Understanding Our Postmodern World
A western apologist once visited a tribal area of Africa and conducted an elaborate
seminar for Christians on how to prove the existence of God. Afterwards a person
came up and complimented him on his presentation but added politely that no one
in that part of Africa doubted that God exists. What they wanted to know was
which God to serve. The visitor meant well but failed to understand the specific
spiritual questions being asked by that particular culture.
The more one understands about people’s ideas, the better one can communicate
the truth of Scripture and the Gospel to them. That is why one learns about cults
and religions, and why missionaries try to understand the cultures in which they
live. But not enough Christians in the West put much effort into understanding the
culture in which they live.
New believers who come into the church bring their worldviews with them.
Furthermore, those Christians already in the church who do not understand
worldview issues will not realize when they are embracing non-Christian concepts.
Paul warned the Colossians not to allow themselves to be taken “captive by
philosophy” (Col 2:8). Most Christians assume that the best way to prevent that
is to avoid learning anything contrary to what they believe. But like it or not,
worldview issues are all around, pressing in from the surrounding culture. Instead
of trying to completely shield oneself from culture, Paul would advice a different
approach: understanding something about the ideas that intrude and learning to
discern between truth and error.
Biblically speaking, it is the Christian who should be doing the capturing, not the
other way around. Paul said he destroyed “arguments and every lofty opinion
raised against the knowledge of God,” and he took “every thought captive to obey
Christ” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Christians are to tear down intellectual strongholds in
order to free those who are deceived spiritually and are held captive by forces of
darkness (2 Tim 2:26).
Paul knew the culture of his day. He could quote philosophers from memory (cf.
Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12), use their terminology, and examine their views from a
Christian perspective (cf. Acts 17:22-31). Not enough Christians today can do
that–-including pastors, counselors, or even Christian scholars.
Western culture is undergoing sweeping and profound changes that are
transforming the prevailing cultural worldview, especially with regard to the nature
of truth. Like other periods of major change in history, the present one is a
mixture of the old and new. In order to avoid becoming captives, and instead
becoming capable of destroying strongholds so that Christians can do the
capturing, one will have to go back and examine some past intellectual battles.
Christianity grew to dominate culture in the Middle Ages, joining faith (what is
known by revelation) and reason to form a worldview that encompassed all of
knowledge. Modernism rejected the medieval concept that knowledge is based on
authority. Modernists based knowledge on the process of objective reasoning
from observation, which became their concept of science. By the late eighteenth
century, some began to challenge the supremacy of reason, the possibility of
objectivity, and the ability to know the world as it is. The twentieth century saw
increasing doubts about the objectivity and benefits of science, the self as a
foundation for knowing, the connection between language and the world, and the
very possibility of a worldview.
Within western-oriented cultures today there is an uneasy coexistence of
modernism and what is loosely called postmodernism,  the name for the
intellectual and cultural movement that reacted to modernism. Postmodernism is
especially challenging for Christians, who claim to have the correct interpretation of
an inspired text and an objectively true message that applies to all peoples and
THE ROAD TO MODERNISM
Unlike Judaism, which God established as a separate culture, the church was born
into an existing culture. It shared with that culture and other ancient cultures the
view that supernatural purposes shape events in nature and history. In spite of
unseen forces, the physical world is real and can be known and described
adequately in language. Early Christians seemed to have no doubt that words refer
to things, and that propositions are true when they correspond to reality (called
the correspondence theory of truth).
Differences between Christianity and Greco-Roman society brought persecution
until the fourth century when Constantine conquered the Empire in the name of
Christ. From that time forward, the church lived in an uneasy alliance with
government, through which it eventually came to dominate all aspects of culture.
The goal of many medieval scholars was to form a grand synthesis of all
knowledge–spiritual, philosophical, and scientific. It was thought that all parts of a
worldview could be connected. For example, what we believe about logic and
mathematics should fit the nature of God; beliefs about the arts should fit what we
know about the spiritual nature of humanity; the role of government fits with a
sovereign God and fallen humanity. In keepingwith this mentality, Thomas Aquinas
(1225-1274) believed that there can be perfect harmony between the Bible,
reason, and science because God is both the author of the Bible and the Creator.
The foundations that made this grand synthesis possible were soon challenged.
For one, John Scotus (ca. 1274-1308) said that the will, not the intellect, is
primary, and that this is true of God as well as humanity. This means that God
does whatever He wants, not necessarily what is rational. If God did only what is
rational, we could figure out truth with our minds by figuring out what is rational.
But without rationality as a guide, we simply have to observe what God chose to
do. Supposing that God’s will is primary helped shift the intellectual balance from
reason to observation, and therefore to science.
Those who followed the Islamic philosopher Averroes (1126-1198) held to the
theory of double truth by which reason could lead to once conclusion while faith
could lead to another. William of Occam (1285-1347) continued to widen the
divide between areas of knowledge by advocating that theology be separated from
other fields. He intended to protect theology from attack, but eventually his work
had the opposite effect.
For various reasons, the church’s spiritual and moral authority and power waned.
In the sixteenth century, the Reformation church split from what we now call the
Catholic Church. In the wars that ensued, thousands were killed in the name of
doctrine. French philosopher Rene’ Descartes (1596-1650) sought certainty in the
midst of the turbulence. He systematically doubted everything until he found the
one thing he could not doubt–that he was doubting. This led to his famous
statement, “I think; therefore I am,” and he proceeded to build up from there to an
entire worldview. He bypassed the authority of the church and tradition to the
ground of knowing the self. He thought the self could know reality as it is and was
confident that one can accurately know his/her inner states.
It is significant that he thought he could be certain about some beliefs without
having to appeal to other beliefs, a view known as foundationalism.
Foundationalism accepts that some things can be known without having to prove
them with other beliefs. Beliefs might be foundational because they are evident to
our senses (e.g., “there is a light on in the room”), or because to doubt them
would be nonsensical or self-contradictory (e.g., “the whole is greater than the
parts”). These sorts of beliefs need not to be proved, just as no one would need
to prove to you that your toe hurts after you stub it–you just know it hurts.
Foundationalists seek to ultimately ground our non-foundational beliefs (beliefs that
need to be proved using other beliefs) on our undoubtable, foundational beliefs.
Many hold, as well, that these foundational beliefs help connect us to reality and
save us from an endless chain of proof in which we believe A because we believe B,
and believe B because of C, and so on. It is thought that the proof process has
stopping points, because somewhere in all the things we know are some
foundational beliefs, which need not be proved.
Because Descartes built his worldview on what he could know apart from
presupposing church dogma and classical learning, he is regarded as the father of
modern philosophy.  The Renaissance in which he lived was a time of searching
for new foundations of knowledge. People turned first to classical civilization, then
to the study of nature, using observation rather than tradition. Everywhere people
were turning aside from the authority of the church and tradition to find answers
independently. Increasingly, explanations for things were in terms of natural
rathyer than supernatural causes. Theology, which once regulated knowledge and
life, was becoming a separate field, disconnected from everything else. Though its
increasing isolation seemed to put it out of reach of attack, it would soon go
begging for relevance.
The modern mind-set was further shaped in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth
century, sometimes called the Age of Reason. It was thought that humanity could
solve all its problems if people would sweep away superstition and unfounded
beliefs and instead embrace objectivity and reason. Humanity is not hopelessly
sinful and utterly dependent on God, but merely ignorant. For them, reason was
not the abstract deduction of one truth from another, used by medievals,
Descartes, and Spinoza (1632-1677). Rather, it was objective drawing of
conclusions from observation, the method od Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and
John Locke (1632-1704). Reason seemed to be the answer to everything. Even