By Andrew Smith
The word ‘postmodern’ (and its forms ‘postmodernist’ and ‘postmodernism’) have been used, abused, and misused in the last decade or two. What does that word mean? Reading authors who write about social issues, one might think it is a synonym for ‘evil’ – reading reviews of novels, movies, plays, and music, one might think it refers to anything which is hip, cool, trendy or groovy.
So what does this word mean? To understand what is postmodern, it will help to understand what is modern. Both modernism and postmodernism have long histories.
Both modernism and postmodernism have long histories.
Modernism can be traced back to the French Roman Catholic philosopher Rene Descartes (remember the Cartesian plane from algebra and geometry classes?), who lived in the early 1600’s.
Postmodernism finds its roots in the Romanticist poetry in England and Germany in the late 1700’s, in the writings of the Danish Lutheran pastor Soren Kierkegaard in the mid 1800’s, and the writings of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in the early 1800’s.
Kierkegaard is also known as the father of existentialism, and the word ‘existentialism’ is as problematic as the word ‘postmodernism’ – what do these words mean?
Modernism can be seen as a tendency to privilege reason over emotion, and postmodernism as the reverse – the inclination to favor passion over logic. This is a bit simplified: there are other significant differences between the two.
The heroes of modernism include Sir Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, and Spock from Star Trek. Modernist ideals include mathematics (algebra, geometry, and calculus), logic, and the observational sciences like physics, astronomy, and chemistry. Modernists tend to demand logical argumentation and proof. Modernists enamored with observational and empirical sciences may be skeptical about supernatural or spiritual claims.
The heroes of postmodernism include Oprah Winfrey and the cast of Star Wars – remember how Qui-Gon Jinn says, “feel – don’t think”? Postmodernist ideals include self-exploration and self-discovery, and a willingness to ignore rationality when emotion is powerful enough to trump it. Postmodernists who are comfortable with violating the law of noncontradiction – i.e., who are willing to countenance mutually exclusive propositions – will allow for “multiple truths” and may embrace, or at least tolerate, contradictory beliefs: you’ve got your reality and I’ve got mine.
Postmodern fascination with authors like Hildegard of Bingen, who was born in 1098 A.D., reveals a connection between postmodernism and premodernism.
So which one is right? And which one is wrong? Neither and both. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.
Each has its strengths and weaknesses.
Modernism’s weakness, in the words of Shakespeare, is that “there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – modernism is sometimes too quick to shut the door on possibilities which lie outside of empirical data or mathematical formulations.
Modernism’s strength is that it understands the value of a coherent worldview and step-by-step argumentation. Modernism is proficient at the skill of close reading and textual interpretation: if a paper says this, then it also implies that, and you can’t say this without also agreeing to that.
Postmodernism’s weakness is trying to simultaneously embrace incompatible hypotheses: “maybe this statement is true and false at the same time.” Postmodernism can allow itself to support a proposition without much evidence or argumentation: “I just really feel that it must be this way.”
Postmodernism’s strength lies in its willingness to embrace mystery: maybe God can be three and one all at the same time; maybe bread and wine can be body and blood at the same time. Postmodernism contemplates realities beyond empirical proof or beyond mathematical logic: what happens to me after I die? What are the implications of Christ’s rising from the dead?
Both modernism and postmodernism are broad categories, including within themselves diverse and even contradictory groups. Liberals and conservatives, Christians and atheists, can be found in both categories.
So neither modernism nor postmodernism have a lock on intellectual integrity. Both have something to offer to sober inquiry. Both are valuable; both are fallen. Each is insufficient. Neither should be supreme.
Experience and reason should be workhorses, not taskmasters. They can serve ably. Both can be taken captive – by good or by evil.
Experience and reason should be workhorses, not taskmasters.
As Jesus “unites all things” (Ephesians 1:10), modernism and postmodernism take their productive places in His kingdom, helping us both to understand and to express His love, His righteousness, and His glory.