||This post is about 2 things: defining postmodernism, and determining whether a particular cultural tendency is better catergorized as modern or postmodern. I didn’t separate them as topics because this post is part narrative and part argument, and because the two topics speak to each other – as such, the topics as addressed here are inextricably linked.||


*(With all due respect to my conversation partner, who is just that – an invaluable conversation partner, ministry practioner, and friend)* In a conversation the other day, the idea was proffered that when it comes to the cultural tendency to say that all religions generally point to the same Ultimate reality, this tendency should be attributed to postmodernism. That is, to describe or think of religions in this way is to be postmodern. I think this might be the general sense that people have of postmodernism, that such relativistic thinking (that is, in this case, that none of the specific claims that any particular religion makes matters because they all eventually end up with the same conclusion) is what defines it. Postmodernism, in the minds of most, is equivalent to relativism. I think this is a particularly common critique of our culture by Christians. And since most Christians are opposed to relativism, they are therefore opposed to postmodernism.

Yet, in the conversation that sparked such a confident pronouncement about the postmodernness of a certain kind of view, I begged to differ. I offered my point of view as to why I thought such a position is better characterized by modernism (which will follow shortly), and was immediately offered the ‘conversation stopper’ (to use the idea of Richard Rorty), “well, it just depends on what your definition of postmodernism is.”

Hmmm. How should that comment be understood? As postmodern? I’m not sure at the moment, but such a comment certainly begs the question in and of itself what exactly it means to be postmodern.

Postmodernism can be mapped it seems almost invariably. (Logically, that very thought might seem to justify one’s ability to make the kind of comment noted above). But it isn’t quite invariable, and I think that’s true for a couple of reasons. First, postmodernism can be defined and mapped in the same way that Karl Barth describes being able to do theology – it’s like holding a multi-faceted crystal up in the air and looking through one of the facets, but in doing so, your view is determined by the light coming in and going out of all the other facets. Postmodernism can be described from ethical, hermeneutical, therapeutic, political, religious, aesthetic, anthropological, sociological, linguistic, narratival, philosophical, scientific (and probably more) points of view, but in describing it from any one of those perspectives, one is also in part describing it through the vantage point of those other perspectives and taking a vantage point of those other perspectives . This is inescapable. (It just so happens that the above idea is definitively postmodern)

The second reason is simple. Postmodernism cannot simply be defined in any given way at any given time. While postmodernism is often equated with radical relativism (and I think this is a serious misunderstanding), defining postmodernism is not so radically relativistic of an exercise as giving an idea any convenient definition that suits the moment.

So, needless to say, I’m dissatisfied with the conversation stopper that was offered to my opposing idea. Not only do I think it’s a weak argument (because when those kinds of comments are made, no alternative point of view usually follows – hence the reason its called a conversation stopper), I also think it’s wrong. To explain why it is not postmodern that people want to say all religions point to the same Ultimate, doesn’t depend on what your definition of postmodernism is (even if your definition of postmodernism is “hyper-modernism” or “modernity come of age” – because, as I will argue below, postmodernism is now while the assumption I will deal with below has inherently been modern all along).

To say that all religions point to the same Ultimate is modernist. Here’s why (and hopefully better and more fully articulated than in the conversation): modernism assumes a Universal Rationality. That is, practically speaking, if everyone would just be willing (that is, humble enough) to use the same logic (which of course, modern Western logic, which is the most thoroughly advanced and perfectly allows for accurate and objective descriptions of reality), then we would all eventually come to see the world in exactly the same way (that is, through the lens of the modern Western worldview). Or as I have said elsewhere, universal rationality is the idea that “the idea that if everyone was simply intellectually responsible and followed ideas to their logical conclusion, all people would see reality in the same way.”

Universal rationality is also assumed in arguments against communitarians – those who argue that language and grammar are particular to communities – because, the thought goes, if language is particular to your community, how can anyone outside your community understand you? This is aimed at people who write books to those who are “supposedly” outside their community, aiming to convince them of seeing a “supposedly” universal truth – and therefore they are guilty of a logical contradiction. In other words, you can’t be arguing for a universal acceptance of communitarianism because it’s a contradiction in terms, or so it is believed (see R. Scott Smith, Truth and A New Kind of Christian). Such contradiction only exist if there is a universal rationality; but there isn’t.

The lack of a universal rationality has been shown by various writers in various fields: anthropology – Geertz; science – Kuhn; sociology – Taylor. Instead of a universal rationality, what actually exists is a collection of incommensurable views of reality. Yet the very idea of incommensurability is one of the very ideas that modernism was and is still trying to deny or destroy. Myron Penner points out that this is the view of Lyotard, who’s “modernist perceives the exigencies of the postmodern condition – i.e., incommensurability, plurality, diversity, etc. – as an eminent threat, which the entire modern program is designed to alleviate.” (Christianitiy and the Postmodern Turn, 19)

Thus, to describe religions as each pointing to the same Ultimate is an act of trying/wishing/hoping to reconcile incommensurables. It is the result of assuming a universal rationality, which has as its (eschatological!) hope the end of the progress of knowledge: a unified body of knowledge which is nothing less that the purest, most objective articulation of reality as represented in language, a mirror image, corresponding to what we see and know in our own minds, certain, unquestionable, coherent and indubitable.