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?
Part I A Historical Overview
Part II "Whatever Happened to Truth?"
Part III "Postmodernity and Society"
Part IV "Postmodernity and the Church"
Part V "Confronting Postmodernists"
Part I A Historical Overview
A great enemy has died – but few heard about the funeral. As a matter of fact many deny that she is dead at all. She was too tough, too mean; we fought her too long. But the evidence is in: Secular Humanism, which thrived under the shadow of modernity, and whom for decades we blamed for all the ills of society and church, has apparently passed away. Funerals are usually solemn occasions, but in this case we should rather rejoice. The "mean old witch, the wicked witch is dead." But before we start doing cartwheels, we had better look over our shoulder – her sister has shown up and things have just gone from bad to worse.
Humanism’s evil sister flies under the handle of postmodernism, and everywhere one turns these days she shows her ugly face. Both in the secular and religious media and literature the word postmodernism is bandied about, and the party has just started. Soon the word, if not the concept of postmodernism, will be as familiar to us as humanism has been in the past. So what is postmodernism, and how has it, and how will it, affect our lives, our culture and our churches? These questions, and the methods we must use to confront postmodernity will be the subject of our next several papers.
The Changing Times
We must begin with a broad overview of history and a look at the three philosophical and religious eras that have dominated Western civilization.
During the premodern era, which extended from Medieval times until the French Revolution of 1789, the Western world believed in the supernatural. No one doubted the existence of God (or gods). Spirits, demons and other beings existed beyond the realm of the senses; and this spiritual world somehow controlled and dominated life in the physical world. Of course there were many worldviews thriving under premodernism. Animism, mythology, Greek philosophy and Christianity all flourished and battled during the premodern era, but as diverse as they were all held firmly to a belief in some form of a supernatural spirit world. Biblical Christianity is obviously premodern in this sense.
When presenting the gospel it was not necessary to convince people that spiritual beings or gods existed – everyone believed this. The challenge was to persuade individuals that there was only one true God, who sent His Son into the world as the God-man to die for their sins. In many ways the premodern worldview (which still exists in numerous places throughout the world) was a more fertile environment for the spread of the gospel than either modernism or postmodernism. One of the criticisms leveled at Christianity during the last three centuries is that since it is steeped in premodernity it is primitive and foolish. The supernatural carries no regard in modern thought; therefore, the supernatural had to be jettisoned by the liberal church to gain respectability in Western society. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
The foundations of premodernism began to shake a bit with the arrival of first the Renaissance and then the Reformation, but it was the Enlightenment that proved to be its undoing. Influential philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) began questioning not only the dogmas of the past but also all sources of authority. By this time the Western world’s authority was to be found primarily either in the church (Roman Catholicism) or in the Scriptures (Protestantism), or in the case of Islam in the Koran. The architects of the Enlightenment challenged these authorities, including the beliefs founded upon them, and offered in their place human reasoning. "The goal of the ‘Enlightenment project’… was to free humanity from superstition and found a philosophy and civilization on rational inquiry, empirical evidence and scientific discovery. The term ‘modernism’ is often identified with this overall project. The modernist vision presupposed the power of rationality to discover truth." The Enlightenment would usher in the age of modernity. Michael Kruger writes,
"With the rise of the Enlightenment there came a new guardian of truth to replace the church: science. No longer would human beings stand for the irrational musings and archaic dogmatism of religion – science (with reason as the foundation) was the new god, and all intellectual theories had to bow and pay homage in order to be seriously considered. Science viewed Christians as being naively committed to ancient myths, unable to see past their bias and to take an objective and neutral look at the world. So modernity proffers the idea that mankind, armed with rationalism and science, is able to access absolute truth and make unlimited progress toward a better life for itself. Therefore, at its core, modernity is a celebration of human autonomy."
Deism would emerge for those wishing to be both enlightened and religious. The deist, which many of our country’s founding fathers claimed to be, believed in a God who created the universe and then walked away. Therefore a God could exist, even be worshiped, and at the same time human reason would become the final authority.
Some have conjectured that while the roots of modernity were evident many years before, the actual birth of modernism was in 1789 at the fall of the Bastille in France during the French Revolution. Gene Edward Veith reasons, "The French Revolution exemplifies the triumph of the Enlightenment. With the destruction of the Bastille, the prison in which the monarchy jailed its political prisoners, the pre-modern world with its feudal loyalties and spiritual hierarchies was guillotined. The revolutionaries exalted the Rights of Man. They dismissed Christianity as a relic of the past. During the course of the revolution, they installed the Goddess of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral."
As with all worldviews, except the biblical one, modernity would ultimately disappoint. People became disenchanted with reason and science, as neither was able to deliver on their promises to solve all human problems and reshape society into utopia. So disappointed did the Western world became with modernism that it finally breathed its last and has been pronounced dead. The date of modernity’s death has been a matter of much speculation. Some believe it was at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (exactly 200 years after its birth) since, of all social experiments, Marxism most fully attempted to implement the concepts of the Enlightenment. When Communism crumbled so did the last vestiges of the optimism in human ability that for so long propelled modernity. Others believe that, at least in America, modernity died on July 15, 1973, with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis. It was at that moment that Americans threw in the towel on their own utopia experiments, recognizing that reason, science, and technology had failed to enhance the lives of the poor and had actually brought more misery.
Whether modernity died in 1973 or 1989 may be debatable, but that it is dead is not. That is not to deny that many aspects of our society still operate under the vestiges of modernistic principles (and premodern for that matter), but an obvious shift has taken place in the mindset and worldview of the Western civilization. The new world view is called postmodernism.
Postmodernism is born out of the ashes of the failure of modernity. It is the reaction of the disillusioned. If the optimistic projections of the last two hundred years of the best efforts of reason, science and technology has failed; and if the tenets of premodernism with its foundation of revelatory truth is preposterous, then all that is left is the pessimism of nothingness, emptiness and uncertainty. Perhaps never has the book of Ecclesiastes been more relevant than now.
