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Apologetics for Postmoderns

by Douglas Groothuis

If a Christian apologist of postmodernist stripe were to stand on our equivalent of Mars Hill today, he or she might say something to this effect, something quite different in spirit from the apostle Paul's original address (Acts 17:16-31).

People of Postmodernity, I can see you speak in many language games and are interested in diverse spiritualities. I have observed your pluralistic religious discourse and the fact that you use many final vocabularies. I have seen your celebration of the death of objective truth and the eclipse of metanarratives, and I declare to you that you are right. As one of your own has said, "We are suspicious of all metanarratives." What you have already said, I will reaffirm to you with a slightly different spin.

We have left modernity behind as a bad dream. We deny its rationalism, objectivism and intellectual arrogance. Instead of this, we affirm the Christian community, which professes that God is the strand that unites our web of belief. We have our own manner of interpreting the world and using language that we call you to adopt for yourself. We give you no argument for the existence of God, since natural theology is simply rationalistic hubris. We are not interested in metaphysics but in discipleship.

For us, Jesus is Lord. That is how we speak. We act that way, too; it's important to us. And although we cannot appeal to any evidence outside our own communal beliefs and tradition, we believe that God is in control of our narrative. We ask you to join our language game. Please. Since it is impossible to give you any independent evidence for our use of language, or to appeal to hard facts, we simply declare this to be our truth. It can become your truth as well, if you join up. Jesus does not call you to believe propositions but to follow him. You really can't understand what we're talking about until you join up. But after that, it will be much clearer. Trust us. In our way of speaking, God is calling everyone everywhere to change his or her language game, to appropriate a new discourse and to redescribe reality one more time. We speak such that the resurrection of Jesus is the crucial item in our final vocabulary. We hope you will learn to speak this way, as well.

Having criticized the postmodernizing tendencies of three Christian writers in the previous chapter, the inadequacies of the above approach should be readily recognizable. It has no apologetic nerve; it is sapped of argumentative and evidential support; it has nothing unique or even provocative to say to postmoderns. If so, how ought we to communicate the Christian message to those imbued with postmodernist beliefs?

Biblical Apologetics: Arguing Truth in the Marketplace

Scripture makes a distinction between the proclamation of the gospel, the defense of the gospel and the communal manifestation of the gospel. Christians who subscribe to postmodernist ideas absorb the defense of the gospel into proclamation and manifestation, given their views on language, truth and rationality. However, F. F. Bruce's classic book The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament thoroughly demonstrates the early church's passionate apologetic impetus. He notes that "Christian witness in the New Testament called repeatedly for the defense of the gospel against opposition of many kinds - religious, cultural and political."1

Bruce observes that when Paul speaks of himself as imprisoned "for the defense of the gospel" and when Peter speaks of being "prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you," the Greek word is "apologia, from which we derive the words 'apology,' 'apologist' and 'apologetic."2

The apologetic emphasis in the New Testament inspired the "age of the apologists" in the second century A.D., when Christian intellectuals began to fight back against false charges and repression. For writers such as Justin Martyr and others, Christianity . . . is the final and true religion, by contrast to the imperfection of Judaism and the error of paganism. Not only does Christianity provide the proper fulfillment of that earlier revelation of God given through the prophets of Israel . . . it also supplies the answer to the quests and aspirations expressed in the philosophies and cults of the other nations. It was divinely intended from the beginning to be a universal religion.3

It is still intended to be a "universal religion," even in a day when universality is equated with antiquated or even dangerous metanarratives of totality and hegemony. An apologetic for the people of postmodernity must place the concept of truth at the center of all its endeavors. The term truth is so subject to abuse, dilution and distortion, it is incumbent that apologists define and illustrate the term, and engage post-moderns according to it. As I mentioned in earlier chapters, biblical truth is, as Schaeffer nicely put it, "true to what is"; it matches reality and it calls us to embrace God's reality with all of our beings. It is also revealed, objective, absolute, universal, antithetical, systemic and momentous, and it has intrinsic value.

The Hidden Dangers of Relevance

Because of the postmodernist redescription of truth, apologists must be wary of working to make the Christian message relevant to the felt needs of non-Christians. What is relevant to those enmeshed in postmodernity is not, typically, the biblical view of truth or biblical truths themselves. Our operative term ought to be engagement, not relevance. The performer Madonna is the apex of relevance to many postmoderns, but the protean princess of sexual seduction offers Christians nothing positive from which to draw for evangelistic or apologetic endeavor. Rather, we must dynamically engage the thinking of postmoderns with intelligence, sensitivity and courage.4

As Douglas Webster notes, our situation often demands that we "renegotiate the presuppositions" of our audience and not cater to its truth-decaying tendencies.5

