Posts Tagged With: Postmodernism

Incarnational Humanism by Jens Zimmermann–My Thoughts.

Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2012), pp. 357.

I must say, the book’s beautiful cover caught my attention, and then the title made me take it home. My recent reevaluation of Christian theology has me reading more philosophy and theology than usual these days, and I’m glad that this book was pretty enough for me to read (that’s why everyone reads philosophy books, isn’t it?).

All kidding aside, the book is well-written. Zimmermann teaches English and German at Trinity Western University, his main interests being literary theory, theology, and philosophy; so he knows what he’s doing. He argues that a great deal of Christianity has lost touch with its roots. The two thousand years of theological and philosophical thought from the first century until now has taken it’s toll. The western church seems confused about it’s main purpose. Is it exalting Christ? His birth? His life? His death? Is it saving lost souls? Is it feeding the poor? Is it retaining a traditional liturgy? Is it social action? There are many more possibilities, but Zimmermann recommends that the church re-embraces the incarnational humanism promoted by the church fathers.

Even uttering the word humanism concerns many of the laity, since they usually relate humanism directly to secular humanism. Though he doesn’t say it outright, I think that is part of Zimmermann’s point. The fact that this misconception is widespread indicates that the church has forgotten its most important mission: the restoration of humanity. The incarnation event heavily influenced the early church and promoted humanism. So Zimmermann spends most of his time tracing the main ideas about humanism from the early church to the present.

While the idea of a deity becoming flesh was certainly not new in the first century, the Christian story of the incarnation represented a tremendous paradigm shift: we are not like the gods, but the holy God–the one who is completely other and separate from humanity–has become like us. We are not like the gods, but rather God infinitely condescended to become like us. Not born to royalty, but to poverty. Not born to prestige, but to the lowly. Humanity had now achieved a special level of dignity because God had ensconced himself in a human form and triumphed over sin and death for the sake of the rest of the world. God had achieved the victory that man could never win. He did that while he was a human being made of flesh. Thus, Christianity promoted the dignity of humans. Christ had proved that the world can be redeemed, so Christians ought to redeem the world. They should seek the betterment of humanity through education and social action. Furthermore, the church fathers made a sharp distinction between Neo-Platonism and Christian humanism. The truth of Christianity was more relational than cerebral (though truth and facts were very important).

Later, the Enlightenment and Reformation championed personal knowledge and independence. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel equated knowledge and logical thought with humanity. Dignity had more to do with the cerebral instead of being itself. The reformers had legitimate and serious concerns with Rome, but also championed ideas and ideals over some of the more mysterious elements of Christianity. The Eucharist had to be modified in Protestant circles to accommodate to new ways of thinking. Even Luther modified his view of the bread and wine based on enlightenment thought. The center of Christian worship–the moment acknowledges the mysterious union between spirit and flesh–the Eucharist became segmented. To many, they became symbolic. The bread was just bread and wine was just wine. A Neo-Platonic separation between flesh and spirit thus became standard doctrine for many churches. So human beings were similarly segmented into flesh and spirit beings.

Later, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Heidegger negated the “spiritual” side of humans. Beforehand, people assumed that there was a common and even divine expectation for all human beings to fulfill, but these philosophers identified such expectations as elements of control that impeded the freedom of human beings. Thus, the cerebral element to humanity is really irrelevant; being is the only issue relevant to humans. So, expression becomes important for humans with no prescription for normality. Humans are not obliged to be anything or to act in any specific way. They simply are what they are. Later postmodern philosophers developed these concepts even more. As a result, the uniqueness and dignity of humanity became a misnomer. Humans no longer had innate value or dignity.

Zimmermann argues for a return to an incarnational humanism promoted in the Christian Church. Such an approach emphasizes the Eucharist as the embodiment of human dignity. It is the center of Christian worship which reminds the congregation of the incarnation event when God became human. This event brought ultimate victory for all humanity. It also represented divine struggle with human travail. It is God’s goodwill toward humanity. It teaches us that all human beings are valuable because all are in God’s image and God became flesh to save us all. God’s efforts should be our own. We should take on a similar mission when we partake in the Eucharist.

Zimmermann is quite fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s approach to humanity and the Church’s mission. The Church must participate in the current state of the world (the penultimate) with a view to bring about the world’s ultimate redemption (the ultimate). Thus, the church seeks to bring about common good and divine good in the world, unabashedly involved in social action. We ought not be legalists who consistently separate ourselves from the world and huddle triumphantly in our local congregations; neither should we be antinomians who have no stance on morality.