Postmodernity is relatively complicated, so it is necessary to probe carefully both its worldview and its effect on cultures as well as the church. At this point we simply want to recognize that at the hub of this philosophy, as well as all philosophies, is the issue of truth. To the premodernist, truth was found in revelation. To the modernist, truth can be found in reason and science. To the postmodernist truth is not found (indeed it is not capable of being found), it is created. Absolute truth is a fable. It is possible for me to create my own truth, and for cultures and subcultures to create their truth, but it is not possible to find universal truth that is applicable to all people. Such truth does not exist and should not be sought. Those who claim to possess absolute truth only do so in order to assert power over others.
Kruger explains, "Postmodernity, in contrast to modernity, rejects any notion of objective truth and insists that the only absolute in the universe is that there are no absolutes. Tolerance is the supreme virtue and exclusivity the supreme vice. Truth is not grounded in reality or in any sort of authoritative ‘text,’ but is simply constructed by the mind of the individual [or socially constructed]." Groothuis elaborates, "For these postmodernist thinkers, the very idea of truth has decayed and disintegrated. It is no longer something knowable…. At the end of the day, truth is simply what we, as individuals and as communities, make it to be – and nothing more." If this is so, then how do people make decisions and develop values, or even create their own truth? Kruger answers, "What are the postmodernists’ criteria for ‘truth’? Simply what works. The postmodernist is not concerned about absolute truth like the modernist; he defines his ‘truth’ by more pragmatic concerns: What makes me feel good? What solves my problems? What is attractive to me?" This concept of truth will be important to keep in mind as we study this worldview in more detail.
The reader may properly wonder, is not all of this postmodern philosophy a mere intellectual football being tossed about by the elite? Has this mentality really trickled down to masses? Unfortunately, surveys confirm that while the majority may be unable to define postmodernity they are increasingly becoming products of it. For a number of years Barna Research Group has been telling us that belief in absolute truth hovered at around 38% in America. That means that almost two out of every three adults in America deny the existence of absolute truth. But things have gotten worse. At the end of 2001, just a few months after the infamous 9/11 attacks, an alarming survey was conducted by Barna that found confidence in absolute moral truth had dropped to a mere 22%. Barely one in five Americans claim to believe in absolute truth, which is amazing considering, that according to Barna’s research, one out of every three Americans claim to be an evangelical Christian.
In other words, we not only live in a postmodern era (we can’t help that) but most of us have become postmodernist – even many who claim to be Christians. If this is not recognized and confronted we will inevitably interact with a world and church that we presume to be modernistic in thinking when they are not. We then run the danger of driving in one ditch or the other. In the first ditch are those who accommodate the spirit of the age. The liberals did this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by accepting modernism and denying the supernatural, including the cardinal doctrines of the faith. Unfortunately, those within the Christian community who have been on the cutting edge of watching the shift to postmodernism are wandering down the same pathway of the liberals of one hundred years ago. The market-driven, or seeker-sensitive, church leaders understand that the "consumer" now thinks like postmoderns. These leaders have decided that the only way to win postmoderns is to give them what they think they need in hope of giving them what they really need. This approach of accommodation has been tried before with disastrous and predictable results. In the other ditch run those who refuse to recognize that the world has changed. They run the risk of obsolescence. But there is an approach, a biblical one, in which we can remain faithful to the Word and yet speak to our age. This and other issues will be explored in future papers.
[TABLE OF CONTENTS]
Part II "Whatever Happened to Truth?"
The main character in Jean-Paul Sartre's famous novel, Nausea, examines life carefully and comes to these gloomy conclusions; "I was just thinking, that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing…. I exist – the world exists – and I know that the world exists. That’s all. It makes no difference to me…. Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance…. I do not believe in God; His existence is belied by science. But, in the internment camp, I learned to believe in men." Sartre was a leading proponent of the philosophical system known as existentialism, which was a reaction to the materialistic optimism of modernity with its infinite faith in reason and science. The existentialist measured life by other criteria and decided that it really was meaningless and absurd. Truth and purpose could not be found in science or reason, for that matter, it could not even be found in revelation. Truth, if truth exists at all, could only be found within the individual. Truth, then, is a personal matter. It is not something one searches for and finds; it is something one creates for himself. Your truth may not be truth for me and I may therefore reject it, for truth is not universal, it is individualistic. But this fact does not negate that truth for you. You can embrace your truth and I can embrace mine, but we dare not attempt to impose our truth on anyone else. To claim to have found truth is a deceitful tool by which we attempt to manipulate and control one another. It is a power play, pure and simple.
It is from this fountain of existential philosophical thought that postmodernism has sprung. Postmodernity has adjusted and expanded the teachings of existentialism, but its connection is unquestionable, as we will see as we outline some of the basic tenets of the system. The reader might be warned that much within postmodernism is complicated, ridiculous and contradictory. It is a system that makes little sense and is basically unworkable. Nevertheless it is the mood of the moment and has infiltrated the thinking of countless people in our society.
Also See Pluralism
Rejection of Universal Truth
That the rejection of truth lies at the center of postmodernity must be grasped to have any kind of handle on what is being taught. As with existentialism, there is a rejection of absolute truth. As in existentialism, truth is not found. It is created. But unlike existentialism, truth is constructed not individually but socially. That is, individual societies, cultures and subcultures develop their truth to which members of that community must adhere. However, this socially constructed truth is subject to change and is highly subjective.
When Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth?" he surely was not calling for a debate, but every philosophical and religious system before and since has dealt with that question. The prevalent answers to the truth question in Western society today are rooted in one of three sources: Scripture, the Enlightenment, or postmodernism. "In the biblical view, truth is that which is ultimately, finally, and absolutely real, or the ‘way it is,’ and therefore is utterly trustworthy and dependable, being grounded in God’s own reality and truthfulness" – and I would add, is revealed in Scripture.
The Enlightenment placed faith in rationalism, which taught that truth is knowable by the unaided intellect of the sincere truth seeker. Revelation was not needed; reason and science could provide the answers. It was under the influence of Enlightenment thinking that the framers of America’s Declaration of Independence would state, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Truth, not revealed by God but self-evident to the reasoning mind, was the hallmark of the Enlightenment. Some have claimed in recent times that fundamental/evangelical thinking is nothing but a product of the Enlightenment. Mark Noll (professor at Wheaton College), for example, has stated, "Virtually every aspect of the profound evangelical attachment to the Bible was shaped by the Enlightenment." But the rationalism of the Enlightenment, as Iain Murray tells us "is a use of the mind, which trusts in its own ability to arrive at truth about God without his aid and apart from revelation: it treats the mind as a source of knowledge rather than as a channel." So the Enlightenment and modernity believe the ultimate source of authority in the pursuit of truth is human reason; the Bible claims that source is found in the revelation of Scripture – a huge difference that Professor Noll has ignored.
So what does postmodernity propose? Kruger answers, "What are the postmodernists’ criteria for ‘truth’? Simply what works. Postmodernists are not concerned about absolute truth like the modernist; they define their ‘truth’ by more pragmatic concerns: What makes me feel good? What solves my problems? What is attractive to me?" Os Guinness is therefore right when he observes that due to postmodernism’s assault on truth and reason "objective, experimental, scientific data [has been replaced] with personal, anecdotal experience [as the source of truth in society]." In the Christian world, as we will see next time, things are not a lot better.
Of course, if truth, at the end of the day, is unknowable in any objective sense, and is reduced to what is good for "me," where does that lead us? To chaos, confusion and the "grand sez who." Groothuis writes, "If God is not invoked as the ultimate evaluator, the One whose words constitute moral truth… why should a given legal system be endorsed? Why should selves legislate morality…? Why should we seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number? What makes the Constitution the proper glue for our society? Says who?" He then quotes this rather sacrilegious poem,
Napalming babies is bad
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is wicked.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol
Pot – and General Custer too – have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserved to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
(All together now:) Sez who?
God help us.
Postmodern societies seem workable as long as communities, with their individualized brand of truth, stay isolated. But what happens when societies, each packing their own understanding of truth, collide? How is a country like America, with its melting pot of religions, ethnic backgrounds and the like, going to exist? By adopting a relativism mindset, which recognizes everyone’s truth as equal. Since there is no absolute truth anyway, your view is as good as mine. We should all live and let live; and by no means ever impose our understanding of right, wrongs, morals, and ethics on those of another philosophical community. This is the ultimate sin, perhaps the only sin, in a postmodern world. To a postmodernist an individual culture really does not traffic its truth, it tells stories – something they like to call narratives. To these thinkers, claims of truth are fictional, hence stories. When people develop a worldview all they are doing is telling a story (fiction) about stories (fiction), which is called a meta-narrative.
When all the dust has settled and the fancy words and ideas are reduced to their essence, what we have is a worldview that denies worldviews. In other words a true universal world-view is impossible because absolute truth is impossible. We may have values, morals, and concepts that work for us, or our subculture, but we cannot expect other subcultures to adopt our understandings for they may not work for them. Truth is simply that which works for a particular community and nothing more. A particularly interesting (and destructive) aspect of this is that postmodernists feel perfectly free to rewrite history to suit their own agenda. This freedom is warranted, they believe, because historical accounts are little more than fiction anyway, created by those who were attempting to manipulate and control the masses. Since history is a power play why not arrange it so as to accommodate our own interests now? A couple of examples of this would be helpful. Take first the historical/dramas of the modern media. Whether the facts support the murder of John Kennedy, the assassination of the Pope or the improper/immoral relationship of Thomas Jefferson with his slaves, does not matter. We are free to present history as we like, as long as we place the disclaimer that "some" of the events are fictional. Another good example would be the recent amnesia on the part of Westerners concerning the past Islamic/Christian conflicts in general and the Crusades in particular. Until recently both the Christian and Islamic communities were in agreement that the Crusades were part of a mutual contest between the two religions, a conflict that Islam initiated. But such sentiments are nowhere to be found today. It is fashionable to believe wicked Christians attempted to annihilate the innocent and peace loving Muslims, which is a complete distortion and rewriting of history. In any other age such fabrications would be revealed and debunked, but in this postmodern era they are embraced.
Also See Facts and Fables of the Middle East
Nothing is more important in the comprehension of postmodernism than its convoluted, incredible view of language. Veith says it well,
Postmodernists base this new relativism and the view that all meaning is socially constructed on a particular view of language. This set of theories, along with the analytical method that they make possible, can be referred to as "deconstruction."… Postmodernist theories begin with the assumption that language cannot render truths about the world in an objective way. Language, by its very nature, shapes what we think, Since language is a cultural creation, meaning is ultimately (again) a social construction.
Kruger adds, "Deconstructionism has relegated all texts to simply societal constructions – i.e., the reader’s own experience and perspective so conditions interpretations that there can be no one ‘right’ interpretation."
A number of problems are immediately apparent with deconstructionism. First, if words have no objective meaning; and all interpretation lies in the mind of the reader (hearer), then the logical deduction is that communication is impossible. Additionally, the reasoning, logic, and pronouncements of the postmodernist proponents are just as preposterous as anyone else’s. If the content of their words have no meaning, apart from the meaning you or I choose to give them, then they have nothing meaningful to say. Of course, that does not stop them from saying it.
