The What is religion? page of this site gives a very brief outline of postmodernity. This page will provide you with a little bit more detail. Remember, the OCR specification requires that you consider the challenge that postmodernity presented to Christianity and also the ways in which Smart and Cupitt respond to that challenge.
Theoretically there is a difference between postmodernity and postmodernism.
This means that the term postmodernism should be used when describing intellectual or philosophical ideas whereas postmodernity can be applied to any aspect of living in a postmodern world. In practice the terms are often used interchangeably!
Most academics writing about the postmodern condition agree that it is very difficult to define. Many of the people whose ideas are described as 'postmodern' do not necessarily use the term themselves. This makes it hard to date, but it is generally said to have begun in the years after WWII but became more influential in the latter part of the 1960s.
Characteristics of postmodern culture are that it is:
There are many philosophers who might be termed 'postmodern'. The 'big names' include the following:
You are not expected to have a detailed knowledge about all these people and their ideas. However, you will find it easier to write intelligently about postmodernism if you can talk about specific ideas rather than vague themes!
Heidegger is generally regarded as the first postmodernist. However, there are earlier thinkers whose work might be said to have contributed to the development of postmodernism. The 'masters of suspicion' Freud, Marx and Nietzsche were all modernist thinkers but they challenged the assumptions we make about self (Freud) history (Marx) and morality (Nietzsche). Therefore, they paved the way for postmodernist ideas.
Postmodern (as the term suggests) means 'after modern' and postmodernity developed as both a continuation of and a reaction to modernity. Many of the things accepted by modernist thinkers were rejected by postmodernists.
For Rene Descartes reason provided a firm foundation for knowledge. His famous statement 'I think therefore I am' provided him with a firm basis (foundation) for the rest of his theories. He was an example of a RATIONALIST (a person who thinks that reason can be a firm foundation for knowledge).
John Locke was an example of an EMPIRICIST. Empiricists believe that knowledge can be based on the evidence from experience.
Both rationalism and empiricism influenced the modernist search for firm foundations of knowledge.
For example, postmodernists questioned the idea that there was an objective reality out there to be discovered and and they abandoned foundationalism (the idea that we can identify a sound foundation upon which to build other knowledge). Furthermore they were suspicious of the type of metanarratives that modernists sought (grand accounts which were supposedly true for everyone). Postmodernists questioned the concept of objective truth and believed that everything is subjective and relative. Consequently, although they did not reject the use of reason in certain areas they did not believe it is the only or even the main way to investigate the world. Emotional responses were given equal status to logical ones. Many postmodernists questioned modernity's faith in science and technology to lead to progress and some were very suspicious about the dangers of technology.
To a certain extent postmodernism developed out of the failings of modernity to come to a complete understanding of the world. Various developments in science (such as the discovery of quantum physics) made it clear that the world was significantly more complicated (and thus much more difficult to understand) than many modernists had thought. The world wars of the early twentieth century demonstrated the potential dangers of technology and made the earlier optimism that the world was improving seem idealistic and misplaced.
In her book 'Religion and Modern Thought' Victoria Harrison summarised the idea that postmodernism is a rejection of modernism:
'Once account of postmodernism seeks to define it by contrasting it with modern thought. Those who favour this approach associate modern thought with the Enlightenment, and further claim that postmodern thought is premised upon a rejection of the principal values promoted (such as, for example, the valuing of reason over superstition and emotion, the value accorded to independent thought, and the valuing of so-called ‘meta-theories’, or ‘meta-narratives’ – theories, such as Marxism, that claimed to explain the totality of our experience).
According to this way of conceiving the relationship between postmodern and modern thought, the former is an inversion of the latter. Postmodern thinkers reject the notion that thought can be completely independent, and they stress, instead, the different contexts in which thinkers are located. They also tend to deny that the ability to use reason is the most valuable aspect of being human. And postmodern thinkers have abandoned the search for theories capable of explaining ‘everything’ – in other word, they reject meta-theories or meta-narratives. This last point is, perhaps, the most crucial to this particular construal of postmodernism. Indeed, one self-consciously post modern thinker, Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924-98),defines ‘postmodernism as an incredulity towards metanarratives.'
