Friday, April 5, 2013

What is Post-Modernism? What is the Difference between Objective and Subjective Truth? Modernism and Post-Modernism?



What is postmodernism? What is objective truth and how is that different to subjective truth? What are differences between postmodernism and modernism? What is absolute truth? How do postmodernism and Christianity relate?

Introduction

Have we set ourselves an impossible task? Surely it would be easier to climb Mount Everest; at least we know where the destination is, and other people have already conquered its heights. Can a discussion on postmodernism and Christian truth come to any conclusions at all? Is it not all just relative, and our capacity to make particular judgments on the topic are all flawed and useless, or rather, irrelevant?

We could dive in straight away and ask what role do rational proofs of the claims of Christianity have in a postmodern society? But, it is more helpful, in a truly modern way that we define what is meant by a ‘rational proof’. To be rational is to be ‘having or exercising reason’[1]. Evans (2002: 98) says that rationalism is the, ‘Conviction that reason provides the best or even the only path to truth’. To exercise reason means, ‘to form conclusions, judgments, or inferences from facts or premises’[2]. So, a rational proof would be a premise or a conclusion that is made that can be proven by reason to be true.

Environmentally, a rational proof would be that photosynthesis is a vital process in ensuring there is the right amount of oxygen on Earth. Historically, a rational proof would be, that Saddam Hussein was executed on 30th December, 2006 and therefore greater peace will come to Iraq in the years ahead. Clearly the first part of the former statement is objectively true, but the second part is subjectively true. Another rational proof, this time within the political arena, is that former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declined in popularity during his first term in office, and this was the reason Julia Gillard took over the Labor Leadership. The point is rational proofs can at times be objectively true, yet sometimes subjectively true. When a statement is objectively true, it is not debatable; it occurred; it is right and true. Take for example the statement that ‘Prince William was born’. This is objectively true. Take the statement, ‘Prince William makes a great search and rescue pilot’. This is subjectively true. Many may well agree with the statement, but the statement is nonetheless subjective.

The question worth pondering is whether a postmodernist would even enter into the finer details of this discussion about truth. The worldview of a postmodernist is that there is no objective truth and no discussion is worth entering into regarding absolutes and objective truths because they do not exist. Interestingly, are postmodernists claiming that there is no absolute, objective truth? Further, is that statement in itself an absolute statement that merely highlights the irrationality of the postmodern movement?

Firstly we will delve into the background of modernism and then explore the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Following this, the unpacking of the facets that make up postmodern thinking will be considered, and then how that thinking connects with Christian truth. Lastly, this whirlwind of rational objectivity and relative subjectivity will end with a discussion on rational proofs amongst unbelievers and then rational proofs amongst believers. 


Modernism

On any discussion on postmodernism it is helpful to examine the worldview in which this new worldview derives itself. Simply, postmodernism is exactly what the name implies; it is ‘post’ the modern worldview. Interestingly this new, still evolving worldview does not have a name per se, but is by definition simply a move away from modernism, or as Beardslee says it is the breaking away from, ‘the determinism of the modern worldview’ (Dockery, 1995: 34).  When delving into modernism we unpack a tradition that holds rationalism up as its trump card, and science and technology as the foundation for its thoughts and practices. As Bosch writes, there was a preeminence of reason, and that ‘Rationalism made such superb sense, particularly since its achievements in science and technology were so manifest…’ (1991: 350). This in essence was the modern worldview – a view that embraced accurate knowledge, provable theses and unquestionable, reliable data (: 350).

Ideas, strategies, thoughts and discoveries were best described using rationalism in a modern worldview. In fact, new discoveries in any field, whether it be medicine, theology, science or politics were not generally adhered to or bought into if the new concept could not be proven step by step, with reason. This mindset of reason was what encapsulated the modern worldview for hundreds of years, but in the early to mid-twentieth century, the view began to change.


Modernism to Postmodernism

The modern paradigm began to shift. In light of both World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), the steady trust in the conventional ways of thinking was breaking down. In the field of Physics in the early twentieth century saw the likes of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr communicate revolutionary new ways of thinking, that shifted the very foundation on which science built itself (Bosch, 1991: 350). Lyotard places the shift later, saying that the transition had been under way since the end of the 1950s (1979: 3). This gradual shift would maneuver every field of thought and practice, from science to politics to entertainment to a new era of theological thought. Oden writes that the time span of modernity was 1789 to 1989 and that we now live in ‘after modern consciousness’ (Dockery, 1995: 25). Actually it is better to place the ending of the modernist worldview back in the post-Second World War days. Arguably there are streams of modern thought that still exist today, so to even mention that the modern worldview has completely shifted is naïve. What interests us here is the shift in theological thought brought on by the wider societal shifts of these worldviews. How has our theology changed in light of postmodernism? More importantly, how has this changed our apologetic task of communicating the gospel to the world?


