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Postmodernism - Part I

(For those not familiar with the term Postmodernism or its fundamental ideas, I encourage you to visit the Historical Studies section on the website and click on Historical Theology. Session 38 is devoted to a brief description of the primary characteristics in the postmodern perspective. After first studying that material, I think what follows in this and the second lesson in this series will prove helpful.)

Postmodernism would appear to be self-referentially incoherent. Its advocates deny objective truth on the ground that all systems of belief are determined by social forces. But this is self-refuting. “If postmodernist claims are objectively true [and if they aren’t, there is no reason why we should believe or accept them], then those claims are themselves the mere products of social forces and so are not objectively true. Of course, if postmodernist claims are not objectively true, then they are just the arbitrary opinions of certain people that we are free to ignore” (William Craig, Apologetics: Five Views, 181).

Again, “if truth is a mere social construction, with no outside reference to an independent reality, it has no ability to anchor protest, to inspire dissent, to orient the soul toward what is objectively good and to liberate those ensnared in error – against all odds” (Groothuis, Truth Decay [IVP, 2000], 103-04).

Consider this statement: “All truth is a social construction of language and nothing more. It cannot orient us to any objective reality outside a system of discourse.” But,

“this claim includes the statement itself in its description or range of reference. Therefore, the postmodernist claim about truth is merely a social construction – and nothing more. But if it is only a social construction, then the statement itself cannot accurately depict the reality it purportedly describes. Therefore, it is false. Put another way, the statement sets up truth conditions or reality requirements that it cannot fulfill. It commits intellectual suicide. In Alvin Plantinga’s terms, a statement is ‘self-referentially inconsistent’ when it refers to or implicates itself and ends up refuting itself because it cannot account for itself” (Groothuis, 106).

It would appear, then, that postmodernists are themselves subject to deconstruction ad infinitum: “If the radical postmodernist premise is correct, we can never be sure that is what he or she meant. Conversely, if that is what [Derrida] meant, it is not certain we are obligated to consider his argument further” (Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge [New York: Knopf, 1998], 41).

Literary Deconstruction

The presence and influence of the postmodernist outlook is nowhere better seen than in what is known as literary deconstructionism and its cousin, reader-response criticism. Simply put, this is an attempt to apply the concepts of postmodern thought to any and all texts. What follows is primarily a summary description of this phenomenon; little if any analysis is present.

According to the postmodernist, language is whimsical, arbitrary, and capricious. It is a power play in which the author seeks to impose upon and control the reader.

Language does not approach external reality in order to describe it. Rather, language creates reality. All language proceeds from within the cultural context of the person who is speaking. Of course, if that is true then the assertion itself is culturally relative and has no warrant to engage our agreement. In other words, if all language is arbitrary and relative, it is arbitrary and relative to assert that language is arbitrary and relative. And if that is true, why should we believe the postmodernist assertion that language is arbitrary and relative? Or again, if all language is merely a carefully disguised power play designed to enslave and oppress, we are all justified in resisting and denying the validity of that very assertion concerning the nature of language.

According to deconstruction, there is no objective meaning or truth antecedently present in a text or in the world. Our language about the world and our encounter with the text construct meaning. Therefore, interpretation is designed to take apart or deconstruct a text and in this way break its control or power over our thoughts and actions. “Deconstruction involves the use of certain philosophical or philological assumptions to launch an assault on logocentrism, understood as the assumption that something lies beyond our system of linguistic signs to which a written work can refer to substantiate its claim to be an authentic statement” (Grenz, Primer on Postmodernism, 148).

Thus there is no single mind or creative genius behind a text. The text does not “have” a meaning. Meaning is not a “given” which the reader seeks to uncover. Rather the text is “a kind of formless material on which structured modes of reading impose a shape” (Grenz, Primer, 119). This represents an outlook in which “the signifier (or signifying) has replaced the signified as the focus of orientation and value” (McGrath, Historical Theology, 244).

There is no intrinsic authority in a text. “Words do not refer to some ‘real,’ extralinguistic world beyond language. Our interpretation of these linguistic signs, on this view, are interpretations of other interpretations, not of some extralinguistic world. Moreover, if no real world exists, then truth as correspondence to that reality makes no sense. There is no intention of a writer in a text which interpretations seek to approximate. The text does not pre-exist its interpretations” (Feinberg, Apologetics: Five Views, 169).

All so-called interpretation of texts is purely arbitrary. There are no fixed, absolute meanings. Meaning emerges only as the interpreter enters into a dialogue with the text. Thus there are as many meanings as there are readers of a text. Every text has an “excess of meaning,” it is pregnant with possibilities. “This is to say that the text may occasion challenges for the reader that were never imagined in the original setting, challenges framed by the life experiences of the modern reader, not by a reconstruction of the life experiences of the original authors and editors” (Lints, Fabric of Theology, 228).

The identity and intentions of the author of a text are irrelevant to the interpretation of the text. Thus all interpretations are equally valid or equally meaningless. All reading of Scripture is so subjective, so reader-response oriented, that the idea of objective truth that is transcendent in authority and application is gone. “Meaning” is determined by the community that reads. If there is such a thing as “authority” it emerges from the way the ecclesial community uses a text to affirm itself and make sense of its own experience of God.

In other words, the “authority” of a text resides in the way it is used by the ecclesial community. Texts have authority only to the extent that they function to provoke new questions concerning identity, personal purpose, and to transform communal life.

The authority of Scripture derives not from its content but from its power to occasion new occurrences of revelation (i.e., new understandings of openness to others) and new expressions of redemptive transformation. You are justified in a belief, not because of external evidence, but by receiving permission from a relevant social community; authority for any belief is always internal to our own beliefs or to a relevant community. Postmodernism therefore insists that there is no “text” external to the interpretive traditions and practices of particular reading communities.

In response to the modern notion of a single reader encountering an autonomous text, the postmodernist would envision “dozens of colleagues looking over the reader’s shoulder, with employers and various other institutional officials alternately dangling money and picking the reader’s pocket. The text would not be an autonomous object of contemplation, but would be shown with representatives of sundry interpretive interests, some of whom are highlighting particular passages, others obliterating passages, others adding words here and there, and still others thrusting filters between the reader and the text” (A. K. M. Adam, What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism?, 19).

Knowledge is no longer viewed as inherently good or objectively attainable. Postmodernism operates on the basis of a “community-based understanding of truth” (Grenz, Primer, 8). Postmodernists focus on what is held to be true within a specific community. Truth consists “in the ground rules that facilitate personal well-being in community and the well-being of the community as a whole” (Grenz, Primer, 14). Postmodernists don’t care about who is right and wrong. Beliefs are ultimately a matter of social context.