Antimodernism was anticipated in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Heidegger, among others. Leading the way into postmodern philosophical thought were individuals such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Richard Rorty, as well as other philosophers, such as Michel Foucault, Hilary Putnam, Jürgen Habermas, and Willard Quine, who did not necessarily see themselves as postmodernists. It was Lyotard, in his work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, who first popularized the term postmodernism in the domain of social theory.
In antimodernism, a number of constructs have emerged to take the place of the deposed philosophical foundations of modernism. These include the rejection of metanarratives; the affirmation of pluralism, contextualization, and constructivism; and the celebration of diversity.
Renunciation of Metanarratives
In antimodernism, there is skepticism of metanarratives, overarching stories that seek to provide comprehensive explanations for reality. Sample “grand narratives” include the Christian perspective on the great controversy between good and evil; the secular explanation of human origins via evolutionary theory; the Enlightenment view that rational thought, linked to scientific and technological progress, will lead to social advance; and the Marxist account of social emancipation.
Antimodernism rejects metanarratives because they are seen to overextend themselves. It also holds that meta-narratives promote exclusivity, which can lead to violence. It is, after all, belief in a meta-narrative that led to the horrors of the medieval Crusades and that fuels the extremism of al Qaeda.
In place of the meta-narratives of modernism, antimodernism proposes a whole range of competing “small stories,” narrated by special interest groups (such as environmentalists, feminists, advocates of intelligent design, homosexuals, and a whole array of ethnic and religious communities). These groups formulate collections of conflicting and at times mutually exclusive beliefs and goals, which are then paraphrased in terms of micro-narratives and political agendas.
With a prohibition on metanarratives and the abandonment of the Enlightenment quest for rational universal knowledge, Allen notes that there is an inevitable conclusion that every understanding of reality is but a function of history and culture.2 Consequently, reality is not only formulated variously in different eras and societies, but ultimately each individual must construct reality in his or her own unique way.
Pluralism, in part, is a result of the demise of metanarratives. Derrida, an early advocate of antimodernism, postulated that there was no fixed metaphysical center (as in the case, for example, of realism or essentialism), but rather, an infinite number of alternatives that come into play.3 This multi-centrism, coupled with Heidegger’s existentialism, yields pluralism.
In a pluralistic approach, for example, there is no central tradition of scholarship, but rather multiple viable traditions. Eurocentric historical interpretations (with their white, middle-class, male bias) thus give way to a plurality of views—African, Islamic, feminist, and indigenous, among others.
Each of these perspectives should be considered as equal, with a scholar from any tradition expecting to learn from other interpretations, as much as to contribute. “Universities” become “multiversities”—supporting multiple agendas and perspectives, rather than seeking to formulate a single “approved” interpretation of reality.
Significance of Context
Contextualization resulted from an epistemological shift in antimodernism. Based on the linguistic work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin, a new perspective on language emerged. This posited a shift from “meaning as reference” to “meaning as use.” Rather than a statement having an objective meaning based on the declared definition of its words, the statement might have a variety of meanings, depending on the contexts in which it is used. Meaning in language thus became contextual, and understanding occurred only when context was taken into account.
Similarly, developments in quantum theory bolstered the significance of context. Science found itself no longer able to support the Newtonian physics of particles as entities with fixed essences, but rather as quantum entanglements in which an object can be described only in reference to other objects.
In classical, pre-modern views, such as in idealism and many world religions, knowledge of truth and reality was received. In modernism, truth was discovered and reality confirmed through the scientific process. In antimodernism, truth and reality are constructed. In this anti-realist metaphysics, we do not encounter a world that is simply “out there,” but one that is dependent on our experience and thought, one that we actively construct by the concepts that we bring to it.
This stance requires realignment in our conception of inquiry. No longer are we passive recipients or mere discoverers of pre-existing knowledge. Rather, we are actively engaged in the interactive and iterative process of knowledge creation. In essence, truth is not found primarily in science, logic, or doctrine; but in relationships and the telling of stories.
There are several implications of this constructivist view. First, qualitative, ethnographic, and narrative modes of inquiry are preferred over quantitative, analytic, or deductive modalities. Second, understanding is best communicated illustratively, rather than propositionally. Third, expertise and “top-down” forms of interaction must be questioned. Though some individuals clearly have understandings that others do not have, the latter may have insights that the former have not perceived. Thus, in place of expert-to-novice transmissions, exchange of knowledge is best seen as a dialogue, a conversation among individuals of difference in which there is mutual exchange.
