I want to clarify the title of my blog “Postmodern Mormon,” and explain why postmodern theory is a healthy practice of critical thinking for religious people. I would even go so far as to say that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a postmodern religion, and understanding postmodernism as a tool for critical thinking is essential to understanding where our religion comes from, where it is now, and what it will look like moving forward into the future.
What is Postmodernism?
The word postmodernism was first used to describe the art movement that followed modernism in the early 1900s. It wasn’t until Jean-Francois Lyotard, a French philosopher, wrote an essay called “The Postmodern Condition” in 1979 that postmodernism was solidified as a philosophical theory. Lyotard defined postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” One of Webster’s definitions of postmodernism is “a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language.” A professor of mine in college once aptly explained postmodernism to me in this way, “when you have the hammer called postmodernism, suddenly everything around you is a nail.” I think this explanation is partly a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Twilight of the Idols, in which Nietzsche makes the analogy of posing questions with a hammer, breaking up old assumptions to see if they hold up under scrutiny.
These “modern assumptions” on any given topic are often called metanarratives. Metanarratives are the grand explanations of the world that we take for granted. They are assumed to be universal truths, but, when looked at more closely, one might realize that most metanarratives are just stories that are told so much and so often that everyone ends up believing them by default. They are the stories we tell that are perpetuated because we keep telling them, not because they are necessarily true. Yes, this includes religions, but only the aspects of religions that are not founded on true and everlasting principles. I’ll come back to this point later.
A person I once had this conversation with expressed to me with much fervor that postmodernism, by nature, is diametrically opposed to all belief systems, and as such is not consistent with living the gospel. But I don’t think postmodernism is so prescriptive to be inconsistent with living the gospel. Rather, it is descriptive. It is a tool of critical thinking and examining our assumptions.
Postmodern Critiques of Religion
Martin Luther’s critique of the Catholic church in his “95 Theses” was very postmodern, even though it predated the term itself. What he did was practice incredulity or skepticism toward arbitrary norms (metanarratives) that people had been taking for granted. Does this mean he was any less of a Christian? Of course not. He was just using incredulity toward a common metanarrative as a tool to reach greater understanding. If anything, he was even more of a Christian than those who were perpetuating the practice of indulgences.
Another good example of a religious metanarrative could be the meticulous rules as prescribed by the Pharisees and Scribes of the Law of Moses at the time of Christ’s ministry. And you know who did a great job of critiquing those metanarratives like a postmodernist would? That’s right, Jesus. He had a talent for exposing hypocrisy, which is a common characteristic of metanarratives. When accused of breaking the Sabbath by traveling or healing people on the Sabbath Day, he cut through the metanarratives the Scribes and Pharisees had been perpetuating down to the truly important principles that lay underneath.
Another example of someone who used a process of critical thinking akin to postmodernism was Joseph Smith. As a 14-year-old, Joseph Smith observed that the different sects of Christianity would interpret the same scriptures so differently as to lose all confidence in an appeal to the Bible. He wanted to find the truth, but observed the very real possibility that they might all be wrong: “In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (JSH 1:10). This is a very postmodern way of looking at things.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints relies on revelation from modern-day prophets to guide and direct it. Without this key element, our religion would be just as much a metanarrative as any other. With the gift of modern-day revelation from living prophets, the Church is more than that. The truths we talk about in the Church aren’t always relative or arbitrary. They are eternal.
Postmodernism, or the act of critiquing metanarratives, is one of the tools I use to try to discern between what is metanarrative and what is eternal. It’s kind of like digesting food. Our bodies break down the food to their basic elements, then we try to hold on to the most nutritious parts while leaving the rest behind. This is how I critically examine my personal faith, and I recommend others do it too.
For further reading, here is a fantastic article I found that explores this same topic: