first thing to be said about this subject is that it appears impossible to
precisely define it. Despite that, the general line of thought which
underlies postmodernism undoubtedly poses a challenge to traditional
Christianity at least on a par with anything of the past two hundred years.
In order to bring it all a little down to earth, the contrasts below
might prove useful as a start.
I'm not sure that the above simple distinctions are particularly useful in
themselves. But they do enable a newcomer to postmodernism to at least gain
some idea of what it encompasses.
|Disenchantment with religious truth
and search for abstract truth. Truth can be stated firmly and in
many cases, finally. It is capable of unambiguous statement within
Timeline: (Renaissance) >> Enlightenment >> 1750s >> 1850-1945
in the development of analytical disciplines >> ongoing in the 21st
century but modified by postmodernism
General: Attempt to fashion a unified, coherent worldview from
a fragmented reality. After the First World War, in the 1920s and
1930s a "High Modernism" saw current ways of portraying and managing
the world as outmoded. It needs only a new way of seeing truth and
beauty. Meaning comes through rational, scientific means. History
shows progress in a steady linear movement. Literature and art are
windows onto a new world.
Computers: PCs / Unix / software
is a linear set of commands. A logical, mechanical sequence, often
compartmentalised in its overall structure. Independent units have
difficulty in interacting or even communicating.
Culture: High culture, produced by intellectuals, is all
that really matters. The masses follow.
Symbols: Symbols convey meaning e.g. Hammer & Sickle
conveys Communism, the "Evil Empire"; National flag signals good.
Architecture: A building's form follows what it's used
for. Straight, functional lines look the same worldwide. All is
functional. What is beautiful is subjected to what is useful.
Business: Mass production in stable companies. National
wealth and exports. Planned production and lifetime employment.
Science: Truth is out there to be discovered. Clockwork
universe and absolute laws. Knowledge through analysis and
Politics: Mass social movements. Policy derived from
ideology. Nation versus nation. Centralised controls, big
government and parties. Top down decisions and balanced powers.
The arts: Novels and movies the main media. Meaning is
proposed by the author and taken on board by the reader and
viewer. A body of "good" art exists, defined by an intellectual
elite. Mass fashions.
There is no universal truth, abstract or otherwise. Truth is
individual and subjective. It depends upon context. Change the
person and context and the "truth" also changes.
Timeline: 1890s and after with origins in anthropology and
other disciplines >> Post-World War II >> especially post-1968 >>
possible decline after 2000
General: Any distinction between "High" and "Low" culture is
not much use. External, objective truth is replaced by
self-reference. All things are merely relative to each other. So one
can't distinguish between "good" and "bad". Our world isn't linear
but organic, a multiplicity of texts and discourses. We can't learn
from the past, only about it. Only the present matters because "the
past" is a man-made text - as is all art.
Computers: Intuitive Windows systems. Networks. Shifting,
independent but interacting modules. The Web a multifarious,
uncontrollable entity, operating at many levels and dimensions,
only loosely linked by a search function.
Culture: Popular culture is the focus. The media are now
concerned mainly with commerce.
Symbols: Symbols become drained of meaning; become
commercial. Hammer & Sickle can now be used in advertising which
is seen as an art form.
Architecture: No single look is best. Styles from the past
mixed. Function and form interlock. Each informs the other. Looks
matter. What people prefer is catered for.
Business: Automated production. Instability and fast
adaptation. Multi-national companies on a global scale. Multiple
Science: We design systems of thought and know the world
through them. Truth is not objective. The universe is a system.
Politics: Social movements based on sectional needs. Policy
derived from interest groups and minority pressures. Smaller
government plus mass media influence. Move to more local decisions
The arts: Television and computer media now primary. Novels
and books decline except in mass promotions. Art is dumbed down.
"Good" art is in the eye of the beholder. Individual preference.
Some fundamental postmodern
claims can be summarised as follows:
- You and I (the "signifiers")
have replaced a supposed objective reality (the "signified") as the
focus of meaning and value in life. Whereas our immediate predecessors
held that truth is out there to be discovered, defined and preserved for
ever, it turns out that truth is relative to the person stating it. It
is ephemeral, constantly shifting and changing according to circumstance
- This focus is revealed
primarily in the way we use language. Previously it was thought that
words referred to actual things in a way which told us exactly (or as
nearly as possible) what those things are.
