Evangelicals and Postmoderns Together (Part 2 of 3)
[This began as an essay for a class at Trinity International University on worldviews and Christian thought. It now runs more than triple the length of the original — because the internet, unlike my professor, has no page limit. This post is the second of three, and consists of the main argumentative body of my paper. The forthcoming third post is an (unnecessarily long) conclusion.]
Some aspects of postmodernism, as variously defined, can be accepted by Evangelicals. This section will look at those aspects.
Since postmodernism talks about knowledge, I should use a definition before continuing: knowledge is the body of all justified, true beliefs accumulated by an individual.
This seems straightforward enough. There is a very technical objection to this definition, but ignore that for now. Without going there, the postmodern problem quickly surfaces anyway: what if the person’s method of justification needs justification? Once a person climbs the ladder of abstraction one layer up, how can they argue anything?
The main instance where justification needs justification is in cultural conditioning. It seems inescapable to say that culture strongly influences its members (additional factors being genetic and epi-genetic). Postmoderns argue that this influence doesn’t stop at fashion choices, spoken accent and median income. No, culture’s influence goes far beyond these material features; society influences the way that people think, and strongly enough to shatter their objectivity.
According to Grenz, thinkers cannot “stand outside of the historical process and gain universal, unconditioned truth” (91). This argument, called the ‘sociology of knowledge,’ is everywhere. Much like that thing where a person notices something once and then realizes it surrounds them all day, I didn’t realize the ubiquity, the common-ness of this point. Obviously postmoderns talk about it frequently, but, perhaps less obviously, it crops up even in the writings of those who reject postmodernity. For example, Wells argues that “the external social environment provides the explanation of internal consciousness, that the way we think is a product of the society in which we live” (24). This occurs throughout the book. For example, Erickson himself uses this approach, perhaps unwittingly, when discussing Wells:
Wells’ approach to the issues is a function of his unique preparation and orientation. Wells is primarily a historian who taught in the field of church history before moving into the field of theology. This background is revealed by the fact that he generally does theology on the model of historical theology (23).
Yet the question remains, is this a Christian approach? More specifically, an Evangelical approach? We would hope so, because we cannot synthesize Evangelicalism and postmodernity without passing through this dilemma first.
The first problem is finding one person or group that represents all Evangelicals. Of everyone claiming to be Evangelical, the Evangelical Free Church of America would be a great source to consult on this question (though other groups like NEA and some cross-denominational groups would also suffice). I will demonstrate that the EFCA officially, though not explicitly, affirms this position.
Hey, look at that! The EFCA wrote a book. Evangelical Convictions is
- a theological exposition of the EFCA statement of faith,
- written by the denomination’s Spiritual Heritage Committee,
- vetted by numerous EFCA pastors and others within the denomination,
- including its then-President,
- including members of several boards within the organization, and
- including faculty from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (19).
Most books within the Evangelical publishing industry cannot be taken as authoritative of all of the Free Church, but if any book can, then here we have found it.
Peppered throughout the book are references to the sociology of knowledge. The authors acknowledge that
We believe that our Statement of Faith is a true reflection of the teaching of the Bible, but we are not so naive as to think that we can come to the Bible without preconceptions that influence our interpretation… We stand firmly within the Evangelical tradition, and our understanding of the Biblical gospel is informed by historic Evangelical theology” (EC 22).
“Preconceptions that influence our interpretation” ! Do they really mean that they may be incorrect? That their interpretation can be slanted by non-objective factors? This certainly fits with the perspectival realist umpire from Middleton and Walsh’s baseball metaphor.
This view acknowledges that Evangelical theologians “stand firmly” within their tradition. Tradition can be a touchy subject for Protestants; one of the reasons the Reformers broke with Rome was that Rome elevated tradition to a scriptural authority. Reformers thought that tradition was not authoritative. Here the EFCA takes a middle ground by recognizing that, though Rome was excessive, theologians will never escape Rome’s trap. We all exist within traditions.
But they swing harder:
“Just as a word finds its meaning only in the context of a sentence and then a paragraph, so a human life finds its meaning only within the context of a social and historical setting in which it is lived” (EC 101).
They give this statement in a description of the life of Jesus! Inasmuch as the EFCA represents Evangelical theology, they have here endorsed the sociology of knowledge. Using a metaphor of words, sentences and paragraphs sounds awfully deconstructionist…
But they swing once more, even harder:
“In our modern Western world, we think in individualistic terms which often deny real social solidarities such as nation, tribe and family” (EC 127).
The individualistic terms of modernity deny real solidarities. Solidarity is a term usually connoting standing with oppressed groups. One should highly doubt that this statement originates solely in Evangelical circles; this seepage originates from postmodernity. Moreover, these categories of “nation, tribe and family” are impacted by yet another socially-conditioned category, that of individualism.
If the EFCA does represent Evangelical theology, and if the above examples do not somehow grossly mischaracterize the authors’ intentions, then I can conclude that the Evangelical position resounds in clarity by allowing for and advocating the sociology of knowledge.
In addition to the sociology of knowledge, Erickson emphasized the noetic effects of sin, a doctrine consequent to Original Sin. Grenz’s criticism of human reason most clearly illustrates: as a product of man’s sinful nature, the mind can become blinded to truths (91). This means that even if he could exist in a culture-less, presupposition-less vacuum, the mind itself still cannot reason objectively.
This has been a topic of debate since roughly the time of Calvin, though it wasn’t very significant in his time. Abraham Kuyper and Karl Barth along with the fideistic movement in the early twentieth century argued that faith is more important than reason, though they phrased this is various ways, and at times argued the opposite. Some said that only spiritual truths are blinded by sin, while other things are less blinded. This argument assumes a very simple, reductionist model of the spiritual realm: some things are spiritual, and everything else is not spiritual. But at any rate, this doctrinal position almost seems to undermine every other doctrinal position, because if one cannot understand things (especially spiritual things) rationally, then can the rest of theology really make sense? Who can articulate and systematize the unknowable?
At one point in the book Erickson makes the point that modernism assumes that humans are like “Descartes’ autonomous, rational substance encountering Newton’s mechanistic world.” This means that humans think objectively, like Descartes’s idea “I think, therefore I am” implied, and that the surrounding universe also is rationally built, with sensible laws and consistent procedures, like Newton’s laws of plenary motion imply.
But because of the sociology of knowledge humans are not autonomous; because of the noetic effects of sin, humans are not rational (84). Therefore, whether the world around us is rationally built and sensible does not quite matter, because we can’t know so anyways.
This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that some truth lies beyond human reason, or at least is not immediately accessible to human reason.
Notice how another set of postmodern thinkers tie this concept to the critical concept of social oppression:
Middleton and Walsh grant that there is some basis… for the postmodern suspicion of metanarratives. The former stems from the fact that those who develop and set forth metanarratives and worldviews are finite human beings. There are therefore incapable of gathering all the data necessary to create a total view, but beyond that, being sinful, they will inevitably tend to use such ideologies for their own purposes, which results in oppression of others (112).
Here they go beyond being “incapable of gathering all the data necessary.” If that were the only problem, then something like the scientific method, or an advanced computer program, or consensus, or lots of arguing could solve the problem by whittling away all bias and subjectivity until just the truth remains. But the problem is more than this. “Being sinful,” or, as a result of the person’s very nature, they cannot wield a metanarrative healthily.
But is this an Evangelical doctrine, or have Grenz, Middleton and Walsh, and company pulled ad hoc from heterodox, far out views on the human condition to justify this argument? Once more, Evangelical Convictions, with its diverse (yet Evangelical) composition and extensive vetting, provides input:
Every part of us, every human faculty, is infected with and affected by this dreadful malady [sin] — our mind, our will, our emotions and our conscience. None of them can be trusted as objective guides of truth, because all of them are in collusion against God, caught up in this tangled web of sin (EC 84).
So, Evangelicals can draw from the sociology of knowledge and the noetic effects of sin to argue that human reason is insufficient to justify truth. The scoreboard now reads, “Postmoderns 2, Fundamentalists 0”.
Sunken deep into the postmodern mindset is a great dilemma: postmodernism makes a whole variety and number of claims about the external world, but among those is also the claim that individuals cannot reasonably make objective claims about the external world!
This amounts to the postmodern thinker tying together all the lose ends of philosophy into one big knot and declaring, “Solved! Deconstructed! I have eliminated structural violence by decategorizing that which was arbitrary from the start!” yet never bothering to pull a little on the ends of their knot. If they had, the whole knot falls apart into its constituent ideas and they prove the system much less sound than they had thought. This epistemic slipknot usually comes in the form of small claims whose object both
- finishes the claim and
- undoes the claim.
For example, the statement “there are no absolute truths” is itself a statement of absolute truth. On what grounds can the postmodernist make this statement? Moreover, when discussing the grand metanarrative of life, Erickson summarizes that
Postmodernism, for all of its criticism of metanarratives, especially modern metanarratives, is actually something of a metanarrative itself. Postmodernism is therefore caught in what Middleton and Walsh call a “performative contradiction,” arguing against the necessity of metanarratives by surreptitiously appealing to a metanarrative of its own (111).
This is a major argument against the postmodern mindset; for if one cannot know anything, how can they know that they do not know anything? Ought philosophers and theologians “sit rapt in unconditioned contemplation of their own consciousness like an Aristotelian god,” doomed to forever question the foundation of their anti-foundationalism? (link).
Over the years I have noticed even fundamentalists — of all people — crash into this wall. In a presentation that
Youtube has since removed due to an Answers in Genesis copyright claim actually is still available at this link, Dr. Jason Lisle made an extensive argument for Christianity that began by claiming that there is no middle ground between evolution and creation to objectively evaluate the evidences; both sides must look through the lens of their worldview. But not twenty minutes later he built a Platonic argument for the existence of God on his rejection of moral relativism!
If one can know what is good (morality) based on objective criteria, one can also use those criterion to evaluate what is true (evidences). So which is it, or does he have some other, necessarily more complex approach to synthesize them? None are provided.
Francis Schaeffer dodges this paradox by saying that the Christian presuppositions work the best in real life, but this does not itself justify the claimed truth, only its functionality (77). His argument does nothing to counter the claim that Christianity is a useful shoulder to cry upon, a crutch in hard times, and the opiate of the masses, yet false.
This problem recurs in a second issue with postmodernity. The prefix post- denotes that an era comes after another which preceded it. But is post- necessarily good? Is something necessarily more true because it comes later? Erickson borrows Oden’s term “chronological chauvinism” to describe this trend; the chronological chauvinist has
a predisposed contempt for premodern ideas, a vague boredom in the face of the heroic struggles of primitive and historical human communities, a diffuse disrespect for the intellectual social and moral achievements of previous periods (48).
But why post- and not anti-modern? Isn’t the contention supposed to be that postmodernism opposes the tenets of modernism?
In Italy the two main parties hold opposing tenets, yet they call themselves the People of Freedom Party and the Democratic Party, not the “post-democracy” and “post-freedom” parties, respectively. Usually opposing movements choose entirely separate names, like realism and impressionism in art; no historian of art uses the term “post-realism” as a surrogate for impressionism, nor “pre-impressionism” as a surrogate for realism.
The prefix post- necessarily connotes progress, which is a modern, rather than postmodern idea (29).
I’m not just complaining about their choice of a title. They could have gone with any title, but if they at all included a theme of progress, this criticism would still be valid. Their vision of having transcended modernity is the problem, labels aside.
Postmoderns do not treat progresses like an assumption, which they regularly criticize in others, but as self-evident, as a truth not worth questioning (46). Yet I argue that it deserves questioning. Wells gives this explanation: behind the constant desire to be post- is belief in
the ability to move from one level of achievement to another… So we speak of being post-Puritan, post-Christian, post-modern, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, and post-Cold War. Wells observes that while it is understandable that our society would want to leave behind these other experiences in favor of what it deems to be superior to them, it seems strange that people today would want to put behind the modernity that has made us what we are. Beyond that however, Wells raises the questions of whether it really is possible to move beyond the modern (26).
On a related note, postmoderns, and especially Evangelicals attempting synthesis, must stop conflating the terms new and good. This is especially true for Evangelicals, whose faith is not new in any sense, yet good in every sense.
When a person substitutes “new” or “good,” they also buy into the progressive narrative of abandoning the old and accepting the new, just for newness’s sake. Cannot old things be good? Cannot new things be bad? This can be difficult to expunge from regular speech, but nonetheless Oden argues that anyone who cares should go “cold turkey… as part of a postcritical consciousness” (48) to break this habit.
Thomas Cornman, the Dean of Trinity College, in a chapel sermon near the beginning of the semester criticized the political reasoning of his children. Their justification for supporting one of the Presidential nominees consisted solely of not wanting to be “on the wrong side of history,” a common refrain among Millennials and progressives alike. In Cornman’s view, this amounts to nothing, a nonargument, except perhaps that they reluct to think outside the majority opinion (if majority can be defined as the opinions they perceive most will hold in the future).
Postmodernism argues that progress or regression do not correlate with time, that society is stagnant in the long run and lacks a metanarrative or direction. This glaring contradiction supports Oden’s view that postmodernism isn’t post- at all; it is late-stage, terminal, geriatric modernism about to give way to something different.
Postmodernism claims to reject all metanarratives, yet is itself a metanarrative; until this problem finds resolution, it cannot be synthesized with any theology, or even stand on its own. The scoreboard now reads “Postmoderns 2, Fundamentalists 2” .