Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 2)

[Series explanation and index here.]

Postmodernism and Society

a talk by Albert Mohler

It's as if Mohler read the way I questioned the strength of postmodernism's influence outside of certain academic circles, and decided to give his own version of Zacharias' talk to emphasize the pervasiveness and danger of postmodernism. That, or the conference committee assigned them both the same topic.

So here we go again!

After an ice breaker story, Mohler starts by trying to explain what postmodernism is. He points to the sense of scientific and human progress felt from the enlightenment to the early twentieth century, until society lost its level of "unrealistic optimism" and became disillusioned. This was the end of modernism and the beginning of postmodernism as the spirit of the age.

A pretty good sketch of a difficult subject. Mohler moves on to listing some features of postmodernism.

First: the deconstruction of truth. He says that postmodernism is not concerned with the nature of truth or what propositions are true, but on "whether truth can be known." By contrast, Christians understand that "[t]ruth is established by God and revealed through the self-revelation of God in scripture. Truth is eternal, fixed, and universal. Our responsibility as Christians, we understand, is to align our minds with the truth revealed by a self-existent God."

Sure, if Christian scripture is true in the first place. If not, then that's not what truth is at all.

Remember when I complained about Zacharias giving two alternatives: an outrageous answer and his answer? Mohler is giving us the alternative of denying truth (or denying we can know any truth) vs. truth as what the Christian God has established. Don't let the implausibility of the former make the latter seem unquestionable. I'm starting to wonder if apologists play up the extreme parts of postmodernism because it makes such a flattering contrast for anything else held next to it.

He then quotes Richard Rorty as saying, "Truth is made rather than found." The social construction of truth, Mohler observes, "is at the very heart of postmodernism." Truth claims are seen as "disguised claims to power" with the purpose of suppressing others. If this is the nature of constructing truth claims, then deconstructing truth claims would be a way to remove the disguise and be freed from oppression.

Where I think postmodernism goes wrong is not in the basic ideas, but in their extent. I would say some truth is socially constructed and some truth claims are disguised claims to power. "This is called a fork" is true, because we made it true. "Pink is a girl color" is true, in a socially constructed way. "Homosexuality is unnatural" is a disguised claim to power, which serves to marginalize minorities. Much of Mohler's critique is aimed at the way prominent postmodernist philosophers took these ideas to ridiculous extremes, like saying all truth is socially constructed. But what's harmful in extremes may be beneficial in moderation.

Second: the death of the metanarrative. A meta-narrative is an "explanatory theory of virtually everything." A big story. A worldview. Mohler quotes Jean-François Lyotard defining postmodernism as "incredulity toward metanarratives."

For some reason, he focuses on how this would exclude a Christian metanarrative, instead of emphasizing that most metanarratives should be disbelieved because they are incompatible! Wouldn't an effective approach to postmodernists be something like this: "I can understand your wariness. You're right to see that many 'big stories' people tell about the world are fabricated. But here's why this 'big story' is worth believing."

Third: the demise of the text. This is what Zacharias spent so much time on, i.e. the notion that texts don't contain any limits to their meaning...all meaning is imposed or at least alterable by readers. Props to Mohler for pointing out how Bible studies often proceed in a "What does it mean to you?" style.

Fourth: the dominion of therapy. Something about how we're all sick according to postmodernists. I didn't find this very interesting, to be frank. Guess it does explain The Sopranos.

Fifth: the decline of authority. Pretty much follows from the above. Without some non-constructed truth, absolutely everything would become a struggle among fraudulent authorities. Mohler accuses postmodernists of hypocrisy for preferring liberation-oriented authorities in practice.

Sixth: the displacement of morality. I feel silly for only now realizing these features all start with a 'd'. Anyway, the idea here is that morality is a matter of authority, so without authority all morality gets tossed except liberation-based morality.

Here, Mohler goes off on a long tangent about postmodern art breakin' the art rules! I have a hard time being concerned about this, since I use a simple 'like' / 'don't like' approach to art criticism. Mixing historical styles is not itself something I find offensive or genius. He ends up saying that someone might be ok with a postmodern architect, but "no one wants a postmodern engineer." Funny, and it makes a good point against postmodern extremes, but it's very much in line with my point about postmodernism erring in its extent. Mohler's own story illustrates that it doesn't much matter if the decorations are postmodern so long as the physical structure is stable.

The Sokal hoax is mentioned next, which was so much better than anything Ashton Kutcher ever pulled off. (Or do you prefer comic format?)

Then off to sex in universities, critical legal theory, political disillusionment, and commercial advertising. Overall, the claim is that schools are injecting culture with postmodernist ideas, and this is leading to just about every bad thing from a Christian, traditional, common sense perspective.

I remain dubious about attributing so much to postmodernism.

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