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.
In many ways Jesus Christ had more effect on civilization that any other person in history. Regardless of what one may believe about his alleged divinity, few would argue the notion that Jesus made a powerful and profound mark on history. The effects of his life continue to this day, as Jesus remains the main character in the most widely read book in the world. Christianity, the religion that considers him the Son of God, continues to be the largest on the globe. A positive outlook of Jesus’ life spans even this faith as the Qur’an explicitly names Jesus as a “great prophet” and “blessed messenger of God” worthy of perpetual esteem.
Despite this profound influence on history, Jesus rarely focused on accumulating power and prestige for himself. Instead of articulating ways to gain worldly fame, Jesus valued outsiders and the poor as he preached about the importance of the soul. He closely examined the inner beings of every person he interacted with, and in many cases Jesus exposed previously hidden motivations for their actions. As a result he taught his followers to value people, places, and things in a manner very different than the rest of the world.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ interpretation of a poor widow’s offering (Mark 12 and Luke 21). The gospels claim that Jesus was at the temple of Jerusalem when he observed an unnamed widow giving two small copper coins to the offering. Instead of dismissing this negligible offering as worthless, Jesus prized it and praised the woman’s sacrifice. He specifically contrasted this seemingly minuscule gift with the large sums of money donated by other temple-goers. Jesus claimed that the widow’s offering was worth more than theirs as he boasted that she had “put in more than all the others.”
This story exemplifies the central place that Jesus gave to inner conviction and steadfast virtue. As Christ explained, the widow exhibited faith not because of the monetary impact of her gift but because she was giving from poverty and trusting God with her livelihood. In this story Jesus showed that true virtue could be found in an unlikely person having seemingly little to no effect on the larger world.
The ethics that Jesus taught in this story were profound but not unprecedented; in fact many previous scriptures had demonstrated God’s value of intention, belief, and virtue. The Bible as a whole exudes the same focus, as the passages below make clear:
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, But the LORD weights the motives.” – Proverbs 16:2
“I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” – Jeremiah 17:10
“…for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." – 1 Samuel 16:7
What the attentive reader finds throughout the Bible, then, is a God who desires to move past the exterior and into the very center or spirit of human beings. While He does acknowledge the importance of results, the God of the Bible makes it clear that what He values most is the intention to do what is right, both in ends as well as in means.
This notion of soul-centered ethics is particularly important because so much of our contemporary lives seem to be dominated by alternative considerations. In American politics especially, effects-centric ethics seem to reign supreme. Leading political networks preach a message that casts inner motivation, mindset, and methodology as worthless if they don’t produce the desired effect. A “wasted” action in their estimation is one that doesn’t produce result in their goal. Accordingly our modern mindset would likely be the first to argue against the widow in Matthew and Luke; our worldview would claim that her paltry contribution had a negligible impact on the temple’s budget and did little good for anyone including herself.
The problem with Christians falling into this type of thinking is that it can easily lead us to compromise our moral standards. We can become so focused on achieving a desired end state that we become willing to adopt any kinds of means to get there. We will soon find ourselves justifying decisions we would never make otherwise, as we use non-Biblical moral justifications like “the ends justify the means” or “we must choose the lesser of two evils.” Such decision-making leads us away from the virtue to which Christ calls us and into a moral calculus of vice, something the Bible specifically warns against.
The decay of morality along these lines is evident in the modern Christian left as many liberal Christians continually disregard scandal after scandal from Hillary Clinton. Despite her repeated lies, distortions of the truth, and willful manipulation of the political process, Clinton’s defenders continue to look past her disqualifications. The most common argument they offer is that her mistakes pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s equally glaring weaknesses. In many liberal Christians’ minds, offering support to a corrupt candidate is justified because of the effect it will have in preventing the Republican from winning the White House.
Unfortunately, this election season many Christian members of the right have been equally guilty. Despite observing ethical failings that would cause them to immediately decry a Democratic opponent as unqualified, many Christian leaders have twisted their ethical centers into pretzels to try and justify voting for Trump. Their argument is always the same: the effect of not voting for Trump outweighs the suspect decision of aligning American Christianity with a morally deficient candidate. Whether it’s to secure conservative Supreme Court justices or prevent another Clinton White House, the same Christian leaders who long emphasized the importance of character in politics now seem to be the quickest to dismiss it for the sake of a potential victory.