What a great aspiration! Zimmermann points us in a nice direction, but what kind of that church would that be? How does that look practically? Zimmermann doesn’t offer much practical guidance with these questions (except for some broad comments here and there). He remains philosophical overall.  I also wish that Zimmermann interacted with the theologians who had similar concerns in the twentieth century. There are no references to Barth or Tillich, for example. That was very surprising for such a well-documented book! There are also very few biblical references. To make his case among those who hold the scriptures in high regard, Zimmermann would need more biblical support to make his case.

On the other hand, Incarnational Humanism, represents a fantastic history of humanism from the first century until now. The writing becomes rather heady at times, particularly when he discusses the postmodern period, but the discussions are rich and enlightening. It is a strong philosophical argument that modern church academics should consider in an era where church identity can be hard to define.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

More Thoughts on Emergence Christianity

My last post gave a cursory description of the Emergence Christianity conference I attended which featured Phyllis Tickle.  Here are some more concepts I learned there, with my responses:

“Emergence Christianity” or the “Great Emergence” is a recent phenomenon among many Christian denominations (and perhaps other religions), so it is not confined to a few denominations only.  It is a new attitude about religion and spirituality that represents, as she described, a probable and major shift in history.  It is one that is more sensitive to the spirit of God who reveals truth to local congregations.  It values one’s experience in life and with the spirit of God alongside a reverence for the Bible and tradition.   Tickle suggested the beginning of this movement sparked at the Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival, referencing the efforts of Charles Fox Parham and Bill Seymour.  Tickle showed no skepticism to the miraculous gifts supposedly manifested there.  The implication is that some congregations might receive specific direction from God–theological, social, or practical–communicated through these gifts.  Thus, prophecy is an important spiritual gift.

Response: I’ve left my old circles which tended to have cessationist views regarding the charisma (charismatic spiritual gifts–tongues, healing, etc.), but I still have reservations about it.  I think most people do.  This is because many a charlatan has mimicked them to take advantage of people.  Those gifts given for building others up twisted to manipulate the congregation is more than a little detestable.  So I have some hope that people genuinely practice these gifts in humble ways.  So you can imagine, I am very suspicious of new social and theological direction coming from these kinds of divine utterances.

Furthermore, I’m concerned about how one can validate the legitimacy of a prophecy these days.   The Torah called for some pretty severe consequences on those bearing empty prophecies (Deut. 13:5); but the New Testament doesn’t seem to call for such harshness.  Paul instructed the Corinthians to evaluate prophecies but didn’t even hint at what to do if they were illegitimate  (1 Cor. 14:29).  What standard might one use?   Obviously, the Lordship of Christ was a standard that prophecy could never violate (1 Cor. 12:3).


Tickle argued that history works in cycles (see my earlier post) but also suggested a view of all religious history that references the Trinity.  The Old Testament time period was the time of the Father who focused more on judgment.  The New Testament time period (I suppose CE 33 to present?) is a time that emphasized experiences with God the Son.  The present is a transition into the time of the Spirit which will see much more spiritual activity.

Response: I’ve heard this kind of thinking before.  It sells well, but it suggests Modalism (Sabellianism), that God has presented himself in three different modes throughout history, and that each mode is a different personality.  It suggests that each member of the Trinity behaves differently in each time period.  On the other hand, it may not be that they each act differently, but rather that they each interact  differently with humanity.  That would have some clout, but there should be a distinction here to ensure that all three members of the Trinity were simultaneously involved with human history.

On the other hand, I agree completely that something big seems to be happening in Christianity.  Regular church attendance is way down, but people desire spirituality.  Many believe in Christ but have been burned by the church.  They prefer sincerity over strict dogma because, like the Pharisees of the first century, religious leaders often sacrifice goodness and common decency for the sake of religious ideas.  So in this “post-postmodern” environment, I’m sure that the face of Christianity will change.  How it will ultimately look is something that none of us can really predict.

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My Little “Ah Ha” on Saturday Morning.

The word is very qarob to you…and so is this coffee.

