Defining Postmodernity

If you’ve read past blog posts or continue to read future blog posts, I think you’ll quickly notice that contrasting modernity and postmodernity (as exemplified in the new title for the blog!) is a big thing for me.  Yet, as I’ve realized from reading comments, my understanding of these terms is not always the same as others’.  So, I thought it would be useful for readers to see what I mean by those terms.

I think there are at least two different ways in which the term “postmodernity” commonly gets used, and I’d like to suggest a third in this post.  This equivocation in the term is what’s caused some of disagreement between some of you loyal readers and I on previous posts.  (Other parts of our disagreement are probably because we actually disagree.  And that’s OK.)

In the first definition, modernity can be seen as a critique of (or even the death of) modernity.  In this understanding of the term, postmodernity is actually a part of modernity.  (As a professor at my college used to say, “How can it not be a part of modernity?  It’s got modernity right in its name!”)  In this definition, postmodernity is merely a deconstructive and critical movement.  Here, postmodernity raises some serious questions about modernity’s understanding of various important philosophical categories: assumptions about knowledge, truth, humans, power, etc.  Many Christians (and non-Christians) are not a fan of this type of modernity, as they see it as just a bunch of relativism that is threatening their cherished modern notions of Truth (absolute, with a capital T).  Many Christians (and non-Christians) are also frustrated by postmodernity thus defined because they (rightly) recognize that it doesn’t lend itself to constructing anything, only deconstructing.  Those who have been influenced by philosophy or literary studies will probably use the word this way.  That’s not primarily how I use the term though.

There’s another way of defining postmodernity, which is to view it as not just a deconstruction or critique of modernity, but as a new period of history coming after modernity.  This new period comes with its own assumptions, values, questions, and aesthetics.  These assumptions, values, and questions can be (and are) used constructively.  I’ll indicate more fully in a later approach what I think some of the assumptions and values are, but they include things like diversity, organicism, individualism, etc.  Some of these assumptions are carried over from postmodernity in the first sense, but put to new uses.  This sense of postmodernity certainly isn’t into absolute, universal Truth in the same way modernity is, but it doesn’t involve a relativist rejection of all notions of truth, as postmodernity in the first sense often does.  In this sense of postmodernity, it is not merely critique but also new proclamation.  This sense is more common, I think, in history, missiology, and the emerging church movement, all of which have had their impact on me.  Thus, it’s mainly in this sense that I’ve been using the term.

But I think there’s perhaps a third way of looking at postmodernity, which is to think of its relation to modernity and what comes next after modernity in ways analogous to the Reformation’s relation to medieval Christendom and modernity: as a hinge point.

This insight came to me on Monday as I was reading student midterms on modernity, several of which talked about the Reformation.  The Reformation stands as a middle ground between medieval Christendom and modernity.  A lot of the historiography on the Reformation nowadays is trying to connect and contrast the Reformation world to the late medieval world.  This historiography has argued (convincingly, in my opinion), that in many ways the Reformation is a natural outgrowth of the late medieval world.

At the same time, the Reformation was also a great criticism of the late medieval world.  As much as Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and Bucer all started out as denizens and products of the late medieval world, they criticized that world and rejected important parts of its worldview at the same time as they preserved others.

Yet the Reformation was not only a rejection of the late medieval world, it was also the beginning of something new.  It was immediately the beginning of Protestantism and its associated new theological and ecclesiological system.  But the impacts of Protestantism didn’t stop with the formation of Protestantism.  They spilled over into (and reinforced independent developments originating in) other areas of life like culture, politics, technology, philosophy, science, and social organization.  These changes led to the creation of a new era in Europe called modernity.  So, I would argue that the Reformation stands at the root of a lot of modernity.  Yet it isn’t really a part of modernity itself, but rather a precursor to things yet to come.

I think one could view postmodernity in the same way.  It’s a product of modernity.  It preserves some of modernity’s assumptions about the world while at the same time radically critiquing and/or rejecting others.  It’s also the beginning of something new – a new era of (at least Western) history, in which some of the changes initiated in postmodernity will be played out.  But a hundred or two hundred years from now, when we’re thinking about this new cultural/philosophical/religious/political/scientific system, I don’t think we’ll call it postmodernity.  I don’t know what we will call it yet, but I think we’ll think of postmodernity, like the Reformation, as a movement or a moment between the times, a hinge connecting two other periods.

So, I’d like to start using “postmodernity” in the third sense, and calling the new system that’s coming into being “what comes next”.  I’ll still probably use “postmodernity” in the second sense because that’s how a lot of my influences and conversation partners use it.  But really, deep down, it’s not postmodernity in the second sense that interests me.  It’s what comes next.


Beth posted on April 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Interesting post. I have to commend you for tackling a definition of post-modernism, which has, in my experience, defied definition as fundamentally not post-modern. Somebody told me once that there is no definition of post-modernism, only definitions of post-modernisms. I took this to mean that anti-essentialism was the essence of post-modernism, and since that involves a logical contradiction, I subsequently have stalwartly declared myself anti-postmodern. You have given me an opportunity to reevaluate and I will look forward to a subsequent post on what the assumptions of post-modernity in the second sense are.

David Wm. Scott posted on April 4, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Beth, I feel so incredibly honored that I’ve been able to make you reconsider postmodernism. Keep looking later in this week for a couple more posts further defining postmodernity in its second sense.

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