of that text. Therefore no text has a "once-and-for-all" meaning.

Implications for Theology and Morality
Obviously, deconstruction has profound implications for theology and morality, since 'objective truth' is to be replaced by 'relative truth.' This means that sacred texts, such as the Bible, do not have a single ultimate meaning, nor are such texts necessarily authoritative.

But if truth and values are all relative and culturally conditioned, no consensus is possible. Then what is true for me is not necessarily true for you and vice versa. In such a climate any attempt to persuade others is seen as imposing oneÕs views on others.

In the absence of any reliable means of arriving at truth, the only criterion for adopting a particular idea is preference or desire. Instead of people saying they agree or disagree with a proposition, we hear how much they "like" or "dislike" a particular idea. People pick and choose what they enjoy from a wide range of theories and religions, solely on the basis of personal preference. The intellect is replaced by the will.

Moral issues are similarly relativized. "You have to decide what's right for you," we are told on the talk shows. "What's right for one person might not be right for someone else." "Who are we to judge?" Moral issues are not seen in terms of absolute transcendent standards, as in the Bible, nor in terms of what is good for society as a whole, as in modernism. What makes an action moral or immoral is whether or not the person is given the right to choose. Few people admit to being "for" abortion; instead, they are "pro-choice." Moral absolutes (such as "thou shalt not kill") or even objective facts (whether or not the fetus is a human being) carry little weight. The only relevant question is whether or not the woman was given a choice in the matter. Similarly, people are clamouring for "the right to die," justifying suicide and euthanasia insofar as the person "chooses" to die. Sexual perversions become totally acceptable and even chic when they are thought of as "lifestyle choices."

In a relativistic climate, the only remaining virtue is tolerance. The only philosophies that are wrong are those that believe in truth; the only sinners are those who still believe there is such a thing as sin. Christian and modernist ethics stressed choosing the right course of action based on revelation or reason respectively, but to postmodernists simply choosing is enough. Again, the only criterion is, do I want this or not?

The Bible teaches, however, that Òwhat I wantÓ is not always good. In fact, it teaches that our will is fallen and enslaved by sin. Simply following our wills, therefore, can only lead us deeper into moral depravity. Nor can we simply "choose" to believe. All philosophies and theologies based on the human will, rather than on God's Word, involve deception and bring us into bondage. The Good News, the Gospel, is that we are saved by God's will and not our own, by His grace in Jesus Christ. We can live a moral life, not by following our own will or by trusting our willpower, but by submission to the will of God, who sanctifies us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Postmodernism poses a real threat to Christianity. But it is not the first time that our faith is threatened, neither will it be the last time. During the era of modernism, liberal theologians developed a modernist theology. They sought to make Christianity acceptable to the modern mind by minimizing the supernatural content of the Christian faith, rejecting biblical authority on the grounds of "scientific" biblical scholarship and by concentrating on social progress. They succeeded, but at the price of the church becoming irrelevant to modern man. If God is nothing more than a symbol, Christ is just another good example, if the church is simply an agent for social change, then why should anyone bother to get up on Sunday mornings to go to church?

Similarly, the postmodernist preachers think they are making Christianity even more relevant. But if God, like a cosmic Mr. Rogers, "loves you just the way you are," demanding neither faith nor repentance, then why bother with Christianity? There is no point to the Gospel if there are no sins to be forgiven. If all religions--even no religion--lead to God, one might just as well watch TV and have a good time. Of course, churches might still grow and prosper if they are entertaining enough and meet the felt needs of the Òworshippers." But whatever is left, it is not Christianity.

Yet, while many progressive ÒChristiansÓ see postmodernism as the "saviour" of our dying Western culture, there are also people who are disillusioned with it. Increasingly, those who still attend church are becoming weary of the ever-changing liturgical innovations and calling for a return to more dignified forms of liturgy and the rich traditions of orthodox Christianity. Having been taught that there are no moral absolutes, they still feel guilty and see the emptiness of their lives. They have heard that they can create their own truths, but they long for something more solid.

Christianity has always thrived, not by trying to offer people what they already have, but by offering them what they desperately lack--namely, the Word of God and salvation through Jesus Christ. Will orthodox Christianity prosper or languish in the postmodern era? That is hard to predict. What we can be sure of is that Christ will preserve his Church against the onslaughts of hell. He can certainly help us cope with a mere culture shift. We find ourselves today in a situation similar to that of the early Christians. They too faced a multicultural society where people could choose from many different religions. Christianity had to compete with all kinds of cults and sects. In the end, Christianity won. It can do so again. We have a tremendous opportunity today because the market place of ideas is wide open.

While postmodernism poses a real threat to Christianity, it is not necessarily a mortal enemy for us. It forces us to rethink our position. Postmodernism has done us a real service by pointing out that we all have presuppositions, and that no one is unbiased. We all bring our assumptions to the world-and-life-views we hold. The question is, however, which presuppositions are true? For us, the answer should be clear and unambiguous: the biblical view is true! It alone offers an escape from subjective relativism and moral chaos; it alone offers man an anchor that will hold in the storms of life: Jesus Christ and Him crucified, risen, ascended and reigning from His throne in heaven.

We may be sure of one thing: Man may coin fancy words and terms such as postmodernism, post-Christian, metanarrative and belief-system, but God is not impressed, nor does He feel threatened in any way. ÒHe that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derisionÓ (Psalm 2:4).

Christ shall have dominion
Over land and sea.
EarthÕs remotest regions
Shall His empire be.

Christ, not postmodernism is the great Liberator and Emancipator of the disadvantaged and oppressed. Therefore,

When the needy seek Him,
He will mercy show;
Yea the weak and helpless
Shall His pity know;
He will surely save them
From oppressionÕs might,
For their lives are precious
In His holy sight.Ó
(Psalter 200:2, based on Psalm 72)
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