Postmodernism & the Modern Church (III)
If you ask the man or woman on the street today what a worldview is, you’re as likely as not to get “the-deer-in-the-headlights” glazed over look. Back in “the day,” the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, Abraham Kuyper, told us that a worldview contained three essential elements: our view of God, our view of man, and our view of society.
It’s not much of a stretch to infer that pretty well everyone has a worldview, but they simply don’t express it coherently. Everyone has a view of who God is, what man is, and what society is, even if their explanations remain at a very primitive, unreflective, and elementary level. A case in point is the manner in which (post)modern man speaks about “culture.” You could easily get the idea that “culture” is some kind of monolithic structure and is void of any nuances. A little thinking, however, will make it clear to us that there is such a thing as “high” culture, “mainstream” culture, and “pop” culture, to mention the most obvious distinctions. This is an important undertaking because so many Christians are taking a serious look at “engaging” the culture. What is that precisely?
Once you make distinctions as I did above, you can go a step farther and ask if there are any transcendent norms for assessing culture. If the answer is Yes, then the question is begged: which one or ones should be used and how do you know which one or ones is to be used? I ask those questions because as Ken Myers has pointed out, “Cultural relativism is one of the dominant assumptions of modern American culture.” How does this assumption or relativism play itself out in practice? Once you embrace cultural relativism you have to begin attempting to live consistently within the framework you embrace. In essence, cultural relativism “denies the possibility that one society’s culture might be superior to another’s, and it denies the possibility that one form of cultural expression might be superior to another form within the same culture.”
Therefore, as I mentioned in the last issue, this makes universal ethics impossible, which, in turn, makes meaningful ethics impossible. The relativist mindset goes something like this: Murder might be wrong for Americans for a variety of reasons, but that does not mean that murder must be wrong for everyone. For us and for them it’s a cultural thing. I purposely used this example because it is an egregious one and even relativists recoil from saying that murder is relative. My point, however, is what is the standard (read: metanarrative) by which you decide that, say, murder is not dependent on your cultural upbringing, but adultery is?
Postmoderns want to jettison absolutes and meaning and then expect to have—well, a meaningful conversation about how meaningless everything is. If words have no meaning, then why are the postmodern philosophers, ECM church-goers, and the bevy of bloggers, who seemingly have such a dull and drab life that all they do is blog, try to persuade that one view is wrong and another is the correct one? You have to wonder if the statement that there are no metanarratives is itself a metanarrative. If it is, then we must conclude that there is at least one metanarrative: the metanarrative that there is no metanarrative.
Of course, without meaningful discourse about universal truth, ethics becomes meaningless and devolves into little more than personal preference without any recourse to right or wrong. It is verifiable (a word that postmoderns hate) that “postmodernist ethics reject both the universalism of premodern ethics based on divine revelation and modernist ethical projects stemming from the ethical insights and principles of unaided human reason.” Kenneth Gergen captures postmodernism’s take on ethics when he writes, “For the postmodern there is no transcendent reality, rationality, or value system with which to rule between competitors.” Richard Rorty freely admits that “according to his view, any sense of human dignity is culturally constructed through a tradition.”
The proof-in-the-pudding is whether Rorty or anyone for that matter can actually live consistently within his or her own system. In Rorty’s case, he cannot. It seems that Mr. Rorty has a heart for orphans. His problem is that he has no solid base to pull off any ethical statement about why anyone should care for such a being. In his random, chance universe how can there be any “oughts?” Rorty understands this and does an “end run” around his own bankrupt system and inconsistently borrows ethical capital from the Judeo-Christian world to give some semblance of cohesion to his worldview. He invokes the Jewish and Christian elements in our tradition and outside his own worldview as, as he states it, a freeloading atheist. Thank you for your candid answer, Mr. Rorty.
When a person embraces ethical relativism he or she is confronted with a host of dilemmas. Who is to say that our culture is any better—or worse—than any other culture? Ultimately, who is to say that Hitler was wrong? Maybe the Holocaust and euthanasia—Hitler made the term popular by the way—was merely an Austrian/German thing. Who’s to say? Who’s to judge?
Moreover, culture is an abstraction. I’ve often wondered how we engage or encounter culture on a grand scale. We hear a song, read a book, watch a TV program or movie, go to a play, attend a concert all by choice, but in that we are not really engaging culture as much as it is engaging us. But I digress.
How do we decide what our worldview is? That’s a key question because most often we accept something as true or false, right or wrong, real or fictitious based on a sufficient authority. Postmodernism’s attack on the metanarratives of the Enlightenment rightly focuses on overarching structures of meaning and certainty that were meant to interpret life for those around them without God in the picture. The caveat is that Enlightenment ideology built the second story before it built the first. Precisely because Enlightenment ideology derived its methodology from unaided reason—Christians would say unaided fallen reason—it could not present mankind with a coherent unified whole. The Enlightenment’s perspective, therefore, rested on “a belief in the existence of truth of a universal kind, unrevealed though it was.”
Postmoderns tell us that the Enlightenment ideology is gone. Fine. Good riddance! But the question now is: what has taken or is taking its place? David Naugle conjectures that in the place of Enlightenment ideology what has arisen is the view that individuals should “set themselves up autonomously as the acknowledged legislators of the world.” Put more strongly these individuals “claim an essentially divine prerogative to conceptualize reality and shape the nature of life as they please.”
