To Postmodern and Back
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The influence of postmodernism on each of us is pervasive and ongoing because it provides the context within which we perceive our world. Yet, as a young person I identified with postmodernism as a movement with origins in the 1960s and liberal opposition to the Vietnam War. As an emotional influence, I started to realize that I was mistaken when I drove along the Berlin Wall in 1978 and noted the crosses marking where someone had been shot to death attempting to escape the “workers’ paradise” in East Germany. At that point, I realized that America stood for human rights not found anywhere else in the world, especially the communist countries of Eastern Europe.
The contrast between the U.S. attitude about human rights and that of the communists could not have been greater. The U.S. Constitution, which had been modeled after the governance system of the Presbyterian Church, recognized the Bible’s teaching that:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27)
In God’s eyes, human life has intrinsic value because humans are created in the image of God. This Christian teaching is hardwired into the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. attitude about human rights. For the communists, who were officially atheistic following Marx, human rights consisted of only the rights conferred by the state and God had nothing to do with it.
The source of rights matters because people attempting to flee from communist rule were considered enemies of the state who had no rights and, if they were not shot, they were sent to work camps never to be heard from again. So, the crosses on the Berlin Wall evoked a strong and very basic emotional reaction in me. Rights conferred by the state can be rescinded by the state; rights conferred by God are eternal.
Later, traveling with my family through East Germany on the autobahn to Berlin reinforced this point; when I attempted to speak with an East German family in a restaurant, they were so frightened by prospect of visiting with an American that they shook visibly with fear. I returned from my year in Germany with a new attitude about America and a profound skepticism of any political movement influenced by leftist thought.
My emotional transition in Germany did not immediately influence other aspects of my thinking. After Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and women’s right legislation in the 1960s, I came to believe that the world was fundamentally different from the world that my parents had grown up in, a view reinforced by popular culture—particularly music and the arts. This idea that the world had changed influenced especially my attitude in my studies as a economist. I thought—why do I need to learn all these old ideas because everything is now different? Naive as that idea seems to me now, at the time it was a huge influence.
As I proceeded in my doctoral studies, I began to realize that the world was not so fundamentally changed as I had assumed. Logic was still logic; English was still English; mathematics was still mathematics. Old ideas, especially about religion and human sexuality, were not suddenly null and void. In fact, in the context of a rapidly changing world, many ideas were being questioned that were really quite important. My having dismissed so many really important ideas was not only naive; it set me back in my studies and stunted my relational development. Intellectual flexibility (pragmatism) was good; ethical relativism was not so good.
At a very basic level, I started to notice, especially in my work as an economist, how many people did not do their homework in approaching problem solving and research. The assumption that the world had fundamentally changed in the postmodern era prompted a new kind of subjectivism that was highly destructive of good relationships among people and of quality research in economics—if everything is relative, why can’t the world just revolve among me? Faith in God works quite differently because God’s view may not be like my own and, if I am to evangelize my neighbor, I need desperately to understand my neighbor’s point of view. In a godless, secular society, no such objectivity is required.
In a very real sense, those crosses on the Berlin Wall reminded me of the one cross that really matters.