When people are asking the wrong questions, or not asking questions at all, Christians need to introduce new concepts and suggest new ways of thinking. This means that we must reorient the discourse toward the nature of truth and the truths of reality, and away from human constructions, personal preferences and tribal leanings. Thomas Merton speaks of the insecurity of "being afraid to ask the right questions - because they might turn out to have no answer." This results in a sad condition of "huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask."6

Christians must shine the bright light of truth by raising penetrating questions and giving satisfying answers. When words are cheap and float weightlessly over a wasteland of artificiality and cultural triviality, followers of Jesus must utter and write words of weight and significance - words that point to the unshakable but approachable truths of the kingdom of God. Webster's comments on pastors and theologians also applies to apologists:

Jesus plunged his audience into truth too deep for humanistic consumption. The ocean of God's truth can be overwhelming apart from the grace of God. But ocean depth has always characterized God's Spirit-filled pastors and theologians. Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Edwards preached the Word of God with a sense of power and mystery. They did not interrupt the momentum of the truth with endearing human-interest stories and tension-releasing humor. They were seriously intense about pro-claiming the Word of God.7

At the same time we must appeal to areas of common ground and common grace. The postmodern condition may induce a kind of value vertigo, a disorientation regarding matters that matter. The often heard, flippant response, "Whatever..." uttered with a smirk and a slouch, does not slake the thirst of the soul for something beyond itself. "Whatever" is never enough when it comes to issues of forever, and ultimate concerns. Postmodernity, given its endorsement of religious pluralism and its rejection of the Enlightenment's rationalism, tends to be more interested in" spiritualities." This provides a point of contact, since the gospel clearly addresses the realities of the inner person. However, we must move from self-styled spiritualities to a Christ-centered spirituality, a spiritual way of being oriented to Christ as "the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6), the singular source for spiritual regeneration, sustenance and direction (1 Tim 2:5).

True Spirituality: Truth for the Soul

The postmodern temptation, as mentioned in chapter one, is to entice souls to create a self-styled spirituality of one's own or to revert to the spiritual tradition of one's ethnic or racial group without a concern for objective truth or rationality. In a pluralistic setting, people are exposed to all manners of religious teaching and may mix-and-match elements. Someone raised as a Buddhist may date a Jewish person and begin to enjoy the ceremonies at the temple. Or a nominal Christian may he impressed with the religious devotion of his Muslim coworker, who stops for prayer several times during a workday, and so want to know more about Islam. Or one can try to be nonjudgmental and simply appreciate various religious traditions without worrying much about the truth question.

To offset these tendencies a Christian apologetic should emphasize spirituality as set within a framework of objective truth. Otherwise, Christian spirituality will be seen as simply another pragmatic, relative, subjective option. God will be trivialized by being reduced to a mere means to avert boredom, create excitement, enhance self-image or give some order and sanity to family life. Furthermore, no major religious tradition - whether Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic or Jewish - has ever presented its doctrines as social constructions or as mere psychological aids to a more satisfying life. They have always been presented as truths concerning the ultimate reality and how we ought to relate to that reality. Scholar of religions Huston Smith, who is not an evangelical, rightly notes that "religions are worldviews or metanarratives - inclusive posits concerning the ultimate nature of things."8

That is, religions make claims that include all of reality; therefore, they also exclude claims that contradict their assertions.

In our pluralistic and postmodern context, it is helpful to articulate Christian truth claims in relation to opposing views - not to be contentious but to clarify what is being put forth and what is not. Any truth claim negates every proposition that denies it. This is the logic of antithesis, as discussed in chapter three. For instance, if Jesus is God incarnate, then he is not (1) a mere prophet of Allah (Islam), (2) a misguided reformer (Judaism), (3) an avatar of Brahman (Hinduism), (4) a manifestation of God (Baha'i Faith), (5) a God-realized guru (New Age), (6) an inspired but not divine social prophet (theological liberalism), and so on.

C. S. Lewis made the claims of Jesus Christ stand out in clear relief in his essay "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?" Speaking of Christ's unique claims to deity, he argued:

There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and asked him "Are you the son of Bramah?" he would have said, "My son, you are still in the value of illusion." If you had gone to Socrates and asked, "Are you Zeus?" he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, "Are you Allah?" he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, "Are you Heaven?", I think he would have probably replied, "Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste." The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.9

Consider the reality of antithesis concerning God. If God is a personal being who exists eternally as three equal persons (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), then divine reality is not (I) one in a unitarian sense (Islam, Judaism or Unitarianism), (2) an impersonal-amoral consciousness (some versions of Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age thinking), (3) nonexistent (Theraveda Buddhism, Jainism and secular forms of atheism), (4) many gods (Mormonism, Shinto and other forms of polytheism, animism), and so on. Given the confusions of postmodernity, much work must be done on the level of enunciating the very claims Christians believe, even before specifically defending those claims as true.

Steve Turner's satirical "Creed," which summarizes the perplexities of postmodern perspectives, makes this point well:

We believe that all religions are basically the same

at least the one that we read was.

