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
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
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
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
|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
| 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
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),
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.
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.