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APOLOGETICS FOR POSTMODERNS
from Truth Decay
by Douglas Groothuis
If a Christian apologist of postmodernist stripe were to stand on our equivalent of Mars Hill today, he or she might say something to this effect, something quite different in spirit from the apostle Paul's original address (Acts 17:16-31).
People of Postmodernity, I can see you speak in many language games and are interested in diverse spiritualities. I have observed your pluralistic religious discourse and the fact that you use many final vocabularies. I have seen your celebration of the death of objective truth and the eclipse of metanarratives, and I declare to you that you are right. As one of your own has said, "We are suspicious of all metanarratives." What you have already said, I will reaffirm to you with a slightly different spin.
We have left modernity behind as a bad dream. We deny its rationalism, objectivism and intellectual arrogance. Instead of this, we affirm the Christian community, which professes that God is the strand that unites our web of belief. We have our own manner of interpreting the world and using language that we call you to adopt for yourself. We give you no argument for the existence of God, since natural theology is simply rationalistic hubris. We are not interested in metaphysics but in discipleship.
For us, Jesus is Lord. That is how we speak. We act that way, too; it's important to us. And although we cannot appeal to any evidence outside our own communal beliefs and tradition, we believe that God is in control of our narrative. We ask you to join our language game. Please. Since it is impossible to give you any independent evidence for our use of language, or to appeal to hard facts, we simply declare this to be our truth. It can become your truth as well, if you join up. Jesus does not call you to believe propositions hut to follow him. You really can't understand what we're talking about until you join up. But after that, it will be much clearer. Trust us. In our way of speaking, God is calling everyone everywhere to change his or her language game, to appropriate a new discourse and to redescribe reality one more time. We speak such that the resurrection of Jesus is the crucial item in our final vocabulary. We hope you will learn to speak this way, as well.
Having criticized the postmodernizing
tendencies of three Christian writers in the previous chapter, the inadequacies
of the above approach should be readily recognizable. It has no apologetic
nerve; it is sapped of argumentative and evidential support; it has nothing
unique or even provocative to say to postmoderns. If so, how ought we to
communicate the Christian message to those imbued with postmodernist
Biblical Apologetics: Arguing Truth in the Marketplace
Scripture makes a distinction between the proclamation of the gospel, the defense of the gospel and the communal manifestation of the gospel. Christians who subscribe to postmodernist ideas absorb the defense of the gospel into proclamation and manifestation, given their views on language, truth and rationality. However, F. F. Bruce's classic book The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament thoroughly demonstrates the early church's passionate apologetic impetus. He notes that "Christian witness in the New Testament called repeatedly for the defense of the gospel against opposition of many kinds - religious, cultural and political."1 Bruce observes that when Paul speaks of himself as imprisoned "for the defense of the gospel" and when Peter speaks of being "prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you," the Greek word is "apologia, from which we derive the words 'apology,' 'apologist' and 'apologetic."2 The apologetic emphasis in the New Testament inspired the "age of the apologists" in the second century A.D., when Christian intellectuals began to fight back against false charges and repression. For writers such as Justin Martyr and others,
Christianity . . . is the final and true religion, by contrast to the imperfection of Judaism and the error of paganism. Not only does Christianity provide the proper fulfillment of that earlier revelation of God given through the prophets of Israel . . . it also supplies the answer to the quests and aspirations expressed in the philosophies and cults of the other nations. It was divinely intended from the beginning to be a universal religion.3
It is still intended to be a "universal
religion," even in a day when universality is equated with antiquated or even
dangerous metanarratives of totality and hegemony. An apologetic for the people
of postmodernity must place the concept of truth at the center of all its
endeavors. The term truth is so subject to abuse, dilution and distortion, it
is incumbent that apologists define and illustrate the term, and engage
post-moderns according to it. As I mentioned in earlier chapters, biblical
truth is, as Schaeffer nicely put it, "true to what is"; it matches reality and
it calls us to embrace God's reality with all of our beings. It is also
revealed, objective, absolute, universal, antithetical, systemic and momentous,
and it has intrinsic value.
The Hidden Dangers of Relevance
Because of the postmodernist redescription of truth, apologists must be wary of working to make the Christian message relevant to the felt needs of non-Christians. What is relevant to those enmeshed in postmodernity is not, typically, the biblical view of truth or biblical truths themselves. Our operative term ought to be engagement, not relevance. The performer Madonna is the apex of relevance to many postmoderns, but the protean princess of sexual seduction offers Christians nothing positive from which to draw for evangelistic or apologetic endeavor. Rather, we must dynamically engage the thinking of postmoderns with intelligence, sensitivity and courage.4
As Douglas Webster notes, our situation often demands that we "renegotiate the presuppositions" of our audience and not cater to its truth-decaying tendencies.5 When people are asking the wrong questions, or not asking questions at all, Christians need to introduce new concepts and suggest new ways of thinking. This means that we must reorient the discourse toward the nature of truth and the truths of reality, and away from human constructions, personal preferences and tribal leanings. Thomas Merton speaks of the insecurity of "being afraid to ask the right questions - because they might turn out to have no answer." This results in a sad condition of "huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask."6 Christians must shine the bright light of truth by raising penetrating questions and giving satisfying answers. When words are cheap and float weightlessly over a wasteland of artificiality and cultural triviality, followers of Jesus must utter and write words of weight and significance - words that point to the unshakable but approachable truths of the kingdom of God. Webster's comments on pastors and theologians also applies to apologists:
Jesus plunged his audience into truth too deep for humanistic consumption. The ocean of God's truth can be overwhelming apart from the grace of God. But ocean depth has always characterized God's Spirit-filled pastors and theologians. Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Edwards preached the Word of God with a sense of power and mystery. They did not interrupt the momentum of the truth with endearing human-interest stories and tension-releasing humor. They were seriously intense about pro-claiming the Word of God.7
At the same time we must appeal to areas of
common ground and common grace. The postmodern condition may induce a kind of
value vertigo, a disorientation regarding matters that matter. The often heard,
flippant response, "Whatever..." uttered with a smirk and a slouch, does not
slake the thirst of the soul for something beyond itself. "Whatever" is never
enough when it comes to issues of forever, and ultimate concerns.
