Apologetics,  Culture

The Alliance of Postmodernism and Activism

photo of an activist supporting postmodernism and postmodernist ideas

In the past I have written about how understanding Marxism and understanding Critical Theory are imperative to aid the Christian’s analysis of the modern cultural upheaval. Yet, there remains one other essential concept to understand culture. That is Postmodernism.

Marxism, and more specifically Critical Theory, have merged with Postmodernism and they exemplify an intricate, albeit anti-god worldview. Christians must understand the contribution of Postmodernism in order to understand the cultural infatuation with activism.

The Beginnings of Postmodernism

Postmodernism is a philosophical movement which began in the mid-1900s and attained popularity in the late 20th century. Encyclopedia Britannica defines Postmodernism this way:

a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.

Breaking down this definition is helpful. Postmodernism is characterized by skepticism, that is a denial or doubt that certainty of truth is possible. It is also characterized by subjectivism, that is one’s experience and/or identity is the filter through which something is known. Lastly, relativism, which in postmodernism emphasizes the relative nature of knowledge. In other words, truth is not viewed as objective, but rather a knowledge which is discerned through one’s relative standpoint in a specific group or culture.

The Principles of Postmodernism

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have identified two principles and four themes which mark Postmodernism. These elements are essential to the philosophical system of postmodernism.

The Postmodern Knowledge Principle

“Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.”

In other words, objective knowledge or truth is unattainable (if it even exists). Further, a “cultural constructivism” is at work, meaning that the culture or society is facilitating knowledge and is thus the foundation for what is called “truth.”

The Postmodern Political Principle

“A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”

This principle coincides with the previous principle in that the culture or society is formed by hierarchies, and those who are most powerful within those hierarchies control what is known, and how things are known. If you think about activists, this is why people are always talking about destroying the hierarchies or systemic racism. This is part of the presuppositions which prompt those discussions.

Themes of Postmodernism

It should be noted that both of the previous principles (knowledge and political) are assumed rather than proven because they are foundational to the worldview espoused. Importantly, these assumptions of Postmodernism lead to the implementation of four themes.

The Blurring of Boundaries

Not surprisingly, because of the radical skepticism of objective truth and knowledge, Postmodernism pushes back against any boundary or category distinction. For example, to the postmodernist, not only is the category of beauty a cultural construct, but so also are the categories of male and female, or healthy and unhealthy. Postmodernism pushes against these categorical distinctions and blurs the boundaries.

The Power of Language

Because the assumption of Postmodernism is that culture is constructing truth, then language is viewed as the vehicle which controls society and reinforces stereotypes and thought processes. Thus, Postmodernism is intensely interested in deconstructing language and changing the way people speak. For example, to refer to history is a reinforcement of male patriarchy because of the “his” in [his]story. Thus, it is not a surprise to see the push for the utilization of herstory in our discourses.  

Cultural Relativism

As mentioned above, cultural relativism is essential to Postmodernism. Because knowledge and truth are societally constructed, no culture or society are superior to others. Every culture is an equally-valid way of viewing and interpreting reality. Thus, for a Christian to utilize the Bible and evaluate another’s life is to claim cultural superiority. This is an egregious violation for the postmodernist, and is not possible because each culture has relative access to “truth” and knowledge.

The Loss of the Individual and the Universal

Based on the foregoing, it is not a shock in the least that Postmodernism devalues the individual. Because the individual is accessing truth and knowledge through culture and society, that individual is bound to his or her group. In the same sense, because an individual is bound to a group, there can be no common human experience because each individual has distinct group identities which influence their knowledge and access to “truth.” As such, any possible individual distinction is wiped out, but so also is the commonality with other human nature.

Postmodernism Today

Although Postmodernism began to pick up steam in the 1960s, it really hit a wall in the 1980s. Because of the inconsistency and inability of Postmodernism to provide a meaningful worldview, it began to fade. However, in the 1980s and 90s, social activists combined the ideology of Postmodernism and the activism of Critical Theory. The result of the marriage between Postmodernism and Critical Theory was a renewed push by feminists, critical race theorists, and others who were looking for a way to change society.

This reboot of Postmodernism is what Lindsay and Pluckrose call, “applied postmodernism” in the sense that current Postmodernism has shifted from the theoretical to the activist realm.

We therefore might think of postmodernism as a kind of fast-evolving virus. Its original and purest form was unsustainable: it tore its hosts apart and destroyed itself. … In its evolved form, it spread, leaping the ‘species’ gap from academics to activists to everyday people, as it became increasingly graspable and actionable and therefore more contagious. It mutated around a core of Theory to form several new strains which are far less playful and far more certain of their own (meta)narratives. These are centered on a practical aim that was absent before to reconstruct society in the image of an ideology which came to refer to itself as ‘Social Justice.’

Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020), 46.

Postmodernism and the Christian

Many Christians do not particularly enjoy getting into nuts and bolts of Critical Theory or Postmodernism. However, it is helpful to understand the worldview of the culture in which we walk and talk. Understanding the influence of Postmodernism on the activist culture which exists presently in the United States allows us to observe the following.

  • Claiming access to objective truth will sound absurd to many people.
  • If you do not have a certain group identity you will be denied the authority to speak on certain issues (e.g., LGBT, racism, etc.).
  • The language you use can be construed as hateful or racist regardless of your intent because of its inherent belonging to a hierarchal system of power.
  • There is no need for an argument to be logically consistent, because an absolute or objective standard is a figment of imagination.
  • Morality will be viewed as relative and not absolute.

I’m sure there are many more, but these simple applications hopefully demonstrate why even discussions of racism or justice are not simple. These discussions are being defined by secularists with a different worldview that is antigod and does not have an absolute standard of right or wrong. The Christian and the postmodernist may use the same words, but they are talking about totally different things.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

2 Comments

  • John

    Hi brow sounding stuff that the man in the street like me has no grasp on whatsoever I could not even summarise what postmodernism or critical theory is !
    Think I’ll stick to the simple but profound gospel I do have a basic grasp of that.

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