I’m working my way through a very good book: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer).  So, I’m learning a whole lot more about this postmodern business.  The essays are by some really smart people, and are on topics such as Anglo-American Postmodernity, Postliberal theology, Postmetaphysical theology, Deconstructive theology, Reconstructive theology, and Radical orthodoxy.  It covers more topics than you can shake a post at.  One of the great things about it is how it does not simply promote postmodern theology, but rather explores and critiques it, giving credit in some places and caution in others.

The essay I worked through this Saturday over a pastry and cup of joe was “Deconstructive Theology” by Graham Ward (a priest of the Church of England and professor of lots of philosophical and religious concepts that you and I would probably have a hard time understanding at the University of Manchester).  He gives a history of deconstructive theology and hermeneutic concluding with his own appraisal of such methods.  Discussing Jacques Derrida’s ideas, he notes that Derrida only became academically interested in theology when theologians began using his methods to interpret the scriptures.

Derrida’s approach to the text was nihilistic.  It seems he believed that any given text was a platform upon which a reader constructs meaning.  I think there is some truth in that, but I’m not entirely convinced.  I grew up interpreting the Bible a certain way.  I interpreted it the best way I could based on what I knew.  When I went to seminary, I learned a lot and so interpreted the Bible differently based on my new-found theological education.  I have more tools and knowledge of the text now.  Some bothersome questions arise now: Can God speak to me more clearly through the Bible now that I have a theological education?  If God uses the Bible to speak to me, can he speak to me better now that I’m “educated”?  Are my interpretations of his message more legitimate now than they were in the past?

And here is my “ah-ha!”  My engagement with the Bible is a divine interaction, and the Holy Spirit can and does use these readings to speak directly to me.  When I read the text, in a way, I construct the meaning of that text and I expect that the Holy Spirit is involved in that process.  It’s mysterious, and cannot be entirely measured or regulated.  My education may give me the tools and skill to have a more critical reading of the Bible, but not necessarily a more devotional and thus a more meaningful reading of the Bible.  I can now see the significance of Karl Barth’s approach to the Biblical text.  A Bible laying on a desk is the Word of God.  But an open Bible that I am reading to a church audience behaves differently.  In which instance is the Word “living and active”?–while it sits on the desk or while I actively engage it?   The Holy Spirit works in me while I read it.  I may not always get it “right,” but I have faith that it will affect me positively.

Now, I still believe there must be regulation in reading.  If the text is “God is Love” interpretations like  “My cat is red” would be delusional, illogical, or dishonest.  How does all of this work together–well…this is just an ‘ah ha!’ not a full exposition.

Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Better Approach to Postmodernists

So I left my readers hanging on my last post that showed folks how not to argue with a postmodernist.  Since then life got busy, so I’m later than I wanted to be (a month–sheesh!), but here you go. Let’s begin by remembering the way the postmodernist thinks.  Postmodernism is a mindset which considers the truth to be something constructed by each person based on their life experiences.  Someone born and raised in Asia will see life differently than one in America, or Brazil, or Africa.  This is a phenomenon we’ve noticed in the Christian church.  Christians of the same tradition, on the other side of the globe will have a different take on many different things religiously.  Different life experiences make people ask different questions about life.  Each individual is forced to come up with answers to those questions on his own.

The “authorities” on any subject are often eyed with suspicion.  Everyone knows that for every expert on a given topic, you can find another one with different or even opposite views.  Both of them will have great reasons for their positions.  Which one will you believe?  How will you determine which one is “right”? You’re not an expert in that field.  You’re not qualified to decide. You don’t have the smarts that they do. So what are you going to do?  Easy…you’re going to choose.  Your choice may not be “right,” and you may never be able to tell if it is with absolute certainty; but the choice you make gives you power and ownership over the situation.   You may choose to side with scholar A, scholar B, or not to side at all.  Whatever choice you make, your choice is completely yours.

Agent Smith and Neo. Neo is the one in the dress.

If you recall, this is one of the themes of the Matrix films.  The main character Neo tries to figure out what is going on in his life, asking some of the deepest questions one can.  Questions like “what is my purpose?” and “What is reality?” In the end of the last movie (the most disappointing of the trilogy, by the way), the arch-villain Agent Smith pummels poor Neo nearly to death.  Utterly broken, Neo stands to fight again.  A frustrated Agent Smith then starts a
lengthy tirade of questions, wanting to find the purpose and motivation behind Neo’s ambition:

Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?

