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How Can We Believe In God In A Postmodern World?

 Marcus Honeysett

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Also See Pluralism (All Paths.. One Destination?)
Claiming that it is intolerant to say that "all paths do not lead to the same destination" misses the point. The important issue is the truth or falsity of this assertion. It is tragically true that few of those who believe 'all spiritual beliefs are valid paths to God" seem to have made an in depth study of various religions to see if their claims are based on fact, or fairy dust. This simply because many, if not most, people seem to believe that religion is a matter of what you believe, and 'faith' has nothing to do with reality. Whether you have thought about it or not, whether you are willing to face it or not, the simple fact is... if two religions make truth-claims which contradict each other, they cannot both be right. As one example among many, when one religion says there is no God, another claims there is only one God, and others say there are many gods ... someone doesn't have their facts straight and that means they cannot be trusted to show you the path to God. Whether we realize it or not, we literally make dozens of decisions every day, based on evidence and facts, not feelings. Why are we not doing the same with religion?


Defining the Terms
Lets start by defining some terms.

When I speak about God, I am talking not about some nebulous idea of spirituality, but the God of the Bible. The Bible claims God reveals Himself to us, supremely when He became a man - Jesus Christ. He reveals Himself as creator of everything, and the restorer of a world that is broken by human rebellion against Him. The claim of the bible is that this God is knowable, and is the ground by which we test any claim to truth.

When our title speaks about belief, we are talking not just of academic acceptance, that yes, maybe there is a God, maybe there really was a person called Jesus Christ, but rather about whether it is possible to know Him in a way that is life-transforming.

And then we need to try and define postmodernism - which is a notoriously slippery word. Many people use it to mean all sorts of different things. Philosophical, artistic, cultural, literary, scientific, architectural disciplines all have their own distinctive postmodern flavours. A purely working definition might be something like this: “the outworking of relativistic pluralism across a wide range of theoretical, cultural, aesthetic and practical disciplines.” Relativism is the idea that all truth is relative rather than absolute. Pluralism is the recognition that we live in a multi-faceted and complex environment, where many cultures and systems of thought mix and mingle.

I want to make one further definition and that is of Postmodernity, as opposed to postmodernism. Postmodernity just describes the age in which we live - after the modern period. It is a coverall word for our cultural environment, and the forces within it: late capitalism, free market consumer economies, the fallout from modernism.

PostmodernISM on the other hand is postmodernity turned in on itself, to become a value system, and a way of understanding our world. Like any other ISM it has certain beliefs that it seeks to uphold. Postmodernism is currently doing a very good job of producing a culture that reflects its underlying assumptions - stylistically varied, pick and mix, little thought for universal ideas of truth or morality - we see these things all around. But we must retain our critical faculties, or we will simply buy into a theory and a culture each with a mutual interest in supporting each other. In a strange way postmodernism is becoming a new ideology for many. I say strange, because the triumph of relativism leaves a distrust of values so great as to proclaim the end of idealism.

The Mistrust of Metanarratives
All of which brings me to probably the most famous definition of postmodernism, Jean-francois Lyotard’s statement that it is a “fundamental distrust of metanarratives.” A metanarrative is am overarching system that claims the status of truth for itself. We could think of many - communism, consumerism, democracy, Christianity. And we know very well that many people won’t trust that sort of system any more. 20 years ago most of us would have hung poster of Che Guervara in our rooms, gone on student protest marches every Saturday, and found out what we were protesting about afterwards. Now many of us know an ache for meaning and significance, but little seems attractive enough to consume our energies and devote our lives to. The reason is postmodernism, and the ways it encourages us to think.

Now distrust of metanarratives has been a long time coming. As soon as Descartes uttered his dictum “I think therefore I am”, postmodernism was almost guaranteed. With that one statement, Descartes moved his world from one in which objective truth could be known because it depended on God who revealed things truthfully, to one in which the knower forms the criteria of what may be known. Not “God really knows stuff and I will pursue His knowledge”, but “I know, and I will pursue my knowledge”. What happened after that through a string of other thinkers, but particularly Immanuel Kant, is that people started to point out that we are not very reliable at knowing things. And if all I can rely on is myself, doesn’t that mean that knowledge is increasingly inaccessible?

A Crisis of Knowledge
Postmodernism has its roots in a crisis of knowledge. A crisis, as Habermas puts it, of legitimation. The argument goes like this: There is no universal knower, no God in the equation. I am the centre of everything, but therefore I have to decide the grounds on which my knowledge is to be verified. How do I decide what is true or false? To do so I need further knowledge, which also need to be verified, and so ad infinitum. Put simply, postmodernism claims that knowledge has collapsed under its own weight. It is no longer possible to talk about facts or truth, because even if they do exist, we can’t know them. When Nietzsche - so important in all this thinking - says “God is dead”, part of what he means is that we cannot base our knowledge of God on foundations we cannot verify. That renders God unknowable, doesn’t it?

But there is a further step. If we have no ground for knowing things, finally that means there is no meaning to anything, or significance to life. Now I know postmodernists will want to jump on me for saying anything so outrageous - please do so later. But we could go into many faculties today to find that the idea of communicating real meaning is thought to be non-sensical. Michel Foucault says “The Author is Dead”, by which he means that the author if a text doesn’t communicate meaning through it. Meaning comes from the reader - I inscribe it on the text, but even then the practice of deconstruction tells us that meaning is always contingent on factors that are not knowable. Epistemology - the science of how we know things - is a dead and buried category in a postmodern world.

We only have to define the world as a text - a place that communicates no meaning apart from our own, and all of a sudden we find ourselves deeply estranged from it, and from ourselves. The world is profoundly unknowable, epistemology has no meaning. Postmodernism moves into areas of ethics and spatiality, valuing relationships over propositions, to try and figure out how to live and relate to others in a world without value.

If we hold to a relativist position, we must conclude that I cannot tell whether anything I value is good or bad. I don’t know whether my values are good or bad - indeed the words themselves fail to communicate concepts of lasting significance. As the novelist William Golding said “If God is dead; if man is the highest; good and evil are decided by majority vote.” We have no standard by which to judge things, no way to agree with each other about right and wrong.

We find on many contemporary issues - sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, religion - we have no criteria left to judge. That is why debate so often degenerates into polemic. Without criteria to judge then if I challenge your ideas, then I am challenging your very self. If we have no criteria, then how dare I do so? But if we have no criteria, then we must also face the fact that all I value most has no significance above the personal, and I have no right to defend it. What do you most value? Relativistic pluralism challenges it to the core. What do you find most painful - the death of a close friend, the vast suffering you see in the world, fear of the future, of death. Relativstic pluralism renders these things meaningless.

The extreme end of postmodernism will even throws relationships into a quandary. There is no real ground for knowing someone else. I may perceive what another wishes to reveal, but I may misread completely. And here is the rub - there is absolutely no way to tell the difference. And not living in a world of “should” and “ought”, I have no way to know how to behave towards others or society either.

My contention is that postmodernism challenges our very identity. With buzz words like “the decentred ego” or “human as mutant”, what it means to be human is thrown into deep confusion. Not only can I no longer relate to others, but I don’t do such a good job with myself either. I can live for the moment, but my life is covered over by an impenetrable communication blackout. I am no longer able to give or receive meaning to anything or any one.

Can We Know God?
Now clearly not all relativistic pluralism has to offer is bad. In the past, for example, the charge has often been leveled at Christians that we find it easy to be imperialists, dogmatic and doctrinaire. Nietzsche said very powerfully that aside from whether God is knowable, many Christians make no difference between what God has revealed and their opinions. This is a challenge we Christians need to hear. When we tell how great God is, we can do it without any degree of respect for the point of view of another person, no matter how misguided we might feel it to be. Another example might be how easy I find it to read the Bible as a set of proof texts that simply back up what I think. I know lots of people who do that. If deconstruction teaches us one positive thing, it is to be very careful before saddling someone else with what I think God says on a matter. I find it very easy to snipe from a position of invulnerability, rather than listening to genuine questions and objections to Christianity. Christians have often destroyed relationships for the sake of propositions.

But how should we respond to the challenges that postmodernism throws up? Can we know God in an age that junks knowledge. Certainly, there is a real ache for God, left in the wake of the destruction of value, but we can also feel a real despair at ever knowing Him ourselves.

Disillusionment with metanarratives doesn’t take away the pain of existence. It doesn’t answer questions like “where did my mum go when she died” or “why am I hurting so much now she is gone?”. Now we mustn’t look to God as a crutch in the difficult times - a psychological necessity that lets me cope with existence. If that is all God is, then lets just face up to the fact and look for something better instead.

However the contention of the Bible is that God is not just a psychological help. He is really there, and He is not silent. In response to the charge that relativism sets to Christians, that we cannot actually know whether God exists, or what he is like, I must agree. I cannot know. I am fallible and finite, so how could I grasp a God who apparently is infinite and made all things. If God is there, He is in a different ballpark. But, if the creator of the universe chooses to reveal Himself, that is another issue isn’t it? Postmodernism revels in the thought of relationships in which what we can know about the other is what they reveal of themselves. Why should we have such difficulty with the idea of God revealing Himself?