Secondly, the evidence of postmodern thought within Christian circles is striking. It is becoming increasingly rare for Bible studies, sermons and Christian books to be based on proper hermeneutical methods. Rather, "what does it mean to me" is in vogue. Iain Murray, in his excellent book, Evangelicalism Divided, quotes Michael Saward as he surveys the evangelical scene of the 1980s that laid the groundwork for the postmodern church.
This is the disturbing legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. A generation brought up on guitars, choruses, and home group discussion. Educated, as one of them put it to me, not to use words with precision because the image is dominant, not the word. Equipped not to handle doctrine but rather to "share." A compassionate, caring generation, suspicious of definition and labels, uneasy at, and sometimes incapable of, being asked to wrestle with sustained didactic exposition of theology. Excellent when it comes to providing religious music, drama, and art. Not so good when asked to preach and teach the Faith.
How the postmodern worldview has infected society and the church will be the subject of our next two Think on These Things.
[TABLE OF CONTENTS]
Part III "Postmodernity and Society"
Having raced far too briefly through an overview of postmodernism, we will now turn our attention to an equally brief account of this worldview’s impact on society. Let’s begin with Western culture. Since absolute truth has been rejected, how does a postmodern society function? There exists a number of identifiable pillars propping up the postmodern vision – each of these pillars depend upon the others to prevent collapse of the system. As we will see, postmodernity is an inconsistent philosophy at best.
Truth Is Communal
We documented in an earlier paper that while postmodernity rejects absolute, universal truth, it does not reject all standards of truth. Drawing from the well of existentialism, which championed individualized truth, this newer worldview (which by the way claims to reject worldviews) believes in communal truth. That is, each culture creates its own truth, and the citizens of that culture are expected to adhere to their community’s concept of truth with its attached morals and values.
Of course, it does not take a genius to recognize that such a view is fraught with irresolvable problems. First, if multitudes of communities each have their own version of truth and those versions are at odds on many issues, then "true truth", as Francis Schaeffer used to say, cannot exist. Postmodernists recognize this little problem which is why they claim there is no true truth, only stories (or narratives). All pronouncements of truth are ultimately fiction. There is no final truth. If this is the case, the next problem to be faced is the dialogue between communities. As Groothuis states, "With these assumptions locked in place, any meaningful communication between, say, Aborigines and white Australians or white Americans and Native Americans would be impossible in principle. Each culture creates truth through its language, and language cannot refer to extralinguistic realities." This leads to a third problem. What happens when cultures, with their own fictional version of truth, clash? Americans call terrorism murder, but Islamic fundamentalists call it justifiable casualties during time of war. Who is right? Under postmodernism right or wrong can’t be determined because each culture operates under a different system of truth. A consistent American postmodern disciple might mourn the events surrounding 9/11 (based upon the Western society’s value on life) but they could not denounce the actions, which are rooted in the Islamic fundamentalist subculture’s value system. Living with a postmodern worldview is complicated, and when all the rhetoric is over, ultimately impossible.
It must first be admitted (and postmodern thinkers do so) that Western culture is still deeply dependent upon the borrowed capital of Christianity, along with its moral fiber and handle on truth and values. For example, a consistent postmodernist would have to agree that if a subculture found it morally acceptable to murder babies, gas Jews or enslave Blacks, then no one has the right to object. But of course postmodernists can’t live with such consequences of their own philosophy. They are grateful, for the time being, that they have a backup system such as Christianity, or else total anarchy would reign.
Still, the postmodernists cling gamely to the ideal of pluralism. We are told regularly by the media that we live in a pluralistic society, thus we must live and let live. At all cost, we must not even insinuate that we have the truth, for not only are such pronouncements offensive to others, they are downright arrogant. Carson writes, "Philosophical pluralism has generated many approaches in support of one stance: namely, that any notion that a particular ideological or religious claim is intrinsically superior to another is necessarily wrong. The only absolute creed is the creed of pluralism. No religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true, and the others false, or even (in the majority view) relatively inferior (emphasis in the original)."
Once again this reduces all of life to the telling of fictional stories. How can people with such an understanding of life make decisions and navigate without extreme frustration? They can do so only because they have accepted the idea of contradictory thinking.
By the way, a new understanding of tolerance is in vogue under postmodernity. Tolerance of people, even while rejecting their ideas was one of the linchpins of early democracy. Tolerance now means we must accept everyone's ideas as equally valid. To be critical of anyone's ideas is a sign of intolerance - which cannot be tolerated (The irony is obvious).
D. A. Carson gives the following example of the first generation raised in a postmodern age: "It is said that baby busters do not want to be lectured; they expect to be entertained. They prefer videos to books; many of them have not learned to think in a linear fashion; they put more store than they recognize in mere impressions. As a result, they can live with all sorts of logical inconsistencies and be totally unaware of them. How many times have I tried to explain to a university-age young person who has made some profession of faith that it is fundamentally inconsistent to claim to know and love the God of the Bible, while cohabiting with someone?"
The ability to believe contradictory things simultaneously is a hallmark of postmodern thinking. A few years ago Barna Research Group documented that two thirds of Americans do not believe in absolute truth (this number has recently risen to 78%). To claim to believe absolute truth does not exist is a self-contradiction in itself, for that claim must be based on a belief in something that is true – in this case that truth does not exist (gets complicated doesn’t it?). So the one absolute allowed in postmodern thought is that absolutes do not exist. But it gets worse, for the same Barna poll showed that 53 percent of evangelical Christians believe there are no absolutes. Veith makes this comment about these statistics, "This means the majority of those who say that they believe in the authority of the Bible and know Christ as their
See Section on Religious Pluralism
Savior nevertheless agree that ‘there is no such thing as absolute truth.’ Not Christ? No, although He presumably ‘works for them.’ Not the Bible? Apparently not, although 88 percent of evangelicals believe that ‘The Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all it teaches.’ Bizarrely, 70 percent of all Americans claim to accept this high view of Scripture, which is practically the same number of those who say ‘there are no absolutes.’"
