My question concerning the definition of "postmodernism" is simply this: Is this discussion about the emergence of a new Western culture, or about a philosophic lifeview? My contention is that the word "postmodernism" ought to be reserved for the super-culture that is currently in the process of saturating the West. It seems that most people have "postmodernism" confused with "relativism." Relativism is a philosophy about the nature of reality and truth (that insists they are subjective) that affects the way one views everything. Postmodernism may be the primary vessel of relativism in the West, but postmodernism did not birth it and they are not synonymous. Relativism started becoming prominent just after postmodernism took its first steps in replacing modernism. Every new generation born in the West is becoming increasingly postmodern. Postmodernism is associated with relativism primarily because there are no more moderns being born in this world, and so the postmoderns are the only ones left to blame.
Let me explain. Postmodernism is as much a culture as modernism. Modernism has been the underlying culture of the West for quite some time, but within the last 40 years or so there has been a gradual shift toward a new “Western” culture. As postmodernism has been developing, people in the most recent generations in the last four decades have had a blended culture of the upcoming postmodernism and the outgoing modernism. As a result of this melding of the two mindsets, relativism was born.
Though we observe relativism mostly within postmodernism, modernism is just as capable of providing a habitat for it. Many older university professors today are most certainly modern in their culture, but relativistic in their philosophy about truth and reality. Relativism can survive in both environments because it is the bastard child of modernism and postmodernism. It represents an amalgamation of the worst of the two competing cultures.
One amoral characteristic of modernism is its critical, skeptical, and analytical tendency. This can be a good thing. Moderns are often very logical. In this case, we can reason with them about the rationality behind the existence, judgment, and payment of sin. It can also be a bad thing. Moderns can become so skeptical of anything that they cannot touch, taste, smell, see, hear, and prove, that they may resort to atheism, humanism, pseudo-intellectuality, and immorality.
One amoral characteristic of postmodernism is its draw toward existential, spiritual, and inherent meaning. This can be a good thing. Postmoderns are often very open to spiritual things (not necessarily “Christian”) and greater causes. In this case, we can talk with them about the Person of God, who has a higher purpose for His creation than its rebellion against Him, creating disunity, destruction, pain, poverty, sin, and estrangement to God, but who has entered the world to redeem it and restore peace, love, unity, perfection, and true meaning. It can also be a bad thing. Postmoderns can become so spiritual about the things that are not of God, that they may turn toward paganism, false religion, and immorality.
One amoral characteristic of both modernism and postmodernism is their very strong emphasis on individuality. Individuality is the deepest characteristic of all Western culture. This is expressed in different ways in postmodernism and modernism. During the glory days of modernism, individual success was the emphasis. Now, in the midst of the rise of postmodernism, individual expression is the emphasis. Modernism’s emphasis on individual success can create, among other things, a wonderfully healthy work ethic and sense of responsibility, but it can also create inordinate priorities, pride, self-seeking, and covetousness. Postmodernism’s emphasis on individual expression can create, among other things, an encouraging atmosphere for creativity and personal growth, but it can also create an atmosphere of inconsiderateness, laziness, sloppiness, and permissiveness.
When the concentrated individuality of Western culture unites with the skepticism of modernism and the spiritualism of postmodernism, relativism is born. The worst individualist rebels against the Ultimate Authority (God). The worst skeptic doubts the Ultimate Truth (God). The worst spiritualist seeks a personalized adaptation of the Ultimate Meaning (God). This is how a relativist develops: he either starts as a modern Westerner who adopts the worst of postmodernism, or as a postmodern Westerner who adopts the worst of modernism.
At a later time, we may delve more deeply into the differences between modernism and postmodernism, but for now, let it suffice to say that postmodernism is not what everyone seems to think it is. It’s a budding Western culture that can produce both good and bad. Let’s not confuse the issues. When most people use the term “postmodernism,” they mean “relativism.” So, let’s say what we mean. Relativism and its causes are the enemy the Kingdom should be fighting, not the postmodern culture in particular. If you must confront the worst of postmodernism, then at least be consistent and confront the worst of modernism, as well. Trust the Word, the wisdom, and the Spirit of God to guide you in your efforts to reach out to relativists in our society. And remember that you represent the God who is the sole source and proprietor of authority, truth, and meaning.