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#67 Do We Live in a Post-Modern Society?

July 28, 2008

In your Christianity Today article you said,

However all this may be, some might think that the resurgence of natural theology in our time is merely so much labor lost. For don’t we live in a postmodern culture in which appeals to such apologetic arguments are no longer effective? Rational arguments for the truth of theism are no longer supposed to work. Some Christians therefore advise that we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it.

This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that’s not postmodernism; that’s modernism! That’s just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can’t prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist.

I asked a friend to comment and he said, “I think we need to both accept and reject part of Craig’s hypothesis here. We certainly live in a culture in which relativism is accepted and absolutes are being seriously questioned, but just because we are living a more modernist than literally post-modernist culture does not mean the post-modernism is not present in our culture as it is defined today.

What Craig makes clear here is that even though people claim a post-modern mind set, we only operate in that way within certain spheres of our lives. I agree with Craig that while the majority of post-modern influence is on the more relativistic (real or perceived) areas of culture (religion, art, music, ethics, movies, etc.), we do live in a world that is marked by a tendency to see no big story line in history (a meta-narrative) in which there is logical and realistic cohesion from beginning to end. Instead this too has been relativised and so many of the rational arguments which are still valid are cast aside because they imply (rightly so) a true meta-narrative which exists for life.

I think he got it right. Do you agree?


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Dr. craig’s response


No, I don’t, John. I’m convinced that Western culture, as the stepchild of the Enlightenment, remains at heart deeply modernist and so must be addressed as such. This is not to say, of course, that there aren’t powerful currents of post-modernism flowing in our culture. Post-modernism is entrenched in the university subculture in departments of literature, women’s studies, and, significantly, religious studies. But with respect to our culture at large these radicals are relatively isolated—indeed, even within the university as a whole they are a minority. I’m proud that my field philosophy has stoutly resisted the encroachment of post-modernism.

Most people don’t for a minute think that there are no objective standards of truth, rationality, and logic. As I said in the article, a post-modern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. Nobody is a post-modernist when it comes to reading the labels on a medicine bottle versus a box of rat poison. (If you’ve got a headache, you better believe that texts have objective meaning!) The idea that we live in a post-modern culture is, I fear, a myth perpetuated in our churches by misguided youth ministers.

Your friend seems to think that while people live their lives as modernists in most spheres, still we see the post-modern influence “on the more relativistic (real or perceived) areas of culture (religion, art, music, ethics, movies, etc.).” But what I am contending is that the relativism in those areas of culture is precisely an expression of modernism. The first half of the twentieth century was dominated by a philosophy of meaning called Verificationism. On this view anything that cannot, in principle, be verified through the five senses, that is, through science, is meaningless. Since religious and ethical statements cannot be so verified, it follows that they have no factual content whatsoever. They are merely expressions of personal taste and emotions.

The influential book Language, Truth, and Logic by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer served as a sort of manifesto for this movement. Ayer was very explicit about the theological implications of his Verificationism. If by the word “God” you mean a transcendent being, says Ayer, then the word “God” is a metaphysical term, and so “it cannot be even probable that a god exists.” He explains, “To say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.”

I hope you grasp the significance of this view. On this perspective statements about God do not even have the dignity of being false. They’re just meaningless words or sounds uttered in the air. If you say to someone, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” you’ve said nothing more meaningful than if you had proclaimed, “T’was brillig; and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.”

It wasn’t just theological statements that Ayer regarded as meaningless. Ethical statements—statements about right and wrong, good and evil—were also declared to be meaningless. Such statements are simply emotional expressions of the user’s feelings. Ayer says, “if I say ‘Stealing money is wrong’ I produce a statement which has no factual meaning. . . . It is as if I had written, ‘Stealing money!!’ . . . It is clear that there is nothing said here which can be true or false.” So he concludes that value judgments “have no objective validity whatsoever.” The same goes for aesthetic statements concerning beauty and ugliness. According to Ayer, “Such aesthetic words as ‘beautiful’ and ‘hideous’ are employed. . . , not to make statements of fact, but simply to express certain feelings. . . .”

Now can you appreciate the impact such a philosophy would have upon religion, art, and ethics? It would produce the relativistic and anarchic chaos that besets Western culture today. Crucifixes in urine become objects of art and sexual libertinism is unleashed. Given that religious statements are not statements of fact, it’s perfectly appropriate for the unbeliever to respond to the Gospel by saying, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” Such a response would be crazy with regard to the engineering technology that goes into building a bridge or even a hairdryer, but it makes perfect sense with respect to expressions of personal taste. Christians (or Muslims) who claim that their religious view is the objective truth and that those who disagree with them are wrong will be perceived as closed-minded and dogmatic bigots, on a par with someone who says, “Vanilla tastes better than chocolate, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.” As a subjective expression of personal taste, such a judgement has no objective truth, and the person who thinks that it does is misguided.

So my point is that it is precisely modernism that has spawned the relativism and pluralism in those areas of culture mentioned by your friend.

But what about his point that “we do live in a world that is marked by a tendency to see no big story line in history (a meta-narrative) in which there is logical and realistic cohesion from beginning to end”? Is that a product of post-modernism? Not at all. It is again the direct fruit of a modernist perspective that sees man and the universe as the accidental byproducts of blind forces of chance and necessity. Look at the poignant words of Bertrand Russell penned in 1903:

. . . even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built (“A Free Man’s Worship”).

It was scientific naturalism that destroyed modern man’s hope of meaning and significance. The despair of Western culture flows out of the scientific naturalism that shapes its view of the way the world really is.

All of this is important because an effective response to our culture requires an accurate diagnosis of that culture. In the minds of some Christians, since we live in a post-modern culture, we should abandon any attempt to commend our faith rationally as the truth about reality. Instead we just share our narrative and invite people to join in it. If I am right, however, this is a suicidal course of action. It will destroy any sense of the Church’s claim to have the truth about the way the world is—that will be given by scientific naturalism—, and Christianity will be seen as mere mythology.

My colleague J. P. Moreland has warned of the danger that lies before us:

[Such] a church . . . will become . . . impotent to stand against the powerful forces of secularism that threaten to bury Christian ideas under a veneer of soulless pluralism and misguided scientism. In such a context, the church will be tempted to measure her success largely in terms of numbers—numbers achieved by cultural accommodation to empty selves. In this way, . . . the church will become her own grave digger; her means of short-term “success” will turn out to be the very thing that marginalizes her in the long run (Love Your God with All Your Mind, pp. 93-94).

“This calls for a mind that has wisdom” (Rev. 17.9).

- William Lane Craig