Opening teaser: Postmodernism is on a crash course with Christianity. In fact, we’ve already collided. Here’s how to sort through the wreckage.
[Author’s note: Much of what follows builds upon what was discussed in “Truth Is a Strange Sort of Fiction: Part I & II” found in the last two issues of Solid Ground. To make the most out of what follows, review those thoughts before you begin. Read part 2 here.]
I started my discussion last time by making a dramatic claim. I said that if someone genuinely believed there was no objective truth, then it was impossible for him to be a Christian. I said this for two reasons. First, because a very particular understanding of “truth” is central to Jesus’ teaching. Second, because that view of truth is the very thing being rejected by postmodernism. Unless this challenge is answered, Jesus’ message will never rise above the status of a curious sideshow to an emerging culture.
How did this come to be? That’s where I would like to turn my attention next.
Back to the Ancients
For thousands of years, very educated people and very ordinary people shared a handful of common-sense beliefs about knowledge.
First, they believed in persons and in things, that is, they thought there were “knowers” (them) and things to be known (the outside world). Further, they were convinced that they were capable of knowing something about that mind-independent world “out there.”
The ancients believed they had access to the world through certain tools of discovery that would connect them to reality in a trustworthy way. Chief among these were the basic reliability of the senses and the fundamental principles of reason.
They also had a deep conviction there was guidance from the unseen world—revelation—that could shed light on the process. The Christian thinkers especially understood that since God knew everything, their own knowledge was always, in a sense, secondary to His. Their human knowledge ultimately depended on God who could speak and aid them in their quest for truth.
The Christian view, then, was an amalgam between revelation and reason. Early Christian thinkers called this “faith seeking understanding.” For them, trust in the reliability of God’s revelation went hand in hand with careful thinking. They were two sides of the same knowledge coin.
Each of these—trust in the senses, trust in reason, and trust in revelation—gave the ancients and the Medievals confidence they could form accurate beliefs about their world. They believed that if they explored the world carefully and reflected on it thoughtfully in light of the guidance of revelation, it was possible for them to know the world as it was in itself—not exhaustively, not perfectly, but accurately as far as it went.
These people were called realists because they believed there was a real world to be known and that they could know at least some of it correctly and truthfully.
In the Enlightenment era (roughly 1550 to the mid-1900s), this equation was radically altered. In a bold stroke, the moderns banished God—along with anything that claimed to be His revelation—and made man the autonomous center of the universe. James Emery White calls it the “second fall.”
The first fall led to God’s expulsion of humans from the Garden of Eden. The second fall occurred when we returned the favor [and] …ceased operating with any reference to a transcendent truth, much less a deity.[i]
Reason, not revelation, became the measure of all things (rationalism), and was coupled with the primacy of sense experience (empiricism) as the primary means of knowledge.
This approach, however, introduced new problems. Enlightenment thinkers began to turn skeptical thinking that all knowledge of the outside world came to us through distorting filters, barriers that stood between us and reality. With our access compromised, any knowledge they thought they had was suspect.
In the 17th century, French philosopher Rene Descartes’ theory that we are trapped behind our “ideas of sensation” became widely accepted in Europe. Following Descartes’ lead, Scottish philosopher David Hume argued we are “trapped” behind our sense impressions with no direct contact with world. Immanuel Kant, a contemporary of Hume, concluded we can never know the world as it really is. We only know the appearances of things (the phenomena), not the things themselves (the noumena).
Notice what happened here. The realists of old were being replaced with non-realists, skeptics who denied we could know the objective world since we no longer had direct access to it. Instead, all we could know are appearances, a world “constructed” for us by our sense experiences.
This “constructivism” handed down from the moderns set the stage for the more radical skepticism of the postmodern world.
Let me pause at this point to offer a qualifier. Some will consider the characterization of postmodernism I am about to offer unconscionably spare. It is a complex cultural movement with many facets. My intention, however, is not to survey the field, but to offer a broad overview on the single issue that is most relevant to Christianity: the postmodern view of truth and knowledge.
In the 19th century, Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that all knowledge was “perspectival.” Everything we think we know comes from some personal perspective that disqualifies us from ever possessing objective truth. “Truths are illusions,” he wrote, a “mobile army of metaphors.”
Though it took nearly a hundred years for his idea to come home to roost in the culture at large, Nietzsche’s views launched a monumental cultural shift, the “turn” from the modern to the postmodern.
By 1970, postmodern views of knowledge began to take root in Western civilization. Coined initially as a description of architectural trends, the word “postmodern” was first used as a term of cultural analysis by French sociologist Jean-Francois Lyotard. He characterized postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.”
A narrative is a story. Every culture or sub-cultural group has one. It is their account of reality. A meta-narrative is an over-arching story, a story that is true for everyone, trumping all the rest. Lyotard’s deep skepticism (“incredulity”) that any individual account could be known to be the universally accurate story (“metanarrative”) is at the heart of the postmodern view of knowledge.[ii]
There is a reason for this doubt. Postmoderns think the influence of language so powerfully distorts our perception of reality that all hope of knowing the one true story (if it even exists) vanishes. Cultural biases have so seriously blinded us, we can never know things as they really are.
What we think we know about the “outside” world is merely a reflection of our cultural language on the inside, the “story” we find ourselves trapped within. Therefore, all claims to know objective truth are false because each of us is imprisoned, incapable of seeing beyond the limits of our linguistic constructions.
Though postmodernism is a reaction to modernism, notice how it retains one of its most debilitating elements—constructivism, but adds a twist to it. Instead of being stuck “behind” our sense impressions, we are stuck “inside” our language which manufactures reality for us.
And the barrier is impermeable. No one can ever get at the real world. Since all knowledge is socially constructed, postmodernists despair of knowing any universal truths at all.
No appeal to the fundamental principles of reason will help break the impasse, either. Rationality itself becomes a casualty in postmodernism, rejected in part because of its abuse in the hands of the moderns and in part as just another social construction.
The use of reason was not unique to the Enlightenment, though. It was also a tool of premoderns as well, of both Medievals and ancients. Rejection of the intellectual corruptions of modernity does not require a wholesale rejection of reason, but that is largely how it has gone.
What becomes of truth on this view? The word “truth” is still used by postmodernists, to be sure, but the meaning is so radically recast it can be safely said that there is no truth in what had been the ordinary and more natural sense of the word.
Some Christian postmoderns are defensive at this point. Since the word “truth” is still in their Christian vocabulary, to claim that they deny truth is taken as libel. Their complaint is disingenuous, though. Nothing remains of the former notion that a true statement describes the real world accurately. The old meaning is gone. Only the letters remain, and these letters signify entirely different notions.
The word “truth” could describe the internal harmony of the ideas of a story. When a story is well-composed, when its ideas fit together nicely in a mesh of interconnecting details, one might say those stories are “true” to themselves, that is, they stick together or cohere well without contradiction. This is called the “coherence” view of truth: True statements are part of an internally consistent “web” of beliefs that support each other.
On this view, narratives describing completely different worlds can still be equally true as stand-alone stories. Consider the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.
We’d never say that any detail of Narnia was true in a way that made any detail of Middle Earth false. That Aslan and Aragorn are both the king at the same time presents no conflict because they are in different stories.
In similar fashion, different narratives constructed by diverse cultures or religious communities are never actually in conflict because they represent distinctive stories. The “truth” of one does not render the other false. Any claim that an individual culture or a particular religion has the true story is either dismissed as nonsense or vigorously opposed as a throwback to the oppressive imperialism of modernism.
“Truth” could also be used as a synonym for belief. Since different cultural groups construct different worlds, these worlds are “true” for them because they believe them. All beliefs are truths for those who hold them; all truths are mere beliefs. That is all anyone is entitled to say. Truth in the traditional sense of the word—an accurate description of the world—is gone. Only the story remains. If one culture’s story serves them well (the “pragmatic” view of truth), why find fault?
In some ways, these ways of looking at truth are very attractive, especially in light of the exploitation and abuse that sometimes accompanied Enlightenment convictions about truth and reason. The postmodern view looks humble and tolerant to many. But there are problems.
First, it’s not at all clear that postmodernism escapes either the arrogant dogmatism or the abusiveness of its predecessor. Though the field is awash with variations on the postmodern theme, there is little sense that the rank and file are open to the possibility the paradigm itself may be mistaken. In addition, postmodern political correctness has produced its own brand of mean-spirited intolerance for those who do not follow in its step. This is especially obvious on university campuses.
