Article by Gareth Clegg
Okay, so I cheated a little bit. We have been looking at the stories we use to navigate the world through the eyes of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “underground man.” Last week we looked at how Modernity has shaped us and this week we turn to its successor: Postmodernity. But given that Dostoevsky’s character was written in the 19th century, he didn’t know much about Postmodernity!
Even still, he did predict it.
Against the excesses of Modernity the underground man exclaims, “I, for instance, would not be in the least a bit surprised if all of a sudden, out of the blue, in the midst of universal rationality a gentleman with an ignoble, or rather with a tough and taunting countenance were to arise and, putting his arms akimbo, say to us all: “I say, gentleman, let’s give a good kick to rationalism and scatter it to the winds, and send these logarithms to the devil so that we can live once more according to our own idiotic will!””i
This throwing-of-the-hands-in-the-air attitude towards the hard edges of rationalism and reason should not surprise us. The underground man’s prophetic anticipation has come true in our own time. It is an instinct that embodies the rebellion towards authority, institution, and restraint native to the Postmodern identity. Today, it has become the dominant framework of the Western world, trickling down from academia through high art and culture, and being popularised by social media.
The Story: There Are No Stories
It’s a word we hear thrown around often. But what does it really mean that our society is largely “Postmodern”? The rise of the postmodern consciousness began in the 1960s as a response to the prideful confidence in human reason that characterised Modernity. It protests the idea of knowing objective reality with any real assurance and was, for a time, a welcome reprieve from the narrowness of Modernity. As this dissent grew, however, the subjective dimension of knowing became so primary that the idea of objective reality or absolute truth could be dismissed. The result has been an ongoing process of deconstruction in which all claims to knowledge of the external world (everything outside of the self), in any arena, are exposed as nothing more than stories people tell about the world to create a sense of meaning and purpose. To the Postmodern, none of this proves anything about what is actually the case.
This radical doubt extends to every sphere of knowledge, including matters of religion, morality, ethics, science, and sociology. On this account, society is largely organized in terms of power and privilege, and structures like family, biological realities, or merit-based systems are merely centred around knowledge that is constructed for the purpose of controlling power.
And at the individual level, since there are no grand meta-truths, “my truth is my truth.” You dare not try to impose upon me any other story to live by. Anything other than letting me express what I believe to be true is oppressive. All truth claims are simply tools we use to control our lives and assert power over others.
In this way, Postmodernity implies nothing less than anarchy, because it is rooted in a complete loss of trust of the other. The only story I can really trust is my own, though others are likely to give credence to my story if I am from a group considered to be marginalized. (Critical Race Theory being one recent example of the manifestation of Postmodern epistemology).
You would not be faulted for thinking this sounds like an attempt at a true story about how and what the world really is. That is because, despite the Postmodern objection to an objective world, or the ability to have knowledge, Postmodernity is a metanarrative.
Are We Any Closer To Meaning?
For the Postmodern individual, all the restraint of institution, tradition, and belief systems must be brushed aside. Identity cannot be received or given but is created. Selfishness is the fundamental virtue, freedom is the ultimate value, and meaning is to be found as you more fully realise your “true self” out into the world.
Sound familiar? We have sadly become accustomed to seeing this worldview play out in the form of transgender ideology, distrust of the establishment, and the deconstructing faith of our friends. These negative processes strip away moral constraint and meaningful tradition (something I have discussed before here), but they cannot reconstruct anything substantive in their place.
It is somewhat ironic that postmodern individuals imagine that they are freely expressing their individuality in this way. As they reconstruct alternative lifestyles for themselves on a repeated basis they become vulnerable to the persuasions of free-market capitalism, political ideologies, and Big Tech. Consumerism is extended into the realm of personal expression and identity as one chooses to divorce gender from the body or to have sex with whomever. Of course, these ideas are enthusiastically embraced by commercial interests because it generates more profit. Political interests are happy to grant rights because it generates more votes. But the idea that rejecting embodiment somehow increases personal freedom is an invention and a tragedy.
Does Postmodernity bring us any closer to meaning? Not if the self-defeating, desire-oriented ideology it espouses is where we are meant to find it. Embracing such a worldview would truly be to live “according to our own idiotic will.”ii
A Hunger For The Real
Yet none of this is really new. Postmodernity stands in continuity with the thought of the 19th century when the question of God as a prime reality was dismissed. Friedrich Nietzsche, like Dostoevsky, predicted that such a metaphysical move would mean the end of all morality. But we remain hungry for meaning, and many people no longer accept the malnourishment of scientism and queer theory. Neither Modernity nor Postmodernity is providing satisfactory answers, and the rise of public figures like Jordan Peterson (along with the willingness to listen to his lectures and podcasts for 3 hours) expresses the discontent existing in the public subconsciousness.
But true, life-giving meaning, if we are earnestly hoping to find it, must originate with the prime realityiii. Any hope to find a life of value and significance must start with the biblical teaching on what is ultimately real. We are required to begin with a God knowable in the person of Christ, who in his resurrection reaffirmed the goodness and realness of the world; a world created in love and sustained by truth. For the Son “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1.3).
If we are to live with freedom and meaning we must recover the Christian claim to ultimate reality. The claim of a knowable, personal God who is sustaining and ruling over all things. And though this Christian vision is dismissed with such readiness today, may we find ourselves discontent with the stories the world tells us instead, and much like the underground man may we prefer to “put up with any mockery rather than say that I am full when I am really hungry.”iv
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church.
i Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 28.
ii Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 28.
iii “Either a natural order exists, or we impose it. Either the meaning is tied to the structure of things, or we make it up. And if the order exists, our options are conformity or rebellion. There is no middle ground here, despite the ambiguities and uncertainties that we experience in our confrontation with it. But if we reject metaphysics, our only resource for ethics is our will, and God’s.” https://mereorthodoxy.com/metaphysics-and-meaning-of-james-davison-hunter/
iv Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground, 40.