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 opinion with matters of 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 and religion) relative to an individual’s beliefs and desires.
The dangers of postmodernism can be viewed as a downward spiral that begins with the rejection of absolute truth, which then leads to a loss of distinctions in matters of religion and faith, and culminates in a philosophy of religious pluralism that says no faith or religion is objectively true and therefore no one can claim his or her 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 the 14th – 17th centuries, thinkers began to elevate humankind to the center of reality. If one were to look at periods of history like a family tree, the Renaissance would be modernism’s grandmother and the Enlightenment would be its mother. Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” personified the beginning of this era. God was not the center of truth any longer – man was.
The Enlightenment was, in a way, the complete imposition of the scientific model of rationality upon all aspects of truth. It claimed that only scientific data could be objectively understood, defined, and defended. Truth as it pertained to religion was discarded. The philosopher who contributed to the idea of relative truth was the Prussian Immanuel Kant and his work The Critique of Pure Reason, which appeared in 1781. 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 result was that spiritual matters were assigned to the realm of opinion, and only the empirical sciences were allowed to speak of truth. While modernism believed in absolutes in science, God’s special revelation (the Bible) was evicted from the realm of truth and certainty.
From modernism came postmodernism and the ideas of Frederick Nietzsche. 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 (for example, Foucault, Rorty, and 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 war against objective truth has resulted in postmodernism being completely averse to any claim to absolutes. Such a mindset naturally rejects anything 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 thinker, the author of a book does not possess the correct interpretation of his work; it is the reader who actually determines what the book means – a process called deconstruction. And given that there are multiple readers (vs. one author), there are naturally multiple valid interpretations.
Such a chaotic situation makes it impossible to make meaningful or lasting distinctions between interpretations because there is no standard that can be used. This especially applies to matters of faith and religion. Attempting to make proper and meaningful distinctions in the area of religion is no more meaningful than arguing that chocolate tastes better than vanilla. Postmodernism says that it is 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 considered equally valid. The proper term for this practical outworking in postmodernism is “philosophical pluralism.” With pluralism, no religion has the right to pronounce itself true and the other competing faiths false, or even inferior. For those who espouse philosophical religious pluralism, there is no longer any heresy, except perhaps the view that there are heresies. D. A. Carson underscores conservative evangelicalism’s concerns about what it sees as the danger of pluralism: “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 imposing threats to Christianity because they collectively dismiss God’s Word as something that has no real authority over mankind and no ability to show itself as true in a world of competing religions. What is Christianity’s response to these challenges?
Response to the Dangers of Postmodernism
Christianity claims to be absolutely true, that meaningful distinctions in matters of right/wrong (as well as spiritual truth and falsehood) exist, and that to be correct in its claims about God any contrary claims from competing religions must be 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 of postmodernism quickly crumble, revealing 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 to do one thing: “To testify to the truth” (John 18:37). Postmodernism says that no truth should be affirmed, yet its position 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. Its philosophers write books stating things they expect their readers to embrace 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. It should be understood that those who claim meaningful distinctions do not exist are 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 from what 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 lost condition 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 Mars 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). Paul’s declaration was not “this is true for me, but may not be true for you”; rather; it was an exclusive and universal command (that is, a metanarrative) from God to everyone. Any postmodernist who says Paul is wrong is committing an error against his own pluralistic philosophy, which says no faith or religion is incorrect. Once again, the postmodernist violates his own view that every religion is equally true.
Just as 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, and consequences do exist for being wrong. While pluralism may be desirable in matters of food preferences, it is not helpful in matters of truth. The Christian should 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).