Celebration of Diversity
Antimodernism does not simply tolerate or affirm differences. It celebrates diversity. Foucault, in his classic work Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, argues that modernism and its attendant rationalism brutally excluded whole segments of society—the insane, the socially deviant, the challenged, the illiterate, even the devoutly religious—anyone who was viewed as “unreasonable.”4 To be truly human was to be rational, and those who were irrational were in some way subhuman (not so identified perhaps, for the sake of political correctness, but treated thus in the way they were marginalized). These had no societal value except as a warning to those tempted not to conform.
A Christian Commentary
Just as rationalism has been critiqued by antimodernism, so antimodernism must itself be thoughtfully reviewed. One must be careful, however, not simply to endorse or reject the paradigm as a whole, but to reflect on areas of opportunity and aspects of concern, particularly from the vantage of a Christian worldview.
Clearly, certain tenets of antimodernism are inimical to basic Christian assumptions. These include its strident skepticism, the abolition of metanarratives, and the rejection of objective, universal truth. On the other hand, antimodernism is also post-individualist, post-dualist, and post-rationalist, rejecting reason as supreme. How then does a Christian relate to a paradigm that brings welcome relief from many of the vexing problems of modernism, while at the same time undercutting core premises of the Christian worldview?
Early on, Beck5 had suggested that postmodernism might best be viewed as a rich quarry in which one can search for gems of insight, while not feeling obliged to take home the rubble. It is with this spirit of discernment and respect that we seek to assess antimodernism from a Christian framework.
The Rejection of Metanarratives and Objective Truth
Understanding the great controversy between good and evil (Genesis 3; Revelation 12) is central to a Christian worldview. As a metanarrative, it seeks to provide a coherent explanation of reality for all aspects of life. While antimodernism may not subscribe to overarching explanations, the fact remains that metanarratives, such as organic evolution, remain pervasive in contemporary society. In the antimodernist view, a variety of alternative perspectives are needed—one of which can be the Christian narrative.
There is a related aspect, however, that must be considered. Antimodernism has announced the death of objective truth. For decentered antimodernists, truth has become elusive, a personal commodity at best. They prefer to think of “many truths,” a “diversity of truths,” or “truth for me.” By contrast, the biblical view holds that God is trustworthy (1 Cor. 1:9), and that His revelation of Truth is objective and reliable (John 17:17; 2 Peter 1:19). Christians, however, must still interpret and apply truth to the contexts of their lives. In this process it is indeed possible to arrive at false conclusions (2 Cor. 4:4). Consequently, cross-checks with fellow searchers (Prov. 11:14) and guidance from the Holy Spirit (John 16:13) are vital in arriving at correct understandings of truth.
Pluralism and Moral Relativism
Antimodernism maintains that there is no center. Christianity holds that God is the core from which all things derive meaning (Acts 17:28). Antimodernism asserts that all views be considered equal. Christianity affirms that God’s perspective and His revelation of reality, truth, and value must supersede all others (1 Chron. 29:11; John 3:31; Eph. 1:21).
How does a Christian relate to the pluralistic stance and attendant relativism of antimodernism? First, we must recognize that pluralism, while freeing society from the potential tyranny of one voice, has also resulted in the fragmentation of knowledge and the fracturing of values. Furthermore, we must beware that one runs the risk that pluralism may plunge into anarchism, rejecting any form of order. On the other hand, Christianity cannot be arrogant or elitist. We can learn from each other, perhaps especially from those who see things quite differently from the way we do. Each of us has limited perspectives and cultural “blinders.” It is thus imperative that we hear and seek to understand the views of other religious and cultural traditions.
There is, however, an added dimension. Though all human perspectives may, in a sense, be considered equal—each with significant insights as well as “blind spots”—God has proactively shared His own divine perspective through His Word, and this revelation supersedes all others. Consequently, though we as Christians endeavor to understand viewpoints different from our own, we seek above all to see life from God’s point of view (Matt. 6:33).
Another concept emerging from the discussion of relativism is an understanding of the difference between principles and rules. Principles convey universal values, such as respect, compassion, and integrity. Micah 6:8, for example, highlights several of these principled values: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (See also Philippians 4:8.)
