Post-Modernism

Might I wax philosophic for a moment? Perhaps it’s the sleep deprivation or the copious amounts of caffeine I’ve consumed but I’m in a mood to philosophize. For this lapse I will beg your forgiveness in advance.

Many fundamentalist institutions of higher learning (and by extension the pastors who graduate from them) love to use the word “post-modernism” as a general pejorative to describe “liberals” who allegedly “don’t believe the Bible.” But what is post-modernism really? Here I’ll give you a working definition from the ineffable Peter Kreeft:

Post-modernism says there are fewer things in objective reality than in our minds; that most of our thoughts are only dreams, prejudices, illusions, or projections.

Or to use a slightly expanded definition:

In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

In short, post modernism takes things from being objectively or factually true and makes them merely “true for me.” My personal story determines my reality. The overarching story of how things really happened in history or science or the weird thing the evangelist said in a sermon illustration last week are not set in stone but rather they are building blocks to be shaped into my personal narrative of how the world works or disregarded if they just don’t fit.

This understanding brings us to a very interesting conclusion: fundamentalism itself is post-modern in its approach to understanding truth. The Bible is merely a collection of verse that can be made to fit the pastor’s narrative of the moment without any care for objective meaning. History can be reinterpreted through any number of revisions to make it fit the way the fundamentalist thinks it ought to be. Science can be used, abused, and disregarded as needed to make it work for the overarching story being spun by the leaders in fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is Postmodernism. But the really crazy thing is that post-modernism is also the very thing that lets them preach against other people’s post-modern thought on a regular basis. Nothing could be more truly post-modern than that.

72 thoughts on “Post-Modernism”

    1. Hi, Jim!
      I see that you are a “performance chalk artist.” You’re one of a dying breed.
      Or is live chalk drawing enjoying a renaissance?

      1. If you’d asked me that back in the early ’90s, I’d have told you that chalk art was a dying art. But the Internet sparked a renaissance of sorts, because chalk artists could network, find supplies easier, etc. Performance chalk artists are still a rare breed, but it looks like we’ve been spared extinction for a while. :)

  1. “But the really crazy thing is that post-modernism is also the very thing that lets them preach against other people’s post-modern thought on a regular basis.” Whoa. That’s so meta.

  2. You’re right that many fundamentalists twist history, science, and even Scripture to fit their preconceived notions.

    It absolutely shocked me to hear people that I respected and that I had always believed were devoted to God’s Word actually ignoring, discounting, or dismissing parts of the Bible that they didn’t like. It left me baffled and open-mouthed, unable to respond to their stubborn and blind refusal to accept what the Bible clearly said. (I’m not talking about end-times prophecy or things that are confusing or disputed. I mean obvious statements like “praise Him with the dance.” Nothing ambiguous about that.)

  3. But, of course, the fundamentalists will say the opposite: That the Bible is the one firm universal truth. Of course, this one firm universal truth has been interpreted in countless ways, to support any cause, but that just means all the other interpretations are objectively wrong. :)

    I believe there is a single, objective, reality, but of course we are limited in our perceptions of it… that, itself, is an objective fact, easily proven. So, we do the best we can, and apply Occam’s Razor with vigor.

    There is a difference between what facts ARE and what they MEAN — that is, what we might do, knowing a fact. Further, because we all have differing hierarchies of value, we will weight consequences and benefits differently. This is one reason so many arguments are intractable; the arguers don’t disagree on the facts, they disagree on how important those facts are. If a particular business development will destroy a thousand acres of forest, but provide a thousand jobs, you can have two people agree completely on those numbers and still have opposite opinions on if the factory should be built, based on if they value jobs or forest more. And of course these are rarely simple absolutes. How about 10,000 jobs for 100 acres of forest? How about 10,000 acres of forest for 100 jobs? Etc, etc, etc.

    One thing I have noticed among people of faith, regardless of their faith, is that God ALWAYS agrees with them! I have never heard anyone say, “I, personally, believe thus-and-such is right, but the Bible clearly says otherwise, so God and I disagree on this moral point.” Nope — whatever your politics, you’ll find a way to make sure you and God are on the same side. :)

    1. +5 for Occam’s Razor! You must be a science nerd like me. I just taught this concept to my kids a few weeks ago, and it was like pulling teeth getting fundy Christian school kids to understand the concept.
      So true that God and the fundy are always on the same side. :roll:

    2. I have never heard anyone say, “I, personally, believe thus-and-such is right, but the Bible clearly says otherwise, so God and I disagree on this moral point.”

