Problems in Postmodern Thought


Postmodernism names the philosophy that characterizes the contemporary world—perhaps mainly in places where people have the luxury of thinking about things that may not put food on the table. It comes from modernism, which gave us the idea that religion and values belong in a private space, isolated from the secular arena where people with differing values can safely get along and wars will be avoided.

Postmodernism has concluded that modernism and the secular arena are part of a grand narrative, one among many. These are stories that a group of people tell themselves to explain their existence and to inform their decisions. The secular arena where people keep their values private to avoid conflict is just part of another grand narrative.

Postmodern thought gives a voice to contrasting grand narratives. This can be really good. In theory, it should allow those who believe other explanations to communicate them and be better understood. One of those grand narratives that contrasts with modernism is the biblical worldview of Christianity, but there are others. Some postmoderns say that any grand narrative is oppressive to the individual. In a way, they are saying each person gets to write xxx own grand narrative. (See what I did there?) That way lies a communication impasse.

Postmodernism has a valuable point. It has also been taken too far. Some have said that not only do conflicting narratives coexist without any way to resolve the conflicts, but this means that language itself lacks inherent meaning. If that’s true, then why bother posting anything on Tumblr? But these voices even mock the idea of truth. That’s too far. It leads into the black hole of nihilism.

Problem 1: Reality

A place where postmodernism runs into trouble is where postmodern thinkers meet real life. People know that what you eat can kill you or it can nourish you. Many other choices you make are similarly decisive. Reality cannot be reinvented to match a narrative. It seems to have a mind of its own. That’s why people like Brandon Sanderson (not to mention some of the creators on Tumblr) write great stories that must nevertheless be considered to be fiction. It’s not a person like me imposing or oppressing those who would see things otherwise, it’s the reality we share. Looking the other direction, they are opposing themselves to reality.

Another way to approach the problem is logic. The law of noncontradiction says that under normal circumstances, two things that contradict one another cannot both be true at the same time. Postmodernism hates laws that would claim to cross the dividing line between grand narratives, but reality is persistent. There are many buried and unburied dead who resisted it. Here’s where logic and postmodernism disagree: contradictory narratives can’t both be true at the same time, and truth means a correspondence to reality as the universe actually exists.

Problem 2: Forcing a Paradigm Shift

A second problem postmoderns are having now involves the adjustment of a grand narrative. A paradigm shift occurs when a grand narrative is adjusted to better fit reality. When sufficient real and clear data accumulates to show that a grand narrative no longer adequately explains our existence, then the grand narrative itself gets modified. This can be a messy process, since the grand narrative is treasured part of what forms a community, and the community as a whole will need to be satisfied that the change is justified. Notice that these shifts occur with the accumulation of sufficient data. This is data from reality, the way we find things in the world (water is wet, things fall when dropped, dead person comes back to life and gives explanation, etc.).

The problem some postmoderns are having stems from a paradigm shift that they have adopted for themselves. For some it may be even more revolutionary than a paradigm shift: the wholesale rejection of an older grand narrative and the adoption of a new one in conflict with the first. The more extreme example is the same as leaving one community and joining a different one.

The desire for a paradigm shift can arise from the accumulation of sufficient data against the original grand narrative. But more often (it seems), the desire arises when someone gives credence to narratives of some kind that conflict with the grand narrative of their own community. Everyone experiences certain distresses through life, and a community’s grand narrative explains and helps to cope with it. If a person in a time of distress turns instead to conflicting narratives outside the community, it may seem like the accumulation of evidence requiring a paradigm shift.

These troubled/troubling postmoderns generate a problem by attempting to coerce (oppress?) those in their original community into adopting their new paradigm shift or into joining their new community. An example is in order.

