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A Comment on Postmodernism


A Comment on Postmodernism

Victor Shepherd


I: — What is postmodernism or postmodernity? Plainly we have to know what is meant by “modernity” before we can grasp “postmodernity.”   Some people maintain that modernity begins with the French Revolution with its explicitly secularist, anti-religious outlook.  Others date modernity from the Enlightenment with its development of science. Others still (here I include myself) date modernity from the Renaissance with, among other things, the rise of market-capitalism, the development of transnational banking, the nation-state.   Modernity, then, runs from mid 15th century to mid 20th century, or from 1450 to 1945.

Let’s think first of modernity.   There are several features of modernity that we all recognise as soon as they are mentioned: technoscience, for instance.   Think of how the telegraph was followed by the telephone, followed in turn by the wireless, followed yet again by satellite communication, and so on.

Mass production is another feature of modernity. At one time goods were produced in what were known as “cottage industries.”   Someone with a few sheep spun wool in her living room and then wove it, eventually having a garment of some kind she could sell.  When mass production arrived a newly-invented mechanical loom hummed night and day in a factory, producing wool far more quickly, and thus permitting a vastly more efficient means of manufacturing and distributing huge quantities of woollen goods.  Horse-drawn carriages used to be made by one or two men who spent weeks building one carriage completely before beginning another.  With the advent of the horseless carriage, the automobile, Henry Ford developed the assembly line. The number of units manufactured per week skyrocketed.  Not only did the factory-housed loom and the automobile assembly line speed up the manufacturing process, they also lowered the price per unit so that the manufactured goods were affordable to large segments of the population.

Developments in industrial efficiency, we should note, created what economists call “real wealth” and distributed it in such a way that a middle class arose and mushroomed.  Prior to modernity there were two classes: the noble or aristocratic class (very few in number) and the rural peasant class (very large.) In other words, there were a few rich land-owners and hordes of poor land-workers. The few possessed immense wealth and power; the many possessed neither wealth nor power. Industrialisation, a major feature of modernity, gave rise to a middle class that was larger than either the rich or the poor.  And of course together with the expansion of the middle class there occurred the representative democracy we all cherish.

The nation-state was a feature of modernity. The purpose of the state is to subdue lawlessness, punish evildoers, promote the public good. At the close of the Middle Ages it was noted that a people that had much in common could band together and thereby promote the public good much more efficiently. At the close of the Middle Ages there were 300 fiefdoms or principalities in Germany , with a prince presiding over each.  It was obvious that if many German-speaking peoples forged themselves into a single German-speaking people, a nation-state would arise possessed of a domestic and international power that 300 fiefdoms could never hope to have.

By far the most readily recognised feature of modernity, I think, is what I mentioned first: technoscience.         “Labour-saving devices” are only a small part of it.  The devices that we now take for granted weren’t merely labour-saving (a tractor that ploughs in an hour what a horse ploughed in a day.)    The technoscience we admire had to do with vaccinations, inoculations, surgeries (chest surgery was virtually impossible prior to the invention of the heart-lung machine).   As well as the technoscience that provided safety: radar, electronic navigation, weather-predicting.   As well as the technoscience that “greened” large parts of the world with wheat that was impervious to rust, corn impervious to blight, fertilisers that multiplied crop yields a hundred fold, and methods of transportation that were quicker, safer, cheaper, more comfortable than anything our foreparents could have imagined.

Modernity was characterised by a belief in progress, a manifest mastery over nature, and the magnification of efficiency everywhere.


II: — Then what about postmodernity?   What are its features? Let’s begin here where we left off: technoscience.         There is now widespread loss of confidence in technoscience as a blessing. While nuclear science generated electricity more efficiently than steam turbines, nuclear science has spawned nightmare after nightmare.   (Not to mention propaganda to cloak the nightmare: there are on average 500 major nuclear accidents per year, most of which are never reported to the public.) As for nuclear weaponry, we entered the cold war, seemed to pass out of it in 1989, and now appear to be on the edge of it again.  At the height of the cold war (1945-1989) the USA and the USSR were aiming at each other nuclear weaponry that guaranteed what the military-industrial complex called “Mutually Assured Destruction”: MAD. Conventional weaponry had been used to win wars; nuclear weaponry would guarantee loss on all sides.  Yet nuclear weaponry proliferated.

Developments in electronics were hailed as glorious. Electronic surveillance has eroded privacy already and brought depersonalisation and dehumanisation in its wake. And we haven’t seen anything in this regard compared to what we are going to see.