Victoria Harrison, Religion and Modern Thought
Jean-Francois Lyotard stated in The Postmodern Condition (1979) that postmodernism was a reaction to the failings of modernism. It emerges from crisis.
There are many reasons why modernism might be said to have failed. They include:
'There is a widespread feeling that the promise of the modern era is slipping away from us. A movement of enlightenment and liberation that was to have freed us from superstition and tyranny has led in the twentieth century to a world in which ideological fanaticism and political oppression have reached extremes unknown in previous history. Science, which was to have unlocked the bounties of nature, has given us the power to destroy all life on the earth. Progress, modernity’s master idea, seems less compelling when it appears that it may be progress into the abyss.’
Results of Robert Bellah's survey of American attitudes in the 1980s.
Thus, according to this approach postmodernism developed because modernity failed.
However, other academics like John Thornhill and Victoria Harrison think that postmodernism is not so much a rejection of modernist ideas but an extension of them. Harrison says that postmodernism is ‘the intellectual insights of modernity…turned inward'. For example, the modernist emphasis on reason and upon the rejection of unsubstantiated beliefs was applied to modernisms own assumptions and this resulted in things like the rejection of the possibility of objectivity.
Regardless of whether we regard postmodernism as a rejection of modernity or an extension of it there is a significant difference between modern and postmodern ideas.
You should now already have a working knowledge of postmodernity and be able to say something about whether you think that postmodernity and religion are compatible. However, it would be helpful to go a little further and look at some of the key ideas in more detail.
Jean-Francois Lyotard (1928-1998) is one of the key figures of postmodernism. He defined postmodernism as 'incredulity towards metanarratives i.e. as a rejection of the existence of metanarratives.
Cupitt rejects the idea that Christianity is true and rejected the idea that it could be a metanarrative. However, he thinks that it can have contingent value as a micronarrative - one subjective 'story' that has relevance for some people at some points in time. (Cupitt also sees his own theology as providing micronarratives - things that are useful to some people).
Hick also seems to regard the different world religions as micronarratives that suit the particular environment and conditions in which they arise.
A metanarrative is a 'grand theory' like Marxism or Christianity which attempts to provide an explanation for a wide range of things. Metanarratives are universal and objective in that they are intended to apply to everyone in all places. Modernism itself is a metanarrative based on the idea of progress through reason, science and technological development.
Lyotard argued that all grand narratives should be viewed with suspicion as human experience is so disparate and varied that it it impossible to provide theories which will account for things in a way that is relevant to all people. The way people interpret the world is, to a large extent, dependent upon their different cultural backgrounds and individual personalities. Every supposed 'metanarrative' derives from a very specific context and promotes a subjective way of seeing the world; they are not actually objective or universal at all.
Universal absolutist metanarratives need to be replaced with micro narratives which are subjective, particular, contingent and temporary.
‘The narrative is unravelled, the author is dead the enlightenment project is toast, history is history’.
The rejection of metanarratives is closely associated with the rejection of Truth.
Modernists believed that by using reason and avoiding subjectivity they could arrive at Truth (the capital T is deliberate!). However, postmodernists questioned whether this was actually possible. This means that they rejected foundationalism - the idea that there could be firm foundations (e.g. reason or experience) upon which to build our knowledge.
The extent to which it is possible to have actual knowledge about the way the world really is has been questioned by philosophers since before the birth of postmodernity. Typically philosophers argued that it is not actually possible to be a neutral observer and it is utterly impossible for us to know whether the world appears to us actually corresponds to reality. (Does red look the same to me as it does to you? How would I ever begin to test this? Can I be sure that I am not living in the Matrix?) A key thinker in this area was Immanuel Kant who was not a postmodernist but whose ideas were influential to many people who are classified as postmodernists.
'Immanuel Kant redirected the study of philosophy from metaphysics to epistemology, arguing that one cannot know the nature of reality because all experience of it is conditioned by the [condition] of the human mind (mainly our sense of space and time). [Thus it]...may reveal more about the mind itself than about its objects of reflection. This initial uncertainty would evolve into radical doubt of various modern thinkers after Kant.'
