Living in a postmodern world
As a fish lives in water, we live in the environment of our culture. We are all influenced by the world we live in: it shapes and influences our thinking. We all live in a community and society that has a characteristic culture and beliefs. None of us is isolated from this world. How we live at home, at work and at church is influenced by our current culture and human tradition, which is derived from the culture of previous eras. These cultures and worldviews can have both positive and negative aspects.
The word “postmodern” can be used in two ways. Firstly, to describe an era, the present period of time, which is characterised by: consumerism, many options and choices, globalisation, Google, Facebook, SMS, GPS, constant change, and superficial lives that lack depth, where the most common goal is to enjoy yourself.
Secondly, “postmodern” describes an attitude or mindset (which is a way of looking at things, a paradigm or a worldview). In this article we are mainly looking at the second meaning: “postmodernism”, which is the prevailing mindset of our society. It is largely a state of mind. As the word implies “postmodernism” has now largely replaced “modernism”, which was the previous mindset. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism.
I was brought up when modernism was the prevailing mindset. In the modern era, faith was placed in human reasoning to discover truth. This was an ordered view of the world where truth was objective and able to be discovered. It was the age of reason; reason largely replaced Christian faith. It was optimistic for the future: science and technology would lead to unlimited progress toward a better life because it was thought that people were basically good.
Because everything was explained by science, religious faith was viewed as being made up of outdated myths and superstition. The idea of evolution replaced the need for God. The supernatural, the spiritual world and miracles were dismissed as they were inconsistent with science, which rejected the possibility of the supernatural. So, it was thought that religion would wither.
However, modernism was a false god, because according to the Christian mindset our thinking should be God-centred, not based on reasoning that rejects God’s existence. Truth can only be discovered by basing our reasoning on God’s revelation in the Bible. Also, the human mind is flawed by sin and so it is a poor foundation for our reasoning (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 3:23). In fact, without a personal relationship with the living God, people are in a hopeless situation.
As with all worldviews, except the biblical one, modernism would ultimately disappoint. People became disenchanted with reason and science, as neither was able to deliver on their promises to solve all human problems and reshape society into utopia. Instead, there were wars, weapons of mass destruction and poverty. Consequently, the ideas behind modernism were thought to be dangerous and the modernist optimistic view of human nature was discredited. The response was postmodernism.
Today our culture is changing and postmodern ideas are driving the change. Let’s look at some of the ideas and values that people say are behind our postmodern world.
Truth and Morals
People also began to think that modernism was a failure because it oppressed the disadvantaged. For example, colonial powers erased non-western cultures. Instead postmodernists thought that all cultures are valid and they dismissed the foundations of modernism, including reason and progress. This means that they assumed that truth and morals were relative; there is no big story about history and no answers to the big questions of life; and experiences and feelings are important. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Relative truth and morality
What can you see in this image: a duck or a rabbit? This illustrates that different people can see things differently.
According to postmodernism, truth is subjective; relativeto one’s viewpoint; and relational, being perceived through the beliefs, values, and practices of the community. Consequently, truth can vary from person to person or society to society. So the Christian message (like all worldviews) is seen as being true only for those who accept it. As each person makes their own truths, these can be made up of inconsistent parts. Such truth is not objective; absolute; universal or fixed.
According to postmodernism there are no absolute mortal truths and morality is always relative. People rely on their own ideas of what is right or wrong, true or false. They make up their own mind.
No big stories
Postmodernists say they don’t believe any big story about history and reject the idea of absolute truth for the big questions of life such as how we should live, and moral, social and political claims. The reason given is to stop the oppression of minorities (who they think were oppressed by the dominant culture of modernism) such as the holocaust in Germany and mass murder in Russia, China and Cambodia. They believe that all big stories have winners and losers. That is why they support affirmative action for the marginalised such as women (feminism), homosexuals, racial minorities, and environmental protection (Modernism is blamed for the destruction of the environment). This is where the idea of being “politically correct” comes from.
Experiences and feelings
Because they believe that truth is relative, postmodernists do what they feel like doing. Instead of asking “Is it right or true”, the question is “does it make me feel good? Does it solve my problems?”. It’s self-centred and pragmatic.
Experience and feelings are more important for postmodernists than truth; they follow their feelings. Experience becomes more important than reason and images than words. Consequently, they use music, images, films, stories, plays and poems to communicate as they think people can be influenced more through their emotions.
But postmodernism is a false god because according to the Christian mindset:
- Although some truth is relative, a significant amount of truth and knowledge are absolute. For example, morals do not change, because human nature does not change.
- God has established moral absolutes to protect us. People will be hurt and oppressed if we ignore these. The great evils of colonial exploitation, the Holocaust, and totalitarian government would have been prevented if some moral absolutes were in place. Jesus said: love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Moral rules are a way of expressing love, even if it’s sometimes tough love. A loving attitude is essential when dealing with moral absolutes.
- It is dangerous when feelings are more important than consistency with God’s revelation. For example, a Christian may use it to justify having a sexual relationship outside marriage.
- A value system that teaches that truth is unavailable or oppressive, is ungodly. Instead follow and proclaim the message of truth that God gives in Scripture, which is called “the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). If we know the truth it will set us free from being enslaved to such false worldviews (Jn. 8:31-32).
