To those unfamiliar with the train of thought known as postmodernism, I often describe it as the philosophical equivalent of a raging wildfire. It is a destructive flame, I explain, that threatens to burn the whole forest down. And perhaps us along with it.
Postmodernism begins with a critique of reason, the notion that we can each think independently and objectively. The question – can we trust our thought? – is basic and simple, yet undeniably far-reaching in terms of its implication. Postmodernism questions the notion of objective thinking and, in doing so, calls our whole process of rationalization out for a fight.
Postmodernism levies its critique primarily by invoking a particular level of self-awareness – namely the recognition that each and every thought that enters our brain must rely on the subjective process of our senses. Postmodernism begs the question as to whether or not we can truly (or objectively) trust those senses and any information that passes through them.
This critique represents a direct and dire assault on the fundamentals of modern philosophy. The French philosopher René Descartes, for example, built his work largely upon the phrase “I think therefore I am.” Descartes proposed this quote as the “first principle of philosophy” and explained it further by claiming “we cannot doubt our existence while we doubt.”
Well, postmodernism does precisely that. Namely, postmodernism brings to the mind a series of doubts concerning its own objective existence. Postmodernism asks the question as to whether our minds – and everything that passes through to them -- can stand the test of the scientific method that we use to justify everything else.
The scientific method, as any high school science student knows, requires an objective observer to work. This observer must consider a question impartially, then formulate a hypothesis, and finally proceed through various steps to test that hypothesis and analyze the results in hopes of reaching a conclusion.
Postmodernism asks a simple but bold question: can the hypothesis “my mind is a reliable filter of reality” be scientifically proven? Can this statement be anything other than an assumption, a matter of faith to which we each must submit? And if the mind is indeed an assumption or an act of faith, isn’t everything that it perceives fundamentally subject to the same critique?
Such a problem immediately presents one with the limits of science itself. Who is the objective observer to take on such a hypothesis? Certainly not someone within the experiment -- ourselves, our friend, our family member, a fellow philosopher, or even our deepest love (all of whom we perceive through the very senses and mind we are trying to test). And even in the case of spiritual experiences, aren’t those perceived as well? If the entire experience of reality depends upon our mind, and we cannot prove this is valid, how do we know that the mind is accurately viewing reality (if there is one) at all?
Cue The Matrix Movies, Inception, and any other solipsistic film you’ve ever seen. “What is real?” Morpheus asked Neo in The Matrix as he transformed his perception. A panicked Neo, if you recall, had to come to grasp with the “truth” that everything his past senses had told him was a lie. And it was only by accustoming himself to a new reality – through his true senses – that Neo could cope with such a challenge.
With all due respect to Morpheus, perhaps no philosopher understood the gravity of postmodernism’s critique better than Friedrich Nietzsche. In his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche proclaimed through his main character (Zarathustra) a mission of restoring all things through a deliverance “from their bondage under Purpose (p. 166).” Zarathustra did not hold back in his postmodern war against rationality, claiming that “In everything one thing is impossible: rationality (p. 166).” Nietzsche went on to have Zarathustra combat pious Christianity and summon readers to abandon notions of equality, truth, and meaning in search for his new ethic -- what he called a will to power.
‘Face the void like a man!’ was this will to power, Nietzsche’s call through his Zarathustra character. ‘Give up on any pre-modern or modern notions of virtue, justice, or equality and embrace meaninglessness!’ Much like Morpheus challenging Neo, Zarathustra summoned the reader to cast aside one form of reality for another. Yet what I have always found particularly interesting about Nietzsche’s postmodern diagnosis (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and many of his other works) is that it sounds eerily similar to someone else’s.
Namely, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra sounds quite like the main character found in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
Within the Old Testament scripture Ecclesiastes, the reader encounters a man known as “the Teacher” who considers various pleasures and philosophies of the world. The Teacher finds that regardless of behavior or belief, “all share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not (Ch. 9 ,v. 2). “ With each destined to die, and death the greater silencer of our minds, the Teacher describes reality in words that could have just as easily been spoken by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless (Ch. 12, v. 8)!’”
