by Isaias Catorce, D.Min, 2010
While postmodernism is not a formal philosophic discipline, with governing standards like an institution, what is more easily recognized is a belief system or ideologue comprised of significant signs and identities unique to its nature.
“Postmodernism” can mean “after modernism.” It can also be described as a culture that seeks to overturn “modernism.” Further, in the field of reason it is a reaction against the failure of Modern’s rationalism (which claims certainty of knowledge through reason, hence truth is self-evident), nationalism (like political autonomy and self-determination), pragmatism (through empirical science by experimentation and observation), and individualism (as rooted in the concept of the self). All these are shortcomings of modernism in bringing about unity, so all humankind can live meaningfully and find harmony in all relationships. At the turn of the 19th century the manifestations of disunity are as vivid as the signs of unity are in the fabric of diversity. Postmodernism presents a dilemma in that what we have from it thus far is the increase of evil, disharmony, war, violence, and all forms of distortions of truth. Failure of reason, science and the sense experience pioneered by modernity, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment periods has presented a humongous challenge for unity, and has created a huge cleavage which has given rise to the existence of postmodernism. On the heels of this, at the height of globalization in the 80’s, postmodernism has moved from fringe to mainstream, has invaded pop-culture and is dominating the life of the larger society propagated and expressed by the arts, architecture, natural science, philosophy, and worst of all even religion.
I – Relativism: The Dominating Paradigm of Postmodernism
One of the tenets provided by Postmodern’s proponents to mutilate modernism is relativism. Relativism is any theory of truth, morality, or aesthetics as non-universal or non-absolute but only relative to people, place and time. But what brought about the theory of relativism?
Let’s first consider the failure of science in its pursuit for a unifying endeavor. Modern’s scientific certitude as an exact and unambiguous knowledge, from a strictly quantitative point of view, failed as the mysteries of the universe were unlocked. The general relativity theory of Albert Einstein and contributions, such as those theories from other physicists like quantum physics, all upend the modern mechanistic model and scientific certitude. Very soon thereafter, the universe is not only discovered scientifically as expanding in all directions, but even the dynamic activity of black holes and the plot to explain the big bang theory emerge. Stanley J. Grenz called the event as the “explosion of complexity,” which is an ambiguous knowledge of the universe. The trust of learning communities developed for centuries through the lens of modernity eventually struggled and collapsed at the hands of postmodernists.
The nature of language is another factor that exemplifies the theory of relativity. The modern view of language is the unveiling of definitive truth with fixed meaning and fixed reality. Scientific studies, Systematic Christian Apologetics, Epistemologies and other fields of logical philosophic are extremely challenged by these influences. Postmoderns move further challenging the permanence and perfection of anything considered reality. An example is identifying and defining the color of a certain thing which may lose its permanence once transported to a dissimilar setting. The same red shirt can change its color once brought inside a dark cave. Under that premise then truth and reality based on their correspondence cannot be viewed as absolute. How then can truth be viewed as absolute in an objective manner when that which is considered a reality can lose its attributed property? In this example, the properties of circumstance and environment determine and dictate its modification and the loss of its originality. Even Plato’s doctrine of truth with all the fundamentals of reality situated not just in the past but in the historical present, finds no grip. The prominence of metanarrative is treated as trash. The Bible? It is history past. Postmodernists argue that in the exigency of truth what is put to question is not just beings in their being, but the being itself. Using a cave metaphor originated by Plato that what is hidden in its origin is the essence of truth and what is known as exposed by sunlight is only a starry glimpse. Hence, absolute knowledge of that which is real is pointless, and what lingers around depicts relativity. Truth then is relative and is therefore subjective.