This kind of contradictory thinking would be unacceptable in any other age but is common place today, even among Christians. Only in such an intellectual environment could the very same people embrace scores of competing ideologies. Take the field of psychology, which is almost universally trusted in the West. "If you need psychiatric help, you might be treated by a Freudian, a Jungian, a humanist, or a behaviorist. Your treatment might consist of telling about your childhood, recording your dreams, getting in touch with your feeling, or exposing yourself to operant conditioning. The philosophies behind these psychological theories are incompatible – Freud and the behaviorists cannot both be right – and the methodologies are untestable." But little contradictions like these do not matter in a postmodern era. It does not matter if competing therapies are mutually exclusive, all can be believed, although rational thinking would tell us that this is impossible.
Finally, what about ethics? "’A Zogby International Poll of college seniors came up with a fascinating finding. Almost all of the 401 randomly selected students around the country – 97 percent – said their college studies had prepared them to behave ethically in their future work lives. So far so good. But 73 percent of the students said that when their professors taught about ethical issues, the usual message was that uniform standards of right and wrong don’t exist ('what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity’)…. Since ‘truth’ is an act of community empowerment, truth is whatever the tribe or the individual says it is." So we are left with each individual or community choosing his or her own ethical and moral standards. If those standards contradict, then so be it. This is the only generation in history which has been able to declare contradictory and mutually exclusive claims on truth, ethics, morals, and values to be equally valid.
Since the one absolute accepted by postmodernist is that there exists absolutely no absolutes, how do postmodernists view those who claim to possess some form of absolute truth? With suspicion. Whether in the realm of history, religion, science or even medicine, the postmodern thinker believes that all truth claims are attempts to manipulate others. In other words, truth claims are nothing more that coverups for power plays. The only reason anyone would claim to know anything with certainty, since such a thing is impossible, is because they want to empower themselves and enslave others. One author gives these examples, "If the Declaration of Independence declares ‘all men to be created equal,’ it thus excludes women and since Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, it is no doubt a white, European male power play over the rest of society. Since the Bible uses the masculine pronoun in referring to God the Father, the Bible is merely a history of a male-dominated religion that must be rejected if we care anything about women."
Postmodernist thinkers have covered themselves well. They have denied absolute truth and any who would challenge them are intolerant power hungry tyrants seeking to impose their wishes on others.
Also See The Gospel a hate crime? Welcome to the 21st Century.
Postmodernity in Action
So how has postmodernity changed the cultural landscape of the Western world? Only moderate observation and thought should produce ample evidence of the affect of this worldview on education, morality, politics and religion. Let me mention two consequences, identified by Veith, that might not be as obvious. First, contrast the Civil Rights movement during the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., which stressed the unity of society. King’s goal was for equal rights and full assimilation for blacks in every avenue of American life. The postmodern Civil Rights movement is exemplified by Malcolm X, who stressed the disunity of society. Black nationalism with its recovery of African culture was his legacy. The modernistic Civil Rights movement emphasized integration of blacks and whites. The postmodern movement seeks to develop a black subculture that functions separately from the white world wherever possible.
Another consequence is terrorism, which Veith sees as the postmodern brand of warfare. Here is his argument: "The terrorist cell is in fact a model of postmodernism and its dangers. A group is segmented from the rest of society, insulated by its own self-identity. The group recognizes no values that transcend its own. Fueled by a sense of victimization, self-righteousness, and group solidarity, the terrorist cell will have no qualm about blowing up a building or machine-gunning innocent bystanders. Such bystanders are not seen as individuals, but as members of a group – as Americans or Bosnians or Jews. They share a collective guilt. Group responsibility, group injury, group blame constitute the mind-set of both postmodernism and terrorism."
Postmodernity is a ridiculous and unworkable worldview, but while it moves its way through our society it will leave much carnage in its wake. Its impact on the church will be our next subject. [TABLE OF CONTENTS]
Part IV "Postmodernity and the Church"
At certain points in history the church has served as a rebuke to the secular mindset of society. At such times Christians have challenged and exposed the popular fads that ruled the day, revealing those fads for what they were, shallow and empty, mere "broken cisterns that can hold no water" (Jeremiah 2:13). Sadly, now is not one of those points in history. Rather, the Christian community at the present time appears to be in lock step with the world system. Whatever the world is selling Christians seem to be buying. They may perfume it a bit, hang some religious ornaments on it, and throw some scriptures into the mix, but when stripped to its essence evangelicals frequently find themselves mimicking the world’s philosophy.
We find this true with regard to postmodernity. Rather than repel the forces leading this ungodly worldview, we have welcomed them into our camp, adapted their most appetizing features and structured our ministries according to their market research. What George Barna has to say carries considerably more weight in today’s local church than what the apostle Paul had to say.
Culture has always influenced the church, but in a real sense the postmodern culture has engulfed the church – and in many cases defined the church. We see its fingerprints everywhere we turn. We want to investigate some of the most obvious evidence of postmodernity’s influence within the evangelical community in this paper. It will not be a pretty sight. Then in our final paper on this subject we will address some of the means by which we can withstand the onslaught of this philosophical system.
In what ways has the postmodern worldview, which has only been in full bloom for less than two decades, impacted the evangelical community? Consider the following:
A Felt Needs Gospel
Gene Veith tells the story of an evangelical church which wanted to grow numerically and decided to use postmodern strategy. First came the market survey, which pinpointed a number of steps necessary to implement such growth in a postmodern age. For example, it was determined that the church must change its name because the term "Baptist" was a turn off in the community. And people would only come to church if it were convenient, so it was necessary to relocate to a prime location off the freeway. A modern facility was erected with all the bells and whistles that reflect a materialistic society. On the other hand religious symbols, such as the cross, were offensive to some, so the symbols were expunged. Not only symbols but words are offensive as well; it became necessary, therefore, to eliminate terms such as redemption and conversion. Of course, negative subjects such as hell and judgment had to be replaced with positive ones. "In abandoning its doctrine and its moral authority and in adjusting its teaching to the demands of the market place, the church embarked on a pilgrimage to postmodernism."
