Postmodernism & the Modern Church (II)
Postmodernism has a bone to pick with the Enlightenment and its certainty about knowledge. What postmodernists find objectionable about Enlightenment thinking is its ideology vis-à-vis certainty. Douglas Groothuis has aptly pointed out that “The Enlightenment vision of unleashing reason’s powers in pursuit of universal knowledge and technical mastery of the world has failed.” I concur that the demise of Enlightenment ideology is needed. I welcome it. Paramount in Enlightenment ideology is the thesis that man no longer needs God to make sense of the universe and the world in which he lives. This thesis is known by many as “the modern mind.” A life and worldview is constructed leaving God out of the picture and relying on reason to create (scientific) certainty.
The upshot of Enlightenment ideology is that “we are living in a culture in which we are bombarded every day by values and concept that come out of humanistic philosophy.” In other words, rather than God being the center, in Enlightenment thinking man is the center. Enlightenment dictates gave rise to a secular “metanarrative” that ostensibly explained the universe. Eric Voegelin has aptly delineated many of the negative concepts and philosophies that emerged from Enlightenment ideology such as the French Revolution, revolutionary existence, the apocalypse of man, anarchy, inverted dialectics, and the genesis of Gnostic Socialism. But it was not and it still is not the monopolized territory of secular postmodern philosophy to criticize and critique Enlightenment ideology.
No, Christians have written about the deleterious notions of the Enlightenment for quite some time. There is, in truth, no lack of scholarly criticism of Enlightenment thinking from the Christian perspective. David Wells is to the point when he writes, “The gatekeepers to our culture have not allowed Christian ideas past the threshold.” Therefore, until recently, American culture has meandered on its merry way refusing to listen to the pointed criticisms by Christians about Enlightenment thought.
One example can suffice here. When I was studying theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, the late Dr. Hans Rookmaaker taught art history there. He loved American students and he would host informal discussions on the history of art in the cafeteria (Dutch: mensa) of the Vrije Universiteit. I spent many profitable hours listening to this learned Christian man discourse on art and artists. He wrote a book entitled Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, which is still available today and I highly recommend it.
Rookmaaker was a meticulous scholar, but his work was all but ignored by the Dutch and American cultures. Though critical of Enlightenment notions, Rookmaaker was ignored by the “cultured despisers” of the Christian faith. The point here is simply this: If the Enlightenment philosophers loathed Christianity, what is to prevent the postmodern philosophers from doing the same? I will argue that in fact the postmodern counterparts dislike God as much as devotees of the Enlightenment. This is why it is all the more ironic that so-called Christians are so enamored of the ideology of postmodernism.
If the culture ignored Rookmaaker I have to wonder what McLaren, Bell, Lamott (except Lamott is a secularist and it a legitimate question as to whether she is truly saved), Miller, Pagitt, or others for that matter, have to offer in the field of art that Rookmaaker didn’t offer. Why would the culture listen to us parroting Rookmaaker now if it wouldn’t listen to him earlier? What cataclysmic changes have occurred to coerce either the Enlightenment or postmodern mindsets to welcome our observations about the bankruptcy of both movements? Where is Eduard Mönch when you need his scream?
So, postmodern philosophers are calling the operating tenets of the Enlightenment into question and it should come as no surprise that non-Christians are, once again, going with the proverbial flow. Postmodernism and its elite academicians are as far from God as their Enlightenment counterparts. This is the latest fad to come down the pike and especially in its pop-cultural variety, it promises new freedoms. What the philosophers have promised in academia has been watered down enough for postmodern man to be able to grasp primarily through the entertainment media. Since many—if not most—people live life almost totally unreflectively, what do we expect from the non-Christian world? It doesn’t really matter how you stack it, you still end up with the same old pile.
What might shock us, however, is that some Christians, especially the younger ones, also are “buying in to” the whole postmodern scene. I intentionally used the word might in the previous sentence to make the point that really we should not be all that shocked at all. The two biggest consumers of postmodern thinking are both the now almost-defunct mega-church movement and its newest sibling: the emergent (or emerging) church movement. As we shall see, these two movements that seem to be at each other’s throats actually have a great deal in common—a great deal.
