Are We Ready to Be Apologists in a Brave New World?
By John H. Armstrong, Senior Fellow, Center for Christ & Culture
Modernity gave rise to incredible confidence, following the rise of the scientific method as it did. If we think hard enough, study deeply enough, and apply all that we know to solutions we can grasp the nature of things more clearly. Our entire way of living and teaching was based on this modern social ideal—we can draw accurate conclusions if we are given the right facts.
The scientific method did not think that we had everything figured out. Scientists placed the highest regard in Newton's laws, but they recognized Einstein's important revisions as a good thing when they came along. New theories can and should be tested and embraced. This modern way held a great deal of confidence in expanding knowledge. This new knowledge could be applied to almost any endeavor or field of study.
This kind of modernism is what happened to theology and the church as well. Mastery and control became important values for moderns. Churches bought into systems that worked and theories that gave people mastery over their problems. Seminaries, both liberal and evangelical, taught their students how to employ this method of modernism to either a skeptical response to the Bible or a faithful, conservative one. In both cases the results were rooted in the assurance than we can master the truth if we test the theory, or system, by the facts we are given. Conservatives believed those facts were found in the pages of an inerrant Bible, thus they created systems that were rooted in a kind of semi-sophisticated proof-texting that built virtually infallible ways of thinking about God and divine revelation. There was little room to question since we had constructed a belief system that was loyal to God's Word.
What was lost in the recent postmodern turn was this confidence, this assurance that a method can produce the intended results, namely a fuller (almost perfect) grasp of the truth. What has replaced the modern, which replaced the premodern in the seventeenth century, is what scholars and social scientists now call postmodern.
The confidence of the modern era has been repudiated by this postmodern turn. The postmodern way of thinking challenges all human perception. It does this by showing that everything we believe is a matter of perspective, or a "point of view." This has been called perspectivalism. Since all human perspective is ultimately subjective then all knowledge must be tentative and "from a point of view."
Let me borrow an illustration from college football. We all see the game very differently. I saw Alabama play Kentucky last October in Tuscaloosa. I sat in the south end zone, high up in the stands. What I saw that day was not exactly what a person saw from the sidelines. And I definitely saw the game differently than a person seated in row 30 right on the 50 yard line. My report of a particular play, say an official's "bad" call, would differ from how people saw it in a different part of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Furthermore, things like gender, race, education, emotional state of mind, beliefs, prejudices, preferences, appetites, as well as previous knowledge and experience, all impact my perceptions and my interpretation of those perceptions. Had you been at the same Alabama football game you would have seen things quite differently than me. I am a loyal Crimson Tide fan, had a great set of field glasses and discussed the game with fans around me who had all played football for the University of Alabama in the past and knew the sport very well. I was in a very definite context and had a definite perspective on this game as a result.
Put as simply as possible, there is no neutral observation of anything in life. We all have angles of vision, perspectives, or views. None of us sees everything and the best of us can only give approximations of what really happened. Postmodernism plays this string to conclusions that are radical in their implications. (More later.)
The End of Ideology
Postmodernity, speaking very broadly, means the end of ideology. Metanarratives, grand schemes and big comprehensive systems no longer work. Postmoderism undermines the notion that there is a "right way" of seeing or doing anything in life. This is why it ends up embracing radical relativism, both ethically and spiritually.
This is also why some have suggested that postmodernism is really hypermodernity. The social context for all of this change is really one in which we have modernity turning inward upon itself. The modern emphasis on the critical place that reason and experience play is now directed against all modern conceptions and grand ideas, thus modernism has been inverted.
So when a Christian comes along and says, "Here is the great story. Here is the narrative that defines all human existence." The postmodern will say, in effect, "I doubt it!" Truth is nothing more than the view of certain people at certain points in time, period. This thinking has created a general mood of disenchantment and disillusion.
Varieties of Postmodernism(s)
This postmodern turn has not directly affected large numbers of Americans, at least not yet. One has to wonder if it ever will, at least in the most radical sense. But what has impacted large numbers of Americans, and very few realize it, is this idea of perspectives and viewpoints. You have your perspective and I have mine. I suggest that millions of Americans, and they are not all under 35 years of age, think this way already. Everything is understood as a perspective about thinking and making decisions.
What has clearly happened here is that Christianity has come to be seen as exploitative and degrading. Multitudes now believe that it has fostered huge gaps between the rich and the poor, it has embraced practices that denigrate other human beings and it cares very little about doing and seeking justice. With the idea that Christianity teaches us about a domineering god many have also come to believe that it is the least preferable of all religious expressions. This is one reason that the fastest growing religious category in America, over the past decade, is "no religion."
C. S. Lewis warned us about all this decades ago when he said that there was a widespread ignorance of history in our culture. He said that a people ignorant of their own history were likely to see important things as "long ago" and thus irrelevant to the present. Lewis said, "To most people the present occupies almost the whole field of vision. Beyond it, isolated from it, and quite unimportant, is something called 'The old Days'—a small, comic jungle in which highwaymen, Queen Elizabeth, knights-in-armor, etc., wander about" (cited by Stackhouse in Humble Apologetics).
Almost a century ago the famous British writer G. K. Chesterton remarked on a problem that he saw in British culture that is amazingly apropos to our culture and time. He observed that many of the most popular critics of Christianity were caught in a twilight zone between Christian faith and total unbelief. He suggested that they were resentful of this zone that they found themselves trapped in. I think his thought aptly sums up where increasingly large numbers of Americans find themselves in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
They cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy. They cannot be Christians and they cannot leave off being anti-Christians. Their whole atmosphere is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism. They still live in the shadow of faith and have lost the light of faith. . . . The worst judge of all is the man not most ready with his judgments: the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, New York: Image, 13).
Stackhouse is thus right when he says that we live in a "time-between-the-times." The culture still has a more-or-less Christian veneer on it but the reaction against Christianity is huge and deeply felt. Beneath the surface of a type of residual pietism is a shallow, bankrupt Christianity.
A faithful Christian apologetics, appropriate to our time, requires that we recognize this turn and then respond appropriately. As I noted last week, the cultural war is over. To be sensitive to the resentment that people feel about Christianity, and the openness that they have for many other forms of religion and spirituality, requires a totally different apologetic. I am not sure that most Christians, or churches, are ready for this new apologetic but I am led to teach it believing that we must prepare as many people as possible for the brave new world.
© 2009 by John H. Armstrong
John H. Armstrong is the founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for the Advancement of the Christian Tradition in the third millennium. He is a former pastor and church-planter, of more than twenty years, the author/editor of eight books, and the author of hundreds of magazine, journal, and web-based articles. Besides his writing ministry Dr. Armstrong is an adjunct professor of evangelism and apologetics at Wheaton College Graduate School, teaches in various seminaries and colleges as a guest lecturer, and is a seminar and conference speaker throughout the United States and abroad.