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First Steps Beyond Modernity

By Lawrence Osborn.

Postmodernities: an introductory reading list appears in Ministry Today 6

The End of an Era?

In the heady days around the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a former official in the US State Department, Francis Fukuyama, boldly proclaimed 'The End of History and the Last Man'. His thesis was that, with the demise of communism, history as we know it had come to an end. The struggle was over. The new world order had arrived. The Enlightenment vision of a global civilization based on reason, autonomy and democracy was about to be fulfilled.

It is certainly true that, in its own terms, modernity has been a great success. Over the past two centuries Western culture has undergone massive changes in its social structures. Even more dramatic have been the technological changes which have transformed the modern era into a period of exponential material progress. Europe, North America and the tiger economies of the Far East now enjoy unprecedented levels of literacy and medical care.

Nevertheless, it did not take long for talk of a new world order to be quietly swept under the carpet. Attractive as they may be, such optimistic visions of the immediate future do not carry conviction. The prevailing mood is one of crisis rather than optimism: the Cold War may be over but everywhere we look we see signs of a society ill at ease with itself and its environment.

To begin with, modernity appears to have created an addicted culture. Drug and alcohol dependence are merely the tip of the iceberg. Many in the workplace are addicted to work itself. Ours is a restless culture in which the workaholic is praised (or at least paid) as a hero. Similarly our leisure has become addictive, with millions glued to their television sets or computer games night and morning.

Western culture is also characterized by violence. Suicide, crimes of violence, acts of terrorism all seem to be on the increase. As I write, Japanese police are seeking the urban terrorists who released nerve gas in the Tokyo underground system. How long before such a group gets its hands on a tactical nuclear weapon?

Not only are we violent towards our neighbours, we are also violent towards our environment. The global environmental crisis, driven by western technology, has replaced the threat of nuclear war as the major threat to our continued existence.

The very capacity for change that is at the heart of modernity's success also feeds this sense of crisis. As one management guru has pointed out:

The more the rate of change increases, the more the problems that face us change and the shorter is the life of the solutions we find to them. Therefore, by the time we find solutions to many of the problems that face us, usually the most important ones, the problems have so changed that our solutions to them are no longer relevant or effective É In other words, many of our solutions are to problems that no longer exist in the form in which they were solved. As a result we are falling further and further behind our times.1

The sheer rapidity with which our culture is changing creates a sense of vertigo. We feel that we are rushing headlong into an uncertain future. Small wonder that the Enlightenment vision has gone sour. Its creators simply did not envisage such a complex rapidly changing culture.

Inevitably the failures as well as the successes are laid at the feet of the Enlightenment. Many people in our culture see those failures as symptoms that society is terminally ill. For them, talk of western culture in crisis is more than journalistic hype. They believe that the old systems are irretrievably breaking down; that we are entering a transitional period from one cultural milieu to another. At a popular level, the gurus of the New Age movement promise the imminent dawn of an array of mutually irreconcilable new eras (the main common feature being that their basic premises are at odds with those of the Enlightenment). But such prognostication is not the exclusive territory of pop gurus. On the contrary, an entire generation of academics has been nurtured on the belief that the culture of modernity is being supplanted by a new culture: postmodernity.

Of course the suggestion that we might be at the beginning of a new cultural era has become the subject of considerable debate, not to mention ridicule. The term 'postmodern' has become fashionable amongst cultural commentators whose blanket use of it has resulted in its becoming increasingly obscure. Thus one newspaper advised its readers, 'This word has no meaning. Use it as often as possible'2.

This obscurity is further fuelled by the widespread confusion of postmodernity with postmodernism. The latter is a fairly loosely knit school of philosophers whose membership resembles a who's who of the most difficult-to-read contemporary philosophers. However the relationship between postmodernity and postmodernism is by no means as straightforward as the similarity of their names suggests. It is certainly true that the philosophers of postmodernism have identified and celebrated many of the key aspects of postmodernity. However, they are by no means entirely uncritical of postmodernity. To take just one example, there is a significant difference in attitudes to time between postmodernism and postmodernity. Fredric Jameson argues that one of the major features of postmodernity is a concentration on the present to the virtual exclusion of past and future3.

