JTS: Intro to Phil
Session 5: Briefing Note
GEM 03:11:05

 Post- (vs. Ultra-)Modernity



1. Post- vs. Ultra- Modernism

2. A Global view

3. Implications

4. Prophetic Intellectual and Cultural Leadership

For Discussion or Reflection

References & Readings


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INTRODUCTION: As the 20th Century drew to a close, the verdict on modernity and especially science was decidedly mixed: while there was an explosion of knowledge and insight into the cosmos, and while many good things had been done, many horrors had flowed from abuse of the technologies given to us by science, and by the massive moral failure of those who wielded power across the world.  As a result, as the new century dawned, there was a hunger for a renewed way that would avoid the abuses and disasters of modernity, and where possible, fix the trouble.

Central to these trends has been the postmodern loss of confidence in the west’s enlightenment project of progress; leading to emphases on pluralism as a norm for belief and action, and the associated emphasis on radical, relativistic “tolerance.” This comes in the midst of a world that now shows a three way global clash for dominance of the hearts and minds of men: the waning secularist age in the west, Islam in the Middle East, and what may be aptly described as the southern Christian reformation, currently sweeping Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Thus, by examining post-modernity, we will also highlight the prospects for a renewed programme of Christocentric prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership, such as transformed western culture in the first several centuries of the Christian era, and a gain in the aftermath of the reformation of five centuries ago.  

1.         Post- vs. Ultra- (or Hyper-) Modernity

Thomas Oden, in a 1994 symposium on postmodernity, acidly but tellingly observed:

Postmodernity in my meaning is simply that historical formation that will follow the era of spent modernity – the time span from 1789 [fall of Bastille, start of French Revolution] to 1989 [fall of Berlin Wall, end of Communist revolutionary era] which characteristically embraced an enlightenment worldview that cast an ideological spell over our times, now in grave moral spinout . . . We could call what is passing the era of French Enlightenment, German Idealism, and British Empiricism, but those influences are just more complicated ways of saying modern consciousness . . . .   

Experience teaches that when avant-garde academics bandy about the term “postmodern,” it is usually more accurate to strike post and insert ultra. For guild scholars, postmodern simply means hypermodern, where the value assumptions of modernity are nostalgically recollected and ancient wisdoms compulsively disregarded. Meanwhile the emergent actual postmodernity that is being suffered through outside the ivory tower is not yet grasped or rightly appraised by those in it.

We do not at all mean by post modernity what many academics mean – deconstructionist literary criticism and relativistic nihilism . . . Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida are ultra-modern writers according to this definition, rather than postmodern . . . . what is named post is actually a desperate extension of despairing modernity that imagines by calling itself another name (postmodern), it can extend the ideology of modernity into the period following modernity  . . . .

My use of the term “postmodern” began in 1969 . . . in seeking to describe spiritual wanderers searching for roots, before Derrida and Foucalt popularized it, and just before the Architectural world began to shanghai the idea. When philosophers and literary critics got around to using the term postmodernity in the 80’s to be applied to what we are calling ultramodernity, my thought was that the term was being misapplied then, and it still is now . . . .

We can defiantly sit on the term postmodern with a paleo-orthodox spin . . . on the grounds that its earlier meaning is preferable to its later meaning, and the logic of a Christian understanding of modern history demands it. The logic of modernity demands something to follow it, even when the myth of modernity lives in denial of that possiblity.[1] 

Now, in fact, uses of the term postmodernism have been documented to the 1930’s, in connection with the despair over the horrors of World War I. For, in 1914 – 1918, modern technology and cruelty first came together in senseless, heartless mass mutual slaughter: machine guns, rapid-firing artillery and gas attacks killed nine millions of the world’s finest youth in and between the trenches of that ever so pointless war. Also, in the 1970’s Architecture was looking for a fresh vision to replace the austerity of the modern era, and reached back for a richer, nuanced but unmistakably nostalgic collage of elements from past eras.[2] 