Article on Postmodernism by R.Detweiler in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought
‘Approving modernity’s injunction to think for oneself, postmodernity contends that all individuals construct the world for themselves. Where modernity trusted in reason, however, to yield agreement between all rational individuals, postmodernity denies the prospect of any such agreement. We each see the world from our own point of view, and there is simply no truth which is true for us all.’
‘In common again with modernity, postmodernity holds the view that access to truth is denied wherever subjective and personal factors like faith, personal commitment, culture, gender and race impact upon our thinking. The difference postmodernism brings to the matter, however, is its contention that there is no escape from the constraints of such particularities.’
‘Postmodernism thus takes the world apart, in typically reductionist fashion, but denies the existence of laws enabling us to put it back together again. Reality is simply fragmentary and disconnected.’
Modernity and Postmodernity in The Practice of Theology ed. Colin Gunton, Stephen Holmes and Murray Rae.
Metaphysics is the area of philosophy which deals with the fundamental reality of existence. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Truth is impossible because all our experience is subjective. This insight proved important for postmodern thinkers who argued that there is no universal grounds for real absolute knowledge. Both reason and experience are used subjectively and are impossible to independently verify. Jacques Derrida said 'Contrary to what phenomenology- which is always phenomenology of perception- has tried to make us believe, contrary to what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes.'
Postmodernist thinkers like Michael Foucault argued that the idea of Truth is an illusion. According to Foucault 'knowledge' and 'truth' are created by those in power. What we take to be true is the dominant world view that we have been provided with: It is received wisdom, not Truth. Foucault rejected the idea that society is progressing. The world is not getting better or getting closer to Truth, it is just moving through different world-views. Each different society has a different idea of Truth and a different version of right and wrong. People internalise and generally accept the version of reality that they are told by those in power. This then shapes how they think.
'In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one 'episteme' that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in theory or silently invested in a practice.'
Michael Foucault The Order of Things
Many postmodernists were very interested in language because the question of truth is tied up with the question of the meaning of words.
What is language? One traditional view is that language develops as follows:
Thus each word is a symbol that corresponds to something in the world. Language is meaningful because each word stands for something that exists.
E.g. prepositions like 'to' 'from' and directions like 'left' or 'right' do not correspond to a thing that exists. They make sense only in the context of other words.
The problem with this view is that many words do not have an obvious 'thing' that they correspond to. The philosopher Wittgenstein proposed a different way of understanding language. According to Wittgenstein, words do not get their meaning from their correspondence to the world, they get their meaning from their relationship to other words. We know what a word means because we see where it 'fits in' to the world view created by language. Wittgenstein used the analogy of a game. Words are like the playing pieces of a game and can be used in certain ways in relation to each other. Being able to communicate meaningfully relies on understanding the 'rules' of the particular 'language game' that you are taking part in. Words are not 'pictures' or 'symbols' of things that exist, they are tools that we use in different ways depending on the circumstances.
Wittgenstein illustrated his theory of language games by using the example of the word 'yellow'.
'The sign (the sentence) gets its significance from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs.'
What he meant was that the meaning of a word is determined by its use.
It follows from this that language is not objective and neutral.
Modernists tended to assume that language could be used neutrally.
Wittgenstein rejected these ideas. His theory meant that language could be meaningful without necessarily corresponding to the way the world is. Language is meaningful provided communication occurs. Communication can happen provided that people understand the rules of the game.
This point re-emphasises that our experience is subjective and we cannot experience the world objectively.
A final important idea from Wittgenstein is the idea that language actually shapes the way that we view the world. By rejecting the idea that language corresponded to reality Wittgenstein abandoned the idea that we can use language to build an accurate picture of the world. Wittgenstein stressed the intrinsic link between thought and language.
'When I think in language there aren't meanings going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions; the language itself is the vehicle of thought.'
We think verbally (in words) which means that the words themselves shape the way that we think. Language creates who we are by shaping our thoughts. This is the opposite of the modernist view that the self exists and is expressed through language.
These studies are interesting - but ultimately you do not need to know about them. I just got a bit carried away...
