During my early seminary education, a professor stated that we were living in the postmodern period. I had never heard this term before and thought that we were living in the modern world. How can there even be a period that is beyond modern? His statement defied logic. We didn’t study history beyond the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and postmodernism wasn’t adequately defined during my studies, so I searched for more understanding.
Dr. Douglas Groothuis, a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, wrote Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2000) and his book has greatly expanded my postmodernism knowledge. He is a Christian apologist: one who defends a Christian worldview. There are many historical divisions, but he divided human cultures into three broad classifications: premodern, modern, and postmodern.
“Premodern cultures typically have little or no cultural or religious diversity, minimal or no social change, have not been affected by secularization and are prescientific. A premodern society is culturally coherent, social roles are prescribed, and there is little exposure to aliens or foreigners who would endanger its way of life.”(page 33) If you had lived during the Middle Ages and told the local authorities that you were an atheist, advocated a democratic system, and believed that the earth revolved around the sun, it is highly likely that one of two things would have happened: either you would be deemed a lunatic and placed in an asylum or burned as a heretic. Premodern society would not have allowed these commonly held current views.
The modern era started during the period of Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason. Groothuis stated that the foundations of modernism began during the Reformation (1517–1648). “Many philosophers of this period began questioning not merely certain Roman Catholic doctrines—such as papal authority and indulgences—but Christianity itself and the idea of divine revelation as a source of authority.”(page 35) It started with the philosophy of René Descartes (1596–1650). He declared: “Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).” During Christendom’s premodern era, truth was God’s Word revealed in Scripture. In the modern era, humans reasoned and questioned long-established beliefs, including Scripture.
Modernism stressed human reasoning at the expense of God’s revelation. Early philosophers believed in God but debated God’s involvement in people’s lives. Deists, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, believed that God created the universe, then did not interfere in day-to-day affairs. It is as if God is a clock maker who builds a clock, then sits back and lets it run. Jefferson went so far as to create a Bible, called the Jefferson Bible, which deleted any verse not consistent with scientific principles. Deists believed that the God who created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) had no powers to repair or alter the clock.
Modern reasoning started a slippery slope that resulted in the inevitable philosophic theory proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) known as the death of God. “The end of theism brought with it the end of objective value, meaning and significance; altruism had no basis in a universal moral law; the will to power was the essential fact in the struggle to thrive, and only a few specimens of humanity were worthy of existence.”(page 37) Individual human reason was how humans perceived everything and there were no truths; truth was what an individual reasoned. The postmodern era was born.
“In the postmodern era, nearly everyone believes moral values are relative—that is, constructed by cultures, not ordained by God.” Truth is not just an empty concept “but a powerful political tool, rationality is dismissed as mere logocentrism (a white male construct), science is deemed domineering and oppressive and unable to discern objective truth, and ‘progress’ only describes whatever serves the interests and ideologies of the dominant culture.”(page 41) This philosophy dominates the media and contributed to the decline of western Christianity, especially in the younger population. Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist and founder of sociobiology, stated: “Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing,”(page 44)
Most Christians believe that God revealed truth through the inspired Biblical writers. Scripture is the primary source of Christian beliefs, although human reason, experiences, and traditions are also used as secondary sources. The Ten Commandments were given by God to the Hebrews on Sinai, not created out of human reasoning. Christ’s teachings were divine truth, not philosophical reasoning. Theology is faith seeking understanding, a lifelong process of questioning. However, during the continual process of seeking understanding, Christians must always remember that there is a Creator so much greater than our minds can ever contemplate. The faithful should trust eternal truth and not rely solely on mere mortal reasoning.