It's easy to poke holes in postmodernism. When the very essence of a philosophy is its emptiness, it doesn't take much. When something is bleak to begin with, it's no great challenge to cool people's enthusiasm.
What's so much harder is to look at something as ruinous as a postmodernist view of life and still see something good. So when a friend challenged me last week to do that, I bit.
The very good thing about postmodernism is that, as bankrupt as it is as a philosophy of life, it still helps us understand more clearly than before the bankruptcy also of what led to postmodernism.
At the risk of oversimplifying, let's divide human history for the last few thousand years into three main eras. Throughout the first and longest of those periods, men and women tended to believe that God (or the gods) were the measure of all things-that there was some standard outside the human experience by which human thinking and activity should themselves be measured.
But we outgrew that first era. Especially through the discoveries and advances of periods with names like the "Renaissance" and the "Enlightenment," many people-and almost certainly it's more accurate to say most people-came to believe that man himself is the measure of all things. People took it on themselves to define God, rather than to be defined by Him. Increasingly, people set aside the sense that any supreme being was in charge of everything. Increasingly, those same people saw themselves as in charge. That's what it meant to be modern.
The problem is, there's so much to be in charge of.
If it were just a matter of keeping up the pace of new inventions and minimizing war and controlling the climate and alleviating the plight of the poor and eliminating racism-if the human task could be limited to a few minor assignments like that-well, perhaps we mortals might muddle through, especially if we had a few zillion years to perfect our act. But modern man began to discover that the assignment is really ever so much bigger than that. The assignment to be "in charge" carried with it other whole dimensions that have to do with explaining how and especially why we got here; clarifying why evil seems so persistent and so attractive; and pointing out believable remedies for the awful brokenness that saturates the human condition. Left to respond to all those issues in a coherent, noncontradictory manner, "postmodern" men and women began to say more and more: "We can't. There's no meaning to it at all. No meaning from the gods outside us, and none from our hearts within us." Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity.
Such vanity, such meaninglessness is the stuff of our times. It is the cry of our music, the shape of our art, the emptiness of our ethics, the soullessness of our relationships. It explains the size of the disconnect between "No, I don't like a president who ..." and "But I really don't care enough to ..."
But if such a conclusion seems empty, barren, and leading to no future, precisely the opposite is usually the case-in God's eyes. For it is always only when people come to the end of themselves that they become so destitute that they finally see God in His glorious perspective. And if that is true of individual humans, it is no less true of the whole human race.
So long as we as a race, or as a nation, or as a cultural subset of a nation, think there is still some good or great thing about us, we have too high a view of ourselves. Not until we have come to the end of ourselves and are ready to say, "Woe is me! I am undone"-not until then does God typically step in to start picking up the broken pieces and tenderly mend them together again.
So are we there now? Are we finally at the end of ourselves? Not by a long shot. There are still great big chunks of human pride all bound up even in the meaninglessness of postmodernism. It is, indeed, the ultimate measure of our proud ways that we can hold up our emptiness for all to see, and ask the gawking crowds to praise it. We are as proud of our hollowness as the emperor was of his nonexistent suit of clothes. And like him, we have no shame.
But while there still is pretense, we may at least have gotten to a point where it's harder to pretend about our pretense. If that is an unintended gift of postmodernism, let's welcome it warmly-even as it shakes our smugness, haughtiness, and arrogance to their roots.