Alister McGrath has defined postmodernism as “the general intellectual outlook arising after the collapse of modernism” (Historical Theology, 244). Thus, if we are to understand the essence of postmodernism, we must first understand modernism, which it purports to succeed. Several factors are involved.
(1) The “modern” or “enlightenment” mind assumes the objectivity of reality. Reality is “out there”, as it were, independent of our beliefs and assertions concerning it. This objective world is ordered by the laws of nature, and is thus discernable and predictable by the autonomous self (i.e., the knowing subject). Human reason can discern this order and manipulate it for the good of the human race. This viewpoint is known as “realism.” Stanley Grenz identifies two interrelated assumptions that are at the heart of realism: “the objectivity of the world, and the epistemological prowess of human reason” (Renewing the Center [Baker, 2000], 169). Thus, in sum,
“modern realism assumes that the world is a given reality existing outside the human mind. This objective world is permeated by order which is intrinsic to it, is displayed by it, and functions quite independently of human knowing activity. In addition, realism assumes that human reason has the capacity of discerning this objective order . . . That is, the human mind is capable of more or less accurately mirroring the external, objective nonhuman reality. As the product of the human mind, language provides an adequate means of declaring what the world is like” (169).
John Stackhouse puts it this way:
“What is characteristic of modernity . . . is the guiding hope that, given enough time and energy, human beings could experience the world, think hard, and come up with reliable answers – correct answers – regarding the nature of things. Here was a powerful confidence that all persons of goodwill, sufficient gifts (whether in intelligence, aesthetic sensibility, and so on), and appropriate skill can examine the pertinent data and come to the same true conclusions” (Humble Apologetics, 24).
Postmodernism, on the other hand, reflects the loss of confidence in the power of human reason and scientific inquiry to understand the nature of true reality. Says Grenz,
“The Enlightenment principle of reason . . . presumed a human ability to gain cognition of the foundational order of the whole universe. It was their belief in the objective rationality of the universe that gave the intellectuals of the Age of Reason confidence that the laws of nature are intelligible and that the world is capable of being transformed and subdued by human activity” (A Primer on Postmodernism, 68).
(2) One assumption of modernist thinkers, now widely challenged by postmodernists, concerns the very notion of “reason”. Reason, says the postmodernist, is not atemporal, transcendental, or universal. “Reason,” so they argue, indeed, the very concept of what constitutes “rational” thought, changes with time. No form of intellectual discourse is disinterested or pure. Postmodern thinkers, notes Adam, contend that “science and reason are inevitably constituted by the intellectual traditions in which they stand, are implicated in (personal and) political struggles, and are inevitably subject to ‘subjective’ biases in countless ways. In fact, we may confidently suppose that whenever people sit down to establish a single theoretical system that would have a privileged relation to the Truth, they will contaminate the purity of their theory with decisions we can attribute to personal interests, unscientific interests, unresolved psychological determinations, or any of dozens of impure, nonuniversal motivations” (What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism? 15).
(3) At the heart of the “modern” or “Enlightenment” worldview is the correspondence view of truth. According to the latter, all assertions are either true or false, and we can determine whether they are true or false by comparing them with the world. An assertion is true if it “corresponds” to, i.e., accurately represents or correctly describes, objective reality. It is false if it does not. Thus truth is the correspondence between our assertions and the objective world about which those assertions are made. [The postmodernist will argue that we do not simply encounter an objective world that is “out there” but that through the arbitrary use of language we construct that world using the concepts we bring to it.]
Such being the modern or Enlightenment perspective, what does it mean to be postmodern? Perhaps the best way to unpack postmodernism is simply by listing a number of its characteristic features.
[Before we begin, I should point out that there are a variety of perspectives on the nature of postmodernism. Indeed, as A. K. M. Adam has noted, “there are as many varieties of postmodernism as there are people who want to talk about the subject” (What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism, 1). Some in the evangelical community view it as a negative challenge while others see in it a positive opportunity. The problem is that often the “it” to which they are responding is not the same. The analysis which follows tends to focus more on the radical expression of postmodernism as found in such thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Stanley Fish, and Richard Rorty. Be it noted, however, that there are significant differences even among these men. There is also a growing number of evangelicals or moderately conservative theologians who have embraced the term “postmodern” to describe their work, yet would strongly resist the more extreme form it takes in the aforementioned thinkers.]
We will look at the postmodern ethos in terms of 10 characteristic emphases:
(1) “The postmodern era was born out of the loss of the modern idea of the ‘universe.’ Postmoderns no longer accept the validity of the vision of a single integral world. In connection with this, the postmodern intellectual ethos resists explanations that are held to be all-encompassing and universally valid. Postmoderns are inclined to prize difference over uniformity and to respect the local and particular more than the universal” (Grenz, Primer, 49). In other words, postmodernism is antitotalizing insofar as it “suspects that any theory that claims to account for everything is suppressing counterexamples, or is applying warped criteria so that it can include recalcitrant cases” (Adam, 5).