When a person speaks, an action is done. The action and the speech patterns used to accomplish it are formed within the framework of the grand narrative of the community where the action is done. It’s easy to see that a Christian praying to an inanimate object like a statue would violate the Christian faith. Here are two other examples. First, a Christian referring to Jesus as “she” would be contradicting the biblical grand narrative provided in Luke 2, which says that “Mary gave birth to a son.” That would be a serious conflict, bringing into question the person’s identity as an authentic member of the Christian community. The community would have a responsibility to correct the indivdual or else the community would risk losing its own cohesive identity. Second, a Christian referring to a male as if he were a female, or a female as if she were a male. This is probably a less serious conflict, possibly like a person seriously claiming that “up” is “down” and “down” is “up” while insisting on spending all day suspended in an inversion chair. Maybe the inversion chair is the only way the person can be comfortable and feel “natural.” Maybe the person even thanks God for the inversion chair as a divine blessing. But that doesn’t give this person any standing to insist that an entire community change its language. “Hey, what’s down?” More sensible for one person to adjust.

But it could also be more serious. If a Christian has had chronic pain for years with no apparent end in sight, certain jurisdictions now allow the person to commit physician-assisted suicide. What if that person demands that the faith community give its blessing to this? Oh c’mon, it’s only a little paradigm change. But the Bible says, “You shall not murder,” even when it’s yourself. 

Likewise, if a Christian becomes convinced that he/she was born in a body of the wrong sex, makes physical and behavioral changes, and insists that the Christian community (especially family) change its actions (including speech) to show acceptance, this is a demand for acceptance of a paradigm change. Jesus even quoted Genesis 1:27 as the authoritative divine institution of marriage and family (Mark 10:6-9) as part of Creation, permanently connecting it to the essential created binary nature of human beings. That’s an unalterable part of the Christian paradigm. Other parts can help the person cope with the unfortunate suffering involved, but the person would be oppressively coercive (besides insensitive) to insist that members of the Christian community act in a way that contradicts their treasured beliefs.

We’re considering this as a postmodern problem. Linguistic (language-oriented) misgendering of Jesus is a matter of contradicting sacred Scripture. But if we leave out the religious aspect, it’s the same as contradicting a number of historical documents, like saying Abraham Lincoln was a black man. But linguistically misgendering a person currently occupying space on Earth is not only contrary to what the Bible says. It runs up against that pesky postmodern nemesis called reality. Any community experiencing real life on Earth might have a problem accepting a change of behavioral norms meant to communicate the opposite of the way things actually exist. The only way I can see around this problem would be to convince the community to change the gender referent in language, so that when a person uses a word like “he,” the gender referent is no longer to the person’s male sex, but some subjective self-conception in the person’s mind (”gender identity”?). That would be a change indeed, making public civil communication difficult, probably impractical. It would also shift the paradigm from a correspondence to objective reality toward correspondence to subjectivity. How can what seems real for only one member of the community become accepted reality for the rest? Even that seems coercive: the one attempting to force the many, and without the advantage of observable reality.

Unfortunately, these issues have been brought into political and civil discourse through a campaign of, well, coercion. Maybe that wasn’t the intention of some. But the overall issue here is that a postmodern perspective of things is supposed to avoid coercion and oppression.

Ways Forward

A recognition that communities and narratives interact can be helpful, but there seems to be some tenacious quality in humanity that wants to contradict and assert the individual as his own master and lord. Beware!

Here are some possible solutions for the postmodern who is caught up in problems like the ones I mentioned above. In addition to what’s below, a good policy is to respect foreign communities. In the timeless words of Billy Joel, “And when you’re home Darling all you’ve got to be is you But when in Rome do as the Romans do.”

About Reality

  • Learn the timeless rules of logic and use them, but don’t worship them.
  • Have an open mind toward reality. What constrains you tomorrow may be different from today, but some things are just the way they are, no matter how you may feel about them.
  • Notice how well any narrative corresponds with what you see to be true through your own every-day experience and that of your community.

About Forcing a Paradigm Shift

  • Observe the accumulation of evidence against the usefulness of your paradigm(s). Try to be open about it and talk to your community.
  • Respect your community. Don’t try to coerce it, but consider its wisdom. This is where you belong. These are the people who love you.
  • If you’re suffering, look for solutions within your community, and be openly critical about suggested solutions from other communities. Their narratives may contradict the narrative of your own community, but in some respects they may not.
  • If you have become convinced that your community’s paradigm is wrong, you have three choices: leave the community altogether (Gulp! Really necessary?), provide your sufficient contrary evidence to convince your community of a paradigm shift, or reconsider your conclusion.

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