It is obvious in Western society that many people think moral and religious truths are relative. Not only is this idea clearly taught in secular universities, our media also trumpet it. But it has not been the position of historic, orthodox Christianity. In that light, it is surprising how many Christians now think that way as well. For example, a Barna poll showed that, even after the terrorist attacks on September 11, only 32 percent of born-again Christian adults, and a mere 9 percent of bornagain Christian teens, think that ethics are not relative.1 Christians are increasingly accepting of ethical relativism, and in a climate that promotes pluralism, we are losing our understanding of Christian ethical and religious truths as being objectively true.
What do I mean by something being objectively true? Objective truths are true for all people, whether or not anyone accepts them as true or talks about them as such. Their status as being true (that is, corresponding with how things are in reality) is independent of our knowing them to be true. For example, 2+2=4 is objectively true in that its truth value is independent of anyone’s believing it or not. Similarly, murder is wrong even if someone happens to say otherwise.
Not surprisingly, the large decline in the percentage of Christians who hold to the objective character of morals mirrors what has been going on in our culture, and especially on our secular campuses, for some time now. When I first stepped onto the campus at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles as a graduate student, I sensed very clearly that the dominant view there was that all ethical and religious views are relative. As I both studied and taught there from 1995 to 2000, this impression was confirmed by repeated experiences with professors, reading assignments, fellow graduate students, and my own first-year students.
The secular universities (and, to varying extents, some Christian ones too) have divided basically into two vastly different schools of thought. By and large, the humanities have accepted the idea that truth is up to us, while the hard sciences (and maybe still business, insofar as it tries to operate as a science) attempt to give us the objective truth about the world. According to this view, science gives us facts, but religion and morals, in particular, give us mere opinions, personal tastes, and values. This is evidence of what has been called the “fact-value dichotomy,” a view that has been with us at least since the time of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). In the face of the claims of modern science, especially those of atheistic evolution, society and academia have marginalized Christian truth claims as being just opinions. They are seen as nonscientific and therefore not on the same par as scientific claims.
I knew that my first-year students at USC would tend to assume that ethics are relative. In light of this mind-set, I deliberately challenged that belief. I would give them an assignment in which they had to argue to what extent ethical relativism is right. They would read an article written by a secular philosopher that exposes the many severe problems with relativism, which made it an excellent choice to use with a secular audience.2 Then I would have them consult with me about their rough drafts. In reading their drafts, I often would discover which of the students were Christians, and even which of those had attended Christian high schools. Yet in four years of giving that assignment, I found only three such students who were prepared to challenge relativism. Only two could give philosophical reasons against relativism, of which there are many, and the other was able only to quote Scripture against it.
But among the other Christian students, I often found an attitude that while Christianity is true, who are we to impose our beliefs on someone else? They too had bought into the cultural ethos of tolerance based on relativism. Their Christian high schools and churches had done little to challenge this thinking or prepare them to deal with relativism. But what was very interesting to me was that after we discussed the secular philosopher’s article at length, nearly all students, including the secular ones, rejected relativism as the whole truth of the matter! They realized that at least some morals have to be objectively true.
BUT CAN WE KNOW OBJECTIVE TRUTH?
As Western Christians are buying into relativism more and more, this attitude threatens to completely eviscerate our historic stance on having objective truth based on God’s unchanging character and His revelation in the Bible. Now there is another view in our universities, both secular and even many Christian ones, and in our churches as well. It calls into question our ability to know objective truth. This view is postmodernism.
As I spent more time at USC, I focused my studies on postmodernism and wrote my dissertation on a key aspect of it. I found in the secular university classrooms and academic books that the humanities (including subjects such as religion, English, education, linguistics, art, history, sociology, and many more) have, by and large, accepted postmodernism’s key philosophical ideas. Postmodernism may seem similar to, yet it is different from, ethical relativism. Ethical relativists think that there are no objective moral truths, things that are in fact true for all people across all cultures. Some postmodernists might hold that view, but most hold to something similar yet different: even if objective truths exist, say the postmodernists, we cannot know them as such.
Interestingly, some Christians are advocating that we should understand the faith in a postmodern way. I have found that there are at least two emphases they make. For one, several emphasize that we need to “contextualize” the faith in ways that will enable us to reach postmodern people, especially people of generations “X” and “Y.” These people have been very influenced by postmodern thought and attitudes, these Christians maintain, so if we are to reach them with the gospel, we must find ways to contextualize Christianity that postmodern people will appreciate and understand.
A second emphasis is more theoretical, and it is that we should not only contextualize the faith, we also should postmodernize the faith itself. Here we see the work of the more philosophical ideas driving postmodern thought, and this is where I want to assess carefully the postmoderns’ recommendations. We will see much of the theoretical work being done by people like Nancey Murphy, the late Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Brad Kallenberg, and even Stanley Hauerwas. We also will find that Brian McLaren, perhaps the most influential leader of the Emerging Church, and Tony Jones, recently appointed national coordinator of Emergent U.S., draw upon and may argue for certain theoretical ideas, but more so, they are concerned about how believers need to embody and embrace postmodern ideas and values in order to be truly faithful to the Lord in these times. This is what McLaren means by the title of his widely influential book, A New Kind of Christian. In his view, living out Christianity in a “modern” way just will not cut it in postmodern times, and it also will leave aside many postmodern people who will not hear the gospel if it is preached and lived out in modern ways.
For many Christians, though, I believe there is a general lack of understanding about postmodernism and in particular Christian postmodernism. When I have taught on this topic at church or school events, I have found that many believers think they should be concerned about postmodernism but they have little or no idea about its main ideas. This is especially so among Christian parents, but even their teenage children have little conception of what postmodernism is. And I have found many Christian adults are utterly surprised to hear that some Christians are advocating a postmodern way of interpreting our faith.
Recently I spoke to a graduate-level class for youth workers at my school, Biola University. They had read a text on postmodernism and youth ministry, which happens to have been written by Tony Jones, whose views we will examine. While they realized that they need to address the postmodern mind-set of many youth, they also lacked the tools to assess Jones’s views. Indeed, many youth ministers themselves have been influenced to approach ministry and their faith in a postmodern way.
TWO KINDS OF POSTMODERNISM
It will be helpful to first get a big-picture view of postmodernism, in order to understand its main ideas. There are two levels of postmodernism at work in society. First, there is the “street” or popular level, in which postmodernism manifests itself in attitudes such as suspicion of authorities’ claims to be telling the truth or to be acting for the good of people. Instead, postmodern ways of thinking have led us to realize that leaders often are acting to preserve their own power. After all, we know that Richard Nixon covered up the White House’s involvement in Watergate, just to preserve his presidency. Bill Clinton stretched our commonsense understanding when he claimed that he smoked marijuana but did not inhale, and that he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton carefully crafted his meanings of these words to protect himself from criticism or even impeachment.
This same distrust of authorities often manifests itself in a deep suspicion of hierarchies. Often I saw this attitude in my fellow graduate students who had had a Catholic upbringing. They were angry at the Catholic emphasis on a church hierarchy that could give normative ethical and theological pronouncements for all Catholics. This same distrust of hierarchies is often evidenced in feminist writings as well. But distrust is not limited to just religious hierarchies; for example, many who opposed the Vietnam War were motivated by deep suspicions of the motives of the U.S. government in waging the war. Today, people are routinely suspicious of the motives of corporate executives who lay off large numbers of employees only to vote themselves enormous bonuses.
Postmodern attitudes have also been shaped by a distrust of modern science. Confidence in the goodness of science was shattered when we discovered how the Nazis used medical science to perform gross experiments on Jewish subjects. Scientists also developed the most destructive weapon we know to date, the nuclear bomb. People now are far less trusting of scientists’ claims to be acting solely for the good of humanity. People are tempted to abuse their power, and we are rightly suspicious of claims made by the powerful that they are acting solely for the good of others. We often question their vested interests, as well we should.
Another key trait of postmodernism “on the street” is very noticeable among our youth. More than anything, I think, they are looking for “authentic” people. They do not want just promises; they are looking for people whose lives and deeds match up with their words.
How and where do we find authentic lives? The postmodern answer is we find it in community. Instead of supporting a rugged individualism, which still dominates much of American society, postmoderns look for authentic people in communities. This is the kind of attitude shift that Robert Bellah and his coauthors suggested in their widely read sociological book Habits of the Heart, where they observed that people are looking for places of belonging that may be the primary basis for the formation of their sense of identity.3
These attitudes help show why postmodernism is attractive to some Christians. For one, the attitude of suspicion toward authorities’ truth claims resonates with our understanding that all people are sinners and are capable of great deception, self-interest, and quests for power. For another, some Christians find a natural parallel between the postmodern emphasis on living in community and the “one another” biblical teachings. That is, they see the church as the Christian community in which we are to live out the life of Christ as a witness to outsiders.
When you draw together these values and attitudes, a common thread emerges. On a popular, everyday level, most people think that science gives us the facts about the physical world. Scientists still enjoy that prestige. When the person in the scientist’s white lab coat advertises a product, that endorsement gives the product credibility. But there is a vast split in people’s minds between the facts that science can give and the values or preferences that religion and ethics provide. And, most importantly for our purposes in this study, people tend to think that ethical and religious truth claims are simply up to us. According to the popular, street-level version of postmodernism, there is no factual, objective religious or ethical truth that we all can know and that is true for everyone. It used to be that Christians could approach someone and read through a booklet like The Four Spiritual Laws, and there would be a common basis for understanding those biblical truths. While that still will happen with some people, it now is becoming more common that someone would merely reply, “That is a nice story. Now let me tell you my story!”
That is street postmodernism, but there is also academic postmodernism. Academic postmoderns are highly suspicious of human reason’s abilities. In fact, while many “modernists” (a term relating to the modern era, or the Enlightenment, roughly 1550–1945) thought that we could know universal, objective truths by our reason, postmodernists have given up on knowing such truths. This is an epistemological claim, which simply is a claim about what we can know and how we can know. Instead of knowing the world as it really is, academic postmoderns claim that we cannot know any such thing. We are left with having to “make,” or shape, our own worlds ourselves, including religious and ethical “truths.” Notice that this is a metaphysical claim, meaning that it is a claim about the nature of what exists.