Yet there is a stark difference that follows. After reaching this same point in his prescription as Zarathustra, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes reaches a different conclusion. Instead of a will to power, Solomon’s Teacher proclaims the following words as the “conclusion of the matter”: “’Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ch. 12, v. 13-14).’”
How can this be? Two philosophers reaching the same point of facing a meaningless or unjustified reality, and yet they each immediately diverge to opposite paths? For Nietzsche the answer is for humans to face the void with pride and become conquering ‘overmen,’ but for Solomon it is to find oneself in submission to God and hold fast to faith in divine judgment.
How then can the Christian person look upon the void of postmodernism, as Solomon’s Teacher does, and not fall into chaotic despair or a senseless will to power? Perhaps it is the very notion of the thing we call faith.
As Saint Augustine once claimed, “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of which is to see what you believe.” Similarly, the author of the Biblical book of Hebrews defined faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (Ch. 11 v.1).” While the scientific method requires testing and analysis to reach a conclusion, faith instead accepts the conclusion first and is rewarded with evidence afterwards. Christian faith, therefore, is not fundamentally tied to personal senses for its justification.
This isn’t to say that faith is entirely opposed to science. Christian faith presumes, and has presumed since the first book of the Bible, an external pre-existent observer who has been there to validate existence. In God we find the author of existence who alone can ordain it and proclaim it as “good.” Precisely what our scientific method would call for to reach a conclusion about existence.
Additionally, Christian faith does not wholly disparage our senses; it instead puts them in their proper place. Our mind and senses function, as Augustine wrote, as rewards of our faith. Time after time we see God validating faith through his power and majesty. In the Old Testament this took the form of massive displays of God’s power, the New Testament features miracles performed by Christ and his disciples, and today we are led to see it in the body and work of the church. The ultimate validation of faith, according to the Bible, comes in the form of Christ who proves the love and redemption God promises us.
Peter, a close follower of Jesus, spoke of faith as a shield protecting us “by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” He claimed such faith is proven genuine by suffering and perseverance, and that it is “of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire (1 Peter Ch1. V. 7).
If we are to take Peter’s words seriously, then he is offering us a promise that Christian faith – regardless of what our senses may initially tell us -- can stand the test of fire. In fact it is through suffering and persevering through the fire that our faith becomes clearer.
And so, I tell my friends, the postmodern wildfire may indeed burn the whole forest down. I find nothing in modernism that stands in rebuke -- no way in which our intellect, rationality, mind, or senses may justify themselves according to scientific principle alone. Modernists may fight the heat, and postmodern “overmen” may welcome it, but as Christians we should not fear it. For amidst the ashes I see standing tall and firm a symbol: that old and familiar wooden cross.
Bright it may be, but burning it is not.
A few months ago an acquaintance of mine expressed his exasperation involving a conversation he had with a young Christian. My acquaintance had asked the Christian why he so staunchly believed the Bible to be true, and the Christian had simply responded, “Because the Bible says so.” Of course, what made this conversation so exasperating was the circular reasoning in the Christian’s response. The fallacy he had inadvertently articulated, known in logic as “begging the question,” was assuming the validity of the premise in question. The Bible is true because it’s true.
What surprises me today is not how few Christians are schooled in logical fallacies nor how many take the Bible as self-evident, but rather how many atheists act as if their own worldviews don’t rest on the same type of assumptions. Seemingly the most vocal and active atheists in social media today tend to be those who ascribe to a set of beliefs known as “scientism,” defined as the attempt to universally apply scientific reasoning, the scientific method, and empiricism to the exclusion of all other viewpoints or systems of knowledge.
Many scientists, of course, don’t go this far and simply see science as a tool or means for learning more about the universe. In such cases they imply that non-scientific means of learning and experience, such as spirituality, may have validity in their own right. To say that science is the only tool for acquiring knowledge, as advocates of scientism believe, is thus an argument of exclusion. It challenges all spirituality along with any experience or knowledge eluding scientific analysis.
The problem with scientism is that its advocates must wrestle with the fact that science itself rests upon numerous assumptions which cannot be proven scientifically. Some of these most widely agreed upon assumptions include the theory that the world exists apart from our senses, the theory that there is an order to existence which is discernable in the form of natural laws, and the theory that scientific tools are useful in discerning these laws. As most scientists recognize, even though we act every day as if these theories are true and indisputable, no one is able to scientifically and irrefutably prove them. Every person who tries is disqualified by virtue of being a participant in the same reality and existence in question.
