Postmodern Times

Gene Edward Veith
Monday, August 13th 2007
Sep/Oct 1995

We are living in a time in which to be modern is to be out of date. As the twentieth century limps to a close, exhausted and disillusioned, and as we begin to enter the third millennium, a new worldview is emerging. We can see it in academia and in public opinion polls, in our pop culture and in our churches. As the twentieth century becomes obsolete, we are entering the postmodern age.

Christians should be glad that the modern era is over. Scientific rationalism pummeled belief in any kind of supernatural reality. Liberal theologians, as is their wont, jumped on the bandwagon, relegating the Bible to ancient mythology and attempting to remake Christianity along secular lines. To the surprise of modernist theologians, orthodox Christianity has survived their onslaughts. The postmodern age is presenting a new set of challenges and temptations for biblical Christians. Postmodernism, like its predecessor, also attacks orthodox Christianity, though for completely different reasons. A new liberal theology is emerging’this time, ironically, among Evangelicals. But the postmodern age also presents untold opportunities for recovering the historic Christian faith.

Modernism and Its Demise

The modern era began with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and accelerated through the first half of the twentieth century. Although this span of time included many dissenting voices, in general it could be described as an Age of Scientific Reason. Reason, of course, was developed to dizzying heights by the premodern classicists of Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages. Science had its origins among Bible-believing Christians of the seventeenth century. But the scientific reason of modernism excluded on principle everything that could not be seen, measured, and empirically analyzed. Revelation was ruled out as a means of knowledge, and belief in a supernatural realm that transcended the visible universe was dismissed as primitive superstition. Not only did Modernists believe in the inerrancy of science, they also had a devout faith in progress. The "modern," almost by definition, was superior to the past. The future would be even better. Modernists genuinely believed that science would answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles would solve all social problems. Through rational planning, applied technology, and social manipulation, experts could engineer the perfect society.

Thomas Oden has said that the modern era lasted exactly two hundred years, from the Fall of the Bastille in 1789 to the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The French Revolution razed the past and on its rubble attempted to erect a new social order. The revolutionaries who installed the "Goddess of Reason" in Notre Dame Cathedral ushered in an age of social engineering, culminating in the grandiose pretensions of Communism, with its dialectical materialism and totalitarian control of every facet of human life.

But both the French Revolution and Communism degenerated into a reign of terror. Modernists failed to take into account the one Christian doctrine that, as Chesterton has said, actually can be proven empirically, namely, the doctrine of original sin. By the late twentieth century, it became clear that science had not answered all questions but instead had given us environmental pollution and atomic bombs. Not only did the promised utopias’whether of socialism or "The Great Society"’fail to materialize, but social problems were as intractable as ever, and in many ways were worse.

The counterculture of the 1960s began looking for something different, and in many ways its advocates were the pioneers of postmodernism. As the student protesters grew up, they entered academia, the professions, and the mainstream of the culture, bringing their "new consciousness" with them. In the intellectual world, scholars began submitting scientific rationalism to a withering critique, arguing that what is presented as objective truth is often a mask for personal bias, cultural prejudice, and power politics.

Certainly modernism was not the total failure that the critics of the 1960's made it out to be. Science and technology have led to a standard of living beyond the wildest utopian dreams of our ancestors. But modernism, despite its success stories, did not make everyone happy. Its exclusive focus on the material world neglected the spiritual dimension of human beings. The bitterness of its critics suggests not mere disillusionment but, more deeply, a loss of faith. Modernism, in effect, failed as a religion.

The Alternative of Postmodernism

So what to do if modernism falls apart? One option is to return to the premodern, bringing the wisdom of the past’including the Christian revelation’to address contemporary needs. This is one way of being postmodern, and many are rediscovering the riches of Christian orthodoxy. But the intellectual establishment and the culture as a whole are turning to another solution, the ideology of postmodernism.

If scientific rationalism cannot be depended on to give us objective truth, may be there is no objective truth. The postmodernists argue that truth is not so much a discovery but a construction. Truth is relative, dependent on the individual's experience and culture. Morality is also relative, a function of the individual's choices and the prevailing cultural norms.

Modernists valued unity; postmodernists value diversity. Modernists looked for universal frameworks of knowledge; postmodernists question all "totalizing" or "foundational" systems. Modernists emphasized the individual; postmodernists emphasize the culture. Modernists sought order; postmodernists prize disorder. Modernists valued science, as a means of finding knowledge about nature; postmodernists care little for scientific knowledge, but they love technology. Oblivious to how or why it works, postmodernists and the new information technologies feed on each other. Television, with its fragmented sequence of images and entertainment mentality, and computer networks, with their decentralized anarchy and their "virtual reality" fantasy worlds, practically define the postmodernist state of mind. For postmodernists, all reality is virtual reality.

The radical left has survived the fall of the Berlin Wall by adopting a postmodernist mutation known as "post-Marxism." Whereas the Marxism of the modern era interpreted all of culture in terms of economics and class conflict, post-Marxism interprets culture in terms of other kinds of power struggles’the oppression of women by men, blacks by whites, gays by heterosexuals. Academia, once committed to the search for truth, is now committed to the undermining of truth. Thus we have "deconstruction," a mode of analysis that purports to take apart all expressions of objective meaning, showing that everything from a play by Shakespeare to the Declaration of Independence to a scientific experiment is actually unstable linguistic constructions, masks for cultural power, and rationalizations for oppression.

Post-Marxism and deconstruction are not only the sources of "political correctness" in our universities, they also reflect the fragmentation of our nation into competing interest groups and subcultures. Just as the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe has given way to bloody conflict between ethnic groups, the unity of American culture (on a much smaller scale) is breaking up into a new tribalism, evident in everything from group entitlement schemes to the warfare of urban gangs. If values are all relative and culturally determined, no consensus is possible. If truth is relative, rational persuasion is also futile. Disagreements can only be resolved by naked power, unrestrained by reason or morality. While academia is thus in the hands of the politically correct, the impact of postmodernism on the general public is just as pronounced. According to one study, some two-thirds of Americans agree with the statement, "There are no absolutes." In casual conversation, we hear statements like "that may be true for you, but it isn't true for me," or "you Christians think you have the only truth." Attempts to persuade others are understood as power plays: "You are just trying to impose your views on someone else."

If truth is relative, one idea is as good as another. In the absence of any reliable means of arriving at truth’with both revelation and reason discredited’the only criterion for adopting a particular idea, if only provisionally, is desire. Reason is replaced by the pleasure principle. Instead of people saying they agree or disagree with a proposition, we hear how much they "like" or "dislike" a particular idea. People pick and choose what they enjoy from a wide range of theories and religions, dependent solely on their personal preferences and choices. The intellect is replaced by the will. Moral issues are similarly relativized. "You have to decide what's right for you," we are told on the talk shows. "What's right for one person might not be right for someone else." "Who are we to judge?" Moral issues are not seen in terms of absolute transcendent standards, as in the Bible, nor in terms of what is good for society as a whole, as in modernism. What makes an action moral or immoral is whether or not the person made a choice.

The postmodernist approach to ethics lies behind some of our most contentious ethical debates. Few people admit to being "for" abortion; instead they are "pro-choice." Whereas traditional, and to a certain extent even modernist, ethics look at abortion in terms of moral absolutes (such as "Thou shalt not kill") and objective facts (examining scientific facts about whether or not the fetus is a human being), postmodernists finesse both the philosophical and the scientific issues. The only relevant question is whether or not the woman had a choice in the matter. Whether she chooses to have the baby or abort it, that action is right "for her." If she is coerced either way, the action would be wrong only because she was not given a choice. This pro-choice paradigm appears over and over in contemporary moral controversies. People are clamoring for "the right to die," justifying suicide and even euthanasia insofar as the person "chooses" to die. Sexual perversions become totally acceptable and even chic when they are thought of as "lifestyle choices."

In a relativistic climate, the only remaining virtue is tolerance. The only philosophies that are wrong are those that believe in truth; the only sinners are those who still believe there is such a thing as sin. Traditional and modernist ethics stressed choosing the right course of action, but to postmodernists simply choosing is enough. Again, what we have is the apotheosis of the will.

Postmodernism and Religion

The Reformation, on the contrary, stressed what Luther called "the bondage of the will." The human will is fallen and is enslaved by sin. Simply following our wills can only lead us deeper into moral depravity. Nor can we simply "choose" to believe. Theologies based on the human will, rather than on God's Word, can only be deceptive and enslaving. The good news, the Gospel, is that we are saved by God's will, not our own, by His grace in Jesus Christ; we can live a moral life not by our following our wills nor by trusting our willpower, but by submission to the will of God, who sanctifies us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Christians recognize the void at the core of both modernism and postmodernism. Christians can agree with the Modernists that there is objective truth, while agreeing with the postmodernists about the limits of the fallen mind. The "foundationalism" of reason alone is bound to fail, but living without foundations is spiritual death. "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 3:11). And yet, just as the children of Israel were constantly tempted to blend their faith with that of their pagan neighbors, Christians have often succumbed to cultural pressures for religious syncretism. During the era of modernism, liberal theologians developed a modernist theology. They sought to make Christianity acceptable to the modern mind by minimizing the supernatural content of the Christian faith, rejecting biblical authority on the grounds of spuriously "scientific" biblical scholarship and by concentrating on social progress.

Early in this century in America, the issues came to a head in the controversy between "Modernists" and "Fundamentalists." Although the Fundamentalists included formidable intellects such as J. Gresham Machen (who distanced himself from most Fundamentalists as well as Modernists), they lost the image war during the Scopes "Monkey" Trial (although Machen refused to embroil himself in this trial), and they became dismissed as backwoods throwbacks, unworthy of being taken seriously in the "modern age." Soon the Modernists entrenched themselves in the major seminaries and mainline denominations. The Fundamentalists themselves retreated from cultural and intellectual engagement and took shelter in their own separatist institutions and pietistic spirituality.

And yet, as the century "progressed" and as liberal theology grew increasingly insipid, the Fundamentalists struck back. Conservative Protestants ended their cultural isolation, going back to the universities and aggressively defending the authority of scripture and the sufficiency of the Gospel. The Fundamentalists metamorphosed into "Evangelicals." The mainline liberal denominations, crippled by their modernist theology, began to dwindle, while evangelical churches boomed. The Fundamentalists may have lost the battle of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial, but they won the war, at least on the level of numerical success. But now, having triumphed over modernism, many Evangelicals are succumbing to postmodernism. The new postmodern liberal theology is emerging from the evangelical movement.

While postmodernism encourages the rise of such neo-pagan spiritualities as irrationalist cults and the New Age Movement, its Christian manifestation can be found in the so-called "mega-shift" theology and in the church growth movement. In a "mega-shift" away from classic Protestant theology, many Evangelicals are proclaiming a touchy-feely, therapeutic god who is light years away from the Holy One of Israel. This is a god of tolerance, who condemns no one and who can be reached by many different paths. Instead of the forgiveness of sins, the mega-shift preachers offer the gospel of a good self-image and earthly success through positive thinking.

Often accompanying mega-shift theology is the church growth movement, which seeks to build megachurches by adjusting Christianity to the desires of the culture. Doctrine does not go over well in an age of relativism, so in order to attract new members, theological content must be minimized. Nor do people wish to hear about sin, so the church must cultivate an atmosphere of moral tolerance. Since people choose their religious beliefs not so much on the basis of whether they are true but whether they "like" the particular church, the life of the congregation must be made as pleasant and undemanding as possible. The exaltation of the pleasure-principle means that worship services above all must be entertaining. The exaltation of the will means that the customers must be given what they want.

To be sure, some Evangelicals have adopted church growth methods while remaining orthodox, but they are playing with fire. Changing the church's message to make it more palatable to the world is clearly forbidden by Scripture (2 Tm 4:3). The way of the Cross is not easily amenable to consumer preference. Those who attempt to evangelize the culture by imitating its forms must beware lest the culture evangelize them.

Postmodern Renewal

The modernist theologians thought they were making Christianity relevant by updating its teachings and appealing to the mindset of "modern man." They succeeded only in making their theology completely irrelevant to modern man. If God is nothing more than a symbol, Christ is just another good example, and the church is simply an agent for social change, then why should anyone bother to get up on Sunday mornings to go to church? Similarly, the postmodernist preachers think they are making Christianity more relevant, but if God, like a cosmic Mr. Rogers, "loves you just the way you are," demanding neither faith nor obedience, then why bother with Christianity? There is no point to the Gospel if there are no sins to forgive. If all religions’and no religion’lead to God, one might just as well watch TV. Of course, churches might still grow to enormous size if they are entertaining enough and meet the felt needs of the populace’just as rock concerts and psychologists' waiting rooms will be filled throughout the postmodern era’but Christianity itself will pretty much have been abandoned.

But there is a better way to respond to the postmodern condition. Now that modernism has been abandoned in the arts, many artists are experimenting with a postmodernist aesthetic, creating works that are purposefully disunified, blatantly commercial, and aggressively shallow. But other artists are reacting against modern art by going back to realism, beauty, and classical form, rediscovering the traditions of Western art and bringing them into contemporary life. Whereas modernist architects erected plain boxes of glass and steel, triumphant in their technology but scornful of the past, postmodern architects are restoring old buildings and erecting new ones that follow old designs. In the same way, many people today are rediscovering historic Christianity’the profound depths of its doctrines, liturgies, and disciplines. In a postmodern age, being "modern" does not necessarily mean better, and people are open once again to what is ancient. They can accept the supernatural and are open to mystery.

Furthermore, many who have gone through modernism and postmodernism are recognizing that both are empty. They have been taught that there are no moral absolutes, but they still feel guilty and see the wreckage of their lives. They have heard that they can create their own truths, but they yearn for something genuinely real. Christianity has thrived not by trying to offer people what they already have, but by offering them what they desperately lack’namely, the Word of God and salvation through Jesus Christ. Will orthodox Christianity prosper or languish in the postmodern era? That is hard to predict. Certainly, Christ has promised to preserve his Church against the very gates of Hell, let alone against a mere cultural shift. The biblical Church most definitely will survive, and its success cannot be measured in numbers. It must also be remembered that we are today in a time of transition. It is not yet apparent which version of postmodernity’the chaos of relativism or the renewal of the past’will win out. But it has been observed that Western civilization has gone through a time like this before’an age of philosophical relativism and religious pluralism, a moral climate that tolerated promiscuous sex and brutal violence, a society that was both unified into a mass culture and divided by fractious tribalism. This was the Roman Empire at its decline and fall. This was the society that was successfully evangelized by the early Church, which, despite conflict and martyrdom, was then in its golden age.

Monday, August 13th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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