To Smith’s maniacal rant, Neo pants out a simple answer:

Neo: Because I choose to.

This is the triumphant answer of the postmodernist to life’s deepest questions.  There are many why’s and many systems of belief in the world.  Every one of them have logical reasons for their system.   Every one of them have logical inconsistencies as well.   Ultimately, people choose to believe what they believe.  This relates to my previous post where I mentioned that I won a debate with an acquaintance but apparently didn’t convince him of anything. He lost the debate, but I really didn’t convince him of anything.  In a way, I was Agent Smith, questioning all the logical problems of my opponent–but I didn’t win anything.  No, I wasn’t as nihilistic as Smith, but my badgering was the same.  So, what’s a Christian to do?

Here’s where the sovereignty of God comes into play.  If you’ll remember a secretive meeting between Jesus and one of the Pharisees in John 3, the Lord mentioned that the work of the Spirit–conversion–is as unpredictable as the wind (v. 8) [an obvious play on words since wind  and spirit are the same Greek word].  Luke tells us of a woman named Lydia who believed because God opened her heart, enabling her to respond (Acts 16:14).  Paul states that we believed because God made us spiritually alive (Eph. 2:5).  The point is, Christians tend to believe that a supernatural element is involved in all your conversations about Christ.  You may carry the message, but God will determine it’s efficacy.  Though important, apologetics and arguments go only so far, especially with a person who has a solid postmodern perspective.  Remember that the postmodernist sees your best argument as an attempt to control and manipulate others.  So when we talk to people about Christ and Church, you need to have a conversation and not a debatAlvin Plantinga after telling a joke ...e.

In the same way, I’m reminded of something Alvin Plantinga(John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame) said in a podcast interview some years ago (Unbelievable? July 26, 2008, ~30:00-32:00).  When asked if philosophical arguments could be effectively used to persuade someone to become a Christian, Plantinga indicated that most people are not moved by such an approach.   Instead, people tend to believe in God for existential reasons–that is, life experiences and events which have direct bearing on their thinking.  So experience tends to be more meaningful to people than well-reasoned arguments.  Certainly, God himself interacts with the human heart on this level.  But God also interacts with people externally, and we are privileged to be a part of that process.  That brings us back to the main question of this post: what’s the best way to talk religion with a postmodernist?

It seems to me that a person is not argued into the Christian faith, but is instead wooed.  Certainly, logic and reason are a part of the process and you shouldn’t abandon your convictions.  But there are some things that we can do to communicate a little more clearly.

Disagree, don’t correct.  “Jesus is not the Son of God”  If you are a Christian, what’s your immediate response?  Naturally, you want to say “Oh yes he is!”  Your knee-jerk reaction is to correct something that you see as error–a very big error.  But the moment you try to correct someone in this way, they will likely see you as arrogant and even manipulative.  Think of the people that correct you in life; who are they?  They are usually authority figures such as teachers, parents, judges, etc.  When you move to correct a friend in conversation, you’re acting more like an authority figure than an equal.  A more welcoming response would be disagreement: “I think that Jesus really is the Son of God”  or “I have a different view on that.”  Even “I don’t think that’s accurate” works better, because you’re saying what you think.  Instead of trying to be the truth-police, talk about why you believe what you do.   Otherwise, you may come across like a teacher trying to grade their oral report on religious ideas.

Ask meaningful questions.  One of my most influential professors  at seminary was a man who knew how to ask great questions.  When the topics became particularly controversial he tried not to tell us what to think.  Instead, he asked us a series of important questions about the topic so we could probe deeply.  Each of our answers revealed something about how we all thought about theology, God, and ourselves…which led to some great discussion.  In that class we learned that theology is not a cold machine-like system of facts, but is much more organic.  It is an extension of ourselves, and is subject to growth and change over time.  The prof had at least three reasons for asking questions: (1) so he could evaluate our thinking, (2) so we could evaluate our own thinking, and (3) so he could get to know us a little better.  Essentially, he asked us questions because he cared for us and for what we thought (unlike  Agent Smith).  As we answered these questions out loud in class, we learned to value each other’s opinions and understand how we got to the ideas we had.  Theology was not simply about right and wrong; it valued human relationships and experiences.

No doubt, Christians believe in right and wrong, good and bad.  I’m not denying that.  But when you ask questions with a genuine interest in the other person’s views, you’ll find it helps you communicate better.  It will help develop the relationship.  It also shows that you value that person, even though you may not agree with their views.  This makes a much greater impact than a debate approach.

