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Modernity to Postmodernity: From Bad to Worse


(Photo: Unsplash)

This post was first published in September 2017. -ed.

We rejoice when evil dictators are brought to justice. But all too often it creates a void waiting to be filled by an even worse ruler.

The same can be said for worldviews as well. The fall of one dominant secular philosophy invariably paves the way for an even more ungodly belief system to follow. The demise of modernism as a worldview is certainly a clear illustration of this.

Modernism

Modernity, in simple terms, was characterized by the belief that truth exists and that the scientific method is the only reliable way to determine that truth. In the so-called modern era, most academic disciplines (philosophy, science, literature, and education) were driven primarily by rationalistic presuppositions. In other words, modern thought treated human reason as the final arbiter of what is true. The modern mind discounted the idea of the supernatural and looked for scientific and rationalistic explanations for everything. But modern thinkers retained their belief that knowledge of the truth is possible. They were still seeking universal and absolute truths that applied to everyone. Scientific methodologies became the chief means by which modern people sought to gain that knowledge.

Those presuppositions gave birth to Darwinism, which in turn spawned a string of humanistic ideas and worldviews. Most prominent among them were several atheistic, rationalistic, utopian philosophies—including Marxism, fascism, socialism, communism, and theological liberalism.

Modernism’s devastating repercussions were soon felt worldwide. Various struggles between those ideologies (and others like them) dominated the twentieth century. All failed. After two world wars, nonstop social revolutions, civil unrest, and a long ideological cold war, modernity was declared dead by most in the academic world.

The symbolic death of the modern era was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the more apt and imposing monuments to modern ideology. Because the wall was a concrete expression of modernity’s misguided utopian worldview, its sudden demolition was also a perfect symbol for the collapse of modernity.

Most, if not all, of the major dogmas and worldviews from the modern era are now deemed completely outmoded and hopelessly discredited in virtually every corner of the intellectual and academic world. Even modernist religion’s fascination with higher criticism has given way to abstract spirituality.

The overconfident rationalism and human conceit that characterized the modern era has finally—and fittingly—had most of the wind taken out of its sails.

Postmodernism

Accordingly, the new ways of thinking have been collectively nicknamed postmodern.

If you have been paying attention to the world around us, you have probably heard that expression a lot recently. The term postmodernism has been used increasingly since the 1980s to describe several popular trends in architecture, art, literature, history, culture, and religion. It is not an easy term to explain because it describes a way of thinking that defies (and even rejects) any clear definition.

Postmodernism in general is marked by a tendency to dismiss the possibility of any sure and settled knowledge of the truth. Postmodernism suggests that if objective truth exists, it cannot be known objectively or with any degree of certainty. That is because (according to postmodernists) the subjectivity of the human mind makes knowledge of objective truth impossible. So it is useless to think of truth in objective terms. Objectivity is an illusion. Nothing is certain, and the thoughtful person will never speak with too much conviction about anything. Strong convictions about any point of truth are judged supremely arrogant and hopelessly naive. Everyone is entitled to his own truth.

Postmodernism therefore has no positive agenda to assert anything as true or good. Perhaps you have noticed that only the most heinous crimes are still seen as evil. (Actually, there are many today who are prepared to dispute whether anything is “evil,” so such language is fast disappearing from public discourse.) That is because the notion of evil itself does not fit in the postmodern scheme of things. If we can’t really know anything for certain, how can we judge anything evil?

Therefore postmodernism’s one goal and singular activity is the systematic deconstruction of every other truth claim. The chief tools being employed to accomplish this are relativism, subjectivism, the denial of every dogma, the dissection and annihilation of every clear definition, the relentless questioning of every axiom, the undue exaltation of mystery and paradox, the deliberate exaggeration of every ambiguity, and above all the cultivation of uncertainty about everything.

If you were to challenge me to boil down postmodern thought into its pure essence and identify the gist of it in one single, simple, central characteristic, I would say it is the rejection of every expression of certainty. In the postmodern perspective, certainty is regarded as inherently arrogant, elitist, intolerant, oppressive—and therefore always wrong.

The demise of modernity and the resulting blow to rationalistic human arrogance is certainly something to celebrate. From a spiritual perspective, however, the rise of postmodernism has been anything but a positive replacement.

Postmodernism has resulted in a widespread rejection of truth and the enshrinement of skepticism. Postmodernists despise truth claims. They also spurn every attempt to construct a coherent worldview, labeling all comprehensive ideologies and belief systems “metanarratives,” or grand stories. Such “stories,” they say, can’t possibly do justice to everyone’s individual perspective, and therefore they are always inadequate.

Postmodernism’s preference for subjectivity over objectivity makes it inherently relativistic. Naturally, the postmodernist recoils from absolutes and does not want to concede any truths that might seem axiomatic or self-evident. Instead, truth, if acknowledged at all, becomes something infinitely pliable and ultimately unknowable in any objective sense.

Postmodernism therefore signals a major triumph for relativism—the view that truth is not fixed and objective, but something individually determined by each person’s unique, subjective perception. All this is ultimately a vain attempt to try to eliminate morality and guilt from human life.

And as we’ll see next time, eliminating rational thought is key to those objectives.

Used with permission from John MacArthur.

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