I have long been an admirer of C. S. Lewis. My introduction to Mere Christianity at the age of sixteen by my youth pastor (Derle Underwood) answered some of the more stringent objections I had come to have against the tenets of my own developing faith that was at that time in its early toddler stages. While I do not recognise Lewis as a completely consistent theologian, his slant on the issues of his day retain an amazing clarity and resonance in mine. Therefore I find his approaches and analyses of the human condition particularly insightful and an aid in the continued reformation of my own world view. Lewis cuts through the conventions of religious life in a way that is reminiscent of the way Jesus did. "You have heard it said",... "but I say"...resounds in his contentions, which are, in my estimation, generally informed by his Master's voice and constructed by the gift of a sound mind building upon those principles.
I have herein echoed a Lewisan answer
to the question of how one might approach the question of apologetics
in the current postmodern milieu. This imaginary response draws
upon statements Lewis made in the context of other writings where
they touched upon the subject of post Christian society. I have
quoted Lewis freely but without footnotes.
Though it is written in the first person, I don't mean be so unmitigatedly presumptuous as to think I can write with the clarity and insight of Lewis were he still alive. This is only an attempt to appropriate a Lewisan approach to a problem that has plagued me of late, to help this writer to cope with the challenges of a society where a classical, propositional approach to apologetics has been rejected out of hand as irrelevant. It has indeed been helpful, for it has brought me to a point where I can critique my own approach.
When time allows, I will post an updated version of this with hyperlinks included.
Toward a Postmodern Apologetic
I have always been sceptical of the ability of philosophy of history to speak in a prophetic tone. Prognostication is a dangerous vocation, especially if one is not a prophet. We are now living at the time before the end of time, and we have more archivists than prophets.Yet it has never been more necessary for Christians to ponder the course before us, to steel ourselves against the darkness. The time is neither apocalyptic nor eschatological. Apocalypse denotes a revelation, a stripping away of the clouds of unknowing. "Uncovering" and revelatory truth is what we need now more than ever. Neither is the time eschatological, for the eschaton denotes the reason, the "logos" of last things. We have entered into a time of post rationality, of academicians who have declared the death of logos.
In my early part of this past century, the enemy was Wellsian naturalism. Its adherents' blind belief in progress as expressed in popular evolutionism was held against a background of entropy, degradation and disorganisation. The reign of this kind of credulity was destined to meet an ignoble fate. However, the current clamour over the failure of modernity should be seen not as its logical termination point, but as a kind of place ripped in the fabric of civilisation where ends cannot be resolved, a cosmic holding pattern where one can be purged or damned. This is a place where the spirit of the age can be brought clearly into focus, stripped of modernism's whitewash. It is a place where the world can clearly see the fundamental brokenness of man.
Over forty years ago I wrote about the estate of post Christian society at that juncture. Even then mankind was rejecting not only the law of Christ, but also the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. They did not blush even then at the crimes and behaviours that even the pagans and barbarians denounced. Yet Milton said that "Truth is as impossible to be soiled by any outward touch as the sunbeam". Men today have lost not only the supernatural sunbeam but also the natural light that the pagans possessed. The difference in a pagan society and an apostate one is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress. Faith perfects nature, but lost faith corrupts nature. Perhaps if the adulteress is found out she may come to learn virtue at the feet of the virgin.
What we are left with, in the wake of modernity's so called failure (it was a myth that never became quite incarnate), is "indeterminacy." The implications of this in the academy have been especially important. In philosophy, for example, indeterminacy takes shape as a lack of coherent agreement about the meaning of reality or the words used to make sense of reality. In literary theory, it means a loss of agreement about the significance of texts, metanarratives, or the "canon." In historical study, indeterminacy takes shape as doubt about the objective reality of the past. Undergirding all of this, there is a rejection of any foundation of absolute Truth by which coherent agreements could be reached. The foundations of traditional authority and of scientific rationality are "deconstructed," by these blind guides and reduced to a wrecked rubble.
To some, postmodernism entails the end of epistemology. The epistemic ethos of postmodern thought and culture involves the deconstruction of several interlocking pieces. Among these are the following: the objectivity of truth; a referential understanding of language; a correspondence theory of truth; the existence of "metanarratives;" the presence of some universal qualities of human nature. Postmodernism is epistemologically correct when it attacks the ethos of modernism: modern claims of truth and morals are parasites- they suck from a god who at last withers and dies and with that death its "truth".
