The Relative Truth of Postmodernism: A Sketchy Outline
by Derrick G. Jeter
It’s been said that philosophers talk about subjects they don’t understand but they make it sound like it’s your fault. This is often the case when discussing postmodernism. Much is said about postmodernity, but little is understood. However, having some grasp on this philosophical movement is vital if we are to understand our age, as the sons of Issachar understood theirs (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Obviously, I can only cover the most basic ideas here, reserving the discussion to knowledge and truth, though its implications are far reaching.
Terms like postmodernism, modernism, and premodernism are slippery things. In the broadest historically sense the premodern period covered the time from Creation to the rise of science; modernity from the rise of science to World War I (or possibly WWII); and postmodernity from WWI/WWII to the present. Philosophically, the ideas which come to define these movements revolve around the Enlightenment, which is assigned the label “modernity.” Postmodernism, therefore, as the term suggests, is after (post) modernity.
Of course this isn’t much help if you don’t understand modernism. But before getting to the various aspects of modernity and postmodernity, it’s important to realize that at the most fundamental level both must deal with the question of God and His interaction with humanity when speaking of truth. Put another way, modernity and postmodernity must wrestle with the question of revelation—the notion that truth derives outside of ourselves.
In general, and certainly not exhaustive, modernity trumpeted individualism, the certitude, objectivity, and goodness of knowledge, a universal worldview (sometimes called a metanarrative), the transcendence of ideals (especially in art), and the function of human reason. Postmodernity, conversely, values community, doubt about the certitude and goodness of knowledge while favoring subjectivity, a rejection of the universal to celebrate diverse or pluralistic views (sometimes called social constructs), the transience of artistic expression, and the importance of experience.
These values highlight the fact that postmodernism is really an extension of existentialism, the philosophy that the ever-present now is all there is to reality; so live passionately for today. Truth is not discovered through reason but through experience.
One of the most accessible examples of these existential/postmodern ideas was captured in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society. In an early scene, Robin Williams, who plays the English teacher at a boys’ prep school, takes his students out into the hall to look over photographs of the boys of yesteryear. Instructing them to look deeply into the eyes of the boys staring out of the trophy case, he asks them if they can hear what the boys in the photos are saying. Urging his pupils to lean in closer and listen, Williams whispers: carpe diem—seize the day. For the only mark they’ll leave is the one they leave today.
In another scene, Williams is attempting to teach the boys how to appreciate poetry. Reading from the introduction of their textbook, written by “Dr. J. Evan Prichard, Ph.D.,” poetry can only be appreciated through a mathematical approach of charting various degrees of meter and rhyme. Williams will have none of it. Persuading the boys to rip out “J. Evan Prichard, Ph.D.’s” introduction, he gathers them in close and tells them a secret—poetry must be felt, experienced. Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are all noble pursuits. But we don’t live for them. We live for something more, for what poetry stirs within our souls—love, passion, experience.
This rejection of rationalism for experience is the hallmark of postmodernism. This is especially so when addressing questions of how we know truth, which brings us back to the question of revelation. Can we really know truth apart from revelation—something outside ourselves?
If we could chart the various approaches to how we come to know truth it might look something like this.
Premoderns Moderns Postmoderns
Revelation Reason Experience
For premoderns there was no knowledge without God’s revelation. Revelation took precedence and served as a truth filter for human reason and experience. At the other end of the spectrum, many postmoderns say there is no God and therefore we cannot know truth, at least not in absolute (this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no such thing as absolute truth, though some often argue that it doesn’t exist). What we know is what we experience, and since we all experience life differently truth becomes relative. At only one time in the history of humanity did we believe that we could know truth without God or His revelation. During modernity truth was discovered within ourselves through reason or the experience of scientific observation. Ironically, premoderns and postmoderns agree on the necessity of God or revelation to know truth, they just disagree on whether He or it exists or not.
What can we conclude about postmodernism then? Stanley J. Grenz offers a compelling summary.
These characteristics indicate that in an important sense the postmodern ethos is centerlessness. No clear shared focus unites the diverse and divergent elements of postmodern society into a single whole. 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. Gone as well are old allegiances to a common source of authority and a commonly regarded and respected wielder of legitimate power (A Primer on Postmodernism, 19).
I’m grateful to my friend, John Adair for helping me think through many of these ideas, especially the chart on knowledge. John is currently researching and writing about the film genius of John Ford. John writes the most thoughtful movie reviews I’ve ever read at his blog, www.gladsomemornings.wordpress.com.
Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
Also see Smith, James K. A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.