How Postmodernism kind of Gets It RightEssays, Featured — By Rebekah Mays on June 25, 2012 at 7:56 am
When I began classes at Columbia University, I was ready for the barrage of persecution I would experience for being a Christian. Too religious, too conservative, too prudish, I would stick out like a sore thumb among the unchurched, liberal youth of this wayward institution.
Maybe I’m exaggerating my thought process a bit, but it turns out that my religious affiliation was not a problem for most people. In fact, apparently it’s kind of cool for a young person to have some kind of traditional, religious background. With over three thousand Jewish undergraduates and similarly large populations of Muslim and Christian students, Columbia boasted an incredible amount of religious diversity. This pluralism meant that more or less, we had to respect each others’ beliefs.
Though not every student with whom I broached the subject of faith welcomed conversations about religion, I encountered a surprising amount of open-mindedness. To be fair, there are several limits to such curiosity. In general, the willingness of others to listen to your opinion is directly proportional to the amount of persecution “your people” have faced. (By this logic, WASPs are not seen as possessing all the answers.)
Ironically, this tolerance-based approach also limits the devout practice of religion. Since universal truth claims are scorned, you can be religious, as long as you’re not so religious that you start evangelizing. “What’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for me,” the common sentiment goes, “but if it works for you, then that’s great!”
This skepticism about truth claims, now a norm in the public square, is a result of a half-century of postmodern thinking. Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist of the twentieth century, said that postmodernism is “the characteristic of a universe where there are no more definitions possible1.” In simple terms, this philosophy rejects all absolute claims while allowing for personalized truth that varies from person to person.
As Christians, we can find a number of flaws with this way of thinking, not the least of which is the logical fallacy of a statement like “there are NO absolute truths!” Jesus made himself pretty clear when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me2.” We do not want to diminish the power of Jesus’ resurrection by throwing out his sovereignty, so we have to be careful about just how postmodern we allow ourselves to become.
Perhaps the root of the problem with postmodernism is its encouragement of extreme individualism. We all, Christians and non-Christians alike, know we have a right to choose what we think and believe. But more and more, we also claim the right to be uncontested in our beliefs. By no means should anyone demean another for his religion, but since when do we all deserve comfortable, white-picket lifestyles in which no one even questions what we do and how we live? The biggest evidence of postmodernism’s effect on the church may be in the myriads of evangelical denominations. We have a right, we tell ourselves, to pick and choose exactly what kind of congregation fulfills us the most, where the teaching and order of service match up perfectly with our personal beliefs.
Postmodernism has indeed shaped our culture’s attitude toward religion in negative ways, but the trend also has a few things to teach us. First of all, it’s hard to prove experience wrong by other experience. Personal testimony can be an extremely powerful way to convey the gospel. Nevertheless, I may have had a “religious experience” that I identify as God, and someone else may have had an experience they identify as Allah or a Divine Spirit or just a Weird Coincidence. But can I really interpret their experience for them? Do the events in my life trump theirs? They don’t, and when we act like we understand others’ lives better than they do, we can come across as extremely arrogant.
Secondly, the possibility that multiple truths can exist at once—a natural offshoot of postmodernism—is not entirely at odds with the theology that the Bible espouses. Think of the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. We can’t explain this concept with a simple, either-or understanding of God. He is both three persons and one. He exists outside of our comprehension.
Moreover, God is neither male nor female in the way Christians have traditionally understood gender. God has plenty of “masculine” characteristics, but throughout the Bible there is also a current of the “feminine” when describing God. Jesus, for example, compares himself to a mother hen gathering chicks under her wings3. Truth is truth, and sin is sin, but a binary understanding of things doesn’t usually let us comprehend the nature of God.
In the book of Isaiah, God calls out his people for their pride and arrogance in assuming they know everything. “As the heavens are higher than the earth,” God declares, “so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts4.” So, too, does God reprimand the figure of Job, even though the guy is just trying to make sense of the agonizing suffering in his life. In the end, Job admits the limitations of his knowledge, saying, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know5.”
If nothing else, postmodernism encourages us to be humble. We can have confidence that God is who He claims to be, and for a thousand reasons, we can know in the depths of our souls that Christ loves us and gave himself up for us. We also shouldn’t neglect Jesus’ mandate to go forth and make disciples just because it will at times be uncomfortable in a pluralistic society. But we need constantly to challenge our thinking, and take a step back the minute we believe that our particular, nuanced interpretation of things is the right one. Instead, we must stop and remind ourselves that it’s God who is the source of all things True—and that His power is far beyond anything we could ask for or imagine.
1 “Apologetics for Postmoderns,” Truth Decay, Douglas Groothius. http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissar25.htm
2 John 14:6 (All scripture references ESV)
3 Matt. 23:37, Luke 13:34
4 Isaiah 55:9
5 Job 42:3