Postmodernism Wasn’t the Problem

Postmodernism Wasn’t the Problem January 24, 2021

Some conservative evangelicals and other voices are trying to blame the last four years of people believing false stories/lies, fake news, and conspiracy theories on postmodernism.  I suppose at this point, given their forever link to Trump’s disastrous presidency, many excuses will now be offered. This is just the first of many, I’m sure. 

What they should really be pondering is why a wide swath of conservative white evangelicals were eager to believe false stories, fake news, and conspiracy theories if it meant they could support a racist, sexist, immoral, unprincipled, and ignorant reality television personality who championed their (not his) version of “Christian” America.  

None of this was postmodernism’s fault. The same people who championed “objective” truth, inerrancy, an infallible Bible, and “evidence that demands a verdict,” were all too willing to jettison those convictions once they thought it meant political power.  

Much of the conservative evangelical world never understood postmodernism to begin with, because they were always too modern. They objected for the same reason secular atheists did (secular fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism are the opposite sides of the same modern coin)—it was a challenge, not to objective truth (what they imagined it was), but to a philosophical narrative that privileged empiricism and scientific materialism over narratives of transcendence and mystery, like Christianity. 

No single post can do justice to the wide scope of postmodernism (for a great primer on postmodernism-see here) and I do agree some versions are nihilistic, unhelpful, and to be avoided—but such is not the case regarding many of its key insights.  One of those insights was to simply note there is no objective space upon which we can take in the world without bias. We are always situated, we are always gazing from a place/perspective, history, culture, economics, gender, ethnicity, education, etc. 

It’s one reason two people can look at the same set of facts/science, circumstances, and events and come away with different interpretations of what those all meant. Such does not mean one of them doesn’t believe in facts or science. It also doesn’t mean we can make up our own truth, that truth is relative, or that facts don’t matter. It doesn’t mean there are “alternative facts.” What it does mean is that truth is much more complicated than most of us are willing to admit. It means that truth still must be arrived at, not simply assumed.  

Our world is always being interpreted from the grand, philosophical meta-narratives we each inhabit, which inform our understanding of what we might call the “big” questions. Is there a God or transcendence? Are we more than just the material/physical? Are ethics based upon something greater than law or might when differences arise? Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? And on and on. These narratives, while they might be buttressed by reason, science and empiricism, cannot be entirely founded or proved by such.  

Again, this doesn’t mean a person, because of his “truth” or meta-narrative, can decide he wants 2+2 to equal 5, but it does mean they may differ in how they think the mathematical formulas or laws of physics arose in the first place. It also matters as to application.  Two engineers may be building huge ovens. They are both going to use the same math and maybe even the same materials. However, one may be building ovens for evil purposes while the other is doing it to provide bread. What we think facts, science, math, and engineering should be used for is guided by meta-narratives, not simply by our mathematical prowess or ability to build things.  

Another important factor: All meta-narratives, the philosophical frameworks we use to address and understand the “big” questions are held/believed by faith, even if many other considerations, facts, reason, science, history, logic, philosophy/theology give them credence or lend support. As to ultimate questions, we all live by faith. This should lead to humility. 

Even though we might all be looking at the same tree, agree the tree exists objectively, it doesn’t mean we won’t view it differently if we view it from different perspectives. Maybe one person is viewing it from a mountain, another from a valley, and still another from atop the tree’s branches. That perspective, one’s location, leads to a different interpretation or understanding of what we all perceive seems like something we should all be able to comprehend and agree upon. 

This isn’t something we should fear but embrace. Why? Because it’s accurate. At this point, whatever qualifications might be offered, who would challenge the above as not true? 

If anything, these last four years only proved the postmodern point. We realized one cannot just assume that broadly agreed upon facts, science, and accurate information will be accepted by everyone. 

The QAnon people and many Trump supporters inhabit a political and ideological meta-narrative that rejects commonly accepted and agreed upon sources of information, science, history, and culture.  It is there that one must bring their challenge and critique to conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters; and such is exactly what the postmodern as a philosophical tool allows us to do. Their meta-narrative has to be deconstructed, not challenged by naïvely believing they accept their challenger’s perspective.

Conservative, white evangelicals utterly failed to address QAnon or low-information Trump supporters, partly, because too many of them made up their ranks. How embarrassing.  Now they root around for excuses. Look in the mirror.  

No, we can’t blame postmodernism for recent events. That’s a dodge—a diversion. What happened over the past four years was long in the making and predates postmodernism by decades, if not centuries. It had much more to do with bad theology, poor discipleship, a decades long proclivity to believe conspiracy theories, and what Mark Noll identified as a scandal. Before one diverts to something they probably never understood to begin with, better start there.   

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