Postmodernists maintain that language is capricious and indeterminate,
that it means what we say it means and no more. Thus the meaning of a
novel can be stated in a number of dimensions. It means [a] what the
author intended it to mean;
[b] what the text conveys; [c] what the reader thinks it means; and [d]
different things in different times and in different cultures.
It certainly doesn't have only one meaning which we can discover
through careful analysis and reflection. A competent analyst, for
example, might understand the novel better than the author does - even
though it issues from the latter's thought.
- This way of perceiving reality
forces us to conclude that every intellectual discipline - even science
and mathematics, usually thought of as utterly objective - is an
interpretation of some underlying reality which can't be described.
Thus an acorn means one thing in a poem, something else to a
scientist, and another thing to a squirrel. What, if anything, is the
"real" meaning of an acorn? The art and discipline of working out such
meaning is known as "hermeneutics" and is a dominant method of
understanding postmodern meaning. Presumably, an expert postmodernist is
able to identify and describe this underlying meaning.
- There is no such thing as
dispassionate interpretation or explanation of anything. It is always
influenced, if not determined, by a number of factors such as our social
background, our personality, our genetic inheritance, our need for power
and so on. As William Grassie writes, according to the postmodernist,
"There is no direct experience of reality without interpretation; and
all interpretation is in some sense corrupted by the cultural and
personal prejudices and prejudgements of the interpreter"
The postmodern vocation is to
expose the fault of modernist claims to objectivity. Words like
"corrupted", "prejudiced" and "prejudged" are applied to modernist
positions. They are all pejorative. One might be forgiven for wondering if
there are postmodernists who criticise other postmoderns for using such
Be that as it may, it's
essential, say postmodernists, to recognise that nothing is what it seems.
It's impossible to describe anything as it really is. Names of things are
conveniences which depend on other words for meaning. If one looks at a
dictionary, for example, one finds that every word's meaning is defined in
terms of other words. They in turn are given meaning by yet more words in
an endless cycle. Similarly, the word "water" doesn't describe H2O,
any more than the word "electron" describes part of a molecule.
The only way meaning can be
discovered is by breaking down or "deconstructing" everything that is said
and written into its constituent components and by casting it in its many
contexts. Only then is it possible to discover the underlying constructs
of any communication.
If we do this we discover that
much, if not all, of what we regard as truth is exposed for what it really
is - a narrative of our unrecognised, unconscious prejudices. So, for
example, men inevitably perceive life from a male perspective. Thus
feminist deconstruction of male bias is essential. Males might in turn,
one supposes, deconstruct feminist communications and paradigms to reveal
hidden female prejudices. What often seems to be lacking is the assertion
that one should, as a matter of good practice if not conscience, strive to
see past one's own non-deconstructed perceptions.
Similarly, those possessing power
in society tend to define life in terms of that which will preserve their
power. Deconstruction of power and knowledge reveals hidden structures
which perpetuate (albeit unconsciously) deception and oppression of the
vulnerable by those who are powerful. It's up to the oppressed, therefore,
to re-define power in a way which restructures society itself. Presumably,
it is the skilled postmodernist who is able to reveal the un-deconstructed
prejudices of both positions.
A consequence of the postmodern
position (if such actually exists) in the arts is that there is no such
thing as "good" art. The word "good" merely signifies a particular
entrenched position, usually socially sanctioned. Thus in architecture,
for example, it's permissible to describe certain styles such as "modern"
or "gothic". But neither is "better" than the other. If therefore a
building consists - as many now do - of a mix of styles, there is nothing
wrong with that.
Postmodernism turns out, it seems
to me, to be a range of philosophical approaches to life which lack formal
shape and definition as a coherent system of thought. Some claim that
postmodernism comes after modernism in time. Its (better) approach to
reality has rendered redundant the attempt at systematic thought which
began with the Enlightenment.