Postmodernity, given its endorsement of religious pluralism and its rejection
of the Enlightenment's rationalism, tends to be more interested in"
spiritualities." This provides a point of contact, since the gospel clearly
addresses the realities of the inner person. However, we must move from
self-styled spiritualities to a Christ-centered spirituality, a spiritual way
of being oriented to Christ as "the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6),
the singular source for spiritual regeneration, sustenance and direction (1 Tim
True Spirituality: Truth for the Soul
The postmodern temptation, as mentioned in chapter one, is to entice souls to create a self-styled spirituality of one's own or to revert to the spiritual tradition of one's ethnic or racial group without a concern for objective truth or rationality. In a pluralistic setting, people are exposed to all manners of religious teaching and may mix-and-match elements. Someone raised as a Buddhist may date a Jewish person and begin to enjoy the ceremonies at the temple. Or a nominal Christian may he impressed with the religious devotion of his Muslim coworker, who stops for prayer several times during a workday, and so want to know more about Islam. Or one can try to be nonjudgmental and simply appreciate various religious traditions without worrying much about the truth question.
To offset these tendencies a Christian apologetic should emphasize spirituality as set within a framework of objective truth. Otherwise, Christian spirituality will be seen as simply another pragmatic, relative, subjective option. God will be trivialized by being reduced to a mere means to avert boredom, create excitement, enhance self-image or give some order and sanity to family life. Furthermore, no major religious tradition - whether Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic or Jewish - has ever presented its doctrines as social constructions or as mere psychological aids to a more satisfying life. They have always been presented as truths concerning the ultimate reality and how we ought to relate to that reality. Scholar of religions Huston Smith, who is not an evangelical, rightly notes that "religions are worldviews or metanarratives - inclusive posits concerning the ultimate nature of things."8 That is, religions make claims that include all of reality; therefore, they also exclude claims that contradict their assertions.
In our pluralistic and postmodern context, it is helpful to articulate Christian truth claims in relation to opposing views - not to be conten-tious but to clarify what is being put forth and what is not. Any truth claim negates every proposition that denies it. This is the logic of antithesis, as discussed in chapter three. For instance, if Jesus is God incarnate, then he is not (1) a mere prophet of Allah (Islam), (2) a misguided reformer (Judaism), (3) an avatar of Brahman (Hinduism), (4) a manifestation of God (Baha'i Faith), (5) a God-realized guru (New Age), (6) an inspired but not divine social prophet (theological liberalism), and so on.
C. S. Lewis made the claims of Jesus Christ stand out in clear relief in his essay "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?" Speaking of Christ's unique claims to deity, he argued:
There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and asked him "Are you the son of Bramah?" he would have said, "My son, you are still in the value of illusion." If you had gone to Socrates and asked, "Are you Zeus?" he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, "Are you Allah?" he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, "Are you Heaven?", I think he would have probably replied, "Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste." The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.9
Consider the reality of antithesis
concerning God. If God is a personal being who exists eternally as three equal
persons (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), then divine reality is not (I) one
in a unitarian sense (Islam, Judaism or Unitarianism), (2) an impersonal-amoral
consciousness (some versions of Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age thinking), (3)
nonexistent (Theraveda Buddhism, Jainism and secular forms of atheism), (4)
many gods (Mormonism, Shinto and other forms of polytheism, animism), and so
on. Given the confusions of postmodernity, much work must be done on the level
of enunciating the very claims Christians believe, even before specifically
defending those claims as true.
Steve Turner's satirical "Creed," which summarizes the perplexities of postmodern perspectives, makes this point well:
We believe that all religions are basically the same
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation sin heaven hell God and salvation.
Having made Christianity's irreducible and
nonnegotiable truth claims as clear as possible, apologists should engage in
both negative and positive apologetic efforts. Negative apologetics can be
taken to mean two things: deflecting criticism of the Christian worldview and
philosophically criticizing non-Christian worldviews. Positive apologetics has
to do with giving evidence and arguments for core Christian claims. Both are
strategic in the postmodern context.
In the next chapter we will address the notion that metanarratives intrinsically oppress outsiders. That is the case for some worldviews (such as Marxist Leninism) but not for Christianity rightly understood, which is a faith rooted in God's love, grace and justice. This contrast should he made clear to postmodernists who suspect that all comprehensive views are latently totalitarian.
