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Understanding Our Postmodern World


Brian Morley



A western apologist once visited a tribal area of Africa and conducted an elaborate seminar for Christians on how to prove the existence of God. Afterwards a person came up and complimented him on his presentation but added politely that no one in that part of Africa doubted that God exists. What they wanted to know was which God to serve. The visitor meant well but failed to understand the specific spiritual questions being asked by that particular culture.


The more one understands about people’s ideas, the better one can communicate the truth of Scripture and the Gospel to them. That is why one learns about cults and religions, and why missionaries try to understand the cultures in which they live. But not enough Christians in the West put much effort into understanding the culture in which they live.


New believers who come into the church bring their worldviews with them. Furthermore, those Christians already in the church who do not understand worldview issues will not realize when they are embracing non-Christian concepts. Paul warned the Colossians not to allow themselves to be taken “captive by philosophy” (Col 2:8). Most Christians assume that the best way to prevent that is to avoid learning anything contrary to what they believe. But like it or not, worldview issues are all around, pressing in from the surrounding culture. Instead of trying to completely shield oneself from culture, Paul would advice a different approach: understanding something about the ideas that intrude and learning to discern between truth and error.


Biblically speaking, it is the Christian who should be doing the capturing, not the other way around. Paul said he destroyed “arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God,” and he took “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Christians are to tear down intellectual strongholds in order to free those who are deceived spiritually and are held captive by forces of darkness (2 Tim 2:26).


Paul knew the culture of his day. He could quote philosophers from memory (cf. Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12), use their terminology, and examine their views from a Christian perspective (cf. Acts 17:22-31). Not enough Christians today can do that–-including pastors, counselors, or even Christian scholars.


Western culture is undergoing sweeping and profound changes that are transforming the prevailing cultural worldview, especially with regard to the nature of truth. Like other periods of major change in history, the present one is a mixture of the old and new. In order to avoid becoming captives, and instead becoming capable of destroying strongholds so that Christians can do the capturing, one will have to go back and examine some past intellectual battles.


Christianity grew to dominate culture in the Middle Ages, joining faith (what is known by revelation) and reason to form a worldview that encompassed all of knowledge. Modernism rejected the medieval concept that knowledge is based on authority. Modernists based knowledge on the process of objective reasoning from observation, which became their concept of science. By the late eighteenth century, some began to challenge the supremacy of reason, the possibility of objectivity, and the ability to know the world as it is. The twentieth century saw increasing doubts about the objectivity and benefits of science, the self as a foundation for knowing, the connection between language and the world, and the very possibility of a worldview.


Within western-oriented cultures today there is an uneasy coexistence of modernism and what is loosely called postmodernism, [1] the name for the intellectual and cultural movement that reacted to modernism. Postmodernism is especially challenging for Christians, who claim to have the correct interpretation of an inspired text and an objectively true message that applies to all peoples and cultures.


THE ROAD TO MODERNISM


Unlike Judaism, which God established as a separate culture, the church was born into an existing culture. It shared with that culture and other ancient cultures the view that supernatural purposes shape events in nature and history. In spite of unseen forces, the physical world is real and can be known and described adequately in language. Early Christians seemed to have no doubt that words refer to things, and that propositions are true when they correspond to reality (called the correspondence theory of truth).


Differences between Christianity and Greco-Roman society brought persecution until the fourth century when Constantine conquered the Empire in the name of Christ. From that time forward, the church lived in an uneasy alliance with government, through which it eventually came to dominate all aspects of culture.


The goal of many medieval scholars was to form a grand synthesis of all knowledge–spiritual, philosophical, and scientific. It was thought that all parts of a worldview could be connected. For example, what we believe about logic and mathematics should fit the nature of God; beliefs about the arts should fit what we know about the spiritual nature of humanity; the role of government fits with a sovereign God and fallen humanity. In keepingwith this mentality, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) believed that there can be perfect harmony between the Bible, reason, and science because God is both the author of the Bible and the Creator.


The foundations that made this grand synthesis possible were soon challenged. For one, John Scotus (ca. 1274-1308) said that the will, not the intellect, is primary, and that this is true of God as well as humanity. This means that God does whatever He wants, not necessarily what is rational. If God did only what is rational, we could figure out truth with our minds by figuring out what is rational. But without rationality as a guide, we simply have to observe what God chose to do. Supposing that God’s will is primary helped shift the intellectual balance from reason to observation, and therefore to science.


Those who followed the Islamic philosopher Averroes (1126-1198) held to the theory of double truth by which reason could lead to once conclusion while faith could lead to another. William of Occam (1285-1347) continued to widen the divide between areas of knowledge by advocating that theology be separated from other fields. He intended to protect theology from attack, but eventually his work had the opposite effect.


For various reasons, the church’s spiritual and moral authority and power waned. In the sixteenth century, the Reformation church split from what we now call the Catholic Church. In the wars that ensued, thousands were killed in the name of doctrine. French philosopher Rene’ Descartes (1596-1650) sought certainty in the midst of the turbulence. He systematically doubted everything until he found the one thing he could not doubt–that he was doubting. This led to his famous statement, “I think; therefore I am,” and he proceeded to build up from there to an entire worldview. He bypassed the authority of the church and tradition to the ground of knowing the self. He thought the self could know reality as it is and was confident that one can accurately know his/her inner states.


It is significant that he thought he could be certain about some beliefs without having to appeal to other beliefs, a view known as foundationalism. Foundationalism accepts that some things can be known without having to prove them with other beliefs. Beliefs might be foundational because they are evident to our senses (e.g., “there is a light on in the room”), or because to doubt them would be nonsensical or self-contradictory (e.g., “the whole is greater than the parts”). These sorts of beliefs need not to be proved, just as no one would need to prove to you that your toe hurts after you stub it–you just know it hurts. Foundationalists seek to ultimately ground our non-foundational beliefs (beliefs that need to be proved using other beliefs) on our undoubtable, foundational beliefs. Many hold, as well, that these foundational beliefs help connect us to reality and save us from an endless chain of proof in which we believe A because we believe B, and believe B because of C, and so on. It is thought that the proof process has stopping points, because somewhere in all the things we know are some foundational beliefs, which need not be proved.


Because Descartes built his worldview on what he could know apart from presupposing church dogma and classical learning, he is regarded as the father of modern philosophy. [2] The Renaissance in which he lived was a time of searching for new foundations of knowledge. People turned first to classical civilization, then to the study of nature, using observation rather than tradition. Everywhere people were turning aside from the authority of the church and tradition to find answers independently. Increasingly, explanations for things were in terms of natural rathyer than supernatural causes. Theology, which once regulated knowledge and life, was becoming a separate field, disconnected from everything else. Though its increasing isolation seemed to put it out of reach of attack, it would soon go begging for relevance.


The modern mind-set was further shaped in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, sometimes called the Age of Reason. It was thought that humanity could solve all its problems if people would sweep away superstition and unfounded beliefs and instead embrace objectivity and reason. Humanity is not hopelessly sinful and utterly dependent on God, but merely ignorant. For them, reason was not the abstract deduction of one truth from another, used by medievals, Descartes, and Spinoza (1632-1677). Rather, it was objective drawing of conclusions from observation, the method od Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704). Reason seemed to be the answer to everything. Even nature itself seemed to be reasonable in that it showed design and obeyed natural laws. Some concluded, therefore, that it would be far better to get back to nature and be free of the artificial influences of society and church. Doctrine, which had been so important in the Middle Ages, was rejected as dangerous because people fought disastrous wars over it. Tolerance–not conviction–was the chief virtue; and science, not religion, would show us the way, they thought.


So the modern worldview replaced the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. Where the medievals had based knowledge on deductions from a sueprnatural tradition, modernism attempted to start on ground that was as neutral as possible. They believed it was possible to investigate an issue from a view-point that is free from all perspectives and requires only minimal assumptions, those that people would agree upon even if they hold different views on an issue. Investigations then could begin on intellectually neutral ground that is common to all perspectives on a matter. Modernists thought that the ideal way to reach a conclusion is to reason objectively from observation; in other words, scientifically. Working in this way, a person could discover objective truth that is universal, eternal, and independent of all perspectives. Furthermore, they had great confidence that everything fits together. What is true is also what is good (has value), right (ethically), and beautiful and is eminently practical for all persons and societies. They were confident that science would lead to a better life for the individual and society.


Modernism followed Descartes in regarding people as autonomous and able to related to truth as individuals. And as individuals, we can know our inner selves clearly and coherently. We can also describe truth in language that is objectively and unambiguously connected to reality. Using language, we can formulate theories that are universally true and independent of all perspectives and social situations such that they mirror reality itself. Everywhere there was optimism that humanity is steadily discovering truth, solving its problems, and progressing to a bright future.


By the late eighteenth century, however, noticeable cracks were visible in modernism’s foundation. By the twentieth century, postmodernism came to reject much of what modernity had stood for.


DISILLUSIONMENT WITH MODERNISM


After dethroning authority as a way of knowing, reason was facing its own demise. David Hume (1711-1776) showed that we cannot conclude even something as basic as that one thing causes another by drawing only from objective observation. All we really know is that one thing follows another. The idea of causality is added to our experience by our mind.


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) read Hume and realized something was very wrong with the idea that we must work only by observation (what comes from our senses alone). If talk of causality is anything less than perfectly legitimate, then we cannot know much about the world, and we certainly have no foundation for science. He concluded that knowledge comes not from our minds alone (as many medievals and Descartes thought), nor from our senses alone (as Locke and Hume thought). It comes from both. Our senses gives us information, and our minds structure that information.


The point is that after Kant it was widely held that knowledge is irreducibly a matter of interpretation, not just a matter of getting our minds to mirror reality. Furthermore, there is no way to get outside our minds to see what reality is “really” like. Therefore, we know only our experiences, not the way things are in themselves. And that means we cannot know that god exists, although it may be helpful in practical ways to suppose that He does. Kant made it intellectually fashionable both to doubt that we can know reality as it is and to focus on practical things, like ethics. Later that would be echoed in the pragmatism of John Dewey (1850-1951) and the neo-Pragmatism of Richard Rorty (1931- ), who both suggest that we cannot know reality in any full and final sense; we must settle for what works.


Whereas in the eighteenth century reason seemed to be the answer to everything, by the early nineteenth century it seemed adequate for only a narrow range of issues. What it missed, people thought, were the depths of the human spirit and the experiences that make us human. Subjectivity was all the rage in what was called the Romantic Age, which lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century.


G.F.W. Hegel (1770-1831) challenged the age-old concept that reality is unchanging. Western thought, including Christianity and most Greeks, had long held that behind change is permanence, and the core of that permanence is an immutable God. But Hegel said that reality–including God–is evolving to higher levels. A similar worldview was later held by philosophical mathematician. A.N. Whitehead (1861-1947), who inspired Process Theology in recent times. Process thinkers believe that God changes and that evil exists because God can do no more than try to persuade people to do what is right.


Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Danish Christian, foreshadowed the postmodern critique of modernist society as being destructive of individuality. He thought that modernism’s emphasis on such things as analysis, reason, and universal concepts weakened vital aspects of individual human life, such as commitment and “passion”–-things at the core of a life with depth and spirituality. Truth and things that really matter in life are not objective—they are subjective, Kierkegaard claimed. Typical too of postmodernism, he identified the media as a negative influence on culture.


Karl Marx (1818-1883) accepted Hegel’s idea that reality is changing on a fundamental level, but he did away with God and made humanity the focus of evolution. Humans are not a product of their sin nature, he said, but of their economic environment. So when workers throw off the yoke of those who control the means of producing wealth, that will usher in an ideal age of common ownership—i.e., communism.


For the most part, Marx’s followers did not use reason to show that opposing views are wrong. They simply reinterpreted opponents’ views from their own Marxist viewpoint. For example, those who did not agree that the world is divided into the oppressed working class and the oppressive owning class had simply been co-opted by the owning class. This approach contrasted with the modern age, which had sought to make intellectual progress through public discourse using reason and, as much as possible, premises that were common to both sides. Skepticism in the modern age had been rooted in facts or a lack of facts. But the approach used by Marxists has increased in the postmodern age and earned the name the hermeneutics of suspicion.


Rather than deal with the truth or falsity of an idea, this approach casts suspicion on the motives of the person holding it and supposes that we are prone to self-deception. It features less epistemological analysis of what is true or false and more psychological and sociological analysis concerning why people hold the views they do. Accordingly, skepticism in the postmodern age has more to do with beliefs about the nature of people and consciousness than with objective facts. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) found cause for suspicion on psychological grounds, proposing that beliefs are products of such things as wish fulfillment and repressed desires. Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900), who was as much as anyone a prophet of the postmodern age, supposed that the hidden drive behind all creatures is the desire for power.


The new psychological and sociological approach subverted the modernist idea that the individual has direct access to reality through the knowledge of his own mind. Marx claimed that the individual’s thinking is shaped by economic structures, Nietzche said it was the will to have power, and Freud saw unconscious (sexually oriented) drives. Descartes’s autonomous self, which supposedly could build knowledge on clear and distinct ideas, would continue to come under sever attack into the twentieth century. Modernism had made the self the building block of knowledge; postmodernism was making it the stumbling block.


Nietzsche considered morals as well as truth to be relative. There is nothing that is right fore every individual to do, he said. Furthermore, he believed that morals have wrongly been built on love and compassion. Darwinians evolution shows that nature’s way is for the strong to dominate and exploit the weak, something often mistaken for cruelty. The strong must be freed from the morality of compassion, which was invented by the weak for their own self-protection. Moreover, the strong must be freed from belief in God. He made no secret of what he regarded as the chief culprit in society. He said, “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity...the one immortal blemish of mankind....” [3] He rejected the quest of most previous philosophers and theologians for a worldview that provides a unified explanation of things. He thought that constructing such a worldview depends on having self-evident truths, whereas none could be had. Also, such persons wrongly focus on abstractions instead of more practical matters. His skepticism about the possibility of forming an all-encompassing worldview is typical of postmodernism. Also typical of much postmodernism is that it never attempts an all-encompassing systematic analysis or explanation of things.


As philosophy challenged modernism in a number of ways, new discoveries in science were challenging long-held ideas about the very structure of the world. Up to now, modernism had functioned in Newton’s universe of rigid causes and natural laws. Since those laws could be discovered by reasoning about observations, there was great optimism that we could know the world and control it. It was even thought that we could discover the natural laws governing things such as human behavior and society, which could also be controlled for the better. Marx thought he had discovered such laws, and Communists came to think they could control individuals and society completely.


Modernism never doubted that more human control was better. That is because they left divine purposes out of explanations of things (since they can’t be observed); thus there were no higher purposes than our own. Modernists had no reason to doubt that human purposes are good because they rejected any idea of a sin nature (the Fall couldn’t be proved by observation either). History seemed to confirm their overall optimism about human nature because, for example, there was a long productive peace in Europe after the Napoleonic wars.


But by the early twentieth century science seemed to be showing that the world was not that predictable after all. According to the “uncertainty principle” of physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), we cannot know both the precise location and speed of a subatomic particle. That seemed to show that subatomic particles are unpredictable and–contrary to Newton–events cannot be predicted. Among those who resisted this conclusion was Einstein(1879-1955), who said this shows nothing more than our present ignorance of causes. The universe is not unpredictable because, he said, God would not “place dice” with it. But Einstein’s own theories were wrecking the traditional concept of absolutes, showing that light is affected by gravity, and that mass and even time could change with speed. Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, people drew implications that went far beyond physics. It bewildered Einstein that people thought his theories showed that everything, even morals, are relative.


Science itself was being reinterpreted. It was always assumed that a scientist would prove something, and that the next scientist could build on that base. In this way, scientists’ knowledge makes steady progress toward objective truth. But Karl Popper (1902-1994) argued that a theory is not proved in any final sense because a new discovery could show it to be wrong. So science is not a matter of proving theories once and for all, but of holding them until they are disproved. Disproof is the key, and theories that cannot be stated rigorously enough to be decisively disproved are not scientific (a problem for the theories of Marx and Freud, he thought).


Then philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn [4] (1922-1996) argued that science does not make steady progress at all. It shifts from one major theory (paradigm 5) to another. Science works under a theory until too many things turn up that can’t be explained, and a new theory is then proposed. Some scientists accept it, while others remain loyal to the old view–other scientist who have believed it for a long time, for example. In Kuhn’s view, science is not a pure field where people with pure motives find pure truth. Philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) showed further that science is not uniquely objective but is more like other fields than has been thought; it uses creative imagination, for example. [6]


The view that an individual has direct access to reality by either clear and distinct ideas (Descartes) or sense perceptions (John Locke) was now regarded as simplistic. “Facts” are not outside us to be understood because we bring to any situation such things as assumptions and presuppositions, and they influence what we see and how we interpret it. Facts are already “theory laden,” it was said. If so, there is no way to be objective.


A similar revolution was underway regarding language. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) started out with the more modernist view that propositions picture reality and are connected to it. As such, they can be formed precisely and are either true or false. Wittgenstein made a remarkable change to the more radical view that the meaning of a proposition in its use. So propositions are not true or false, but useful or not useful. The meaning of propositions, like “God exists,” depends on such things as how people use it and how they live. Furthermore, since meaning is a social thing, the individual has not special access to truth, not even when it has to do with his own inner state. So we cannot be more sure that “my foot hurts” than we can that “there are ten chairs in this room.” This was yet another attack on Descartes’ idea that the individual and his mind is the bedrock of knowledge.


Structuralism continued the attack. The movement continued the earlier work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (pronounced so-SYR; 1857-1913), between a word of the thing to which it refers, and therefore a word does not join a concept with a thing in the world. It merely joins a concept with a sound. Furthermore, that connection is arbitrary and could have been made by a different sound. In addition, words have meaning only in relation to other words. He thus challenged the traditional view that language is connected to the world. Structuralists looked for meaning not in things but in relationships between things, just as a dollar bill has meaning only in relation to bills of other denominations and the monetary system. And like the constantly changing value of a dollar, structures are dynamic rather than static. It was thought that structures are everywhere in experience and society, and that they can be studied scientifically. Structuralists denied the modernist view that meaning is created by autonomous individuals using their own clear ideas. Instead, they regarded the individual as a product of society and language. [7]


POSTMODERNISM


As fundamentals were being rethought, historical and cultural events were colliding with many cherished assumptions of the modern age. Confidence in the goodness and perfectibility of humanity was crushed by two world wars, a cold war, a ruthless totalitarian states. Perhaps worst of all, after centuries of supposed progress, there was a holocaust in Europe–the very center of modernism. And far from being saviors, science and technology were undermining the quality of life with pollution, were offering governments unprecedented control over individuals, and were threatening humanity’s very existence with nuclear weapons.


Tensions in France came to a head in 1968 when strikes and riots by workers and students brought the country to a halt. French President Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) promised new elections and pleaded for order. Rather than support radical change, the Communist Party denounced the demonstrators and supported the government. Disillusioned, the political left then saw communism as part of the problem and began to look with greater interest on radical French thinkers.


Marxism had already been undergoing change. Even Marxists were beginning to realize that economics and the class struggle could not account for the breadth of history and human experience. As Communist regimes became more impoverished and repressive while capitalism flourished Marxists modified various core beliefs and embraced democracy. Louis Althusser (1918-1990), motivated by his Kantian interest in the nature of reality, tried to use structuralist insights to make Marxism into a theory of knowledge. By contrast, the so-called Frankfurt school went in a more humanistic direction, critiquing modern culture as dominating and dehumanizing. Mixing Marx and Freud, Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) said that capitalism represses human instincts. However, they can be liberated and then shaped through labor for a life of beauty, peace, and sensuality. As the father of the New Left, he claimed that revolution had to come from students, minorities, and intellectuals because workers were to stupefied by the products of their labor. Jürgen Habermas (1929- ) rejected postmodernism als heading toward relativism and irrationality. He sought to refine the Enlightenment’s quest for rationality, science that liberates, free communication, and a unified view of things.


While these Marxists [8] retained some measure of modernism’s commitment to a unified worldview, others accepted the postmodern belief in the impossibility of any such worldview. They have dissolved into the left’s many disparate and even conflicting social agendas, including gay rights, lesbianism, feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, anticolonialism, and anti-nuclear activism.


Michel Foucault (pronounced foo-KO; 1926-1984) broke with the Communist Party in 1951 and developed the view that oppression is multifaceted and pervasive, not just a matter of the owning class oppressing workers. As he saw it, the individual is dominated by society in different ways, especially by what is considered knowledge. He rejected modernism’s view that knowledge is neutral and a pathway to liberation. In a view exactly opposite to Francis Bacon’s claim that knowledge gives power to its possessor, Foucault regarded knowledge as both a product and a tool of oppression. Those with power decided what will be accepted as “knowledge,” and they use it to oppress people. So science is far from neutral, and it is not even clear that it–or the human race for that matter–makes progress.


Rejecting modernism’s search for both a single explanation of human problems and an all-encompassing worldview, Foucault as a post-structualist, along with many postmodernists, have followed Nietzsche’s more fragmented approach to reality. According to this perspectivist account, there is no single correct view of the world, but countless views that are correct in their own way. Influenced by this sort of thinking, some in the popular culture have concluded that since there is no single true perspective we should strive to be enriched by as many different views (and behaviors) as possible; all should be included. [9]


In the 1970s, Foucault had a part in developing post-structualism as he addressed problems within structuralism, a view popular since the 1950s. Post-structuralism took from structuralism the idea that language structures communication and thought itself, and that language is a matter of relationships and differences. It adopted Nietzsche’s radical relativism and Foucault’s conviction that power underlies knowledge. [10] It challenged structuralism’s view that meanings within language and culture are stable and so can be definitively analyzed.


A popular post-structuralist figure, Jacques Derrida (1930- ), claimed that meanings are always changing, or “at play.” Dictionaries give the false impression that words have stable meanings. However, those meanings depend on such things as our experiences, which constantly change. For this reason he opposed the work of structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908- ), who catalogued hundreds of myths because he thought their meanings were stable and could be scientifically analyzed. Not only does the flux of meaning make that sort of project impossible, thought Derrida, but we should welcome future creative meanings and not fixate on some idealized past. On a metaphysical level, he opposed the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), who thought we can grasp rality intuitively and with certainty, including nonphysical entities. But like others today, Derrida says we have no access to reality apart from language.


What makes this worldview radical is combining belief in the pervasiveness of language–that all thought and access to reality is through language–with a pessimistic view of the complexities and uncertainties of language. If we cannot get hold of language, we cannot get hold of reality, nor can we even communicate in any objective sense. That also means there is not truth in the traditional sense that truth is a matter of correct propositions about reality. The correspondence theory of truth (according to which propositions that correspond to reality are true) that undergirded modernism especially conflicts with postmodernism. We can never gain a neutral perspective outside of language from which to judge whether a proposition corresponds to reality. Eve if we could, for Derrida at least, language doesn’t stand still long enough to allow us to make statements that would be true forever.


Derrida continued to “deconstruct” assumptions underlying traditional views that language connects us to reality. He pointed out that much of our thought is shaped by opposing pairs of terms (“binaries”). Often the first term is dominant and favored over the second, as is the case with male/female and text/speech. He tries to show that this is overly simplistic. In fact, the very meaning of the first term can be dependent on the second. Such terms do not nearly divide and correspond to reality. Whereas speech is considered primary over writing, distinctions can be made in writing that cannot be made in speech.


Much language is based on distinguishing meanings of words, such as binaries. According to Derrida, we assume that we can grasp differences–and thereby meanings–but it is not so simple. For example, words often interrelate so that differences can never be finally and definitively pinned down. Since in French difference and defer are the same verb (différer), he playfully says that difference is (forever) deferred.


Derrida’s use of plays on words and the use by him and others of terms that are not carefully defined or consistently used have earned the suspicion and disrespect of philosophers who work in the more rigorous tradition developed in England and America. In contrast to the daunting style of the Continental tradition, the Anglo-American analytic tradition strives for clarity, consistency, and logical coherence. When Cambridge granted Derrida an honorary doctorate, nineteen professors took the unprecedented step of decrying his work in the London Times as incomprehensible gimmickery. [11]


Style and beliefs about language are not the only things that have drawn ire for thinkers like Derrida. His perspectives cast serious doubt on three of the very foundational principles of western thought since Aristotle (384-322 B.C.): the law of identity (according to which a thing “is what it is”), the law of noncontradiction (a proposition and its denial cannot be true), and the law of the excluded middle (a proposition must be either true or false).


A distinction in philosophy that is becoming more significant than that of analytic versus Continental is realism versus anti-realism. Realism is the view that some things exist independent of our minds, concepts, and language. Modernism assumed there is one reality, it is independent of us, and we are coming to know it with increasing accuracy largely through the scientific method. As anti-realists, some postmoderns claim that there are many realities constructed by many languages and cultures; each is equally valid. For the realist, there is one answer to a simple question like, “is the cat on the mat?” For the anti-realist, the answer is, it depends on such things as perspective.


This brings an unwanted consequence for the postmodernist who is a relativist. Is the slave oppressed if the slaveholder doesn’t think so and believes his perspective is as valid as the slave’s? Judgments about things like abuse, prejudice, and genocide seem to depend on there being a perspective that is correct regardless of what someone thinks–and that points us back to realism. Realists like John Searle (1932- ) would say that different languages and cultures only describe reality differently, but the reality is the same. He points out that much of our communication presupposes that reality exists independent of our words and thoughts.


Another challenge to realism comes from neo-pragmatists like Richard Rorty (1931- ), who considers the idea of truth a myth. Statements are judged by criteria that differ from one culture to another. Since there is no way to get outisde ourselves to some objective viewpoint, there is no way to see if the criteria are correct. Of course, we can evaluate the criteria of another culture, but we are only evaluating it from our viewpoint and have no right to say theirs is wrong. So we cannot say something is objectively true or false, just that it meets certain criteria. In the end, “truth” is whatever “survives all objections within one’s culture.” Similarly, Stanley Fish (1938- ) thinks we should give up any talk of truth because “I know x” and I believe x” amount to the same thing. Fish contends that the meaning of a text depends largely on the community interpreting it. When the community changes, the meaning changes.


The classical view of this issue made meaning a matter of knowing what the author intended to communicate. And that could be understood by looking at his language, background, the issues he was dealing with, and so on. In much postmodern thinking, meaning depends heavily on the person receiving the communication, which makes it a highly subjective matter.


Postmodern sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929- ) deals with the issue of the interpretive community from a different angle. He blames the media culture for removing the proper two-way dimension of communication. In our media-saturated, information-dominated culture, people become mere passive receptors. What is worse, the distinction between reality and imagery is obliterated, and we live in a “hyperreality.” We cannot even distinguish between images of ourselves and our real selves. This challenges the modernist assumption that we can interpret symbols accurately and rationally. According to Baudrillard, symbols are linked not to reality but to other symbols; thus we can have no more than partial meaning and understanding. He nihilistically supposes we are at the end of history, doomed to infinite continuation of our postmodern condition.


Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924- ) skeptically examines what he calls “meta-narratives,” which are explanations or mental commitments that people use to give legitimacy to other beliefs or activities (such as, the proper goal of a society is the good of its members). While modernism sought the one true metanarrative, Lyotard rejects such a possibility, professing “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Totalizing narratives (i.e., worldviews, roughly oppress minorities, he claims. They should be rejected in favor of diversity, pragmatic considerations, and micropolitics. He thinks that groups could be so different in their ideas and use of terms that they share no common set of rules to which both could appeal in order to settle disputes. In such cases the view undermines the traditional assumption that there are higher principles to which all viewpoints–even very different ones–can appeal. The confidence that reason is this type of universal principle was the basis for modernism’s optimism that truth and social harmony are attainable.


Scholars debate what all major thinkers have said, and it is no different for postmodernism. Some who study it closely are critical of popular treatments for making it sound more radical than it is. Whatever the case, postmodernism is taking on a life of its own in the popular culture, reminiscent of the way relativity developed cultural dimensions far beyond Einstein. Christianity needs to deal with the whole phenomenon, which could be summarized as opposing realism, foundationalism, the correspondence theory of truth, and all universally binding concepts, distinctions, or descriptions. It also suspects grand narratives and metanarratives (best understood as overarching theories and worldviews).


CHRISTIANITY AND TODAY’S POSTMODERN WORLD


If understanding postmodernism is challenging, constructing a Christian response is more so. It deserves an in-depth treatment, although here there is room for only a few suggestions. It would be simpler to reject everything to do with what we have broadly called postmodernism. But, like modernism. It occasionally has some valid insights into human knowledge and therefore is helpful in evaluating current worldviews. Modernism accepted the idea that truth is objective and universal–which fits the Christian worldview–but it also gave privileged status to naturalism. Under modernism, supernaturalism of any kind had to be proved. But since drawing conclusions from observations (i.e., science) was the preferred way of knowing, gathering sufficient evidence for religious belief was difficult. Add to that an additional assumption that was sometimes made–that we should believe something only in proportion to our evidence for it–and the result was that religious belief was viewed as, in essence, subjective or even irrational (conclusions Kierkegaard largely accepted).