Modern science, itself a product of the Enlightenment, rejected special revelation as a source of truth and put the scientific method in its place. Modernity attempted to establish truth on the basis of scientific precision through the process of inductive thought and investigation. The other disciplines followed the lead of the "scientists" in establishing objective truth through rational thought. Modernists were confident that their approach would yield objective and universal truths by means of human reason.
The postmodernists reject both the Christian and modernist approaches to the question of truth. According to postmodern theory, truth is not universal, is not objective or absolute, and cannot be determined by a commonly accepted method. Instead, postmodernists argue that truth is socially constructed, plural, and inaccessible to universal reason.While we share a common enemy in modernism, do not suppose that we have anything to learn from the postmodernist. In the final analysis, we have more in common with the preChristian, who worshipped false gods, than the post Christian who worships nothing. A divorcee does not revert to virginity.
That this is a fuller realisation of the naturalism that festered in my day in undeniable. The Naturalist said "all ideas of good and evil are hallucinations which we have been conditioned to feel." They were delighted to say this but in my day most Naturalists were inconsistent in sticking to it. Their "oughts" were irrationally conditioned impulses that have no more claim to truth that a vomit or a yawn.
I find nothing obsolete- supposedly new fundamental ideas nearly always turn out to be old.The dream of mankind's conquest of nature is only Prometheus and Faust secularised. Modernism was only the new Arianism. Determinism is the new astrology. Postmodernism is neutered nihilism. The only radically thing under the sun is the One Man who came from beyond the sun. Therefore I would define postmodernism not as a new age, but actually as a state of being in the death throes of modernism. This is the deconstruction phase of modernism and it is not unlike a wrecking crew's work to condemn the building, proceeding to clear the landscape of an unwanted edifice. To date postmodernism has not constructed a legitimate apology for itself, though its proponents are busy making moral judgments while declaring there is no authentic basis for presuming that anyone can do so. So what will be established in modernism's stead remains to be seem. There lies the basis for my contention that this is the time for Christians to act.
Constructing from Chaos
We who have been raised up in the modern era all have naturalism in our bones - and in this day its assumptions have been twisted and have rushed back upon the collective mind in order to take its ill effects to a new level - a naturalism divorced from logic and values. A cry goes out from academic circles that we must free ourselves from the bondage of the fallacies of modernism. These are the same persons who cry for a study of literature wholly free from philology. I once had doubts that such people existed, but now am convinced that they do and that they are resolved upon a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion. They lust to read their own meanings into any narrative and to thus execute what has come to be known as the metanarrative. What began with verbicide has to end in linguicide- the murder of language- and with it all hermeneutical principles by which meaning is conveyed.
We first saw the realization of this in the ascendancy of the "new hermeneutic" on the continent. What was purported to be a deeper grasp of interpretation (verstehen) ends not in a more comprehensive hermeneutic, but rather one devoid of meaning at its logicus terminus. Where at first traditional hermeneutics were to be retained as they functioned in special cases, but were soon cast off altogether. The distinction between scientific and non scientific thought has led to a dichotomy in epistemology, The proper distinctions have always been and must remain the difference in logical and non logical thought.
The new hermeneutic has thrived for half
a century and in drawing upon the defaulted promissory note of
modernism has spent itself into bankruptcy. In looking for the
core of meaning, the beauty of truth is cast off and trampled
underfoot. In so restricting its understanding of the supernatural
it has denied the significance of the narrative of the prophetic
literature and retreated into Marcionism. It is haunted by the
ghost of subjectivism. Turning propositional veracities into existential
communications turns informations into insignificant musings with
no basis in reality. While "Truth is truth to the'end of
reck'ning", we have seen the demise of "reck'ning"
on the grand scale. Men still apply a means and end pattern to
the universe- because it doesn't suit our purposes, we call it
futile or irrelevant.
The Premodern Benefits of the Postmodern Milieu
It is important to realize before engaging the current philosophical milieu that there is a syncretistic value attached to the current heresies. There can be no escape from making moral judgments. No man has yet lived a deconstructed life- though some have perished in the attempt. This is where the reality of how a man must needs live can become the point of departure for an apologetic. There are some things on which we can agree with the postmodern dystopians.
No one stands outside the historical process. Our age is not now nor has there ever been an objective platform from which we can see either it or previous ages objectively. We are all raised as moderns, rebels bound to reject the past. Now modernism itself is our past. Our anachronisms hold no positive past but only a negated present. We cannot revert to the premodern. The modern project that attacked the Middle Ages attacked the authorities of the Middle ages. Medieval man was a codifier, a builder of systems. Distinction and definition were his delight.The Model of the Universe that the Middle ages produced has not been destroyed, but has been rendered irrelevant by the Enlightenment. That Model had two significant features- the admirable design of `significant form" and the manifestation of the good wisdom that produced it. The only difficulty was in making the adequate response to its perfection. Modernism succeeded in overthrowing this view of the universe. It replaced it with no coherent view at all, thus giving rise to what is coming to be known as postmodernism. The postmodern project then, is the overthrow of Enlightenment Rationality.
In Modernism man stands at a threshold beyond which the view is lost in obscurity. In premodern thought he stands at the edge of a vista whose horizon is invisible with light. The idea of the perfect being prerequisite to the imperfect was common ground to all ancient and medieval thinkers. The radical difference that the modern view upheld left no area of consciousness unaffected.Postmoderns are as guilty of chronological snobbery as the moderns were. Chesterton said, "If you marry the spirit of the times you will soon be a widow."
The use of the word premodern requires a definition.To define is to run the risk of becoming reductionist in the handling of complexities.( I pray I shall not be called to account on this issue.) So I will declare here my intention to speak in generalities, (my disclaimer). It is premodern to seek beyond rational knowledge for the meaning of the universe. It is modern to hold all knowledge in the strict structures of human rationality (with or without Authority) but blended with a distinct antinomianism, and it is postmodern to see the impossibility of such knowledge. On this the premodern and postmodern agree.
Medievals, including Maimonides and Aquinas share certain philosophical ideas with postmodern thinkers. Medieval neoplatonists share certain tenets with critic of systematic rationality. The medieval thinker said that without God there would be no knowledge. Postmoderns agree. Without God (which they claim is the actuality) there is no purpose or knowledge. Epistemological inquiry is therefore meaningless. The supposition that man can hold knowledge without God was a temporary anomaly in the history of thought. I find myself in agreement with those who disagree with the prevailing philosophy of history-progressivism, or universal evolutionism. Even accidental change for the better did not happen in the last few centuries. I refuse to idealize the century I lived in. The common rhetoric that accompanies the demeaning of permanence is something to be derided- the infusion of the pejorative in words that describe permanence reached its pinnacle in the twentieth century. The acquisition of materials we have never had rather than the preservation of those we already have has come to be the raison d'etre for life itself.We are victims of our own metaphors. Love is not dishonored by constancy. Progress is only realized by those who ignore the zeitgeist and simply tell the truth.
As the Admirable Doctor Bacon has said, there are four chief obstacles in grasping truth, namely, submission to faulty and unworthy authority, influence of custom, popular prejudice, and concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by an ostentatious display of our own knowledge. I would posit that the net effect of this submission is a necessary banishment of reason to the hinterlands of one's mind. The ascertained nature of any real thing is initially a nuisance to our natural fantasies. "Don't confuse me with facts, I've made up my mind is a far more prevalent attitude than we like to think."
I have written at a previous juncture that I forsaw then the growth of a new race of readers and critics to whom, from the very outset, good literature will be an accomplishment rather than a delight. For them, a good critic will be, as the theologians say, essentially a "twice born" critic, one who is regenerate and washed from his Original Taste. They will have no conception, because they have no experience, of spontaneous delight in excellence.They divorce principles and facts, a priori knowledge from empirical evidences. Principles without facts are empty but facts without principles are blind.
Of course language is not an infallible guide, but it contains with all its defects, a good deal of insight and experience. Language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate. The real objection lies in language that masquerades whether by plain hypocrisy or plain deceit as being something else. This is the deconstructionist's problem with scientific language. Yet to be incommunicable by Scientific language is as far as I can judge, the normal state of experience. The very essence of our life as conscious beings cannot be communicated by such language.But dyslogistic and logistic terms will have lost their meaning when tastes are the final measure of meaning. I am prepared to believe that an unintelligible painting bears the marks of excellence if all its admirers exposit upon its excellence, but when one tells me that it is one thing and another tells me that it is quite something else, I must give it up. Truth is always about something, but reality is that about which truth is. Christianity has nothing to gain by listening to antirealists.
However, the antirealist can still serve the Christian community . Their quest is to dethrone certain idolatries of Western modernity, i.e . universal reason. Universal reason was a good idea gone sour because it failed to take into acccount the fallen nature of human cognitive processes. It does not acknowledge man's fundamental brokenness. The anitrealist has his own idols he wishes to set up in the place of those he topples, however, and the Christian must realise that the idol of autonomy is as dangerous as the idol of universal reason.
Reclaiming Solid Objectivity
This then is the advent of the AntiAthens.
The biggest liability with this new Aereopagan audience is not
lack of sufficient evidence so much as our quaint notion that
evidence matters-this is the scandalon of objectivity.
The ceremonies of suspicion, the propensity for doubting all for
the sake of doubting, has made tremendous inroads into the church
in our day. Our training since Descartes has made it easier to
fall into a postmodern denial of knowledge than climbing to a
non modern BELIEF.
Three hundred years of attack have created in believers an attitude against any "progressive " philosophy. We should not become entangled in the defence of modernity. The postmodern attack on modernity is right. Without God the will to power is the only Authority. Modernism was the attempt to destroy the claims of the mediaeval church in order to put its truth claims at the centre of human activity. But early on, its voracious appetite for rebellion devolved into a reaction against being itself. As early as Bishop Berkeley the view that only perceptions exist found its root in the Church of England. When Dr. Johnson kicked the rock to refute Berkeley, he was also serving notice to Descartes and the modern world. In the same way, the reality of the chaos and destructiveness of the presence of real and objective sin in the world can only be pointed to from a platform of moral law. The world still needs Divine law and presupposes its existence even in its most avaricious denouncements of it. It is a necessary construct for life itself.
We moderns have lost the solid objectivity of the high universal, especially Truth and Goodness and of the low particulars- the concrete world. They have been cooked into oblivion in a sociological, psychological, ideological, political stew that is unpalatable.We have seen the elevation of technological knowledge over knowledge of the truth for its own sake or for praxis. This is exactly upside down. We have changed from a desire to conforming the soul to reality to conforming reality to the soul. A necessary corollary change is a change in the concept of reality- naturalism which replaced supernaturalism in modernism is divested of meaning in the postmodern milieu. We are left with a philosophical world that is tohu a vohu- the state it was in before the logos imposed itself upon it. We must never cease to presuppose the doctrine of objective values, for whenever one of two values is really greater than the other, then if someone upsets the hierarchy, both values are lost. If you have no values worth dying for, you WILL die. If you have nothing worth living for beyond mere living, you will not live. We must care about the summum bonum lest we die. In the absence of bright mysteries, dark mysteries will be made manifest.
We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. Indeed we must insist that while myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. Truth Incarnate realizes itself today through the active presence in the Church- it is in the subjective reality of the life of the body that the objective Truth wills and does. When we meet the idea of truth in a myth we are prepared to become enamoured of it- to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp though I could not define it. Our doctrines are translations into our concepts and ideas what God has expressed in the incarnation in space and time. As the earliest converts were quickened by a single historical fact- the resurrection and a single historical doctrine- the redemption operating on the sense of sin that dwelt within them. That is the old way and the new. Vincit omnia veritas.
Aquinas included in the Summa his Five Ways. Modernism took this attempt as five separable attempts to prove the existence of God. We KNOW the existence of God cannot be proven. If it could, apologetics would be off to the races. Aquinas purpose was to move us through thought into the unknowable, not to settle us on proofs (a modern premise) , but to move us towards God. We must resume faith's interrupted search for understanding. With "indeterminacy" the mode of the times, the fate of our culture is as yet undecided. We should not presuppose that men have been rendered incapable of volition, merely that while the abstraction of things known has increased the more bankrupt the concept of the REAL has become. A vague feeling of confused indifference is the most easily recognisable symptom. this makes our task a most needful, if unenviable one.
A Personal Apologetic for an Impersonal World
Theologians have spent the years since the Enlightenment perfecting an apologetic that could deal with a set of challenges that have come to be known as Modernism. While it mutated from Enlightenment's rationalism to sceptical empiricism to atheistic existentialism to hedonistic relativism, they could all be fairly easily diagnosed as different strains of the same disease. The earlier forms held that objective truth was knowable and known to be incompatible with Christian theism. The latter ones may have held that objective truth is unknowable, but they at least could understand that it would be a nice thing if it were knowable. So apologetics could focus on the task of showing that Christianity was true, with the possibility of having to demonstrate first that such knowledge could in fact be available. And they finally got to the place where they could do a pretty good job of it, only to discover that nobody cared any more.
What is the task of the compassionate apologist in this time of deconstructed narrative? We must contend for the relativity of knowledge and experience but the objectivity of Truth. Truth is the way things are in God's reality. The form or the style of presentation, rather than the content of truth, may need to be changed. The working out of that WORD which the prophet called "a fire in the bones" is the witness to this Truth. This would mean, for example, that instead of a propositional presentation what would be done is to make a narrative approach, not in the hermeneutical or heuristic but in the communicational sense of "narrative." This will have to be the beginning of the conversation, to enable us to cross the bridge to where the postmodernist lives. We should acknowledge that all knowers, ourselves included, are to some extent historically and socially conditioned. From that narrative testimony to the evidence, a real life communication of the gospel is possible.
We must reiterate and understand fully that once the postmodern has deconstructed modern truth, a void remains. It is not possible to live on such a basis.We must never write off individuals or societies in such a state of need. The problem with deconstructed thinkers is not that they do not believe enough, but that they believe too much, more than they really are entitled to believe, on their premises.They live far above their privilege, and soon their inheritance will be squandered. The rational reality of the Word of God as seen in the resurrection of Christ is still the foundation today that so many long for. From that foundation all Truth flows.
Deconstructionists still, for the most part, long to be understood. They do not want their ideas misrepresented. Because we have the truth, the absolute truth as revealed by God, we may be tempted to feel that we ought simply tell people that, and there is no point in listening to their errors. But the way to respond to the authoritarianism of some deconstructionists is not to be similarly dogmatic. I have thought in just the past few weeks that perhaps we need to take a new look at the apologetic approach of personal involvement. On the basis of relationship, one can push such a person to the end of his or her view, to live out consistently that position, believing that no one could actually live on the basis of such a view. I believe that we may need to help the deconstructionist to "hit bottom," like an alcoholic, before there will be any significant sense of need to move beyond that approach.
We can use true to life analogies to express the unliveability of postmodernism in its deconstructive mode. Here concrete language, stories, imagery, illustrations, are invaluable (as narrative theologians have rightly argued). There are those who have trouble believing that our language (understood in a critical realist sense) describes a real world. Our task is to show that critical realism matters. Homiletical skills must be married to apologetical ones, realising the innate power of illustrations and story. Though concrete illustrations are critical, we should not abandon a vigorous use of abstract and conceptual modes of discourse in a total acquiescence to narrativism. Stories are extraordinarily powerful, but deceptively ambiguous. Even Jesus' parables often left his audiences scratching their heads. The role of the Scriptures and scriptural interpretation is to provide us with a general understanding of God and to inspire and cultivate a corresponding faith. The power of stories to generate life-changing faith on their own is much overestimated today.
Apologetics expresses absolute truth through relative modes of thought (the "treasure in earthen vessels"). Now more than ever, given the postmodern pluralism we live in, apologetics is a personal matter, not merely an intellectual one. We should defend the faith to particular persons (not to pure, disembodied minds) using concrete analogies and narratives. In an era where postmodern experientialism is prominent, effective apologists can highlight the contrast between postmodernism's downward spiral into deconstructed despair and the genuine joy and love that God nurtures in the context of covenantal relationships within God's Kingdom.
The great principle elucidated by my friend Charles Williams- the principle of substitutionary exchange- my life for yours, spreads out from the cross of Christ like fire- it is the reality by which the universe has always operated, and the call upon us today has not changed. Our lives can thus become our greatest and most effective apologetic. "The altar from heaven must often be built in one place so that the fire from heaven can come down in another."