As I have emphasized earlier, claiming that the Christian viewpoint is true does not imply that any Christian's knowledge is comprehensive or perfect. The absoluteness of truth does not imply the absoluteness of our human knowledge. Nevertheless, God ordains that we use "jars of clay" to present the gospel to a lost world (2 Cor 4:7). As Richard John Neuhaus put it, "God's truth is strong enough to survive its passage through you and me."10
Exposing Postmodernist Nihilism
Negative apologetics entails zeroing in on the defects of the postmodernist way of thinking. Chesterton captured the activity of exposing philosophical error brilliantly in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday, where a character describes the "work of the philosophical policeman" who
is at once bolder and more subtle than that of the ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at least to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime.11
One salient element in challenging postmodernism is to demonstrate that with respect to ethics and meaning in life, it reduces to nihilism. While existentialism was a kind of revolt against nihilism, whereby the individual self valiantly created (or tried to create) personal meaning in a meaningless world,12 postmodernism shuns such heroism and simply accepts the free play of culture without too much seriousness. Baudrillard describes postmodernism like this:
The characteristic of a universe where there are no more definitions possible.. . . One is no longer in a history of art or a history of forms. They have been deconstructed, destroyed. In reality, there is no more reference to forms. It has all been done. The extreme limit of these possibilities has been reached. It has destroyed itself. It has deconstructed its entire universe. So all that are left are pieces. All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces - that is postmodem.13
Baudrillard is being characteristically
cryptic, but the gist is that reality has lost its form, its meaning, its
significance and its intelligibility. A thoroughly deconstructed universe is
not a uni-verse but a plura-verse or multi-verse, which resists comprehension
and cohesion and offers only chaos. When everything is deconstructed, no
original remains. Everything is disconnected, fragmented and blown into a
billion pieces- with which we can play. It is as if a stained glass window,
which offered a pictorial message of a reality beyond itself when illuminated
by the sun, were shattered into countless fragments, which a bemused on-looker
is now rearranging into every pattern but its lost original.
Postmodernity may look and feel that way, at least when one is divorced from the supernatural revelation proffered through Christ and the Scriptures. But the "play" of the postmodern, in Baudrillard's sense, is hardly enjoyable or even recreational. It cannot re-create. Playing only has meaning in relation to non-playful activities (such as work or sleep), which serve to offset or bracket it. Play has historically been associated with joy or even ecstasy, wherein a kind of transcendence is experienced. Play may create an openness to a dimension of enjoyment outside the boundaries of the mundane. Peter Berger has even developed an argument for God and the supernatural from the social fact of play.14 The nature of play evokes a kind of timelessness and innocence that Berger takes to he a "signal of transcendence" even within the essential patterns of human culture.15 C. S. Lewis also argued that experi-ences of deep "joy" indicate a reality beyond the material, to Which our souls are sometimes exposed and in which they gratefully delight.16
But for the "saturated self" of postmodernism, the mundane, while multiform, is all that remains. One may rearrange the debris in any number of contingent ways, but there is no original order and no image that reflects a reality outside of itself. It is self-referring all the way down, over and over again. These fragments are not pieces of a puzzle, but puzzling pieces inducing an irreducible bafflement that can only succumb to a resignation, an exhaustion, in which all is tolerated because nothing is worthy of allegiance. Dorothy L. Sayers identified this tendency before the ascension of postmodernism:
In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.17
The apologist for Christ must seize on the
dizzying meaninglessness of postmodernism and name it for what it is -
nihilism, a nihilism that naturally induces the kind of sloth that Sayers
condemned as sin. This nihilism encompasses ethics, purpose and personal
identity in its merciless grasp. Playing with fragments is no play at all, but
a mere diversion from the loss of meaning, a vanity. Vanity takes many forms,
especially in an entertainment-saturated day, but at the end of the day-or when
the power goes out-nothing remains but nothing.
This condition is unlivable - if taken seriously. The structure of human action presupposes goals and goods that are intrinsic, what Charles Taylor calls "hyper-goods" or ultimate goods. These goods are not in service of something else but good in their own right and cannot he explained in terms of what is nonmoral. Hyper-goods are "goods which not only are incomparably more important than others but provide the standpoint from which these must he weighed, judged, decided about."18 These hyper-goods constitute our moral being; they cannot be dismissed without extreme self-deception and logical contradiction, as when someone says: "There is no moral law; and you'd better believe it for your own good." Even the most blatant of post-modernists - such as Rorty, who sees truth as what his peers let him get away with saying19-still feels moral outrage at things like female genital mutilation and slavery in Sudan and elsewhere.20
If evil is deconstructed into incommensurate language games, perspectives and final vocabularies, no evil remains - but the evil of its attempted banishment and the haunting impression that something is deeply amiss. At the other end, when all objective beauty - that which inspires praise and respect - is similarly deconstructed into meaninglessly collocations of fragments, one's sense of elation at a Bach pipe organ recital or a John Coltrane soprano saxophone solo becomes merely emotive - without transcendence, without objective value.21 Moral heroism is dissolved in the same postmodernist solvents. The "heroes" (never forget the quotation marks; without them, postmodernism dies of overexposure) are debunked as opportunists with a savvy for public relations.22 Virtues such as courage, prudence and humility are not things in themselves to be praised in those who bear them, but fronts, mere facades, rooted not in character but in conventions, which are rooted in cultures, which are rooted in . . . themselves. This means that virtues are rooted nowhere and in nothing; they float everywhere at random, but are sometimes mistaken for items of objective value. It is all explained away, with a wink and a smirk and a shrug. As C. S. Lewis put it in 1944, when one sees through everything, there is nothing left to see.