But there is more. Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, recently gave a talk entitled, “You Can’t Handle the Truth: Addressing the Tolerance of Postmodernism.” One of Johnson’s theses is this: “I’m convinced that postmodernism is inherently incompatible with biblical Christianity.” He is simply echoing what I and a number of other Christian theologians have been saying for the longest time. Of course, you shouldn’t get the impression that Johnson simply makes the declaration and then moves on, but he substantiates his position very well—something that postmoderns don’t like and something that Christian pastors who have foolishly embraced the tenets of postmodern don’t want to hear.
Johnson gives a number of reasons why he, as a Christian, is opposed to Christianity’s involvement with postmodernism. First, he explains that the postmodern way of looking at the world is fundamentally anti-Christian. All you have to do is to peruse the postmodern’s array of philosophers and this truth becomes painfully evident painfully quickly.
Second, Johnson contends that “postmodernism is based on an erroneous set of unbiblical beliefs, and we need to oppose it with the clear and careful application of biblical truth.” Many have been saying these things to the pastors who insist on “engaging the culture, but too little or no avail. Johnson is spot on when he comments: “Listen: the Christian message has always been out of step with the times…. The gospel has always been out of step with the wisdom of the world.” When are we going to get this simple truth through our thick skulls?
Third, postmoderns deny that “absolute truth may be objectively known. And that is the central idea that gave rise to postmodernism.” That being the case, how can any Christian pastor or any Christian embrace this tenet?
Fourth, postmodernism “generally prefers subjectivity to objectivity and ambiguity to clarity.” This has become evident to me as I have responded to postmodern “bloggers.” They continually cloud issues, speak in vagaries, or ascribe words like “arrogant,” “naïve,” “outmoded,” “culturally biased,” “judgmental,” “poor argument,” “fallacious,” and the like. Johnson’s experience is not unlike mine and anyone else’s who has tried to dialogue with the ECM tribe: “They would use pettifogging arguments to try to overthrow every definition I give and every dichotomy I make. And they would call me naïve for even attempting to clarify what they insist cannot be objectively explained or understood.” And this argument carries weight starting at McLaren and moving on down the line.
From my perspective, as I stated above, I believe that it is a good thing that a large number of Enlightenment concepts are being disassembled. It has been too long in coming. My question, however, is this: what will come in its place? Is postmodernism a good replacement or is the cure as bad if not worse than the disease? In this and succeeding issues I will argue that postmodernism is not a good replacement both in its philosophical and theological forms, which are, after all, akin to one another.
Allow me to illustrate why I believe that postmodernism is as bankrupt as Enlightenment thinking. One of the concepts that postmodernism rails against is the “metanarrative.” Don’t you just hate it when all of this esoteric language is introduced? Some postmoderns might have heard the term, but most are too busy watching MTV to pay much attention to it. What is a metanarrative? Let me put it in simple terms by borrowing from Charles Dunahoo. “A ‘metanarrative’ is simply a grand story that becomes a final criterion for the legitimacy of all other stories or one into which all other narratives must fit.” It is interesting—sort of—to hear those who call themselves Christians like Brian McLaren railing against metanarrative or to hear someone like Rob Bell making use of the “decentering” language of Jacques Derrida.
Postmoderns don’t like metanarratives. In fact, they don’t believe that metanarratives exist. As we shall see, both their theology and their ethics are culturally bound and individually decided. Of course, it is fair to ask the question if the declaration that there are no metanarratives is, itself, a metanarrative. That is to say, when a postmodern philosopher denies metanarrative, is he stating “a final criterion for the legitimacy of all other stories or one into which all other narratives must fit”? This is a spin-off on the statement that relativists make that there are no absolutes. Is the statement that there are no absolutes absolutely true or only relatively true?
One recourse (read: spin, excuse) that some postmoderns make is that if you haven’t read everything in print then you are disqualified from the discussion about postmodernism. If those are the rules, then everyone is disqualified because no one has read all the material. Of course, that has never been a criterion for serious scholarship in the past. I have written extensively on the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, but I’d be the first to admit that I haven’t even read everything he wrote. I’m saying this because some of the pseudo-intellectuals and academic pinheads strut around believing they are immune to criticism. Not true and the sooner everyone comes to that conclusion the better.