      Really?
      I’ve heard loads of religious people (of many faiths) talk about how faith has changed their way of thinking, how that are on a journey, how they fail at times etc…

      1. You may be misunderstanding me. People’s opinions change, and their faith changes, but usually, whatever it is they CURRENTLY believe, they will find support for it in their theology or philosophy of choice, even if other people, using the exact same texts, choose alternate interpretations.

  4. Please wax philosophical any time you wish, Darrell. The results are always deep and meaningful, just as the are here. Well done.

  5. “Fundamentalism is Postmodernism”

    No, not quite accurate. Fundamentalism is one of the structures that post-modernism tries to describe and/or critique. Fundamentalism is not “postmodernism” per se.

    Postmodernism is the idea that worldview is socially/ personally constructed, and that worldview influences all perception and communication. It’s a kind-of suspicion. That’s all.

    That’s not to say that fundamentalists do not try to use post modernist critiques all the time. Just look at the way they try to write of evolutionary science as “just a theory”, or the way the will deflect atheist/ liberal opinion as a “corrupt way of thinking”. That’s when fundamentalism tries to use postmodernism for it’s own ends. However it fails, because proper postmodernism would also recognigse the inherent constructed nature of fundamentalist thought – whereas they would take their own thought as pure.

      1. Well of course there has to be proper postmodernism, that is, those things which are within the fundamental critique offered by post modernism.

        Post modernism is not the rejection of all positions. It is a position in itself, albeit one of suspicion.

    1. I suppose it’s better grammar, and less confusing, to say Fundamentalism is PostmodernIST.

      It’s postmodernist in the sense that it assumes that reality can be reinterpreted with almost infinite freedom from externally verifiable facts.

      But it’s against postmodernism in that Fundamentalism also claims (paradoxically) that there are knowable, absolute truths, and that all deviation from one official version of things is, by definition, error.

      The dual notions that there is one true orthodoxy, but that that orthodoxy is also subject to continuous modification, are what make Fundamentalism so difficult to engage in debate.

      1. It’s postmodernist in the sense that it assumes that reality can be reinterpreted with almost infinite freedom from externally verifiable facts

        OK I see what you’re saying. Although I don’t think Fundamentalists do really apply a post modern critique to “other” opinions. I think they just flat out claim that other opinions are corrupt. This sounds a bit more like modernism to me (OTHER opinions must be shown to be corrupt/ of lesser value; and that there is a single, objective rationality that leads to continued progress in truth) that postmodernism (opinions, including modernist ideas of rational “progress”, are culturally/ historically conditioned and therefore require analysis in terms of those contingencies).

        Or have I read this wrongitty wrong?

        1. Yes, I have always viewed Fundamentalism as growing from the same root as Modernism. They both argue rather straight-forwardly from an accepted body of facts. Which is why Fundies like their presuppositional apologetics.

          Now, that’s true of intellectual fundies. The garden variety you encounter in churches employ a variety of defense mechanisms when confronted with inconsistencies in their beliefs. This can, and often does, include outright denial or rationalization of problem Bible passages.

        2. That actually sounds to me more like Enlightenment rationalism than like Modernism.
          But they’re somewhere in the same family of epistemologies.

  6. Post courtesy of William (Bill) Otis Edacity:

    “It little surprises me to see such heathen suggestions here. The Bible speaks well of you when it warns believers to beware lest any mail spoil you through vain philosophies of men. That’s what I’m seeing here; just a man’s vain philosophy.”

    “You need to get out there and be useful for God! When is the last time you knocked on a door and sat down with a Bible and led a soul to Christ?”

    “This love of philosophy is something that the evil Calvinists also have; wouldn’t surprise me if this site isn’t mostly supported by anti-soulwinning Calvinists.”

  7. As one who teaches philosophy and seminary — that was actually quite profound. I might just run this by some of my students in search of someone to write a deeper paper on it. Love getting poked in the brain!

  8. I guess I’m also now considered post-modern as I’ve come to believe it IS all relative. I absolutely believe scripture will mean different things to different people. I think it’s SUPPOSED to.

    Many take the text of Peter about PROPHECY, and apply it to the whole bible. Then the problem of the preacher saying that one interpretation belongs to every listener in earshot.

  9. As a graduate student, I had a lot of post-modernist theory thrown at me.

    I don’t agree with the strong form of PoMo theory– that there is no external reality apart from our mental “construction” or “reading” of things.

