The Puzzle of Postmodernism

By David Johnson, Class of ’20

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No doubt you’ve probably heard about one of Jimmy Kimmel’s recent news flashes. Last week, millions of Americans tuned in live to hear his show, and were overjoyed to hear that he had a newly born son, William. However, the atmosphere quickly changed as the famed show host revealed that his son had a rare heart disease which caused numerous complications after his birth. Thankfully, with the help of an experienced doctor, the baby survived the surgery, and is currently alive and well.

But I find it interesting that, when the problem was first discovered, the surgeons and doctors told the Kimmel family that only surgery would fix the problem. Imagine if one of those doctors had told them: “It’s ok! Just give the boy whatever procedure you want. It doesn’t matter.” Those kinds of doctors lose their jobs really quickly. Good doctors don’t tell patients to make up their own idea of what their disease is and do what feels best. A doctor’s job description is to truthfully diagnose a patient’s condition and prescribe a treatment that works. When it came to saving the child’s life, it ultimately didn’t matter what the Kimmel family thought about the necessary procedure; the reality was that the procedure needed to take place, or the baby would have died. Thank God the Kimmels listened to the doctor’s expertise and wisdom instead of just doing what “felt right”.

 

The reality of … well, reality

And yet, when it comes to our daily lives, we tend to respond to truth and reality in exactly the opposite way. We’re told all the time by our culture that truth is relative, and that we must find what is true for us individually. And anybody who tells you that something is true or false is simply trying to force their worldview on you, and people like that are insensitive and ignorant extremists.

Try telling that to a dying patient sometime.

There are a lot of problems with this prevalent ideology in our culture, which is more formally known as postmodernism. Not only is the idea inherently self-defeating, but nobody actually believes it in daily practice, and the idea has dangerous moral implications for our entire world.

 

You can’t have your cake and eat it too

Suppose I told you, “all English sentences contain useless information.” Then suppose I wrote an entire 2000-word essay to try to convince you that this was the case. I hope you would be worried about my sanity at that point, because by definition, a 2000-word essay is a collection of English sentences. If it is really true that all English sentences are meaningless, then my whole collection of English sentences, talking about the meaninglessness of English, have suddenly become meaningless. My own idea is defeated by the way in which I practice my idea.

This is exactly the problem with postmodernism. It makes a statement about the irrelevance of truth and morality, but it uses a statement that claims to be both relevant and true. In other words, the statement “there is no truth” is a statement people hold to be true! If they didn’t believe this statement was true, they wouldn’t be arguing for it. As it stands, postmodernism saws off the branch it’s sitting on.

This is one of the reasons why it’s often confusing that people would be hostile towards those who believe in truth. If all truth really is relative, then the statement “truth does not exist” is no more or less valid than the phrase “truth does exist”. Think about it: if my self-created viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else’s, then technically no one should be at all upset by my claim that truth exists. After all, according to the postmodernist, I’m simply espousing my own belief system. So why then do postmodernists blame people like me for being bigoted and ignorant, when technically my view should be just as valid as theirs under their own ideology? It doesn’t make any sense. Either truth exists or it doesn’t.

I hope your mind is swimming right now. Trying to find a satisfactory logical explanation for postmodernist thought is like trying to find a round square or a married bachelor. You can’t do it. Right from the beginning, postmodernism has inevitably doomed itself to fail simply by virtue of its inconsistencies.

 

The proof is in the pudding

But the inherent logical inconsistency is not the only underlying problem with the postmodernist viewpoint. While many people may claim to believe in postmodernism, none of us can really implement it successfully, nor do we even try to. If you don’t believe me, look no further than your everyday life. Suppose you were walking to class one day and someone walked up to you and stole your cell phone. You would be immediately enraged, right? It’s not just inconvenient that the other person is holding your phone and you aren’t: there’s something fundamentally morally despicable about taking someone else’s property. But if there is no moral law, then who says it’s wrong to steal someone else’s phone, or wallet? 3.1 million cell phones were stolen in 2013 alone (Consumer Reports), so it seems rather common for people to do what seems right to them. And I’m pretty sure the thief would be better off having your phone than not having it. He could use it steal some of your data, or wipe the phone and sell it on Ebay. So who’s to say that you have any more right to your phone than he does? If he has chosen to believe that stealing other people’s phones is the right thing to do, and he’s allowed to create his own sense of morality, then why can’t he steal your phone? Why shouldn’t he? Who are you to stop him?

