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Postmodernism And The Church

What (If Anything) Has Changed:
The Postmodern Condition As Deconstruction And Reconstruction

By Stanley J. Grenz

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

These well-known opening lines from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), encapsulate the novelist’s perception of the era of the French Revolution and, by extension, the Victorian England of his day. For many people today, Dickens also aptly describes the times in which we live. Like France during the closing decades of the 18th century, our world appears to be in the throes of a grand cultural shift. This shift has many names. Some people speak about the end of Christendom and the beginning of a post-Christian era. Others declare that we are moving from a Constantinian to a post-Constantinian situation. Yet, the most widely used and most wide-ranging nomenclature suggests that our society is undergoing a transition from modernity to postmodernity. We are experiencing what some observers call the postmodern turn.

One commentator has described the far-reaching, all-encompassing character of the postmodern condition by noting that the old 1960s Bob Dylan declaration, “The times they are a-changin’ ” has become passé. The times are not “a-changin’ ”; the times have changed. But what exactly has changed? In a sense, everything. Postmodern sensitivities affect most aspects of our society and are evident from academia to pop culture. The breadth of the postmodern turn makes it difficult to condense the phenomenon into a single, concise definition. Yet to get a handle on what has changed, we might speak of the postmodern turn as involving two interrelated impulses: deconstruction and reconstruction.

Postmodern Deconstruction

The postmodern term deconstruction has a variety of meanings. Viewed from the widest perspective, it is the idea that everything in society that is a product of human efforts is inherently open to revision. Especially important, however, is the narrower use of the word. Deconstruction denotes the dismantling of what is seen by deconstructionists as the socially constructed world we inhabit.

According to social constructionists, the world we live in is not a given reality that exists out there. Rather, we inhabit a world that we create by the words we use to describe — and hence to experience — reality and our lives. Some social constructionists declare that people devise different accounts of the world and thereby create differing worlds. Because we lack the ability to step outside our construction of reality, they add, we cannot measure these linguistically constructed worlds by comparing them to a supposedly objective, external world. In short, social construction declares that explanations of reality are constructions; such constructions may be useful, but they are not objectively true.

Social construction is far-reaching when it takes on political overtones. Some theorists assert that linguistically constructed worlds are inculcated in a society by powerful elites. When used in this connection, deconstruction is the realization of how the linguistic world we inhabit has been constructed by those who benefit from the status quo and then, in turn, of dismantling this constructed world. In this sense, deconstruction is a subversive activity.

The primary target of postmodern subversion is the socially constructed world of modernity that arose out of the Enlightenment (roughly the 17th and 18th centuries). The Enlightenment emerged from the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, a debilitating conflict that pitted Protestants and Catholics against each other and left much of central Europe devastated. Many intellectuals blamed the widespread destruction on the confessional rivalries that divided Christendom. They concluded that conflict is the product of ignorance and superstition, that it arises as the inevitable result of beliefs in myths and religious dogmas. This situation, they add, could be overcome and a utopian society could be birthed by the discovery and dissemination of knowledge borne of human reason. Consequently, they set themselves to the task of exploring the world as it really is. For them, this means discovering the universal laws that govern action and comprise the true, objective knowledge of the world. In keeping with this perspective, the Enlightenment intellectuals narrated history as the story of humankind progressively emerging out of the ignorance and superstition characterized by the dark ages (and the domination of the perpetrators of ignorance and superstition) into the fullness of knowledge leading to a utopian civilization.

Postmoderns do not automatically share this perspective. The knowledge that reason purportedly uncovers, they aver, is neither certain nor objective. Furthermore, they realize that the Enlightenment conception of rationality and the modern quest for knowledge is not universal and embedded in the nature of humankind, but is closely connected to, and a reflection of Eurocentric cultural values. In their estimation, the modern approach has not led to the promised utopia. On the contrary, under the banner of Enlightenment reason and the scientific enterprise, modern people have been highly destructive. The insatiable quest to create a modern, utopian society has destroyed non-Western cultures, undermined cultural diversity, and ravished the environment.

Postmoderns, therefore, reject the modern recounting of human history. Although it purports to be an objective narrative of the rise of civilization, they view it as a myth that is used to sanction the triumph of Western, European civilization. As such, it is a social construction — a way of constructing the world — that legitimizes the status quo and serves the interests of those who profit from a dominant Western outlook. This socially constructed outlook, postmoderns conclude, deserves deconstruction.

Postmodern Reconstruction

At first glance, deconstruction may appear to be negative in tone, but its goal is not limited to dismantling an existing socially constructed world. Rather, this enterprise has a positive intent. Because everything in human society is inherently open to revision and reformation, proponents argue that deconstruction can pave the way for reconstruction. The reconstruction that is endemic of postmodernism originates from values that postmoderns believe are of greater benefit than the unhealthy, destructive values of modernity. For this reason, in many respects the postmodern turn has recently taken a positive dimension. Postmodernism is attempting to bring about a reconstruction in accordance with a new set of values. Four of these are significant.

