by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
"I do not pray," Jesus says in John 17:15, "that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one." There are times that each of us wishes we would not have to deal with the world quite as intimately as we must. The world, however, is an ever-present reality that our Savior expects us, in imitation of Him, to overcome, not abandon.
Thus, whether we like it or not, the world's events, concerns, methods, ideas and attitudes encroach on us constantly, and we engage in a constant battle to ward them off. Inevitably, no matter how vigilant we are, some of them rub off on us and our children. The world is so pervasive—and invasive—that we cannot help coming away scarred and bloodied from our clashes with it.
The world's most insidious weapons are ideas and attitudes, and in fact, they act in tandem, as one never works without the other's support. Together, they have the power to entrap a person on two very fundamental levels: intellectually and emotionally. With reason and logic, with pathos and passion, they appeal to the natural human desires for meaning and fulfillment in life. If a person both thinks and feels that an idea—some of this world's wisdom—with its attendant attitudes will benefit him, he is already hooked on it.
Here in the last days, a time God guarantees to be the worst mankind has ever faced, the most virulent, most deceptive philosophy has been sprung upon us. Though various forms of it have assailed other ages, only now has its full potency been unveiled and set loose. It goes by the names of postmodernism and relativism, and it has staked out the entire earth as its battlefield.
Philosophers disagree about an all-encompassing definition of these terms, explaining that each discipline it affects has its own unique understanding. This fact in itself aids us in understanding postmodernism, which is an amalgamation of beliefs and opinions, any or all of which may be true depending on the circumstance. Similarly, relativism holds that ethical and moral truths depend on the individual or group that holds them.
One educator writes:
Postmodernism embraces the eclectic. . . . Postmodernism reflects an emerging global perspective, of differing cultures living together on a single planet (pluralism, multiculturalism), and an acceptance of these differences, each as valid as the other. . . . It validates polytheism and a concern for the environment, ecology. It has turned from the theoretical to the pragmatic, from uniformity to diversity, and from elitism to populism. ("What Is Postmodernism," Larry Solomon, Ph.D., p. 2)
In short, everything is right or true, and nothing is wrong or false, in its own context. It is a philosophic restatement of "anything goes." It allows each individual to feel accepted for what he is and believes no matter how divergent he and his views are from the "mainstream." In reality, postmodernism has no mainstream, just myriads of rivulets that flow of their own accord.
Relativism is postmodernism's corresponding "belief" system. William Provine gives us the general understanding of relativism in The Scientist magazine (September 5, 1988, p. 10):
No inherent moral or ethical laws exist, nor are there absolute guiding principles for human society. The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life.
In the same vein, philosophers have derived these five assumptions to delineate relativism:
1. No universal moral rules or standards exist.
2. No single standard or set of standards has been (or is) universally accepted as binding on everyone.
3. Moral norms vary from culture to culture.
4. What is believed to be right varies from culture to culture.
5. Moral codes causally derive from and are determined by social setting or environment.
From this, then, relativists believe that moral rules are binding only within the cultural context that has accepted them. These rules are thus obligatory only insofar as they are thought to be and accepted as morally obligatory. Even though people of a certain culture have moral beliefs learned through their upbringing, it does not follow that their beliefs are defensible or even good. In fact, relativist philosophers cannot even agree on the meaning of "good."
In a practical sense, therefore, no moral dispute can be settled because no moral standard exists. Each side is right and true in its own way, though we may have a personal opinion about it. From this base has flowed such ideas as "live and let live," "just do it," "have it your way," "everybody does it" and "if it feels right, it is right." It also spawned situation ethics.
In The Closing of the American Mind (pp. 25-26), Allan Bloom documents the pervasiveness of relativism in higher education:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. . . . [Students believe] openness—and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings—is the great insight of our times. . . . The point [of the study of history and culture] is not to correct the mistakes [of the past] and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all. The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated.
Bloom's final comment brings us back to society's influence over our lives, thoughts and attitudes. This indoctrination occurs constantly to each of us every day in nearly every area of life: media, education, work, sports, business, politics, etc. We cannot get away from it!
An obvious example of postmodernism appears in television commercials. Advertising companies rarely develop ads that compare one product head-to-head with a similar competing one. Nor do they tend to emphasize quantifiable advantages of their product. Doing these things would imply a value judgment. Instead, they sell a lifestyle that consumers associate with their product.
High-end automobile ads are famous for this. The commercial may depict a garden party attended by wealthy, upper-class individuals dressed to the nines. They are laughing and enjoying themselves immensely. In the last five seconds of the commercial, the camera pans or its angle widens to include the manufacturer's vehicle parked nearby. In effect, the AD says, "If you buy this car, you can live like these people." This move from objective to subjective is a facet of postmodernism.
Popular music, particularly rap music, presents another example. A flap over the hateful, sexual, violent lyrics of rappers like 2 Live Crew erupted in 1990. The lyrics, too lurid to print, spoke of murder, rape and abuse, activities any moral person condemns. However, rap performers had no lack of defenders among scholars and media personalities.