- Jesus is the source of all truth: He was “the way, the truth and the life” and “full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14, 17; 14:6).
Tolerance and Pluralism
If truth and morals are always relative, then the next step is pluralism and a new definition of tolerance.
Because truth and morals are seen as relative and not absolute, every culture, religion and diverse group on the planet can claim that their truths are just as valid as anyone else’s. In this sense, everyone’s beliefs, values, lifestyles, and truth claims are equal. In other words, all beliefs are equal, all values are equal, all lifestyles are equal and all truth is equal. This has led to the concept of “tolerance”.
According to the dictionary, “tolerate” means “to allow something to be practised or done without prohibition or interference”. For the postmodernist “tolerance” now means that all values, beliefs, lifestyles and claims to truth are equally valid. This is compromise, not tolerance. So not only does everyone have an equal right to their beliefs, but all beliefs are equal. By tolerance, the postmodern is asking us to give up on our faith, and tolerance replaces truth.
Pluralism is a word with multiple meanings, ranging from recognising diversity to accepting the beliefs of others. For the postmodernist, it is a diversity of beliefs and values. If truth is plural, and all beliefs are equally valid, without the boundaries of reason and moral assessment, this leads to a plurality of values and a viewpoint that all religions are equally valid and equally true. Consequently multiple, competing and contradictory truths are embraced.
Religious pluralism assumes that one religion is not the only source of values, truths, and supreme deity. It therefore must recognize that at least “some” truth must exist in other belief systems. So although there is no absolute religion, it leads to all religions being equivalent and to New Age beliefs.
Such postmodernism is a false god because according to the Christian mindset:
- There is one true God who is a personal trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is different to the gods of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus and other religious. “Salvation is found in no one else” but Christ (Acts 4:12).
- God has revealed Himself and His will. The result is that we can know truth even though it is not exhaustive. There is a big picture – we do have an idea of where history is going, and we do have a basis for moral judgment.
Interpreting the Bible
For a postmodern, the meaning of a text lies ultimately in the hands of its reader. No one interpretation is viewed as being superior to another as a person’s worldview influences their interpretation and they are encouraged to come up with original ideas. This means that as each person can have their own interpretation, they make their own truth and they can leave out inconvenient doctrines and moral commands. Just like in the supermarket, they can pick and choose what suits them. Also, in the name of liberation, text can be rejected because it is deemed to be patriarchal, or homophobic or has a political or ideological bias. It is then replaced by an interpretation that affirms the oppressed.
This is dangerous, because according to the Christian mindset:
- The Bible is God’s word, not a guideline that we can interpret anyway we want to (2 Tim. 3:16). There are no controls to limit the meaning of the postmodernist’s interpretation.
- The original meaning of the text can be lost and replaced with ideas that are inconsistent with the original meaning.
- We need to be careful because a new interpretation can be supported by a person saying they were led by the Spirit.
- This stops the Bible speaking to us.
We are to be missionaries bringing the gospel to the world around us. How did Paul do this? Firstly, when he was in Athens, Paul was distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16-23). So he reasoned with the religious in the synagogue and with the rest in the marketplace. He engaged the philosophies of the day. This led to him speaking at the meeting of the Areopagus, which was the city council. He began by talking about an altar in the city that was dedicated to an unknown god.
Secondly, Paul identified with those he spoke to (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul, recognised and adapted to the culture and worldview, except where it violated Scripture. He made himself “a slave to everyone” and respected their conscience to help communicate the gospel so people would be more likely to receive the message. As Peter said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Effective evangelism requires discerning the spirit of the age. We need to be relevant. If we’re going to connect with people and represent the good news, we’re going to have to wrestle with their assumptions and worldview. Learning about postmodernism helps evangelise in a postmodern culture. The pluralistic postmodernist is open to all interpretations, including Christianity (although they may say: it’s all right for you, but not for me). The most important factor to postmoderns when deciding what is true is not reason, but experience. Consequently, they are less likely to be influenced by what they only read or only hear. Instead they need to see and feel Christian behaviour in action so their emotions are engaged.
This means that we should make sure that people experience real Christian love and hospitality and community while they are hearing the truth about Christ. Truth demonstrated has enormous impact. Demonstrating the difference Christianity makes in a person’s life may be the best way to catch the interest of the postmodernist to whom experience and feelings are important. The fluid, ever-changing environment of postmodernity offers little support or shelter in the face of overwhelming change and almost unlimited choice. In these circumstances, people look for safe and welcoming places where they can find a sense of togetherness and safety. Let’s model Christianity that meets this need.
Modernism gave us a sense of God’s order in the universe, and elevated our ability to think and reason toward truth. It indicated what humanity can achieve, but dismissed the dark side of human nature. But, human reason alone is a false god to base our life on.
Postmodernism, on the other hand supports the marginalised and brings a sense of our finite limitations. But it tends to create an inability to have assurance about anything for certain. Also, personal experiences, feelings, interpretations and opinions are false gods to base our life on.
Modernism and postmodernism are two different mindsets. Those of us who are older will have a more modernist mindset and those of us who are younger will have a more postmodern mindset. So we view things differently. If we realise this, it should help us to communicate better with each other both inside the church and in evangelism.
Written, December 2010
See the other article in this series:
– What is post-modernism and how should Christians respond to it?