Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Part 6: “Post-Modernism”
Perhaps you have had an experience like this one: You are talking with someone about your personal beliefs. After explaining your story and worldview they respond with something to the effect of, “that is so good for you,” or “I am glad you have that.”
Perhaps you have had another experience like this one: You are at a church, or a conference, or some other Christian meeting and the speaker has talked about the importance of understanding “post-modernism.” I have heard some form of this talk probably a dozen times and never has the speaker ever hit the nail on the head.
This blog post will attempt to sort out Evangelicalism’s imprecise analysis of culture and philosophy on the matter of “post-modernism”
Post-modernism is a reaction against the arrogance of modernism and the Enlightenment Project. Modernism and the Enlightenment Project attempted to create a perfect worldview through pure reason alone. Suffice to say this project was a dismal failure and imploded in the late 19th century. This created an intellectual vacuum in Western thinking and the main thing that replaced it was an equal and opposite reaction to modernisms’s hubris. Post-modern thought rejects foundations; it is skeptical of overarching stories and worldviews; it says that truths are merely local and not universal. The problem with post-modernism and defining the term is that post-modernity rejects definitions, rejects categories, rejects foundations, and rejects Truth. Hence, the philosophy is best understood as a reaction against modernism and requires modernism to exist in the same way a tick requires a host.
All to common example
One such example was a kind 70+ year old professor during my time at seminary. The man had incredible ministry experience yet was sorely off in his cultural and philosophical analysis. For several weeks he used modern categories and terms to describe post-modern thought. The underlying irony was that he was attempting to explain as a slightly modernistic outside observer what an entire class of slightly post-modern inside participants had experienced their whole lives.
What is wrong with the analysis [Besides the face that almost every time anyone says, “Post-modernism is ________,” they are being reductionistic… ]
I do not believe we are in a post-modern culture!
I have talked to hundreds of people who have many different worldviews. I have talked to people in several countries, on three continents (including Western Europe). Christians love to label “Post-modern” as some kind of catch all. It is dangerous to assume that post-modernism can be considered a “worldview.” It is dangerous because it can be best seen as a rejection of worldviews, even though Christians continue to call it a worldview. Lots of people I talk to are scientific rationalists. Lots of people I talk to are pragmatists. Lots of people I talk to are inspired by Eastern thought. Some of the people I talk to borrow from all of the above – these are the people that we have incorrectly labeled “post-moderns.” Let me repeat:
Post-modernism is not a stand alone philosophy. Christians have completely mislabeled and misunderstood this philosophical undercurrent.
What you need to be studying is the philosophy of Richard Rorty.
Post-modernism is a critique of modernism and is not a standalone worldview. However, Richard Rorty took the post-modern skepticism and married it to another philosophy: pragmatism. Rorty was a philosophy professor at Yale (1956-57), Army (57-58), Wellesley (58-61), Princeton (61-82), Virginia (82-98), and Stanford (98-2005). Here is a brief outline of Rorty’s thought:
1. Propositions are true if they are helpful, and not because they have a one-to-one relationship with facts.
2. Language is a game, because words are defined by other words, which are defined by other words, which are often defined by the original word in question (heavily borrowing from later Wittgenstein and post-structuralism)
3. All language is contingent. There is no link between language and reality.
4. Therefore, Truth is incoherent and pointless. No Final Vocabulary exists (Rorty’s way of denying the existence of absolute truth)
5. The ideal person is the ironist – a person who: 1. skeptical of final vocabulary 2. Argument within ones current vocabulary cannot dissolve such skepticism 3. As they philosophize about their situation they do not think that their vocabulary is somehow closer to reality than others. People that have exhibited these traits according to Rorty – Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, Proust, and Derrida.
6. Final vocabulary leads to cruelty, therefore it must be rejected.
7. What is true is what works. What works is what is true.
Richard Rorty has blended post-modernism with pragmatism, in what I call post-modern-pragmatism. This is what well-meaning Christians have been trying to explain but been unable to have the correct taxonomy. Is everyone in America a post-modern-pragmatist? absolutely not (and I am not sure why so many call ‘our culture’ post-modern). Is there a trend towards the ideas of Rorty in Western Europe and the United States? In my view, yes.
The tricky thing about post-modern-pragmatism is that it does not need to be true for people to desire it and adhere to it – it merely needs to “work for them.” Revisiting the conversation I have had countless times from the beginning of this post – these people are espousing the ideas of Richard Rorty. The whatever-works-for-you worldview is post-modern-pragmatism and not post-modern thought.
Christians have been unable to deconstruct post-modern-pragmatism because they have mislabeled it and been applying the wrong arguments against it. The glaring weakness in Rorty’s (and any post-structuralist) thinking is that it is still subversively is appealing to Final Vocabulary in order to deconstruct Final Vocabulary. In other words, his argument is still essentially:
There is no truth, besides this one.
Post-modern-pragmatism is essentially a bait-and-switch. Worldviews have always been judged on two criteria: is it true? AND does it work? Rorty attempted to make those two separate questions, one single question by defining the two terms circularly as being synonymous with the other. It is a diabolical yet ultimately silly philosophy. The reason it is so powerful is that people employ this philosophy to justify their mutually exclusive beliefs and sin. When confronted with the fact that they hold mutually exclusive beliefs they respond, “that’s ok, it works for me.”
I believe the central reason why evangelicals have missed the target by so far on “post-modernism” is because evangelicals are intellectually lazy. Further, this laziness is always seeking to pigeon hole the many ideas and many cultures of a massive country into a really small box that they can then apply assembly line tools to fix (modernism still rears its ugly head in the evangelical). Moving forward, evangelicals need to be more precise and more rigorous in understanding cultural and philosophical trends and ideas. Up next we will examine how evangelicals have done this, why they have done it, and what we need to do instead.
(if you care to read Rorty for yourself, the best summary of his thought is his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity)