by John Armstrong
A great deal of nonsense has been written about postmodernism by evangelical Christians. There are serious treatments of the subject, usually by writers with some training in philosophy, which are generally helpful. Then there are popular treatments that filter down to non-specialists and make for grave confusion in both individuals and churches. Pastors are sometimes the worst offenders when it comes to using the term, employing it in ways that obfuscate some real and important issues. Let me explain.
I meet Christians almost daily who think one word when they hear the term “postmodernism”-relativism! Add to relativism one additional synonym¯subjectivism¯and you get the grim picture some paint when they begin to use the term postmodernism to label the thought of certain Christians. In the thinking of some the end result of all postmodernism is a philosophy/theology that is inherently opposed to moral truth. Since no serious Christian should be a relativist, or opposed to moral truth, the notion that postmodernism has something positive to contribute to the church becomes properly suspect when this is the way people think of the term. (I could name a host of Web sites, Blog sites, and popular writers who ought to know better but who regularly fall into this trap, making no helpful distinctions when they use the term “postmodern” or postmodernism.”) It seems that if you speak widely enough, and assert a particular claim to knowing the truth long enough, people believe you are credible. This is the case with the way the word postmodern is understood among some evangelicals.
What is Postmodernism?
As a prefix the word “post” refers, quite obviously, to what follows modernism. Postmodernism is the era of history following modernism, a period which began with the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century and extended through at least two-thirds of the twentieth century, to the 1960s.
Modernism was characterized, generally speaking, by reliance upon the power of reason, objective thinking, and the use of the empirical-scientific method. This was all united to confidence in human progress. After more than a century of growing disenchantment, and two world wars, modernism was replaced by a growing sense of cultural fragmentation, alienation, and the disintegration of the self. Enter postmodernism, or whatever else you wish to call the present cultural and social milieu in the West. (At the end of the day the term doesn’t matter, though the reality of an intellectual and cultural change is quite evident.)
Arnold Toynbee was one of the earliest writers to use the term postmodernism. In 1946 he labeled the present period of human history in this way. He initially called the period following the war “Western III (Modernism)”. In time the term postmodernism gained its impetus from the fields of architecture and art history. Beginning in the 1960s, particularly in the fields of literature and philosophy, cultural thinkers began to undertake new ways to deal with the breakdown of life in the modern world. These thinkers spoke of the present world order as postmodern. This meant they wanted to openly recognize the estranged, atomistic nature of modern human existence. Their goal, in general, was a desire to render the world more bearable for confused and disoriented people. They sought to do this by adopting attitudes and strategies like irony, parody and playfulness. This shows up in major ways in film, music and literature. (This is why, to give a simple example, some can relate to Woody Allen’s corpus of postmodern films, while others are totally confused!)
In its broad sense, postmodernism is what we call a “family resemblance” term, a word used in a number of ways and in a variety of contexts. This is precisely why the term gets used so widely in architecture, painting, music, poetry, literature, philosophy and theology. And this is how it comes into the Christian vocabulary.
Postmodernism is thus a word widely used to show how all of life is lived differently following the 1960s. What one has called postmodernism’s “laid back pluralism” in style, and it’s vague desire to be done with all pretensions of the modern way, mark its general direction. For our purposes this means postmodernism challenges the presumptive roles of philosophy and theology as privileged, truth-telling forms of discourse. It particularly becomes a linguistic challenge that wants language to become the object of its own intense scrutiny. This is why it often seems to challenge everything in how a text is read and understood.
This linguistic aspect is very dangerous to the gospel since it is communicated by and through words from ancient texts. But it also allows important rhetorical insights to emerge that are often extremely useful. The results can lead to a regress that is utterly destructive. This is precisely where Christians are concerned when they encounter the word postmodern but it is also where they are easily misled and often misinformed.
A number of helpful and insightful theological projects have emerged around the ideas of postmodernism over the past fifteen years. One which has taken the idea very seriously is the project of theologian John Millbank, author of the 1990 academic book, Theology and Social Theory. Millbank offers the church a serious account of how Christians can make the case for faith in this growing postmodern context.
Millbank argues that the Enlightenment project is over, and thus modernity is dead, or dying. By the Enlightenment John Millbank means the movement that began in the seventeenth century which led many philosophers, political theorists, and theologians to believe that they could prove their conclusions so clearly that, as theologian William Placher has aptly put it, “No reasonable person could ever doubt them again.” This search for certainty by way of proofs is the very essence of modernity as I use the term.
Many evangelicals do not realize it, but they are “modernists” when it comes to how they think about theology and its role. Thus a good bit of evangelical theology is modernistic when it argues against liberal errors by using a modernist methodology. This begins to look and feel like “fighting fire with fire” if you understand my basic point. I believe such a theological enterprise has failed the church relationally and led to some significant problems that a new generation of emergent Christians recognizes with increasing clarity. These emergent folks openly challenge this way of thinking and I applaud this challenge.
One “False” Evangelical Issue That Persists
Let me illustrate my point with a common evangelical battle over a single word. Many concerned evangelicals will ask, “Do you believe in absolute truth?” It appears they ask this kind of question because they are convinced that there are evangelicals who do not believe in “absolute” truth. They further believe that some evangelicals use truth as a weasel word for something other than what Francis Schaeffer called “true” truth. (Maybe the origin of this debate comes from Schaeffer’s use of the term “true,”, though I am not sure!)