They all believe in love and goodness.

They only differ on matters of

creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.

Having made Christianity's irreducible and nonnegotiable truth claims as clear as possible, apologists should engage in both negative and positive apologetic efforts. Negative apologetics can be taken to mean two things: deflecting criticism of the Christian worldview and philosophically criticizing non-Christian worldviews. Positive apologetics has to do with giving evidence and arguments for core Christian claims. Both are strategic in the postmodern context.

In the next chapter we will address the notion that metanarratives intrinsically oppress outsiders. That is the case for some worldviews (such as Marxist Leninism) but not for Christianity rightly understood, which is a faith rooted in God's love, grace and justice. This contrast should he made clear to postmodernists who suspect that all comprehensive views are latently totalitarian.

As I have emphasized earlier, claiming that the Christian viewpoint is true does not imply that any Christian's knowledge is comprehensive or perfect. The absoluteness of truth does not imply the absoluteness of our human knowledge. Nevertheless, God ordains that we use "jars of clay" to present the gospel to a lost world (2 Cor 4:7). As Richard John Neuhaus put it, "God's truth is strong enough to survive its passage through you and me."10

Exposing Postmodernist Nihilism

Negative apologetics entails zeroing in on the defects of the postmodernist way of thinking. Chesterton captured the activity of exposing philosophical error brilliantly in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, where a character describes the "work of the philosophical policeman" who is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at least to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.11

One salient element in challenging postmodernism is to demonstrate that with respect to ethics and meaning in life, it reduces to nihilism. While existentialism was a kind of revolt against nihilism, whereby the individual self valiantly created (or tried to create) personal meaning in a meaningless world,12 postmodernism shuns such heroism and simply accepts the free play of culture without too much seriousness. Baudrillard describes postmodernism like this:

The characteristic of a universe where there are no more definitions possible.. . . One is no longer in a history of art or a history of forms. They have been deconstructed, destroyed. In reality, there is no more reference to forms. It has all been done. The extreme limit of these possibilities has been reached. It has destroyed itself. It has deconstructed its entire universe. So all that are left are pieces. All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces - that is postmodem.13

Baudrillard is being characteristically cryptic, but the gist is that reality has lost its form, its meaning, its significance and its intelligibility. A thoroughly deconstructed universe is not a uni-verse but a plura-verse or multi-verse, which resists comprehension and cohesion and offers only chaos. When everything is deconstructed, no original remains. Everything is disconnected, fragmented and blown into a billion pieces- with which we can play. It is as if a stained glass window, which offered a pictorial message of a reality beyond itself when illuminated by the sun, were shattered into countless fragments, which a bemused on-looker is now rearranging into every pattern but its lost original.

Postmodernity may look and feel that way, at least when one is divorced from the supernatural revelation proffered through Christ and the Scriptures. But the "play" of the postmodern, in Baudrillard's sense, is hardly enjoyable or even recreational. It cannot re-create. Playing only has meaning in relation to non-playful activities (such as work or sleep), which serve to offset or bracket it. Play has historically been associated with joy or even ecstasy, wherein a kind of transcendence is experienced. Play may create an openness to a dimension of enjoyment outside the boundaries of the mundane. Peter Berger has even developed an argument for God and the supernatural from the social fact of play.14

The nature of play evokes a kind of timelessness and innocence that Berger takes to he a "signal of transcendence" even within the essential patterns of human culture.15

C. S. Lewis also argued that experiences of deep "joy" indicate a reality beyond the material, to Which our souls are sometimes exposed and in which they gratefully delight.16

But for the "saturated self" of postmodernism, the mundane, while multiform, is all that remains. One may rearrange the debris in any number of contingent ways, but there is no original order and no image that reflects a reality outside of itself. It is self-referring all the way down, over and over again. These fragments are not pieces of a puzzle, but puzzling pieces inducing an irreducible bafflement that can only succumb to a resignation, an exhaustion, in which all is tolerated because nothing is worthy of allegiance. Dorothy L. Sayers identified this tendency before the ascension of postmodernism:

In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.17

The apologist for Christ must seize on the dizzying meaninglessness of postmodernism and name it for what it is - nihilism, a nihilism that naturally induces the kind of sloth that Sayers condemned as sin. This nihilism encompasses ethics, purpose and personal identity in its merciless grasp. Playing with fragments is no play at all, but a mere diversion from the loss of meaning, a vanity. Vanity takes many forms, especially in an entertainment-saturated day, but at the end of the day-or when the power goes out-nothing remains but nothing.

This condition is unlivable - if taken seriously. The structure of human action presupposes goals and goods that are intrinsic, what Charles Taylor calls "hyper-goods" or ultimate goods. These goods are not in service of something else but good in their own right and cannot he explained in terms of what is nonmoral. Hyper-goods are "goods which not only are incomparably more important than others