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Understanding Our Postmodern World

Brian Morley

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, [1] 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 cultures.


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. [2] 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 nature itse