You cannot go on "explaining away" forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on "seeing through" things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the tree or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to "see through" first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.23
A reflective account of the human condition
requires that we praise the good, condemn the evil and the ugly, and seek
purpose and value in our activities. First principles remain, despite
stupefactions and deconstructions and redescriptions. The Christian worldview
explains this fact handily. We are meaning-seeking beings, because we were
created to exist within the meaning of God's universe. But as fallen creatures
east of Eden, our quest for meaning goes awry as we try to erase the divine
from the landscape, deface the divine through caricature, or simply escape our
hungers and dissatisfactions through diversions.
Postmodern Diversions and the Testimony of Human Need
Blaise Pascal goes to great lengths to expose the diverse diversions that prohibit people from seeking truth in matters of ultimate significance. He argues that diversions insinuate that humans seek out various activities in order to deny their misery and their need for God. Their very escape from God testifies to their need of God. For Pascal in the seventeenth century diversion consisted of hunting, games and other amusements. The repertoire of diversion was infinitesimal compared with what is available in the postmodern world, whether in cyberspace- CD-ROM games, various fantasy environments, video games, e-mail, chat rooms - or on television, at the movies, at amusement parks or any number of other means of omnipresent entertainment. Nevertheless, the human psychology of diversion remains the same. Diversion consoles us in the face of our miseries. Yet, paradoxically, it becomes the worst of our miseries because it hinders us from thinking about our true condition and deceives us into believing that we are in no danger of being destroyed. If not for diversion, we would "be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death."24
Diversion serves to distract humans from a plight too terrible to stare in the face, namely our mortality, finitude and sinfulness. Pascal unmasks diversion for what it is - an attempt to escape reality, and an indication of something unstable and strange in the human condition. Interest in, and addiction to, entertainment is more than silly or frivolous. It is revelatory of a moral and spiritual malaise begging for an explanation. Our condition is "inconstancy, boredom, anxiety."25 Humans face an incorrigible mortality that drives us to distractions designed to overcome the inevitable by means of the impossible: finding satisfaction and release through empty activity that masquerades as worthwhile.
Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end.
Now what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, tilting at the ring, etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.26
Diversions would not be blameworthy if they
were recognized as such: trivial or otherwise distracting activities engaged in
to occasionally avoid the harsh and unhappy realities of human life. However,
self--deception also comes into play. In the end "we run heedlessly into the
abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it."27 According to Pascal, this condition
illustrates the corruption of human na-ture. Humans are strangely not at home
in their universe. They are scarcely content to sit quietly in their own rooms.
"If our condition were truly happy we should feel no need to divert ourselves
from thinking about it."28
Pascal says "there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace," which he "tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are." This, however, is futile because an "infinite abyss can he filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."29 "Grace fills empty spaces," according to Simone Weil, "but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void."30 Ecclesiastes adds that God has put eternity into the human heart (3:11).
The compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life. We have great difficulty being quiet in our own rooms, even when the television or color computer screen offers an overabundance of possible stimulations and simulations. Postmodern souls adrift from Christ are restless; they seek solace in diversion instead of satisfaction in truth. As Pascal said, "Our nature consists in movement; absolute rest is death."31
The postmodern condition is one of oversaturation and overstimulation, which caters to our propensity to divert ourselves from higher realities. In such a culture as this, the Christian apologist should not shrink back from explaining the stakes involved concerning the truth of the gospel. We are not merely manipulating religious symbols or outlining pragmatic preferences. One cannot medicate one's worries forever. A day of reckoning awaits us all. As Pascal warned, "Between us and heaven and hell there is only this life, the most fragile thing in the world."32 This fragility should drive us to our knees, not deeper into more diversions. These truths offer hope but also hurt our hubris.
Despite the supposed playfulness of postmodernism and its endless diversions, the inevitability of death remains a reminder of our fragile lot after the Fall. Pascal's parable painfully captures this:
Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.33
Christian defenders of the faith in
postmodern times need to com-municate the realities of what truth is, and to
contend against the nihilism of postmodernism and it multiplicity of
diversions. They must also appeal to right reason in the quest for truth. While
I cannot offer a complete apologetic method here, I will outline several points
contested by those who embrace aspects of postmodernist thinking. We begin with
Rudiments of Apologetic Method
Foundationalism is a kind of theory of knowledge that holds that some truths serve as the basis for other truths, that we build on the more certain items of our knowledge. Postmodernists reject foundationalism in favor of some kind of pragmatism or coherence view of truth.34 They argue that there are no indubitable truths from which we argue, no set of beliefs that we can call everyone to affirm and from which we can build an argument for the Christian worldview. Postmodernists typically lump together all types of foundationalism as versions of Descartes's project and think they have thereby destroyed it all. But this is naive and false.