The Exploration of Truth in a Postmodern Worldview

Before engaging in theological discourse related to truth, absolutes and such, there are general ways of thinking that help to explain the postmodern worldview. Postmodernism is known to have a suspicion of ‘metanarratives’ and have a focus on the uncertain character of human knowing (Dockery, 1995: 59; Evans, 2002: 95). This assault against rationalism does have some positives. According to Bosch, it allows rationality to be expanded, and:

One way of expanding it is to recognize that language cannot be absolutely accurate, that it is impossible finally to “define” either scientific laws or theological truth….neither science nor theology “proves”; rather, they “probe”. This recognition has led to a reevaluation of the role of metaphor, myth, analogy….and to the rediscovery of the sense of mystery and enchantment (1991: 353).

Postmodernism has the tendency to be suspicious about overly analytical, scientific and rational approaches to understanding. The meaning of anything is held to the subjective view of the one who has the view. There is a suspicion related to linguistics, as Bosch mentioned above and written texts. In fact as Henry writes, ‘Texts are declared to be intrinsically incapable of conveying truth about some objective reality’ (Dockery, 1995: 36)[3]. This is really, what is labeled as ‘destructive postmodernism’, where ‘absolute relativism prevails’ and ‘objective truth is intolerable and nonexistent’ (: 38).

So should we abandon any form of rationality because of this intruding postmodernist worldview? Is reason to be thrown out with the murky bath water of modernism? As Young writes (Bosch, 1991: 353), we need to take the best of the modern science, and politics and philosophy and the others field of knowledge established and developed throughout the modern years. Though, what we should be wary of is ‘reductionism’, that is, the modernist attempt to reduce everything down to absolute, objective, verifiable statements that explain all of reality. In contrast postmodernism offers the ability to rediscover mystery, and to explore new ways of thinking. This does not necessarily contradict all the premises and understanding of the modern worldview but rather expands on it.


Postmodernism and Christian Truth

Some like William Lane Craig argue that postmodernism is a lie of the devil, and that individuals still hold strongly to objective truths, e.g. the label on a bottle of rat poison (1984: 18). Other apologists and theologians have provided different thoughts, including Kenneson, who chooses to embrace postmodernity as a way to engage people with Christianity. He says that moving away from modernity, ‘gives the church the opportunity to explore other paradigms without being fixated on such matters as objective truth and evidentialist and rationalistic justifications for that truth’ (Okholm, 1995: 20).

Kenneson errs on the side of the relativistic Richard Rorty, when he challenges the Christian’s view of absolute truth in view of Christian mission. If we claim, for instance, that Jesus Christ is Lord of the Universe, then from his viewpoint:

…that lordship must be visible somewhere; it can never be objectively true, nor should we desire it to be, for such a desire not only requires us to bow down to the modernist god of objectivity, but more importantly, it involves us in denying our very reason for being (Phillips, 1995: 168).

He closely relates a Christian’s embodiment of the gospel, with the truth the Christian is claiming. He seemingly says that if a Christian, for instance, is not living the lordship of Christ in their life (whatever that objectively means) then the statement is not valid. Surely, the truth of such a statement (the reality of the Lordship of Christ) is mutually exclusive to the behaviours in which one chooses to live out in relation to that truth. Let me say, that if the statement is: “Libraries have an extensive array of knowledge within the books on its shelves” and I choose to not read any of the books and choose not to avail myself of that knowledge, it no less changes the truth of the original statement. Kenneson’s postmodernist view on Christian truth is classic postmodern monologue; after finishing reading his explanation on relativism and objective truth you are left without clear reasoning on why objective truth apparently is not important. You are left wondering on what foundation an evangelical can even build their theology (See Phillips, 1995: 155-170).  

Some concern must be raised to a mere embracing of everything postmodern, and neglecting the truths espoused through various epochs (medieval era, the reformation, modernism, etc) throughout the history of the Christian Church. Take for instance, the credibility of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, which includes documented evidence of over 500 eye witnesses to a risen Christ. A destructive postmodernist would call all historical documents fabrications and label them as distorted realities based on human’s infallible attempts to describe their circumstances. By chasing a rabbit down this hole of relativity, we lose any grasp of truth we think we had, and we stifle the exploration of Christian truth, as we find ourselves questioning every little theological thought we communicate.

Importantly though, on the other hand, we need not lift up modernism as the perfect worldview with a patent on truth that no one can question. We must forge ahead with understanding the gospel and the biblical writings in this new worldview of postmodernism. We must also refine our thinking on missiology, ecclesiology and Christian apologetics within this new era of thought and practice. The postmodern worldview challenges our overly rationalistic, analytic way of theologizing. Grenz writes about postmodern evangelical theology when he comments, ‘It must embody the biblical understanding that the cognitive dimension does not exhaust either the human person, reality as a whole, or the truth of God’ (Dockery, 1995: 85). He continues to say that it opens up the place of ‘mystery’ within the context of theology and rational truth. It sounds like the words of Colossians 2:2 where the Apostle Paul encourages his readers to ‘know the mystery of God’.

