*Note that this is the second part of a series, the first part being here.
We’ve been considering the implications of various worldviews that shape the way we think about truth. Let us return to the idea of Modernism and how impacted people’s understanding of love. According to Modernism, what we call love is merely a chemical reaction that nature “selected” for because it led to greater chances of survival and reproduction. Imagine a species that didn’t have a strong desire for romantic love, which Modernists say is mostly the desire for sex; such a species that didn’t have such strong desires to pass on their genes would quickly die out compared to one that had strong sexual desires. Thus, romantic love is merely the result of accidental chemical reactions that nature “selected” because it helped some organisms outcompete others in evolution’s survival of the fittest. We “fall in love” and have children because that’s what evolution programmed us to do. Romantic love isn’t “real”; it’s merely the way we’ve been “programmed,” not by some intelligent programmer, but by an accidental, mindless, random process. Thus, Modernism came to view love, not as one of the most meaningful things in life, but merely as a meaningless random accident.
Such conclusions were crushing and threw many people into despair, especially sensitive artists. If everything I think and desire has been programmed, what really am I? Do “I” even exist? People realized if this were all true, then life itself was absurd and meaningless. Talk about an existential crisis! However, many couldn’t accept these conclusions and it was their rejection of Modernism which gave birth to Postmodernism.
If everything I think and desire has been programmed, what really am I? Do “I” even exist?
Postmodernism is a series of movements that responded against Modernism. When folks are introduced to Postmodernism they often have a hard time understanding why people ever began thinking this way. But once they see how Modernism crashed and burned, they start sympathizing with Postmodernists. When people came to the conclusion that there were no ultimate answers out there, they looked elsewhere for meaning and came to the conclusion that these things could be found, even created, in here, that is, inside of us. Different Postmodernists focused on different aspects of our subjective life—desires, will, passions, experiences, choices, feelings—but they all had in common the belief that ultimate truth comes from within. This is the infamous story of how objective truth died and subjective, relative truth was born. Though I sympathize with the frustrations Postmodernists have with Modernism, the Postmodern solution is just as much of a disaster.
Romanticism was the first Postmodern movement, i.e., the first movement to react, and in many cases overreact, to Modernism. All of the successive Postmodern movements share similar basic elements because they developed mostly by building upon previous Postmodern movements. The common thread running through them all is the idea that ultimate truth about the meaning of life, love, and purpose is found or created in here, from our inner self.
Today most people think Postmodernly. What is the meaning of life? Whatever you want it to be. This may seem strange if you think more Premodernly. However, remember the suffocating conclusions of Modernism, which said that there is no meaning or purpose to life. Faced with that unbearable idea, people were desperate to grab on to anything that could give their life meaning. That desperation led them to embrace irrationality because, in their minds, there was nowhere else to turn. If there’s no ultimate truth about the meaning of life, love, and purpose up there (there’s no transcendent realm), and there’s no ultimate truth out there (science tells us were merely accidental biological machines), then the only place left to look is in here. Even though it’s irrational to think we could create our own meaning and purpose, out of desperation people were willing to do anything, almost like a cornered animal, to avoid the existential crisis of Modernism which proclaimed life is meaningless.
If there’s no ultimate truth about the meaning of life, love, and purpose up there (there’s no transcendent realm), and there’s no ultimate truth out there (science tells us were merely accidental biological machines), then the only place left to look is in here.
Though these influential ideas started in philosophy, artists pick up these ideas and communicate them to the masses via art. For example, in countless movies over the last fifty years, Modern thinking has been made to look disastrous whereas Postmodern thinking has been made to look superior. Though I could provide examples of this from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel movies, etc., here I’ll highlight an example from The Matrix franchise.
A powerful comparison between Modernism and Postmodernism can be seen near the end of Matrix: Revolutions. The first Matrix movie was released in 1999, won four Oscars, and is considered one of the best science fiction movies of all time. The Matrix movies were written and directed by the Wachowski brothers who now identify as the Wachowski sisters. We know the Wachowskis were influenced by Postmodern philosophers and used their Matrix movies to promote Postmodern thinking because they required their cast and crew to read Simulacra and Simulation by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. This book is even seen in the beginning of the first Matrix movie; it’s the book Neo hides his money in.