Quite apart from this confusion there is a genuine question about the reality or otherwise of postmodernity. Many commentators point to the organic continuity between modernity and postmodernity as evidence that this does not amount to the emergence of a new culture. They prefer to speak of late modernity (or late capitalism), arguing that the features identified as postmodern are merely the logical consequence of modernity (or capitalism) taken to extremes. However, underlying this disagreement is a common belief that the culture of modernity is being pushed to its limits. The debate is really over whether postmodernity amounts to the way forward for our culture or is merely further evidence that our culture has lost its way. Since the details of this debate are beyond the scope of the present article, suffice it to say that I incline to the latter camp. As I look at our culture, I see tendencies which contradict the most fundamental presuppositions of modernity. However, those tendencies are not sufficient to form a viable alternative to modernity. Modernity may well be in its death throes but it is not at all clear what will arise from the corpse when it finally dies. To change the metaphor, our culture has thrown itself into the melting pot and it is too early clearly to discern the shape of the mould into which we will be cast. However, we can identify some of the important ingredients.


The Postmodern Melting Pot

Television is our teacher

In the modern era the primary means of propagating and reinforcing the values of the culture was education. As Ivan Illich has pointed out, the social institution of school was an important part of post-Enlightenment culture precisely because it was a very effective instrument for maintaining the status quo4. However, in terms of time and sheer visual impact, the cultural value-bearing role of education has now been usurped by the mass media5. Information is presented in a different way: the book culture of traditional education presents information linearly; the screen culture adopts an episodic manner of presentation6.

Image orientation

Inevitably a culture dominated by television is highly visual. One of the striking differences between our culture and every preceding human culture (including most of the modern era) is the extent to which our lives are saturated by artificial visual images. This has important implications for the way we perceive the world. Images are far more efficient than mere words at conveying information. It is proverbial that 'a picture speaks a thousand words'. Pictures are also far more effective than words at evoking actions because they can bypass our conscious critical faculties far more easily than words. I am frightened of heights. Television images of great heights produce precisely the same biological reactions in me as the heights themselves. I know I am only looking at an image but my palms still sweat.

The power of the image appeals to any culture obsessed with power. But it is only in the modern era that the technology has become available to mass-produce images to manipulate large populations. The propaganda of totalitarian states, the party political broadcasts of our own democratic society and the advertising campaigns of commercial organizations have this in common: they rely on visual imagery to manipulate the behaviour of large numbers of people. Arguably modern western societies, because of their obsession with the visual, are the most manipulated societies in human history.

The French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, speaks of a civilization of images in which we have all become consumers of images7. We have an unprecedented appetite for spectacle resulting in what has been called the culture of the simulacrum8.

In this highly visual culture, the word is steadily being displaced by the image. With this displacement goes a corresponding shift of emphasis from succession to simultaneity. Thus the perception of reality in a predominantly visual culture is primarily spatial. As you might expect there is a corresponding alteration in the way we perceive time.

For example, image orientation disrupts and displaces memory, altering our experience of the past. This is demonstrated very clearly in the late modern cult of the tourist. With their cameras always at the ready, tourists seek out not memories of the places they visit, but only photographic images. For them, experience is effectively reduced to the visual; images have become substitute memories9. The result is the replacement of living memories by the false, frozen pasts of photograph albums. Their falsehood lies in the fact that the image so easily masks the reality. The photographer points his camera and says, 'Smile, please'. People pose for the camera. Photographs of famous monuments and 'important sights' are carefully set up to avoid evidence of the contemporary world: we wait for other tourists to move out of the way; we wait for that car to go by; we wait for the jet's vapour trail to dissipate. Our images are sanitized. At the hands of the professional, even the ugly and evil is made to look beautiful.

This sanitizing effect of the image applies more generally to our reception of the past in an image-oriented culture. The image becomes the primary device through which the past is re-created in the present. For eras that are not recorded on photographic film, there is always the visual reconstruction (and, in this dawning age of virtual reality, computer generated reconstructions are beginning to take on a photographic quality which defies us to criticize them). Modern technology enables us to have the vicarious experience of a (sanitized) past in the present.