Find common ground.  People grow through community and conversation, but what do you do if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone who believes that all religion is worthless?  You need to find some issues on which you both agree.  People who give public speeches to foreign audiences do this all the time.  An American speaking to an audience in Germany might try to speak some German just to bridge the obvious gap.  I remember the UK Prime Minister and tremendous orator Tony Blair’s speech to the US Congress, where he mentioned the following:

“On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is, kind of, late, but sorry.”

Funny stuff!  And it helped to bridge gap between this British leader and the US Congress.  Such gestures show your good will and desire to have a friendship.

Likewise, there will be an obvious gap between you and someone with another religious view.  You may not be able to agree with someone’s religious ideas, but you can find something that you both agree on.  Finding common ground will give both of you confidence with each other.  And you do that by asking meaningful questions!  Take an interest in the other’s views even if you disagree.  You may be surprised how much you agree with each other after all.  That’s valuable to the postmodernist because it shows respect for the other person even though you may not agree with them.

The best argument you have is love.  It’s really a simple and powerful concept and one that Jesus stressed.  No argument speaks louder than a genuine concern for the well-being of others.  The Christian believes that the crescendo of everyone’s well-being comes through embracing the Gospel message…and that’s why  some folks want to present it so urgently…it’s why they are so quick to disagree with other religious views.  But that kind of urgency to present the Gospel looks very suspicious to the postmodernist.   He thinks you’re trying to con him, to trick him.  But if you show a genuine interest in his views, if you live out the Gospel daily in front of him, if you are there for him when he needs you, that makes the Gospel clearer than any philosopher or theologian’s approach.

Overall, how should you talk to a postmodernist about Christianity?  Take it easy.  Respect that other person’s views and interact with them.  Rest in the sovereignty of God.  Love first and speak the Gospel when God presents the opportunity.

Categories: Existentialism, Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Not to Convince a Postmodernist

Postmodernism is rebellion against modern reasoning.  In a earlier post, I showed how modernism used reason to liberate itself from the corrupt control of premodern authorities (kings, lords, popes, etc.).  Modernism indulged in reason and promoted the hope that reasonable societies were on their way to Utopia.  However, the bloodshed in the twentieth century was the worst the world had ever seen. People began to realize that even the best educated and most intellectual people disagreed about many things.  So, postmodernists rebelled against the modernist approach.  Instead of trying to find meaning in objective truth, they found purpose in their own subjective views. Personal opinion became everyone’s own reality, and the pursuit of an objective truth (a True truth) was abandoned all together.  Sure, some people still believed in one supreme truth, but the postmodernist doubted that we could see it for what it was.

Since the postmodernist has such a great suspicion against the keepers of reason, the Evangelical Church was frustrated time and time again in its efforts to reach them.  People started saying that they were against organized religion, though they found a spiritual side of life important.  Jon Meacham‘s “The End of Christian America” revealed just such an idea.  This disinterest in the church has been called the post-Christian Era.  Postmodernism has clearly affected the religious affections of America.  Though a number of scholars suggest that we have actually moved beyond postmodernism into a new era (some give it the tedious name post-postmodernism), the remnants of postmodern thinking remain.  How can the church expect to reach a post-Christian and postmodern society that distrusts (1) organized religion and (2) a pre-packaged, well-reasoned argument such as a gospel presentation or church sermon?

Let’s begin with an approach that isn’t as effective.  That is, a purely modernist approach.  When I was growing up, one of the most popular Christian books was Josh McDowell‘s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and a second volume would follow. The book was an attempt to prove without a shadow of doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the divine Son of God who had physically resurrected from the dead and offered salvation to those who place their trust in him.  Supposedly after reading the evidence, you wouldn’t be able to deny McDowell’s claims.  The approach is clearly modernist: the truth exists and we’ll get there with reason.  The postmodernist scoffs at this kind of book.  He knows that there are many other books that seek to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all, or that he existed only as a good teacher.  The postmodernist sees a book like this as an attempt to control, not to convince. The postmodernist is not surprised that I find such books helpful because it reinforces my beliefs, but he does not because it doesn’t reinforce his.

