I don’t say much on public platforms anymore. It’s just too hard for too little positive return. Instead of considering how a differing opinion can impact one’s own self-evaluation, we dig in our heels and throw stones at people we should be loving, or worse, we cancel them. I’m not about that. Throwing stones or canceling people. I’ve got too many other, more important, things to get done.
But as I taught my undergraduate Sociology class today, we talked about Postmodernism, and it got me to thinking about the hot topics in the news these days and how we are thinking about them. Postmodernism is a bit of an enigma. Some say it is a social theory, some say it is a philosophy, and others say it is a period of art and literature. I say it is all of these, but mainly it is a worldview. It is a reactionary worldview. Reactionary behavior is never good, really. It causes knee-jerk behaviors that result in widely sweeping pronouncements and actions.
Postmodernism was bound to happen. Modernism came into being during the 19th Century at a time when everyone believed that science had the answers to the world’s questions, and it quickly replaced religion and faith that had previously laid claim to all the answers. We no longer needed faith, we had science to reveal truth. We had research and scientific methods to give answers to most of the world’s questions, and for those not yet answered, just stay tuned. Surely, they would be forthcoming. Don’t get me wrong. I love science, and science has answered a lot of questions for us.
But who could blame those who came after the World Wars for the postmodern reaction we are now living in? Modern science gave us weapons to kill in abundance. It gave us nuclear bombs that destroyed entire cities, and chemicals like Agent Orange that caused death over time. It paved the way for human experimentation by the Nazi’s and the ability to end life before it had a fighting chance.
Postmodernism is telling us that everything is meaningless. There is no truth, no reality, no beauty that can be established for us all. There is no meta narrative that can be shared. There are too many perspectives and individual experiences to apply one truth to all. Nietzsche told us that truth depends on the experiences of each person in each unique situation (He was a postmodern ahead of his time). There are no one-size-fits-all answers, and thinking of that sort is small minded and limiting. We cannot assign universal meaning, so it is all meaningless. Surely this idea will free us all to grow and explore in new and exciting ways.
It is true that there is nothing new under the sun. No challenge that is new to humankind. Everything cycles through again and again, and during the mid-10th Century a king wrote of his time what we are also seeing today. It was all meaningless. Everything. All of it. It was vanity and it was meaningless. This king looked for pleasure and fulfillment in all the things under the sun. He looked to science, wisdom, and philosophy for meaning. He searched for meaning in materialism, art, and luxury… only to find it all… meaningless.
The ancient western philosophers searched for truth. They wrestled with ideas of ultimate reality. Where did it all come from and how did it all mean anything? It seems we are at the end of the Postmodern era. I think it is why we feeling a little off-kilter. We have no idea what comes next, and that puts us on shaky ground.
What I hope we find next is meaning. This life, this world, is not meaningless. It is full of meaning, but only if it is tied to ultimate reality. Meaning has an origin. It has a place from which it flows. Thought leaders from human history discovered that we find meaning in our lives when we connect with that ultimate reality. For them, and for me, it is God. It was true of that ancient king as well. He discovered that without God, everything is meaningless, everything is without value and devoid of truth. Apart from that ultimate reality, we are left to decide, each one on our own, what is real. Yet we are too limited in our capacity to discern these things, our minds too finite… too selfish to think clearly. We need one greater than ourselves to point us to what is true, to what matters. Otherwise, as that wise king said, it truly is all meaningless.