Places portrayed in a certain way, particularly if they have the capacity to attract tourists, may begin to 'dress themselves up' as the fantasy images prescribe. Mediaeval castles offer mediaeval weekends (food, dress, but not of course the primitive heating arrangements).10

Thus, memory and history are supplanted by the photo album, the nostalgia industry, heritage and a museum culture which is increasingly dominated by historical simulacra.

The sanitizing effect of the image combines with its capacity to undermine critical distance in the creation of a fetishism of the image. Thus the reality presented by the image and accepted uncritically by the viewer becomes a mask which prevents us from seeing underlying inequalities or injustices.

The information revolution

If technology has changed the way our culture looks at the world, it has also transformed the way we know the world. Jean-Francois Lyotard, one of the gurus of postmodernism, argues that the advent of the computer has radically changed the status of human knowledge. He points out that:

the miniaturisation and commercialisation of machines is already changing the way in which learning is acquired, classified, made available and exploited. It is reasonable to suppose that the proliferation of information-processing machines is having, and will continue to have, as much of an effect on the circulation of learning as did advancements in human circulation (transportation systems) and later, in the circulation of sounds and visual images (the media).11

He highlights the quantification, exteriorization and commercialization of knowledge as significant effects of the information revolution. Personal knowledge gives way to quantitative information conceived as a marketable commodity12.

Ironically, in view of the highly commercial nature of the information revolution, the cutting edge of electronic information exchange is owned by no-one. According to current estimates, more than twenty five million people worldwide transfer information freely through the Internet. In stark contrast to the institutions and mass movements of modernity, this global electronic village has no overall structure. It is an amorphous mass of interconnections. Some writers draw analogies with the incredibly complex but decentralized interconnection of neurones within the human brain. This is the ideal postmodern political structure: global anarchy. Twenty five million people sharing information, ideas, feelings without anyone overseeing or moderating the exchange. It is hardly surprising that the two leading social institutions which continue to represent modernity, the market and the nation state, find this situation unacceptable. Thus the market, in the form of commercial giants such as Microsoft, seeks to coopt the Internet by commercializing it and restricting access to information. Similarly western governments have expressed an interest in controlling the free passage of information (e.g. using specious arguments about the dangers of computer pornography).

Escaping from reason

Arguably the reduction of knowledge to information which we see in the information revolution is a logical consequence of the Enlightenment view of reason and knowledge. In the modern world, knowledge is power and the most successful form of knowledge is that attained by reductionistic analysis of the world. In contrast to the turmoil which was Europe in the wake of the post-Reformation religious wars, technical reason held out the promise of a brave new world: a global civilization founded upon reason.

However, postmodern disenchantment perceives all such visions as totalitarian. One effect of that disenchantment has been a revaluation of all those aspects of human experience devalued by modernity. The twentieth century has seen a marked shift of emphasis from the exploration and colonization of physical space to the exploration of the psychological and spiritual dimensions of human experience. A generation after the death of God in Christian theology and the general acceptance of secularization, it is once again chic to be spiritual. As we approach the millennium, the New Age movement and associated contemporary spiritualities are riding the crest of a wave.

The new Babel

Postmodern suspicion of totalitarian intellectual systems has the further effect of fragmenting the intellectual world of modernity into many different languages and, hence, many different worlds. There is no way of choosing between these worlds because such a choice could only be made on the basis of a totalitarian metanarrative. Relativism rules.

Of course relativism is not new. Our tolerant forefathers13 permitted relativism within the private realm of feelings and opinions. However in late modernity the relativistic genie has escaped from the private bottle into the public world, undermining our faith in science and economics.

The result is cultural fragmentation. Sub-cultures proliferate and find it increasingly difficult to communicate with each other. The positive side of this is an affirmation of otherness, difference and plurality as evidenced in greater respect for minorities. On the other hand, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold together the old nation states of modernity as old ethnic differences reassert themselves and new and aggressive sub-cultures flex their muscles.

