The Postmodern Influence

“How could anyone even know that?!” Napoleon Dynamite exclaimed in the popular 2004 film. Audiences laughed and later quoted the socially awkward teenager, but this quotation may be more revealing that it seems. When taken seriously, this question reflects the attitude toward knowledge that has developed in our culture over the past few decades. It’s the idea that people can’t know anything for certain, since everyone perceives the world differently.

Starting in the 1960s, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about the deep-seated “structures” in every culture that govern the way meaning is perceived by groups and individuals in that culture. Meaning, he said, comes from speech or writing that follows the rules of a given structure. Since these structures are culture-bound, meaning likewise varies from one culture to another. But what does it all mean? Quite simply, it implies that we cannot fully understand the views of a culture, or even a subculture, to which we don’t belong. And if we can’t understand each other, there is no basis for discussion or disagreement. 

Concerned about social injustice, Foucault also studied the relationship between power, knowledge, and discourse. Power, he believed, is passed on through discourse, or conversations, and is based on the knowledge one has. However, the truthfulness of knowledge is subordinate to the effect it has in the discourse. In other words, knowledge only exists in relation to power, and power determines truth. Take an example from history: the Nazi regime of bloodshed and bigotry was based on lies, but it became powerful because those telling the lies got others to buy into it. Knowledge was constructed by those in power, and when people took it for truth, it became truth.

While Foucault certainly didn’t condone the Nazis, his ideas imply that truth is inevitably subjective and essentially indiscernible. His work was both the result of and a catalyst for other works in the philosophical movement known as structuralism. In the truest sense, his thinking is not postmodern. Yet his ideas about the subjectivity of knowledge and meaning undoubtedly influenced the slow chain of thinking that has left truth nearly dead. Research studies by Barna and Gallup show that 78% of those who consider themselves Christians do not believe in absolute truth.

While such philosophy was originally isolated at the university level, the results of this thinking have now trickled down to affect the average person’s world view. The idea that what is true for one person is not true for another is one of the few absolutes most people will still accept. The postmodernist purports that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. The concept of tolerance for all people has evolved into a demand to blindly accept all ideas. This is inane tolerance, which calls us to operate from the uncaring and unthinking attitude underlying postmodernism. Inane tolerance isn’t tolerance at all. The desired effect is that no one is offended, often because beliefs are neither discussed nor debated. But while people may not be offended, they are often alienated, lonely, and confused as they are left unable to talk about life’s most pressing questions.

D.A. Carson refers to this inane tolerance as “the gospel of relativistic tolerance” and points out that it is being spread more passionately than any other belief in Western culture. Charles Colson calls it the “bitch goddess of tolerance,” and worries that we worship at her altar at the cost of passing truth and morals to the next generation. If the only absolute is that there are no absolutes, we are left with little to offer others.

Postmodern thinking does well to challenge the modernist glorification of science and Western culture. It also rightfully acknowledges the influences of culture, background, and experiences on interpretation. But while it rejects the modernistic conceit that solid facts and methods always lead to truth, it succumbs to pride under another guise—the arrogant insinuation that individuals create truth or reality for themselves. The modernist approach to truth was arrogant because it said humans can know anything with enough solid research. Postmodernism’s pride is perhaps more subtle, but just as insidious, because its claim that “what’s true for you isn’t true for me” implies that truth is up to us.

Postmodernism is no longer a philosophical movement among the intellectual elite—it has significantly and practically influenced education, politics, social movements, and many other facets of society. Most high school and university students have already unknowingly (and often unthinkingly) adopted this worldview, as evidenced by the polls of Barna and Gallup. Among Christian youth, only 9% believe in absolute truth, while a scant 4% of non-Christian youth believe in it. My own experience as a teacher confirmed the inane tolerance of our youth as more than one student asked quite seriously whether we could even mention God/god. Others earnestly informed me that “words don’t mean anything,” a statement I found particularly ironic in my English class. As Colson says, these beliefs are passed on by teachers and parents who have also absorbed feel-good, inoffensive subjectivism as they “worship at the altar of the bitch goddess of tolerance.”

The church is in no way immune to the movement’s impact, either. The tenants of postmodernism are already causing churches to questions their doctrine and methods. Can Jesus really be the only way? Can’t the Bible be interpreted in as many ways as there are readers? While postmodernism is not without strengths, Christians must think critically about its claims and measure them against the word of God. Today the church must counter the barrage against truth and the undermining of knowledge. Failure to do so will result in an inane tolerance that distorts or rejects the Bible and fails to love the lost. If Christians have nothing to offer those whose beliefs differ, and if Christ is not the way, the truth, and the life after all, then the church has no other purpose but to serve itself, and there will be nothing good left of the good news of Christ.