Thursday, October 14, 2010


"The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth."

--William Lane Craig

I want to define postmodernism as a shift in how our culture sees ideas such as rationality, empirical evidence, and, to say the least, objective truth. It seems to me that postmodernism grew out of the philosophies of (to name a couple) Friedrich Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant; that is, according to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, "anti-epistemological…anti-foundationalism" and a "rejection of truth as a correspondence to reality…" As Dr. Glenn Krieder states somehow and in someway in postmodernism "the concept of truth is redefined." The Blackwell Companion of Modern Christian Thought, edited by Alister McGrath, seems to build on the similar definitions—namely, postmodernism is about "irony, parody, anti-foundationalism and play." Indeed, as atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn notes in his Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, postmodernism may be defined as a reaction "against confidence in objective and scientific truth."

These definitions, of course, are only definitions; they seek to give people a workable starting place for what it means to be postmodern. I like how the term is defined and, therefore, agree with what the authors say and what they imply. Not only are they good definitions, but they seem to match up with the definitions of postmodernism I've heard growing up, both at school and at church.

The only problem I have with these definitions is this: Do we really live in a postmodern society? Or is it a myth, as Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig implies?—that "a postmodern culture is an impossibility" and "utterly unlivable." In the words of G.K. Chesterton, is claiming we our a postmodern culture like saying
"'Lord Jones is Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive"?

When was the last time you started your car up with the garage door down, avoiding science's discovery that carbon monoxide is deadly? Did you, to borrow an example from Craig, withhold your inclination to objective truth when "reading the labels on a medicine bottle versus a box of rat poison?" Find me a person who, when asked to hold a box of lit TNT, doesn't decline, claiming, "That'll kill me!"

These aren't postmodern examples, they're modern ones! Modernism is the view that flourished during the Enlightenment—a worldview which prospered on the idea of reason-driven thought, empirical evidence, and rationality. We don't, I believe, live in what some philosophers, sociologists, and theologians call a postmodern society. It's a myth—maybe not a purposefully fabricated one, but certainly a myth. Living in what we think is a postmodern milieu would actually be unlivable. It wouldn't work!

Now seems like as good as time as any to add some further clarification. I think we live in a postmodern society with regards to religious and ethical standards. This is very, very obvious. Watch the Lion King (although a little more subtle) or read John Hick, who both proclaim religion can have multiple ways to God. Be on the lookout for the "COEXIST" bumper sticker next time you drive down I-35. It is true, then, that our society is highly postmodern in the arena of religion.

The same could be said about statements of morality. For instance, I recall a video with American evangelist Ravi Zacharias interviewing random Harvard students over their moral beliefs. One student, when asked what he'd say if Ravi burned an infant baby right before his eyes, responded with "I wouldn't like it very much, but I couldn't really say it's wrong." This is an example—amongst a host of others— of how morally relative society is. Once again, I do believe that this, too, is a fine example of postmodernism. But in other areas of society—like math, science, and medicine—I have a hard time saying that we are postmodern. Try telling a mathematician that two plus two doesn't equal four or a science teacher that the sun doesn't exist or a medical doctor that cancer won't kill you. There's nothing postmodern about those examples; there really is objective truth and empirical evidence in these circumstances!

So far, you may be saying "Well, it sounds like if our commitment to math, science, engineering, and medicine is objective but our approach to religious and ethical statements are subjective and pluralistic, doesn't that still leave us with a postmodern society? The answer, I believe, is no. Clinging to our objectivity in math, science, and medicine while making room for our religious and ethical views isn't postmodernism, that's good ole fashioned positivism—which was raised in the bosom of modernism during the Enlightenment. "Positivism," to quote Blackburn, "denies the existence of…substances…that go beyond facts and laws ascertained by science." Sound like modernism? That's because it essentially is.

So there you have it; I believe postmodernism is a myth. Craig says this:

Indeed, I think that getting people to believe that we live in a postmodern culture is one of the craftiest deceptions that Satan has yet devised. 'Modernism is passé' he tells us. 'You needn't worry about it any longer. So forget about it'….Meanwhile, modernism, pretending to be dead, comes around again in the fancy new dress of postmodernism, masquerading as a new challenger.

I personally wouldn't go quite as far as Craig does, saying that us living in "a postmodern culture is one of the craftiest deceptions Satan has yet devised." But I don't take his stance lightly. I think we have fabricated the idea of postmodernism—maybe not in a religious or ethical vision—but certainly in a scientific and objective way. We are, I believe, still living under the influence of modernism.

To be fair, I'm thankful for people like Brian McLaren. Him, and other Christians who claim to be doing postmodern theology like him, have certainly done a lot of for the Kingdom of God here on earth. I'm also thankful that they haven't actually fallen into the extremes of postmodernism (if such a thing were possible) and the dismissal of truth as objective. I like what they do and am proud of them. I just can't agree with their vision.

In closing, then, I want to say I agree with William Lane Craig—that is, "People who think we live in a postmodern culture have thus seriously misread our cultural situation."

I realize this may ultimately result in a deduction of points in the classroom and a loss of favoritism with those who read my work. But I must stand up for something I believe in—which, in this case, is actually nothing at all.


Atkinson, David J., David F. Field, Arthur F. Holmes, and Oliver O'Donovan, eds. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 1995.

Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2 ed. publication place: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 1st Edition. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1994

Borchert, Donald M., ed. Encyclopedia Of Philosophy (10 Volume Set). 2 ed. Detroit, Mich.: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.

Bowden, John, ed. Encyclopedia of Christianity. publication place: Oxford University Press, USA, 2005.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3 ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2008.

Demarest, Bruce, and Keith J Matthews. Dictionary of Everyday Theology and Culture (The Navigators Reference Library). publication place: NavPress, 2010.

Erickson, Millard J. The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. Rev Upd ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001.

Lacoste, Jean-Yves, ed. Encyclopedia of Christian Theology. publication place: Routledge, 2004.

McGrath, Alister E. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Oxford [England]: Blackwell Pub, 1993.

Rahner, Karl. Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.

Reese, William L. Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press Intl, 1996.


rog said...

This is a great exercise in missing the point. No one who claims to be postmodern would deny that things such as rat poison will kill you, TNT will blow you up, and carbon monoxide is deadly.

This doesn't prove anything, other than a gross generalization of postmodernism. It's not as if postmodern people set around and think, "Hey I'm such a walking/living contradiction that I am going to intentionally do things to kill myself."

Postmodernism at its philosophical roots of Lyotard/Foucault obviously border on the edge of absurdity, but the way in which postmodern thought is applied to religion does not (except on a few rare occasions) join in this absurdity.

For me the greatest help that postmodernism gives the church is that it exposes the fraudulent claims to an things such as "unbiased", "neutral observer", as well as some of the bankrupt claims of the absolute truth and trustworthiness of science.

Further, postmodernism rightly denies the idea of certainty. As humans we need a firm reminder that we are finite.

As Paul said in 1 Cor. 13:9-12, "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."

tyler m taber said...

Your comment is a great example in missing the point.

I used definitions given in leading philosophical and theological dictionaries and encyclopedias, many of which are in no way Christian.

In order for your argument to be successful (that mine misses the point) you need to 1) tear down my argument and 2) tear down the argument of what is stated in the research literature.

Further, your comment "but the way in which postmodern thought is applied to religion does not (except on a few rare occasions) join in this absurdity" couldn't be any further from the truth (no pun)! Take a look around! Read philosopher John Hick and others like him!

Of course postmodern's don't sit around and think to themselves "Hmm, I wonder if this rat poison will kill me." But a denial of objective truth has those implications--which is a foregoing theme in supposed postmodern thought. Please take me up on this particular point if you disagree.

Also, the hub of my argument centered around positivism. You can't call my bluff but fail to interact with that concept.

I agree: There have been some good things "postmodernism" has done for us as Christians--it has kept us honest and out of arrogance.

rog said...

I want to post a section of the book by Tony Jones in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. In responding to the claim that he and those like him don't believe in Truth. Here is his response.

"Sixt, we would like to clarify, contrary to statements and inferences made by some, that yes, we truly believe there is such a thing as truth and truth matters--if we did not believe this, we would have no good reason to write or speak; no, we are not moral or epistemological relativists any more than anyone or any community is who takes hermeneutical positions--we believe that radical relativism is absurd and dangerous, as is arrogant absolutism; yes, we affirm the historic Trinitarian Christian Faith and the ancient creeds, and seek to learn from all of church history--and we honor the church's great teachers and leaders from East and West, North and South; yes, we believe that Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of the cosmos and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, no we do not pit reason against experience but seek to use all our God-given faculties to love and serve God and our neighbors; no, we do not endorse false dichotomies--and we regret any false dichotomies unintentionally made by or about us (even in this paragraph!); and yes we affirm that we love, have confidence in, seek to obey, and strive accurately to teach the sacred scriptures, because our greatest desire is to be followers and servants of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We regret that we have either been unclear or misinterpreted in these and other areas."

This is I believe the difference between philosophical postmodernism and those of the emergent church who have been influenced(but yet are still orthodox) by postmodernism.

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