(To McDowell’s credit, he dealt with this problem in a later book, Beyond Belief to Convictions)

If somebody wants to have meaningful dialogue with someone in this [post-]postmodern era, the best approach I’ve found is one that genuinely seeks to understand another person’s perspective.  Some years ago, I prided myself how well I could debate with others.  I had taken my college philosophy classes seriously and enjoyed any logical dialogue I could get.  I remember one rather intense conversation with a fellow who had studied to become a priest, but had later abandoned all that in favor of atheistic ideals.

My attitude? I was going to change that guy’s life.

My ego was a little too strong.  I knew the One truth, the One God, and the One way, and I wielded the tools of logic and rhetoric well enough to defeat virtually anyone.  My conversation with this gentleman was pleasant, though we disagreed about many things.  To each point he made, I offered a solid rebuttal; and at the end of the conversation, I had him in a logical corner where he had to admit that his own position contradicted itself.  It was a victory; I was very proud of myself. But I was shocked at his final response: That’s just what I’ve always believed, and I still believe it today.  It didn’t matter to him that I had out-argued him in a debate, he was still committed to his thought-system.  That day I learned a very important lesson.  Few are argued out of their positions, they are wooed.  I had engaged this man in a logical wrestling match and won.  I may have bested his outer defences, but I had not touched his inner world.  The only thing that I taught him was that his outer defences needed to be improved.

No one will woo a person by arguing them to the ground.  And the postmodernist who is cynical to a packaged logical system (and there are lots of them) will resist any notion that one logical system is objectively superior to another. So if you defeat him in debate, he is not going to abandon his system over that.  In fact, you may have inadvertently entrenched him even more, making him harder to reach next time.

There’s another approach that works much better.  I’ll propose that in my next post.

Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Short History of “Po-Mo”

In a word, postmodernism is rebellion.

As I said in an earlier post, I’ve recognized some postmodern leanings in my own views, and that’s not a bad thing.  So when you’re investigating something anew, it’s a good idea to start with the basics.  Heath White, Ph.D. (Georgetown University) wrote a great primer on postmodernism in Postmodernism 101, which I’m currently working through.  Virtually my whole life I’ve been taught that postmodernism is wrong in every way. For a while, I’ve had some existentialist views of my own Christian faith, but only recently have I come to understand that I was more postmodern than I thought I was.  Reading even a basic book like this one provided several important “Ah ha!” moments for me.  White isn’t selling postmodernism, but gives a nice overview of its propositions and history.  These are some gleanings of White’s book with several of my own observations.

Postmodernism is more of a mindset than a philosophy.  That helped me quite a bit, drawing a distinction between my own existentialist ideas and postmodernism itself.  Existentialism played a part in postmodernism’s arrival, but they appear to be exclusive categories.

The pre-modern leaders of the world were born into positions of royalty or into wealthy families.  Commoners were uneducated and illiterate, and understood that God had ordained the powers that be–kings, lords, etc–to be the rightful leaders. This system of power held by kings and lords–the feudal system–was the way of things. On some level, opposing this system was speaking against the will of God.  You could find this kind of lineage endowed authority in the Church, too.  If you were blessed with a good king or lord, in a way you would be set free from a life of hardship.  If you had a good religious leader, you would be set free from the fear of death and damnation.  So this system wasn’t inherently bad as many folks might believe.  A person’s freedom or bondage really had to do with the leaders that God (or fate) determined that you should have. A good example of this is the legend of King Arthur.  In Arthur’s heyday, virtually everyone in the land was happy and prosperous; but when he made poor decisions and when his closest friends betrayed him, he became a shell of a man…and the land suffered.  Everyone became poor and destitute.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Excalibur, Percival makes a statement that sums this up nicely.  He sees a vision of King Arthur and says: “You (Arthur) and the land are one!”  So the people are only as blessed as the rulers they have.

King Arthur in the film Excalibur. A movie, by the way, that gives the best portrayal of Merlin I’ve ever seen.

The Enlightenment Era (also called the “Age of Reason”) was the transitional period between the pre-modern and modern era. Information was easily disseminated through the printing press and so many more people were learning to read and think critically. The Bible was even translated into their language.  This new era gave people the ability to scrutinize politics and religion a lot more.  A new mentality and confidence with education and logic led to a rebellion against the premodern authorities.  The commoners were set free, and you see the appeal to reason in some of their statements.