Even justice conceived as a universal principle is under threat from this relativism. Universal justice implies a metanarrative just as moral absolutes do. In the postmodern era, universal justice will go the same way as moral absolutes, leaving only local relativized judicial systems. In the new Babel it will no longer be possible for one culture to pass judgment on another, for judgment will be merely another expression of imperialistic power.

The fragmentation of the self

Since human beings are inescapably social animals, the new Babel must have an impact on the individual. Os Guinness suggests that 'we have reached the state in pluralisation where choice is not just a state of affairs, it is a state of mind. Choice has become a value in itself, even a priority. To be modern is to be addicted to choice and change. Change becomes the very essence of life'14. Thus the continuity which is an essential of self-identity is lost.

In a similar vein, David Harvey points out that the characteristic psychopathology of western culture is undergoing a significant shift: from alienation and paranoia to schizophrenia:

Modernism was very much about the pursuit of better futures, even if perpetual frustration of that aim was conducive to paranoia. But postmodernism typically strips away that possibility by concentrating upon the schizophrenic circumstances induced by fragmentation and all those instabilities (including those of language) that prevent us even picturing coherently, let alone devising strategies to produce, some radically different future.15

Against progress

Another result of the postmodern suspicion of metanarratives is the demise of the most basic myth of modernity: the myth of progress. According to the Enlightenment vision, humankind liberated from the tyranny of tradition by technical reason would steadily progress towards a secular eschaton, the city of reason.

While it is certainly arguable that there has been clear material progress during the past two centuries, it is not so obvious that humankind has progressed in moral terms. Our technical prowess often seems tailor-made to improve our capacity for exploiting, torturing and murdering other human beings. Are sarin, napalm and the MX missile unequivocal evidence of human progress?

Postmodern thinkers recognize that the concept of progress was an integral part of the ideology of modernity. It is not so much a fact as an interpretation of history intended to get across a certain point of view (usually that the culture of the interpreter is at the forefront of progress if not its climax16.

Instead of progress there is an increasing tendency to speak in terms of paradigm shifts. Cultures certainly change but, according to the conceptuality of paradigm shifts, there is no sense in which one culture is better than another. Thus the relativism between contemporaneous cultures is matched by a corresponding relativism between cultures of different epochs.

One implication of this is that we can have no sense of temporal direction. Progress at least permitted modernity to retain something of the Christian notion of hope. Postmodernity has no direction and hence no hope. This conspires with the image orientation of our culture to undermine the traditional ways of perceiving time. Past and future are both called into question. All that is left is the present. There are also political implications. Without hope, without a vision for the future, there can be no place for genuine leadership. All that is left is managerial efficiency and short term projects (literally projections of the present into the immediate future).

From mechanism to organism

The world view generated by technical reason was that of a mechanistic cosmos: a universe of passive billiard ball atoms possessing only momentum, acted upon by external forces. To the extent that the forces and momenta were quantifiable, this cosmos was deterministic. This mechanistic model was extended to human society as an agglomeration of private individuals acted upon by socio-economic forces.

In postmodernity this billiard ball view of reality has given way to a new holism. Fundamental to this new outlook is the principle of the interconnectedness of all being. Everything is intimately related to everything else.

This allows the advocates of interconnectedness (or holism) to insist that humankind is an integral part of the natural world. They reject the mind-body dualism which has characterized modernity: matter and spirit are inextricably bound together. The modern view that we are essentially detached spectators of an external world is giving way to a post- (pre-) modern view of us as intimate participants in the dance of creation.

It has also allowed experimentation with new forms of community and communication. Non-hierarchical networking, more flexible patterns of working and relating with one another, are gradually replacing the old centralized hierarchical structures of modern management and politics. One of the likely casualties is the public-private dichotomy which is so typical of modernity. Jean Baudrillard argues that the ecstatic nature of modern communication forces an exteriorization of the private world (witness the current rash of chat shows in which ordinary people divulge intimate details of their private lives in front of audiences of millions).

Ironically, the principle of interconnectedness is precisely what the philosophers of postmodernism fear, namely, a metanarrative. Indeed it is essentially the same metanarrative that shaped the Hellenistic world view. This is not so much a contradiction as a reminder that postmodernity and postmodernism are not simply to be identified.