Now, make no mistake at this point. Liberals did use historical Christian terms and words and most certainly did not mean what the church historically meant when they used such terms in their creeds and confessions. As an example, you have someone who affirms the resurrection of Christ but really means he “rose in the hearts of his disciples,” not in space-time (real) history. This resurrection, if one could meaningfully call it a resurrection in any sense, impacted the early followers of Jesus by the spirit of his life and death but not by actual appearances in the self-same body in which he had been crucified. Since naturalism had already undermined the idea of miracles these modern captives to the spirit of their age denied the resurrection as reported in the biblical text and by the early church. This kind of illustration can be repeated again and again and has plagued the church since the 1920s.
If the use of the term “absolute truth” is meant to correct such denials of faith, as that cited above, then I accept it. But I believe we have far better ways to deal with the above type of denial without using an adjective like “absolute” with the noun “truth.” Let me explain further since this is a very important point for the present debate about postmodernism.
The word “absolute” means complete, perfect or pure. In philosophy it refers to that which is self-existent and conceivable without relation to other things (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). To speak of “absolute” truth, as evangelicals use the term, is to fall into a trap, the trap of modernity.
Bear with me a moment while I try to explain what I just wrote. To be “absolute,” at least in the sense I believe the adjective is generally used with truth, carries with it the arrogance of the modern notion of human certainty. This type of thinking sounds more like logical positivism than Christianity. (Logical positivism was an intellectual attempt to demonstrate that the foundations of a scientific worldview were, in the end, provable.) Logical positivism argued that you can know the “truth” of a statement by simply asking: “What would we have to do to establish the truth or falsehood of [a given, or this] statement?” In this philosophy, statements that are empirically verifiable become claims that are truly meaningful. (Empirical means, “That which is based upon observation or experiment, not upon theory.”)
By this kind of argumentation, modernist evangelicals believe that what we affirm about Jesus, God and the Bible can be demonstrated and we can show pragmatically how these truth claims work. I want to use a quotation from one of the most important evangelical theologians of the twentieth century to show what I mean. I do not cite this man because I think he was a bad man. Quite the opposite, I think he was a truly fine Christian man. But the theological paradigm advanced by the late Carl F. Henry, which has had a profound impact upon fifty years of conservative evangelical thought, illustrates what I am getting at here. Henry wrote, in his magnum opus systematic theology, God, Revelation and Authority, a number of amazing things about theological method and how we can do theology humanly. None is more striking than this.
The ideal procedure [of Christian theology] would be to arrange all the truths of Christianity logically by summarizing and systematizing the texts and teaching of Scripture and supplying an exposition of the logical content and implications of the Bible on its own premises. . . . The fact that no theologian has succeeded as yet in fully arranging the truth of revelation in the form of axioms and theorems is no reason to abandon this objective. . . . The fact is that whatever violates the law of contradiction cannot be considered revelation. . . . Were the doctrines of the Trinity, of divine election and human responsibility, of the two natures of Christ logically contradictory doctrines, no evangelical Christian could or should accept and believe them (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority. Waco, Texas: Word, 1976), 1:239-240, 233, 241).
This type of theological claim, and process, is exactly what postmodernism calls into question. At this point I side with postmodernism’s critical stance toward such theological hubris. Dr. Henry seems to have been personally charitable, as well as intellectually open and engaging with the modern world, without ever becoming a sectarian or fundamentalist in any sense of the term. But such a claim for method has often led disciples to become arrogant in the way they speak about absolute truth. This is precisely what I am critical of when I speak of a postmodern shift in positive ways.
If our very demeanor, and claims, must reflect that we are not God then I believe the type of thinking that modernist methodologies gave to us will not assist us to this end. In the service of truth, or “absolute” truth, it ends up arguing for God in ways that do not have enough “not of God” in them. It would be better to speak of truth and Truth. In the first instance truth is what we see, understand with limited insight (“through a glass darkly”), and profess about Christ and the teaching of the Bible. But Truth, defined properly refers to Jesus who is the Truth in the sense of John 14:6. Truth, in the “absolute” sense, exists for God, not for us.
The Contribution of John Calvin
John Calvin understood this issue of seeing truth better than modern evangelicals. Calvin argued that God accommodates his truth to our weakness when he reveals the Truth to our minds and hearts. In comments on Genesis 1:16 Calvin says, “Since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all.” And in the same Genesis commentary he adds, “When God descends to us he, in a certain sense, abases himself, and stammers with us, so he allows us to stammer with him.”
The very best statement Calvin ever wrote about this appears in The Institutes (I.xiii.1). It is a simple, unforgettable, marvelous word, often cited over the centuries. The great reformer wrote: “God lisps, as it were, with us, just as nurses are accustomed to speak to infants.”
I submit that this stance is missed by modern evangelical attempts to argue about “absolute” truth. (It is especially missed by Calvinists who argue this way since they tend to reduce truth to their theological system and logic!) The problem is clearly underscored in Calvin’s brilliant insight. When we argue for “absolute” truth we argue that we are no longer infants who hear God “lisp.” We think that we are adults who have systematized God’s truth by “. . . arranging the truth of revelation in the form of axioms and theorems. . . .” When we do this it will not be long until we conclude that “. . . whatever violates the law of contradiction cannot be considered revelation.”
When this mistake is made we simply assert too much, way too much. We make claims for what we know that are way too large. By this means we build a comfortable box. God becomes the “god of the equations.” This gives pastors and lay people, who refuse to go outside the box to engage the postmodern world, a veritable license to label other evangelicals as liberal. The cause of truth, indeed the Truth, and the cause of mission are directly impacted when we live in this box. Christians should embrace the Christ of Holy Scripture without the box. This will help to foster a new and healthy reformation.