Clearly, the postmodern outlook comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, expressions, and nuances. Wells is correct when he comments, “Its own ethos almost guarantees that there will be no such thing as a postmodern outlook but rather there will be many different postmodern perspectives. Yet what they have in common is that they all believe that meaning has died.” This is a key point that we need to keep in mind not only as we engage the secular postmodern culture but also the Christian postmodern sub-culture, which has adapted many postmodern edicts rather unreflectively.
As German theologian Helmut Thielicke has reminded us, nihilism involves the absolutization of nothingness, a psychiatric-therapeutic element (what I’ll call the One-nation-under-therapy syndrome), a political and human form of disintegration, and an overwhelming Angst about life itself. Postmoderns shy away from locating any objective realm where right and wrong can be validated, verified. Ironically, just like the existentialists like Sartre and Camus who preceded them, these postmodern philosophers take liberties when it comes to ethics. As we proceed, I’ll show you precisely what I mean from the philosophy/ethics of Richard Rorty. I’ll state here that Rorty and other non-Christian postmoderns can only make sense out of the world in which they live by borrowing ethical capital from Christianity in order to make sense out of the world. So, for example, if a postmodern holds to the notion of evolution, he has established a metanarrative, which he doesn’t want to do.
But before I close out this issue I want to stipulate something that will be a recurring theme in subsequent analyses of postmodern. Postmoderns have not entirely dismantled Enlightenment ideology. There are still remnants alive and well in the culture as well as among the postmoderns. Wells pinpoints an important truth for us when he states, “There are important threads of continuity between modernity and postmodernity and not least among these is the fact that at the center of both is the autonomous self, despite all the postmodern chatter about the importance of community.”
The way this autonomy is working itself out in postmodernism is that the postmodern “refuses to be fettered by any objective reality outside of itself.” What all this amounts to is a life and worldview with both feet planted firmly in nothingness. In short, postmodernism “rejects worldviews, absolute truth, and purpose.” Granted not every postmodern marches in lockstep with the technical philosophers, but it is certainly true that McLaren, Bell, Pagitt, Miller, Burke, and others are leading figures in dispensing the so-called Christian version of postmodernism.
Postmodernism beckons us to abandon the Enlightenment ideology, but its wooing song embodies the kiss of death. Enlightenment assumptions were corrosive and destructive but postmodern assumptions are equally, if not more, corrosive and destructive. The secular version of postmodernism draws us to a place where there are no real worldviews, only those constructed by the autonomous individual. In addition, there is no truth, no meaning, and no purpose. In the midst of all this non-biblical thinking, the ECM is attempting to build a quasi-Christian theology and ethics. Both will fail, because both are void of the necessary components of a cohesive, comprehensive theology and ethics.
In the next issue I’ll spell out why it is that postmodernism has only one worldview: that of each individual. (No wonder there can be no universal system of ethics!)
 Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), p. 26.
 R.C. Sproul, Lifeviews, (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1986), p. 64.
 See the the definition of metanarrative given below that goes like this: “A ‘metanarrative’ is simply a grand story that becomes a final criterion for the legitimacy of all other stories or one into which all other narratives must fit.”
 Eric Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, (John Hallowell, [ed.]), (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 19823).
 The Dutch Christian, Groen van Prinsterer formed a political party that was later headed by Abraham Kuyper called the Antirevolutionary Party. The name hearkens to van Prinsterer’s distaste and dislike for Enlightenment/French Revolution ideology. Revolution is the child of the Enlightenment.
 Wells, AAEP, 63.
 H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994).
 You can download this .PDF file at the following web site address: http://www.gracechurch.org/shepnew/2005notes/JohnsonTruth.pdf.
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 4.
 Dunahoo, MKD, 138.
 For example, he reminds us that the Bible is still in the center for him and his church, it’s just a different center? A different center? Oh, I see. Yeah, got it.
 Wells, AAEP, 67. Italics mine—RG.
 Helmut Thielicke, Der Nihilismus, (Pfullingen: Gunther Neske Verlag, 1951), passim.
 Wells, AAEP, 67-68.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 72.