Understanding language is crucial in determining the absoluteness of any truthful statement. Jacques Derrida criticizes the modern traditional understanding of language as something that cannot be sustained since the foundation for its systems of thought is a futile endeavor. Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930 – Oct. 09, 2004), a French Philosopher who wrote more than 40 books identifies language as the foundation for the use of reason though he denies that it (language) has fixed meanings. For Derrida writing and speech as modes of language are two distinct things. Grenz explains Derrida’s understanding of language expressed through speech and writing in this manner: “Speech entails the possibility of direct contact with truth; writing entails the realization that we have no immediate connection” (A Primer on Postmodernism, 1996, 141). While modern thinkers assume the linkage of the past to the present through what has been written, Derrida nullifies these for the simple reason that once language is written it easily disengages from the author even outlasting the writer unlike speech that is directly connected to its source. Applying Derrida’s attack on written language affects the modern’s view of truth inscribed in the written Scriptures. What is propounded by postmodernists is the fact that once a speech is written it then loses its objectivity. Thus, Derrida dismisses the Western’s traditional philosophic: “Logocentrism,” which means “word-centered,” or a structural method, focusing on the meaning of words or distinctive in their usage or metaphysics of presence. Further, Derrida teaches written language as the vehicle for understanding meaning and debunks Edmund Husserl’s, “Phenomenalism,” or an understanding of reality based on what we perceive in our senses ascribed by language. What Derrida offers is a post-structural direction called, “differrance.”
II – Applied Relativism: Differrance as alternative to certainty.
Attributed to the creation of Derrida, an on-line dictionary defines “differance” as finding its root from the verb, “differer,” meaning “to differ” or to “defer.” Appending the “ance” ending would mean, “differing” or “deferring.” The a of differance, also, recalls that spacing is temporization and deferred by virtue of the very principle of difference.
Applying “differance” to language from the original construction of Derrida would mean that words have no fixed meanings within themselves. Language is simply self-referential in the sense that a word may signify something which leads to the signifier signified by another referential signifier…a language chain like a sign which leads to another sign. It implies that language is never static but is subject to change overtime and naturally embedded with the changing environment. It is therefore a must that we “defer,” or suspend our propensity in matters like attributing meaning.
Let us take into consideration how language is socially structured. An example is the development of the word, “nice.”
nice (adj.) late 13c., “foolish, stupid, senseless,” from O.Fr. nice (12c.) “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish,” from L. nescius ”ignorant, unaware,” lit. “not-knowing,” from ne-”not” (see un-) + stem of scire ”to know” (see science). “The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c.1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to “agreeable, delightful” (1769); to “kind, thoughtful” (1830), (Online Etymology Dictionary).
It’s shocking that the word, “nice,” is understood derogatorily in the 12th century, but “re-interpreted with” new light attractive to the 18th century community up until today. Language then as a social structure has no definitive or exclusive or univocal usage. Equivocation happens in the equation of time, place, and person at a given context. It has no absolute property and exclusivity in form and substance so the principle is applied to include sense experience. “Everything flows,’ said the Natural Philosopher- HERACLITUS (c.540-480 B.C.). “Everything is in constant flux and movement, nothing is abiding. When I step into the river for the second time, neither I nor the river are the same.” Meaning, the only constant thing in this world is change.
“Sign” is another consideration for postmodern’s relativity. The significance and meaning of the signing of the cross in an agreeable circumstance, differs from place to place. Divergence in the signing of the cross occurs at a mass, in the cemetery, by leaving a house or at a flash and strike of lightning, etc. What remains constant is the context which defines the meanings to words. Simply put, in a statement, in a question, or in a proposition, the meaning of words and their grammatical functions are constantly context-bound; therefore, the principle of relativity is valid.
III – The Task Ahead: Appreciation or Deprecation of Postmodernism?
What do we do now since the masses or pop-culture influenced by postmodernity shouts out loud to believe what they want to believe and interpret realities in consonance with their self values and worldviews?
One appreciable component of postmodernity, however, in the context of relativity, is “ differance;” where the propensity to “postpone” or “suspend” judgment is at its height. Saint Paul acknowledges that what we have is only a glimpse of truth as to who God is. “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Cor. 13:12, NLT). Paul affirms our incapacity to fully know God. We can argue, however, that though our knowledge of God is only an approximation as opposed to precision, nevertheless, explicit demands for factuality are met. Facts sustained by empirically authenticated evidence cannot be negated. Furthermore, absolute statements do not necessarily demand full knowledge of the things affirmed. When you see your house burning in flames you don’t need to fully know all the absolute details with qualified scientific figures to declare or affirm the absolute reality that your house is indeed on fire! In the same manner, we don’t need to prove all details about the complex composition of man to make an absolute declaration as to who man is. The Bible is God’s revealed Word, and though by its nature it is limited in addressing all of the intricate issues and minute details of all creation, yet it is big enough to make God known to us. Ravi Zacharias often reminds his audience that logical consistency, empirical adequacy and experiential relevance are sufficient grounds for determining truth. What postmodernists are saying, however, is that due to our insufficient knowledge of reality, the principle of relativity is inevitable and so the only recourse is to suspend or postpone judgment involving any encounter.