Others (I think more accurately)
maintain that postmodernism is not the end of modernism, but is a "moment
within modernism". The latter has been correctly criticised for claiming
absolute objectivity. In that sense, postmodernism has served a good
purpose in pointing out a damaging absolutist weakness in the modernist
position. But that doesn't invalidate, they would say, the ongoing thrust
towards a thought-out, if provisional, approach to reality at large.
I for one have been unable to
penetrate the opaque code and obscure references of most postmodern
writing I have attempted to wade through. I conclude that I'm neither
intelligent nor well-educated enough to fully comprehend what they're
talking about. Having made that damaging admission, my criticisms of
postmodernism may lack weight.
Whatever the shortcomings of
modernism (itself not a definable movement of thought, but a wide-ranging
of thinking), it seems to me that the postmodern attempt to demolish
modernism has failed.
At the heart of postmodernism lies
the notion of deconstruction, made famous mainly by Jacques Derrida
(1930-2004). Deconstruction is the process by which a text is unpicked layer
by layer to expose meanings which would otherwise be hidden. As one
commentator remarks, deconstruction leads to a conclusion that
... no meaning, no identity, is
ever stable or fixed, but is dependent on multiple contexts, none of which
is either discrete or finite.
 When a text is
deconstructed - that is, when the underlying metaphors are laid bare, and
consequently the "real" but hidden meanings are revealed - we are supposed
to discover that neither the identity of the author nor the author's
intentions are of ultimate relevance. Whatever the author's intentions,
there are always more layers of meaning to be searched out. No
communication has final "meaning" except insofar as its multiple levels
are laid bare and explained.
As A E McGrath puts it,
All interpretations are equally
valid, or equally meaningless (depending upon your point of view) ...
[it implies] that someone had authority to define how a work of
literature ought to be understood, and denied others the
opportunity to exercise freedom of interpretation, thus stifling their
The postmodern outlook is, I
think, correct in pointing out the degree to which metaphorical function
is frequently mistaken for a naming function.
Our language of thought relies on
metaphor to a degree far greater than most like to admit. This can become
particularly dangerous when metaphor is reified, that is, when
word-pictures are treated as though they are descriptions of something
real "out there". In particular, religions tend to reify metaphorical
Postmodernism is also correct in
revealing the degree to which we all interpret the same words differently,
depending upon the way we see the world. So the word "dog" may mean an
animal which is dangerous to one person, and a cuddly bundle of fur to
But the postmodern case is often
taken too far. Meaning cannot be entirely stripped from words or images.
Despite varied interpretation of events and objects, words do mean
something. They are useful in establishing common ground between
For example, whatever the
secondary associations of the word "dog" might be, and however varying the
mental images elicited by the word, there is nevertheless a particular
kind of being or entity associated with the word. It is distinct from
(though linked to) every other entity. This association will be made by
all but the tiniest fraction of humanity. We all know that a dog is
ultimately, like everything else, made up of elementary particles of
matter into which everything can be ultimately broken down. But so what?
The dogs we live with are real and can be experienced and described.
Hermeneutics (the art of
interpretation) turns out to be a profoundly circular discipline if
postmodernism is given full rein.
When I read and interpret a novel or
philosophical treatise, postmodernists assert that I bring to it my
personal bias and cultural background. These often operate beyond my
awareness, just as they operated beyond the awareness of the novelist when
he or she was writing.
It turns out that anyone reading
my interpretation, and in turn attempting to interpret it, is just as
biased as I was. Everyone ends up not being brought nearer to the
original, but being forced to wade through several levels of bias from
their own biased points of view.
In short, postmodern hermeneutics
ends up being bogged down in multiple, recurring levels of meaning. If we
are to take the postmodern position seriously, any communication cannot
display its meaning until the entire world of personal and social meaning
has been applied to it. To put it simply, this is an impossible dream. The
hermeneutical buck has to stop somewhere
 Postmodernists claim
to be able to deconstruct all expressions of thought and so derive the
hidden meanings which reveal the "true" nature of communications. Thus the
policies of a political party, for example, may reveal that by "freedom"
its members mean something like "the rich doing what they wish with the
poor". For the poor, the concept "freedom" might mean the poor taking over
the assets of the rich.
