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Understanding Postmodernism

Adults have always had difficulties relating to young people.  “Dad, you just don’t get it,” was a phrase often heard coming from my two brothers and me.  But now, it seems the divide is even greater.  It’s not just immaturity or youthful exuberance we old farts don’t get – there’s really a gap in understanding.  I can understand their words, but they make no sense to me.

The reason is that my generation and the one below have differing world views.  You’ve probably heard the word “postmodernism” thrown around, but not understood it.  We need to.

The compound word, of course, implies a predecessor.  In this case modernism.  POST-modernism follows the former in hopes to replace it.  Postmodernism is a reaction to and against modernism.  To understand the postmodern thinking of millennials, modernism must be understood first.

As a worldview, modernism embraces “realism.”  It believes there are universals and that entities are transcendent (they can transcend one person or culture and be found in more than one place).  It believes entities are capable of being multiply-exemplified (“owned” by more than one individual thing at the same time).

Example: whiteness.  A modernist would say whiteness is a “thing”.  Two white billiard balls share the same whiteness.  There are billiard balls elsewhere in the world that share their whiteness, too.

Modernism also promotes correspondence between propositions and the state of affairs in reality.  “Snow is white” is a proposition.  “Snow is white everywhere” is the corresponding state of affairs.  If you’re my age or older, all of this makes perfect sense. Everyone knows all snow is white.

The postmodern rejects these. First, postmodernism is nominalistic, maintaining that no universals exist.  What exists instead are particular things, and these are not transcendent.  So each white billiard ball has its own whiteness, but there’s not a thing called “whiteness” out there.

Secondly, the postmodern rejects truth as correspondence.  In proving truth, the postmodern will not appeal to an “external” reality beyond an individual or culture.  For him, truth is subjective.  The modernist’s appeal to objective truth might be considered cultural imperialism…the imposition of “your truth” on someone else.  How do we know all snow is white?

These aren’t minor differences and they make communication very difficult, as you can imagine –  especially when speaking of the Scriptures.  Stan Wallace says there are two reasons for this.  First, the Christian worldview clearly espouses Realism concerning values, and propositions.  For example, the Bible makes the proposition: there is one God and God is good.  This is considered, by the modernist, to be objective truth (not subjective).  This good God stands in contrast to the many postmodern options out there.

Likewise, the values this good God calls us to embrace are objective and can transcend cultures and individuals. Because God exists in holiness, he can establish morals for his creation.  He determines what is good and what is not…and he has communicated these values in the Bible.

Secondly, the correspondence of modernism mirrors more closely than postmodernism the Christian worldview.  The Bible makes the proposition that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day… (1 Cor. 15:3-4).” Christians consider this true in the sense that it accurately describes the real state of affairs in the world.  Whether one believes this proposition or not has no bearing on its validity.  Hence, it is not subjective but objective.  It’s not my truth or even my community’s truth, it’s simply the truth.  I can accept or reject it, but it will remain true.

During Jesus’ trial, Pilate asked “What is truth?”  Folks have been asking the question for a long time…and different generations have given different answers. When cross-generational communication just isn’t working, we can’t throw up our hands in frustration and give up.  These are conversations that need to happen – they deserve our best effort.  A whole generation needs to hear the truth.

(for more, see Stan Wallace, “Essentials of Postmodernism” in Philosophy: Christian Perspectives for the New Millennium . CLM: Addison, Texas, 2003)



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