New York Times' columnist Tom Wicker explains that 2 Live Crew's songs merely contained "quintessentially black lyrics." Music columnist Jon Pareles takes a different tack:
The skills you need to be a good rapper are the same skills you need to get ahead in mainstream society. . . . Rap is about making something of yourself—it's the American dream.
Finally, Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a leading guru of multiculturalism, writes:
2 Live Crew is engaged in heavy-handed parody, turning the stereotypes of black and white Americans on their heads. For centuries, African-Americans have been forced to develop coded ways of communicating to protect them from danger.
Thus, their "exuberant use of hyperbole" is merely a cultural legacy, and who can fault them for that? If it is all right among blacks, why should the rest of us object?
The Pentagon's stance regarding women and homosexuals in the military also illustrates postmodernism and relativism. All objective statistics, facts and experiences showing that their presence destroys unit cohesiveness and effectiveness mean nothing in its final analysis. It wants the armed forces to be "fair" and "inclusive" before being prepared, strong and unified in doing its job, which, to quote Rush Limbaugh, "is to kill people and break things." This emphasis on fairness, openness and inclusion is a hallmark of the new philosophy.
Even religion has been infected by these ideas. The inclusive, non-denominational megachurch is a product of them. Usually, the doctrinal position of these churches is very general and simple to be as inoffensive as possible. They have workshops and support groups for a wide range of interest groups, from single mothers to alcoholism to investment strategies to stamp collecting. They frequently highlight modern "Christian" music and skits that portray "real life" situations.
People who attend such churches, when asked why they like their church, often respond with touchy-feely answers rather than doctrinal ones. They may say their "spiritual" or emotional needs are being met, their fellow members are caring, or the pastor speaks on things they are experiencing. Only rarely do they ever claim that their church preaches the truth.
Finally, the current White House scandal illustrates postmodernism and relativism perfectly. The claim that President Clinton has "compartmentalized" his life into public and private areas with neither infringing on the other is classic postmodernism. His private dalliances with women, he believes, have no affect on his ability to govern the nation. He demonstrated this in his bravura performance of the State of the Union address just days after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.
The Clinton White House has become infamous for its ability to "spin" events in its favor. Spin is also typical postmodernism; it is lying or twisting actual fact to fit the desired interpretation of events. Since, according to the relativist, no absolute truth exists, information can be continually revised without fear of contradiction. What is true today in this situation may not have been true yesterday.
For instance, Mr. Clinton said very clearly and forthrightly, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." To us, this is very straightforward; it is a downright denial of his accusation. However, we find out that the White House has its own definition of "sexual relations." Since words are merely expressions of ideas, a postmodernist can make a word mean anything he wants with or without letting his audience in on his personal definitions. Thus, if someone ever challenges him on a previous statement, he can always dodge it by saying, "You misunderstood what I meant."
Lance Morrow, in an opinion piece that ran in the March 30, 1998, issue of Time, writes:
Clinton is America's first poststructuralist [postmodern] President. He has built a whole career by enacting, instinctively, the principles of the French theorist Jacques Derrida, who has argued that all reality is merely "text," subject to infinite interpretation and linguistic manipulation—but never to definitive judgment. America has become a poststructuralist text, in which all meaning is provisional, "deferred." Kathleen Willey goes on 60 Minutes and within a few days is deconstructed. As Nietzsche said, there are no facts, only interpretations: the hermeneutics of gossip in a frivolous yet dangerous game. All is spin.
Therefore, "Slick Willy" earns his nickname as a man who can slip out of any dilemma or scandal with a deft turn of a phrase or innocent-sounding explanation. Most Americans, being unassuming and trusting, give him the benefit of the doubt. Though his administration has generated scandal after scandal, he remains popular and trusted among a majority of Americans.
The Path to Doom
Isaiah's description of our society is apt:
The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores. (Isaiah 1:5-6)
He shows the attitude of the leaders of the people:
For we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood we have hidden ourselves. (Isaiah 28:15)
They are unwilling to face the truth:
Now go, write . . . : That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children who will not hear the law of the Lord; who say to the seers, "Do not see," and to the prophets, "Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits. Get out of the way, turn aside from the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us." (Isaiah 30:8-11)
The prophet describes the cause-and-effect process of this philosophical stance:
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight! . . . who justify the wicked for a bribe, and take away justice from the righteous man! . . . [T]hey have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the anger of the Lord is aroused against His people; He has stretched out His hand against them and stricken them, and the hills trembled. Their carcasses were as refuse in the midst of the streets. (Isaiah 5:20-21, 23-25)
The outlook for the postmodern world, especially America, is not bright. This way of life, totally without foundations and standards, is doomed to decay from within and destruction from without. The only question is how long it takes for the other shoe to fall. Daniel 12:4 implies a speeding-up of events as the end approaches.
Postmodernism and relativism are prime examples of Proverbs 14:12: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death."
How different is God's way:
Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your law is truth. Trouble and anguish have overtaken me, yet Your commandments are my delights. The righteousness of Your testimonies is everlasting; give me understanding and I shall live. (Psalm 119:142-144)
We can take great confidence in the way of life God teaches, for as Jesus says, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). They are the way to eternal life and joy everlasting in God's Kingdom.