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Postmodernism: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?

Millard J. Erickson

What shall we make of postmodernism? Is it basically a correct and helpful way of understanding life? If so, then we should embrace it, regardless of whether it accords with our previous beliefs. If, on the other hand, it is an inaccurate view of reality and of life, then we should resist it and reject it.

As with virtually any understanding of thought or life, postmodernism has both strengths and weaknesses. We need to appreciate and utilize the strengths, but with due recognition of its shortcomings. We noted earlier that both more conservative and more radical interpretations are possible, even of the same postmodernist. To the extent that one follows the more conservative interpretation of postmodernism, it is less vulnerbale to criticism, but it also is less unique. The same valid insights can be found in other philosophies that do not go as far. On the other hand, the more radical readings of postmodernism preserve its uniqueness, but make it more vulnerable to criticism. One can legitimately adopt either interpretation of postmodernism, but one cannot hold both, at least not without the loss of one’s intellectual integrity.

Positive Elements of Postmodernism

Postmodernism offers certain strengths and accurate analyses, and we need to take note of them lest we miss their benefits. One of postmodernism’s helpful and correct insights is that it is not possible to be absolutely certain about any system of thought. While we may possess absolute truth, it is quite a different matter to say that we understand it absolutely. Because of our human limitations, our beliefs will always contain an element of the uncertain and the merely probable. This, is of course, should not be surprising since Paul said that “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). In particular, postmodernism’s criticism of classical foundationalism seems to be correct. Foundationalism, especially in the tradition of the seventeenth-century French philosopher Ren’ Descartes, had sought for certitude by contending that there are certain unquestionable truths. These truths serve as the basis of all other knowledge claims, which can be derived from these foundations by deductive certainty. Thus, the conclusions are those about which one need, and indeed can, have no doubt.

We now know that what seemed so certain and indubitable to an earlier period is not that at all. That starting point of those systems turns out not to be inescapable, but rather to be of the nature of the nature of assumptions, or to contain hidden and unexpressed premises. Descartes, for example, believed that he started with absolutely certain premise: I am doubting. Although he could doubt everything else, he could not doubt that he was doubting.

We now see, however, that Descartes’ supposedly intuitive starting point was actually an inference from his experience, plus a suppressed premise. All he could really have properly said at the starting point was “Doubting is occurring.” Anything more than that was an inference. Similar problems can be found with all other claimed foundationalisms. Whether the entire search for sure foundations has been discredited, every claimant to that task is seen to be fallible. It simply is not possible, either logically or psychologically, to expect that any rational person, willing to take the time to examine the evidence, must come to the same conclusion.

Second, the postmodernists have correctly pointed out that all of our knowledge is conditioned. Each of us functions from some particular point, where what we see and how we judge it is affected by our situation in time and place. All of our experiences, all that we have been exposed to in life, affects our judgment. Much of this is on an unconscious or preconscious level. This means that even the choice of issues to discuss is affected by the when and where of the discussion. An illustration of this can be seen in the discussions of pre- and postmillennialism, which flourished in conservative Christian circles in the first half of the twentieth century but now receive relatively little attention, although there are discussions (such as the theonomy debate) that embody similar underlying principles. The origin of humans was not a large topic of debate, either in the church or even in broader society, until the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and similar works on evolution.

Beyond that, however, the view of given issues is affected by our setting. Just how dramatic this can be is seen in the different reactions to the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict on the part of whites and African-Americans. The conflicting testimonies by persons who witnessed the same event also underscore this truth. Who we are, how we have been educated, the societal subgroup that we have occupied are all very influential in how we see and understand things.

Our attitudes are affected and structured by our experiences. For example, my ability to think objectively about the Democratic party is still somewhat influenced by the fact that I lived in the city of Chicago in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Many people familiar with the activities of the Cook County Democratic machine in those days believe that Richard Nixon probably won the presidential election in 1960, and the deciding state was Illinois. The closeness of the vote and the wisely exposed voting irregularities in that county in those days contributes to such a belief.

Much of this kind of effect occurs on an unconscious level. Who, for example, living and functioning within a Protestant church today, can read the book of Romans without being influenced by the fact that Martin Luther lived, taught, and wrote? This may happen, even if the person does not know that there was ever such a person as Martin Luther. This is because Luther’s work has influenced the tradition to which the reader has been exposed.

Suppose that you put on a pair of green sunglasses, the wrap-around kind that keeps the wearer from seeing past the edges. Then the entire world, viewed through those glasses, would have a greener tinge than would otherwise be the case. Suppose, however, that you have been born wearing such glasses, which expanded to fit you as you grew. In this scenario, there never would have been a time when you had not viewed the world through those glasses. Everything, including human skin, would appear greenish to you. This would seem obvious to you, just the way things are.

Our own presuppositions, or what we carry about with us, affect our understanding of the thoughts of others. Thus, when we read what someone else has written, we may actually be hearing that person say what we would mean if we were the ones saying it. What has happened is that the other person’s ideas have been filtered through our own way of thinking, and the result may be quite different from what the other person intended to say. This especially becomes a problem when we evaluate the other person’s view. Here what we may think to be an internal contradiction in that person’s thought may actually be a conflict between his thought and our own. For years I have taught my students that “I don’t agree” is not an adequate or even appropriate criticism of the thought of another. My master’s thesis dealt with one philosopher’s analysis of the thought of Plato, within which he felt he had found two contradictory concepts. My conclusion, however, was that the interpreter had actually read Plato through Aristotelian eyes, and that the conflict was not between two of Plato’s ideas, but between one of Plato’s and one of Aristotle’. The criticism was actually that Plato was not a very good or consistent Aristotelian, and I do not think that would have bothered Plato at all.

Having said that, we also must recognize the value of the postmodernists’, and especially Derrida’s, contention that every system of thought contains a contradictory element or a contradictory body of evidence, which it simply cannot assimilate. On any issue, the evidence seldom if ever is all on one side. If that were the case, controversy and disagreement would be minimal. We need to be certain that we take into account the data that could contradict our own view. To ignore, suppress, or make such material fit by distorting it is an instance of the suppressing of contradictory considerations that deconstructionists decry, and to do so involves a violation of intellectual integrity.

All of this means that we must hold much of what we believe with a certain degree of tentativeness, or at least flexibility. Dogmatism on most matters is inappropriate to the actual facts of the case. We must assess the relative weight of the evidence on each side of disputed issues and place our belief and commitment on the side that appears to be supported by the greater weight of evidence. We must, however, continue to hold this commitment in tension with the contrary evidence, so that if at some point the balance of evidence shifts, we are prepared to alter our view. It also means that we must be willing to expose ourselves to contrary views, lest we suppress the truth in our zeal for our own currently held theories.

What we have said should not come as a surprise to Christians, at least to those Christians who take the Bible as their primary source of the Christian faith seriously. We have alluded earlier to the fact that the Bible never claims that we can have absolute certainty, satisfactory to human reason. Beyond that, Paul points out that our present understanding of spiritual matters is incomplete and indistinct. (1 Cor. 13:12). We also believe that the phenomenon of what we sometimes call “original sin” means that we actually deceive ourselves in our understanding (Jer. 17:9). In an earlier chapter we promised to identify points at which postmodernism is in accord with Christian belief, and these are some of those points of agreement. Note that the argument in this chapter, however, is not that postmodernism is good because it is in agreement with Christianity,