Similarly, the recipient of a
Nobel Prize may be praised for a fundamental advance in the science of
curing cancer. But deconstruction might reveal that acclamation of a
cancer cure is "in fact" an unwitting smokescreen for various powerful
industrial corporations which recklessly pollute the environment and so
caused the cancer in the first place.
These examples are no doubt
somewhat ham-handed. But I'm trying to point out that all conclusions
derived from deconstruction themselves depend on rational thought. Every
deconstruction is itself open to a theoretically endless sequence of
If any single foundation of
modernism exists, it's surely that the human capacity for rational thought
is our crowning glory. With proper safeguards we are able to think
our way through to valid conclusions, even if they are for the most part
provisional. Contemporary postmodern doubts about the value of reason are
entirely valid if that value is regarded as ultimate - that is, as the
absolute and only way of arriving at "truth".
But if the postmodernists are not
applying reason as they deconstruct, then their conclusions are no more
valid than those of the thinkers they are deconstructing. And if that's
the case, then there's no such thing as meaning apart from the private
meaning of each individual. Modernist and postmodernist each have their
own opinion and I have mine. Who's to say which is "better" or "right"?
In other words, who is to
deconstruct the deconstructionists? The thesis of postmodernism carries
within it the seeds of its own demise. No amount of coding, no degree of
obscurity, can mask this ultimate reliance upon reason. Effective
postmodern deconstruction rests upon the same fundamental foundation as
modernism. Grassie puts it well:
Without the insights and
meta-theoretical claims of modernity, there would be no possibility of
postmodernity ... within the history and development of human thought,
there are no immaculate conceptions.
Nevertheless, the implications of
rational postmodern deconstruction for traditional Christianity are, in my
opinion, highly challenging. It's not surprising, therefore, that certain
defenders of the faith denounce postmodernism as nihilistic, relativistic
and irrational while at the same time failing to answer its good points.
Rather than go on the defensive against a perceived threat, I prefer to
try to work out what aspects of postmodernism appear incontrovertible and
therefore had better be taken into account if we want a credible Christian
position for the 21st century.
Our perceptions are not stable say the postmodernists. That
is, what we perceive of the world around us shifts and changes
constantly. The process of understanding life doesn't yield a fixed
reality, but rather a set of temporary perceptions which we may have
to change from time to time. If we think that the way we perceive and
interpret the world is the last word, we may find ourselves responding
to it in ways which have worked previously but are now ineffectual - a
potentially dangerous position to be in.
Traditional Christian teaching falls at this fence with a resounding
thump. In theory there is only "one faith" - by which most Christians
mean only a single "true" set of Christian teachings. But in practice
this set turns out to be their own, while all other sets are to a
greater or lesser extent either plain wrong or inadequate. The
postmodern thesis has shown that all systems of so-called absolute
truths fall prey to deconstruction.
So, for example, many have shown that Jesus of Nazareth has been
interpreted in more than a few different ways over the millennia. That
is, when the construct "Jesus" is deconstructed, it turns out to be a
large variety of cultural images, underpinned by constructs unique to
every individual. In other words, not only do Christian concepts
change culturally, but there is no such thing as a set of constructs
common to all people.
This, say the postmodernists, damns the whole idea of "true" doctrine.
If deconstruction reveals so many "true" figures of Jesus, who is to
say which one is the "right" one? To which modernist Christians no
doubt reply that such a varied understanding of Jesus is good and
useful - provided only that each relates to the historical data of
what we know about the man and his times, that is, to the "Jesus of
history". But postmodernists are not likely to let Christians off the
hook at this point. They would counter that any "historical" Jesus can
be deconstructed to reveal a variety of figures linked to factors
external to the raw data.
One response to the traditional Christian assertion that Jesus
is "the answer" for all people at all times and in all places,
turns out to be powerful. It is that because change is the only
constantly prevailing certainty, there are probably no final answers
to any question. All individuals vary in their experience of the
world. All cultures are in constant flux. Even my understanding of the
world now differs from my understanding last year or ten years ago.
And nature itself is constantly changing.
Because the way we perceive the world isn't constant, and the world
itself is similarly always changing, some answers cease to be useful
in describing the world. Others may become "more true" by being
expanded and updated to meet changed circumstances.
