Answer: Simply put, Postmodernism is a philosophy that affirms no objective or absolute truth, especially in matters of religion and spirituality. When confronted with a truth claim regarding the reality of God and religious practice, Postmodernism’s viewpoint is exemplified in the statement “That may be true for you, but not for me.” While such a response may be completely appropriate when discussing favorite foods or preferences toward art, such a mindset is dangerous when it is applied to reality because it confuses matters of taste and opinion with truth.
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 as well as religion) relative to an individual’s beliefs and desires.
The dangers of Postmodernism can be viewed as a downward spiral that begin with the rejection of absolute truth, which then leads to a loss of distinctions in matters of religion and faith, and finally culminates in a philosophy of religious pluralism that says no faith or religion is objectively true and therefore no one can claim their religion is true and another is false.
Dangers of Postmodernism – #1 – Relative Truth
Postmodernism’s stance of relative truth is the outworking of many generations of philosophical thought. From Augustine to the Reformation, the intellectual aspects of Western civilization and the concept of truth were dominated by theologians. But, beginning with the Renaissance periods of the 14th – 17th centuries, thinkers began to elevate humankind to the center of reality. If one were to look at human periods of history like a family tree, the Renaissance would be Modernism’s grandmother and the Enlightenment would be its mother. Renee Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” personified the beginning of this era. God was not the center of truth any longer – man now was.
The Enlightenment was in a way the complete imposition of the scientific model of rationality upon all aspects of truth and claimed that only scientific data could be objectively understood, defined, and defended. Truth as it pertained to religion was left out and discarded. The philosopher who straddled this epoch’s and Modernism’s contribution to relative truth was the Prussian Immanuel Kant and his work The Critique of Pure Reason, which appeared in 1781. Among other things, Kant argued that true knowledge about God was impossible so he created a divide of knowledge between ‘facts’ and ‘faith’. According to Kant, “Facts have nothing to do with religion”. The end result was that spiritual matters were assigned to be matters of the heart and just opinion, and only the empirical sciences were allowed to speak of truth. And while Modernism believed in absolutes at least in the area of science, God’s special revelation (the Bible) was evicted from the realm of truth and certainty.
From Modernism came Postmodernism and, whereas Kant marked the philosophical transition from the Enlightenment to Modernity, Frederick Nietzsche may symbolize the shift from Modernism to Postmodernism. As the patron saint of postmodernist philosophy, Nietzsche held to ‘perspectivism’, which says that all knowledge (including science) is a matter of perspective and interpretation. Many other philosophers have built upon Nietzsche’s work (e.g. Foucault, Rorty, Lyotard) and have shared his rejection of God and religion in general. They also rejected any hint of absolute truth, or as Lyotard put it, a rejection of a metanarrative (a truth that transcends all peoples and cultures).
This philosophical march through history against objective truth has resulted in Postmodernism having a complete aversion to any claim to absolutes, with such a mindset naturally painting a huge bull’s eye on something that declares to be inerrant truth, such as the Bible.
Dangers of Postmodernism – #2 – Loss of Discernment
The great theologian Thomas Aquinas said, “It is the task of the philosopher to make distinctions.” What Aquinas meant is that truth is dependent upon the ability to discern – the capability to distinguish ‘this’ from ‘that’ in the realm of knowledge. However, if objective and absolute truth does not exist, then everything becomes a matter of personal interpretation. To the postmodern individual, the author of a book does not possess the correct interpretation of their work; it is the reader who actually determines what the book really means – a process called Deconstruction. And given that there are multiple readers (vs. one author), there are naturally multiple interpretations, with the end result being no universally valid interpretation.
Such a chaotic situation makes it impossible to make meaningful or lasting distinctions between interpretations because there is no standard or benchmark that can be used. This especially applies to matters of faith and religion because the philosophers of the Enlightenment and Modernity had already deposed religion to the compartment of opinion. Such being the case, it naturally follows that attempting to make proper and meaningful distinctions in the area of religion (ones that dare suggest that one belief is right and another invalid) carries no more weight than one person arguing that chocolate tastes better than vanilla. In such situations, it becomes impossible to objectively adjudicate between competing truth claims.
