Alan D. Strange
Postmodernism is rightly critical of modernism. It recognizes that modernism is unable to account for its closed, naturalistic, materialistic worldview. Modernism’s failure may be seen in its scientism (the conviction that the scientific method is the only path to objective, public knowledge), in its rationalism (which is purportedly autonomous and anti-supernatural), and in the myth of human evolution and progress. Postmodernism does not turn to Christianity, though, to provide the preconditions that make logic, science, ethics, love, and beauty intelligible.
In its critique of modernism, postmodernism embraces irrationalism and thus commits intellectual suicide by attempting to “establish” irrationalism through rational argument. That is an internal inconsistency not unlike a Hindu monism that argues against distinctions and at the same time urges its adherents to develop good karma. So postmodernism argues against the best aspects of modernism—the affirmation of objective truth, the reliability of the senses, the importance of the use of reason, and the laws of logic—denouncing them as mere conventions concocted by society’s masters. Thus, postmodernism may rightly be seen, not as completely different from modernism, but as the logical outcome of a worldview that cannot account for itself—modernism gone to seed, in which “anything goes.”
Manifestations of postmodernism and what to do about them apologetically have particularly concerned us in recent years. The work of Einstein (relativity) and Heisenberg (uncertainty) has been co-opted by the popular culture as a whole. Thus, we see modernism giving birth to postmodernism, which lays the groundwork for our religious and political pluralism and our ethical relativism. Since modernism has not given us certain knowledge, postmodernists reason, one religion may be as good as another and one ethical system as valuable as another—as long as it “works for you.”
With postmodernism, all that matters is the self alone. Philosophically, we have existentialism and nihilism, both of which are irrational and self-destructive. The existentialists (Camus, Sartre, Heidegger) all called for authentic living over against the mechanization and dehumanization of our modern world, though many among them ironically embraced communism and fascism. Nietzsche was the one who called for the abolition of the petite bourgeoisie morality that holds back the Übermensch, the superman who cannot be held back by middle-class morality and must, by the will to power, by the revaluation of all values, make a new world after the “death of God.”
This nihilism and the will to power have brought about a shift of emphasis from truth (that dominated in modernism) to power (that dominates in postmodernism). This postmodern emphasis on power discounts the notion of truth, arguing that it is but a tool of the power elite (taking a page from Marxism) used to oppress the powerless.
Thus, everything is politicized. Right and wrong have no objective meaning beyond “that which advances my interest” or “that which damages my interest.” It is just such a politicization of everything that is part and parcel of deconstructionism. Deconstructionism represents the supremacy of the interpreter over the text, in which authorial intent takes a back seat to reader response and in which the critic becomes sovereign over the text and more important than the author.
How do we deal with postmodernism? Some propose to deal with it by capitulating to it. Others oppose this and argue in a way that suggests that, as part of refuting postmodernism, we must lead men to modernism before we can lead them to Christianity. Surely this cannot be right. To be sure, we must affirm that there is objective truth and that it is accessible by reason. But this skirts the question: can unbelievers reason rightly? Van Til would contend that they cannot, and that we do not have common epistemological ground with unbelievers; this is why we cannot make a direct appeal to the evidence.
It is a false dichotomy to assert, as do some, that truth is personal, not propositional; it is both. Certainly truth is propositional. And it is a person—Jesus Christ (John 14:6). This does not mean, though, that modernists were justified in asserting the law of noncontradiction—as if their worldview provided the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of logic, when in fact only the Christian worldview does.
If it was ever evident that we need a presuppositional apologetic, it is in dealing with the postmodernist. We can agree with the postmodernist in much of his critique of modernism, particularly as he points out the arbitrary nature of the modernist commitment to logic, science, and ethics. We can then turn our guns on the postmodernist and show him the folly of his own position, for he does not apply to himself the critique that he applies to others, even as the deconstructionist does not deconstruct or engage in a hermeneutics of suspicion in regard to his own work.
The internal critique of modernism makes it clear that it can account neither for its rationalism, which in the modern context comes from Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and all those who advocate a “stop-and-think” approach, nor for the empiricism that comes from the “look-and-see” approach of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and others. Even Kant’s “transcendental” attempt to rescue science and religion, after Hume’s skepticism destroyed the possibility of knowledge, proved to be a failure, leaving modern man with a subjectivism that developed in Hegel into historicism and in Nietzsche into postmodernism. The internal critique of postmodernism, as we have seen, is that its irrationalism deconstructs itself. This spells the failure of the Enlightenment, which sought to overthrow the Christian faith in the name of science and reason. Christianity remains the only hope, and the Word of God the only sure beacon in the midst of all the darkness of modernism and postmodernism.
We need to engage the postmodernist (and the modernist) with the gospel and show him that we have answers to his questions within our worldview, even though he cannot make sense of things in his worldview. Only in Christianity can the gaps between generations, races, socioeconomic classes, nations, etc., be bridged. Only in him who is the God-man can God and man be brought together, and only in him can warring mankind be united. Particularly given the politicization of everything in postmodernism, its adherents surely grow weary of incessant power struggles and the disunity that they create—we are more divided than ever, due to such pervasive politicization. They also surely long for something more than the political zero-sum game to which everything has been reduced. I would suggest that “something more” can be found in a vigorous spirituality of the church, of the sort held out by J. G. Machen:
Weary with the conflicts of the world, one goes into the Church to seek refreshment for the soul. And what does one find? Alas, too often, one finds only the turmoil of the world. The preacher comes forward, not out of a secret place of meditation and power, not with the authority of God’s Word permeating his message, not with human wisdom pushed far into the background by the glory of the Cross, but with human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problem of sin. Such is the sermon. And then perhaps the service is closed by one of those hymns breathing out the angry passions of 1861, which are to be found in the back part of the hymnals. Thus the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God, and sad indeed is the heart of the man who has come seeking peace.
Is there no refuge from strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place, then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world. (Christianity and Liberalism, 179–80)
Only the gospel furnishes the necessary preconditions for a fallen humanity to be reconstituted as a new humanity in Christ. In him there is the basis for the reconciling of that which separates us from God and from each other. That gospel needs to be preached in its purity by a church committed to it and not compromised by political alliances that besmirch its spirituality. As a follower of Charles Hodge in this, I recognize that the Scriptures address matters that impact the civil sphere. (The spirituality of the church, properly construed, does not deny this.) By “political,” I mean those things that divide people holding the same confessional commitment (e.g., tax rates, immigration policy, gun control, public health care). They need to be worked out outside the institutional church (though not divorced from a faith commitment). Let’s address the apologetical and evangelistic questions concerning our witness to modernism and postmodernism and resist the temptation to let either CNBC or Fox News control our ecclesiastical agenda. Our witness to Christ is the one needed by a weary world.
The author, an OP pastor, is a professor and librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. New Horizons, February 2015.