What is happening? Having discovered postmodernists’ disdain for truth, the postmodern church has determined that the lost will never be reached through the offer of authoritative truth. To claim to be in possession of absolutes is viewed suspiciously today, since it is a thinly disguised power grab, so we are better off not playing the "truth" card too openly. In order to reach the citizens of this age we must give them what they want. And what do they want? They want to have their felt needs met and they want to have a religious experience. If we want to attract people to Christ these days, we are told, we need to understand their mindset. The old gospel of redemption from sin, righteousness in Christ and a future in heaven with our Lord, just doesn’t play well any more.
I have documented this mentality toward evangelism from primary sources in my book, This Little Church Went to Market, so I will not repeat those things here. But read some of the observations by respected Christian leaders who see what has happened. D. A. Carson writes,
Weigh how many presentations of the gospel have been "eased" by portraying Jesus as the One who fixes marriages, ensures the American dream, cancels loneliness, gives us power, and generally makes us happy. He is portrayed that way primarily because in our efforts to make Jesus appear relevant we have cast the human dilemma in merely contemporary categories, taking our cues from the perceived needs of the day. But if we follow Scripture, and understand that the fundamental needs of the race are irrefragably tied to the Fall, we will follow the Bible as it sets out God’s gracious solution to that fundamental need; and then the gospel we preach will be less skewed by the contemporary agenda…. If you begin with perceived needs, you will always distort the gospel. If you begin with the Bible’s definition of our need, relating perceived needs to that central grim reality, you are more likely to retain intact the gospel of God (emphasis in the original).
Douglas Groothuis laments, "Some Christians are hailing postmodernism as the trend that will make the church interesting and exciting to postmoderns. We are told that Christians must shift their emphasis from objective truth to communal experience, from rational argument to subjective appeal, from doctrinal orthodoxy to ‘relevant’ practices. I have reasoned throughout this book that this move is nothing less than fatal to Christian integrity and biblical witness. It is also illogical philosophically. We have something far better to offer."
Veith is on the mark when he comments,
Instead of preaching that leads to the conviction of sin and salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ, the churches preach ‘feel-good’ messages designed to cheer people up. Some have described postmodernist culture as a ‘therapeutic culture,’ in which a sense of psychological well-being, not truth, is the controlling value. The contemporary church likewise faces the temptation to replace theology with therapy…. Evangelism, according to this model, does not involve proclaiming God’s judgment against sinners and His gracious offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, evangelism simply educates people as to how much God loves them. God really does not want to punish anyone; He wants all to feel good about themselves, to lead a full life, to be happy. Those who turn away from God will miss out on this abundant life, though the Holy Spirit may well bring them to Heaven even though they never knew Christ.
See What is "Agape" and How Did It Work?
And The Wrath of God
It is no wonder then that Groothuis shares one of my concerns: "One great danger of postmodernity is false conversions and the consequently hollow praise offered to God for saved souls that, in fact, are not saved. Those holding to a postmodernist view of truth may appear very ‘spiritual,’ and to go along with Christian belief to a point, just so long as religion meets their felt needs. Nevertheless, unless one knows Jesus Christ and his gospel to be true, one cannot be a Christian at all. One remains entrapped in the kingdom of darkness."
All the other ways that postmodernity impacts the church today are tied closely with this issue of the felt-need gospel.
Also See The Emerging Church
Following closely on the heels of the new age gospel message is the necessary rise in the popularity of inclusivism, or the idea that the Lord has sheep in other religions – some who will never hear the name of Christ. Inclusivism teaches that adult adherents of other religions can be saved by being good adherents of their own religions. This is the natural conclusion of pluralism. If no one is right, then everyone is right. Who are evangelical Christians to make the absurd claim that only they have found the key to eternal life? Such an attitude we expect from the unbeliever but as postmodernism invades the church, inclusivism is rapidly being accepted there as well. We might expect Clark Pinnock, John Sanders and maybe even John R. W. Stott to be inclusive adherents but some are surprised to discover J. I. Packer and Billy Graham among the ranks. Packer writes, "We can safely say (i) if any good pagan reached the point of throwing himself on His Maker’s mercy for pardon, it was grace that brought him there; (ii) God will surely save anyone he brings thus far; (iii) anyone thus saved would learn in the next world that he was saved through Christ." Billy Graham agrees. He stated in a television interview with Robert Schuller,
"Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven." Also See Inclusivism.
A Mystical/Pragmatic Faith
If truth is nonexistent, as the post modernist insists, then by default we are left with religious experiences, devoid of objective content, and pragmatism. Biblical Christianity has always run counter to both these errors. Colossians chapter two, for example, warns of trading in the substance found in the true knowledge of Christ for the shadows of mysticism and empty philosophies of a godless age. We dare not allow our times to mold our theology. Os Guinness warns,
"Whereas both the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons. For instance, they believe faith is true, ‘because it works’ (pragmatism), because they ‘feel it is true in their experience’ (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is ‘true for them’ (relativism), and so on…. The Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true. It is not true because we experience it; we experience it – deeply and gloriously – because it is true."
Postmodern Christians have reversed this order and now evaluate all truth claims and doctrine by experience. The notion that we know certain things to be true (at least true for us) because we have had some experience is running rampant within Christendom. And woe to the one who would insinuate that someone’s experience does not meet the test of Scripture. Such a person is judgmental and critical, and worst of all negative. So when experience and mysticism become the litmus test for truth in our personal life, we would expect that it would shape our corporate worship as well – and it has.
