[This essay was published in 2009. For a more current (2021) reflection on the topic, please see “A Post[-]modern Disclaimer.”]
I use the term “postmodern” to describe a condition, not a belief system. “Postmodern” is how some of us find ourselves to be: no longer experiencing ourselves and our world comfortably within the “modern” paradigm; no longer able to trust the understandings, the ways of experiencing and being in the world, that came to us from the past.
What does that mean in practice — and simply? In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard wrote, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”
And what is a metanarrative? According to N. T. Wright, “Metanarratives are the big stories, or the big pictures — the big story of modernity is the myth of progress.” When Lyotard spoke of metanarratives, he was speaking of totalizing stories that provide an intuitive, teleological rationale for a society.
But I want also to apply that concept in Quaker fashion, turning its focus inward. Lois Shawver, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of corresponding, opens a way for that in her book Nostalgic Postmodernism: Postmodern Therapy by describing a metanarrative as “a highly generalized, indeed universalized theory about everything everywhere.” She advises us to “Think of a metanarrative as the central assumption that a person makes which is itself never questioned ….”
From a Quaker perspective, then, “metanarrative” can also name the normally-invisible, seemingly intuitive internal structure or orientation that shapes our thinking, feeling, and being in the world. (To say that it is internal is not to say that it is not socially shaped and reinforced; I am, in this brief post, “simplifying to the extreme.”) As readers of my Quaker Theology essay “The Psychology of Salvation: Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming the Early Quaker Experience” will know, I see original Quakerism as essentially an unmasking and dethroning of that “normal” psychological self-metanarrative — i.e., the pervasive subliminal orientation toward self that seems to characterize the human condition — and a turn, a new orientation, toward what John Woolman called “universal love.” How that critical process is understood and accomplished is the principal theme I hope to explore here — with, no doubt, many digressions along the way.
— George Amoss Jr., 7/7/09 (minor revisions, 10/13/19 & 12/20/20)
Suggested video: “Postmodern Philosophy and Theology”: