“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who did as much as anyone to explain and popularise what we may call “postmodernism”, recognised the defining feature of our age as the decline of the metanarrative, or, as this is often translated “grand narrative”. This is particularly a Western phenomenon, with our culture rooted in Christianity which more than any other religion, is based on a grand narrative. The linear progression from creation, through fall and redemption and on to judgement underlies everything.
So perhaps it should not be surprising that Western opponents of Christianity have generally operated by setting up alternative grand narratives. Karl Marx is a very obvious example – his grand narrative is driven not by God but economics, but it similarly moves through stages and reaches a culmination, this time in communism. The liberal grand narrative of the Enlightenment sees mankind gradually adopting reason, tolerance and democracy, breaking free of the shackles of superstition, religion and authoritarianism. A variant of this can be seen in the work of Richard Dawkins, the most high-profile critic of Christianity, whose grand narrative is about the working of evolution, and lives being improved by the gradual advance of reason and science. This particular narrative reached a peak around 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and apparent triumph of democracy and liberalism, famously proclaimed as “the end of history” by the American academic Francis Fukuyama.
All of which, it is obvious now, was thoroughly premature. The financial crisis of 2008 showed modern capitalism to be built on the shakiest of foundations. Nationalism is now resurgent throughout the Western world. Asian countries quietly continue to increase their economic and cultural power with a model very different to Western liberalism. The grand narrative has gone into reverse.
This exposes something important. Critics of Christianity like to think they have dispensed with God but maybe they have simply changed His name. Perhaps He now goes by the name of Science, Reason, Economic Progress, Destiny, but continues to work out His plan in history. Such approaches have much in common with Christianity, share many of its flaws and must also be considered increasingly untenable.
This brings us to the idea of the Death of God, not just the Christian God but also all the other Gods who, in various systems of thought, have replaced Him. To experience the Death of God is to surrender all of those “grand narratives”. It is to abandon a sense of overarching meaning or transcendence and stop looking “out there” for something that will give purpose to our lives. Lyotard suggests that instead of the grand narrative we look for “little narratives”. We embrace our existence in the here and now, without reservation and without looking over our shoulders at what the higher direction might be. We look into the abyss, into the chaos, know that this is all we have, and say yes to it.
And above all, abandoning transcendence, we look to our world here and now, and in particular the rest of humanity. For me, this was summed up by the great German Biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen. Concluding his Prologomena to the History of Ancient Israel he wrote:
“…if the Church has still a task, it is that of preparing an inner unity of practical conviction, and awakening a sentiment, first in small circles, that we belong to each other.”
We need each other and belong to each other. Nothing is inevitable and we can only depend on each other if we are to secure a better future. This is the literal and moral truth that becomes clear to us if we can accept the death of God.