Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Is Postmodernism as old as the hills? Can it be Christian?

Should Christians embrace postmodernism? Some people seem to want to do just that. The following, which is a quotation from R. Wesley Hurd, suggests otherwise.

Hurd: Looking to man and not God, the optimism of modernism has proven itself ill-founded. The response has been postmodernism. The best Christian book on postmodernism that I have found is A Primer on Postmodernism by Stanley J. Grenz. In this article, however, I will have to describe postmodernism more briefly, which I will do by looking at five presuppositions inherent in the postmodern worldview:

(1) The quest for truth is a lost cause. It is a search for a "holy grail" that doesn't exist and never did. Postmodernists argue that objective, universal, knowable truth is mythical; all we have ever found in our agonized search for Truth are "truths" that were compelling only in their own time and culture, but true Truth has never been ours. Furthermore, if we make the mistake of claiming to know the Truth, we are deluded at best and dangerous at worst.

(2) A person's sense of identity is a composite constructed by the forces of the surrounding culture. Individual consciousness--a vague, "decentered" collection of unconscious and conscious beliefs, knowledge, and intuitions about oneself and the world--is malleable and arrived at through interaction with the surrounding culture. Postmodernism then, in stark contrast to modernism, is about the dissolving of the self. From the postmodernist perspective, we should not think of ourselves as unique, unified, self-conscious, autonomous persons.

(3) The languages of our culture (the verbal and visual signs we use to represent the world to ourselves) literally "construct" what we think of as "real" in our everyday existence. In this sense, reality is a "text" or "composite" of texts, and these texts (rather than the God-created reality) are the only reality we can know. Our sense of self--who we are, how we think of ourselves, as well as how we see and interpret the world and give ourselves meaning in it--is subjectively constructed through language.

(4) "Reality" is created by those who have power. One of postmodernism's preeminent theorists, Michel Foucault, combines the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas about how those in power shape the world with a theory of how language is the primary tool for making culture. Foucault argues that whoever dominates or controls the "official" use of language in a society holds the key to social and political power. (Think, for example, of how official political "spin" control of specific words and phrases can alter the public perception of political decisions, policies, and events.) Put simply, Nietzsche said all reality is someone's willful, powerful construction; Foucault says language is the primary tool in that construction.

(5) We should neutralize the political power inherent in language by "deconstructing" it. Another leading postmodernist, Jacques Derrida, theorizes that the language we use when we make statements always creates a set of opposite beliefs, a "binary," one of which is "privileged" and the other of which is "marginalized," and the privileged belief is always favored. For example, if one says "Honey is better for you than white sugar," this statement of opinion has "privileged" honey over white sugar. In the arena of morals one might say "Sex should only happen in marriage," in which case the experience of sex in marriage is "privileged" and sex out of wedlock is "marginalized." Derrida argues that all language is made up of these binaries, and they are always socially and politically loaded. "Deconstruction" is the practice of identifying these power-loaded binaries and restructuring them so that the marginalized or "unprivileged" end of the binary can be consciously focused upon and favored.

VR: It seems to me that these theses of postmodernism are as opposed to Christianity as atheism. The difference, what really makes it dangerous, is that the postmodern can talk the talk of Christianity and walk the walk of postmodernism. That is, one can say all sort of things that sound very Christian, speaking a longuage of faith, all the while "deconstructing" their own conversation in such a way that it means nothing. That some Christians are buying in on postmodernism is, quite frankly scary.

In the public debate that I show to my World Religion classes it is Keith Parsons, the atheist in the debate, appeals to Paul's words that if Christ has not been raised, the gospel is null and void.

1 Corinthians 15:17-20: And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

And while William Lane Craig disagrees with Parsons on a lot of things, the two of them, very importantly, agree on this critical matter. Both of them assume that Christianity is a claim that can be either true or false, and that if the resurrection really happened then it's true, and if it didn't then it's false.

Postmodernists will say that they each have their own "truth" and there is no reason to have a debate. Sometimes when I show this debate to students they react the way Rodney King did to the Los Angeles riots: Can't we all just get along?

I stand 100% with Craig and Parsons, and against the postmodernists. Christianity makes claims. They are either true or they are not. If they are, they determine for us the purpose of our existence. If they are false, then those who live on the basis of Christianity are misguided. Let's not be seduced into "getting along" in the wrong way.