Christian ethics, we must remember, involves a wholesale rejection of these effects-centric calculations and compromised standards. As evident in the case of the widow, Jesus believed that the value of our decisions could not be judged solely by results. In the widow’s case it was her faith and commitment to do what was right, regardless of worldly value, which gave her offering its value. As Jeremiah 17:10 makes clear, God looks not only at the end state of our goals but the entire process of our decision-making in judging us. He considers the “results of the deed” only after “searching the heart,” “testing the mind,” and giving “according to [a person’s] ways.” To focus exclusively on a desired effect, and accept any means necessary in the process, is to invite vice into the equation.
In the coming weeks many God-fearing, devout Christians will be casting their votes in the US presidential election. My hope and prayer is that every one of us would examine our innermost selves and deepest convictions before we make our decision. I pray that we would each take time to consider the morality of the candidates in addition to the effects we want to achieve by electing them. Ultimately, I pray that we would each consider the example we are setting for others, and ask ourselves questions such as these:
Is it courage or fear that motivates me to choose a candidate?
Am I calculating my vote based on what others might do, or am I following my conscience regardless of the election’s results?
Am I maintaining steadfast virtue and integrity, or am I compromising my standards in the hopes of winning an election?
Am I allying myself with someone shameful in the hope of achieving something good?
In examining our souls in this way, I pray that we as Christians will rediscover the truth that the methodology of our decisions matters just as much as their effects. As our Savior teaches us, a truly Christian ethics leads us to do what is morally right no matter the cost.
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.
I often marvel at the certainty with which we progress through life. Whether watching the news, reading articles, or listening to casual conversations, I find no shortage of unyielding conviction and self-assurance that seemingly must accompany every person’s beliefs. Regardless of the topic, the exchange of ideas so often and so easily becomes a battle. In such cases our reputations, and often our identities, become interwoven with our opinions. We soon become hesitant to amend our minds regardless of what new evidence or method of thinking is introduced. A short descent from here leads us to the point at which we are fighting for the survival of our sentiments as if they were our very lives.
Have we forgotten how we came into this world? Born not of our will, our thought, or even by our own consent, we each awoke to discover a universe far exceeding our limited cognition and understanding. We were “thrown into existence," as Martin Heidegger has described it, and involuntarily flung into the process of encountering all the joys and sorrows of life. This feeling of being thrown, of geworfen, forces within us an instinctive recognition that life has found us and conscripted us into a particular place and time.
But this awareness is fragile. As we progress through life and trek towards adulthood, we too easily discard it along with our immaturity. In doing so we turn our backs on the nature and experience of the past even as we may dimly recall certain details and times. Shadows fall over our peculiar origins, and soon boundaries are erected to confine our imagination within a prison of assumed certainty. In doing so we mistakenly reconstitute ourselves as creatures of our own making, powerful individuals who determine their own destiny by way of strength and intention. Descartes summarized this perspective well in declaring, “I think therefore I am.” Existence, now conceived, submits as a product of our own design.
And yet, as Hannah Arendt and others have recognized, we remain fundamentally bound within the same reality that we seek to dominate. Being and appearance irrevocably coincide for us, and as a result we must at all times make use of our sensory perception to partake of reality. As such, we each assume or rely on a “perceptual faith,” an unverifiable conviction that everything we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perception. Descartes’ statement, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty has demonstrated, ignores this precondition and detrimentally assumes its own validity. In order to think and declare his own existence, Descartes must have already existed or assumed as much.
Reminding us of the formidable nature of reality, such solipsism should restrict our certainty and reacquaint us with humility. Rather than self-assurance, we are left with faith as a sustaining principle for life. It is faith, with its tacit humility and recognition of an inherited reality greater than ourselves, which more accurately describes our continual and constant reliance upon perception to live. It is faith too that ascribes equal status to fellow explorers and unites us all in a respect that rests not on assumption but on curiosity and hypothesis. In rediscovering our curiosity and imagination through faith, perhaps we may again make use of these tools as our most valuable means of navigating this curious existence.