The kind of foundationalism necessary to apologetics need not he Cartesian through and through. There is no reason to claim that all our beliefs can he deductively proven from indubitable first principles, or that all our beliefs must be of necessary truths (a triangle has three sides) or be based on empirical evidence (the earth is round). Some beliefs are "properly basic," in that they are not logical necessities, but neither are they proven on the basis of other things more certainly known One candidate for a properly basic belief is "there is a real past." One cannot marshal evidence for this; it is a presupposition of normal thought. An extreme skeptic could doubt it by claiming we are somehow deceived into thinking there is a past when there is not, by virtue of a malfunctioning brain or a powerful malevolent being who always deceives us. While this is a logically possible state of affairs, there is no positive reason to believe it. However, there is no reason to reject basic beliefs as long as they are not contradicted by empirical evidence, intrinsically illogical or out of alignment with things that we know.35
What is essential to foundationalism is simply that some core of beliefs do serve as first principles; they are not derived from other beliefs, and they are not relative to cultures or individuals. The basic defect of nonfoundationalist views is that they make worldviews relative to communities and thus not open to independent assessment according to universal rational principles. Without some foundations for knowledge, crosscultural apologetics loses its rational power.36 A foundationalism for apologetics will, minimally, affirm two broad principles.
1. There are essential truths of logic that are necessary for all intelligible thought and rational discourse, Christian or otherwise. These are not contextually derived or person-relative. They are intrinsic to the rational nature God has granted us. The law of noncontradiction and excluded middle-which I discussed earlier-are included in this foundation.37 Any worldview should be tested by these criteria. If a world-view contradicts itself (by affirming one thing and denying the same thing) or fails to be consistent with external facts of history, the cosmos, morality or common human experience, it is false.38
2. There are also basic forms of reasoning that are nonnegotiable and are universally valid; they are not matters of contingent social construction or personal taste. Arthur Holmes puts it well, "Good logic is one of God's good gifts, and it is essential to thinking in this and any world."39 For instance, the principle of modus ponens says: If p, then q; p; therefore, q. This form of reasoning has been known and used by various peoples at various times, because it is universally valid. The Australian aborigine rightly thinks, If I shoot the poison dart into the animal, it will die. I hit the animal with the dart. Therefore, it will die. The postmodern American rightly thinks, if I fail to file my income tax, the IRS will be after me. I forgot to file my taxes. Therefore, the IRS will be after me. Both are appealing to the same foundational form of right reasoning.
Or consider the principle of modus tolens: If p, then q; not q; therefore, not p. A French painter thinks, If I am to learn to paint in the surrealistic style, then I must immerse myself in studying the surrealist style. I will not study the surrealists. Therefore, I will never learn to paint in the surrealist style. The Bible says, "If one is born again, one will love Christian brothers and sisters." If you observe someone who, while claiming to be a Christian, does not love Christians, you may infer that this person is not born again (see 1 Jn 3:11-24). Both the artist and the apostle are using the same form of reasoning. There is nothing contextual or relative about it. The apostle does not use some special "religious logic." These forms are foundational to argument and knowledge, postmodernism to the contrary.40
The importance of these two points is that although Christianity does make many truth claims that are unique to the Christian faith - such as, Jesus rose from the dead, God is triune and so on-an apologetic for the objective, absolute and universal truth of Christianity employs logical criteria that are not relative to or limited to Christianity Otherwise, the Christian faith would be intellectually insulated and apologetics rendered impossible.41
Christian truth is public truth - truth for the marketplace that can be assessed according to universal criteria by any thinking person who is willing to consider it openly, seriously and humbly (see Mt 7:7). This is what Paul declared on Mars Hill before the non-Christian thinkers of his day (Acts 17:22-31). Unlike the postmodernist version I gave at the beginning of this chapter, Paul affirmed the following propositions:
1. Athenian religion is objectively inadequate because it lacks Christ (vv. 22-23).
2. God is the Creator of all and cannot be reduced to idols. The Athenians' idolatrous worship is false before the fact of God (vv. 24-25).
3. God is the sovereign source of every human being and has marked out each one's habitation and place in history (v. 26).
4. God did this so that people would seek him and perhaps find him (v. 27).
5. A non-Christian Greek thinker's writings expand on point 4 (v. 28).
6. Since we are God's creatures, God should not be depicted by an image made by human skill (v. 29). It fits neither God nor us.
7. God overlooked the race's previous ignorance, but now commands all people everywhere to repent (v. 30).
8. God has decreed a day when the world will he rightly judged by the risen Christ (v. 31).
9. God has proven point 8 for all people by raising Christ from the dead in history (v. 31).
Paul is setting forth claims concerning
objective truths. These truths can be known by those who presently hold another
worldview. He appeals to the objective evidence of Christ's resurrection from
the dead as evidence available to convince these people. He does not encourage
them to join his community or language game, redescribe life along his lines or
accept Christianity because it has a tight web of belief. Public truth demands
universal access-although we should not expect universal assent because of the
darkness of unrepented sin (2 Cor 4:4). Throughout the hook of Acts Paul
engages in dialogue and dispute with unbelievers, both Jewish and Gentile.
Never do we find him employing the strategies recommended by postmodernists of
our day. That would have been intellectually suicidal and counterproductive to
the cause. The same is true for us today because God's truth has not changed,
and humans are still made in the image of God, corrupted by sin and redeemable
though the work of Jesus Christ. God Incarnate.