    But a weaker form of the theory– that we can’t know absolute reality itself, only our own contingent and interpreted notions of reality– seems almost self-evident. In fact, it borrows a lot from Plato’s cave parable (circa 380 BCE).

    The danger is alway reification– mistaking our symbols and metaphors for the things or phenomena they should be pointing us toward.

    I once heard someone say that Jesus pointed out God to us, but we keep looking at his pointing finger instead of at what it pointed toward.
    This is, of course, another metaphor– not an exact or accurate description of things. But sometimes it’s a useful metaphor.

    1. It’s more than that, though. I think Post-modernism also carries the idea that speakers/writers often have ulterior motives. Postmodernism seeks to ‘deconstruct’ any writing to arrive at what was really being communicated.

      For example:

      A Heritage Foundation study that claims mass transit never pays for itself and is a waste of tax payer money. If they fail to consider the cost of roads, wars to maintain the flow of oil, etc., then such a study can be “deconstructed” as an attempt by the oil industry to profit from an auto-centric economy.

      The claim that Voter ID is “vote suppression” can be seen as a tacit admission that voter fraud in inner cities is in fact very common, and the political parties that benefit from it wish to maintain their advantage.

      Labelling the recent changes in the SBC as “A Great Commission Resurgence” is really about a centralization of power to the benefit of the self-chosen elite, many of whom are Calvinist.

      1. I’m not convinced that those critiques are examples of post-modernism as opposed to more traditional debate styles.

        For example,
        “The claim that Voter ID is “vote suppression” can be seen as a tacit admission that voter fraud in inner cities is in fact very common, and the political parties that benefit from it wish to maintain their advantage.”

        That’s a very weak argument, because many other scenarios are possible, and, in fact, much more likely. Recent voter ID laws are, in fact, attempts at vote suppression, as some of their authors have even admitted, because many people who are eligible to vote lack the kinds of identification documents required by the laws, and can’t get them without expending a lot of time and money. Both Democrats and Republicans recognize that proportionately more likely Democratic voters than Republican voters are thus potentially disadvantaged. That’s why Republicans are pushing voter ID laws and Democrats are resisting them. The ostensible reason for the laws, to prevent fraudulent voting, is debunked by the fact that in-person vote fraud is vanishingly rare in the U.S. (which is true).

        In other words, the possibility that some are benefiting from fraudulent voting by individuals who are not entitled to vote is only one of various reasons some people are opposed to voter ID laws.

        A law to ban people spontaneously combusting, if there are few or no cases of people capriciously bursting into flames, should be assumed to have some other motive behind it, and the people who are against such a law do not necessarily want to spontaneously combust. Maybe the people who sell fireproof suits will profit if people are forced to wear the suits, or maybe the bucket industry sees a benefit when people are constantly being doused with cold water.
        This isn’t post-modernism, or at least not very deep post-modernism. It’s just asking the old question, “Cui bono?”

        1. Please note that it’s *in-person* vote fraud that I’m saying is almost nonexistent. There are numerous cases of fraud in *counting* votes, and even more of incorrect vote counts due to incompetence and general sloppiness. But requiring voters to show ID would only combat, at most, in-person fraudulent voting.

        2. Only using Voter ID as an example of “deconstruction.”

          I agree that Post Modernism overlaps a great deal with traditional debate forms. That’s why it’s so hard to pin down and most critisms of it end up sounding stupid.

        1. Oh, the other day someone pointed out that “Fundamentalist” is an anagram of “Snail-Fed Mutant.” That sounded so cool, I thought I’d try it out as a name for a while. I’ve still got dibs on Big Gary, though, in case I need it again.

  10. While I agree with your assessment of fundamentalism in this post, your definition of post-modernism comes up woefully short. It is also the denial of absolute truth. The major proponents of biblical post-modernism do everything they can to discredit the Bible while at the same time trying to get you to believe what they think is the actual absolute truth. In essence, the so-called emergent or post-modern “thinkers” in church today are in reality the new fundamentalists. Their attitudes toward those who disagree with what they ‘think’ about so-called truth is no less ugly than the attitude of a fundamentalist preacher calling you a liberal because you don’t use a KJV or go ‘soul-winning’ every week. That door definitely swings both ways.

    1. I think you might be taking it too far, Trevor. Post-modernism is a denial that humans can know “truth in itself”. Truth is always mediated through experience. In my post-modernism classes it was not a question of if absolute truth existed but rather what does that mean and how could we know it. PM is really modernism 2.0. The presuppositions of modernism will always collapse into PM.