Cupitt uses these ideas in his own work. He thinks that religious terminology is a language game or a 'phrase universe' which creates a world (or a way of thinking about the world) without necessarily corresponding to objective reality.
Lyotard used Wittgenstein's theory of language. Lyotard said that when we use language we create a 'phrase universe'. Anything said has an addressor (the person who says it) and an addressee (the person that it is said to). It has a referent (the thing it refers to) and a sense (the possible meanings of what is said). Language does not have to correspond to reality to have meaning. This lead Lyotard to reject the modernist view that only rational scientific type statements had real meaning.
Lyotard pointed out that scientific knowledge and narrative knowledge are very different but are both valuable. Narrative knowledge does not claim to correspond to the way the world is in the same direct way that scientific knowledge does, nevertheless narrative knowledge gives accurate insights into the experience of being human.Consider describing an action like a first kiss using only scientific-type statements. Would your description really do justice to the actual event?
Lyotard was critical of the claim that scientific knowledge is superior to narrative knowledge.
'The scientist questions the validity of narrative statements and concludes that they are never subject to argumentation or proof. He classifies them as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology.'
'This unequal relationship is an intrinsic effect of the rules specific to each game... It is the entire history of cultural imperialism from the dawn of Western civilization.'
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.
We must 'gaze in wonderment at the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant or animal species. Lamenting the 'loss of meaning' in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact the knowledge is no longer principally narrative.'
Lyotard The Postmodern Condition
Lyotard valued different forms of knowledge and language. He argued that any linguistic description of an experience fails to accurately and fully account for the experience itself. Language cannot recreate reality. If you describe an experience using language your description is bound to fall short of the actual experience itself. If we confine ourselves to purely scientific type statements about the world then we limit ourselves still further. This means that we must reject the modernist assumption that only scientific knowledge is 'real'. Reality is sublime (Lyotard's choice of word) which means that it is inexpressible and we cannot find the words to describe it. The sublime demonstrates the limitations of language and reason.
Richard Rorty applied Wittgenstein's ideas to the field of literature. He argued that we should abandon the idea that the author creates a text and decides its meaning. The author uses words and word associations that are already familiar to them. The meaning of the text is provided by the words and not by the author. This means that postmodern approaches to the study of literature are often not very interested in what the original author intended. Any text has multiple interpretations depending on the context in which it is being used. There is no 'right' interpretation.
Abandoning the idea that absolute truth exists and is obtainable leads naturally to embracing plurality. If we can never get beyond our subjective experience of the world then we can never categorically say 'I'm right and you are wrong'.
'Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.'
The idea the we have a 'self' - a 'real me' - has a long history.
Most postmodernists challenged the idea that we have a fixed 'self' at all. Humans exist as a bundle of experiences that change throughout life. Trying to identify a fixed unchanging 'self' in all this is pointless. Michael Foucault emphasised that we are culturally conditioned writing that the 'soul' is 'born ... out of methods of punishment, supervision, and constraint'. Similarly Lyotard emphasied the interconnectedness of life writing 'A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before.' The lack of fixed self is something that Foucault thinks we should embrace rather than fear. He requested 'Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same'.
'I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.'
Victoria Harrison, Religion and Modern Thought
Victoria Harrison wrote: ‘…according to some, postmodern thought presents and intensification of the challenge posed to traditional religion by modern thought, while, according to others, it is much more amenable to religious belief than modern thought has been’. In other words, some people believe that postmodernism leaves more room for religious faith by challenging the authority of science, others think that it leaves less.
It could be said to leave more room for religion because it challenges the dominance of science and reason thus enabling religion to remain a possibility.
Yet postmodernity challenges traditional religion in the following ways:
Many postmodern philosophers (including Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida) were atheists. However, in 2002 Derrida said 'I rightly pass for an atheist' rather than 'I am an atheist' and when pressed further said 'maybe I am not an atheist'. Outright atheism becomes problematic for postmodernists as atheism is itself a truth claim (i.e. it claims that God definitely does not exist).
