What is postmodernism, and why should we care?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

The word "postmodern" is heard a lot, but how many know what it really means?

Few, which is understandable. The way it is used varies and can be confusing. It can refer to new ideas about gender, the fight between the powerful and the oppressed, obscure philosophical discussions, or modern art such as Tracy Emin's bed. It's often used in a way that really just means, "younger people are very different nowadays, and I don't understand them."

Taking time to understand the concept can help older generations to communicate with younger generations, address some of the problems we have in society at present, and explain why traditional ways of sharing the Christian faith are less effective than they used to be.

Like many social movements, postmodern ideas started in the minds of philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. The implications were subtle, and it wasn't obvious where they would lead. It became clearer through the work of 20th Century academics such as Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.

If you've no idea who these people are or what they said, you're not alone. Postmodernists are known to produce tracts that are very difficult to read and understand.

Many people who are postmodern in attitudes, beliefs and outlook are also unfamiliar with the philosophy. The trickle-down effect of ideas from academia to education, media and culture is not always obvious. Many "postmodernists" are steeped in its ideas without knowing where they come from or what they really are.

What is truth?

Pontius Pilate's famous question in John 18:38 shows that postmodern ideas are a lot older than the philosophers mentioned. Pilate's question is at the heart of this radical movement, and its answer is, "whose truth?". This is what's known as "relativist". To the postmodern mind, there is no "one" truth, only different ideas that are relative to each other. This is the foundation of oft-heard statements such as "there is no truth" or "that's true for you, this is true for me" or "finding my truth".

Christian apologists have pointed out that the first statement makes no sense. Saying "there is no truth" is a truth claim, so it contradicts itself.

Indeed, many postmodern ideas, such as Butler's belief that we can choose our gender and ignore our biological sex, or Foucault's understanding of the world as people groups competing for power, also have claims about truth and the way that the world is.

A key difference, and what really matters when it comes to faith in God, is postmodernists say that beliefs are merely "constructed" – they don't reflect the world around us, or if they do, we can't know this for sure. Before these ideas took hold, we might look at an orange, think the word "orange" and see the colour, and believe that these three things are entirely connected. Postmodern thought severed this relationship. The object orange is over there, and the concept "orange" is just in our heads.

Postmodernism's effects

That might seem a bit strange and not very relevant to ordinary life, but its implications are enormous. One important consequence for believers is that these ideas inevitably lead to human thought being put on a pedestal, while diminishing the idea that God or His existence can be known.

Dr Joshua Madden, in 'What is truth? Evangelising the post-modern world', writes, "Elevating man to the position in which all reality is based inevitably (and directly) dethrones God, putting man in his place. This is, of course, nothing but the latest instantiation of the serpent's ancient deceit: man must throw off the yoke of God in order to be established as master of himself and become as a god."

But postmodern thought has much wider effects than religion. For example, if man is the centre of all things, the "self", our feelings and our chosen "identity", become much more important than they used to be, as Dr Carl R Trueman has described.

By emphasising words and the motivations for using them rather than the objective truth they represent, the manipulation of language becomes a political tool, and the words used for sensitive topics like sexuality, gender and race carefully regulated. Given that many postmodernists say they want to rescue the oppressed, a goal that most people support, such shifts in language are often accepted. However, some argue that postmodernists themselves are in fact seeking power and control over others rather than liberating them.

Postmodern ideas bring cherished values such as free speech into question, as I've recently discussed.

The postmodern church

These philosophical ideas are complex so it is understandable that most Christians find it difficult to realise their radical implications for faith today.

Many even embrace postmodernism, or at least an interpretation of it. There is "postmodern theology", what was once called the "emerging church" but is now usually called "deconstruction" – a postmodern word for questioning beliefs and traditions. Traditional or orthodox Christians believe that such movements inevitably lead to a weakening or rejection of faith itself.

Yet theology students of a certain age were encouraged to embrace postmodernism because it allowed the Bible to be read and accepted as a narrative, without worrying too much about its historical accuracy or truth. At that time, liberal theologians such as the "Jesus Seminar" had appeared to remove the very foundations of our faith by doubting the authenticity of the Bible through historical criticism. However, much work has gone into verifying its claims since then. There are good reasons to trust the Gospels.

Derrida explicitly criticised the "logocentrism" of Western culture, which he believed wrongly elevates the "logos" or a knowable connection between reality and words. Instead, he argued, words can only mean anything within their context. Yet the logos is central to ancient Greek thought, and of course, to Christianity: it is the title of Jesus taken from John 1 best translated as the "Word". It is intrinsic to Christianity to see meaning and reality to be connected and vital. So perhaps it is not surprising that the rise in postmodernism has correlated with a decline in Christian belief?

Who should we trust?

The beginnings of postmodernism feature some villains worthy of a James Bond film plotting to destroy the world. For example, there are accusations that Foucault abused young boys. He, along with a number of other "intellectuals" tried to remove age of consent laws in France in the 1970s, arguing that children can consent to sex. Rousseau abandoned his children to an orphanage. Heidegger supported the Nazis. Christian postmodern thinker John Howard Yoder was a serial abuser of women.

Perhaps they had personal motivations for wanting to reject the idea that objective truth and reality exists, especially of the moral kind?

Sign up for a free weekly newsletter with Heather Tomlinson's work on Substack