December 4, 2020

Postmodernism or Modernism on fumes?: From assertion to conversation in the cause of Jesus

vantildog_talk.jpgOver the past few weeks, I have passed on blogging responses to dozens and dozens of posts around the net, because I didn’t want [name deleted] up on it again, and I didn’t want to put up with the weirdness that has become the reaction to the BHT in certain insulated circles.

But there is no nicer guy on the net than Tim Challies, so I am going to venture a few comments on a current post on his blog. I feel stupid saying this, but I am not attacking Tim. I am not throwing a tirade. I am not losing it. I am not embracing postmodernism. I am not attacking Calvinism. I am not itching for a fight with [name deleted.] Fill in the blanks as needed.

Tim is writing about Postmodern Moral Authority. It’s a well written piece, and there is much to agree with, particularly on how anyone who believes in the God of Jesus feels when they walk through the world. I am always affected by those passages where Jesus looks at the world and feels compassion. His tears over Jerusalem tell us everything of how we should view our world. As I stand in front of my students, I pray God will always give me the heart of Jesus, because I feel the tragedy of moral chaos that is all around me, and I see it in the faces and lives of students that I love.

Tim says

Postmodern culture is, as you well know, difficult to define and understand. In fact, postmodernism almost defies definition, as one of the basic tenets of the postmodern mindset is a removal of absolute standards, even when it comes to the meaning of words.

I’ve certainly been saying the same, though I am not so much impressed that postmodernism is self-refuting as I am that it is more of a tool or an attitude than a total worldview. (Sorry Joel.)

Tim finds it ironic that postmoderns have such strong moral sensibilities while denying moral absolutes.

What I mean to say is that we live in a town whose inhabitants are thoroughly postmodern in their mindsets. …This town is filled with people who value postmodern morality…Postmoderns try to be moral people. They want us to know that eating veal is baby-killing. They also want us to know that it is immoral for us to legislate about what a woman can or cannot do with her own body. Many feel that it is against their moral standards for the United States to go to war against Iraq and Afghanistan. In all these things they make moral judgments.

I don’t disagree with the irony. I see it, talk about it, ridicule it and placard its absurdity all the time in my preaching and teaching.

But I am curious as to why it is so easily called “post-modernism?” Thomas Oden says that we are living in “hyper-modern” or “uber-modern” times, where all the assumptions of 19th and 20th century secular modernism are still being blared at us from the academics and the cultural gate keepers, but the required modernist underpinings (see Kinsey, etc) are gone. Oden says the notion that “science has proven” or “economics has proven” is over, but don’t tell that to the people attempting to turn the world into a U.N. utopia.

Why isn’t it liberalism? Why isn’t it Marxism? Why isn’t it militant secular humanism? All these are highly “moralistic” enterprises for changing the world….and all are parts of modernism running on fumes.

I’m supposed to believe the Democratic/ Moore vision of the world is “postmodern?” It’s so very modern! It’s modernism gasping for air, but engaging in desperate measures in its death throes. (By the way, it seems to me that the West, especially America/Canada, has the biggest market for the various assertions of modernism. Make of that what you will, but more than one person has cogently blamed Protestant Christianity for the mess.)

Back to Tim.

But what is the standard of postmodern morality? On what basis do these people make moral decisions and judgments? The obvious answer is that postmoderns emand to have personal moral autonomy. They want to describe morality the way they understand it, using their minds, emotions and experiences as the foundation. They want to be morally autonomous.

When I read this, I don’t think of postmodernism. I think of Francis Schaeffer’s critique of modernity. The essence of autonomy in the modernistic paradigm is throwing God “upstairs,” above the line of the “real world” and into the world of non-fact, non-real world. The people I know who live morally autonomous personal lives and want to jail people who eat meat are often people with strong views about “God.” (See Oprah Winfrey for details.) It’s just not the God of the Bible. It’s God in his little upstairs room of religious experience/personal preference. He doesn’t interfere with the quest for more orgasms, more money, more stuff and more political power.

The postmodern critique is most convincing to me when it talks about the use of language by political groups to gain power. Does history really exist in those textbooks? Or is it just the group in power writing things their way? Was it really “morning again in America” during the Reagan years? Or did the dominant power group use communications to create morality and reality?

This is why postmodernism encourages every group to develop their own vocabulary and their own story, and to assert it uncompromisingly. Language and concepts are power. It is modern to believe your story is true because its rational and provable. It is hyper-modern to take this for granted even though the foundation of reason and experience has crumbled and you are cruising on pure assertion. (Remember that sentence.) It is postmodern when you begin to see that the whole of society is competing stories and truth claims, each claiming authority FROM WITHIN ITSELF.

Which brings me to my key point:

The Christian mindset stands at odds with this. The Bible claims that it is the foundation for all morality. The Bible, being the living, breathing Word of God, stands as the moral authority. And what are its standards? It begins with ten that should be well-known (though recent studies show that even most Christians can’t name all ten): have no gods apart from God; do not serve idols; do not take the Lord’s name in vain; honor the Lord’s day; honor your father and mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie; do not desire what is not yours. These standards were not only given by God to His people thousands of years ago, but were also written right into the human heart by God Himself. Jesus later told us that the true basis of morality can be described in two simple commandments: to love the Lord with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. He also clarified these standards, telling us that it is not enough merely to keep from committing the actual deeds listed. If one seeks to be free from the sin of adultery, he must keep his mind, and not only his body, pure, for if a man thinks lustful thoughts toward a woman that is not his wife, he has already committed adultery in his heart.

Thus the Bible is our moral authority.

Can someone explain to me why this is not simply the pure, presupposed acceptance of a “truth-narrative,” and the bare assertion of that narrative as true…because it says so and the writer believes it?

How does this response rise above the postmodern critique?

For what it’s worth, my apologetic experience here at OBI has brought me to approach this question somewhat differently than Tim. I would assert that Jesus is not just part of the Christian Gospel, but that he is part of the “story” of the majority of people who consider reality, history, etc. (A few professors who think Jesus didn’t exist are excused here.) IOWs, Jesus is a common starting point for conversations with postmoderns, Marxists, Muslims, secularists, New Agers, etc. From there, I would challenge anyone to examine Jesus, from within their own worldview as well as with fairness to Christianity’s claims, and ask this question: If there is a God, and that God chose to commune and communicate with us, is there a better candidate for the WAY God chose to do that than Jesus?

I think the conversation about Jesus ALWAYS INVITES OUR NEIGHBORS TO CONSIDER THE GOSPEL AS THE TRUTH. And frankly, apart from Jesus, the conversation about moral authority is an entirely different one. I am very aware that, as a Christian, I cannot assert the Ten Commandments as if everyone MUST believe they are true. I believe they show us a God who is the basis of all moral reality. I believe they reveal the standard of judgment. But I also know that when a student says, “Well, I’m Buddhist” and I say, “It doesn’t matter. God will still judge you by the Ten Commandments,” I am trying to keep him in my version of the truth BY SHEER ASSERTION. Maybe he will cooperate. Maybe he won’t.

What I want to do is invite him to talk about Jesus, think about Jesus, converse about Jesus and listen to Jesus. That’s my goal.

I hope this is helpful to someone somewhere. It illustrates whatever “postmodernism” means to me. If you think I have “embraced” it, then I must have embraced a dozen other philosophical options as well, because I would use them much the same way.

As I said, I hope Tim will accept my use of his post as a friend and not as an enemy or opponent. Thanks for reading.


  1. Michael,
    I so appreciate your post. It has helped me come to grips with this debate. I agree with it upon the first reading and plan to read it a few more times just to get rid of some of the cobwebs this debate has left in the corners of my mind.
    I’ve been rather fundementalist and very anti-newage for most of my Christian life (25+ years). But I have found myself wondering what is so bad with some of these things the anti-ec
    and anti-postmoderns are blasting. And when I spoke out, or even just posed questions, I was labled a heretic, neopagan, and new age mystic.
    I read your post and found myself saying, yes, this is what I believe, this is what I’m saying… thank you,

  2. I had found myself largely in agreement with your thoughts on postmodernism from a few days ago. Then, after reading Tim’s post on the same topic, I wondered how he would respond to some of your questions. In particular, you had asked: “How can these critics condemn ‘postmodernism’ without embracing the errors of modernity?”

