Monday, August 11, 2008

WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM?

WHAT IS POSTMODERNISM?
By: Philip Rosenthal

Many people have asked me to explain in simple language what is ‘post-modernism’? Most academic articles on the subject will leave people more confused than when they started reading. The simplest way of understanding it is by first explaining post-modern architecture and then drawing a comparison with philosophy and theology. In the past, every building had a uniform theme. It was either Classical or Gothic or Victorian or Edwardian or Modern or Japanese or Indian or whatever – but only one theme from one time period or geographical area. Post-modern architecture doesn’t have a consistent theme. It is a mix of themes from many time periods. So, for example, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and Canal Walk Shopping complexes in Cape Town, both use post-modern architecture. They borrow ideas from many different time periods and themes and mix them all together. They don’t need or want a unifying theme. What is wrong with this? Nothing. It is just a preference – you either like it or you don’t like it.

But when you apply that attitude to philosophy or theology, the result is confusion and relativism and eventually a breakdown of absolute morals and belief. Roman Catholics and Protestants and Muslims disagree on certain issues – but they at least agree that truth is absolute and unified. Post-modernists don’t. To post-modernists, truth is just a subjective cultural or personal belief. To them, you can happily take ideas from different places and mix them together in any way you like without the need for any kind of logical continuity. Most of them don’t even want to argue about what is true, because they see truth itself as just a human opinion. In fact, they view anyone who is firm about truth and morals as arrogant and judgemental. Since truth is subjective, what is important is people’s feelings and relationships. Those who stand for truth at the expense of feelings and relationships are thus the problem.

While Modernism tended to reject historic Christian theology, Post-modernism borrows from it regularly. Their teachers will happily combine recitation ancient creeds with aspects of Catholicism and Reformed theology. This appears to give them some historic authenticity. But the problem is that they way they do it is void of any logic or coherence. It is just a case of picking various different ice cream flavours and putting them together into one cone.

Another difference between Modernism and Postmodernism is that while Modernism emphasised individual rights and opinions, Post-Modernism emphasises cultural group thinking. Thus Christian truth and morality is relegated to a cultural group belief rather than a moral absolute applicable to everyone. The chief virtue is thus tolerance of other cultural groups. Also called ‘Political Correctness’. The chief vice is intolerance. Post-modernism accommodates Christianity quite happily provided that you respect the right of other groups to do whatever they like – including for example practicing homosexuality or committing abortion. So long as you don’t impose your views on anyone else, then you are accepted. Post-modernist Christians view Bible teaching not as absolutes which all must obey, but as the views of our particular cultural group, which we should not impose on others lest we offend them. Sound familiar? Do you see things this way? Maybe you have already been partially seduced by Post-Modernism.

Another difference is that while Modernism attacked the truth of scripture, Post-modernism attacks not the truth of scripture, but our ability to understand it. For them, scripture is mysterious and we can never be certain exactly what it means. Post-modernist teachers try to cast doubt on what it means and see such doubt as a sophisticated virtue. Thus for them, we can never be quite sure what the Bible says about for example homosexuality and abortion – so being unsure, we should not impose our personal belief on anyone else.

The Emerging Church can be described also as the third generation of theological liberalism. The first generation was Modernism – the elevation of human reason above scripture. This was advocated first by German theologians in the 1850s and spread from there through the rest of the world – destroying most of mainline Protestantism. They viewed their new beliefs outdated historic Christianity in a similar way that modern technology outdates old technology. The second generation was Neo-orthodoxy, invented by Karl Barth, which argued that the scripture was spiritually true but not necessarily true in other respects. What was important for the Neo-orthodox was your ‘spiritual experience’ of the Bible. They tried to marry existential philosophy with Christianity. The third generation of liberalism is now the ‘Emerging church’, which is trying to marry postmodernism with Christianity. Essentially, this whole stream of liberalism is following the secular culture. In response to Modernism, Orthodox Christians re-grouped to form what they called ‘Evangelicalism’ which rejected Modernism. Problem is though that liberalism, like a computer virus is changing its form all the time. Most evangelicals don’t understand that that the Emerging Church is just a new form of liberalism and so their defences are down. It is being taught at Evangelical Bible Seminaries and heretical books are published by what we thought were Evangelical publishing houses – especially Zondervan. The Emerging Church is not a new brand of Evangelicalism – it is a new brand of liberalism. It needs to be fought with the same strength as we fought the old liberalism (Modernism).

