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Precedents for Postmodernism

Postmodernism means different things to different people. Some are so fascinated with current changes in social, artistic and intellectual life that they believe a new age has already dawned.

Others are so frustrated by these changes that they deny the existence of any significant cultural shift. They think it’s only in the minds of ill-intentioned philosophers and theologians, just another ideology among many others.

But the world today is different. In the midst of an unsettling and fragmenting life, it’s a challenge to discern any remaining holistic framework.

I side with those who believe we are witnessing a major shift in all strata of human life. It seems that traditional values are under scrutiny. There is a new quest for meaning behind the fragmented metanarratives (the framing stories of culture).

But is this a totally new quest in a totally new age? Tired of so many serious works mapping philosophical and theological dimensions of postmodernism, I am inclined to take an ironic and Euro-centric look at the postmodern phenomenon.

Let’s pause and recollect our history. Those of us who live in the so-called West may think about the Hellenistic world two millennia ago. This world revolved around the sea in the middle of the Earth and became sustained by an imperial structure called the Roman Empire. It had a naturally accepted and widely used lingua franca, Koine Greek, communicated orally or on papyri, parchments and wax tablets. It expanded to include—and in certain ways enjoy—the pluralistic makeup of cultures, languages and religious beliefs.

At the same time, the Hellenistic world was fascinated with the search for life’s meaning and value. Competing schools of Cynics, Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, Mystics, neo-Platonists and others were trying to provide the best answer to existential human questions. Worship of gods, theater, music and art were as much a part of human life as daily bread. The motto of the masses was “bread and entertainment.” And yet it was a vulnerable world—a world of riots, eruptions of violence and cruelty.

Fast-forward a millennium and more. The Western world was centered on the continent of Europe and largely sustained by commonalities of Christendom. A common language, Latin, was in place, communicated orally or on paper. That world rapidly expanded farther East and West to explore, with curiosity and some toleration, a newly discovered diversity of cultures, languages and religious beliefs.

In Stephen Toulmin’s version of the Renaissance, this world had recovered the Hellenistic sense of the oral, particular, local and timely. Yet this sincerely religious, broadly humanistic, intellectual and artistic world could suddenly turn violent, tribal and religiously intolerant.

What about today? It seems that the world has finally found itself on the whole globe. But the globe does have a center—perhaps somewhere in North America? No doubt you will find someone speaking English in every corner of the Earth, or communicating it through some computer-assisted means.

The world does not expand anymore, but business interests do. In fact, global corporations keep the world connected. As for the existential needs of individuals, educational advances, computer literacy and intellectual sophistication are as much a part of daily life as popular culture. And it is still a vulnerable world: violent, nationalistic and religiously exclusive.

These descriptions may caricature the complexity of 2,000 years of social life in the Western world, but they do have a point. What we are witnessing today has roots in the past. In this sense, there is something of the well-forgotten old in the air.

On the other hand, our life today has a unique feature: the world is truly global and finally final. It cannot expand anymore. All of us sail in the same boat.

So the true postmodernism for me is the awareness of being inescapably bound—for better or for worse—to the rest of humanity with all its diversity. Are we prepared to embrace this diversity?

Parush Parushev is director of applied theology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, CzechRepublic.