STUDY FIVE: POSTMODERNISM AND THE LOSS OF MEANING [NIHILISM]
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
We do not hear the words ‘nihilism’ or ‘postmodernism’ in our normal conversations. Most of us, perhaps, have never heard them at all, though some will have experienced their hopelessness.
‘Nihil’ is Latin for ‘nothing’. So, nihilism is the understanding of life and reality that says: There are no absolutes and no truth. There is nothing about which we can be sure and certain. There are no distinctions and no opposites. There is no meaning and no purpose.
Modernism was confidently committed to find truth, and believed that man by his reason could discover truth [rationalism], even if that truth might turn out to be that there was no god. Agnosticism says that ‘if there is any reality, if there is any truth, if there is anything that can be called ‘god’ we cannot know it, we cannot even know that it is there’. Postmodernism and the resultant nihilism have gone to a deeper level of despair and say ‘there is nothing there to know - no meaning, no purpose, no reality’.
Postmodernism and nihilism are the logical extension of the denial of God and of absolutes that we have already seen in secular humanism, evolution and philosophical materialism. Having denied the existence of an-outside-of-me absolute creator God who has revealed ultimate, absolute truth, secular humanism paved the way for relativism and existentialism, in which truth is variable and subjective. This in turn opened the door to post-modern nihilism in which there is no truth and no reality. We will be looking at relativism and existentialism in later studies.
A. SOME INSIGHTS INTO POSTMODERNISM
A.1 Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler [in The New Tolerance, p37-38]
McDowell and Hostetler list seven summary points about postmodernism:
Truth does not exist in any objective sense
Instead of “discovering” truth in a “metanarrative” – which is a story [such as the Bible] or ideology [such as Marxism] that presents a unified way of looking at philosophy, religion, art, and science – postmodernism is characterized by “incredulity toward metanarratives.” In other words, postmodernism rejects the idea that there exists any “grand story” that explains an individual, local story or any universal Truth by which to judge any single “truth”.
Truth – whether in science, education or religion – is created by a specific culture or community and is “true” only in and for that culture.
Individual persons are the product of their culture; individuality is an illusion; identity is constructed from cultural sources.
All thinking is a “social construct.” That is, what you and I regard as “truths” are simply arbitrary “beliefs we have been conditioned to accept by our society, just as others have been conditioned to accept a completely different set of beliefs.” [quoting Jim Leffel’s article ‘Our New Challenge: Postmodernism’ in The Death of Truth, Bethany House, 1996.]
Since human beings must use language in order to think or communicate, and words are arbitrary labels for things and ideas, there is no way “to evaluate or criticize the ideas, facts, or truths a language conveys.” [quoting Leffel]
Any system or statement that claims to be objectively true or unfavourably judges the values, beliefs, lifestyle, and truth claims of another culture is a power play, an effort by one culture to dominate other cultures.
A.2 Vishal Mangalwadi [Letters to a Postmodern Hindu, p44 -47,66,101,108,220,]
The following are comments about postmodernism from an Indian Christian, who is facing the impact of postmodernism in India.
'The “Modern” mind … was characterized by the “inductive method” of gaining knowledge. All texts … were read in their context to determine (or “construct”), as objectively as possible, the intended (or true) meaning of the original author as he would have liked himself to be understood by the original readers. Postmodernism replaces the inductive method with a “hermeneutic of suspicion”. It rejects “objectivity” on principle, and tires to read, not what the author meant, but what the author sought to hide. It suspects that all texts (in fact all language per se) are a cover up for power plays. Postmodernism rejects all truth-claims and ideologies a priori. It is assumed that language does not and cannot communicate truth. Language is seen as a tool that human beings use to get what they want.’