Newton's theories, for example, have not been falsified by Einstein's
theories. Rather, they are now known to be only part of a larger
picture which has expanded how we understand the way things are. Truth
isn't absolute but expendable and expandable.
I know of no Christian doctrine which survives unscathed this way of
construing the world. Hence the Church's unstinting criticism of, and
opposition to, the main postmodern thesis.
And yet, some statements do appear to be unvaryingly true
once they have been accepted as such. One such is that it is
impossible for any two people to interpret the world identically, that
we all interpret our individual experience all the time, each in his
or her unique way.
Even when two people receive identical stimuli at the same moment in
time, they will inevitably interpret those stimuli somewhat
differently. Sometimes their interpretations will have almost nothing
in common; at other times they might agree to use a common paradigm
even though they don't individually share all details of the
experience covered by the paradigm. Thus, for example, my experience
and understanding of prayer might differ from yours. But we both agree
to use an agreed "neutral" formal prayer for the sake of corporate
This particular ongoing truth either stands or falls. It can't be
partly true. If it stands then there is no such thing as unambiguous
truth. Rather, there are multiple truths as each person interprets
stimuli through their individual filters - genetic, familial, social
and personal, to name but a few.
This is the foundation of the postmodern enterprise. It strikes at the
very heart of traditional Christian teachings because (in theory at
least) some are claimed to be unvaryingly and eternally "true". If a
teaching is unvaryingly and eternally true, it should be possible for
more than one person to construe it identically. Indeed, if we are to
believe the Roman Catholic Church, this must be possible
because salvation depends upon it.
Our individual interpretations usually serve, or correlate with,
our needs. So the way we frame our responses to the world and
people around us will inevitably be shaped according to our own
agendas. Hence the postmodern way of regarding our responses to our
This is simply a fact of life if multiple findings of psychology over
many decades have even face validity, more so if they are
scientifically valid (which I think they are).
Sometimes, however, we are consciously self-serving in the ways we
respond to our environment - in which case we deserve to be exposed.
More often we proceed with unconscious bias - and as often resist
anyone who points it out. In modern times racism and gender bias are
two good examples. We should be glad in such a case to have our
unconscious prejudices revealed so that we can change the way we
To this extent, postmodernism has a point. But this point does not
always warrant accusations of willful bias, prejudice or criminal
manipulation (an accusation sometimes made by unconsciously
self-righteous postmodernists). This is just the way we are and
postmodernism serves us well if it forces us to become ever more aware
of the subterranean forces which shape our perceptions. It serves us
badly if it discounts everything we do or say because we are the way
we are. Such accusations are a case of a postmodern pots calling
These are some of the substantial implications for traditional
Christianity of perceiving the world through postmodern lenses.
However, one particular Christian teaching warrants particular mention
in this respect - the notion of a set of absolute truths arrived at
through revelation. For obvious reasons, this is one important casualty of
the postmodern philosophy. Another is the idea that a human being can
pronounce on the truth of anything in a form which can remain unchanged
for ever, such as ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope.
Yet another casualty is the possibility that a human being can adopt
any position without being prone to hidden motivations - often those
relating to the getting and keeping of personal and institutional power
over others. The latter is not a popular conclusion among Christian
hierarchies They claim that their position of power is a matter of good
doctrine derived ultimately direct from God via revelation. They also
maintain that they control other Christians not as rulers but as servants.
This claim does not survive even the most cursory postmodern
Thus postmodernism at its best calls all these and other Christian
ideas into question. At its worst, postmodernism is a tightly coded,
in-group philosophical position which rubbishes the very notion that
anything is either real or fundamentally worthwhile. The in-house coding
of postmoderns is invariably so tight that its writing can appear
gobbledygook to most of us. Only when decoded by those few patient souls
who have the brains and talent to interpret it, may it become useful.
I remind myself, when postmodernism's extreme forms call to question
even the temporary stability of knowledge and perception, that a car
accident can ruin anyone's day.
 Postmodernism: What One Needs To Know, in
Zygon: Journal of Religion
and Science, March 1997
 Obituary in The Times, London, 11 October, 2004
 Christian Theology, 1994
 See Jesus Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan, Yale, 1999