Appeal to the Best Explanation
Within the kind of minimal foundationalism described above, the best way to defend the truth of Christ is by presenting the Christian vision as the most cogent explanation for a whole range of facts in accordance with the essential tenets of logic and criteria for evidence that are required for all critical thinking. This is sometimes called a cumulative case method or abductive argumentation. Christianity is presented as an explanatory hypothesis that best accounts for a wide range of facts about the universe, humans and history. (A less effective apologetic is deductive argumentation where conclusions supposedly follow with necessity from premises that everyone accepts.)42
In a cumulative case argument Christianity is presented as a full--orbed worldview (or conceptual system) that best accounts for life in every dimension. Christian apologists need not ask people to take a blind leap of faith in the dark, or to play with a new language game to see if it helps them somehow, or to join a new community for the sake of joining a new community We claim it is rational to hold Christian claims-more rational, in fact, than believing any other worldview. To make this kind of case with respect to postmodernism, we appeal to several areas.
1. The postmodernist worldview collapses in on itself with respect to being logically inconsistent, morally inadequate, and unable to identify and meet the deepest human needs (see 2 Cor 10:3-5). It is ultimately a house of cards.
2. The universe as a contingent and designed system is best ex-plained by a noncontingent Creator, who depends on nothing outside himself (Acts 17:25) and who created the universe to operate in various goal-related ways. Living systems presuppose intelligent design and cannot be explained on the basis of merely chance and natural laws. Naturalism, the postmodernist default position, is not credible given the vast evidence for an intelligent Creator and Designer.
3. The only basis for an objective moral law is the existence of an objective moral lawgiver who is the source, standard, and stipulator of what is good for his creation and what brings honor to the Creator. Morality is far more than social construction or personal preference; it demands a transcendent and personal source and judge.
4. The Christian worldview best explains the human condition as that of "deposed royalty" (Pascal). We are not mere animals, nor are we gods. The evidence of history and psychology shows us to be unique in the universe, but also fatally flawed apart from the redeeming grace of God in Christ. We are great and we are depraved. Scripture accounts for this paradoxical polarity on the basis of our original creation in the image of God and our subsequent fall into sin. Pascal's apologetic insights on the explanatory value of Christian theism for anthropology are extremely pertinent for postmoderns grappling with the meaning of personal identity.43
5. The various kinds of spiritual experiences of a personal and moral God, as recorded in the New Testament (Rev 1:12-17) and in Christian history and Old Testament figures (Is 6:1-8), cannot be explained away as delusions or myths. God has revealed himself to certain people directly and has provided a moral direction and inner experience not explicable in nontheistic ways.
6. Christianity makes a host of historical claims, culminating in the report that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The study of history is not arbitrary or reducible to political or idiosyncratic methods, as postmodernists claim. A careful study of history shows that these claims are credible and cogent. An antisupernatural prejudice against miracle-claims should be ruled out, given the arguments for theism that make miracles possible and by virtue of the authentic nature of the scriptural documents. History matters for Christian theism.
7. Given his incomparable claims and credentials, Jesus' identity is best explained by the historic Christian claim that he was God incarnate. Other explanations-that he was a guru, a social reformer or an impostor-do not fit the facts. As God incarnate, Jesus is the only avenue of spiritual liberation and escape from divine judgment and, therefore, should be followed as Lord of the universe and of one's life.
Apologists should not only defend the rationality of Jesus as Lord but also encourage unbelievers to expose themselves to the Gospel narratives (about which many are ignorant). Here we find many unforgettable micro-narratives inseparably wedded to the metanarrative of God's grand design for the universe, the Word become flesh for the purpose of personal and cosmic redemption (Jn 1:14). There is an apologetic force simply in the thoughtful reading of the accounts of Jesus' incomparable life, as I experienced myself in 1976. Questions regarding specific apologetic issues may be generated out of such exposure to the reliability of the Gospel accounts (see point 6), but direct exposure to the life of Christ through Scripture is in itself a powerful apologetic that must not be ignored by the apt apologist.44
8. Apologetic endeavors should make clear that Christianity is a high stakes situation prudentially: a matter of heaven or hell. If the gospel is true and one rejects it, there are deleterious consequences in this life and beyond. One forfeits fellowship with God and his followers on earth, and inherits unending estrangement from God and all good beyond the grave. If the gospel is true and one accepts it, there are beneficial consequences in this life and beyond: fellowship with God and his people as well as unending fellowship with God and all the redeemed in the world to come. These prudential stakes often need to be made clear to postmoderns, who are typically so satiated with stimuli and so subjectivistic that they have become numb to matters of eternity. Apologists should invoke the resources of heaven and hell in order to demon-strate that one's response to truth has staggering consequences, and that one must take Christ, the Judge of history, seriously.45
9. The Christian life centered on Jesus Christ-involving prayer, worship, biblical knowledge and meditation, service, fellowship, evangelism and so on-provides the most compelling and engaging meaning for life available. Given the realism and hope that Scripture supplies, a biblical way of life also promotes both personal and social integrity, which avoids both utopianism and pessimism.
These nine considerations (and there are more) all decisively converge on the objective truth of Christian theism: the triune God has created the universe and provides redemption and reconciliation through Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Because of the resurgence of Christians involved in intellectual life, particularly philosophy, the Christian community has a treasury of resources from which to draw apologetically. It is ironic and distressing that when Christian theism and evangelicalism are coming out of a time of intellectual withdrawal and paralysis, many Christian intellectuals intoxicated by postmodernism would deprive the church of the solid apologetic resources that are readily available. This should not be. Consider two examples of exemplary apologetics.