The Bible says that God made us for relationships. It is poor relationship that has no communication. If He is there we might expect Him not to be silent. If He is there we might expect Him to want us to know Him, for the one who invented meaning to communicate Himself. Jesus Christ was just that - God communicating Himself to us, and allowing us into relationship with Him. Jesus is God come close, God saying “I want you to know me. I made you, I love you, I have the best for you.” Jesus is God offering Himself to us, offering real life to us. Making Himself knowable. “Life,” he says. “Do you want it?”

Jesus makes big claims for Himself - He says He is God, He claims to be able to reveal the truth, indeed to be the truth. The contention of the Bible is that He died to deal with the penalty for my wrongdoing, and He rose again to deal with the problem of death. If that doesn’t give significance to the world, I don’t know what does. [See Salvation]

Because Jesus is alive you can know God, have a relationship with your creator. Where postmodernism would write off a truth claim like that on the impossibility of knowing the propositional truth of the matter, the Bible says that first and foremost truth is a person. He comes, we get to know Him [See Section on Jesus] . That means that when God reveal propositions about Himself, about us and about the world, they are true because they are rooted in His character and knowledge [See Section on God], and they are verified by the fact that we can experience the truth of them in a friendship. Just as if my wife told me things about her that may or may not be true, and I discover the truth of them through being married to her, so knowing God verifies what He reveals about Himself. Truth is external to us - He can be known. He wants to know us in a real, trustworthy, life-changing way. And yet this sort of revelation is a category postmodernism refuses to acknowledge.

Is Belief in the God of Christianity Tyrannical?
It often does so by raising another objection. As the relativist claims that God cannot be known, so the philosophical pluralist objects that if God reveals His absolute truth, then He, and Christians, are justified in tyranny - the intolerant imposition of that will on others. I want to say two things about this:

    1. That although God has very clearly revealed Himself in Christ and through the Bible, part of what he says is that he allows us the absolute right to reject Him and go our own way. The Biblical picture is not a tyrant but a loving father, who wants the very best for His children, is able to give it to them, and yet is gracious enough to give us freedom to walk away from Him. No God is not a tyrant, but a wooer. He made you to receive His love. He has built freedom into the system, but we need to ask what freedom really means. Are we ever really free. Bob Dylan “Whether it is God or the Devil you have to serve someone.” God knows that ultimate freedom comes from knowing Him, and other things just enslave us. But He will let us be enslaved if that is what you want. He will even let you spend all eternity separated from Him in Hell, but He does want you to know it will be over His son’s dead body. If we choose to live without God, that causes Him great loss and pain, but He binds Himself by our decision. He is wonderful. [See Salvation]

    2. Neither are Christians tyrants. I don’t doubt some people fearfully misuse God’s name for the sake of evil. But really knowing God has the opposite effect. Our characters start to reflect His character. If God is prepared to let people ignore Him, then far be it for Christians to be tyrants. It is God who reveals truth. Our knowledge of truth is contingent on Him. We may know truth truly, but not exhaustively, so while we must try to you to respond to God’s overtures, I must also allow you the freedom to walk away that God allows you. This is real tolerance - in which we can truly disagree, and yet walk in mutual respect and concern. This is God’s tolerance.

Finally a world of relative meaning and fractured communication, a world without God, must own up to the ache for value and significance. It cannot with integrity do anything else. You may feel life is going very well right now, you might never have started to face the big questions of life, or face a bereavement, or experience a severe illness which leaves the haunting question “why” unanswered deep inside. One day you will face those questions. My contention is that life without God, as Coupland puts it, fails to satisfy. Suffering is not dealt with by recognising we are non-unitary fractured egos. The new philosophy cannot say whether things are good or bad, only whether they are useful to achieve my ends. Postmodern relationships do not offer hope, because they cannot offer certainty or security. [See Natural Disasters]

Security, certainty, hope, real relationships, are the stuff of life. We long for them, because we were made for them. I put it to you that not only is it possible to believe in God in a postmodern world, because his reality refutes claims to relativist knowledge, but we need to trust God in a postmodern world, because it is only with Him that we find deep satisfying answers and meaning to our existence. Its not all glib and easy. Life is often hard, but having God in the picture makes sense of life because He made life. He sees us inside the masks we wear, He is devoted to us despite all the muck of our broken lives, He cleans us up by dying and rising again for us. He loves you. He wants you and He wants you to love Him back. He is the terrific to a McLife in a postmodern world.


Index To Articles on Postmodernism