For some time, evangelicals have been issuing warnings about postmodernism. An irony I’ve noted, however, is that some of those who decry postmodernism as the enemy of Western culture most stridently are in fact exemplifying one of its most significant characteristics themselves. I refer to the fact that postmodernism has rejected the idea that there is a universal rationality that would allow humans (in theory, at least) to achieve a perspective-free grasp of reality. Let me explain…
In the oft-quoted words of Jean-Francois Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” In other words, any unifying, “grand story” of reality that purports to claim validity for everyone is viewed by postmoderns with suspicion. In particular, the basic worldview of much of Western culture, particularly its confidence in the universality of its methods of reason and its claims to scientific objectivity, has come in for a great deal of criticism in the postmodern era. The culture shaped by that worldview has perpetrated egregious wrongs, including slavery, colonialism, the valorization of greed, and the like. Arguments regarding the “natural” inferiority of certain races, justifications for killing “others” such as Native American peoples, the taking of lands occupied by other people and the exploitation of their resources, the systematic suppression of the rights of women and minorities–postmodernism lays the blame for all this at the feet of the universality claimed by Westerners for their worldview.
I think much of the postmodern critique of the West in the modern era hits home. The self-assured arrogance that slaughtered and enslaved so many people and claimed their lands depended on a conviction that the Western way of seeing the world was indubitably true and could therefore be imposed on everyone else. Modernism assumed many things that were questionable on various grounds, and postmodernism rightly questioned them, pointing out that no human has a God’s-eye view of reality. Postmoderns conclude that since no one or no group has an absolute grasp of the Truth, then no one can arbitrate absolutely between conflicting truth claims.
This idea (a problematic one, to be sure) has been reduced and popularized by opponents to postmodernism as “relativism” (which is the word that is trotted out so often by conservative Christians to frighten people and explain all the Bad Things in our world today). I think it is right to listen to those whose ideas differ from mine, and in the absence of reasons to think otherwise, to take them at their word. That’s why I object to evangelicals (among others) reducing postmodernism to relativism and making that the new Black Beast of Arrrggghhh. After all, many postmodernists reject the charge that they are relativists. Richard Rorty has written,
“Relativism” is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. (The Consequences of Pragmatism, University of Minnesota Press, 1982, p. 166)
And Stanley Fish has written, “If by relativism one means a condition of mind in which you are unable to prefer your own convictions and causes to the convictions and causes
of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began.” (In “Don’t Blame Relativism,” The Responsive Community vol. 12, no. 4 (2002), p. 28.) Both of these postmodernists are giving voice to a common misunderstanding of their position. If we evangelicals say that postmodernists are relativists, and mean what these two prominent postmodern philosophers disavow, then we are committing the classic straw man fallacy.
But even beyond the failure of any arguments we make based on this misconception, when we fall for this reduction, we blind ourselves to the real problem with postmodernism. In fact, the irony is that in practice we see many evangelicals actually embracing a key aspect of postmodern thought, one that is in stark contrast to a Christian understanding of reality. What postmodernists (including both Rorty and Fish) have argued is that, in the absence of the ability of anyone to make an absolute truth claim, the truth is determined by the community. Rorty writes that pragmatists (his chosen self-description) hold that “there is nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from the descriptions of the familiar procedures of justification which a given society–ours–uses in one or another area of inquiry” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991, p. 23). This is a kind of relativism, but one that depends on communities and cultures rather than on other means as the determiners of what is taken to be true. What is true is what my group says is true. Your group may say something different, and for many postmoderns, this opens up a fascinating world of differences to explore. Where no serious differences exist, one can dialogue with and enjoy learning about the other, and even stretch oneself to accept in the other what is odd or off-putting. But in the end, each essentially embraces the truth as defined by his or her own group, leading ultimately to a kind of tribalism.
In this situation, differing groups’ truth claims simply compete. If there is no way to compare various truth claims to an objective reality, then when serious differences arise, the only recourse available is power. And that, is where we find ourselves today. It seems that in the current situation, we’re all postmodern. Discourse has been abandoned in favor of assertions of tribal narratives and tribal identity, and attempts to secure the tribe’s cultural dominance. This is particularly clear in relation to political issues, where there seems to be no attempt any longer to find common ground and discuss ways to achieve justice. Each tribe has its own media outlets which spout the tribal narrative and tribal talking points using tribal code words to the faithful. Campaigns are not about ideas or policies, but about “us” and our quest to show we are better and more powerful than “them.” This is the case in religious issues, as well (though the unfortunate fact is that too often political and religious issues are commingled and confused). Many of our religious leaders are more concerned to pander to the conservative evangelical tribe by using the right code words and spouting the approved narrative to distinguish “us” from “them,” and to marginalize “their” position. And many evangelicals are satisfied with that. To establish that one’s position is true is not the concern. Truth is determined by the tribe (even when, as is too often the case, the facts actually contradict the tribal truth claim).
Christians are called to be different–better than this. It disturbs me that among evangelicals there seems to be more interest in our particular sociological markers than in the truth. Postmodernism is right about some things, but quite wrong about the claim that truth is determined by the community. When “evangelical” becomes a tribal identity rather than a description of our commitment to the gospel, we have accommodated ourselves to postmodernism. More on this to come…