(418) EMERGING TRENDS IN THE CHURCH TODAY: POSTMODERNISM & EVANGELICALISM – PART 1

Do you think that you would be surprised to find out what pastors, teachers, leaders of your church’s denomination are being taught at seminary today?

Most Evangelicals have no idea what is being taught even in conservative Christian colleges and seminaries in America today. They assume that those training for the ministry are being taught the Bible, sound doctrine, and how to teach and preach – I know, radical concepts.  For example – Teaching a literal biblical view of a young-earth creation is becoming more difficult to find in Bible colleges and seminaries today.  

The norm in most American theological institutions, among both the faculty and the students, is the idea that we can’t know absolute truth.   Many professors, students, and graduates are certain that they can’t be certain of anything!

And get this – not only are theological students and faculty not certain of their eternal destiny, they aren’t even sure that God exists! 

Should we be surprised today that in many churches, the Bible is seldom studied. In seminary,  students no longer primarily study the Bible. They primarily study what scholars and other books say about the Bible.

Sound doctrine is no longer a given among Christian students. Many diverging views are tolerated among the students and faculty, even views that radically disagree with the school’s doctrinal statement.

According to most Evangelical educators today, we cannot be sure of even foundational Christian truths. For example, many seminary and Bible college professors specifically say we cannot be sure that Jesus rose from the dead! Consider the following examples:

POSTMODERNITY IS THE NEXT REFORMATION ?

(a.) Carl Raschke is the author of The NEXT REFORMATION: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004).  He has a Ph.D. from Harvard in the Philosophy of Religion and is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.

Raschke says that postmodern faith is existential, NOT RATIONAL. Faith is “a total surrender of one’s heart” (pp. 168, 210). “A rational ‘faith’ is not really faith at all. Faith does not require any kind of unimpeachable demonstration. It is a passion for God amid the contingencies of experience and the messiness of life in general” (p. 168).

“The Bible is not a system of arguable and debatable propositions. A genuine systematic theology forged from the Bible is impossible” (p. 210).

=> Here is POSTMODERNISM 

  • The Bible has errors in it, yet it is authoritative (pp. 120, 134, 143).
  • “The ‘infallible’ authority of Scripture, therefore, is not founded on the fact that it contains no ‘errors’” (p. 134).
  • “The authority of the Bible does not rest on whether it is logically and seamlessly consistent and free of ‘errors’” (p. 143).
  • Certitude is the enemy of faith (pp. 82, 150, 168, 174). Without certitude to stand on, postmodernity takes it stand on intuition!
  • “The real is relational and the relational is real. On this intuition the postmodern Christians take their stand” (p. 158, italics his).
  • “Postmodernity is all our doubts supersized” (p. 174).

Raschke admits, “At first glance the prospect appears both repugnant and frightening.” It must take a lot of glances to remove those fears. The more I look at evangelical postmodernity, the greater my fear and repugnancy grows.

(b.) We Believe in God Despite No Evidence

Wheaton of all places – According to Wheaton Professor of Philosophy W. Jay Wood, “modest foundationalists make no claims about the invincible certainty of one’s basic beliefs” (Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, p. 98). The reason is because we cannot be sure of anything based on evidence.

=> Welcome to POSTMODERNISM

POSTMODERNISM 

Postmodernism (PM) is a catch-all term that covers many ideas. At its base, postmodernism is belief in plurality: no one can come to ultimate truth because people come to truth from their own perspective

The term “postmodernism” literally means “after modernism” and is used to philosophically describe the current era which came after the age of modernism. Postmodernism is a reaction (or perhaps more appropriately, a disillusioned response) to modernism’s failed promise of using human reason alone to better mankind and make the world a better place. Because one of modernism’s beliefs was that absolutes did indeed exist, postmodernism seeks to “correct” things by first eliminating absolute truth and making everything (including the empirical sciences and religion) RELATIVE to an individual’s beliefs and desires.

To understand POSTMODERNISM, we must first understand the two main periods that came before, namely, the premodern and the modern. These two periods have certain points in common, but also radically disagree at a number of points.

PREMODERNISM

M.J. Erickson 9 – The premodern period was characterized by a belief in the rationality of the universe.2 It was generally thought of as a dualistic universe, or in some senses, supernatural or at least extranatural. Reality was not restricted to the observable system known as nature. Frequently this belief took the form of a religious supernaturalism: the world has been created and sustained by a God, as in the Christian tradition, or at least there are behind and beyond nature some sort of spiritual beings, as in some polytheisms and pantheisms. In any event, there is more to reality than nature. In nonreligious varieties, there is still something beyond observable phenomena. The most prominent such view was Plato’s hylomorphism, in which the most real is the unseen, specifically, the Ideas or Forms, from which all particular things draw their existence and reality by participation in them.