Postmodernism highlights the limits of the human perspective and difficulties with langauge; it also questions human intentions. From a Christian perspective, it corrects some of modernism’s excessive optimism about mankind’s ability to find truth apart from divine revelation, and it has a more realistic view of fallen human nature. On the other hand, postmodernism does not consider the possibility and implications of linguistic revelation from an omniscient being, especially One who has formed the human mind and can illumine it.


The most fundamental problem is that postmodernism has gone farther in the wrong direction. The medieval worldview centered on God, modernism centered on reality external to the individual, but postmodernism centers on the ever-changing human perspective. In postmodern culture, even the line between the world as it is and the world as we create it is disappearing into virtual reality. So in the past few centuries humanity has increasingly departed from the centrality of God in life and thought. There has been a corresponding dimming of the prospect of finding objective truth and of constructing a comprehensive and coherent worldview.


Modernism gave the world science and technology, but at the price of increasing secularity. It built civil society on Locke’s idea that if all viewpoints are allowed into the public dialogue the truth will emerge. By contrast, the tendency of elements of postmodern culture–which in some ways goes beyond the theorists we have looked at–is to base tolerance on the metaphysical assumption that there is no single view that is universally true, but that many views are correct in some way. But like other forms of pluralism, a postmodernism that is pluralistic risks crucial contradictions. For example, in what way are the people right who think their view is the only correct one? If the answer is that they may be right about some of their beliefs but wrong to think they alone are correct, then the pluralist himself has the same problem–he thinks pluralism is the only right view! Furthermore, for the pluralist to make the claim that no one view is correct, he ahs to have the very bird’s-eye view of reality that he says no one can have. In practice, this type of postmodernist is assuming he has the very sort of neutral perspective he criticizes others for claiming to have.


There is further paradox in the way some postmodernism is practiced in the culture (not by theorists we have discussed). Like many forms of relativism, in theory it affirms tolerance; but in practice many who hold it tolerate only those who agree with them, as some victims of political correctness can attest. That may be because their form of postmodernism affirms little or nothing to which different sides can appeal to make a rational case: no shared reasoning process, perspectives, or universal truths. So all that is left to advance one’s agenda is power of various kinds, especially legal, political, and social.


More extreme forms of postmodernism have a further problem insofar as they can doubt on the validity of metanarratives. The problem here is that post-modernism itself is a metanarrative as evidenced by the fact that it has a theory of meaning, truth, justice, political action, and so on. It is akin to the paradox surrounding the statement, “This sentence is untrue.” If it is a true statement, it is untrue; if it is a false statement, it is also untrue. What are we to conclude about a metanarrative that challenges the validity of metanarratives?


If we get past that paradox, there is another one insofar as some forms of postmodernism claim that knowledge is not about universal truth but is merely a product and tool of power. We could ask, what desire for power produced postmodernism? And why should we believe it is universal truth about the way things are? Paradoxically, we should suspect that postmodernism is not about the way things are but is itself a manifestation of the desire for power.


Further paradoxes confront those postmodernists who wish to challenge the most basic principles of logic. One postmodernist was explaining how deconstructive logic was better than traditional binary reasoning and wrote, “the clearest distinction between traditionalist and deconstructive logic resides in...” [12] But in making her point she was distinguishing neatly between two things, one of which is considered superior. This, of course, is binary thinking. Some postmodern feminists such as Judith Butler and Helene Cixous go farther and argue that the very concept of reasoning is patriarchal and homophobic. [13]


Modernist skeptics said Christianity is untrue as evidenced by its (supposed) lack of support from reason and facts. By contrast, postmodernists may say it is arrogant for anyone to claim their viewpoint is exclusively the correct one.


Christianity developed sophisticated defenses to meet the modernist challenge. Traditional apologists accepted the idea that they could start from a neutral perspective and could reason using facts to the conclusion that Christianity is true. Other Christians rejected that general approach.


Can we arrive at a perspective by examining facts, as modernists suggest, or is there no possibility of a neutral view of facts, as postmodernists suggest? If we cannot reason from facts to a perspective, then it seems we are faced with two possibilities. The first is that we must hold a perspective without the support of any reasons to believe it, accepting it on the basis of our sheer decision to believe it or on some other nonrational basis, such as the feeling that it is true. The second major option is that we can accept our perspective because it best explains or interprets the facts. That is the opposite of reasoning from the facts to the perspective (as a modernist approach tries to do). The second approach reasons from the perspective to the facts.


But must it be one or the other, either from the facts to the perspective or from the perspective to the facts? It seems to be both since facts and perspective interact.


There is no doubt that our perspective influences how we see the world, including facts. But, too, we can encounter a fact that challenges our perspective. When that happens, we have to choose between maintaining our perspective by reinterpreting the fact or else adjusting our perspective in light of the fact.