One further point. Is postmodernism really a new idea, or is it really as old as the hills, or perhaps even as old as the devil. Way back in ancient Greece Protagoras, and the Sophists who followed him, said "Man is the measure of all things, of those that are, that they are, of those that are not, that they are not.

William Lawhead, in his introductory text on philosophy, claims that there were two main themes of Sophist philosophy: skepticism and success. Knowledge of the truth, they said, was unattainable. The second theme was success. He writes:

The second theme of the Sophists was that achieving success is the goal in life. Of knowledge is impossible, then it is useless to seek for what you can't find. Instead, you should just try to get along. The Sophists taught that you should not ask of an idea, "Is it true?" Instead, you should ask "Will advocating this idea help me." Don't ask of an action "Is it right?", Instead, you should ask "Will performing this action be advantageous to me." To the success-driven young people of Athens, the search for truth gave way to the marketing of one's opinions. The search for moral correctness gave way to promoting one's interests. Accordingly, the Sophists taught the skillls of rhetoric, debate, public speaking, and persuasion.

VR: The more things change, the more they remain the same.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Reppert,

I have not been able to figure out a way to email you, so forgive the 'public' nature of a comment that I'd much rather make in private.

I have the utmost respect for you as a Christian, and scholar, and we share similar interests...

But I wonder that you don't see that the many 'isms's of Postmodernism as a general school of thought are a logical outworking of the way you yourself philosophize about Christianity?

I know this can't help but sound antagonistic, and for that I apologize, but do you not see the connection?

Why do you approach discussion with these non-believers as if non-belief were an intellectual matter, when the Bible you espouse states emphatically otherwise?

How can the methodology contradict the philosophy?

Why do you argue historically for a "philosophy of history"?

Why do you offer proofs for God's existence when God's Word itself says everyone knows that God exists?

I'm ever-baffled by this.

Can you comment a bit?

Anonymous said...

Hey Vic,

I agree with much of what you say, though I am somewhat troubled by the "postmodern" caricature. I think there is a disconnect between your run of the mill "it's all relative" college student and your ivory tower academic postmodernist.

For example, the oft-cited definition of postmodernism, the suspicion of metanarrative, is not so much a statement of relativity as it is a rejection of foundationalism. James K. A. Smith claims that postmodernism is about acknowledging that our narrative is grounded in faith and NOT, as the moderns would have it, in reason.

To quote Lyotard:

“[T]he problem with metanarratives has nothing to do with the scope of their claims…but the nature of their legitimization.”

Myron Penner, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, 126.

Anonymous said...

Well, there is a "Postmodern Christianity" page on that Wikipedia.

The Uncredible Hallq said...


Here I want to say I share in your bafflement that Christians, and apparently conservative ones at that, would embrace postmodernism. Alister McGrath, for example, seems to think it's a really nifty weapon for attacking non-Christians, never considering the effects it has on Christianity. I suppose that it somewhat understandable, but the backfiring nature of the approach is so obvious that you'd think he'd see it.

Anonymous said...

I'll only approach one part: the argument about the validity of the Christian faith via the reality of the resurrection.

Yes, Paul was saying that the Christian faith is only true if Jesus had risen from the dead. But to him, the resurrection was a dynamic, inexplicable event with ripple effects in the lives of many. To say that it is true is not simply a "yes/no" statement - it is a statement filled with all kinds of interworkings and external effects. It caused people to live starkly different lives. It's not something that can be answered "yes" to and then simply left on the table. It's something that keeps asking questions, and can only be answered personally by a personal encounter. Thus, truth is being communicated not by an absolute objective, but person to person, from God to man...

In the same vein, Jesus didn't say that the Way, the Truth and the Life is some abstract philosophy, but Himself, a person... thus, Christianity is not merely a belief statement but a life to be lived, and one of power.

My own suspicion is that postmodernism is ultimately less an attempt to stray from the truth and more an inevitable human phenomena due to God's own willingness for people to seek personal truth from a personal God - the only way it can truly ever be given.

To sum up, the truth is not contained in a statement. The truth is contained in a Person. This is the only answer to the itching questions that have been irrevocably opened by the minds and hearts of many.