How Shall We Respond to Our Postmodern Context?

John ArmstrongPostmodernity

Postmodernism teaches us that human concepts are not God-given. Many postmodernists believe that some forms of understanding “may” be innate to our humanness but most are clearly the products of human conventions that were formed within particular cultures and historical events. This whole new way of thinking calls into question the very way that we use language. But if language no longer communicates objective reality then how can we rely on words themselves to faithfully communicate the truth of the gospel? Is this not a short cut to religious and moral relativism?

It would be helpful to define relativism at this point. It is the philosophical doctrine that all criteria of judgment are relative to the individuals and situations involved. It is the theory, especially as it is used in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but only relative. The term, especially when it is employed by Christians, refers to idea that there are no absolute truths; i.e. truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as language or culture. This then leads to moral relativism where there are no moral laws thus we decide what to do, or not do, based upon our (personal) way of thinking about it.

It is plainly true that a growing number of people believe there are no absolute truths. Of those under 35 years of age the percentage is very high. Every poll known to mankind reveals this to be a fact. And if this is true then the common (modern) basis for belief in God is seriously undermined, to say the least. Westphal_Merold But Christian philosopher Merold E. Westphal rightly concludes:

It seems to me that the postmodern arguments are about the limits of human understanding and that they support the claim that we do not have access to the Truth. But what is different from this claim that there is no Truth, which would be true only if there were no other subject or subjects capable of Truth (Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith, 86).

I would thus suggest that a proper use of the postmodern contribution is to be found by embracing a kind of skepticism that is suspicious about our personal (easy) access to the truth. If we are Christians we should plainly refuse the idea that there is no absolute truth (such as God). Christians who want to use postmodern thought do not argue that we have no access to the truth but rather that we do not have the kind of access that modernity offered to us. What they are saying is that we do not have a certainty that can be framed by a very human system and then spoken about as if this was the truth in ways that fit nicely into the scientific model. When we do theology in this way we make theology more like mathematics than like art or poetry. I believe a good theological method can still chastely use some elements of the old model but it desperately needs the insights of the new to return Christian thinking to its proper place.

Overcoming Onto-Theology Keep in mind again that postmodernity is not only hard to define but many Christians have been taught that it is nothing more than a positive evil. When this has been done they will hear little or no explanation of what postmodernity actually is and thus easily equate it with moral relativism and then condemn it. The fact is that postmodernity is still in its infancy. Remember, the dominant way to understand postmodernism is to see it as a rejection of the principles upon which modernity was founded. It is, at least right now, a reaction against the past. Postmodernists are rejecting Enlightenment (modernist) beliefs, attitudes and methods. Even science now admits that “knowledge as a human endeavor, though never certain, can be overwhelmingly probable” (Kenell Touryan, “Are Truth Claims in Science Socially Constructed,” in Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith, June, 1999, 103). Christians can admit the same in a chaste and humble manner.

In theology the problem is quite obvious, at least to an increasingly large number of thinkers and teachers. Modernists, who are often very conservative in their theological conclusions, embrace a theology that equates their knowledge of a theological system with faithfulness, or real certainty. Many times it sounds like these conservative Christians are actually equating their conclusions with God’s mind. They seem quite sure that they have a one-for-one correspondence between their thoughts and God’s thoughts. Not all such modernists respond in the same way but this kind of certitude very often feeds pride and leads to endless fights about the truth. These modernist approaches helped fuel religious wars in the post-Reformation age, have created numerous Christian schisms since and have resulted in so many denominations and “truth” wars that one is left gasping for air in the face of this sad reality.

If the postmodern shift has done anything positive for Christians I think we find a reason here. The developing postmodern critique has helped more and more Christians become aware of a simple fact: God knows the truth in a way that we humans do not. The right use of postmodern suspicion is to employ it to combat the notion that we have easy access to the truth. When conservative pastors tell their people that solid exposition and Bible study will make them into mature disciples then they get very close to this danger! (This is not an attack on study and Bible exposition so read the statement carefully.)

A secular postmodernist deduces that there is no absolute truth. The reason for this is that the person has not yet met the one who is the truth in Jesus Christ. But no postmodern Christian, who knows the one who is the truth, will ever claim that there is no absolute truth since they have a personal relationship with the one who incarnates the absolute truth.