'The Postmodernist belief that objective truth does not exist, or at least cannot be known rationally, and certainly cannot be communicated in rational language …
'… once it is assumed that language has nothing to do with real truth (and “belief”, is merely a personal preference) then it is not just a journalist or a historian who writes lies (calling them “multilayered truth”); religion itself becomes spirituality without truth. Since truth cannot be known, what begins to matter is “faith”: not faith in truth, but faith in faith – in any stone or snake, myth or man, dogma or demon. Once it is assumed that religion has nothing to do with truth, objective Truth, then any gimmick is good enough, because it cultivates “faith” – faith in manipulative superstitions: of a virgin Mary shedding tears or the idols of Ganesh drinking milk.
'… what does postmodernism put in the place of the modernist confidence in human rationality? Strictly speaking, it substitutes rationalism by “Nothingness”.
'… in a spirit of total pessimism, Postmodernism says: “Let us be honest and give up all hope of knowing truth; let us spend all our energies in deconstructing all truth-claims – religious, historical or scientific”.
'… the death of Rationalism has led many Postmodern “intellectuals” to slip (mostly unconsciously) into an anti-intellectual stance of believing that truth is only a matter of (private or public) subjective perception, image-making or imagination. One is free to believe whatever suits him or her at a given time.
'(Postmodernism) postulates an a-moral universe, where law amounts to nothing but the ever-changing opinions of those in power; and rights can be “inalienable” only as long as they are not too inconvenient for the rulers.
'… postmodernism is … committed to deconstruct the “modern” (Christian and Enlightenment) idea of the “human”. …while the Enlightenment “Modernism” took the death of God as its project, postmodernism takes the next logical step – the death of the self. If the original (the divine Self) is unreal, then the copy (the human self) cannot be true.'
A.3 David Wells
In No Place for Truth, p62,66
'The anchorage that the internal world of the spirit had found in the supernatural order disappeared in the blaze of enlightened attitudes, and the self, now left completely to itself, cut off from God and from the outside world, began to disappear. Once severed from the larger frameworks of meaning, people became increasingly introspective, and what they gazed upon looked increasingly weightless.
'[new thinkers in theology] … began not with divine revelation but with human experience, not with God’s interpretation of life but with the interpretation that in our self-asserted freedom we have devised for ourselves. They rejected the idea that there is any center to the meaning that they sought, any normativity to any one proposal. …none of [the new theologies] making any pretension to having universal truth. They did not believe that there is such a thing.'
In God in the Wasteland, p94,106,220
‘The … corrosive postmodern environment has eaten away every transcendent reference point and fatally weakened every attempt to find overarching meaning. Thus thwarted in their efforts to find meaning outside themselves, moderns have sought to relocate all reality internally, detached from any fixed moral norms…. The fragile self adrift in the relentless tumult of modernity inevitably begins to experience the weariness and emptiness to which post-modern writers, composers, and artists have so uniformly pointed. This agonizing sense of weightlessness that we once thought only God would suffer in modern culture now turns out to be ours as well.
'Rorty … elevates the self to the position of an unchallengeable demagogue that can create meanings at will and that is wholly unconstrained by an external reality. In a world where there is no truth, what remain are possibilities that are always fluid and open, and life is simply a matter of pragmatically determining which work and which do not.
'The postmodern mood is essentially nihilistic. It wanders the world blankly, no longer looking for meaning. That is why its art is, in the deepest sense, superficial: it lives for the surface and abjures what lies beneath. It views the search for depth and meaning as nostalgic, a longing for a world now lost forever. The external world in which meaning and morality were once rooted has collapsed. Only the inner world of need and experience remains.'
A.4 Douglas Groothuis [in Unmasking the New Age, p40-41]
‘… humanism progressively focused more attention on the glory of humanity, to the exclusion of the glory of God. Its world view shifted from theism to atheism. Human reason and scientific innovation became the final authority for life and thought, replacing God’s revelation. Humanity became autonomous.
‘But for all its optimism concerning the freedom from religious superstition and outworn authority, secular humanism’s world view contained fatal flaws. With God evacuated, the universe lost its ultimate purpose, meaning and value. Human beings were no longer seen as being made in the image of God but merely as the products of chance evolutionary forces. Morality was severed from its absolute, universal reference to God; instead it was determined by the whims of humanity – relativism.