In his book, Mere Christianity, 20th century Christian author C. S. Lewis explains the inherent absurdity of such logic: “Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson” (Lewis). In other words, we may say that morality is relative to individuals, but the moment we are inconvenienced or harmed by someone else’s relative morality, we immediately cry out for justice and appeal to an standard of right and wrong that is greater than our self-defined standards. We’ve all done it at one point or another. Thus, not only is postmodernism impractical, but we wouldn’t believe in it even if it was practical.

But I have one final beef to pick with the idea of postmodernism. It’s one thing to steal somebody’s smart phone. It’s another thing entirely to allow this ideology to bring about the moral collapse of a society.

 

No one wants another Hitler

Most of us have probably studied World War II in some detail. It was by far the biggest armed conflict in the history of mankind. What you may not know is that, following the conclusion of World War II, dozens of the top Nazi generals were prosecuted in an international court during what became known as the Nuremberg Trials. You would think that, given the unspeakable violations of human life these generals got away with, they would have confessed to their crimes in an attempt to salvage what little was left of their dignity.

They did exactly the opposite.

During the trials, the generals did not believe they had done anything wrong. In fact, they specifically stated on the record that since their leader, Adolf Hitler, had rewarded them for their actions, and because it was considered morally good in their society to kill the Jewish people, they should be allowed to go free. In fact, “the most telling defense offered by the accused was that they had simply followed orders or made decisions within the framework of their own legal system, in complete consistency with it, and that they therefore could not rightly be condemned because they deviated from the alien value system of their conquerors” (Nuremberg).

Let that sink in for a second. Some of the greatest murderers in human history were on trial, and their excuse for their unspeakably evil actions was that their culture had moral standards saying it was ok? This is exactly what relative morality and postmodernism does to societies. If people and cultures are allowed to define for themselves what morality is and is not, it is only a matter of time before people start to do things we all intuitively believe to be morally reprehensible. Without basic principles of morality to keep society in check, any behavior can be justified.

According to J. Warner Wallace, “If moral codes are systematically created and embraced by cultures in an effort to maintain social harmony and increase survivability, how are we to avoid culturally selfish acts? If a particular activity increases the social harmony and survivability of our culture–but accomplishes this at the brutal expense of a neighboring culture–does this make the behavior morally acceptable? Can we deceive, destroy, or enslave other groups if these behaviors increase the harmony and survivability of our group?” (Wallace). The question is rhetorical: it doesn’t matter how many people in a society think it’s ok to kill Jews; killing innocent people for no reason other than their ethnicity is always immoral. And I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree with that.

Thankfully, during the trial, the Allied nations responded to the Nazis’ reinterpretation of morality by making the right decision, and punished these people for their crimes. An American justice at the trial, named Robert H. Jackson, “won the day with the argument that there is a ‘law above the law’ that is the measure by which some laws can be deemed good and some evil.” The justices recognized that there was a basis for morality that is not found in human laws, but rather some principle that transcends human understanding.

 

Truth matters… and we know it

The Bible tells us something very similar. In Romans 2:14-15, we are told that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” In other words, even though some people do not live by the moral law, they still recognize it’s existence. It is “written on their hearts” and within their consciences. God has given us an understanding of morality. Without it, society can justify any behavior.