Many Christians have accepted post-modernism without realising it – and have already been applying these false assumptions for a decade or so. What is new is that a group of people calling themselves the ‘Emerging Church’ are now consciously promoting this false assumption. Most of the followers of this group still seem on most points orthodox Christians. But the problem is that as soon as one accepts the false assumptions of post-modernism, and apply this to theology, you go down a slippery slope that leads eventually to being allowed to believe whatever you like – and a lot of people end up in heretical belief and those who apply it practically, immorality in behaviour.

This month, one of South Africa’s chief proponents of Postmodernism and the Emerging Church movement published an article in ‘Baptists Today’ arguing that the Bible does not prohibit monogamous homosexuality. He takes each of the scriptures dealing with homosexuality and tries to cast doubt on the meaning. Space does not permit here a response to his heretical arguments – but the point is that these wrong assumptions lead to seriously wrong conclusions in reading the Bible. If you read the writings of various other leaders who have strayed into the Emerging Church – many come from Orthodox Christian backgrounds, but after they have been there a while, many of them stray into serious and heretical doctrinal error. Some people are going to listen to what I have written above and say – that sounds very academic – why does it matter? Well, it matters because if you have a wrong understanding of the meaning of truth, then you will get to seriously wrong conclusions on doctrine and morality. Thus, one cannot just treat this as an academic theological debate. It is something which if tolerated is going to lead people into serious sin and for some eternal damnation. Therefore, these false teachers must be stopped.

Now not everyone who goes by the name 'Emerging Church' is necessarily a theological liberal or applying post-modernist thought to theology. Many, like those who like post-modern architecture are just applying it to things like church service format. And I don't label such people heretics. There is nothing evil about this. But those who do apply it to theology are starting down a slippery slope that will lead them into doubt, confusion, possibly heresy, likely tolerance of evil and possibly immoral behaviour. We have to stop this.

Will you stand up and speak out against these wolves in sheeps clothing that are preying on Christ's church?

[Certain Emerging Church leaders have registered protest at my reference above to 'wolves in sheeps clothing', so I clarify that, while I disagree with all of them in their response to post-modernism, I don't apply the term 'wolves' to all of them, but to those who stray into heresy or sow doubt or undermine the importance of core Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement (Christ dying in our place), the sanctity of life of the unborn, the requirement to keep sex within man-woman marriage only.]

6 comments:

Roger Saner said...

Could you please explain why Slavoj Zizek, a postmodern philosopher who is an atheist and was born in Slovenia, is ardently advocating Christianity as a way of fighting liberalism...? He's written a few books on this theme.

This simply doesn't gel with your post, and *can't* make sense to you, unless you change your understanding of postmodernism, which I invite you to do.

Or, if you'd like, when I'm in Cape Town next year I'll lend you my copy of his book, "The puppet and the dwarf."

timvictor said...

Philip,

Can you cite at least 5 examples of the breakdown you're referring to?

ChristianView said...

Examples in the breakdown in absolute morals and belief:

* Graeme Codrington's attempted deconstruction of scripture texts on homosexuality. Plus Brian McClaren's call for a 5 year moratorium on pronouncements on homosexuality.
* Steve Chalkes questioning of the substitutionary atonement as 'cosmic child abuse'.
* Rob Bell saying that it would 'not shake his faith' if the virgin birth were proved untrue.
* The increasing acceptance of the pro-choice position amongst professing Christians i.e. 'we believe it is wrong, but we don't do anything to interfere with others right to do so'. Note Emerging Church leaders Brian McLaren & others support for pro-choice political candidates in the recent US election.
* The many disapproving statements by church leaders against Christians who publicly protest against blasphemy, abortion etc. A view of 'we agree with you', but please don't offend anyone.
* Emergent leaders questioning the historic church interpretation of the Bible on hell and eternal damnation of the wicked in the lake of fire etc.
* Feminine gender references to God.

Roger Saner said...

Hi Philip

You don't have a very high view of postmodernism, do you? It's going to lead to a breakdown in morals, correct?

I've just posted on "The usual misunderstanding of postmodernism and deconstruction" and think you'll find the following quote informative (my own post is much longer):


Let me risk, with fear and trembling, the following axiom, which governs what I call a certain "axiomatics of indignation" that Derrida seems to provoke: the most fundamental misunderstanding to beset Derrida and deconstruction is the mistaken impression that is given of a kind of anarchistic relativism in which "anything goes." On this view, texts mean anything the reader wants them to mean; traditions are just monsters to be slain or escaped from; the great masters of the Western tradition are dead white male tyrants whose power must be broken and whose name defamed; institutions are just power-plays oppressing everyone; and language is a prison, just a game of signifiers signifying nothing, a play of differences without reference to the real world. Thus the dominant reaction that Derrida provokes among his critics, who do not content themselves with simply disagreeing with him, is indignation. His critics seem to immediately to shift into high dudgeon, cloaking themselves in a self-righteous "moral" or "ethical" mantle - where ethics has the look of a self-approving good conscience - appointing themselves Defenders of the Good and the True. Critics of deconstruction feel obliged to rush to their closets, dust off and don their academic suits of armour, and then collectively charge this enemy of the common good, their lances pointed at his heart. For if Derrida's shenanigans arouse their arie when deconstruction is confined to reading Joyce or Mallarme, you can imagine how the tempers of these Knights of the Good and True flare when deconstruction threatens to spill over into the streets, when it gets translated into politics and ethics. Then the influence of this dreadful nihilism is intolerable, for it poses a threat to the common good. Ergo, we, the Good and the Just (self-authorised and self-knighted, to be sure) - that is what "we" almost always means - must stamp it out.

Roger Saner said...

...the most fundamental misunderstanding to beset Derrida and deconstruction is the mistaken impression that is given of a kind of anarchistic relativism in which "anything goes."

That's NOT what postmodernism is about.

ChristianView said...

Dear Roger

You are correct that I don't have a high view of postmodernism. This whole blog is an attack on postmodernism and attempts to merge it with Christianity. I understand that postmodernism is not a complete 'anything goes' anarchy. In fact society would not be able to exist for any length of time in such an anarchistic environment. With the current dominance of postmodernism in Europe, the very fact that it has not degenerated is proof that postmodernism is not anarchistic. Nevertheless, at the same time, postmodernism is an unstable system - and it is gradually unravelling the ethical absolutes that it inherited from Christianity. The world is several steps in degeneration ahead of the postmodern 'Emerging Church' movement. So one can see where it is all going. Currently the Christian prohibition on homosexuality is being undermined, but a new absolute is growing support that one should not attack homosexuality - so the ethic is inverted. Now those who publicly criticised homosexuality are being punished for 'hate speech'. Emerging church has not got there yet, but they are just the laggard stream following in the wake of the postmodern pioneer radicals - an ethical system being set by a medical ethics elite, a judicial elite, a media elite and the theologians following behind. It is replacing Christianity slowly with a new anti-Christian unbiblical ethic.

With regard to Salvoj Zizek, I am sorry I am not familiar with his writings. Postmodernism does not completely reject Christianity, but it tries to domesticate it - make it tame - a subordinate sub-culture under the total framework of postmodernism. For historic orthodox biblical Christians, the Biblical ethics is the framework into which everthing else must fit. Jesus is Lord of everything else including the state and every social institution.