We’re All Postmodernists Now
We have lost our ability to talk meaningfully about right and wrong, and even to persuade others of these moral realities.
John StonestreetShane Morris
Recently, a colleague noted how a growing number of conservative-minded people he encountered on social media, some of them Christians, were refusing to believe stories about Russian atrocities in Ukraine. Some even rejected that the invasion was an unjustified war of aggression by Russia. When he asked the reason for their doubt, their response was simply because the stories were reported in the “mainstream media,” which has done nothing but lie to us for years.
I share suspicion for certain sources. Major networks, news outlets, and their reporters have forgotten the difference between journalism and opinion writing. And, of course, their biases tend to lean in the same direction. Christian conservatives rarely get a fair shake on self-described neutral outlets, such as CNN or The Washington Post, let alone overtly progressive outlets such as Vox or MSNBC.
However, when our suspicion about truth-telling becomes suspicion of truth itself, we’ve become postmodernists. Christian writer Samuel James calls this bad habit “negative epistemology.” This is the idea that we don’t need to figure out what’s true, we only need to believe the opposite of whatever our political enemies say.
Of course, this is only part of the overall and pervasive collapse of trust throughout American society, specifically trust in institutions. We are rightly concerned about misinformation, the frequently shifting landscape of rationale for dealing with COVID-19, and claims about election fraud. But beneath all of these specific examples is a cultural landscape that treats truth and truth claims as nothing more than power plays.
This isn’t a new idea. During the confirmation hearings for current Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, concern was raised over a speech she had given at UC Berkeley. In it, she stated that “to judge is an exercise in power.” That idea leads activists to dismiss opponents by pointing out the color of their skin instead of addressing their argument. We see it every time cancel culture comes for a speaker or author on a college campus who says something that doesn’t support their team. In other words, behind the collapse of trust in American society is a collapse of truth, the very possibility of truth.
For more than a century now, academics have been preaching this kind of extreme skepticism, suggesting that all truth claims are really impositions of power. This belief was at the heart of a worldview known as “postmodernism,” initially conceived by mid-20th century French philosophers and eventually expressed in late-20th century pop culture. Today, Eminem and Nirvana are considered “classics,” but the facts that so much of our culture is reduced to political power plays and so many people decide what’s true by asking who believes the opposite, only proves that, to some extent, we are all postmodernists, now.
For people whose faith teaches that truth is knowable and that it doesn’t depend on the source but a reality external to ourselves, this is a road we simply cannot continue down. Once we embrace the idea that all claims are mere power plays, there’s no room for reason, for revelation, for persuasion, for thinking, or for looking at God’s world to know something about it and Him. Instead, we employ a version of a tactic promoted by postmodern English professors called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” We become suspicious of everything and, in the process, destroy the possibility of knowing anything.
I’m not the first to make the following literary connection, but we’d do well to learn from the Dwarfs described in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. Having been deceived once by their enemies, these sadly memorable characters decided they would never believe a non-Dwarf again. Terrified of being “taken in,” they retreated into a tribalistic huddle, and ultimately became blind to the world around them. Their suspicion of everyone and everything became their prison, and in the end, it deprived them of Lewis’ equivalent of Heaven.
If we come to believe that truth is only a matter of who’s talking, that Vladimir Putin must be a good man because CNN says he’s not, or that an unjust war must be just if a president from the other party condemns it, we have retreated into that same, fatal huddle. We have lost our ability to talk meaningfully about right and wrong, and even to persuade others of these moral realities. We have traded a Christian worldview for a postmodern one. In our fear of being “taken in” by a lie, we have blinded ourselves to truth.
Let’s not make that mistake.
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