Second, for the follower of Christ there is a very steep price to be paid. The postmodern definition of truth not only is very different from what most people seem to mean when they use the word “truth.” It’s also clearly not the way the prophets, the Apostles, or Jesus Himself used the word. They did not seem to be telling us their story. Instead, they seemed to be telling us the story, the way the world actually is.
The Postmodern Turn and Christianity
If you recall our discussion in the first two installments, you will immediately see the challenge that postmodern views of truth pose for Christianity. I argued that if someone genuinely believed there was no objective truth, then it was impossible for him to be a Christian. But objective truth is precisely the thing denied in the postmodern view of knowledge.
If this view prevails, Christianity is eviscerated. Paul himself said that if certain things were not actually the way he claimed they were—that is, true in the classical sense of the term, objectively true—then our faith is worthless and Christians should be pitied.[iii] A story cannot save anyone. Salvation requires a genuine Messiah because our sins are real, not fictitious.
Let me give just one example of the consequences postmodernism has for Christianity. It’s taken from a theology book I read in graduate school. It’s called The Theme of the Pentateuch, by David Clines.
My copy was a second edition which included an unusual “Afterward.” Under a section entitled, “The Modern and the Postmodern,” Professor Cline repents of the “modernist” sins that informed the writing of his first edition and assures us that he is now an obedient, card-carrying postmodern:
A key difference between The Theme of the Pentateuch and any book I would write on the Pentateuch now can be described as the difference between the modern and the postmodern. I mean by the modern the period since the Enlightenment, when, in a word, rationality became enthroned over dogma. The Theme of the Pentateuch exemplifies the interests of the modern period, in which the texts have unity and determinate meaning, and in which texts are to be viewed as the expression of their author’s consciousness….
Nowadays I tend rather to believe that texts do not have meaning in themselves, and that what we call meaning is something that comes into being at the meeting point of text and reader. If that is so, then meaning is reader-dependent and reader-specific, and there are in principle as many meanings as there are readers….
Who is to say, I would now ask, what meanings are and are not “legitimate”?….I have to accept that my interpretations are relative to myself, and I cannot rule out those of others as being “illegitimate”…. No one can judge for us, and no one can say in a postmodern age that some interpretations are “legitimate” and others are “illegitimate.”…The postmodern turn has put an end to the “modern” idea that the meaning of a text is the meaning intended by the author.[iv] [emphasis added]
This is a radical statement in light of historic Christianity. What are we to make of the Bible on Cline’s view? Indeed, what are we to make of Cline’s own work, The Theme of the Pentateuch? Is the professor trying to educate us on what Moses had in mind when he penned the Torah, or are such interpretations of Cline’s own book entirely up to the reader? If the former, then Cline has betrayed his postmodernist confession. If the latter, of what use is his book?
The dilemma Professor Cline finds himself in immediately suggests a lethal problem with postmodernism. I will address that problem in the next issue of Solid Ground.
Putting Your Knowledge into Action
Keep in mind that our common-sense beliefs about knowledge and truth have served us well since the time of the ancients principally because they are sound.
Remember that the classical Christian tradition taken as a whole did not cast reason and faith as opposites, but as allies (“faith seeking understanding”).
The problem with modernism was not its view of truth and reason. Premoderns used them both and so must postmoderns to make any progress with their ideas.
The chief problem with the Enlightenment was placing man in the center where God belonged. Truth, knowledge, meaning, and significance all crumbled quickly into confusion—and eventually despair of one kind or another—as a result.
When talking with Christian postmodernists, ask if Jesus is actually, in reality, the Savior, or is He just the Savior in a story. If just a story, ask how a fictional Jesus can save any of us from actual sin.
[i] James Emery White, Serious Times (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 18.
[ii] Lyotard was reacting to what he saw as the negative influences of modernity—understood as the Enlightenment's rejection of religion as a possible sphere of knowledge and its acceptance of scientism, the view that science is the only sure path to knowledge and progress. Lyotard rejected this modern view as, in essence, “straightjacketing” human individuality and cultural diversity. Consequently, he grew skeptical of any metanarrative that claimed to offer a complete, totalizing account of who we are as human persons.
[iii] In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, Paul used this language to describe those who deny the resurrection of Christ.
[iv] David Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 2nd ed. (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 130-133.