The Challenge Of Postmodernism


Kevin Simington

The recent Australian plebiscite vote on same–sex marriage raised some interesting issues. The result (nearly 62% in favour) was not surprising, given the pre-polling surveys. The debate leading up to the vote, however, revealed how deeply postmodern philosophy has become ingrained in the national psyche.

Postmodernism has three fundamental elements. The first is relativism – both ideological and moral. Relativism is the concept that there is no absolute or objective truth that can validate moral or ideological propositions. There is no God who decides true or false, right or wrong. We decide for ourselves. My truth is not your truth, and your truth is not my truth. This gives rise to the second fundament element, pluralism.

Pluralism means that all ideologies and morals must be treated with equal respect and viewed with equal merit. Mutually contradictory views are equally valid, because there is no external, absolute truth by which our opinions can be assessed and validated. No-one can claim a monopoly on the truth, therefore all views are true.

The third fundamental principle of postmodernism is the rejection of proscriptive metanarratives. This flows on from the first two. Because all truth is relative and, therefore, all “truth” is now equally valid, any attempt to impose upon society or individuals a proscriptive metanarrative (such as the traditional Christian worldview of a law-giving Creator God) is to be regarded as oppressive and is to be rejected outright. For the postmodernist, a metanarrative that claims exclusive, absolute truth, under which all other “truth” must be subjugated,  represents the ultimate act of repression, because it denies the sovereignty of selfhood.

The pervasive extent of postmodernism seen in a fascinating video on YouTube where Joseph Backholm, a Christian and the founder of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, interviewed students at the University of Washington on the topic of gender identity. He asked them a number of questions. “What would you say if I told you I was a woman? What if I told you I was Chinese? What if I told you I was 6 foot 5 inches tall? What if I told you I was 7 years old?” Amazingly, most students indicated they would not contradict his belief that he was a 6’5” Chinese woman – despite the fact that he is CLEARLY a 5’6” American white male! Some students even indicated that they would agree with him that he was 7 years old, and would not have a problem with him enrolling in a 1st grade class! Even the few students who said they would find it hard to believe that he was a tall Chinese woman, said that he had a right to that belief, and that no-one had the right to contradict him.

The video demonstrates how deeply ingrained postmodernism has become in western culture, particularly the concept of all truth being relative. Of course, some “truth” is relative. Does blue vein cheese taste nice? Is lime green a desirable paint colour for a kitchen? Do I look good with a moustache? These, and a myriad of similar issues, are a matter of taste and personal preference. But to suggest that all truth is relative, is simply irrational. I am 175 cm tall. That is an absolute truth. I am not 180cm. I am not 170 cm. It doesn’t matter how vehemently or sincerely I might believe I am 180cm tall – I would be sincerely wrong. The veracity of a belief is not determined by the sincerity with which it is held, nor by its popularity. In the case of my height, there exists a tape measure, against which my height can be verified. When an external, absolute standard or measurement exists, against which beliefs can be verified or otherwise, we do not have the luxury of claiming relativity.

The problem arises, of course, when the existence of an external set of absolutes is in dispute. Postmodernists claim that there is no cosmic moral tape measure – no absolute set of standards to provide unequivocal ethical guidance for humanity. Christians, on the other hand, believe in a creator God who is the ultimate authority and who has established a set of non-negotiable standards. It is this conflict between opposing ideologies that caused such tension and misunderstanding in the recent same-sex marriage debate. After the final vote was announced, I listened to a caller from the LGBTQI community on talk-back radio say, “Now the haters can be silenced!” Another caller, who indicated that she is a lesbian, stated, “If only the “no” voters would get to know us, they would stop hating us and would realise that we are very nice people.”

But hate was not the issue. I am sure the vast majority of people within the LGBTQI community are loving, caring people. As a “no” voter myself, I was not “hating” them; I was disagreeing with a specific ethic. I believe that homosexuality is a sin, and therefore, it should not be legitimised in marriage. The reason I hold this belief, is not because I have a hateful, personal bias against LGBTQI people. I believe it is a sin because God has clearly stated this in His Word. In Romans chapter 1, for example, we are told three things about homosexuality; it is a sin, it is “unnatural”, and it is “detestable” in God’s eyes. This is God’s declaration, not mine, clearly articulated in His Word. In this instance, there is an absolute standard against which our individual opinions must be evaluated. In the same way, if I was asked whether I believed whether it is acceptable for people to cheat on their tax returns, I would say “no”, because it contradicts an absolute standard of honesty that God has declared in his Word. But this would not mean that I hate people who cheat on their tax returns. I simply disagree with their ethic in that instance.

Of course, the vast majority of “yes” voters in the recent plebiscite would disagree with my underlying worldview. They have rejected the notion of absolutes and are, instead, guided by an internal compass, framed by such questions as “Does this seem right to me? Am I hurting anyone if I choose this course of action?” People with this postmodern ideology will vehemently reject any attempt to impose an external moral code upon them, because it infringes the sovereignty of their selfhood.

We live in interesting times. Two ideologies are in direct conflict. Of course, they have always been in conflict to some extent, but the balance of power has shifted dramatically in the last decade. Postmodernism is now the predominant ideology of western society. The challenge facing the evangelical Christian church is to remain relevant and loving without compromising its beliefs and values. Exactly how we do that will be the subject of future posts. Stay tuned!