Scholars tell us that this tipping point, when all taboos were uprooted and all universal expectations were discarded, goes by the name “Postmodernism.”
We have the sense that we went to sleep and woke up in a future we don’t recognize, surrounded by events unconnected to reality as we knew it. We feel like we are at sea in individual rowboats without any mooring lines or anchors. Most obviously these days: the traditional, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and the family, the bedrock of society for millennia, are under attack, the subject of ridicule and derision. Homosexual marriage, unthinkable a little less than a decade ago, is now blithely accepted in state after state.
To be sure, there is pushback from the Church and other defenders of traditional morality, but they are pilloried as bigots and ostracized as oddities. How did all of this happen? How is it that the scourge of nihilism appeared from nowhere and spread exponentially like the plague in Medieval Europe?
The answer is that it didn’t appear from nowhere or happen overnight. This stew has been simmering for a long, long time. There is a well-known anecdote to the effect that if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But, if you put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water, slowly turning up the heat, the frog will swim around in blissful oblivion, until it slowly dies. We 21st century Western Christians are that frog.
Scholars tell us that this tipping point, when all taboos were uprooted and all universal expectations were discarded, goes by the name “Postmodernism.” Although the average American has probably never heard the term, it is in the very air we breathe. What is it? Using the principles of Postmodernism, we can begin to define it by describing what it is not. Postmodernism is a successor of, and in many ways a rejection of, the philosophy of Modernism.
Modernism was the prevailing philosophy of the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Modernism was rational, empirical, and positivistic. It was rational because it held that truth could be discovered through reason. It was empirical because it held that truth could be demonstrated through the scientific method. And it was positivistic because it held that the correctness of a law came not from natural law or from Revelation, but from the will of the polity.
World War II disabused modern man of any illusions he had about the virtues of Modernism. Hitler was the ultimate positivist. His policies and actions were legal under German law at the time. In fact, one of the objections raised by some of the defendants at the Nuremburg Trials was that they were acting according to the present day German law. Hitler and his Nazi Party had enacted the laws. The result was the Holocaust, and the destruction of much of Western and Central Europe.
Although it had earlier roots, the philosophy of Postmodernism came of age in post-war Europe, with France as ground zero. The evangelists of Postmodernism were Frenchmen Jacques Lacan (1901-81), Michel Foucault (1926-84), and Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), and the American, Richard Rorty (1931-2007). But it was Jean François Lyotard (1924-98) who popularized the term “Postmodern.” In his book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Lyotard states: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define Postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives.” That is, Lyotard saw how most people can no longer assume one “story” covers every life on his block—that everyone in his community worships or relaxes in the same way. How many of us just heard “Happy Holidays” to cover whatever feast one happened to be celebrating at the winter solstice, instead of “Merry Christmas,” which assumes all celebrate the saving Nativity of the Incarnate God?
Lyotard and others argued that one of the key markers of Postmodernism is “deconstruction.” As is common with Postmodern terminology, it eludes precise definition. But it means to take apart, or peel back, the layers of meaning in a text. Postmodernists hold that there is no inherent relationship between a word and a concept. Derrida held that all language is characterized by ambiguity. Foucault held that all language is an attempt by the user to exercise power over others. Thus, a text must be “deconstructed,” like peeling back the layers of an onion, to expose conflicting meaning. There is no longer “one” truth, one story.
That is why Postmodernists argue that the metanarrative—that grand story which attempts to explain all other stories by providing an overarching theme as the connecting thread—attempts to provide a framework of truth and meaning to all human events. The Bible is a very good example of a metanarrative. It is the story of salvation history of all peoples, connecting and providing meaning to other “stories” such as: Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Covenants, the Prophets, and the Paschal Mystery. It answers the questions which all philosophers ask:
- Who am I?
- How did I get here?
- Where am I going?
- What is the meaning of my life?
For the Postmodernist, there is no truth. Words have no objective meaning. We each discover our own truth by inventing our own story. The question of whether or not the story is factually accurate doesn’t even arise for the Postmodernist; it is the story itself that counts. The story is our interpretation of reality, and it is as good as anyone else’s, because there is no “real” reality.
Most people don’t know what Postmodernism is, and that’s understandable. It’s the prevailing philosophy in academia today, but hardly anyone studies philosophy any more, so most wouldn’t be aware of it. But modern Western man is a Postmodernist. It’s in the air we breathe. It permeates our literature, our media, movies, television, even our conversation. It finds its way into our culture in subtle and not so subtle ways. Movements such as moral relativism, situational ethics, and various New Age modalities of spirituality, are all manifestations of Postmodernism. Postmodernism holds that there is no truth, only opinion, there is no objective right or wrong; in fact, there is no objective standard outside ourselves against which we can measure anything. Postmodernists are allergic to metanarratives, because metanarratives provide an objective framework to explain essence and existence. Postmodernists say that each person looks within himself, creating his own explanation by creating his own narrative.
In his 2011 book, Deconstructing Obama, journalist Jack Cashill calls Barak Obama the “first Postmodernist President.” His thesis is based largely on an elaborate and detailed exposition of how, in his 2008 autobiography, Dreams, President Obama constructs his own narrative which is inconsistent with numerous facts or dates from Obama’s own life. He does this, not because he is disingenuous, or a sloppy researcher, or a careless writer, but because he actually believes that facts are unimportant, each of us reinventing himself through his own narrative.
Why is all of this important? Because, as you may have noticed, those of us who are trying to defend traditional morality and traditional values are facing a very strong headwind. I submit that the reason that our arguments are not getting any traction is that we are using a different language, and coming from a different conceptual framework, than many of our interlocutors.
An example will illustrate the problem. In the recent debate in New York State over the legalization of same-sex marriage, the most common argument from the churches, and others trying to defend traditional marriage, was: “If you pass this law, you will be changing the definition of marriage!”
To which the most common answer was: “So what?”
In other words, we were saying that traditional marriage is instituted by God, and its definition, as the permanent union of one woman and one man for the purpose of the creation of new life, comes from Divine Revelation, and also from the Natural Law, and is, therefore, unchangeable.
The proponents of same-sex marriage, on the other hand, were saying: “Revelation and the Natural Law are metanarratives. We reject all metanarratives. We are free to redefine marriage, as we are free to redefine all things, as we please.”
I don’t claim to have the formula for successful dialogue with Postmodernists. The point I am trying to make is that in order to engage the culture on these issues, we do need to understand with whom we are in dialogue, and the framework from which they are operating.
Some basic principles of Postmodernism must be squarely opposed, such as: that there is no truth, no objective reality, and that words have no specific meaning. Postmodernism does, however, offer some useful insights with which we may make common cause. One of these insights is the rejection of the Enlightenment Project which saw knowledge as the source of salvation, and believed that universal education would lead to the perfect society. The horrors of World War II gave the lie to that fantasy. In that war, all sides employed the best intellectuals of their day to produce super-weapons. The result was the Holocaust, and the atomic bombs used against Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Yet, all sides appreciated Beethoven and Bach, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. Knowledge and education do not equate with virtue.
Also, Postmodernists argue that humans are more than just rational animals, that human life does, and must include, an element of mystery. We Christians would agree with that. The task of the cleric and the catechist is to study and understand Postmodernism, because it is here to stay, at least until the next “new thing” comes along. But, we must engage it in dialogue and learn how to use it to spread the Gospel—the greatest of all metanarratives.