(2) According to postmodernism, there is no objective, “God’s-eye-view” of the world from which you can see and interpret it comprehensively. There is no privileged vantage point that enables you to explain it from the perspective of one all-inclusive, overarching interpretation or transcendent principle. The latter is commonly referred to as a metanarrative, i.e., a model or principle or motif under which all of reality is subsumed, explained, unified and justified. Postmodernism may be defined simply as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition [Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984]). Postmodernism thus “entails the end of the appeal to any central legitimating myth whatsoever. Not only have all the reigning master narratives lost their credibility, but the idea of a grand narrative is itself no longer credible” (Grenz, Primer, 45). There are only local narratives, no metanarratives.
(3) Postmodernism argues, instead, for fragmentation. The search for a unified apprehension of an objective reality is abandoned. Postmodernists point to the “centerlessness” of life and the world. There are only a multitude of differing perspectives. “There are no longer any common standards to which people can appeal in their efforts to measure, judge, or value ideas, opinions, or lifestyle choices” (Grenz, Primer, 19). Thus “postmodern critics characteristically problematize legitimation, the means by which claims about truth or justice or reality are validated or rejected” (Adam, 5).
(4) The postmodernist resists the notion of an all-encompassing worldview. He insists there is no hope of discovering “one absolute and universal truth” that unites all of humanity at a deeper level than that of our apparent differences. “Instead . . . we must come to grips with the realization that we inhabit a globe consisting of ‘multiple realities’” (Grenz, Primer, 43). Everyone encounters the world differently, through an interpretive framework shaped and fashioned by the social context and community in which they live. They construct different stories that facilitate their experience of life. Thus there are as many equally different and valid views of the world as there are people or communities. [Of course, that claim is itself a worldview!] There is no unified worldview or transcendent center to reality as a whole. All attempts to define a single unifying world behind the flux and fragmentation of human experience is merely a power play, a creation of the human mind to control and influence others. Says Grenz,
“The postmodern ethos resists unified, all-encompassing, and universally valid explanations. It replaces these with a respect for difference and a celebration of the local and particular at the expense of the universal. Postmodernism likewise entails a rejection of the emphasis on rational discovery through the scientific method, which provided the intellectual foundation for the modern attempt to construct a better world” (Primer, 12).
(5) Likewise, there is no center or transcendent perspective to serve as a standard or plumbline by which to make objective judgments; there is only a multiplicity of perspectives each of which is as true and right as the other. There are no universally applicable and necessary criteria that determine truth. Postmodernism thus rejects the correspondence theory of truth and adopts a “dynamic” view of truth. The point is not, “is the proposition or idea true or correct?” but “is it helpful? What does it do? What is its outcome?” This is known as epistemic pragmatism.
(6) To put it in other terms, postmodernism insists that “all human perception and thought is necessarily perspectival, that is, a matter of point of view” (Stackhouse, 26). This is seen in two ways: (1) All human knowledge is conditioned by and restricted to a particular place, time, or viewpoint. (2) All human knowledge is conditioned by and shaped in accordance with the knowing subject (or the community of knowing subjects). In other words, “there is no neutral, disinterested thinking. There are simply angles of vision on things that offer various approximations of the way things are” (Stackhouse, 27).
(7) Postmodernism emerged with the explosion of information and the realization that we are a global village. Because of the immense cultural diversity of our planet, we cannot merely tolerate others: we must acknowledge their view to be no less true than our own. Postmodernism thus celebrates diversity. The idea of finding one unifying, universal truth in the midst of the multiplicity and diversity of the age of the Internet must be abandoned. Postmodernists thus celebrate religious pluralism. All religion is the fruit of cultural dynamics and therefore all religions are equally valid. “All religions are created equal. It is their varied cultural contexts that cause them to develop apparently competing claims to truth” (Lints, Fabric, 246). Thus postmodernism affirms the “cultural rootedness” of all religions. The postmodernist opposes what he/she perceives as the elitism of the west; opposes all exclusivism.
(8) In the postmodern vision there are no overarching goals according to which God moves. Divine providence is non-existent. The horror of the 20th century, (emphasis is often placed on the holocaust) proves “that there is no thread of extrinsic or even intrinsic purpose holding history together” (Richard Lints, Fabric, 216).
(9) Theology must be constructed from the ground up, from human experience, not divine revelation. There is no overarching authority that determines the shape of theological vision.
(10) The modernist belief in progress through scientific inquiry has failed. Technical mastery of the world has produced only war, fear, death, and oppression. Postmodernists oppose scientific authority. Science and technology are simply tools “used to serve the interests of dominant cultural prejudices” (Lints, Fabric, 211).