When considering Christianity and the rational proofs it communicates, our mind might ponder the statement, ‘Jesus died on a cross’. There is enough historical evidence to clearly define this statement to be objectively true. The doctrine of the atonement that says, ‘Jesus died for the sins of humanity’, goes a step further. This conclusion is saying that Jesus did not just die at a literal time in history, like many others under Roman persecution in the first century, but that through his death he offered atonement to the world. Is this objectively true or subjectively true? The postmodernist would say that it is subjectively true, and that is because, to the postmodernist, truth is relative. 
                                                                                    
Let’s consider a little closer this idea of Christian truth, or rather the rational proofs of Christianity. Two perspectives come quickly to mind; firstly, the role of rational proofs for unbelievers and secondly the role of rational proofs for believers within a postmodern worldview.


Rational Proofs and Unbelievers

If we are speaking evangelically, that is, reaching an unbeliever with the transforming message of Christ, then objective truths may not be the avenue in which that person comes to faith in Christ. A postmodernist will not be wooed by intellectual rational proofs deriving themselves from a seemingly modernist Western World construct called Christianity. I agree with Kenneson (Phillips, 1995: 155-170) in the challenge for Christians to live out and embody the theological truths they communicate and that unbelievers will then and only then be captured by the reality of the gospel message. While his inability to concede in any objective truth is concerning, it is clearly true that unbelievers are no longer swayed by fancy, analytical apologetics, that highlight rational proofs of Christianity. This is not to say, that rational proofs are not important, it is merely conceding that rational proofs in reaching people with the message of Jesus is not the primary way people begin to have faith in Jesus. We only have to observe the faith journey of friends and family who have become followers of Christ, and we see Christians forming and establishing strong, close relationships with unbelievers, and through the embodiment of the gospel in their own life, the friend is drawn closer to Christ.


Rational Proofs and Believers

For a Christian there seems to be a greater passion to seek out ‘truth’ than someone who is not a Christian. This is because partly within the Christian church there is a focus on doctrine and the understanding of facets of the faith you ascribe to. It also relates to biblical verses impressed upon the Christian, like Psalm 25:5, ‘Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior…’ Within the book of Matthew alone, as translated by the NIV, Jesus says 30 times, ‘I tell you the truth’ followed or preceded by a descriptive theological point. The Christian disciple quickly learns that Jesus is concerned with truth and therefore he/she should be concerned also. The word ‘truth’ or as other versions render it, ‘truly’ is actually the Greek word αμην which is pronounced ‘amen’. Unarguably the translation for ‘amen’ is ‘so be it’ when used by itself. So, Jesus proclaims aspects of the Kingdom of God, his nature, and faith, and he says, let these things be so. They are truth. A statement too definitive for the postmodernist, no doubt, but a clear, biblical example of the focus and significance Jesus holds towards people engaging with rational proofs of Christianity. Some may acknowledge the vagueness of some of Jesus’ statements when communicating with the disciples or the crowds, which is rightly noted. Clearly though, Jesus did not intend his words to be mere relative discourse that held no objective meaning to his listeners. For instance he says on a number of occasions that he will be killed and on the third day he will rise again. Plenty of historical evidence exists recording the literal rising of Christ from the grave on the third day. This was not a relative statement. What he said became true, and was fulfilled as objective truth when he actually rose from the dead.       

Conclusion

When we engage in theological thinking, we are attempting to understand the nature of God better. This pursuit of theological truth will always exist amongst the people of God, as Christians attempt to grasp the reality of their faith, and how it affects their life and the people around them. The fact is though, that people pursue theological understanding differently, and the emergence of a postmodernist worldview from a modernist worldview has widened the chasm of different theological understanding.

Henry (cited in Dockery, 1995: 44) writes that, ‘Theology is a lost cause if it is disengaged from the pursuit of universal truth.’ What Henry is saying, is that, without striving after ‘universal truth’ then theology is useless. Regardless of someone’s worldview (postmodern, modern, etc), if we are not seeking after real answers to questions about God, then what is the point of theology? If understanding the Christian faith merely informs us on a particular moral code to live out (according to our own interpretation of the Scriptures), and provides the occasional nice psychological message for secularists, then truth is compromised.

As we have seen that while missiologically the postmodernist may not participate warmly to the theological discussion of truth, the postmodern evangelical is more likely to wrestle with grasping the rational proofs of their faith. So as we descend from our seemingly impossible mountain climb of rationalism and postmodernism, we find ourselves continuing the journey; the journey that takes us down roads of discovery and mystery as we embody the gospel in our everyday lives.




BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bosch, David J. (1991). Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission.     Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Craig, William Lane (1984). Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton,
Illinois: Crossway.

Dockery, David S. (1995). The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Evans, C. Stephen (2002). Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion.
Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Gundry, Stanley N. & Cowan, Steven B. (2000). Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Zondervan.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.

McLaren, Brian & Campolo, Tony. (2003). Adventures in Missing the Point. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Zondervan.

Phillips, Timothy R. & Okholm, Dennis L. (1995). Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern
World. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Rorty, Richard (1991). Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.


Also: A comedian’s view on postmodernism:



[1] Random House Dictionary (2011), found at: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rational
[2] Random House Dictionary (2011), found at: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/reason
[3] If this is true, then this essay will not provide any absolute truths! Sorry!


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