Martin Luther appealed to scripture and reason to make his defence against the pope’s council at Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

A few centuries later, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence proposed that certain truths were “self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” Also, that when people in power become tyrants, it just makes sense that common people have the right and responsiblity to stand against such oppression.  To Jefferson and the other founders, this was a reasonable move.  Reason and logic justified the American stance against tyranny.  Reason led to rebellion against the supposed God ordained kings and rulers.  Reason set people free.

Assmilation of Native Americans.jpg

The Assimilation of Native Americans

As modernism developed, there was more talk of one right way to do everything–the logical way.  There was even great hope that all cultures would soon fade away as everyone learned how to come to reasonable conclusions.  A plurality of cultures would inevitably give way to the rise of One Culture.  We see that in the treatment of the Native Americans, who were considered a primitive people who needed to be modernized.  Christian Missionaries didn’t just convert them, they made them into modern Europeans–a reasonable society.  (A postmodernist sees that the issue really wasn’t which society was right, it was about which one was in power).The modernist era was in its prime during the early 1900s, and the promise of the most reasonable people around was that Utopia was right around the corner.  They certainly accomplished quite a bit in this timeframe.  Medical science advanced a great deal as did technology.  However, the twentieth century proved to be the most violent era in human history.  World War I was terrible, and World War II was horrific.  Battle tactics and weapons advanced, killing people much more efficiently.  Trench warfare was bad enough, and then the atomic bomb arrived.  The Nazi regime actively pursued the elimination of all other cultures to realize the dream of the One Culture (are you disturbed yet?).   And this wasn’t just a Nazi idea, eugenics was popular in the early twentieth century.  Some of these guys were the best educated–the most reasonable and logical members of society.  The new atomic age led to efficient nuclear power stations…and to the Chernobyl disaster. It also led to the Cold War between the US and USSR.  During that time, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to teachers in high school telling their students what to do in case of a nuclear warhead attack: get under your desks and cover your heads…to which the students gazed incredulously at the wooden desks and joked “…and kiss our butts goodbye!”

So modernism came from the new use of reason by the common man for the purpose of liberating us all from the oppression of kings and lords.  Our reason set us free from ignorance and feudal oppression.  But later, the masters of reason and logic [like philosophical Pharisees], warred with each other and oppressed the rest of us.  Our accomplishments blessed us greatly on the one hand, and cursed us on the other with even more difficult challenges.  Eventually, people became cynical and depressed.  After the bloodbath of the 1900s, Utopia is still nowhere to be seen.

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Adonis of Nihilism

As modernism rebelled against the pre-modern holders of power; postmodernism rebelled against logic itself.  That’s because logic can show us measures of truth and reality…and it can also be used to manipulate and enslave.  They hear the modernist say the following: “If you want to do the right thing, be like us and do what we do. Dress like us.  Watch what we watch and read what we read. We can never do you wrong, because we’re committed to logic. Our ways make sense.”  The postmodernist rebels against all such ideas, not necessarily because he doubts all forms of truth, but because he’s seen what the most logical of the human race is capable of.  He’s seen what the truth experts have done throughout history and it scares him to death.  This is why the postmodernist can be cynical to authority figures and…well, everything. Some of them are enveloped in their own negativity and don’t think that anyone will ever be able to arrive at an ultimate truth.  These folks are like the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  He took a nihilist position (invented it?)–we come from nothing and go to nothing.  Life is meaningless.  It only has the meaning that we make it have.  Therefore, life is what we make it.  We create our own truth and meaning.But there are others who have more hope, wielding the more positive side of postmodern thinking.  Though they are extremely skeptical about anyone who asserts absolute ideas about right and wrong, they still believe that one can arrive at some form of truth even though consensus is lacking.

But all postmodernists have rebelled against traditional views of logic and reason simply because they have proven to be tools to oppress folks.  And here’s the slippery thing about it all, postmodernists will use reason and logic to create their own thinking systems–systems that reject traditional ideas of reason and logic.

What’s behind postmodernism is the same thing that was behind modernism–personal liberty.  The modernist used logic to gain liberty, the postmodernist will use his own version of logic to find his own way. The modernist says: “I’ll use logic to find the one right way,” the postmodernist says: “I’ll find my own way, one way or another.”

This is a very lean description, and there’s an ocean of material that one can read on postmodernism.  I suggest you check White’s book out, and stay tuned to some of my later postings.

Categories: Existentialism, History, Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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