A person can, of course, be too stubborn about holding to a perspective, as in the case of prejudice. For instance, a person may believe that all those who are x are lazy (where x is any group–ethnic, religious, etc.). When he meets someone who is x but not lazy, he can adjust his original perspective to the new one that not all x’s are lazy and reinterpret the fact by, for example, thinking that this person is not truly an x, or only appears to be hardworking but is not. Paranoia is another example of unwarranted commitment to a perspective.


When Christ’s miracles encountered unbelief, there were both reactions. Some changed their perspective from whatever they had believed about Him to the belief that He was from God (e.g., John 4:39; 11:45; 12:11; cf. Acts 9:42). Others stubbornly maintained their original (un)belief, refusing to let the fact of a miracle change it. Taking this approach, some Pharisees reinterpreted the fact of Christ’s miracles and concluded that He acted by the power of Satan (Matt 12:24).


There are times when we ought to maintain our original perspective and use it to reinterpret the facts before us. When Job was confronted with what appeared to be evidence of God’s unfairness, the right response was for him to maintain his belief that God is fair and conclude that there was another explanation for the facts about what was happening to him.


It seems legitimate, then, to reason both from facts to perspective as well as from perspective to facts. Reasoning from the resurrection to the Christian view of Christ could be one form of reasoning from facts to perspective (e.g., Acts 3:15; Rom 1:4). But there is no reason why we cannot also argue that the Christian perspective (or worldview) best explains the widest array of facts, including such things as why the physical universe is the way we find it, ordered and able to support life; why humans feel guilt and seek meaning in life; why some things in history have happened (such as why, of all ancient peoples, Jews have survived–in spite of persecution). [14]


Christians can confidently enter the arena of thought with a Christian worldview, knowing that they have the author of truth and God’s repository of specially revealed truth on their side. [15]


In the Christian worldview, truth is absolute, objective, propositional, and eternal–not merely relative, subjective, experiential, and short-lived. And it can critically encounter whatever is the current wisdom of this world, through which the world has not and will never come to know or understand God (1 Cor 1:20-21).


FURTHER READING


Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York: Guilford, 1991.


__________. The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guildord, 1997.


Erickson, Millard. Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responses to the Challenge of Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998.


__________. Truth or Consequences: The Promise and Perils of Postmodernism. Downders Grove, Il: IVP, 2001.


Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.


NOTES

 

 1.       In a narrower, more technical sense, Lyotard and Baudrillard are among the few postmoderns. Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, and Chomsky are Structuralists. Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault are post-Structuralists. Saussure, Barthes, and Eco are semioticians. Adorno and Habermas are post-Marxists. Rorty is a neo-Pragmatist.

 

 2.       In Descartes’ philosophy, it is God who guarantees that our clear and distinct ideas are linked to truth.

 

 3.       The Anti-Christ, section 7; in Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (reprint; London: Penguin, 1990), 196-197. Emphasis original. He subtitled the work, “Curse on Christianity.”

 

 4.       Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). His later thoughts are in The Road Since Structure (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). For an in-depth analysis, see Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions: Thomas S. Kuhn’s Philosophy of Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

 

 5.       Kuhn was interested in units larger than single theories. Hoyningen-Huene said Kuhn later regarded paradigms in the broadest sense as “everything subject to professional consensus in a given scientific community” (Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions, 142, and chap. 4, “The Paradigm Concept”). For clarity’s sake, I am using “theory” and “paradigm” as synonymous.

 

 6.       Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

 

 7.       Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (New York: Guildord, 1991), 19.

 

 8.       As a second-generation member of the Frankfurt school, Habermas greatly modified Marx’s views and is often regarded as only remotely Marxist.

 

 9.       Among theorists, Lyotard accepts a more readical subjectivity, whreas Habermas and Rorty advocate a more limited subjectivity.

 

10.     “[P]ost-structuralism,” Christopher Norris, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 708.

 

11.     Brooke Noel Moore and Kenneth Bruder, Philosophy: The Power of Ideas, 5th ed. (Boston:McGraw Hill, 2002), 445.

 

12.     Jerry Aline Floieger, “The Art of Being Taken by Surprise,” SCE Reports 8, Fall 1980; quoted in Millard J. Erickson, Truth or Consequences: The Promises and Perils of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 250.

 

13.     “Postmodern,” Bernd Magnus, Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 726.

 

14.     Though a case has been made involving each of these, I am not suggesting that each case would be equally strong.

 

15.     For a much more detailed treatment of postmodernism and a Christian’s response to it, see Brian Morley, Pathways to God: Comparing Apologetic Methods (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, expected 2004). Also, the author would like to thank colleagues Joe Suzuki and Grant Horner for their insights.

 

Taken from Think Biblically! Recovering a Christian Worldview, general ed., John MacArthur with The Master’s College Faculty, copyright © 1999. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 60187. This material is not to be electronically transferred. Down-load for personal use only.