Dangers of Postmodernism – #3 – Pluralism
If absolute truth does not exist, and if there is no way to make meaningful, right/wrong distinctions between different faiths and religions, then the natural conclusion is that all beliefs must be given equal weight and considered valid. The proper term for this practical outworking in Postmodernism is “philosophical pluralism”. With pluralism, no religion has the right to pronounce itself right or true and the other competing faiths false, or even relatively inferior. For those who espouse a philosophical religious pluralism, there is no longer any heresy, except perhaps the view that there are heresies. D. A. Carson underscores conservative evangelical’s concerns about what they see as the dangerous element of pluralism when he says: “In my most somber moods I sometimes wonder if the ugly face of what I refer to as philosophical pluralism is the most dangerous threat to the gospel since the rise of the Gnostic heresy in the second century.”
These progressive dangers of Postmodernism – relative truth, a loss of discernment, and philosophical pluralism – represent real and imposing threats to Christianity because they collectively relegate God’s Word to something that has no real authority over mankind and no ability to show itself as true in a world of competing religious voices. What is Christianity’s response to these challenges?
Response to the Dangers of Postmodernism
It should first be stated that Christianity claims to be absolutely true, claims that meaningful distinctions in matters of right/wrong (as well as spiritual truth and falsehood) exist, and claims to be correct in its claims about God with any contrary claims from competing religions being incorrect. Such a stance provokes cries of ‘arrogance’ and ‘intolerance’ from Postmodernism. However, truth is not a matter of attitude or preference, and when closely examined, the foundations and philosophies of Postmodernism quickly crumble and reveal Christianity’s claims to be both plausible and compelling.
First, Christianity claims that absolute truth exists. In fact Jesus specifically says that He was sent and born to do one thing: “to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). Postmodernism says that no truth should be affirmed, yet its position is one that is self-defeating – it affirms at least one absolute truth: that no truth should be affirmed. This means that Postmodernism does believe in absolute truth and such a fact is exemplified by its philosophers who write books stating things they expect their readers to embrace and believe as truth. Putting it simply, one professor has said, “When someone says there is no such thing as truth, they are asking you not to believe them. So don’t.”
Second, Christianity claims that meaningful distinctions exist between the Christian faith and all other beliefs. However, it should be understood that anyone claiming that meaningful distinctions do not exist between religions is actually making a distinction. They are attempting to showcase a difference in what they believe to be true and the Christian’s truth claims. Postmodernist authors expect their readers to come to the right conclusions about what they have written and will correct those who interpret their work differently than they have intended. Again, their position and philosophy proves itself to be self-defeating because they eagerly make distinctions between what they believe to be correct and what they see as being false.
Finally, Christianity claims to be universally true in what it says regarding man’s lostness before God, the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of fallen mankind, and the separation between God and anyone who chooses not to accept what God says about sin and the need for repentance. When Paul addressed the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on Mar’s Hill, he said, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30, emphasis added). Paul’s declaration was not a “this is true for me, but may not be true for you” statement, but rather an exclusive and universal (i.e. metanarrative) command from God to everyone. Any postmodernist who says this is false is committing an error against their own pluralistic philosophy that says no faith or religion is incorrect because, once again, they violate their own mandate of saying every religion is equally true.
In the same way that it is not arrogant for a math teacher to insist that 2+2=4 or for a locksmith to insist that only one key will fit a locked door, it is not arrogant for the Christian to stand against Postmodernist thinking and insist that Christianity is true and anything opposed to it is false. Absolute truth does exist, consequences do exist for being wrong, and while pluralism may be desirable in matters of food preferences, it is not so in matters of truth. The Christian is to present God’s truth in love and simply ask any postmodernist who is angered by the exclusive claims of Christianity, “So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16)