See Section Mysticism In The Church
If experience is the chief goal of our personal spiritual lives, then we should expect that experience would become the chief goal of our public worship as well. Too often the music, the prayers, and even the sermons are attempts to arouse emotions and provide an experience rather than convey truth. Monte Wilson is correct when he writes,
For the modern evangelical, worship is defined exclusively in terms of the individual experience. Worship, then, is not about adoring God but about being nourished with religious feelings, so much so that the worshiper has become the object of worship. When we study the ancient approach to worship, however, we see that the church did not overly concern itself with feelings of devotion, but rather with heartfelt and biblically informed obedience…. Probably the majority in modern American evangelicalism – having utterly neglected any commitment to the content of the Word and have ended with narcissistic "worship" services where everyone drowns in a sea of subjectivism and calls it "being bathed in the presence of the Holy Spirit." These people come to church exclusively to "feel" God (emphasis in the original). [See The Christian and Worship]
Postmodernity has even changed the preaching. In an article advocating leaving expository preaching for story-telling, George Barna says,
"Busters are non-linear, comfortable with contradictions, and inclined to view all religions as equally valid. The nice thing about telling stories is that no one can say your story isn’t true."
And so Christian postmodernists advocate leaving the authority of the Word of God because Busters will not believe it, and replacing it with the authority of "my story." We have to wonder, as the modern unbeliever takes a look at the modern church, are they seeing anything but their own reflection? [TABLE OF CONTENTS]
Part V "Confronting Postmodernists"
In previous papers I have discussed postmodernity’s encroachment on Western society and on the church, and identified the dangers and impact of this worldview. What do we do now? I believe we must be willing to go against the grain of a condoning society and display some holy intolerance. Doing so will surely be painful. We will be disliked, misunderstood, even vilified – but of course we will be in good company. Jesus, the prophets and the apostles all suffered a similar fate at the hands of unbelievers and sometimes even fellow believers. But did not Jesus pronounce us blessed when "men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me" (Matthew 5:11)? This is not the time to cave into the pressures that surround us; it is the time to take our stand for the truth. Pascal wrote, "And is it not obvious that, just as it is a crime to disturb the peace when truth reigns, it is also a crime to remain at peace when the truth is being destroyed? There is therefore a time when peace is just and a time when it is unjust. Weaklings are those who know the truth, but maintain it only as far as it is in their interest to do so, and apart from that forsake it."
While there are a number of fronts on which we must fight the postmodern worldview, we will catalog and comment on four.
The Truth Front
It is along the truth front that the hottest battles have always been waged by God’s people. What is different today is that now the very existence of truth is under attack. The postmodernist questions both the reality of truth and is suspicious of any who claim possession of it. Thus, the issue of truth is not an important one for this generation; they are far more interested in how they feel, their experiences (spiritual or otherwise) and having their needs met. This being the case, we are not surprised to find that "some church-growth advocates advise that churches tone down any emphasis on the objective truth of Christian doctrine because postmoderns have short attention spans and are only interested in their own felt needs…. [A George Barna survey reinforced this approach, stating that over half of evangelicals agreed with this statement:] ‘The purpose of life is enjoyment and personal fulfillment.’"
I believe this recent advice by the seeker-sensitive church to be the very worst route that we could possibly take. First, historically, this methodology has precedents of disastrous proportions. One of the most obvious examples is the founding of liberalism. The father of modern liberalism (which ultimately denied almost all scriptural truth) is considered to be Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher’s basic philosophy seemed benign enough, and not that far from conservative theology. He believed religion is primarily not a matter of doctrine, but of feeling, intuition and experience. But once that door was opened the fundamentals of the faith quickly began to evaporate. Soon Schleiermacher was instructing his students that the creation of an experience, not the teaching of the Word, was to be the object of the preacher. Liberalism, in the early years, rarely challenged cardinal doctrines directly. On the contrary, it claimed the authority of the New Testament for the view that Christianity is life, not doctrine (a battle cry we often hear today in evangelical circles). The fallout of liberal theology is evident in the twenty-first century, yet strangely its basic tenets are being mimicked today by the church growth experts (apparently without knowledge that they are doing so).
What should be our response? Do we simply "adjust" the teachings of Scripture to accommodate the whims of a deceived people? Certainly not – we must challenge the darkened understanding of our age, as did all the prophets and apostles (not to mention our Lord) in their age. Generally speaking our approach must be two-pronged. First, we must boldly proclaim truth. The godly found in Scripture never soft-peddled or minimized the message to avoid offending the sensitivities of the masses. Paul’s approach was not to debate or manipulate, but to preach the wisdom of God (I Corinthians 2). His message was foolishness to the philosophically trained Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, but that did not discourage him, for he knew that to the called it was the power of God (I Corinthians 1:23,24). The proclamation of truth is politically incorrect at the moment, and despised by the majority, but nevertheless, it is the only prescription that God has given for life and godliness. We will never heal broken souls by offering them a watered-down solution.
There is a second prong to our stance. Even as we proclaim truth we must recognize that postmodern individuals filter what we say through their own worldview. Michael Kruger is correct when he writes, "If a Christian engages a non-Christian in a debate without challenging his overarching worldview, then his effectiveness will be minimal; each side is playing by its own set of rules…. [Therefore the Christian must challenge] their opponents’ criteria for truth by showing that it should be God’s Word." In discussing how to do this, let’s move to the next front under attack, the Scriptures.
The Scripture Front
It is virtually impossible to separate truth from the Word of God. A belief in the authority of the Bible would spell the death of postmodernity. The problem is not only do we live in a postmodern era, but we also live in a post-Christian era that is accompanied by an abysmal lack of scriptural knowledge. Many university students don’t know that the Bible has two testaments. They have no knowledge of even the main characters in the Scriptures, and certainly no understanding of the biblical message and/or worldview.