Similarly, as literary scholars looked ever more at the issues of how perspectives can shape how we view texts and objects in our wider world, they saw how easily we can end up in a morass of incommensurate disputes over meaning, so jumped to the conclusion: maybe, there just isn’t an independent, objective meaning. And, in the same 1960’s – 70’s, the seeds of the revolution in Physics between 1880 and 1930 bore fruit: this was the time in which the concept of scientific paradigms that shifted through quantum leaps fired by scientific crises and revolutions became common currency. So, relativism and associated tolerance became very plausible to the general public, even to an extreme degree.

But equally, Oden’s underlying points are highly illustrative of the nature and flavour of post-modernity as it interacts with (a) the modern and (b) the pre-modern:

Clearly, across the 20th Century, the confident modernism of the enlightenment epoch took several telling blows, and came to a place of mourning its loss of confidence in knowledge, science, technology and morality. From this, two conflicting trends have emerged, and contest claims for the title “postmodern.” One, which is dominant, celebrates what the late moderns mourned. The other, sees these as simply hyper-modern, and challenges the framework of relativistic thinking that is common to both.

2.         A Broader, Global view

On the global scale, intellectual, political, religious and cultural elites have been quick to exploit the West’s loss of confidence, and associated bad conscience over its as yet unfinished history of oppression across the world since ~ 1500.  Often, the associated rhetoric has been used to push agendas that perhaps would not stand on their own merit, ranging from new age spirituality to radical environmentalism and terrorism. However, it is also the case, that this loss of confidence has opened a door to reformation.

Consequently as we enter the 21st Century, we see a world where the postmodern West, Islam and the resurgent Christianity of the South vie to dominate the world views and agendas of the emerging global age.  These are blatantly seen in the propaganda campaigns and counter-campaigns that surround the current renewal of the 1,000 year long clash between Islamic and Western Civilisations, from the first anti-West Jihads of the 630’s, to the last siege of Vienna in 1689. They are also evident in the now century old explosive growth of the Christian Faith in the South: Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  

Several worldview analysis issues are therefore highly relevant to our reflections as educated Christians in the Caribbean. These are perhaps best appreciated in light of James Sire’s observations regarding the characteristic themes of much of postmodernity[4]:   

  1. Things and events do not have intrinsic meaning. There is only continuous interpretation of the world.
  1. Continuous examination of the world requires a contextual examination; we ourselves are a part of the context.
  1. Interpretation depends not on the external text or its author, but on the relative viewpoint and particular values of the interpreter.
  1. Language is not neutral, but relative and value-laden.
  1. Language conveys ideology. [That is, it often serves to legitimize power elites and their agendas, and to marginalize the powerless.]

In these observations, of course, are many echoes of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Thus, we see again that premoderns can have a very relevant voice.  But also, several worldview analysis and comparison issues emerge:

3.         Implications: Science, Education, the Media and World and Life Views

As noted above, even so strident a postmodern philosopher as Richard Rorty observes that there is indeed a place for objective truth, having given due allowance for the issues that relativise many of our truth claims, as summarised above. This leads to several observations regarding key areas: Science, Education, Religion, Ethics, the media and general world and life views:

4.         The Place for Courageous Prophetic Intellectual and Cultural Leadership.

It has been said that courage is not fearless or reckless action, but rather the insistence to boldly do one’s duty even in the face of danger. Thus, for instance, Socrates insisted on standing up for the project of boldly questioning the half-blind conventional wisdom of his day, even at the cost of his life. For, to him, the unexamined life was not worth living.

Likewise, in a cynical, postmodern age, to suggest that God is there, that he is concerned about the affairs of men, and that he has something to say to us from his infinite knowledge, love and wisdom is to expose oneself to ridicule, misunderstanding and accusation: “Get off our backs, with your imposed, hypocritical, outdated, discredited, fundamentalist so-called morality!”

