39 – Understanding the Postmodern Era
I took a deep breath as I picked up the final exam for Dr. MacKenzie’s Modern Philosophy class. It contained a pithy statement on which I was to draft a brief essay. The statement itself said so much:
The history of modern philosophy is the story of how God has been pushed out of the center of life and has been replaced by man. In other words, how transcendence has been replaced by immanence.
Throughout history one enterprise has taken priority over all others – man’s search for meaning. The history of philosophy shows us how this search has jumped the rails. It also shows us why so many men today are in despair.
I remember in the late 1960s when the mantra of Nietzsche – “God is dead” – became popular. Against that silhouette, it was haunting but inevitable that I recently would see a bumper sticker that said, “I’m dead.” This is merely the logical downward spiral of Nietzsche to total despair.
“I’m dead.” Though most men would not put it in quite such despondent terms, many would identify. I once felt such a profound lack of meaning myself. Many men quail at life because it seems hopeless. They slog along in frustration, emptiness, and confusion, sensing their lives don’t matter.
That’s not true, of course. When God breaks upon a man, He deposits into his soul a river of eternal life, meaning and purpose. And God has called us to take this message of redeeming love to them.
But how did mankind as a whole decay to this point in history when some feel meaning is no longer possible? The answer is to understand “the story of how God has been pushed out of the center of life and has been replaced by man – how transcendence has been replaced by immanence.” The story is best understood by spanning three eras.
THE PREMODERN ERA
During the Premodern Era God was the starting point to understand reality. Mankind believed in absolutes, and the Christian God was the ultimate absolute. Great figures like Augustine and Luther engaged in a dialogue between faith and reason.
THE MODERN ERA
In the early 17th century Renes Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, turned the world upside down when he made man the starting point rather than God. He emphasized the ability of human reason to find certainty and the ultimate meaning of reality. Faith began to slip into a corner.
The quest of the early Modern Era was, “How can we know anything with certainty?” Emphasis was placed on the capacity of the rational mind. The shift was under way from God-centered to man-centered thinking. The Age of Reason was born.
Meanwhile, history also gave birth to the Scientific Age. The Newtonian paradigm took over. A mechanistic view of the world developed. God was the great clock maker, and the world ran by the fixed laws He established. But God was isolated from His creation.
Then in 1919 Albert Einstein noticed that starlight “bent” as it passed near the sun. This led him to postulate a “curved space” and the theory of relativity rather than an absolute universe. In no time, the relativistic paradigm of Einstein led to the breakup of the Newtonian paradigm.
This left people confused. They struggled to understand, “What is reality? What is this universe all about?” Today, Stephen Hawking builds on Einstein’s work in the quest to find “one thing” which explains everything.
During the Modern Era man still believed in absolutes, but the absolute shifted from God to nature and finally to man himself. Man became the absolute which could be depended upon, not God. The human enterprise was built on the foundation of an optimistic view of man. Reason pushed faith out of the picture – it was no longer necessary.
THE TRANSITION FROM MODERN TO POSTMODERN
Then, on the way to utopia, the ugly side of man’s nature was revealed in the twentieth century. No where was this more poignant than in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. He chronicled the incredibly violent regime of Stalin, his gulags, and how millions of Russians had been persecuted or executed under the Marxist regime. Voice of America piped the book into Russia. People asked, “Is this really happening?” The world rose up in indignation. Eventually, Marxism fell.
The optimistic view of human nature simply wouldn’t hold water anymore. It created a crisis of meaning and identity. Who are we that we could do such things to each other?
With the breakup of “absolute space and time” and the “optimistic view of human nature” people began to wonder – “Can we really know if anything is true? Is there any purpose to it all? Is there really any meaning?”
Jean-Paul Sartre gave his answer in the middle of the century, “Life is a useless passion.” People resonated with him. For Sartre, man “is” – but he is nothing but what he makes of himself. Man creates his own meaning.
Man is free to choose his own destiny. His meaning depends on the choices he makes. But because he can find no guidance, and since he does not know how these choices will turn out, he is forlorn. Man did not create himself, yet is responsible for what he does. So not only is he free, he is condemned to be free. A man commits himself, draws his portrait, and that’s all there is.
Camus went a step further. The world is absolutely absurd. He said God is laughing at us. All we can do is give up. This existential despair captured the spirit of the age and, in part, led to the breakup of the Modern Era.
THE POSTMODERN ERA
We now live in what many have termed the Postmodern Era, a shift that began after World War II. The problem postmodernists are trying to solve is, “If science and reason aren’t the answer, then what is? How do we get out of the box in which modernism has put us?”
Perhaps no figure personifies the angst of the age more than Michael Foucault. An alter boy who turned against religion, he has been called by some the most famous intellectual in the world, replacing Sartre.
An avowed homosexual, Foucault’s quest was often cast as a search for “the other.” But he said that in this “other” there is no meaning. Therefore, the search is useless. There is no transcendent significance. His was a philosophy of emptiness and despair. He died of AIDS in 1984.
The darling of Europe today is Jacque Derrida. While speaking at the University of Virginia during our bicentennial celebration he made a comment about our Declaration of Independence. He said it doesn’t matter what the authors intended but what you as the listeners hear today.
The Postmodern mind sees no absolutes anywhere. Reason can no longer discover meaning. Indeed, even feelings only give traces of meaning. Truth is relative, and you should do what you most feel like doing.
And so, a young man puts a bumper sticker on his car which says, “I’m dead.” We have a crisis of meaning on our hands.
It is against this backdrop that you and I have been called to bring men the good news that meaning can be found. It is still found were it has always been found. In the person of Jesus Christ. At the foot of the cross. He is the source of meaning in life.
But in order to communicate this to people today, we must recognize that our logical arguments will often fall on deaf ears. Men today are looking for authenticity. They want to have a conversation with someone who is “real.” What they will respond to is the “real” Christ at work in us.
If we will be alert, we will find that nearly all men eventually come to the end of themselves. A concerned Einstein brought together twelve scientists and twelve theologians to talk about what it all meant. Foucault, in his last writings, said he was “longing to become someone other than who I am.” Derrida, said to be open to Christianity, says he has reached a dead end and is rethinking what he said in his younger years. And over the last couple of years, on the outskirts of Cambridge, England, Stephen Hawking has begun attending a small Baptist church.
Men will not find meaning by searching out their own immanence. Meaning will only be found in transcendence. Perhaps that’s why Karl Barth said, “You can’t call God by shouting man in a loud voice.”
Let’s be sure men see meaning in us – in the way we work, in the way we love our wives and children, in the way we treat our neighbors, in every sphere of our lives. Then tell them that Jesus is the living water and invite them to take a drink.
I would like to acknowledge my deep appreciation to Dr. Charles S. MacKenzie to whom I am indebted for opening my mind to better understand the world of ideas.
Business leader, author, and speaker, Patrick Morley helps men to think more deeply about their lives, to be reconciled with Christ, and to be equipped for a larger impact on the world.
© 1997. Patrick M. Morley. All rights reserved.