See The Christian and Knowledge on THIS Page
The evangelical church must shoulder much of the blame for the drainage of scriptural knowledge from our society, a knowledge that was commonplace only a few decades ago. Far too concerned with the excellence in our musical productions, the entertainment of our young people, and the creation of worshipful experiences, we have all but neglected the systematic teaching of the Word. Surely our churches are still bulging with Bible studies, lectures and even sermons, but it is becoming increasingly rare to find the Word of God maintaining its centrality in the Christian community. Bible studies are often a mere sharing of ignorance, sermons are seldom expository and pastors and conference speakers work hard at keeping their audience happy and meeting their felt-needs. Ministers are being trained, not to be shepherds of the flock, but CEOs of a corporation. As a result, not only is the unbeliever ignorant of the Word, often the Christian is as well. Ignorant Christians live foolish lives, as they bounce from mystical experience to entertaining programming in hopes of finding an anchor. A return to the priority of the Word is the great need of the moment.
But there is a problem. Fueling this slide from scriptural understanding is a fundamental change in the hermeneutics with which we approach Scripture. The postmodern worldview has infiltrated how we interpret Scripture. Terms such as "new hermeneutics," "radical hermeneutics" and "deconstruction," while unfamiliar to the average Christian, nevertheless define a "new approach" to Bible study that stems straight from the postmodern textbooks. When we hear someone deny the obvious understanding of a passage of Scripture with, "Well, that is your interpretation," we are in the presence of a postmodern Christian, whether they have ever heard the term or not. This approach infuses all the meaning of a given passage in the reader, not in the text. Interpretation is subjective, not objective. When we come to a text of Scripture, we are told, we bring with us our biases and background so that the true meaning of the text is hopelessly lost to us. All that matters is what we think the text says – what it means to us. And "because meaning finally resides in the interpreter, there are as many meanings as there are interpreters…. That means no one meaning can ever be thought to be superior to any other meaning; there is no objective basis on which to evaluate them."
See Esotericism and Biblical Interpretation
So there we have it. We can now, thanks to postmodern hermeneutics, make great claim to being the followers of the Word of God, while undermining its very authority – at the same time having no concept of what has happened. The solution is as simple as it is profound. We must return to the absolute authority of Scripture, to normal hermeneutics, and to the centrality of the Word in our lives and churches. We must let the Bible speak for itself. It matters little what "it means to me." What matters is what does it mean to God. Our job is to discern God’s meaning and apply it to our lives.
The Evangelistic/Apologetic Front
A mistake often made by Christians is the attempt to out-debate the unbeliever through the use of evidence. If we could prove creation scientifically; if we could show beyond doubt the historical accuracy of Jesus; if Noah’s ark could be found, etc., then the non-Christian would lay down his arms and join our ranks. This is naïve at best. While there is certainly a place for showing the rationale of our faith, the fact of the matter is that the unsaved reject the gospel because their "foolish heart is darkened" (Romans 1:21). The message of Romans 1:18-32 is that God has planted knowledge of Himself within the heart of all mankind (v. 19) and has demonstrated his existence through His creation (v. 20), but the lost have chosen to suppress that truth in unrighteousness (v.18). They would rather live out their sinfulness than bow before their Lord.
Also See Defending The Faith
In the age of postmodernity the presupposition of the lost is that absolute truth is not a relevant issue. Until this is addressed we are often not even speaking the same language. For this reason, I believe that while we proclaim truth we must also undermine the listener’s worldview. Perhaps the best way to do this is to show that the postmodern philosophical system is unworkable – it is unlivable. For instance, postmodern advocates might say that everything is relative, but throw a rock through their windshield or steal their money and they will complain loud and clear. They may declare slavery, or the Holocaust, or terrorist bombings as evil, but they have no logical base for their declaration. The Holocaust may be immoral in their community but not in the Nazi community of the 1940s. Their system simply cannot work, for it cannot stand on its own merits. Ultimately, postmoderns are able to function because they steal liberally from the benefits of the Christian worldview. Their worldview provides no foundation to pronounce anything as wrong – or right. It is because their system simply will not work that the leaders in postmodernity admit an indebtedness to Christianity, even as they despise it. One cutting edge postmodernist, Richard Rody, says that he is glad for the "Jewish and Christian element in our tradition that can be invoked by freeloading atheists like myself." We need to seize this gaping hole in the postmodernist position. They have a world view that makes no sense, provides no answers and offers nothing but emptiness. This is the very opposite of Christianity. We can operate from a position of power because we possess truth.
The Gospel Front
The postmodern individual may be the easiest sinner in 2000 years to interest in the faith. Yet he is capable of living with contradictions. He can claim to be saved and at the same time live comfortably in moral rot. He can claim to have received Jesus but not believe in His historical existence. He can claim to be a believer in the inerrancy of Scripture but deny absolute truth. When the gospel is presented as a means of improving self-image, giving us a spiritual and thrilling experience, providing a source for success and fulfillment, or helping us overcome loneliness, we may be speaking the language of the age, however, we have so trivialized and distorted the gospel message as to make it meaningless. Groothuis warns that "no major religious traditions – 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."
Perhaps there has never been a time when it has been more vital to present the gospel message clearly and without apology. That Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins and give us His righteousness is the good news, which the sinner must understand. The issue on the table is sin, not felt-needs. Our postmodern generation needs to hear that we have offended a holy God and are thus separated from Him. If we do not tell them this we are in danger of preaching another gospel (Galatians 1:9).
Someone has said, "In leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear we may have fallen in." If so, let’s climb back out, open the Word and powerfully proclaim it from the housetops.[TABLE OF CONTENTS]