the death of Postmodernity?

29 Apr

The Death of Postmodernity?
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on April 27, 2014

Listen here:



Excerpts from AFTER POSTMODERNISM? “TRUE, BUT STILL…” by Geoffrey Holsclaw


You know that scene in the Matrix, where Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, suddenly can see the lines of code that make up the Matrix in which they live? Well, that is about how I feel right now. I am suddenly looking at these lines of code, and I am going to try to explain to you what I see, where it comes from, and what it means. If I fail along the way, I apologize – trust me, though, at least for me and I hope for some of you, this is exciting stuff. It is like taking apart a machine and seeing how it works.

My immersion into this matrix actually started in the fall of 1998. I was feeling a sense of despair about the way the world was going, and I decided it was time for a revolution. So, being the new seminarian I was, I decided to write a sermon about it. But I knew we didn’t need a modern-style revolution, as these are no longer modern times – instead, I thought we needed a Postmodern Revolution.

Of course, to begin that sermon, I had to immerse myself into Postmodernity. And as I did I became more and more depressed. I realized that I didn’t want, and I didn’t think the world needed, a postmodern revolution, but that instead we needed a revolution against postmodernity.

Fast forward 15 years, and I now see that revolution in full swing. Have you noticed it? I think the linch-pin moment for me was when I saw the Zombie love movie, Warm Bodies.

What, HUH?

Yup. Bear with me. To explain this, we have to take a journey back in time a couple hundred years to deconstruct – that is, take apart and look at – where postmodernity came from.

In Western Civilization, up until around the 1650’s, the church was the primary source of authority, and it imparted ultimate Truth that had been revealed to it by God. This was how knowledge came to the people – from God, to the church, and on down the line. We call this time period the Premodern era.

What we call the Modern era began in Western Civilization during the Enlightenment, in the early 1600’s. Rather than knowledge only being imparted by God, in the Modern era knowledge could also be gained through our senses, such as through scientific observation, or through reason and logic. When observation and reason became an important part of discovery, science began to take leaps and bounds. Anything and everything became possible. Power shifted away from the church as governments and universities became the sources of authority. The modern era was characterized by a belief in “Onward and upward!” – the linear progression of humankind. Not surprisingly, it was also characterized by an ultimate optimism.

Europe moved toward Postmodernity in the very beginning of the 20th century. In the United States, we seemed to hold onto the modern worldview a bit longer. Our transition to Postmodernity probably began with the Great Depression, but much of modernity held on – the 60’s brought with them an era of hopefulness – a sputtering renewal of modern optimism. The beginning of the civil rights movement was firmly entrenched in this hopeful modern philosophy. But towards the end of the 60s, people were losing hope. Vietnam came along and became more and more complicated. Then there was the revived threat of nuclear war and the air-raid drills, mind-altering drugs and the sexual revolution and presto-chango, counter-culture was reborn as the norm.

Question authority! It did not matter whether it was scientific, religious or political – this became the rallying cry of the postmodern era, with its cynicism in direct opposition to the optimism that had been characteristic of the modern period it grew out of.

Postmodernity questions everything in search of ultimate reality. It seeks to deconstruct, or take apart and look deeply at, previous authority sources. It “believes that the result of modernism, what is new and better, is erroneous because new and better can only exist in reference to what was, and a total rejection of what was means it cannot be used as a reference. Once you reject the reference point, all becomes universal and relative. Without a reference point, or if each is its own reference point, all are then equal.” And all are equally meaningless.

Postmodernity showed us that the truth is subjective – that what may be true for one person or one culture is not necessarily true for another. This can render the truth to be a meaningless concept. This leads to a nihilism and relativism that produced the self-centered cynicism that was so characteristic of culture in the United States back in 1998 when I began this journey.

I suspect that the despair that can come out of dwelling too long in this place of meaninglessness is, in part, what has led to the flourishing of our consumerist culture. If nothing is meaningful, then we might as well pacify our existential angst with things we can consume.

Back in 1998, I could not see the Matrix before me like I do now, but I had my suspicions. I knew we were entering the process of change. We were beginning to look around and realize that we were tired of this backlash against optimism and idealism – for it is tiring. Negativism is tiring; cynicism will wear you out. Irony – well, it gets old.

And yet we cannot just revert to the blind optimism of the modern era. Our eyes have been opened to the world around us and it is much bigger and more complex than we ever imagined – we cannot forget what we have seen. Therefore, whatever comes next, has to incorporate postmodern elements.