Thus, rage can easily replace reason, and as Aristotle pointed out so long ago, our judgements when we are pained and hostile are far different from those when we are calmer and more open-minded.  Sadly, from the days of Socrates and the ancient Israelite prophets to this, it has been but a small step from rage to hate, thence resentful and unfair character assassination; or in extreme cases, even murder. Of course, in the case of Jesus, it has long been the Christian contention, that even though the rage and power agendas of corrupt Jewish and Gentile elites triumphed on a fateful Friday morning -- hijacking justice to murder an innocent prophet on patently false charges -- Sunday (resurrection day) was coming.

Of this, Acts 17:16 – 34 records how the apostle Paul observed, speaking prophetically before the very court in Athens that had unjustly condemned Socrates:

1) Intellectual and cultural history – e.g. the Athenian public monument to the unknown God --  decisively shows that men are incapable of arriving at reliable knowledge of God, starting from themselves; so instead we need to listen to what God has to say, and see how his wisdom speaks into our situation. For, first of all, the Creator-Redeemer God does not depend on our religious leaders and institutions, rituals, gifts or offerings.  Instead, it is he who made us and gave us everything we have.  We are therefore his stewards in — and of — his world, for “in Him we live and move and have our being.” 

2) From one man, God created the nations, setting their times & seasons [kairous], and their places, “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”   That is, the diverse fraternity of nations [ethnoi, people groups] was created to foster opportunities to demonstrate godly, harmonious social order -- not least, by restraining the possibilities for the rise of a corrupt, globally dominant regime.  (Further to this, when nations choose instead to forget God and His ways, making false loyalties, power, prestige, pleasure and prosperity their chief values, they walk down a road to ruin; cf. Deut. 8:17 – 20.)

3) The time for ignorant pursuit of false loyalties and foolish agendas is over; God has intervened globally, decisively and publicly by Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection: “he has made this same Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ.” [Acts 2:36.]

4) God therefore commands that we repent, undergoing a comprehensive change of heart and mind driven by recognition of the truth and godly sorrow over sin; leading to a transformed way of life [1 Cor. 6:9 – 11].  In particular, we are to receive as Lord and Saviour him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  [John 14:6, cf. Acts 4:12.]

5) This command to repent is universal, but does not demand blind obedience: God offers public proof to us by raising Jesus from the dead.  In evidence of this, we have over five hundred eyewitnesses, most of whom were still alive when the record was made, and the continued manifestation of miracle-working, life transforming resurrection power — in manifold ways — in the church to this day.  [1 Cor. 15:1- 8, Eph. 1:17 – 23.]

6) Flowing from this, human culture is not autonomous or absolute: there is a set day for judgement of the world, a comprehensive audit carried out with perfect justice.  Thus, communities and their citizens are servants of God, accountable before their Creator for truth, right, justice and the proper stewardship of resources in their care, starting with their land.  This opens the door for prophetic commentary on public morality, policy and issues linked to development and sustainability.  [Cf. Rom. 1:18 – 32 & 13:1 – 10.]

7) Moreover, since we are created from one ancestor, there can be no justification for nationally-, or racially-, or class-, or otherwise- motivated oppression, aggression, exploitation or prejudice.  Community extends to the fraternity of all peoples, and so God refuses to answer the foolish question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

In the short term, Paul was literally laughed out of court, though a few listened. In the long run, from scanty beginnings, the church waxed strong and prevailed, not only in Athens, but throughout the whole Greco-Roman world, and beyond. For, Paul had decisively exposed the hollow intellectual core of the classical world’s belief systems and had put forward what in the end would prove to be a credible prophetic alternative. We now know who had the better case that fateful day: the future belonged, not to the politicians or the cynical sophisticates, but to the apostle.

CONCLUSIONS: In a post-/hyper- modern world, modernism’s confidence has been shaken. In particular, the role power agendas often play in belief systems and their associated institutions now stands exposed. The picture is not pretty. But, this opens the door for positive dialogue, where courageous prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership become possible. Therein lies our challenge: why not now, why not here, why not us?