Two Apologetic Models
William Lane Craig is a prolific writer and speaker who holds earned doctorates in philosophy (under John Hick) and theology (under Wolf-hart Pannenherg). While Craig publishes widely in the academic realm, he also writes at a popular level and engages in public debates with atheists, agnostics, Muslims, liberal Christians and others. These debates often draw hundreds of believers and unbelievers at college campuses and elsewhere. Craig is no postmodernist! If he were, he would not be defending the objective truth of Christianity rationally as he has done so well in so many venues. He employs arguments and evidence for the rationality of the Christian truth claim.46
Since the publication of his book Darwin on Trial in 1991, law professor Phillip Johnson has led a movement that intellectually challenges Darwinian naturalism by demonstrating its logical and evidential inadequacies.47 He is mounting a credible attack against a leading ideological opponent of Christian theism today and defending the contention that the intelligent design of living systems is far more rational than mere evolution through natural laws and chance mutations.48 Postmodernist strategies cannot avail in these environs; we need rational persuasion and shrewd strategy.49
There are many other Christians engaging the apologetic arena through public debates, editorials, letters to the editor, campus ministry, teaching in secular schools, writing books and articles in scholarly and popular circles, and more. The nerve of these ministries would be cut by the postmodernist ploys evaluated throughout this hook. I can speak from fairly extensive experience in addressing secular university audiences that an emphasis on the objectivity and rationality of Christian truth will get a fair hearing when it is presented clearly, with passion and much prayer. There is no reason to change strategies now.50
The Need for Objective Truth and Subjective Engagement
Apologists need to be sensitive to postmodern realities with respect to the subject addressed and the capacities of one's audience. Several decades ago an apologist could usually launch right into a defense of Christianity as objectively true and rational. Today in many settings, particularly that of the secular university, one needs to defend the notions of objectivity and rationality themselves before employing them apologetically. I have argued that this can and should be done. Only then will the traditional apologetic arguments have much force. I do this myself when I speak to campus groups at secular institutions.
While apologetics needs to be truth-centered, it must also be person-sensitive and culturally aware. Unbelievers come to the table with a variety of issues, misconceptions and values that need to be discerned before for a fruitful apologetic encounter can occur. The truths for which we argue are not relative, but the level of knowledge of our hearers is relative and must be taken into account. An objectively good argument may ring hollow if it does not match the concerns of the hearer. Pascal understood the person-sensitivity of argumentation well.
We think playing upon man is like playing upon an ordinary organ. It is indeed an organ, but strange, shifting and changeable. Those who only know how to play an ordinary organ would never be in tune on this one. You have to know where the keys are.51
David Clark's book Dialogical Apologetics addresses the issue of "knowing where the keys are" thoroughly and wisely. His thesis is that although solid arguments for Christian faith are available,
apologetics... should not be understood as an attempt to develop a perfect system of assertion and argument that will prove faith once and for all. Rather, it is a strategy for presenting, in the course of a unique discussion with a particular audience, the sort of case that makes sense to those persons. In other words, apologetics is the reasoned defense of the Christian faith in the context of personal dialogue.52
This fits well with Arthur Holmes's insight
that metaphysical objectivity is compatible with epistemological subjectivity.
Objective reality exists in its own right apart from human knowers; it is
metaphysically objective and representable through true statements. However,
our knowledge of truth is influenced by a number of epistemologically
subjective factors, such as our level of intelligence, background beliefs,
personal interests and so on. The key error of the Enlightenment approach in
this regard was not (as postmodernists maintain) a desire to discover objective
truth but the assumption that subjectivity could be neutralized by one perfect
method of rational knowing, which could be appropriated clinically by anyone so
inclined.53 This is an important
distinction that many miss. Stanley Grenz, for example, sides with
postmodernists against modernists by saying, "We must affirm with postmodern
thinkers that knowledge-including knowledge of God-is not merely objective, not
simply discovered by the neutral knowing self."54 This seems to conflate "neutral" with
"objective." No one is neutral, since we have a set of subjective dispositions
and unique experiences. However, one may come to know objective truth if one
sincerely applies the proper procedures of knowing.
Human knowing is a complex affair, involving the entire person over a lifetime. Nonetheless, the aim of knowing should be objective truth, subjectively interiorized and existentially engaged. Holmes puts it well:
I can passionately believe in a certain objective reality without at all violating either my intellectual integrity or the universality of truth. I can believe in God, I can love my neighbor as myself, and I can accept a Christian world-view with all the subjective intensity of my being without compromising in the least the universal truth of theism, of Christian ethics, and of a Christian worldview. I believe all truth is God's truth, pas-sionately. but that does not make it any less objectively real.55
Still, subjectivity should be addressed carefully, given the subjectivism and relativism of the postmodern situation. It may have been wise in some ways for Kierkegaard to hyperbolically announce that "Truth is subjectivity," in nineteenth-century Denmark when the objective truth of Christianity was taken for granted and not subjectively engaged inwardly.56 Such a strategy today would fail to affirm both metaphysical objectivity and epistemological subjectivity, since the scales have tipped in just the opposite direction in our postmodern situation. Countermanding truth decay requires highlighting and elucidating objective truth along with its subjective demands and its eternal benefits. Only the truth of Jesus Christ will set anyone free (Jn 8:31-32).