How do we make our own worlds? We do it in community, or culture, say the postmoderns, and we use the language of our community to make our world. This touches on a key element of both academic and street postmodernism: the focus has shifted away from the rugged individual, still very popular in American society, to the community. This emphasis on community is enticing to some Christian academic postmodernists, for they want to say that the true community is the church, and the language of the church is the Gospels, which are written in a narrative, story-like format. With an emphasis on language and on how we talk in community, postmoderns stress narratives, or stories. One result of this is that the terminology within our churches is changing from someone telling his or her testimony, to telling his or her story.
One implication of academic postmodernism is that if we cannot know reality (how things really are), then we cannot know what an author (of a book in the Bible, the Constitution, etc.) really meant. Thus, in many Bible studies, a frequently asked question is, “What does the passage mean to you?” as though we cannot know what Paul, Luke, or Peter meant when they wrote a book. Now, somewhat subtly, even if this question is asked unintentionally, the implication seems to be that the meaning of the passage is up to us, a meaning that we must make for ourselves.
Clearly, postmodernism undermines any claims to know objective truth, and when applied to Christian truth claims, this approach would seem to offer a serious challenge to the Christian faith. But is that the case? To what extent should we (or should we not) as Christians embrace the ideas of the Emerging Church and other Christian postmodernists? Christian postmodernism is more problematic than the postmodernism offered by non-Christians, since writers such as Stanley Hauerwas (a theological ethicist), Stanley Grenz and John Franke (evangelical theologians), and Brad Kallenberg (an evangelical philosophical theologian) all will say that the gospel is the truth. In this they are right, but what they mean by this is not that it is the objective, universal truth for all people, which can be known as such. They believe we cannot know such things. Instead, they say, the claims that the gospel is the true story or that Jesus is the only way to God are true because these are the ways we as Christians should talk according to our “grammar,” the Bible. By looking at Christian postmodernism, we can clarify specific implications of this view for Christians and Christianity, and we also can gain insights into postmodernism more broadly conceived.
So I will address several aspects of Christian postmodernism and assess to what extent Christians should, or should not, embrace it. I believe we will find both strengths and weaknesses in Christian postmodernism, and in the proposals offered by McLaren and Jones of the Emerging Church in particular. To do that, I will try to give a brief background to help us understand better how we have shifted from a oncedominant understanding that ethics and religious claims are objectively true, to a view that they are relative, and now to a postmodern view that they are just what communities (or cultures) have created. These are the emphases of chapter 1, where I will also compare the modern period with our postmodern one.
In chapter 2, I will explain how postmodernists like Hauerwas, Grenz, Franke, and Kallenberg think we should see Christianity in a postmodern way. In chapter 3, we will look at how and why two leaders of the very influential Emerging Church, Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, advocate a postmodern approach to the faith, especially in pastoral ministry. Chapter 4 will explain how postmodernism is surfacing within academic departments in secular and Christian universities, to help us see the extent of its influences as well as begin to examine them.
Then, in chapter 5, we will begin a critique of Christian postmodernism, and postmodernism more generally conceived. I will criticize postmodernism’s core philosophical ideas. In chapter 6, I will assess the extent to which we should accept McLaren and Jones’s proposals as leaders of the Emerging Church. In chapter 7, I will continue to address the implications of postmodernism for Christian ethics and several essential Christian doctrines. Having shown the need for Christians to reject key aspects (but not all) of postmodernism—particularly as Christians conceive it—in chapter 8 I will look at the issue of relativism. Is postmodernism just relativism in new clothing? If it is, is that a serious problem? I also will try to address why Christians are attracted to, but should not embrace, relativism, despite the appeals and pressures in our culture to be tolerant and open-minded.
Overall, I will try to show that we have no good reason to give up the objectivity of Christian truths by accepting certain postmodern ideas, especially in a day when the objective character of Christian beliefs is under assault. So, in chapter 9, I will develop my own positive case why I think we can (and often do) know objective truth in morality, religion, history, and other areas. Finally, I have provided a bibliography of materials (books, tapes, websites, etc.) available for further study on postmodernism. I have categorized these according to their level of difficulty as well as by topic. I
f Paul was right (and I believe he was) that in Jesus Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3), we need not, even dare not, abandon the objective truth of the Scriptures. Instead, we can stand firm, being fully assured that our faith and its many claims are objectively true, and that we can know it to be so. Further, and contrary to McLaren, we need not have “bombproof” certainty to know that Christianity’s claims are true.4
It is true, of course, that truth can be used as a club. May that not be the case. We need to heed the postmodern reminder that truth must be embodied, or lived out. And we must match our embodiment of truth with the embodiment of grace, just as it was in the life of Christ (John 1:14). We need to live out both grace and truth, which I think will make for a very powerful witness in these postmodern times.