First, and foundational to the others, postmodernism is a transition from “ratio-centricity” to a holistic understanding of the human person. Postmoderns look askance at what they believe is the modern focus on rationality — the be-all and end-all of what it means to be human — an understanding that they claim is behind the modern belief that rational discovery by means of the scientific method provides the tools for the construction of a better world. Postmoderns value the complexity of people. To be human, they aver, involves not only rationality, but also other aspects of personhood such as emotion and intuition. But postmodern holism goes a step further. Rather than treat each dimension of human existence in isolation, postmoderns see all these aspects as operative simultaneously. They are parts of a single whole.

Second, endemic to the postmodern turn is a transition from individualism and the elevation of the so-called self-made man to an emphasis on community or persons-in-relationship. Perhaps the most widely touted hero of the modern era was the strong, self-sufficient, self-reliant, problem-solving loner. Indeed, the epitome of modern literary fiction was the detective story, and the paradigmatic modern detective was Sherlock Holmes. Through the powers of observation and inductive reason, Holmes was able to show that what appeared to be a great mystery was in fact quite “elementary, my dear Watson.” Similarly, in movie after movie, the Hollywood moguls of modernity inculcated in our psyche the idea that the true American ideal was incarnated in the likes of John Wayne and Superman. We were also told that relationships were messy and that living in communities led to inevitable conflicts that required the expertise of the loner hero to solve or resolve.

The postmodern value of wholeness, in contrast, entails being conscious of the indelible and delicate connection that links each of us to what lies beyond ourselves, where our personal existence is embedded and nurtured. This wider realm includes nature (the ecosystem). But in addition, it includes the community in which we participate. As a consequence, postmoderns value community — the social dimension of existence. In short, postmodernism has replaced John Wayne with the small circle of “Friends.”

The postmodern focus on the group gives place, in turn, to the valuing of the local, instead of the universal. It elevates what is endemic to a particular community, rather than what is deemed true for all societies at all times. Hence, we could say that the postmodern turn involves a transition from the normative center to the celebration of difference or diversity. As one postmodern philosopher suggested, the postmodern turn seeks a heterotopia and a multiverse to replace the utopia and the universe that moderns sought.

The celebration of diversity and the elevation of what is local undercuts attempts at establishing uniformity. It also marks the dethroning of the ideal (especially the ideal human) — the single standard against which every particular and every person must be judged. Instead, postmoderns claim that there are a variety of standards. Furthermore, these standards are all local in character and govern what is deemed proper within the particular group that established them.

Finally, in contrast to what characterizes modern society in which science ruled, postmodern wholeness gives place to the religious or the spiritual. Postmoderns deny that the physical dimension exhausts what it means to be human. Nor do they concur with the scientific rationality that attempts to exorcise the world of the sense of mystery. On the contrary, the postmodern turn is characterized by a move away from the hegemony of empirical science in which rational knowledge is viewed as the goal of human existence. In its place, postmoderns have set out on a quest for spirituality.

In many ways, the times aren’t simply a-changin’. The times have changed. Values have shifted. This is especially evident among many young people with whom we seek to share the gospel. Often their attitudes and outlooks are baffling to those who have been in the church for decades. In a recent presentation to a leading Christian university, the school’s associate vice president for curriculum profiled the students who are now making up college enrollments throughout the United States. She declared that, in comparison to their predecessors, today’s college students are more media savvy, have shorter attention spans, are less creative, have had less exposure to the liberal arts, are not as skilled in time management, are less able to engage in long and complex arguments, and are less enamored with final answers.

In part, the changes that are evident among an increasing number of people are tied to a broader cultural shift that is occurring in our society. Some observers are convinced that this transition is leading us into a new dark age. Others find signs of a hopeful future. Whether we believe this is the best of times or the worst of times, the challenge we face is that of discovering what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Therefore, the question we must pose continually (and the one I want to raise in subsequent installments of this column) is: How is the Spirit seeking to lead us into new avenues of ministry to the glory of God? And in this best and worst of times we can take heart from Mordecai’s words to Esther, realizing that “for such a time as this” God has called us to be servants of Christ and ministers of the gospel (Esther 4:14).

Coming Next Quarter: “Does Evidence Still Demand a Verdict? Apologetics and the Postmodern Turn”


 

Stanley J. Grenz is Pioneer McDonald professor of theology at Carey Theological College, Vancouver B.C., and professor of theological studies, Mars Hill Graduate School, Seattle, Washington.

 

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