  11. Actually, I will have to disagree. I have never heard any independent fundamental baptist preacher speak on the subject of post-modernism. Most have never heard of the term. They are still stuck on modernism. Maybe in the next few decades they will catch up.

  12. Thanks for a very interesting post. It makes sense that if one divorces fundamentalism from its modern external trappings,what’s left in terms an approach to “knowing” seems very much rooted in “what’s true for me” regardless of the facts (KJV Onlyism for example). If theologies of some IFB pastors were compared with, let’s say, those of Brian McClaren, there might be equal levels of weirdness.

  13. This misuse of the term “Post-Modernism” isn’t limited to Fundies. It’s something they borrowed from the New Calvinists. As a fellow seminary dropout said, “‘Post Modernism’ has become a term to describe non-classical forms of liberalism.”

    It’s one of those buzzwords seminary students use when they’re trying to impress the professor and/or other students: “Dr. Ware, in what way do you believe Open Theism results from Post Modernism?” Dr. Ware, struggling to maintain composure: “What are you talking about? This has nothing to do with Post Modernism.”

  14. Maybe one could say that they use postmodern methodology, but with an extreme form of modernist arrogance, and they do all of this subconsciously. Hence, arguing against one of them is well-nigh futile. They believe they have all the facts, but they change the facts to fit them, and (both sincerely and arrogantly) deny that they did it.

  15. One of the hallmarks of Modernity is that everything is “knowable” and can be answered so I’d say they are Modern. love to say that since they are always harping against Modernism and this make their head explode.

  16. Most fundies who rail against postmodernism have no idea what it is.
    That being said, no one really knows what postmodernism is, exactly. The definition is slippery.
    However, postmodernism rejects metanarratives, whereas fundamentalism is obsessed with metanarrative, dragging it in all sorts of places that it doesn’t even belong.
    Postmodernism asserts there are many roads to truth. Fundamentalism is strident in its assertion that there is only one (which is a biblically sound statement, except that fundies narrow the “one road” much more so than scripture does)
    I would agree that fundamentalism aligns more closely with modernity than postmodernity–particularly in reference to fundamentalist obsession with “interpreting scripture with scripture”–perhaps the foundational tenet of literary criticism of the modern era.

    1. “Most fundies who rail against postmodernism have no idea what it is. That being said, no one really knows what postmodernism is, exactly. The definition is slippery.”

      I think the above comment pretty much defines post modernism.

  17. The downfall of most lines of thought, especially fundamentalism, is the inability to say those three words men find so hard to say: “I don’t know.” After all, you can’t be an expert in everything. It is our unwillingness to admit that there are somethings that we can’t figure out that causes us to twist reality.

    1. Yeah, I think that’s where a lot of the really off-the-wall theological ideas come from. I have to have an answer for what this verse means, so I’ll just make something up and then teach it to everyone. Only somewhere along the way, I’ll forget to call it my theory and start teaching it as fact.

      1. This applies not only to scriptures they don’t understand, but also to events, situations, theories, etc; then they have to take scripture out of context to fit situations and explain what is right or wrong about everything.

  18. Hmmm….Peter Kreeft….I don’t have enough of his books yet. Darrell, this is probably my favorite post. Excellent analysis and food for thought. I’m really curious about your faith journey right now too and can’t wait until the time is right to hear about it.

  19. Thanks Darrell. I have lamented this more than once. The methodology of fundamentalism is most often post-modern. And yet, the post-modern who admits it is empowered to say “I don’t know”. The fundamentalist still has a modernist cognitive structure, and as a result ends up with the worst of both worlds.

  20. Great discussion. One of the best. But, I miss the usual flame throwing, name calling, bring down the hail contributions of some of the regulars here. Need them to surface at least for some comments as this is almost too intelligent, too reasoned that we need some comic relief. :)

  21. I’d suggest a distinction between fundamentalist society and fundamentalist theology.

    Theology is the constant reinterpretation of sacred texts to make them match with new situations, politics, technological advances, social issues and indeed personal prejudice.

    Theology then is arguably postmodernist, in that the ‘truths’ it finds are always taken to be absolute and unquestionable…until they’re replaced with a new set of interpretations. And theologins accept this, some openly, some tacitly.

    But fundamentalist society is authoritarian. Its principles have to seem eternal and unassailable. Every fundamentalist has to claim that it has the complete and timeless truth.

    Fundamentalism relies on denying that last year’s theology is different from this year’s version. Indeed, there’s a kind of ‘second order’ theology involved in reconciling irreconcilable theologies.

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