1. F. F. Bruce, The
Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans,
1977), p. vii.
4. 0n engagement in preaching, see Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 166-67.
5. Douglas Webster, Selling Jesus: What's Wrong with Marketing the Church (Downers Grove, Till.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), p. 67. Webster is discussing Jesus' interaction with the rich young ruler in Mark 10.
6. Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1967), p. 10.
7. Webster, Selling Jesus, pp. 108-9
8. Huston Smith, "Postmodernism and the World's Religions," in The Truth About Truth, ed, Walter Truett Anderson (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995), p. 209.
9. C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology, and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 157-58.
10. Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry, p. 168.
11. G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (New York: G. P. Putnam s Sons, 1908), p.42.
12. For an excellent treatment of existentialism, see James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, Jill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 94-117.
13. Jean Baudrillard, "Interview: Game with Vestiges," On the Beach 5 (winter 1984): 24; quoted in Douglas Kellner, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and tile Postmodern (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 329. See also Richard Keyes, Chameleon Christianity: Moving Beyond Safety and Conformity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1999), p. 61.
14. Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of tile Supernatu-ral, 2nd ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1990), pp. 65-68.
15. Ibid., p.59.
16. See C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, re's ed. (New York: Mac-millan, 1965), pp. 3-19.
17. Dorothy Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969), xi, P. 4; quoted in Richard Keyes, True Heroism (Colorado Springs, Cob.: NavPress, 1995), p. 135.
18. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 63; see pp. 63-73 for a developed discussion.
19. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (New York: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 176. See Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 429-36.
20. Rorty's views on ethics are taken up in detail in the next chapter.
21. I discuss artistic beauty and truth in relation to postmodernism in chapter ten.
22. For a biblical view of heroism, see Keys, True Heroism.
23. C.S. Lewis, The abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 86-87.
24. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, ed. Alban Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 414/171, p. 148.
25. Ibid., 24/127, p. 36.
26. Ibid., 620/146, p. 235.
27. Ibid., 166/183, p. 82.
28. lbid., 70/165b, p. 48.
29. Ibid., 148/429, p. 75.
30. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 10.
31. Pascal, Pensees, 641/129, p. 238.
32. Ibid., 152/213, p. 81. I have altered the translation slightly to make it clearer.
33. Ibid.,434/199, p.165.
34. It is granted that some thinkers who are not postmodern also reject foundationalism. I critique the coherence and pragmatic views of truth in chapter four.
35. The debate over the nature and scope of basic beliefs is quite involved. Alvin Plantinga has been very influential in this debate, although I don't agree with all of his views on the matter. See Alvin Plantinga, The Analytical Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader, ed. James F. Sennett (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdrnans, 1998), pp. 97-209. For Pascal's comments on what arc' now called basic beliefs, see Pensees, 110/282, p. 38; 131/434, PP.62-66.
36. For a good summary of the recent debate over foundationalism and a brief defense of foundationalism, see Paul K. Moser, "Foundationalism," in The Cambridge Dictio-nary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 276-78.
37. I also include the related principles of identity and bivalence.
38. On testing religious worldviews by criteria, see Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (1991; reprint, Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1997), pp. 151-95; Keith E. Yandell, Christianity and Philosophy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 272-89; Gordon R. Lewis, "An Integrative Method of Justifying Religious Assertions," in Evangelical Apologetics, ed. Michael Bauman, David Hall and Robert Newman (Camp Hill, Penn: Christian Publications, 1996), Pp. 69-88; and more generally, Sire, Universe Next Door.
39. Arthur Holmes, Contours of a Worldview (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 131.
40. On the use of logical argument across religious traditions, see Paul Griffiths, An Apology for Apologetics (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1991).
41. This concern was addressed in chapter six in relation to Lesslie Newbigin's claims.
42. On the limits of deduction in apologetics, see Winfried Corduan, No Doubt About It: A Defense of Christianity (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), pp. 50-54. On abductive or cumulative case explanation, see Basil Mitchell, The Justification of Religious Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); and Gordon Lewis, Testing Christianity's Truth-Claims (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976).
43. See Douglas Groothuis, "Deposed Royalty: Pascal's Anthropological Argument," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 no. 2 (1998): 297-312. This argument uses the abductive form of reasoning.
44. My thanks to James Sire for asking me to flesh out this vital element of apologetics.
45. On the prudential aspect to apologetics, see Douglas Groothuis, "Two Objections to Pascal's Wager," Religious Studies 30 (1994): 479-86.
46. For his general apologetic approach, see William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994).
47. Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: lnterVarsitv Press, 1993).
48. See William A. Dembski, ed., Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), and William .A. Denihski, Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsitv Press, 1999).
49. I also discuss intelligent design in chapter four.
50. Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland, who has spoken to many more such audiences than I have, concurred on this point in a conversation with me.
51. Pascal, Pensees, 56/181, p. 44.
52. David K. Clark, Dialogical Apologetics: A Person-Centered Approach to Christian Defense (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1993), p. 99.
53. Arthur Holmes, All Truth Is God's Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 6-7, 31-48.
54. Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 168.
55. Holmes, All Truth, p. 6.
56. On Kierkegaard's strategy, see Holmes, All Truth, pp. 43-48.
Taken from Truth Decay by Douglas Groothuis, copyright 2000. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.
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