    I’m hoping we’ll get an answer. But in any case, I was interested to see that you picked up on this thread of discussion again in response to his post. I’m not necessarily a proponent of postmodernism either, but I don’t see the need to lump it together with relativism and dismiss it so casually when in fact it is forcing us to ask some valid questions.

  3. “How does this response rise above the postmodern critique?”

    it doesn’t. the postmodern critique of language incessantly undermines any truth stand because it exposes the various mechanisms (or structures) that make that stand possible.

    i’m sure i’m oversimplifying, but i’ve always thought of postmodernism as the playful exposure of assumptions, which is to say that all truth rests on assumptions and all assumptions are cultural artifacts–which doesn’t make them less real but does introduce a certain equivalency. it will also mean that all truth is open to doubt, to correction and emmendation, which is itself an exposure of the inherent deficiency or lack in truth claims.

    even if the bible is the foundation for everything, the fount of all Truth, what such an assertion obscures is the fact that we individuals have to read, and by reading interpret, it. our disagreements about what the absolute source of all Truth actually says are big. so we’re left with a source of all truth that all of us are reading differently…

    man that confuses and frustrates me. (lol)

    anyway iMonk, i like the description of your appraoch, but i wish it were a longer discussion. as one of your cyber students (virtually real, i suppose, maybe even hyper-real) i would like to see a whole blogspot just on your approach.

    good stuff, bro, keep it coming!

  4. “I am very aware that, as a Christian, I cannot assert the Ten Commandments as if everyone MUST believe they are true.”
    What rocked my dinky little boat of a world view what when I cam to terms with this thinking. John 12:44-50 was the nose to my “subjugating the world to my morality” campaign. It is all about Jesus, not about our personal practice of life in Him. Arguments (logical or non)are not enough to make people believe in the absolute authority of God… and neither are experiences enough to capture peoples hearts because of sincerity. Jesus is the only man that every one must deal with (pomo, modern, christian, atheist, communist. etc…), and as such only through Him are we ever going to understand what the foundation to this reality is: Yahweh.

  5. The very definition of irony: I attended a service of a conservative church that has spoken out against the “relativity” of the EC movement. My attendance was about two years ago.

    During the sermon, the pastor showed a “Blues Brother” movie clip to help illustrate a point he was attempting to draw out of the Scripture. I thought it was one of the more “postmodern” moments I’d ever witnessed in any church. No one else in the congregation seemed to catch the irony. I guess the church regularly uses movie clips to make their Bible message more relevant to the culture. (Just don’t ask them to say that explicitly).

    I share in general criticisms of EC: I want an explicit exposition of the Gospel. If I am talking about Jesus with someone, I want them to know I am talking about the Jesus of the Bible. OTOH, I can point to Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill in Seattle, an ECer who is in total agreement with those words. I think you or someone else here said it best: the EC has (in large part) a postmodern missionology, but a modern theology. I’m comfortable with that. Why are so many others uncomfortable with that?

  6. I would like to offer some extended thoughts about some common themes I have seen in the past few posts:

  7. Michael,
    You draw out an important point about moral authority. We cannot legislate the law of God and hope that the love of Christ will follow. As you mentioned in reference to a student:

    “What I want to do is invite him to talk about Jesus, think about Jesus, converse about Jesus and listen to Jesus. That’s my goal.”

    If the law of God is written on the hearts of man, we can only hope to open the heart to hear it.

    For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) (Romans 2:13-15 NIV)

    Does this make you postmodern? Hardly. By focusing on Jesus, not the law, you are not inviting each believer to find their own truth, as much as you are sharing the root of the law itself. Jesus Himself declares this.

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mathew 5:17 NIV)

    Thank you for getting me thinking about this.