Points to ponder . . .

  1. Does the postmodern ferment provide an opening for renewed dialogue that will listen to the prophetic voice of the judaeo-christian tradition? Why/why not?
  1. Given the Acts 17 account, what is the likely immediate reaction to attempts to turn postmodern methods and concepts such as deconstruction and totalizing metanarratives in on themselves?
  1. What would be the long term consequences?
  1. How could we apply such approaches in the Caribbean context, bearing in mind the influence of secularists, neopagans, and Islamists?

References & Readings

Dockery, David S (Ed.). The Challenge of Postmodernism. Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint. 1995.

Ryder, Martin (Compiler). A “webliography” on Postmodern and related themes: http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/postmodern.html

Apologetics Index’s introduction to “pomo”: http://www.apologeticsindex.org/p02.html

An anthropological view: http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/436/pomo.htm

[1] “The Death of Modernity and Postmodern Evangelical Spirituality,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism, Ed. David  S. Dockery (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint/Victor, 1995), pp. 25 – 27.

[2] Cf. Michael Kohler as cited by R. Albert Mohler, in The Challenge of Postmodernism, Ed. David S. Dockery, p. 68. In 1934 Frederico de Oniz reportedly used the Italian form, postmodernismo. But more crucially, in 1939, famous historian Arnold Toynbee suggested that 1914 marked the end of the modern era, and that the era emerging from the horrors of that war was ‘Post-Modern.’ Of course, the crisis and revolution in Physics, which overturned the Newtonian worldview, took place in 1880 – 1930. A definition based on the modern history can be seen at http://www.iath.virginia.edu/elab/hfl0242.html. Tellingly, this concludes that pomo, for short, is “a sarcastic playful parody of western modernity and the "John Wayne" individual and a radical, anarchist rejection of all attempts to define, reify or re-present the human subject.” That is close indeed to Oden’s acid remark about hyper-modernity.

[3] http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/pomo.html . Cf. the broader student-developed summary of postmodernism and its critics presented at http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/436/pomo.htm . This summary also briefly highlights the thought of key postmodern thinkers such as Lyotard and Derrida, and that of several critics.

[4] Cited, Dockery,  The Challenge of Postmodernism, p. 14.

[5] However, Daniel Dennet, in a key essay, Postmodernism and Truth, makes some telling points on  the strictly limited extent of the relativism of so eminent a postmodern as Richard Rorty, with whom he has interacted for a quarter of a century: “Richard Rorty deserves his large and enthralled readership in the arts and humanities, and in the "humanistic" social sciences, but when his readers enthusiastically interpret him as encouraging their postmodernist skepticism about truth, they trundle down paths he himself has refrained from traveling. When I press him on these points, he concedes that there is indeed a useful concept of truth that survives intact after all the corrosive philosophical objections have been duly entered. This serviceable, modest concept of truth, Rorty acknowledges, has its uses: when we want to compare two maps of the countryside for reliability, for instance, or when the issue is whether the accused did or did not commit the crime as charged. Even Richard Rorty, then, acknowledges the gap, and the importance of the gap, between appearance and reality, between those theatrical exercises that may entertain us without pretence of truth-telling, and those that aim for, and often hit, the truth. [http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=13Emphases added. Note the implicit reservation implied by Dockery’s observation: “often” – not always -- hitting the truth.]

[6] And note the fate of one of the best tested of all scientific theories, Newtonian Dynamics: well tested 1680 – 1880; collapsed and was reconceptualised as a limiting case for Quantum and Relativistic theories, 1880 – 1930. (NB: Relativity Theory in Physics has NOTHING to do with relativism in philosophy. It starts from the assumptions that the speed of light takes the same value in all unaccelerated frames of reference, and that the laws of physics take the same simplest form in such frames of reference.  These are contrary to notions that objective truth or morality are impossible.)