C.S. Lewis on Postmodernism - page 1


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From the Spring 2002 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

C.S. Lewis on Postmodernism?

by Arthur W. Lindsley, Ph.D.
Senior Fellow, C.S. Lewis Institute

 

lthough C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) lived before the full flowering of postmodernism, some of its roots were already present in his day. While Lewis would certainly be an opponent of postmodernists’ denial of objective truth and morality, at many points he makes observations similar to postmodern philosophers. Perhaps, then, he can help us see both what is right and what is wrong with postmodernism.

What is Postmodernism?

  Postmodernism has both philosophical and cultural aspects. I can only touch on the former here. Jean-François Lyotard, French postmodern philosopher defines postmodernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives.” In other words, this school of thought is suspicious of any narrative, story, or account of the world that claims to be absolute or all-encompassing—a “meta”-narrative. Postmodernists are suspicious of such claims not only because of the limits of reason, but also because such perspectives have been oppressive. For instance, Nazism and Marxism give a comprehensive account of the world, and both have been extremely oppressive. Consider the atrocities committed by Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse-tung. Christianity also provides a comprehensive story that proceeds from eternity to creation, fall, redemption, the Second Coming of Christ, a new heaven and a new earth, and eternal life. Certainly, there have been times of oppression such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. Could it be that all metanarratives necessarily lead to oppression? This is what postmodernists suggest. Note here that oppression is believed to be objectively evil. They are right. However, on what grounds can postmodernists claim that it is evil?
  Other related claims held by a variety of postmodernists:
  1. There is no objective view of reality. We are shaped by our culture.
  2. Because we are so culturally determined, we cannot judge another culture.
  3. There are no facts, only interpretations. (Nietzsche)
  4. History is fiction. History is written from the perspective of the culture, race, and gender of the writer. What is “historic” is totally subjective. (Foucault)
  5. Knowledge is power. We ought to be suspicious of anyone who claims to give us truth. They are out to further their own (and their group’s) vested interests. (Foucault)
  6. Ethical claims are mere sentiment. There are no neutral grounds to condemn the Holocaust. (Rorty)
  7. Deconstruction is justice. We ought to explore and find the contradictions in every piece of literature so that we can uphold justice and avoid injustice. (Derrida)
  8. Whoever “spins” best, wins. Since there is no objective truth, all we have is rhetoric. Whoever plays the game best, wins. Make sure it’s you. (Fish)
  In an excellent work, Signs of the Times, David Lehman gives a clever definition of deconstructionism. You could eliminate the “con” and just call it destructionism. It seeks to destroy any objective truth, morality, history, or even science. Or, you could put the emphasis on the “con” and call any attempt at objectivity a “con” job, which has as its goal the advancement of an individual, group, or cultural agenda. How would C.S. Lewis agree or disagree with the above assertions?

Lewis Agrees

  C.S. Lewis would agree with some of these emphases, although not to the degree that present advocates contend. He might maintain that a partial truth taken as the whole truth becomes an untruth. Some points of agreement might go along these lines:
  1. There are limits to knowledge. Reason cannot develop a comprehensive knowledge of reality. Lewis held that “reality is very odd” and that “ultimate truth must have the characteristic of strangeness.”

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