What Is Wrong (and Right) With Postmodernism?

By Paul Copan

In my other essay, “What Is Postmodernism?”, I briefly discussed the context for postmodernism’s emergence, what it is, and what are its chief characteristics. Here I look at lessons to be learned from postmoderns, problems with much of postmodern thought, and how to communicate our faith more effectively with postmoderns.

1. Lessons To Learn from Postmoderns

What are some lessons we can learn from and connections we can make with postmoderns?

a. Christians should be suspicious of certain modernist claims of scientific or philosophical certainty. We are limited, we “see in a mirror dimly” and “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12, NASB). Much of what we know is probable, highly probable, or plausible-not 100 percent certain-but this does not mean we do not truly know things. We just need to be a bit more modest in our knowledge claims.

b. Christians should recognize that we all have biases and are limited by our place in history and by our culture. Modernist thinking stresses that knowledge and reason are unbiased and neutral. Postmodernism should prompt Christians toward greater humility. We Christians should acknowledge our biases and perspectives (which are not wrong in themselves) and our propensity for self-deception. Where we know we are wrong, we must align our lives with the way things really are. Now, if anyone denies there can be a God’s-eye view at all, he would be an atheist/non-theist of some stripe. But if God exists, then there is a God’s-eye view of things-and it just may be that God has revealed some of this view of things to human beings so that they can really know.

c. Postmodernism rightly sees the danger of optimistic utopianianism; postmoderns remind us of our great capacity to fail (Christians would include “sin” here) as well as to oppress “the other.” We humans are prone to self-deception and rationalization. Our deep sinfulness prevents achieving earthbound utopias. We must be routinely self-critical and wary of values opposing God’s kingdom, which can easily creep into our minds. However, our key interpretive grid (hermeneutic) should not be one of suspicion, but of trust and charity, which enhances relationships with God and others.

d. We should appreciate cultural/ethnic diversity (rather than treating people as “other”) and show much grace towards non-Christians since we ourselves have been saved by God’s grace. Colonialism, oppression, and slavery do not inevitably follow from Christian belief. The Bible expresses sensitivity to the weak, the suffering, and the oppressed such as orphans, widows, and the alien. God Himself suffers with us (see Matt. 25:31-46; Acts 9:4). Christians must show that their “grand story” is both plausible and not inherently oppressive; rather, we are created by God to flourish when we are rightly related to him and others. Because we are recipients of God’s grace, we have no right to think of ourselves as superior to non-Christians. Moreover, Christianity has its share of diversity or multiplicity in expressing faith (e.g., note the diversity between the Amish and Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church).

2. Problems with Postmodernism

Despite areas of common affirmation, Christians must also be critical of certain postmodern assumptions.

a. The majority of postmodern philosophers simply presume atheism rather than defend it. These intellectual heirs of Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre are predominantly negative in their theological orientation, and they seem content to remain there. Many of these thinkers also make the illegitimate leap from questioning whether we can even speak of God to denying his existence altogether.1 Given the impressive resurgence of theism and arguments for God’s existence over the last forty years, such a presumption is all the more startling.

b. Postmodernists should be exposed for their tendency simply to substitute one system or metanarrative for another. Postmodernism rejects or is suspicious of any grand story by which we may make sense of our experience and reality. Postmodernism allows for plenty of mini-narratives of individuals or cultures or philosophical perspectives, but that is all. However, this rejection of metanarratives becomes self-refuting: we have a totalizing grand story that attempts to make sense of or interpret all of reality and human experience in the form of lesser narratives: it’s a grand story that denies grand stories!2

So we should ask those who say that there is no grand story, “Isn’t this itself a grand story, not just my individual story?” We ask those who deny we can have access to reality, “How do you know we can’t have access to reality unless you yourself have access to it so that you can tell the rest of us?” What of those who say, “It’s all perspective” – isn’t that just their perspective? If it is, then it is trivial (it is just one of many perspectives); if it is not, then it is self-refuting (it is a sweeping, universal statement that applies to all persons and cultures). The same is true with those who claim that there are no facts (only interpretations), that we shape our own reality, that there is no objective intention of the author, that language prevents us from having access to reality, etc. These views are impaled on one of two horns of the following dilemma:

The postmodern says nothing: “It’s all perspective” (which here simply means “what I believe is what I believe”).  The postmodern contradicts himself: “It’s all perspective” (which here means, “It’s the case that nothing’s the case”).
 Proper response: “There’s no reason anyone else should believe it.”  Proper response: “That’s a claim to objectivity-that there’s no objectivity.”