Further, the premodern view was teleological.3 There was belief in purpose within the universe. The entire creation, humans included, existed because there was some purpose that their existence fulfilled. In the Western religious tradition this was a belief that God has purposes that he is working out within his creation and that we and everything else are means to fulfillment of those ends. There had to be reasons for things, and these were not simply in terms of “because” (efficient causes), but in terms of “so that” or “in order that” (final causes).

History also was believed to follow some sort of orderly pattern. The story of life in the world was indeed a story, because it was going somewhere. That pattern was believed to be present because a purpose or direction was instilled into history from outside, in the case of Christianity, by the will of God. It was moving toward some goal outside itself, and one could therefore make sense of life by discerning that will or goal or pattern and by then aligning one’s personal life and actions with it.4

A number of metaphysical and epistemological conceptions were involved in premodernism. One was a basic realism, by which is meant the objective existence of the physical world. The world exists independently of its being perceived by anyone. Further, there is a correspondence theory of truth. That is, propositions are true if they correctly describe the realities they purport to describe, false if they do not. This is closely wrapped up with a referential understanding of language. Language does not simply refer to other language, but to something extralinguistic.

MODERNISM

The modern period had certain points in agreement with this premodern approach, but also several significant differences. It shared the belief in the objective reality of the physical world, in the referential nature of language, and in the correspondence theory of truth. History was believed to have a sensible pattern to it, which could be discerned through careful study. It is, however, when the reason or explanation for these conceptions is asked that the differences between the two views emerge. Although the transition between the two ideologies was prolonged and gradual, these differences became increasingly apparent. Basically, modernism retained the conception of the world but removed its supernatural or at least extranatural basis. Thus, the vertical dualism was replaced by a horizontal dualism, in which the meaning or cause was found within or behind the natural world, rather than beyond or above it. The pattern of history is to be found within it rather than beyond it. Events are explained in terms of the social realities that cause them, rather than in terms of the purpose of a transcendent God. Similarly, causation is thought of as efficient rather than final. There are not purposes for the sake of which something exists or happens. There are only causes leading to its occurrence.5

There is in modern thought a strong emphasis on rationality and certainty. This shows itself clearly in the thought of the man whom many consider the founder of modernism, René Descartes as well as other philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. 

A third development was the rise of modern science, as related to the thought of Bacon and exemplified most fully in the thought of Newton. This involved the idea that real knowledge came from the process of empirical observation and testing that science developed to the fullest. Part of the vindication for the scientific method came through technology, which is the application of the pure sciences to practical issues. The accomplishments here have been truly astounding. Communications, transportation, and medicine made huge leaps of progress. The benefits of this progress, in the multiplication of human wealth, the overcoming of disease, and the shrinking of the distances of separation among human beings, constituted a spectacular justification which theology and philosophy simply could not begin to match. The idea that nature is self-contained, so that it is unnecessary to appeal to anything outside nature to account for it, seemed to have borne bountiful results.

1. Modernism has been essentially humanistic. The human being is the center of reality, and in a sense everything exists for the sake of the human. In an earlier period, God had been thought of as the central and supreme object of value. His will was what was to be done and also determined what happened. This was beyond the scope of human control, a concept that still persists in insurance companies’ references to “acts of God.” In the modern period, however, the human is central and autonomous. Humans are now able to control nature through the use of science, and they are the ones who determine what happens in history. One can see this gradual development by visiting an art museum that is arranged on a historical basis. The shift of subject matter from God, angels, and heavenly matters to humans is quite clear.

2. Together with humanism is naturalism. Nature, as the habitat of the human, is strongly emphasized. Paralleling the shift from God to humanity is the shift from anything heavenly or ethereal to the earth. This earth is the stage on which the human drama is played out. In practice, the tendency increasingly has been to restrict reality to the observable universe, and to understand even humans in light of this system of nature.

3. With this growing interest in nature, means of investigating and understanding it were developed and refined. This is the scientific method. From being regarded as the best means for gaining knowledge, the shift has gradually been in the direction of considering it to be virtually the only means of investigating truth. Thus, other disciplines increasingly have attempted to model themselves after the methods of natural science, adopting and applying empirical research, statistical methodology, and the like.

4. Nature, rather than being thought of as passive and an object of human activity, is considered dynamic, and the sole and sufficient cause and explanation of all that occurs. Instead of human origin, for example, being thought of as an act of special creation by God, biological evolution is seen as the cause of the human. Humans are not as uniquely different from other living beings as was formerly thought.