Finally, we should perhaps note that absolute relativism is untenable—it is an inherent contradiction of terms. Furthermore, in praxis, individuals seem to need a certain degree of structure and continuity. Across the age spectrum, we search for a sense of identity, stability, and belonging. Unfortunately, plurality and relativism have resulted in a world with few secure intellectual or psychological markers. Precisely because we do live in a changing and fragmented world, we need sources of stability. In the Christian worldview, Jesus Christ can provide that universal rallying point, that secure frame of reference (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ summed up His teaching with a reference to a wise man and a foolish man (Matt. 7:24–27). He noted that the difference between wisdom and folly was in the foundation, anchored in bedrock or situated in shifting sand. One might note that rock and sand are, in fact, similar elements. Sand, however, has been broken into fragments; rock is unified and intact.
Community, Culture, and Context
In the Christian perspective, community is essential (Ps. 133:1; Acts 2:1, 46; Rom. 15:1; Gal. 6:2). Forging relationships and building community are key activities, both within the body of believers (1 Cor. 12:12–27) and in fulfilling the gospel commission through outreach and friendship evangelism (Matt. 25:31–46; 28:18–20). Service to others is, in fact, a God-given responsibility (Acts 20:35; Gal. 5:13).
Though community is vital, we stand, nonetheless, as individuals before God (Eze. 18:17–20; 2 Cor. 5:10). We each have individual responsibilities, which we cannot simply leave for others in the community. In essence, though individuals may not be more important than the community, neither are they less so. We must not emphasize community to the neglect of those who make up the community.
Antimodernism reminds us of the role of culture, and that culture may vary from one community to another. In highlighting cultural differences, however, antimodernists may have inadvertently minimized the importance of common ground. Even though certain aspects differ from culture to culture and among subcultures, we are more alike than we are different. We are a web of humanity, and there are values, such as life, well-being, and the pursuit of happiness, that are prized across cultures. Human societies thus have a certain degree of commonality and continuity. Antimodernists correctly prompt us, however, that we must be careful of hasty generalizations. It is altogether too easy to create stereotypes and labels, and deceive ourselves regarding the complexity and variety of human culture.
As a corollary of community and culture, antimodernism emphasizes context. When interpreting biblical passages or historical events, it is necessary that we consider context. The Jerusalem Council in apostolic times (Acts 15), for example, illustrates the importance of understanding culture, and of taking context and background into account. On a personal level, the Christian also recognizes the influence of environment (Ps. 1:1; John 1:46). Humankind, however, is not simply a pawn of circumstance. Though not autonomous, we do possess freewill, and have been granted the power of choice (Joshua 24:15; Prov. 3:31; Isa. 7:15, 16), which rises above the grip of context.
Constructivism and Authenticity
In the antimodern view, knowledge is a human construction. In the Christian perspective, God is the source of all knowledge (Prov. 2:6; Dan. 1:17). There are multiple avenues, however, for attaining this knowledge. Though knowledge may be received through divine revelation, other knowledge is discovered through scientific research, confirmed by logic, or constructed through experience and reflection (Job 29:16; Ps. 77:6; Eccl. 1:13; Rev. 1:1). Similarly, Christianity proposes both external and internal dimensions of reality.
In the antimodern view, all knowledge is tentative and there is a profound skepticism of expertise. The Christian, however, holds that universal Truth does exist (Ps. 100:5; Isa. 43:9), and that God takes the initiative to communicate truth to humanity (Dan. 2:47). In a sense, though, Scripture resonates with the tentative nature of knowledge: “we see in a mirror, dimly” and we know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12). Our understanding of truth is, in fact, a work in progress (Ps. 86:11; Eph. 4:15; 3 John 4). Not even the greatest scientist or the most erudite theologian can thus claim to have arrived at a full understanding of truth or to have a definitive grasp on knowledge. Each of us has but a subset of the larger picture, with ample room for learning and growth.
Antimodernism’s disapproval of expertise, then, is a reminder not to follow blindly or too readily acquiesce to “authorities,” but as the first-century Bereans, to study things out for ourselves to ascertain “whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). A Christian should continually ask questions and probe beneath the surface (Eccl. 1:13; Isa. 1:18; 1 Thess. 5:21). This view further suggests that it is a personal responsibility to share with others the insights of truth that we each have gained (Matt. 28:19, 20).
Moreover, it behooves those who may have gained advanced training or experience in a particular field of knowledge to speak with humility, acknowledging that the frontiers of knowledge are also the horizons of one’s ignorance. This implies that though one may speak with measured confidence within his or her area of expertise, one should not presume to pontificate as an “authority” on all topics. Humility, honesty, and authenticity are Christian virtues (Isa. 57:17; Matt. 18:1–4; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:5), and should be widely promoted within the Christian community.