Promising Threat or Threatening Promise?

I subscribe to an E-mail conference on postmodern Christianity. Recently it has been inundated with articles discussing whether or not postmodernity poses a threat to Christianity. My own reaction to such a question is 'Yes and no'.

Postmodernity certainly threatens the institutions of western Christianity insofar as they have adapted themselves to the formerly prevailing culture of modernity. This is not necessarily a criticism of Christian institutions: in order to communicate the gospel we have to become part of the prevailing culture. The genius of the early church was precisely that it could not rest content as a Jewish sect. On the contrary it became a Hellenistic movement. Christianity struggles in Japan because it remains a foreign import whereas it flourishes in China because it has become Chinese. In order to communicate the gospel to the people of modernity, the Christian churches necessarily had to become modern themselves. However, we have become comfortable with modernity. It is an old, familiar sparring partner. Faced with a new and unfamiliar challenge we are tempted to deny its significance17. Thus postmodernity threatens us with ghetto-ization as, adhering to a dying culture, we lose touch with the main stream.

On the other hand, postmodernity is fertile ground for those who are prepared to abandon the safety of their ecclesiastical institutions in order to communicate the gospel. New Agers and postmodernists are far more open to spiritual matters than the children of modernity. However, they are (rightly) suspicious of organized religion. They see it as an ally of the old power structures, a way of maintaining the social and political status quo.

A crucial turning point for the gospel was Peter's vision in Joppa and subsequent encounter with Cornelius. He was confronted with a stark choice between his Jewish religion and the call of Christ to take the gospel to all humankind. After a struggle he chose the latter. Perhaps, like Peter, we are being called to abandon our religion (our institutions, rites and accepted comfortable ways of doing things) in order to communicate the gospel faithfully in a new cultural situation.



1. R L Ackoff cited by John Drane, Evangelism for a New Age: Creating churches for the next century (London: MarshallPickering, 1994), 19f.  Return

2. cited by Philip Sampson, 'The Rise of Postmodernity' in Faith and Modernity edited by Philip Sampson, Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden (Oxford: Regnum Lynx, 1994), 29-57(29).  Return

3. Fredric Jameson, 'Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism' in New Left Review 146 (1984), 53-92. Compare David Harvey's comments on time-space compression in his The Condition of Postmodernity: an enquiry into the roots of cultural change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989).  Return

4. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973).  Return

5. By the time he or she leaves school, the average child will have spent 30-50% more time in front of the television screen than in the classroom!  Return

6. It is arguable that the increasing use of project work in schools is a recognition that the episodic learning of screen culture is now dominant.  Return

7. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 126.   Return

8. Jameson 1984, 66.  Return

9. J A Walter, The Human Home: The myth of the sacred environment (Tring: Lion, 1982), 150. Compare Ellul 1985, 123.  Return

10. Harvey 1990, 301.  Return

11. J-F Lyotard, 'Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?' in The Post-Modern Reader edited by Charles Jencks (London: Academy Editions, 1992), 138-50 (140).  Return

12. Thus we face the prospect of the human genetic code becoming the exclusive intellectual property of multinational drug companies which funded the relevant research!  Return

13. I use the gender-specific term deliberately.  Return

14. O Guinness, The Gravedigger File (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983), 100.  Return

15. Harvey 1990, 53f.  Return

16. e.g. Hegel presented nineteenth century German culture in almost eschatological terms. More recently, of course, Francis Fukuyama has done precisely the same with contemporary American culture.  Return

17. This is a common Christian response to the New Age and postmodernity. For example, orthodox Anglicans and Roman Catholics tend to dismiss Matthew Fox as an eccentric. By contrast, Charles Jencks and other leading commentators on postmodernity recognize him as a significant voice in the emergence of a postmodern theology.   Return

Dr Lawrence Osborn, formerly coordinator of The Gospel and our Culture, is currently Templeton Fellow at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

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You are reading First Steps Beyond Modernity by Lawrence Osborn, part of Issue 5 of Ministry Today, published in October 1995.

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