If knowledge of God is not certain one is left to guess how you could claim “an essentially divine prerogative” but as one blogger explained to me recently, his answer was correct because he assumed it to be so. Handy. Just ask your math or history professor to grade your papers that way. So how, we can reasonably ask, can postmoderns have a life that makes sense? The short answer is: they can’t and, as often as not, they don’t care that they can’t. What they have settled for is a worldview of and for only one: themselves.
David Wells correctly writes, “What has replaced the worldviews that once sought to encompass the whole of existence in their understanding are now privatized worldviews, worldviews that are valid for no one but the person whose world it is and whose view it is. They qualify as worldviews because postmoderns are still addressing questions about what is ultimate (the answer is nothing) about the meaning of the universe (the answer is that it has none) and about human experience.”
Here’s where the whole thing gets both funny and sad. If you have ever talked with a postmodern—whether of the secular or so-called Christian variety—they tell you out of one side of their mouth that truth and morality are relative, but then out of the other side expend a lot of time and energy defending their position. That’s rather odd when they believe “that neither truth nor morality in any ultimate and binding way exists.” Probably the reasons why postmoderns do this type of thing are manifold.
Ironically for the postmodern tribe, however, to state that worldviews have collapsed and are a thing of the past replaced by privatized interpretations of existence “is no less of a view of the world which is answering the question as to whether anything is ultimate than were the earlier attempts at grasping such matters.” The Enlightenment might have envisioned a worldview on a grander scale using unaided natural reason, but the postmodern (ECM) view is something similar in miniature. Postmoderns “seek to grasp reality which is private, personal, and evaporating.” Running into a brick wall, postmodernists want to disengage themselves from the functions of Enlightenment reason, but they are trying to explain meaninglessness reasonably.
Typically, postmoderns don’t seem to care about this obvious problem and are more concerned about a quasi-New Age form of subjectivism where “the relation between the self and the sacred…is found within the self.” This means that the only “doctrines” to which postmoderns ascribe are their own and they make no truth claims—except that there is no universal truth. One can only wonder how when knowledge and certainty are so fragile—indeed, elusive—that a postmodern could arrive at the “fact” that there is not universal truth. The postmoderns have even given this phenomenon a (reasonable) name that ostensibly has meaning—universal meaning—deconstructionism. Is the statement that there are no metanarratives itself a metanarrative? Is it universally true that there is no universal truth?
But don’t get too confused about the term deconstructionism because according to the tenets of postmodernism “in the process of deconstruction, the postmodernist isn’t trying to express any clear viewpoint of his own. Nothing is ultimately affirmed or denied simply because there are no absolutes and words are both meaningless and culturally determined. So you see, postmodernists are pretty sure that objective truth doesn’t exist—they think so, but they cannot know for certain—but if it does exist, they are pretty sure it cannot be known. That is funny. Really funny. In fact, it gets funnier the more you think about it.
So how does this fit in with those Christian churches that are taking a serious look at or that have already embraced postmodernism? Phil Johnson is correct when he concludes that “Postmodern religions are trying to construct a god without authority.” This statement lies in the extension of basic postmodern beliefs. Since objective truth is both unknowable and non-universal, “the only way to interpret any kind of reality—including God—is by personal experience.” Therefore, each individual determines reality by what he or she perceives—from day to day; from moment to moment.
If there is any semblance of supernaturalism in postmodernism it is a kind of “mystical supernaturalism” conjured up in the inner being of the “believing” subject. Like their mega-church counterparts, ECMers view God as a soft, pliable, friendly, and tolerant being who would never conceive of mentioning the sin word to modern man because there are so many other non-threatening, non-confrontational ways of doing. Don’t you find it odd that the apostle Paul could “engage the culture” of cosmopolitan Rome and talk about sin, but today that word has been banned from cultural engagement? I do.
Our modern theologians and pastors would rather soften the message and take the sting out of the stumbling block of the gospel to make it more palatable to the cultured despisers. This partially explains why the ECM crowd—and some others—are so friendly towards Open Theism. Apart from the fact that Open Theism is thoroughly man-centered and gives true sovereignty to man and not to God, it is also a popular theology that strips God of his sovereignty and authority.
I wonder along with Phil Johnson—and a host of others—why so many churches today insist “that unless we are Christians devise a new form of Christianity that is more acceptable to the postmodern mind, we will lose this generation.” Has there never been a time like this in history? Clearly there were several times like these. We do well to understand or to attempt to understand the culture in which we live. We choose poorly—to parody the old knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—to adapt the spirit of the age. Why? Simply because worldly philosophies have, from the outset, been hostile to the truth claims of the Christian faith. Even the so-called classical proofs for the existence of God, which I think are useless, failed at the point of taking into account the noetic affects of sin ( cf Gen. 6:5; Rom. 8:5-8; 1 Cor. 2:14).We will examine this subject more, Lord willing, next time.
 Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1989), p. 29. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 30. Emphasis his.
 Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 187.
 Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self, (NY: BasicBooks, 1991), p. 253.
 Groothuis, TD, 187.
 See Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 201.
 Ibid., 202.
 David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 74.
 David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. xvi.
 Wells, AAEP, 74. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 75.
 See Phil Johnson, “You Can’t Handle the Truth: Addressing the Tolerance of Postmodernism,” http://www.gracechurch.org/shepnew/2005notes/JohnsonTruth.pdf., 8.
 Ibid., 9.
 Affects upon the mind.