Baudrillard’s philosophy is associated with the Postmodern movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which included other French philosophers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Baudrillard often wrote about cultures that desperately search, but never actually find, some sort of meaning and purpose to life. However, people’s unshakeable hope that there must be some sort of meaning leads them to self-delusion, a simulated reality of their own making, which he calls “hyperreality.” People living in hyperreality have successfully convinced themselves that their lives do have meaning, so in their subjective reality their life does have meaning, but in objective reality life is utterly meaningless. However, remember that according to Postmodernism truth is found in subjective reality, not objective reality.
Spoiler alert! The Matrix franchise centers around a war in the future between humans and machines with artificial intelligence that humans have built. In this war the humans scorched the sky so that sunlight can’t reach the earth anymore because they thought this would help them defeat the machines which mostly relied on solar power. However, the machines found another source of electrical power: human beings. They captured most humans, put them in pods to generate bioelectricity, and then, to keep their consciousness alive, connected all of their brains to an interactive computer simulation known as the Matrix. These imprisoned people think they’re living normal lives but in actuality that’s just a computer simulation and their real bodies are stuck hibernating in these pods. This is similar to Baudrillard’s philosophy in that subjectively they’re convinced they’re living meaningful lives but in objective reality they’re stuck in a delusion, i.e., a simulated reality of their own making, since they were the ones who built the machines in the first place.
Matrix: Revolutions climaxes in a fight between Neo, the human hero, and his archnemesis, Agent Smith, an evil machine program. They banter throughout the fight, but look at their final conversation at the end of their battle when Neo refuses to give up:
Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why, why do you do it? Why, why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something, for more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is, do you even know? Is it freedom or truth, perhaps peace—could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now! You can’t win, it’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why, why do you persist?
Neo: Because I choose to.
Clearly Agent Smith represents Modernism, that there’s no ultimate meaning or purpose to life. Life is merely a struggle for survival as we’ve had to fight over scarce resources in this harsh environment where we’ve been cobbled together through a haphazard process of random mutations and natural selection. Evolution developed within us all these beliefs about meaning, purpose, freedom, truth, peace, and love, but these are merely useful fictions that nature “selected for” because those who believed such things had greater chances of survival and reproduction. All the ideas we have about the meaning of life, love, and purpose aren’t objectively true, but are merely the result of our evolutionary programming as biological machines. Neo, representing Postmodernism, responds by choosing to take a leap of faith and irrationally believe in these things anyway. Thus, the message is that even though there’s no objective meaning and purpose to life that’s given to us from up there, or can be found out there, we ourselves can give life meaning if we subjectively choose to in here.
Modernism and Postmodernism are the two main ways of thinking that are in tension with each other right now in Western culture. On one side Modernism tells us we’re merely biological machines that have been cobbled together and programmed by an accidental evolutionary process and thus there’s no objective meaning or purpose to life. On the other side Postmodernism encourages us to take an irrational leap of faith and choose to believe there’s meaning to life, thereby creating our own meaning from within. We can see the tension between these two schools of thought throughout our culture’s works of art, including our blockbuster movies.
Christians should join this conversation and present the solution to this tension. If there’s no God and we’re merely the result of random mutation and natural selection, then Agent Smith is right—there is no objective meaning and purpose to life. We can point out that Neo’s irrational leap of faith to just choose to believe in love, meaning, and purpose without any reason, evidence, or rational explanation creates a “meaning to life” that’s as fake and illusory as the Matrix. However, if Christianity is true, and there is convincing proof that it is, then love is real, it’s not merely a chemical reaction, an accident, or a self-inflicted delusion. In addition, if Christianity is true, then we don’t have to take an irrational leap of faith to believe in love, meaning, and purpose because there are good rational reasons to believe these things are objectively true. Ultimate reality, from which everything else comes, is a God which exists as a Trinity: three divine persons united in one essence and in their loving relationships with each other. Understanding that the very purpose God created us for as human beings is to have loving relationships with him and with each other gives us important insights about the meaning of life.
Dr. Adam Lloyd Johnson earned his PhD at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He taught for Rhineland School of Theology in Wolmersen, Germany, & Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. His own ministry is called Convincing Proof & he also serves with Ratio Christi. He’s the author or editor of several published works, including A Debate on God and Morality: What is the Best Account of Objective Moral Values and Duties?, coauthored with William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, & others. His next book, A Divine Love Theory: How the Trinity is the Source and Foundation of Morality, will be published this fall by Kregel Academic. You can learn more about his work at www.convincingproof.org