So overall, postmodernism fails to truly explain what we know to be true. Some things in this world are obviously unspeakably evil. How can anyone claim that Adolf Hitler’s actions are evil, if morality is simply an expression of a culture’s relative standards? When societies adopt the view that all morality is relative, it is only a matter of time before people start to take matters into their own hands and systematically harm those they deem less worthy to live. When we see footage online of the Syrian conflict, for example, there’s something about these war crimes that cannot be sugar-coated. We should be deeply bothered when a dictator of a nation harms his own citizens with chemical weapons. All of us should be overjoyed when world leaders make a bold response against these kinds of atrocities. This is because God has hardwired us to understand and act upon moral principles, rather than just making them up for ourselves through postmodern thought.

 

The heart of the problem

I’m sure the Kimmel family would have loved to whisk away their newborn’s health condition with the power of imagination. It’s human nature to want to initially react to uncertainty and tragedy with denial. But sooner or later, everyone has to come to terms with the world in which we live in. Kind of like the newborn baby, we all suffer from a pre-existing condition that threatens to tear us apart from the inside out and separate us from God for all eternity: sin. And God claims there is only one cure. It would be great if we could simply whisk away this problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, and by affirming our own self-created truths. But in doing so, we’re making a huge mistake. In fact, we are told in 1 John 1:8 that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (cf: Jeremiah 17:9).

God doesn’t include this in the Bible to insult or shame us; he’s just saying to humanity what a good doctor would tell any patient suffering from heart disease: “If you claim you are without heart disease, you are deceiving yourself. I’ve studied heart disease symptoms for decades, and you have heart disease. If you don’t have this surgery, you will die.” We make mistakes every day. We lie to people. We mislead others. People who especially distance themselves from God commit the most atrocious of moral evils. The symptoms of our human condition are abundantly clear. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is a fundamental problem with humanity and how we treat one another. No matter how hard we try to purge evil from within us, or pretend it does not exist, it keeps coming back to haunt us. Not only do we have the ability to recognize that some things are just plain evil, but this kind of evil is abundantly existent and uncomfortably present. Just take a minute-long look at any news website.

Every time we choose to live our own versions of truth instead of listening to God’s Word, we distance ourself from the only doctor who can cure us. If humanity is suffering from a live-threatening problem, it would be wrong for us, or even God for that matter, to simply whisk away the problem by pretending it doesn’t exist. Good doctors diagnose and cure problems, not ignore them. The sooner we all acknowledge the problem in our hearts, the sooner the master surgeon can heal us.

Sure, it isn’t easy. Putting your very life, or the life of a loved one, into the hands of another person is not at all a comfortable experience. Just ask the Kimmel family. But like an open-heart surgery, receiving permanent healing from a master surgeon far outweighs any temporary discomfort. The only alternative is to refuse the treatment and have temporary comfort, but be left with a lifetime’s worth of health problems.

Trusting in your own sense of morality isn’t just impractical; it does yourself a disservice. Our pre-existing heart condition prevents us from saving ourselves, and even blinds us to our own condition. We not only need to recognize that our problem does exist, but also realize that only someone with experience can overcome that sin and cure us from it. This is why Jesus said that he “came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). He came specifically to be a healer, and the only thing preventing us from receiving this gracious gift is our own refusal. Jesus, the Great Physician, has offered us a cure that works, and it does us nothing but good to reach out and accept it.

Because like in the case of Jimmy Kimmel, I wouldn’t trust anyone other than a good doctor to cure my heart.

 

Works Cited

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), Book 1, Ch. 1

“Higher Law vs. Horizontal Law”. Americanvision.org. Retrieved 11 May 2017, at https://americanvision.org/563/higher-law-vs-horizontal-law/

J. Warner Wallace, God’s Crime Scene (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015), 267

“The Nuremberg Trials: ‘A law above the law.’” Retreived 11 May 2017, at https://bonhoeffernowandthen.wordpress.com/2016/07/04/the-nuremberg-trials-a-law-above-the-law/

“Smart phone thefts rose to 3.1 million in 2013.” Consumer Reports. Retrieved 11 May 2017, at http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/04/smart-phone-thefts-rose-to-3-1-million-last-year/index.htm

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