It is not always indicative of sound judgment when at times postmodernism gets the better of modernism in asserting ideas. In his article entitled, “Dangers & Delights of Postmodernism,” D. A. Carson fairly displays the arrogance of both the intolerant spirit of modernism and the tolerant ideologue of postmodernism. In ascertaining dangers to postmodernism, Carson writes: “Postmoderns are so certain that uncertainty is our lot that they insist that even if there were a God who spoke and disclosed himself, we could not possibly know that he had. This is stunning arrogance, arrogance of a form that goes on to transform what has traditionally been called “tolerance” into a new and terrifying “intolerance”. Following Carson’s charge, in the framework of postmodern’s tolerance, taking all claims to be equally valid is like saying, “all statement is truth no matter whom and how one says it.” Someone aptly said, “A point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” One must establish a given reference point to determine a direction and design a course of action to get there, otherwise a pluralistic predicament comes to fore. It is true that relativism via postmodernism gives birth to pluralism, and the end result is the loss of meaning and eventually to the loss of shame. The issue of same sex marriage as a result of the doctrine of tolerance is an absolute anathema to the divine eyes of God. Deprecation of postmodernism is therefore valid in the field of non-restrictive morality.
To close this essay we ask: are post-moderns sincerely tolerant with those who oppose them? What makes them assert relativism and employ liberalism in the spirit of tolerance when disagreement to a modern or pre-modern philosophic is inescapable? In a sense post-modernism still asserts truth and treats reality as exclusive. It is true that post-modernism is self-negating. This is because while the assertion of the absoluteness of truth is something defied and denied, affirmation is inescapable by defining and defending relativity and subjectivity. An affirmation cannot stand meaningfully without excluding others from its domain.
What can the church do then in the light of the unstoppable forces and palatable tastes of post-modernism? How should the force and freedom of the Gospel penetrate and revolutionize a world of uncertainty and unrestricted liberty? How well can the messages of the Gospel through forms and symbols connect through time and culture?
The gospel can either affirm or confront or transform a post-modern culture but it demands incarnation which leads to death of the bearer’s cultural paradigm in order to experience resurrection. Darryl Whiteman, a distinguished professor of Cultural Anthropology at Asbury Theological Seminary, in his last year’s lecture during our International Congress (an international gathering of the leaders and guests of the Ambassadors For Christ International) in Seam Reap, Cambodia stunned us with an outstanding challenge to die to our own imperial culture that we might experience the power of the resurrection. For Darryl, incarnation without death is devoid of resurrection.
The above essay is a virtual expansion and “thought” to the first article, “Post-modernism and its Influence in the Church.” Actual lectures of Rev. Dr. Isaias Catorce during the first seminar at the Alliance Graduate School are integrated in this write up. The intentions in broadening the spectrum of the first article is to address some valuable comments and attempt to create a balance in presenting postmodernism while others find it a hard reading for no other esoteric reason, brevity.
On March 16, Rev. Dr. Isaias Catorce will conduct a one day seminar to Pastors coming from Metro Manila and nearby provinces at the Alliance Graduate School. The lectureship is a continuation of his presentation on the subject: “Postmodernism and its Influence in the Church.” The sessions will complete the details of four (4) assertions namely, 1) Render Christ as the center of all things; 2) Restore the Biblical and Historical Theology of Worship; 3) Recover the Conceptual and Symbolic Orders of Worship; 4) Return to Classical Christianity in matters of faith. All the assertions are praxis oriented and hoped to contain the blending of the elements of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern in view of mystery, holism, community, and communication patterns with transformational mission in context.
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Geisler, Norman & Bocchino, Peter Unshakable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial
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Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism, 1996
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