Instead of it’s own era, I suspect that postmodernity is the necessary transition between Modernity and whatever comes next – a New Era. I don’t think Postmodernity dead – heck even Modernity is not dead yet – but I do think it is dying. So what will be taking its place? What comes next? Everyone seems to refer to the New Era differently: Neomodernism, Altermodern, Ultramodern, Pseudo-Modern, and the ever-helpful Post-Postmodern. In preparing this sermon, I read a dizzying amount about all these things, and the conclusion that I have come to is that this New Era may not have a name yet, but it has some defining characteristics. These include:

  • connection
  • globalization
  • creativity
  • knowledge
  • authenticity
  • resilience*
  • earnestness
  • hope

Our reading summed it up beautifully. The modern era was characterized by an “either/or” paradigm – something is either true OR false, right OR wrong, and we can figure it all out. The postmodern paradigm is “both/and” – sometimes, something is right and something is wrong. It all depends on your context and perspective. The paradigm for the New Era looks to be along the lines of “True, but still…”

Let me give you some examples that might make the differences easier to understand. In his paper, Whence Hermeneutic Authority, delivered at the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference, Tony Jones uses his experience of being a baseball umpire to help clarify the different perspectives.i

He shares that a pre-modern umpire would say “I call ’em as they are” whereas a modern umpire would say “I call ’em as I see ’em” – appealing to what his senses tell him. A postmodern umpire, by contrast, would say “They ain’t nothin ’till I call them!”

I would add that the New Era umpire might say, “They may not be anything until I call them, but I gotta call ’em as I see ’em!”

Or this example, in the realm of the religious:

Premodernity might say: God gives us meaning.
Modernity might say: It is up to us to make meaning in the world.
Postmodernity might say: The world is meaningless, as there is no objective meaning.
The New Era might say: There may or may not be any objective meaning, but still, we are going to keep looking for it and, even, creating it.

Or how about this one. If you have been to a rally, you have probably heard the chant:

What do we want? Change!
When do we want it? Now!

This is a very modern perspective, trusting that that change is possible to create in the here and now. A postmodern take on the chant might be:

What do we want? Respectful discourse
When do we want it? Now would be agreeable to me but I am interested in your opinion as to what might be a good time, and maybe you have other ideas you want to bring to the table, mine certainly are not the only ones.

I would like to suggest that in the new era we are moving towards, it might sound more like:

What do we want? Change through, in part, respectful discourse
When do we want it? It is already happening!!

Which brings us back to “Warm Bodies.” The desire to create, or talk about, or create stories about Utopia is a very modern phenomenon. Similarly, zombie movies are very postmodern. But in this New Era, I am seeing a trend – dystopian stories that acknowledge how messed up things are but focus on the ability to challenge and ultimately change it. You might think Warm Bodies is your typical postmodern zombie movie. It starts off that way. Society has fallen, and the few humans remaining have staked out a small bit of land, which they defend from zombies and the UltraZombies – called Bonies. But then against all reason and odds, a human and a zombie fall in love. And, it turns out, love has the capacity to turn Zombies back into human beings. The message is that love conquers all. This not a very postmodern message – in fact it leans towards modern optimism. But love cannot bring back the Bonies, they are too far gone. This is a nod to reality as revealed by postmodernity. And so the movie seems to come straight out of the New Era, embodying traits of both modernity and postmodernity, and also something new.

So we are moving out of Postmodernity and into this new era – and each have their own characteristics, with their own ways of looking at and understanding the world. This becomes particularly interesting when you look at what it means in how we relate to each other along generational lines.

Eras and Generations in the United States

The Silent Generation was primarily born during the Modern era, and their parents were modern-era parents. You all tend to have a Modern worldview, though it sometimes dips its toe into the Postmodern. The Boomer generation, however, is almost entirely formed by the Postmodern worldview, but it held onto the optimism of the Modern era. So you all get the Civil Rights movement, which had both Modern and Postmodern characteristics. Then Gen-X comes along, and we are fully in the Postmodern worldview, and boy, do we tend to be cynical.

Those of you who are Millennials probably have parents that were raised in postmodernity, but you were impacted early on in life by increasing globalization, access to the internet, and events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of your lives will be in this New era, and so much of your outlook will be shaped by that. Similarly with the generation born after the Millennials, who also don’t have a name yet but I will call them the Post-Millennials.

