Understanding Our Postmodern World
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,  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
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.  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
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
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
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....”  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
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  (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. 
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
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  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
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. 
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.  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
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. 
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
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
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...”  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. 
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
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). 
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. 
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).
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. New York:
__________. 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.
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
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