Diversity and Creativity
Antimodernism celebrates diversity and promotes inclusiveness. It maintains that minority communities have rights and merit respect. It holds that each individual should be able to attain personally meaningful goals. It maintains that the community must function as a support network for the individual members of society.
These concepts find resonance within the Christian worldview. Christ’s mission was to break down barriers of exclusivity, to set the oppressed free (Isa. 58:6; Luke 4:16–21). In His ministry, He reached out to the marginalized, to those rejected by mainstream society (Matt. 11:19; Mark 2:16). He is our example (1 Peter 2:21).
As Christians, we must become a voice for the exploited and oppressed. We must treat each person with respect, irrespective of ethnic, cultural, or religious affiliation. We must recognize that each individual, regardless of talent, ability, or social status, is of inherent worth, both by creation and by redemption (Isa. 43:1; Jer. 1:5; John 3:16). We must treat others as we would wish to be treated (Matt. 7:12).
How does diversity fit with the Christian view? Christianity’s focus is on unity (John 17:21), not uniformity. It centers on transformation, not conformity (Rom. 12:2). It also recognizes that God has “‘made from one blood every nation of men’” (Acts 17:26), despite their diversity. Paul’s description of the body and its various members (1 Cor. 12:12–28) is, in fact, an apt metaphor for this concept of unity in diversity. Such a perspective suggests that while there are fundamental beliefs, the Christian paradigm must be open to consideration of multiple, divergent views. In these dialogues of faith, however, the Word of God serves as the ultimate criterion (Isa. 8:20).
While recognizing specific groups (ethnic, religious, socio-economic, etc.) within the larger culture, we must be careful not to emphasize these categories to the neglect of individuals. It is possible, in fact, for two individuals from separate groups to share greater commonalities than two individuals from the same ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. Individuals are only in part identifiable in terms of the social categories to which they belong.
An intriguing characteristic of creativity is the tolerance of opposites, the embracing of polar truths. Here again, there is biblical precedent. Whereas Greek-based modern logic saw the opposite of a truth to be false, Judaic thinking could see truth as a tension between contrasting ideas: “There is one who makes himself rich, yet has nothing; And one who makes himself poor, yet has great riches” (Prov. 13:7). “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). “‘Whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all’” (Mark 10:44). Thus, Christ was not either human or divine, but both human and divine (Col. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:5); and we are saved entirely through faith (Eph. 2:8), yet instructed to “work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12). Jon Paulien notes that this rejection of the “either/or” categories of Greek philosophy may make it easier for antimodernists to understand the Bible, compared with previous generations.8
Emotion and Spirituality
In the Age of Reason, modernists tended to suppress feelings. In rejecting rationalism, antimodernism has chosen to highlight emotion—thus the emphasis on attitudes and self-esteem, and the ubiquity of comments such as “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” or “Just go with your gut feeling.” The result is the antimodern tendency to elevate feelings above rationality and objective truth.
In the Christian perspective, the emotions are of importance (Neh. 8:10; John 11:35). Too often, we have denigrated emotion into a sign of intellectual weakness and have reduced the gospel to a sterile set of postulates and proof texts. As Christians, we should affirm feeling as well as reason. The emotional and the rational must work together. We must make the gospel not only logically compelling, but also emotionally attractive—particularly for antimoderns.
Certain tenets of antimodern thought clash with basic Christian assumptions. Consequently, as Christians, we cannot agree with the full scope of the antimodern position—such as its relativism, fragmentation of knowledge, and rejection of religious doctrine. Such premises can ultimately lead to conclusions far removed from those of a biblical worldview. While we cannot surrender the non-negotiable truths of our faith, we must seek to truly understand antimodernism and its endeavor to address crucial issues in society.
The antimodern paradigm has indeed raised valid concerns—the role of community, the importance of personal experience and reflection, the need for authenticity, the value of emotion and creativity, the call for inclusion, the openness to spirituality. These matters, among others, can provide points of contact with antimoderns, presenting fresh opportunities for sharing Christian understandings.
Such conversations respond to the Christian mandate given by Christ Himself when He declared, “‘You will be my witnesses’” (Acts 1:8, NIV). As Christians living in an antimodern world, we must think deeply and comprehensively regarding our beliefs and convictions. We must be able to speak clearly, coherently, and persuasively regarding our Christian worldview (1 Peter 3:5). Ultimately, we must share a Hope for the future.
John Wesley Taylor V, Ph.D., Ed.D., is an Associate Director of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.
NOTES AND REFERENCES