Postmodernism is a word that often gets thrown around in our culture, but what does it mean and is it even relevant anymore? In this video, President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Jamie Dew, gives a crash course on postmodernism and how it’s being adopted in our world today.
The entire video is above, and the complete transcript is below.
So what exactly is postmodernism and should we even care about it anymore?
Indeed in the previous decades before us, postmodernism was in vogue in the academic settings of our country and in the Western world. It’s not necessarily that way today. You still find it in literary departments. You still find it, unfortunately, sometimes in theology departments. But in the natural sciences and philosophy departments and in other departments, such as history departments, you really don’t have an obsession with this thing called postmodernism anymore.
It is however still very much alive in our culture. For example, the TV shows that you’re watching probably right now, the movies that you’re watching probably right now, the things that we’re watching play out in our courts right now all have been deeply affected by this thing called postmodernism. So, while it may be waning in the academy it is still very much got its grip on us in our culture. We do need to understand what it is and what it’s about.
Now, it’s complex. And nailing down exactly what postmodernism is, people have said it’s like trying to nail down Jell-O. And so that’s true in many ways.
Part of the difficulty is we have difficult time saying exactly when postmodernism starts. So for example, on questions about epistemology, that is the philosophical questions about our knowledge, well you can trace it all the way back to people like Immanuel Kant. But if you’re looking for our views about what human beings are, our anthropology, man, you’d have to come all the way up past Freud. And so depending on the topic in question, postmodernism seems to have these different starting points. And so it’s very, very difficult for a lot of reasons.
I think the best way to understand postmodernism is to say something about modernism just very quickly. Modernism starts in the 17th century with people like René Descartes and Francis Bacon.
This is the move away from religious perspectives that sort of ground our knowledge. In the past, in the pre-modern world if you wanted to know something you looked to the Church. You wanted to explain something you explained it with God. This was the Judeo-Christian worldview prior to the 17th century.
Well, Descartes was a good catholic and Bacon was a good protestant, but what they felt was wrong with the Western world was that ultimately we had some assumptions in the going about of our knowledge that were ineffective. So they wanted to start clean. They wanted to set for themselves sure and certain foundations that they could build our knowledge upon. And so they cast aside religious perspectives as many of these modern thinkers did.
There’s several themes that come up in the modern period. So for example, the idea that we can be completely objective in our perspectives. We can sort of strip away our biases, our dispositions, our backgrounds, our educations and we can see it from “a God’s-eye perspective”. That means a view from nowhere. We won’t be filtered by our perspectives or our assumptions or any of those things. We’ll just see things as it really is. Just the facts. And in many ways you see that in the modern sciences. And so this idea of objectivity, universal objectivity was an assumption of modernity.
They also had this idea of universal rationality. They thought that there was one right way to think and everybody if we would just educate them the right way would think that way everywhere in the world. And we would find as we’d go around from society to society, culture to culture, we would find them using the same rationality.
Well, as modern anthropology and modern sociology emerged in the Western world, actually what we found was just the opposite. There isn’t a universal rationality shared by all people everywhere. And so that modern assumption gets blown up.
There’s also the idea in modernity, the idea that comes about called inevitable progress. The idea that we were going to get better and better and better and better. Sure, our knowledge was getting better. This is the age of modern science where our scientific discoveries and knowledge just explodes. This is the age where we set aside the feudal system, politically speaking, and we move into democracies and things like that. And so you can understand why people think that we’re just getting better and better and better.
In theological circles we begin to think things like postmillennialism where we think we’re gonna usher in the kingdom of God. And so those types of things are what you see there.
Well all of that stuff may sound benign, but understand this: the moderns were explicitly rejecting these religious ideas as the bedrock of our knowledge. That’s what modernity is doing.
Postmodernism and Truth
Postmodernity is now going to reject all of those modern assumptions and ideals. And to us that might sound like it’s not that big a deal, but here’s the catch: The way they rejected it was by getting rid of concepts of truth. Now postmoderns certainly have ideas of truth, but they don’t believe about truth the same thing you and I believe.
So for example, here’s a statement we all think to be true: I’m wearing a gray suit. You think that’s true because the statement itself corresponds to the way things really are. That’s called a correspondence theory of truth. That had been the premodern and the modern assumption. Postmoderns reject that. Truth now is simply what works for us. Or truth is simply which is consistent with other things.
And so they have ways of defining truth, but there is no longer anything like Truth with a big T. No what we’d call metanarrative, that is meta meaning overarching, narrative meaning story. There are no overarching explanations of reality. There’s no truths. So you shouldn’t pretend to have one. I shouldn’t pretend to have one. That’s at least what they say, but notice in our culture these people that dub themselves as postmodern. What they’re really after and what they’re really against is our truth. They want to substitute it with a different truth, with their own morality, and things like that.
So one example of where you’re gonna see postmodern ideals flesh out in our culture is really what you’re seeing happening in this sort of culmination of the sexual revolution and the movement into transgenderism and other things like that. We’re now in a place where people will say things like, “I know I’m in a boy’s body, but I’m not a boy. I’m something else underneath that.” And we’re left to define, not just truth out there anyway we want to, we’re now able to define ourselves in any particular way we want to.
And there’s this getting rid of these classical, traditional ideas that go well back before Christianity. They would go back to the classical period of the philosophers. This would be Plato and Aristotle. It would come up through the Christian tradition. It would come up through the medieval traditions. It would come up all the way through modernity. It would even come up pretty far into the 20 and 21st century, but now you’re seeing it come to full fruition where we’re gonna redefine or get rid of definitions of what it means to be a human, what it means to be a male, what it means to be a female, and we’re free now to just define that any way we want to.
This is very much a good example of the way postmodern thought has infected our culture and shaped the way we think about very, very important things.
So in short, that’s a crash course on postmodernism. It is still very much alive in our culture and we do need to know what it is.