5. Determinism is a strong element in modernism. Science was possible because there were certain regularities within reality, which could be discovered and formulated into laws. This enabled humans both to predict and to control what happened.

6. This scientific method also tended to be practiced in a reductionistic fashion. Objects of study were regarded as “nothing but” something more basic. Thus, psychology tended to be reduced to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics.

7. There was a strong tendency toward foundationalism. This, as we noted earlier, is the attempt to ground knowledge on some sure first principles. These may be taken as indubitable first principles, or something of that type. For Descartes, these are clear and distinct ideas, while for David Hume, an empiricist, it is sense experience. The logical positivists followed basically the empiricist route, seeking to get back to certain protocol sentences. This meant that knowledge was thought to be absolute and unqualified, whereas religion had to base itself on faith.

8. There is a commitment to metaphysical realism. The objects of the inquiry in which science engages are objects external to the consciousness of the knower, existing independently of any perception of them.

9. There is a representative view of language. In other words, language refers to real objects that are extralinguistic.

10. There is a correspondence theory of truth. Truth is a measure of propositions and is present in those propositions, which correctly correspond to the states of affairs that they claim to present.

In general, modernism was seeking for an explanation that would cover all things. Darwinism accounted for everything in terms of biological evolution. Freudian psychology explained all human behavior in light of sexual energy, repression, and unconscious forces. Marxism interpreted all events of history in economic categories, with the forces of dialectical materialism moving history toward the inevitable classless society. These ideologies offered universal diagnoses as well as universal cures.

Dissatisfaction with Modernism

Gradually at first, but more rapidly of late, there has been a growing dissatisfaction with this modern way of viewing things. A sense has arisen that the modern approach has failed to accomplish that which it purported to do or that which needed to be done. There are more restrained and more radical forms of this abandonment of the modern view.7 Diogenes Allen has outlined four areas in which this breakdown of the modern synthesis has occurred, four pillars of Western society that are crumbling.8

1. The idea of a self-contained universe is dissolving. This was a widely held premise of scientific thinking. It was possible to explain the universe without any appeal to God. While it was permissible to believe in God as a matter of personal and private faith, this belief was not necessary for an understanding of observable reality.

This consensus has come under grave suspicion, however. The philosophical arguments that seemed to preclude theoretical or rational knowledge of God, as offered by David Hume and Immanuel Kant, have been seen to be failures. The developments in philosophy have been supported by those in cosmology, where the Big Bang theory has raised questions about why just this universe has arisen. While these questions do not establish the existence of God by any means, they at least render pertinent the question of God.

2. The second collapse is the failure of the modern world to find a basis for morality and society. The goal was to establish a rational ethic, to demonstrate by reason alone a universal morality and basis for society. This modernity has failed to do. The failure was not so evident as long as the members of society basically adhered to traditional values, based on Greek and Christian principles. With the abandonment of such values, however, a virtual chaos has resulted, similar to the time of the Old Testament judges, when everyone did what was right in his or her own sight.

3. Optimism regarding inevitable progress has also been lost. This was based in large part on the idea that science and technology had solved so many problems that they could surely solve any others that remained. Progress was therefore inevitable. There is grave doubt, however, that education and social reform will be able to solve the problems we still face, and others that may yet arise.

4. The fourth Enlightenment principle was the inherent goodness of knowledge. Experience has shown us, however, that knowledge is neutral, its moral value depending on those who possess and use it. So some of the major discoveries of our time have been used for great good, but there have also been applications that have resulted in great evil.

All of these, in Allen’s judgment, provided a great opportunity for Christian belief in our time, for they represent the removal of major obstacles or competitors to the Christian faith.

=> In PART 2, we will look at how postmodernism has crept into the church and what effect it could have on our walk.

NOTES
2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica 1.2.2.
3 James B. Miller, “The Emerging Postmodern World,” in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralistic World, ed. Frederic B. Burnham (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 2.
4 Augustine, The City of God.
5 William Dean, History Making History: The New Historicism in American Religious Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 4.
6 John Herman Randall Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind: A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940), chapters 11–15.
7 For a schematism for distinguishing postmodern from modern theologies, see Nancey Murphy and James William McClendon Jr., “Distinguishing Modern and Postmodern Theologies,” Modern Theology 5, no. 3 (April 1989): 191–214.
8 Diogenes Allen, “Christian Values in a Post-Christian Context,” in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralist World, pp. 21–25.
9 Erickson, M. J. (1998). Christian theology. (2nd ed., pp. 160–166). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
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