Princeton philosopher Diogenes Allen notes how postmodernism often exhibits a dogmatic certainty about uncertainty, “the only way it can hold its view of human life and of the universe is to forget that the limitations that imprison others to a time and place apply to it as well.”3

c. We can have objective knowledge, even if we are not absolutely certain. And even though we are limited, we can still know things that are true for all people. Many people think (following René Descartes) that knowledge requires 100 percent certainty. This implies that if we do not know with absolute certainty, then we are stuck in the mire of skepticism. However, there are things that we can know with confidence even if it is not 100 percent certain. Is the universe expanding? Yes. Do I know this? Yes. Am I 100 percent sure? No – but why think I have to be? There can be degrees of knowledge that include the probable or plausible, the highly likely – not simply certain. And besides, how can a person know with 100 percent certainty that knowledge requires 100 percent certainty? It just is not obvious.

As Christians, we can maintain that our faith does a better job of answering the key questions of life than its alternatives. It is the best explanation and is more plausible than its rivals. Yes, we must listen well to those who take a different view and admit that we do not have all the answers; our understanding needs correcting as we go through life. However, this need not prevent us from pointing out that the Christian faith really does do the best job of addressing where the universe, first life, consciousness, objective moral values, and human rights came from-as well as the key questions about purpose and meaning.

Are we limited and biased? Yes, of course. We should readily acknowledge this. Does this mean we can not have legitimate knowledge? Not at all. We are limited knowers. Those who claim we can not have knowledge presumably know that we can not know!

In the end, we can not deny truth or knowledge or objectivity without affirming them by our denials. For example, to say there is no universal truth is to make a claim that is universally true. Each of us will affirm some kind of metanarrative or grand story to explain how things operate. The real question is: which one does the best job of explaining these things?

3. Communicating our Faith with Postmoderns

a. Communicate authentically and relationally, genuinely living out the truth. Though not perfect, Christians should be real about their struggles. They can also show how their worldview-with Christ’s power and a supportive community – can help them grapple with these issues. Os Guinness says the fragmentation in our increasingly postmodern world brings “more moments of truth into people’s lives than ever before,” affording “enormous opportunities to present the gospel.”4

b. Communicate answers wisely, lovingly, and winsomely, keeping in mind underlying personal issues that often present barriers. It is important to give good answers “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15, NIV)-but also wisdom. Behind much of postmodern thought is a flight from God, whose existence has huge implications for how we live. Even atheist philosopher John Searle acknowledges that there is a “much deeper reason for the persistent appeal of all forms of anti-realism” such as relativism and perspectivism: “it satisfies a basic urge to power. It just seems too disgusting, somehow, that we should have to be at the mercy of the ‘real world.'”5  We should ask postmoderns if they would like there to be a God or would want Jesus to be God’s revelation to us.

c. Live an active, practical faith: Postmoderns want to see an active faith-not the mere possession of theoretical knowledge. We must get back to emphasizing James’ theological thrust (a faith that works) to counterbalance an overemphasis on (and misunderstanding of) Paul’s doctrine of salvation apart from works. Paul himself brings faith and works together in Eph. 2:8-10; 1 Thess. 1:3; and Titus. 2:11-14: genuine saving faith (through God’s grace) produces good works.

1 Merold Westphal (in William J. Wainwright, ed., God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996), p. 25.
2 This point is made repeatedly in Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, “Postmodernism,” in The Blackwell Guide to Continental Philosophy, eds Robert C. Solomon and David Sherman (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 285-308.
3 “Christianity and the Creed of Postmodernism,” Christian Scholar’s Review 23 (Dec. 1993): p. 123.
4 Interview with Os Guinness, et al., “When Foundations Tremble,” Leadership (Spring 1993), p. 136.
5 John R. Searle, Mind, Language and Society:  Philosophy in the Real World (New York: Basic, 1998), p. 17.


Published March 30, 2016