It is a supreme irony that the upshot of postmodernity is the election of a man with a tyrannical personality favored primarily by white, male population in the United States, but there you have it. Postmodernity, like all things, is subject to sin. Postmodernity which arose in many ways as a rejection of imperialism and colonialism ends up being entirely compatible with modes of imperialism and colonialism.
To explain this, we need to step back and look again at the modernist tropes that postmodern culture rose to challenge. Modernity, on its own narrative, offered itself as a solution to the sectarian strife that laid waste to Europe in the “wars of religion.” With the collapse of Christendom, appeals to divine guidance in morality and politics grounded irreconcilable visions of the good. Here the irony was that appeals to the transcendent God had come to justify particular and divisive denominational standards for life and politics.
The modernist solution was to strip religion of its public power, to privatize appeals to religious authority and practice. Appeals to authority in public were now to be directed toward “reason” or “common sense,” however we wished to name that human faculty that transcended the parochialism of tribe and religion.
Of course, even Europeans never actually agreed on exactly what reason required. Appeals to reason could range from Kantianism to Utilitarianism. But the absence of a single account of rational morality was treated as a side issue. Modernity left a promissory note to fill in the details of its key doctrine. But in the meantime, Europeans decided to spread the universal gospel of rational life across the globe.
The spread of “universal culture” followed the concept of universal human reason. From the English Empire to the spread of the secular state to the globalization of capitalist free trade, modernity assured us that we were always one step away from realizing the end of history and the establishment of our final rational form of life.
Thus did appeals to universal reason come to justify distinctly European cultures lording over the rest of the globe and destroying competing cultures in the process. No human scheme escapes the taint of sin, and none proceeds without irony. Postmodern culture arose out of the recognition of the irony of modernity.
Modernity was not so much an alternative to the cultural hegemony of Christendom as its replacement under a different name. The Church had been replaced by the State, revelation had been replaced by reason. The centers of power had moved from the ecclesial to the secular, but they had become no more universal, no more impartial, no less sectarian. Universal reason was not a solution to the problem of religious diversity, it was a bludgeon used to vanquish those who challenged the imperial, colonizing power of the modern state.
Postmodernity, of course, not only offered a critique of modernity, but sought to solve the problems constituted by modernity. What was needed was a new relativism, a new humility, a new attention to local languages and reasons. The end of the metnarrative would bring about a world in which we could embody and respect difference.
The vision and the reality, again, inevitably clashed. Unveiling the bias in all claims to universal Truth, postmodernity endorsed a fundamental skepticism toward “hegemonic” modern sources of information. Especially untrustworthy were those which could be considered the mouthpieces of power brokers of society. In the place of these structures, postmoderns offered up localized epistemologies. Knowledge started at home, and whatever system of justification one accepted should be one that justified the claims that locals knew to be true.
American politics in 2016 offers the latest turn of the screw in this narrative, where, hoist by its own petard as Christendom, denominationalism, and modernity before it, postmodernity becomes the structure that justifies exactly the kind of evil that it was set up to oppose. Trump capitalized on appeals to the particularity of race, religion, class, etc. He rode the wave of popular rejection of universal society in the form of globalization and free trade.
The followers of Donald Trump embraced localized epistemology to oppose the “hegemony” of fact-checkers. They embraced supreme skepticism toward the “main-stream” media, which they saw as pushing the narrative of the political and economic elite. Trump’s victory is the culmination of postmodernity.
It will do no good to note that this was not what the postmodern elite wanted; that they intended to construct a bulwark against exactly the kind of racism, xenophobia, and religious prejudice that Donald Trump represents. That is the way irony works.
This is a dark time in American politics. And we should not understate the depth of the darkness. In voting for Donald Trump the American people have voted against the deepest values embodied in a democracy. And there is no guarantee that things get better from here. There are certainly historical precedents for a deeper slide, and we cannot turn our faces away from this possibility. For the immediate future, we must ironically trust in the restraining power of bureaucracy and dysfunctional government.
But it is also true that history provides no final ground for cynicism either. For every Christendom there is a Franciscan revolution. For every rise in denominationalism there is a new reformation. For every modern state there are new statements of ideals of freedom and equality.
And postmodern humility will not be ultimately defeated by the pride of its Trumpean offspring. In the light of sin we must expect ironic reversals of history. But in the light of grace this is no reason to abandon the struggle for the good. We do not provide our own salvation, but we testify that God takes up our imperfect efforts and perfects them in the fullness of time, so that even the deepest of darknesses in history does not eliminate the light.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” ~ Reinhold Niebuhr
Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University. A former president of the Niebuhr Society, he is the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey (Lexington Books, 2010).