In the postmodern era pharmacology has become suspect. Drugs to relieve pain are one thing; what about drugs that don’t merely relieve pain, don’t merely elevate moods (from depression to contentment), don’t merely subdue agitation or compulsiveness, but alter personality? If drugs can alter personality, then what do we mean by “personality?”   Since personality is intimately connected to personal identity, has personal identity evaporated? Then what has happened to the person herself?    What do we mean by “self?”   Is there a self? Furthermore, if self and personality are related to character, what has become of character?

While we are speaking of character we should be aware that the United States Armed Forces have developed drugs that eliminate fear. Courage, of course, is courage only in the context of fear.  Drugs that eliminate fear therefore also eliminate bravery.  No American combatant need ever be awarded a military honour!   More to the point, drug-induced fearlessness renders someone a robot; robots are never afraid, robots are never brave, robots are never human. That’s the point: the drugged soldier is no longer human.

What modernity called progress postmodernity deems anything but progress.  Where is the progress in ecological damage so far-reaching that air isn’t fit to breathe or water to drink, while ozone-depletion renders our skin irrecoverably cancerous?   Where is the progress in schooling that finds university-bound students unable to write or comprehend a five-sentence paragraph?

To no one’s surprise, postmodernity has suffered widespread loss of confidence in reason.  We may call postmodernites cynics or we may call them realists; in any case postmodernites see human reasoning as a huge factor in the postmodern mess. They see reason (so-called) as simply a means to an end that isn’t reasonable itself.

One feature of the collapse of confidence in reason is the disappearance of truth. Truth is now reduced to taste. Postmodernity denies that there is such a thing as truth, or denies that we can access truth. Instead of knowing truth we express opinions, or we indicate preferences, or we “go with our gut.” Truth?   What is truth, anyway?  And if it existed, what makes us think we could know it?   And even if we could know it, how would we know when we had found it? Truth?  You have your opinion and I have mine.  Who or what is the arbiter between you and me?

Needless to say the disappearance of ethics is related to the disappearance of truth. Postmodernites don’t speak of ethics; they speak of values.  Everyone knows that different people hold different values.  But this isn’t to say one value is superior to another.  What any one person values is up to him or her.  No one is to be told his values are defective or inferior.  Lest we feel sorry for ourselves, thinking that the newness of this feature of postmodernism is brandnewness, we should read again the concluding sentence of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel ; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25 ) We aren’t the first to reduce what is right to matters of taste.   Three thousand years ago there were those who regarded themselves and their fancies as the measure of the universe.  As Israelites, they had even made themselves and their fancies the measure of God. It all came down to taste; and, as everyone knows, there’s no disputing taste. Taste, preference, opinion, whatever – it all adds up to the sufficiency of the subjective.

If someone, nervous about all of this, speaks up, “But shouldn’t opinions or preferences be grounded in something, grounded in reality?”, such a person will be reminded, “Asking whether they should be grounded in reality is pointless when no one knows what reality is or how it might be recognised.” “But can’t the smorgasbord of opinions be considered and weighed rationally?” Raising this matter is pointless when reason is already suspect.  Besides, to challenge someone else’s values or opinions is to excite emotion, and everyone knows that when emotion and reason meet, reason always takes second place.

Another feature of postmodernity is the weakening of the nation-state in the face of tribalism. All over the world tribalism is reasserting itself.  It is especially strong in Africa . Quebec ’s growing self-advancement, however, is a form of tribalism too, as is the United Church ’s all-aboriginal presbytery. The most vicious form of tribalism (“vicious”, of course, is a value-laden term, my value) is ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is on the increase. Internally the nation-state is fragmenting; externally the nation-state is increasingly the pawn of international finances and multinational corporations.

Another feature of postmodernity is the mushrooming of consumerism, consumer-driven everything.  In the modern era economics were producer-driven; in the postmodern era, consumer-driven. Consumerism determines what church-congregations offer, what pulpits declare, what school boards program. Reginald Bibby, sociologist at the University of Lethbridge , maintains that there’s a huge demand throughout the society for religious consumer-products. “If the church wants to survive”, says Bibby, “it should meet consumer demands.” In other words, the church should forget what it believes to be the truth and substance of the gospel. The church should merely prepare the religious buffet that allows consumers to pick and choose according to taste, whim, preference.  It must never be forgotten, of course, that it’s consumers who fund the church. Consumerism?   My daughter Mary has just finished her B.Sc.N. program at McMaster University . When she began the course she was told that patients are no longer patients; what used to be known as patients are now clients. Patients are sick; clients are consumers who are purchasing a service.

My wife, Maureen, came upon three Grade one students writing obscene graffiti. She deemed this to be an “actionable” offence, and action was taken.  Next day the parent of one of these three children came to see Maureen. The parent remarked, “How unfortunate it was that my daughter signed her name to the graffiti she wrote.” “It wasn’t unfortunate that your daughter signed her name, thereby giving herself away”, Maureen replied; “It wasn’t even unfortunate that she wrote the obscene graffiti in the first place.  It was simply wrong; wrong.” The category “wrong” has no meaning for that parent.  The parent has already disavowed everything that might be logically related to the word “wrong.”   Her attitude encapsulates postmodernity.  Besides, as a taxpayer she’s a consumer who is purchasing a service for her child. And since consumers are paying the piper, they are now calling the tune.


III: — Is postmodernity all bad? Has the sky fallen on Chicken Little? Is our situation hopeless? No.  Think of something familiar to all of us: the writing of history.  We all studied history in school.  We all studied it thinking it to be the soul of objectivity.  History dealt with facts, unarguable facts.  Postmodernites tell us (and tell us correctly) something different. A few years ago I addressed a group of curriculum planners at the central office of the Toronto Board of Education. I was speaking about prejudice in general, racism in particular.   I told the group that while racial segregation had always occurred spontaneously in Ontario , it had been mandated by law in one institution only: the school system. Yes, schools were segregated along black/white lines beginning in the 1850s.   (Most of the curriculum planners were completely unaware of this.) Then I asked them, “In what year was the last racially segregated school in Ontario closed?” Two planners shouted, “In 1965.” They were correct. They were also black. The black educators knew about racially segregated schools in Ontario ; the white planners had never heard of it and were aghast to learn of it. When I was studying Ontario ’s history, I was never informed of this matter.  Were you? The postmodernites are going to keep asking us, “Who writes history?   Whose viewpoint is reflected?   Whose interests are advanced?   And what despised group is silenced?”   Here postmodernism is doing us a favour.

Is postmodernity all bad?  No. Before we deplore the hastening demise of the Church of Scotland (to name only one denomination sick unto death); before we lament the morbidity of the Kirk we should remember that many people are already ambivalent about it. My earliest Old Testament professor, Scottish himself but belonging to a denomination other than the Church of Scotland, told me that when he was a young man in Scotland you couldn’t get work in the post office, a bank, or schoolteaching unless you were a member of the Kirk.  You didn’t have to attend; you didn’t have to worship; you didn’t have to believe anything. But your name had to be on the roll. No one today laments the disappearance of such an arrangement.

Is postmodernity all bad?  No. Admittedly confidence has collapsed in technoscience as something that can promote the human good. (Technoscience, of course, can always promote the technically efficient.   But the technically efficient is a long way from the human good.)  While technoscience has done much to ease physical toil and bodily discomfort, done much to promote longer life and reduce the likelihood of sudden death, Christians are aware that technoscience was never going to promote the human good.  Then the public loss of confidence in technoscience is loss of confidence where Christians had none in any case.

Is postmodernity all bad?  No. So what if postmodernites insist that reason (reasoning) is suspect, reasoning being little more than rationalisation serving any number of subtle or not-so-subtle ends. Christians have always known that sin blinds so thoroughly as to blind humankind to the speciousness of its reasoning. Christians have always known that only grace, God’s grace, frees reason and restores reason to reason’s integrity.  Then postmodernity reminds us all of a human predicament that Christians know the gospel alone to be able to cure.

Is postmodernity all bad?  No. While tribalism is to be deplored, the radical relativising of the nation-state isn’t to be deplored. Surely the development of hydrogen warheads rendered the nation-state obsolete.  Surely the nation-state has been a reservoir of old wounds and resentments and recriminations and national aggressions that we’re all better off without. Surely we don’t need a cess-pool whose toxic wastes seep into neighbouring aquifers.


IV: — Then what are Christians to do about postmodernism?   Specifically, what are the concrete challenges that postmodernism brings to the church?


First of all we are challenged to remember at all times and in all circumstances that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1)  “The Lord of hosts is the king of glory.”   He is; he alone is. Christians aren’t dualists. We don’t believe that the cosmos is stuck fast in an interminable struggle between two equal but hostile powers, God and the evil one, neither able to defeat the other. We don’t believe that the Fall (Genesis 3) has obliterated the goodness of God’s creation. Yes, Jesus says that the creation lies in the grip of the “prince of this world”. But the prince is only that: prince, never king.  The earth is the Lord’s, and no one else’s.

The gospel of John, the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews, and Paul’s letter to the church in Colosse; all these documents declare that the whole world was made through Christ for Christ. He is the agent in creation, and the creation was fashioned for his sake.   He is its origin and end. He is its ground and goal. And no development in world-occurrence can overturn this truth.

We are told in Colossians 1:17, “In Jesus Christ all things hold together.”   However fast, however violently, the world spins (metaphorically speaking), it can never fly apart. “In him all things hold together.” Why doesn’t the creation fly apart (metaphorically speaking)?  Why doesn’t human existence become impossible?   Why don’t the countless competing special-interest groups, each with its “selfist” savagery, fragment the world hopelessly?  Just because in him, in our Lord, all things hold together.  What he creates he maintains; what he upholds he causes to cohere. “Hold together” is a term taken from the Stoic philosophy of the ancient Greeks.  But whereas the ancient Greek philosophers said that a philosophical principle upheld the cosmos, Christians knew it to be a person, the living person of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He grips the creation with a hand large enough to comprehend the totality of the world. In other words, the real significance of postmodernism can’t be grasped by postmodernites; the real significance of postmodernism can be grasped only by him whose world it is and in whom it is held together.  The real significance of postmodernism, its bane but also its blessing, can be understood only by those who are attuned to the mind of Christ. The sky hasn’t fallen down.


Another challenge, the second challenge, that postmodernism brings to the church: we are to meet everyday challenges and opportunities each and every day.  Many Christians think that the first thing to be done is a philosophical rebuttal of postmodernism’s tenets.  I’m a philosopher myself (or like to think I am), and I agree that a philosophical critique, a philosophical rebuttal, is entirely in order. At the same time, there are relatively few people with the training and the equipment for this sort of thing. All Christians, however, can meet everyday challenges and opportunities each and every day.

You must have noticed that Jesus doesn’t merely illustrate his ministry with everyday matters (a homemaker sweeping the house clean in order to find her grocery money); he directs us to everyday matters as the occasion of our faith and obedience, trust and love. I mentioned earlier the concluding verse of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel ; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25 ) In a postmodern world that is therefore postchristendom as well, Christians must exemplify the truth that there is a king in Israel ; there is a Lord whose claim upon the obedience of us his subjects we neither dispute nor deny nor disregard. We who are Christians must embody our conviction that we don’t do what is right in our own eyes. We are preoccupied, rather, with what is righteous, and what is righteous reflects the heart of the Righteous One himself.  Everyday matters remain the occasion, the context, the venue of everyday obedience. Discipleship isn’t suspended until philosophers can dissect postmodernism; discipleship is always to be exercised now, in the context of the ready-to-hand. We trust our Lord and his truth right now (or we don’t); we grant hospitality right now and discover we’ve entertained angels unawares (or we don’t); we uphold our Lord’s claim on our obedience in the face of postmodernism’s ethical indifference (or we don’t).  We recognise the approach of temptation and resist it in the instant of its approach, or we stare at it like a rabbit staring at a snake until rabbit-like, we’re seized.  We forgive the offender from our heart and find ourselves newly aware of God’s forgiveness of us, or we merely pretend to forgive the offender and find our own heart shrivelling.  The apostle John insists that we do the truth. We have countless opportunities every day challenging us to forthright faith and obedience and trust regardless of whether or not we can philosophically rebut postmodernism’s philosophical presuppositions.


The third challenge postmodernism brings to the church is as profound as it is simple: Christians must recover the Christian truth that human existence is relational.  A few minutes ago I mentioned, for instance, that one feature of modernity’s modulation into postmodernity was the shift from production economics to consumer economics.         We should note, however, that neither form of economics impinges upon a Christian understanding of human profundity.  God intends us to be creatures whose ultimate profundity is rooted not in economic matters but in relations.

Think of the old story concerning the creation of humankind. “God created man in his own image.   In the image of God created he them.” (Gen. 1:27) Adam is properly Adam; Adam is properly himself, only in relation to Eve. To be sure, Adam isn’t a function of Eve or Eve a function of him.  Neither one can be reduced to the other; neither one is an aspect of the other. None the less, each is who he or she is only in relation to the other.

I am not reducible to any one of my relationships or to all of them together.   I am not an extension of my wife or an aspect of my parents or a function of my daughters. I am me, uniquely, irreplaceably, unsubstituably me.  Still, I am not who I am apart from my relationships.

Every last human being is a dialogical partner with God. This isn’t to say that everyone is aware of this or welcomes this or agrees with this. It isn’t to say that everyone is a believer or a crypto-believer or even a “wannabe” believer. It isn’t to say that everyone is going to become a believer or be considered one.  But it is to say that the God who has made us all can’t be escaped; can’t be escaped by anyone.  God can be denied, he can be disdained, he can be ignored, he can be unknown, he can be fled, but he can’t be escaped.  Not to be aware of this truth is not thereby to be spared it.   To ridicule this truth is not thereby to be rid of it.  The living God is always and everywhere the dialogical “Other”, the relational “Other” of everyone’s life, even as there are many creaturely “others” in everyone’s life.

Decades ago the Jewish biblical thinker Martin Buber wrote, “All real living is meeting.”   He was right: what isn’t profoundly a “meeting” isn’t living; it’s death. What isn’t a “meeting” isn’t real; it’s illusory.  Reality, said Buber, is the “between”; the “between” between person and person, the “between” between person and the Person. Jean Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, complained that the mere existence of another human being diminished the individual’s freedom.  The existence of God, Sartre continued, suffocated the individual, so suffocating was God in his immensity compared to the human individual gasping to exist. Therefore, said Sartre, God had to be denied if humankind was to thrive humanly.  Buber (who always maintained that Sartre was a novelist who thought himself a philosopher) correctly saw that Sartre had inverted the picture: the relation of “I-it”, how we approach things, isn’t bedrock reality, the “I-thou” relation being no more than an ethereal fantasy. It’s the other way around: “I-thou” is bedrock reality; “I-thou” is the primordium of the cosmos, “I-it” being a mere abstraction.         Postmodernity is suspicious and cynical and bitter all at once, and often for good reason. It denies the category of the real. Right here there is challenge and opportunity a-plenty for Christians: the real is the relational.


The fourth challenge postmodernism brings to the church: we have to work out much more thoroughly what we understand to be the human, the quintessentially human.  Our society is beset on all sides with depersonalisation and dehumanisation. We are now facing the technological novelty known as “virtual reality” or “synthetic reality.” Soon we’ll be sitting in front of our TV screens with a contraption on our head that allows us to experience the sensations of touch, smell, taste, sight. When so much of the human can be counterfeited electronically, what does it mean to be human? Surely Christians have something to say and do here.


The fifth challenge postmodernism brings to the church: we must reappropriate the category of the holy.   Here postmodernity forces us to come to terms with something the church has considered too slightly if at all: the polar opposite of evil isn’t good, not even the good.  The polar opposite of wrong isn’t right, not even the right. The polar opposite of evil, rather, is the holy.  The polar opposite of wrong is the holy.  Plainly the holy and the good are not exactly the same.   The holy and the right are not exactly the same.  Wherein lies the difference?

In order to answer this question we must spend a few minutes refreshing our understanding of God’s holiness.

God’s holiness is God’s own Godness, that which constitutes God uniquely God.   In the first place God is holy in that God is utterly distinct from his creation. God is not to be identified with any part of his creation or any aspect of it.

In the second place God’s holiness means that God can’t be measured or assessed by anything other than himself.         God is the absolute standard of himself.

In the third place God’s holiness means that God’s character is without defect or deficiency.  God’s character is free from taint of any sort.  God’s love is free from sentimentality; God’s anger is free from ill-temper; God’s judgement is free from arbitrariness; God’s patience is free from indifference; God’s sovereignty is free from tyranny.

In the fourth place God’s holiness means that all the aspects of God’s character just mentioned are gathered up into a unity. Just as every shade of the spectrum from infrared to ultra-violet is gathered up into what we call “light”, so every dimension of God’s character and God’s transcendence is gathered up into God’s holiness.

When we are faced with evil in any of its manifestations we must find ourselves driven ultimately not to a consideration of good, even the good, for even the good is but a philosophical category, not the living person of the Holy One himself. When we are faced with wrong we must find ourselves driven ultimately not to a consideration of right, even the right, for even the right is but a moral category, not the living person of the Holy One himself. Instead we must find ourselves driven to contemplate afresh and own anew the One whose uniqueness and awesomeness and splendour left our Hebrew foreparents in faith prostrate and adoring. For God alone is that to which (to whom) the deficits of postmodernism point us: God.

And if postmodernism is used in God’s inscrutable providence (Calvin’s description) to turn the hearts and minds of many to him, then even postmodernism is a harbinger of hope: hope for the church, to be sure, but hope as well for that world which God so loved as to pour himself upon it without measure and bind himself to it without end.