What does postmodern mean?

We live in a postmodern world. Or, so we’re told. But what does this mean? Postmodern is a word used to describe changes in ways people think — especially the way they view truth and reality.

Understanding post-modernity requires a review of modernity. But before the modern era, the world was considered pre-modern. What are the main differences in these three eras?

Pre-modern, modern, post-modern

The pre-modern era was one in which religion was the primary source for truth and reality. God’s existence and revelation were widely accepted in pre-modern culture.

In the modern era, science became the predominate source for truth and reality. Religion and the morality based on it were arbitrarily demoted to a subjective realm.

In the postmodern era, there is no single defining source for truth and reality beyond individual preference.


In postmodernity, relativism and individualism are radicalized and applied to all spheres of knowledge — even science. Truth and reality are individually shaped by personal history, social class, gender, culture, and religion. These factors, according to postmodern thinking, combine to shape the narratives and meanings of our lives as culturally embedded, localized social constructions without any universal application.

Postmoderns are suspicious of those who make universal truth claims. All claims of universal meaning are viewed as imperialistic efforts to marginalize and oppress the rights of others. The most important value of postmodernity is the inadmissibility of all totalizing ways of viewing anydimension of life.

Postmodernity, as a worldview, refuses to allow any single defining source for truth and reality. The new emphasis is on difference, plurality and selective forms of tolerance. Postmodern thinking is full of absurdities and inconsistencies. It is, for example, the worldview that says no worldview exists. It is an anti-theory that uses theoretical tools to neutralize all theories. It demands an imposed uniformity in an effort to resist uniformity. It employs propositional statements to negate truth based on propositional statements.

Postmodern concern for plurality, diversity and tolerance have not led to a more stable and secure society. Instead, the postmodern era exchanged one misguided mood for another. Postmodernity was fueled by a shift from the human optimism of modernity (based on scientific certainty and technological progress), to a pessimistic mood of skepticism and uncertainty.

One observer noted that, “Modernity was confident; postmodernity is anxious. Modernity had all the answers; postmodernity is full of questions. Modernity reveled in reason, science and human ability; postmodernity wallows (with apparent contentment or nihilistic angst) in mysticism, relativism, and the incapacity to know anything with certainty.”

This mood change was fueled by the devastation and disappointments of two world wars. Philosophies of despair and nihilistic existentialism became popular fare throughout Europe. These philosophies would later provide the ideological framework for the rejection of authority and institutionalism in America.

During the 1960’s and 70’s, the prevailing attitudes against authority, institution and establishment produced overwhelmingly negative effects on our nation. During this same period, we experienced a massive societal shift away from the institution of marriage and family with exponential increases in divorce rates and widespread acceptance of non-marital co-habitation.

The postmodern lie

As a result of these changes, pastors, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists are stretched to the limit as they try to help overwhelming numbers of people pick up the broken pieces of their lives and become whole again. Yet many of these helpers are equally lost because they accept the postmodern lie.

What is the lie? It is the wholesale rejection of universal reason and absolute truth. It is the delusional mindset that there is no objective goodness and rightness. These prevailing opinions have led to the dismissal of an absolute deity. Don’t misunderstand; God is warmly welcomed in the postmodern world as long as he doesn’t try to play God.

“Postmodernity returns value to faith and affirms the nurturing of our spiritual being as vital to humankind. Unfortunately, with the loss of truth, people will now seek faith without boundaries, categories, or definition. The old parameters of belief do not exist. As a result, people will be increasingly open to knowing God, but on their own terms.” (Graham Johnston).

Yet the true and living God will not be defined by finite creatures. While postmodern guru-philosophers like Richard Rorty have tried to write the obituary of the “God’s eye view of the world,” the Creator of the universe still determines the standard of truth, goodness and beauty.

Steven W. Cornell

28 comments on “What does postmodern mean?

  1. Ron F. says:

    Very well written explanation.
    Thank you.

  2. matthewdavidcameron says:

    Hot Dog! I’m not alone in the world. I have just been dialoging with a thoroughly postmodern Christian type, and it was discouraging, so your cogent critique of the philosophical morass we’re in is very much, by contrast, encouraging. Thank you!

  3. Sarah Y. says:

    beautifully written definition. I feel satisfied and informed =)

  4. patrys fourie says:

    Thank you so much for this well written piece. There are so many people lost in this black hole of post modern thinking and your information and reasoning gives me a whole new angle for debate. May you be blessed!

  5. […] What does “postmodern” mean?                                          3500 views […]

  6. […] What does “postmodern” mean? […]

  7. […] the young man in my photo, I conceived his pose and his momentary demeanor to represent the soul of postmodern man, grappling –  perhaps dejectedly – with the eternal questions that every human needs to […]

  8. Mutax says:

    “The only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths” is the postmodern dogma.
    So, it is possible to deconstruct the deconstructivism.

  9. Dan says:

    Very informative post. Found your blog while researching this topic and this was definitely one of the best responses out there! I’m curious to know if you’ve written anything about how to better engage/adapt to the changing postmodern culture while still be a biblically grounded Christian? Thank you!

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  11. Julie says:

    For the first time, I have an understanding of postmodernism. THANK YOU!

  12. […] was really the essence of post modernism.   And if three definitions weren’t enough Steven W. Cornell describes post modernism as a world in which “truth and reality are individually shaped by […]

  13. Timbo says:

    Brilliant, and so do I now have an understanding of postmodernism

  14. dear steve, i fully agree with the above comments. i searched the whole morning on the topic of postmodernism and i found your short, concise, and straightforward article as the best! as a catholic, it makes a whole lot of difference (i’m referring to your concluding point). more power and god bless. – jun rayco (philippines)

  15. Beth Clark says:

    Wow. This article is excellent. I feel like I’ve heard the term “postmodern” one too many times and realized I don’t fully know what it means. You wrote an extremely well-rounded, well-reasoned, article about it. Thank you for that. Best in class.

  16. […] that has resulted in both blessing and tragedy for humanity. Before the influences that came with postmodernity, science held the seat of authority in academia and much of culture. Postmodernity, however, […]

  17. Ted L. says:

    The postmodern definitely can hold some bizarre tenets. It seems natural to believe in universal truth, but the postmodern rejects it. In their worldview, murder is not inherently wrong. They will tell you it is always wrong, but morality is dictated by society. Universal truth is replaced with mere preferences.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Studying Sociology and stumbled upon your blog ‘postmodern’. Too many confusing definitions, but fully understand this. Thank you. Blessings

  19. google says:

    Outstanding post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic?
    I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Instead of viewing postmodernism as a theory which silences God, I’ve always considered it to be one which empowers Him. Applied to Christianity, it would mean that the voice of God is not present in any single object or concept, but is immanent in the plurality of aspects in the universe. It does dismantle the idea of a centralized church, and I might be alone here in welcoming that dismantling–it has always unsettled me that certain men and women presume to know God thoroughly by their own experiences, and presume that others can be forced into the same understanding. This practice has proved malicious in many situations that I have personal knowledge of, resulting in many turning away from a church that they feel is ostracizing them, through no fault of their own.

    Postmodernism empowers me as a Christian in that it gives me confidence in God’s immanent voice in me, when before my primary anxiety was: “what makes you think the voice of God in you is more true than the voice of God in me?”

    I suppose it hinges on whether you find the following phrase frightening or heartening: “As a result, people will be increasingly open to knowing God, but on their own terms.”

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