And in fact, if we look at the characteristics of the Millennials and the Post-Millennials, we find that they match up beautifully with the characteristic of the New Era that is emerging: y’all are global citizens, used to information being at their fingertips. You value authenticity, you are earnest and you are generally hopeful. You also look at many things very differently than do your parents. For instance, you have very different expectations about privacy. And your interpersonal needs are carried out both online and in-person – you have a flexibility that many of the rest of us lack. Also, you tend to be creators rather than being merely consumers.

Okay, if that is the primer, then so what? Why does any of this this matter?

I think our faith as Unitarian Universalists is custom made for this New Era. I think we were pretty onboard with modernity: in fact we could probably be critiqued as having been stuck in the modern era since well before the consolidation in 1961. We have certainly retained the ideas of onwards and upwards, the importance of reason, and an ultimate optimism.

But we have learned a lot from postmodernity as well. Our contemporary critiques of oppression and injustice have been deconstructive, searching for the ultimate reality – they look at multiple layers and points of intersection. And we have always questioned authority, even before it was cool. On the other hand, we never gave up our search for truth and meaning, or bought into the idea that it was all meaningless.

And the idea that love, compassion, can even bring a Zombie back to life? Well, we are known as the “Love People” for our Standing on the Side of Love campaign. And so this new era represents enormous potential for us if we can embrace it and not struggle against it. The challenge now is to move gracefully into the New Era.

We can do this, in part, by creating more opportunities for intentional intergenerational conversations. Church is one of the few places where our generations mix and mingle – what if we joined together in an unprecedented way, to learn from each other and move forward together? Generations of this New Era need those of you who are of the Silent Generation to share your experience of progress marching onwards. They need those of your who are Boomers to share your optimism. They need us Gen-Xers to share our talent for questioning authority, and to help them learn how to deconstruct everything around them (much like I have in this sermon so far!). And we need you younger generations to share these new forms of connecting, these new ways of finding our way in an increasingly complex world. We need you to demand authenticity from us, and we really, really need you to remind us of the importance of hope.

When we do this, we will find that we are more easily able to enter into this New Era with curiosity and excitement rather than fear. We will be more likely to look at Postmodernity as a passing trend between the end of the Modern era and the beginning of something new – not somewhere we are supposed to hang out for too long. And our faith tradition will continue to move forward, as we have always done.

When it comes right down to it and all the evidence is examined, what we see is that postmodernity may not be dead, but it is dying. This is what I see in my matrix-like state: A New Era, a new way, is emerging that is a unique blend of the ultimate optimism that marked the modern era with the ultimate realism that postmodernity brought. An era of involvement, creativity, connection, authenticity, resilience* and hope. It is a way that is bursting with possibility, particularly for us as Unitarian Universalists. May we build it together. Blessed be.**





* I ended up cutting out a characteristic that, in retrospect, I wish I had left in: Resilience.  Particularly in how it relates to our relationship with the environment.  For instance, see the article “Learning to Bounce Back” by Andrew Zolli, published November 2, 2012:

“Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.”

I suspect sustainability is more of a modern idea, and that postmodernity was more tuned to looking at the multi-layered causes of our current environmental crisis rather than finding solutions. Resilience, in this way, definitely seems a characteristic of a New Era. And so I am sorry I left it out and so I have included it in the list of characteristics in this printed version but it was absent from the sermon I delivered.

** I read a whole bunch of stuff to prepare for this article, but it is impossible to read everything on postmodernity and, indeed, one article often contradicts another.  Here are the articles that I found most formative that I have not already linked to in the body of the sermon:

4 Reasons Why P&G Ad Featured Resilience Parents – not Helicopter Parents
by Anne Boysen

Time to Abandon Postmodernism: Living a New Way
by Andrew J. Fabich, Assistant Professor of Microbiology, Liberty University
A wonderful scholarly paper from a surprising source 🙂

By Tara Gentile

Fostering Hope – Christian RE in a Postmodern Age
by Harold D. Horell

Does History End with Postmodernism? Toward an Ultramodern Family Therapy

Altermodern: A Conversation with Nicolas Bourriaud
by Bartholomew Ryan

Young Talent: What to Expect From the Post-Millennial Workforce
By Adam Vaccaro

What Comes After Postmodernism?
Partial Objects

Tate Triennial 2009

Special thanks to colleagues Claire Feingold Thoryn, Tony Lorenzen and Sarah Gibbs Millspaugh for sharing their resources, and numerous other colleagues for sharing their ideas.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: