As you might expect, my passion for grinding out a book without guarantee and that I probably couldn't finish in time anyway has quickly burnt out. But I'll leave you with the gist of what I envisaged the rest of the first chapter to look like.
The (Non) Essence of Post Modernism
There is a good deal of confusion, I would say, about what post-modernism is. The main reason is that it really isn't something, rather than is something. Post modernism simply means after modernism. Properly understood, it is not a new thing. It is a reaction to an old thing: modernism. For this reason, you can only really define postmodernism properly by first defining modernism and then deconstructing your definition. [I'm having fun now--I would write more clearly if I ever really intended on publishing this].
So what is modernism? Modernism is characterized by the quest for objectivity in the pursuit of knowledge. Spock is the quintissential paradigm of a modernist, for he is completely objective in his thinking--emotions do not cloud his judgment.<7> Science is the god of modernism, for the typical modernist thinks of science as completely objective, the leaders and trailblazers in the quest of truth. Modernist truth seekers are aware of their biases, and they rid themselves of them.
So what would a pre-modern thinker be? A pre-modern thinker is someone who is unaware of the influences, prejudices, and biases that affect the way they think and view of the world. Such individuals assume that the way they see the world is the way the world really is without even realizing or taking seriously other possibilities.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of a Persian king who asked two groups of people what they did with their dead. When the Greeks said they burned the bodies of their dead, another group called the Callatians were horrified. So then the Callatians were asked what they did with their dead. "Why we eat them of course." Herodotus concludes that "Custom is king over all." This is a standard relativist position taken by Herodotus: every group assumes without argument that their way of doing things is the right way.
But modernism is not relativist when it comes to truth. A modernist might assume that matters of art or religion or ethics are relative--no religious idea is any more or less correct than any other. But science is not relativistic for the typical modernist. Science is about absolute truth.
Now enter the period "post" modernism. In various ways and to various degrees, "post" modernism is about the death of objectivity, the recognition that no one is, in the end, completely objective, not even Spock. For some, postmodernism is the death of truth all together. But ironically, such individuals still have written books and taken positions on various issues. Nevertheless, individuals like Jacques Derrida and Paul deMan have done us a service by showing us just how unstable the meaning of words can be. In an analogous way, Michael Foucault has shown us the degree to which power is involved in our understanding of what is true. And Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have shown that science itself is subject to social trends and has a significantly random dimension to it.
These individuals have given modernism its share of shock therapy. After the smoke has cleared, we still find that people try to communicate with each other with reasonable success. People still step out of the way of moving traffic (at least the sane ones do). And I just got a new cell phone that does things cell phones didn't do two years ago. Richard Rorty has penned the phrase "pragmatic realism." After we have got the point of the radical postmodern thinkers, reality still works.
As we begin to think about the role that reason and thinking might play in religion, I suggest the following perspective on the matter of truth. As we will see in the final section of this chapter [or actually, won't see, since I don't plan to write it now], various religious perspectives differ on whether in fact religious belief involves anything but irrational faith. Nevertheless, I hope the following perspective is so intuitive to you that you will find nothing objectionable regardless on your perspective toward faith and reason. My sense is that some ideas make so much sense to the way we live in the world that we can hardly object to them without negating our very existence, the fundamental ways in which we operate in the world.
First, it seems beyond debate that the situation of our birth and upbringing has a significant effect on how we view the world. Can we really deny that it is much more likely for a person born in Iran to be a Muslim than a follower of the gods of the ancient Druids? Is it more likely that a person born in the American Bible belt will be a Christian or a worshipper of the ancient Babylonian god Marduk? It seems to me that a person would be insane to deny that a person's religious and other beliefs are seriously affected by their situation in life and the possibilities of his or her environment.
Second, it seems beyond question that to be objective, a person needs to know all the "facts." Otherwise you cannot be certain that you are putting the data together correctly. But it is even more certain that no human being alive today knows all the "facts" of reality. In many of the religions of today, the only person who knows all the facts is God, variously conceived. The implication is that because only God is all knowing, only God is truly objective. We will talk about how the Scriptures of various religions might relate to the knowledge of God in the next chapters [except that we won't, because I don't plan to write them].
Therefore, to varying degrees, my perspective on the world is a function of my situation and the "facts" I know. It is helpful at this point to draw a distinction between "facts" and the glue by which I connect those facts together. Most people today would again be very comfortable with saying that they experience things in the world that are real. Sure enough, most of us also believe in hallucinations. A person sees a mirage in the desert. Someone else takes acid and sees elephants.
But I am very comfortable with the idea that there is a computer in front of me and that I slept in a bed last night and that a dump truck rear ended my van about a month ago. These are things I am calling facts or the data of the world. Sure, it is possible that I am really a computer program from the 23rd century and I only think I am a real person. But nobody really lives that way if they are at all close to normal. Even schizophrenics believe the outside world is real (with a lot of other things added in). Reality works.
Yet the glue that joins these facts together in our heads are interpretations. I do not experience the law of cause and effect. I only see my son fall down after his shoe runs into the crack on the sidewalk. The facts are the hitting of the shoe and the falling down. The glue of cause-effect is a matter of my brain.<8>
This distinction between facts and interpretation is very significant. It is the difference between the account of an eyewitness and what we call circumstantial evidence. If I find a cookie smear on my youngest daughter's face and a crumb trail from the cookie jar, I might conclude that she had just had a cookie. But this is an interpretation of the facts. It is possible that someone framed her by smearing the cookie on her face and planting the crumb trail.
Therefore, because no human today knows all the facts, because interpretation is involved in almost every significant act of knowing, we can reformulate the pre-modern, modern, post-modern paradigm into something more useful as we begin to look at the rationality of religious beliefs.
First, all humans are at the same time a mixture of pre-modern and modern in their beliefs. That is to say, we are always at the same time to varying degrees both aware and unaware of certain facts, and we are always at the same time to varying degrees both conscious of the influences at work in our interpretations and yet also unaware of other possibilities. This observation to a large degree reveals that terms like "pre" and "post" modern are not very precise. It would be better to speak of degrees of reflectivity and unreflectivity in conjunction with varying combinations of faith and evidence in our views and understandings.
Second, it is entirely reasonable to believe that "truth" exists, especially if we think of it in pragmatic terms. Certain understandings of the world "work" better than others. I am free to believe that I can fly. But this belief probably won't work very well, especially if I jump off a tall building. The language and paradigms by which I describe reality will always have a strong element of contingency and subjectivity. This language is a construct of human ways of thinking and speaking. But we can still very plausibly believe that the reality we describe in various ways is real and that our varying descriptions of it "work"--albeit some more effectively than others.
Some have called this perspective "critical realism." It is a belief in reality and of truth while also acknowledging that the way we describe that reality will always have a high degree of subjectivity to it. The way I describe a tree will depend on where I am standing in relation to it, just as someone describing it from another vantage point will reflect their situation. But in theory we are both describing the same tree, and the tree is real.<9> Of course in practice we are partially blind people describing a forest, which makes things a little less certain than a single tree.
Therefore, I suggest that the most basic criteria of truth continue to be useful even after modernism has been dethroned. These are the coherence test for truth, the correspondence test, and the pragmatic test. The pragmatic test is of course the one that is most appropriate to a postmodern world: does a certain belief work. From a pragmatic perspective, we can say that all the gods that people believe in are "real" in the sense that the belief in them does things. The idea that large trucks hurt when they hit you "works," even if I am really in computer matrix or program.
The correspondence test involves more faith, for it presumes that there is a world outside of myself and that my apprehension of the world through experience is real. While these things are ultimately unprovable, they make sense and "work." Most sane people operate on these assumptions every moment of their lives. It thus works to ask questions like whether a person named Jesus actually existed or is simply a legendary figure. Despite Wittgenstein, I would say it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether a God exists independently of this universe, our minds, and language games.
Finally, the coherence test works in the sense that we all understand the idea of contradiction. We all understand that if I am literally here, I cannot be literally across the room. Further, religion can create coherence when its claims are apparently incoherent by recourse to faith. In the final section of this chapter I will set up a "postmodern" model of coherence. Since every belief apart from belief in existence itself involves some degree of faith, any belief system can be considered coherent by recourse to that part of its belief that lies outside the evidence.
If I were to finish this chapter, I would write on the relationship between faith and reason, citing the various approaches that various thinkers in the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have taken (e.g., Tertullian, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Mishnah, Maimonides, Koran, radical orthodoxy, etc...). My operating model, however, is one that sees belief as varying combinations of faith and evidence. I follow a modified Descartes in claiming that existence itself is the only belief that involves no faith.
It is thus always possible to be coherent in one's belief by recourse to some sort of faith in the face of whatever evidence. However, not all acts of faith are as believable or practically possible as others. Bultmann is ultimately right that most modern individuals could not look at many aspects of the world in the same way as their religious forebears even if they wanted to.
The rest of the book aims to analyze the varying combinations of faith and evidence necessary to believe various claims made by the three great religions. Chapter two would analyze Judaism, starting with a discussion of fundamentalisms of all types and the dynamics of Scripture centered religions in general. Judaism itself is of course a religion of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy.
Chapter three would then discuss Christianity in its many forms and then chapter four chapter Islam in its many forms. The final chapter would then aim at bringing together the findings of the book as a whole, suggesting the overall relationship between various forms of religion and rationality.
But I don't think I'll ever write any of this...
<7> I want to thank the late Stanley Grenz for this wonderful illustration, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 5. On a personal note, it frustrates me deeply to realize that I have read this entire book and don't remember doing it. I see that I have underlined things to the very end of the book, yet I have no recollection of what it says or even of reading it.
<8> Students of philosophy will recognize my train of thought as a presentation of Immanuel Kant's epistemology.
<9> With these descriptions of the process of knowing, I am not saying that religions all describe the same reality from different vantage points, although this is one position a person might take on some aspects of religion.
three criteria of truth