A truth-denying philosophy called postmodernism is making a comeback. In some ways, it never left. When people speak of “My truth” and when ideas are rejected because they are “too white” or “heteronormative,” you know that something is wrong. We need to root it out. Before I explain what postmodernism is and how it changed, we need some intellectual background.
What is Truth?
Throughout my long career as a Christian philosopher, I have attempted to understand and critique thought trends and worldviews in American culture. My inspiration was the insightful and godly Christian evangelist, apologist, and philosopher, Francis Schaeffer (1912-84), whose work is still pertinent and profitable. His book, The God Who is There, began this way: “The present chasm between the generations has been brought about almost entirely by a change in the concept of truth.”1 Dr. Schaeffer wrote that in 1968 at the height of the countercultural movement in the United States and Europe. I read these words in 1976 as a new Christian and they have stayed with me.
What was this “change in the concept of truth”? Through many philosophical developments, the concept of truth changed from something taken to be objective and rationally knowable taken to be a matter of subjective belief free from evidence and verification. This concept of truth was applied to matters of value, meaning, and religion. For this mindset, science can tell you truth about the physical universe, but it gives no sense of purpose. Science can tell you how physical life functions, but it cannot give a meaning to life. People are left to assert values they find worthwhile with no rational support. If these values “work for you,” then that is enough.
This concept of truth was applied to matters of value, meaning, and religion.
Schaeffer saw postmodernism coming before it had a name. In the spirit of Schaeffer, I took on postmodernism in my book, Truth Decay (2000).2 As an intellectual movement, postmodernism grew out of the work of several thinkers (mostly French) who wanted to “deconstruct” worldviews into merely personal or social interests. For them, there is no such thing as objective truth or disinterested rationality. On this view, Christianity is a social construct that gives power to some people over others and which marginalizes anyone of another viewpoint. As such, it must be deconstructed to be exposed for what it is—a power game. The postmodernists wanted to discredit any metanarrative. A metanarrative is a worldview that attempts to explain the ultimate issues of life, such as personal identity, the meaning of history, morality, social structure, and more. For postmodernism, metanarratives were oppressive and hegemonic. They must be rejected and replaced by a more flexible and relative sense of truth.
For postmodernism, metanarratives were oppressive and hegemonic.
On the one hand, the postmodernists (each in their own way) swore that there was no objective truth and that everything was an interpretation; but on the other hand, they claimed that metanarratives were objectively bad because they oppressed non-whites and sexual minorities. Michel Foucault (1926-84), perhaps the most-quoted philosopher of our time, championed this cause as an avid and active homosexual, who died of AIDS after a fling in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Thus, the postmodernist view was logically inconsistent in at least two ways.
- There is no objective truth; all is interpretation. This is taken to be objectively true, so it contradicts itself and is, therefore, false.
- There is no objective truth; but it is objectively wrong for metanarratives to use used to oppress non-whites and sexual minorities. This is taken to be objectively true, so it contradicts itself and is, therefore, false.
Postmodernist ideas infiltrated Christian circles in the middle 1990s and beyond through the writings of Brian McClaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Carl Raschke, and others. These ideas coalesced into the Emergent Church movement. This short-lived fad wanted to reimagine and reinvent the church. It offered little more than an accommodation to ideas and practices that were bad from the start, putting relevance above truth, experience above rationality, and newness above proven tradition.3 That movement has mercifully dissipated, although some of its authors church out books.
Beyond the obsolescent Emergent Church, postmodernism is most potent in a newer form, which we may called postmodernism 2.0. Although the earlier postmodernists decried the hegemony of metanarratives and championed the cause of the oppressed, nearly all of them remained Marxists.4 Marxism is a secular and materialistic metanarrative that explains the meaning of value, the dynamics of oppression, and which offers a hopeful future in which economic exploitation will be overcome by a worker’s revolution.5 It is not religious, but it is a comprehensive worldview, and a worldview that has been repeatedly refuted when put into practice in the USSR, China, Cambodia, and Cuba. Its fruits are political and religious oppression and massive killing to the scale of one hundred million people killed by their own Marxist governments in the Twentieth Century. Ponder that number: 100,000,000.6
Critical Race Theory
Despite the failed, barbarous, and bloody history of Marxism, a new breed of Marxists attempted to adapt Marxism to spark revolution in the West and in America. This began as Critical Theory in Germany and was later brought to the Columbia University after these thinkers fled Hitler. Led by Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) and others, critical theorists expanded Marx’s idea of oppression to include people or color and sexual minorities. Marcuse mentored the black revolutionary Angela Davis, who in turn mentored the leaders of Black Lives Matters, an openly Marxist organization. Over time Critical Theory became Critical Race Theory, which was the ideology behind the 2020 George Floyd riots. The story line was that Floyd’s death under the knee of a white police officer was a picture of a systemically racist society that must be burned down. People of color are the oppressed and whites are the oppressors. Therefore, the whole system of “whiteness” needs to be destroyed. That includes a free-market system as well as freedom of speech. I critique these ideas in depth in Fire in the Streets, but let us turn to the matter of truth specifically.
postmodernism shifted to become a new absolutism. Whereas it originally decried objective and absolute truth, it now claims that the oppressed alone have access to that truth.
But how is all this postmodernism 2.0? Postmodernism said that there was no objective truth, so we are left with perspectives. However, it privileged the perspective of the oppressed, even though it did not have the philosophical resources to do so. When I wrote Truth Decay in 2000, I knew that postmodernism was used to advance far left ideologies that opposed the nature of the American system by claiming that it was intrinsically oppressive. But in recent years, postmodernism shifted to become a new absolutism. Whereas it originally decried objective and absolute truth, it now claims that the oppressed alone have access to that truth. This comes from “standpoint epistemology,” which claims that the oppressed minorities have a uniquely important and authoritative knowledge of life. Their “lived experience” trumps the viewpoints of those who have wielded power. To turn a Freudian phrase, it is “the revenge of the repressed” in society.
Thus, while postmodernism wanted to trash objective truth, postmodernism 2.0 has brought it back—not by placing it on a sound philosophical footing, but by claiming that only those who have been oppressed have proper access to reality. So, if blacks—or some blacks—say American is systemically racist, then it is. If a POC says a free-market system is oppressive to POC, then it is. She thinks it has oppressed her and others of her race, so it has oppressed them. Non-POC should listen to the lived experience of POC, and learn from it. But no one’s experience gets to determine the objective reality of history, economics, or politics. We need to seek truth through reason and evidence to adduce that. This standpoint epistemology automatically discredits the perspectives of non-POC people on account of their race or sexual orientation. If you advocate for heterosexual marriage as God’s way, you are heteronormative, inflicting your own preference on others who do not share it. Truth becomes pigmented and sexualized, and so loses its true meaning.
A Better Way
Christianity is based on truth. As the apostle Paul said, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14, 20). Paul’s words match the reality of an empty tomb and a risen Savior. Only the knowledge of truth can lead us to God through Christ and to a better society that lives in the fear of the living God, Lawgiver, Judge, and Savior.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, where he has served since 1993. He is the author or co-author of fourteen books, including the best-selling, Unmasking the New Age, the much-used apologetics textbook, Christian Apologetics, and introduction to philosophy, Philosophy in Seven Sentences, a memoir, Walking through Twilight, and a children’s book, I Love You to The Stars (with Crystal Bowman).