'Sensitive thinkers began to feel the price exacted by atheism. Some realized that secular humanism could easily degenerate into nihilism – the belief that everything is meaningless and absurd.
'While it appeals to humanity’s quest for autonomy and crowns “man the measure of all things.” We find ourselves the lords of nothing – nothing but a meaningless universe with no direction, destiny or purpose. Humanity becomes only an accidental upsurge of personality awaiting cosmic oblivion. The world which was once “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins) now becomes “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Shakespeare)'.
A.5 Francis Schaeffer [in Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Vol 1 p57,86 (The God Who is There) Vol IV p122 (The Church Before the Watching World), Vol V p193 (How Then Shall we Live?)]
'Modern nihilism is the simplest form of despair. … Nihilism accepts the conclusion that everything is meaningless and chaotic'.
'… nihilism (God is dead, man is dead, meaning is dead)'
'Nihilism: A denial of all objective grounds for truth. A belief that existence is basically senseless and useless, leading often to destructive tendencies in society or in the individual.'
'Non-Christian philosophers … now accepted that on the basis of reason men will always come to pessimism – man is a machine and meaningless.
Nietzsche … was the first one who said in the modern way that God is dead, and he understood well where people end when they say this. If God is dead, then everything for which God gives an answer and meaning is dead. … I am convinced that when Nietzsche came to Switzerland and went insane … it was because he understood that insanity was the only philosophic answer if the infinite-personal God does not exist.'
Nihilism leaves us alone with ourselves and our own uncertain, subjective thoughts. In denying the existence of absolute truth, of God, of right and wrong, of reality and meaning, it robs us also of our identity. We no longer know what it means to be human. We no longer know who we are, or why we are here, or even if we are here. It cuts us adrift to float in a bottomless black hole whose sides we cannot touch and into which no light shines. And the result? Hopelessness. Meaninglessness. Despair. An overwhelming feeling of being utterly alone, and even of doubting one’s own existence.
In denying God, we as a society, have also denied ourselves. In saying ‘there is no God’ we have also said ‘there is no meaning to human existence’. Now we as a society have to bear the consequences of this nihilism. Among these widespread consequences are:
the escape from despair into addictions to drugs, sex, violence and gambling,
the attempt to transcend normal consciousness by means of drugs, sex, meditation, Yoga and computer games,
escape into mystical experiences, and
the supposed ultimate escape of suicide.
B. THE CHRISTIAN AND POSTMODERN NIHILISM
The person who is a Christian is essentially the opposite of a nihilist.
As Christians we know God is there.
As Christians we know who God is.
As Christians we know who we are and where we have come from.
As Christians we know why we are here.
As Christians we know where we are heading.
As Christians we also know, as Max Lucado has pointed out, that our failures are not fatal: as Christians we know we are loved and forgiven.
But into all of this grand certainty and meaning and purpose and sense of identity, the sneaking fingers of postmodern nihilism are reaching with deceptive and destructive intent. We fall prey to its seductions
- when we think that nothing, including our lives, has meaning or purpose;
- when we let go of the clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil;
- when we embrace a self-negating, self-destructive mentality;
- when we take on board a ‘what’s the use’ attitude;
- when we begin to feel helpless in the face of the hopelessness and despair we see all around us;
- when our children are in danger of falling into a nihilistic mind set because of their exposure to godless evolution, humanism, atheism and postmodernism and because of the failure of the church to adequately address and answer these belief systems; and
- when we feel that the Gospel is irrelevant.
C. WHAT CAN WE DO PERSONALLY TO STRENGTHEN OURSELVES AND OUR FAMILIES AGAINST NIHILISM?
To arm ourselves to fight and to stand against the inroads of a nihilistic mentality we, as Christians, need to stand firm in the truth of what God has revealed. We need:
Below is a list of the things we need as Christians in a culture of nihilism. Identify what each of them means as it applies to your life.
 Unfailing confidence in and commitment to the authority and infallibility of the written Word of God (2Timothy 3:16-17);
 Unfailing confidence in and commitment to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom all the questions about God and reality are answered, and in whom the meaning and purpose of life is revealed (2Corinthians 4:6; Col 2:2-3);
 Acknowledgement of our dependence on God, not only for our physical and spiritual life, but also for understanding and truth - expressed in a prayerful life, and in submission to his Word;
 A recognition that when we give in to despair (apart from the depression caused by nutritional deficiencies or physical/organic malfunctions) it could well be that the true God has ceased to be a significant reality for us, and that, because of this, we have lost awareness of our own identity and significance as his creatures;
 To recognize that this despair can be reversed by a return to true, Biblical, God-centred faith; and
 To focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom all our inadequacies and rebellion are forgiven and covered, and in whom we are complete (Eph 1:7; Col 2:10).
D. HOW OUGHT THE CHURCH ADDRESS THE PROBLEM OF NIHILISM?
Acknowledging the presence of post-modern nihilistic meaninglessness, hopelessness and despair in our society, several things are imperative if the Christian church is going to be seen to be relevant and to present a relevant message to contemporary society:
 The Christian church must realise that a significant number of those to whom it proclaims the Gospel are without any purpose and without any hope. I am not speaking here of Christian purpose and Christian hope, but of any purpose and hope. Nihilism robs life of meaning, of purpose, indeed, of reality. The person captive to nihilism is lost in the most extreme sense of the word.
 The Christian church must assume that most people are ignorant of spiritual truth and realities. For these people the words ‘god’ and ‘truth’ are empty. In conversation with unbelievers we have to fill that void with the Biblical meaning. We must never take it for granted that people know what we are talking about when we say ‘god’ or any other Biblical word or term. We must remember that even such words as ‘human’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are meaningless to the post-modern nihilist.
 The Christian church must constantly affirm with great authority the fact that God is there and God is for us. Francis Schaeffer expertly addressed this issue in his books The God Who Is There and He Is There and He Is Not Silent.
 The Christian church should constantly affirm that in Jesus Christ all the questions about God, about life, about purpose, are answered. This proclamation of Jesus Christ and his salvation should be addressed not only to the unbelievers but to the believers. Knowledge of Jesus Christ - who he is and what he did - is the surest protection there is against nihilism and postmodernism. We have his promise that those who follow him
do not walk in darkness (Jn 8:12),
know the truth (John 8:32)
are permanently satisfied (Jn 6:35),
have fullness of life (Jn 10:10), and
know who God is (Jn 14:7-9).
 The Christian church will need to equip and prepare its members to understand, communicate with and counsel people who are caught in the vortex of nihilistic meaninglessness and despair.
 The church should grasp the unprecedented contemporary opportunity to speak to a world that is incredibly hungry for truth and meaning, a world that knows the reality of its own lostness, its own hell; but it must be sure that the way it presents the eternal truth does not hide that truth behind a mask of Christian clichés or judgmental legalism.
 The Christian church must also guard against nihilistic hopelessness and despair entering into its own consciousness. It must take to heart those exhortations of both the Old and New Testaments in which we are commanded to hold fast to the faith. If the church is to survive and thrive it will of necessity centre its faith not on itself and its own survival and growth, but on its Lord, from whom it takes its meaning, its purpose and its identity. Without him at its centre the church also is ultimately nothing.
Let us then stand firm in faith. Though all around may fall into hopelessness and despair we who are Christians have this confidence: in Jesus Christ the reality of God is affirmed and the reality and significance of the human is affirmed. In him the true God and true humanity are identified and defined. In him we see both our origin and our goal. In him the meaningfulness of human life is authenticated. In him alone is there sure and certain hope and meaning for a lost and despairing world.
E. AN EXERCISE IN THE PSALMS
Read through several Psalms. As you do notice how the Psalm writer, faced with threatening and despairing situations, finds confidence and hope by calling to mind objective facts about God that have been revealed by God in times past. Think through the contrast between this confident and joyful faith and the hopelessness, meaninglessness and despair that characterizes much of our society today. Note your thoughts about this contrast below.