The article on postmodernism in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought addresses the ambiguous relationship between postmodernity and religion. 'The principles of postmodernism may seem incompatible with religious faith. Parodic treatment of sacred individuals and creeds...are offensive to many believers and suggest that postmodernism is hostile to religious traditions.'
However, the article continues: 'Yet it [postmodern thought] is exerting increasing influence in the fields of theology, religious studies and biblical studies'.
The article goes on to suggest that certain postmodern ideas even have parallels in earlier theological thought. For example, by stressing God was wholly other Karl Barth 'projected postmodern concepts'. Barth would not have labelled himself a postmodernist (he was writing before postmodernism had really begun) but one could argue that he anticipated the postmodern emphasis on the limitations of human knowledge. Other theologians have consciously used postmodernist ideas. George Lindbeck was a theologian who believed that postmodernism could be used to refute modernisms rejection of religion and thus restore the authority of religion. Don Cupitt's post 1980s theology is likely to be described as thoroughly postmodern in tone (though whether he saves or destroys Christianity is up for debate!)
Victoria Harrison also outlined the ways in which religious thinkers have responded to the challenge from postmodernity. She identifies two different types of response:
For this reason Harrison thinks that this type of response is less fully postmodern than the conservative one.
The postmodern liberal response generally accepts modernity's rational challenge to religion (i.e. it accepts that religious belief must be rationally acceptable) and adapts religion accordingly. However, it draws on postmodern theories about different types of knowledge and the emphasis on subjectivity and choice. This means that religious belief becomes a way of life that offers a different way of experiencing the world. This type of religious expression tends to be 'de-localized' and 'free-floating'. People choose the religious practices that suit them out of the wealth of religious tradition and history available to them. Religion becomes a micro-narrative. A subjective response to the world that some people choose because it has meaning to them. Harrison cites Cupitt as an example of this type of approach. Harrison described his view as 'religious atheism' and summarised his theology as follows: ‘He argues that, if religion is to be meaningful in postmodernity, then each person must arrive at a personal and highly subjective understanding of it.’
Harrison wrote ‘…during the modern era many religious thinkers had felt under pressure to present their ideas apologetically. Consequently, they sought to accommodate religious ideas to the culture of secular modernity, thereby conceding that religious ideas could, and should, be evaluated from a non-religious perspective.’
The postmodern conservative response does not accept modernity's critique of religion. For postmodern conservatives secular reason has lost its authority due to the challenge presented by postmodernism (i.e. reason is not all powerful!). Thus religion does not have to adapt itself to 'fit' into a rational world. Postmodernism has liberated religion from the secular challenge. However, postmodernism itself leads to 'intellectual and ethical nihilism’ because it concludes that we can know nothing and as everything is subjective we can have no moral values. This situation is undesirable and demonstrates the need to return to religion as an alternative to both secular reason. Harrison cites John Millbank as an example of a postmodern conservative religious thinker. Millbank argued that Christianity and secularism both offer different lenses or ways of seeing the world. His theology is sometimes termed 'radical orthodoxy'.
Firstly, you might want to consider to what extent you accept the postmodern world view. Are you convinced by the argument that everything is subjective and nothing is certain? If not, why not?
Consider whether religion can survive in a postmodern world and - if it can - what form it must take. There are problems with both the liberal and conservative postmodern responses.
Cupitt's theology is explicitly postmodern so you can judge for yourself to what extent Cupitt's ideas represent the successful survival of religion in a postmodern world. Smart appears to have been influenced by certain postmodern ideas in that his methodological agnosticism reflects the idea that truth is unobtainable and value judgements should be avoided. Hick's copernican revolution and his understanding of the relationship between subjective experience and the Real borrows from the same Kantian ideas that influenced postmodernity's rejection of objective knowledge. As mentioned above, Barth's ideas could be said to anticipate postmodernism.
Encyclopaedia Britannica Postmodernism page.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on
Short article on postmodern theology here.
A teachers' introduction to postmodernism (pdf) here. This is a very useful resource (detailed but accessible) and describes the birth of modernism as well as postmodernism
There are several online lectures as part of the St John's Nottingham timeline project that might be helpful to you. However, they are extension material and are not always easy to follow.