It is this questioning of the reliability of the senses that endeavors to bring down the whole basis of scientism. So long as we can trust the experience of our senses, which each of us does every day with little or no intention, scientific analysis proceeds normally. However, bringing doubt to one’s mind results in an unanswerable conundrum: no person can irrefutably prove the trustworthiness of his or her senses since any proof would be filtered through those same senses. As a result, we may only answer with the illogic of fallacy and circular reasoning. Much like the Christian who believes in the Bible’s self-evidence, we must choose to believe that the experience of our senses is trustworthy because we experience our senses in a trustworthy fashion.
Advocates of scientism will no doubt respond that such questioning of the basis of science is beyond anyone’s scope. Everyone should instead continue on as they always have and take reality “for granted.” The problem with this, of course, is that it sounds an awful lot like faith.
A friend of mine recently shared a video from a popular atheist animator that caught my attention. In this video an inquisitive atheist encounters a group of people who eventually show themselves to be theists of different religions and denominations. As they express their differences, arguments arise between them which eventually lead to a satirical arms race. After deescalating the conflict, the atheist articulates several thoughtful questions to the group leaving them intellectually speechless. The video ends with the atheist departing without his questions answered, and the group degenerating back into a confused rabble.
Though the video implies the promotion of humanism, the actual belief that the atheist confronts the group with is cultural relativism. According to cultural relativism, the inheritance of ideas is a serious barrier to the recognition of truth. Those who inherit false or misleading information from their upbringing are more likely to accept and defend these mistaken beliefs than recognize truth even when it is presented plainly to them. As the atheist tells the group, the “contradictory things” which God seems to be telling each of the different theists “may be explainable by the culture which you were raised.” The divine encounters claimed by each theist may in fact be unexamined products of culture or inherited desire.
What I find particularly fascinating about the video is that the atheist does not apply cultural relativism to his own belief and descend into nihilism. Instead, he cites a simple math problem and states that "while religion obeys borders, truth does not.” The atheist explains that mathematics -- the scientific study of quantity, space, and change -- fits the criteria of universally recognizable truth. Unlike religion, he argues, mathematics is able to transcend cultural relativism by virtue of its empirical or self-evident nature. After all, can there be any serious disagreement across the universe concerning such an easily demonstrable fact as 2+2=4?
This is fascinating to me because it implies that the atheist is not completely closed off to the existence of God. His objection isn’t so much that God can’t exist as that God doesn’t appear with universal clarity. To appear otherwise -- individually or personally, as the group members suggest -- does not strike the atheist as the proper conduct of a perfect supernatural being. As he explains, a god that acts in such a way effectively tolerates falsehoods, discrepancies, and disagreements and does not seem to be “getting it right from the beginning.” The implication is that a self-evident, empirically verifiable god who efficiently redeems us in clear demonstrable fashion would be much preferable and easier to believe in.
What the atheist precludes, however, is the possibility of a god who doesn’t fit this criteria and yet maintains perfection. Could it be possible, for example, that God’s nature is sovereign rather than empirical – meaning that His work is the condition for the universe and its aspects rather than a component made evidential by them? Could it be that God’s manner of “getting it right from the beginning” was to purposefully trust humanity with evangelism knowing full well that it would lead to confrontation and diversity of experience? Is it conceivable that through such inefficient trust He communicates a graceful patience, tolerance, and love which is a testament to His perfection rather than a detraction from it? Is it ultimately possible that our judgment of what constitutes the proper conduct of a perfect supernatural being may be fallible simply because we are fallible?
We may be asking different questions, but I actually find it amazing how much I agree with the atheist in the video. Like him I recognize and respect cultural relativism as a powerful force. I suspect that many people who practice religion are products of an unexamined inheritance, and I would even count myself as a member of this group for the first twenty years of my life. Furthermore, I also find it implausible that a god exists who conforms to common sense and human rationality. I see no evidence for a god who transmits His message with the simple uniformity and predictability of a basic math problem. The difference between the atheist and myself, however, is that my search doesn’t end there.