  8. I do my thinking largely with analogies. Please feel free to correct or tweak this one:

    We are all absolutely blind. Even the wisest, most knowledgable among us knows essentially nothing, nada, zip. (The ratio of what we know over what there is to know is basically zero. The ratio of any number, no matter how large, over infinity is zero.) Humanity stumbles around ‘missing the mark’ (sinning) at every turn simply because we are in total darkness. Every collision with Reality brings us pain. Now, the modernist would say, ‘Stop, just stumbling around using your imagination, expectations, wishes and desires to guess where things are. Instead use your remaining senses (i.e logic, reason, scientific method) to determine where the furniture is (or isn’t).’ After proceeding for awhile this way, a few minor advances are made. But eventually, like the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes, the Postmodernists come along to say ‘But we’re still blind! The advances we have made have not led us out of darkness.’

    We will never find our way without a Guide who has sight. God is the only one who Sees. He has come to us to take our hand and guide us Home. As he directs us along the way, blind though we still are, we ‘see’ and are kept from stumbling as long as we hold on tight and listen carefully.

    Modernist thinking with it’s emphasis on reason and science helped advance thinking and technology in many ways. But it had it’s limits and it’s downside. The Postmodernists do a good job at pointing those out—but offer no real answers. Simply throwing out modernism and returning to each person’s experiences and best guess about Reality isn’t the answer either.

    The Christian needs to ask the modernist–how far has your reasoning and science gotten you? He needs to ask the postmodernist–how far will listening to the advice and tales of other blindmen get you? We need to point out to all that the only way out of darkness is to seek the only one who Sees.

  9. And, adding to my analogy:
    Once we have our Guide, He can speak Truth to us directly, through His Word, through our other senses (reason, logic & science) and through the stories of other blindmen.

  10. I had an interesting discussion about the whole relativism vs. absolutism thing on my blog a few months ago. One point that got brought up was that there’s a difference between relativism (there is no absolute truth) and falliblism (there is absolute truth but no one perceives it with perfect accuracy). But the larger point I was trying to make, which I still believe, is that the rhetoric the two sides of this debate use is rather more extreme than their actual differences. Despite the fact that Tim says postmoderns appeal only to their own authority, it’s obvious that they don’t all independently develop ethics; they pick them up from authorities they deem trustworthy (whether they admit it or not). Conversely, even someone who turns his entire life over to the direction of someone else makes his own sovereign decision to do so, for his own personal reasons. You just can’t get around individual conscience.

    My post and its comments are here:

  11. Michael,

    Excellent point and critique, and I fundamentally agree with your assessment. However, the hole in your argument is that when you invite someone to “talk about Jesus, think about Jesus, converse about Jesus and listen to Jesus,” you are inviting them to look through the lens of Scripture, which is the record of Jesus’ life.

    Yes, “Jesus is not just part of the Christian Gospel, but… part of the story of the majority of people who consider reality, history, etc.” But we only know Jesus through Scripture, without which we would only have a few historical references and not much else.

    So it doesn’t seem that your approach is any less circular or self-referent than Tim’s. However, as John Frame has pointed out, all claims to ultimate authority are circular. Your argument is simply more “broadly circular” than Tim’s, and for that reason it is more palatable.

  12. iMonk said:
    I’m supposed to believe the Democratic/ Moore vision of the world is “postmodern?” It’s so very modern! It’s modernism gasping for air, but engaging in desperate measures in its death throes. (By the way, it seems to me that the West, especially America/Canada, has the biggest market for the various assertions of modernism. Make of that what you will, but more than one person has cogently blamed Protestant Christianity for the mess.)

    Europe has swallowed/bought a whole lot more of this than the US has (let’s not pretend that the US is pure, tho’), and I think the equation of the US and Canada culturally is a mistake.

    Take that as you will.

  13. iMonk:

    I’m not sure we’d aree on a lot of things, but after my initial comment about where the amrketplace for hypermodernity is, I’d agree with almost everything you say in this post.

    When you say, in summary,

    What I want to do is invite him to talk about Jesus, think about Jesus, converse about Jesus and listen to Jesus. That’s my goal.

    I am with you.

    Now which Jesus are you refering to? 😉

  14. Isn’t this rather analogous to Paul’s arguments at the Pantheon? Find where the pagan philosophers (‘your own prophets’) have stated truths of Christianity, and start from there?

    My philosophy is that, when someone says “I believe fundamentally all religions are really saying the same thing,” it isn’t a bad question to say, “maybe you’re right; I know what mine says, what does yours say?”

  15. al4 com,