The Church in the Postmodern World

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken October 1, 1995

Do you know what postmodernism is? If you don’t, then you’re not alone. I was paging through the current catalogue of an Oxford publishing house [Basil Blackwell] a few weeks ago and discovered a dozen books on either modernity or postmodernity or both. There were books about postmodern ethics, and postmodern philosophy, and postmodern politics, and postmodern aesthetics, and postmodern social theory. But there seems to be no real consensus about whether modernism is coming or going, at Oxford or anywhere else. On the same page of the catalogue I found books entitled The End of Modernity and The Persistence of Modernity. Other writers want to have it both ways, like the man who wrote a book called The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity. Apparently he wants to have his modernism and eat his postmodernism, too. Another scholar has written a sort of exposé on postmodernism, entitled The Truth about Postmodernism. There is even a book out called Modernity and Ambivalence, but who really cares?

Tonight, and the next several times that I give a Window on the World, I want to begin three conversations that we will continue in the months and perhaps even years to come: a conversation with our postmodern culture, a conversation with our postmodern church, and a conversation with our postmodern city. We won’t have time to do anything more than just begin this conversation tonight, but we will plan to come back and pick it up again.

Even those who can’t agree about what postmodernism is can agree about this: that postmodernism is the quest for something after modernism. It reveals the hunger in the human soul for Something Else. The postmodern looks at the modern world and says ‘Is this all?’ ‘Isn’t there something else?’ ‘Isn’t there something more?’ Postmodernism is the expression of the hope that modernism is dead. Hence its name: postmodernism.

Now what was the essential characteristic of modernism? It was this: that human reason took the place of God in the modern world. And so humanity turned to science, and to economics, and to military power to solve the problems of humanity and to remake human society. Modernism was a celebration of humanistic individualism. It was the attempt to live in a world ruled by man rather than God. That world proved to be inhospitable.

Some have dated the end of modernism and the beginning of postmodernism down to the minute, down to 3:32 P.M. on July 15, 1972. Do you know what happened then? That was the moment that the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis was blown sky-high [Charles Jencks, in Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994, p. 39]. The Pruitt-Igoe housing development was a monument to modernity. It was a prize-winning piece of architecture, featuring the latest in modern technology, the latest in modern aesthetics, the latest in modern design. It had everything that human reason could offer, but it turned out to be so anti-human, so impersonal, so crime-ridden and uninhabitable that it could not even be made safe, but had to be blown out of its misery.

Now when people speak about postmodernism they sometimes mean nothing more than ultra-modern, modernity taken to the nth degree, what Zygmunt Bauman has termed ‘modernity without illusions.’ Postmodernism in this sense is not really the replacement of modernism with something else, but simply modernism taken to its illogical extreme, a world view built out of the rubble of modernism, not constructed from new materials at all.

Without God, modernism was characterized by moral relativism, a chaos of ethical values. Without reason, postmodernism is characterized by intellectual relativism, a chaos of mind. Postmodernism is not just moral relativism—it’s much worse than that—it’s absolute relativism, a relativism of truth.

But there is something new about postmodernism: its core belief, the belief there are no absolutes. Like modernism, postmodernism throws out God, but it also throws out human rationality. Without God, modernism was characterized by moral relativism, a chaos of ethical values. Without reason, postmodernism is characterized by intellectual relativism, a chaos of mind. Postmodernism is not just moral relativism—it’s much worse than that—it’s absolute relativism, a relativism of truth. What may be true for you isn’t true for me. Modernism replaced God with human reason; now postmodernism replaces human reason with raw feeling and raw emotion, I suppose.

Living in the postmodern world as we do, it should not surprise us to discover that at least two-thirds of American adults do not believe in any such thing as absolute truth. But it’s worth considering for a moment how absurd, how nonsensical, how self-contradictory the core belief of postmodernism is. The postmodern believes that there is no truth, which means that he does actually hold to one truth: the truth that there is no truth. The postmodern believes that there are no absolutes, but the very belief that there are no absolutes is, in fact, an absolute. His only absolute is relativism.

And that’s why postmodernism is every bit as bankrupt as modernism ever was; morally bankrupt, spiritually bankrupt, intellectually bankrupt, socially bankrupt, architecturally bankrupt. Postmodernism is hollow, an empty shell. Making up your own truth is an empty enterprise.

This is why my own suspicion is that postmodernism won’t be with us very long at all before we will be back to the same questions: ‘Is this all?’ ‘Isn’t there something else?’ ‘Isn’t there something more?’

But in the meantime the church will have to live and witness in an increasingly postmodern culture, a culture without absolutes, a culture in which what’s ok for you is ok for you but it’s not ok for me, a culture in which what’s true for you is true for you but it’s not true for me, a culture in which, when we share our faith, people will just say ‘Isn’t that nice for you?’ It is a culture in which people will be suspicious of us just because we say that what’s true is true, for you as well as for me. We will have to live and witness in a culture in which, as believers in the absolute truth of Jesus Christ, we will be forced again and again to ask the question that David asked in Psalm 11: ‘When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ [verse 3].

When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? We give the same answer to that question that David gave. What can the righteous do? ‘In the Lord I take refuge,’ he wrote. What can the righteous do? ‘The Lord is in his holy temple,‘ he wrote. What can the righteous do? ‘The Lord is on his heavenly throne.’ ‘He observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them‘ [verse 4].

This isn’t all there is. There is something else. There is something more. Men may say that there are no absolutes, that there is no God, that there is no truth, but it is God who scrutinizes and judges men, and not the other way around. And this is our comfort when the foundations are being destroyed, when we fear the fragmentation and collapse of our culture, when we fear that there is nothing we can do. And this is the comfort we will offer to those who are emptied and bruised by the postmodern world. That the Lord is our refuge, that he is on his heavenly throne, ruling and governing the world, that his rule is absolute.

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org