Postmodernism: An Immoral, Coward’s Way Out

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J. P. Moreland, in an article he wrote in 2005 titled, “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn,” argues that postmodernism “is an immoral, coward’s way out that is not worthy of a movement born out of the martyrs’ blood.”  You can find Moreland’s full article here.  I’ve included a summary of the article below, followed by my response.

J. P. Moreland is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of TheologyBiola University in La Mirada, California. He has four earned degrees: a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Missouri, a Th.M. in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M. A. in philosophy from the University of California-Riverside, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Southern California.

Moreland, J. P. “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn.”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (2005), 77-88.

Postmodernism has changed previous “self-evident truths” to “socially constructed truths within a linguistic community.”  Postmodernists have rejected that human knowledge can correspond with creation.  J. P. Moreland, on the other hand, believes man’s interpretation of the world is accurate concerning how the world really is.  The purpose of this article is to present the correspondence theory and the postmodern rejection, and then to identify five confusions of which Moreland believes postmodern revisionists are guilty.

The correspondence theory of truth basically argues that truth is obtained when a truth bearer stands in appropriate correspondence relation to a truth maker.  Furthermore, propositions are either true or false, and are expressed in sentence(s).  Facts inform these truth claims.  Facts, that is, relevant facts, make propositions true.  Thus, correspondence is a two-placed relation between a proposition and a relevant fact that matches, conforms to, and corresponds with the proposition.  As individuals are placed within this correspondence relationship, they experience truth.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, argues for cultural relativism concerning reality, truth, reason, value, linguistic meaning, the self, etc.  Everything that each human “knows” is a result of his or her social constructions instead of due to objective truth.  The postmodern concern is that those who claim to have objective truth victimize those who do not have this objective truth.

Moreland believes there are five confusions that plague postmodernism.  First, correspondence theory is a realist metaphysical thesis, not a result of Cartesian anxiety and the pursuit of absolute truth, as purported by Postmodernists. Truth only needs as much epistemic strength as the subject matter demands.  Second, there are two forms of objectivity: psychological objectivity and rational objectivity.  With psychological objectivity, neutrality is possible; while with rational objectivity, neutrality is impossible, but one can still make a rational decision based on reasonable evidence.  Third, most postmodernists do not consider modest foundationalism—the dominant foundationalist position today—when critiquing foundationalism.  This is significant since modest foundationalism answers the same concerns postmodernists raise against classic foundationalism without inevitably leading to the cultural relativism of postmodernism.  Fourth, language only corresponds to truth.  It does not make something true.  Therefore, the postmodernist attacks a straw man when he or she eliminates truth on the basis of the inadequacy of language to communicate truth.  Fifth, the notion that humans are trapped behind a framework that makes direct seeing impossible is self-refuting.  If humans are trapped behind their communities, languages, etc. concerning their perception of the world, then all human thinking tells humans nothing.

In conclusion, postmodernism is a form of intellectual apathy.  It is an easy, cowardly way to remove the Christian responsibility to stand up for truth in a world of error.  Postmodernism is irresponsible, and it concedes defeat before the first shot is fired in the Christian war for truth. It “is an immoral, coward’s way out that is not worthy of a movement born out of the martyrs’ blood.”

Response

I think that J. P. Moreland’s critiques of postmodernism are very helpful.  First, I appreciate his point that if all knowledge is reduced to perspectival assumptions as postmodernists claim, then all knowledge is neither right nor wrong since knowledge only expresses one’s social-historical context.  The inevitable result of such postmodern thinking is relativism and a moral free-for-all.  If postmodernists protest, readers must ask, “Why?”  If there are no metanarratives, then there are no metanarratives that can be used to justify oppression, but there are also no metanarratives that can be used to save the oppressed.

Second, I appreciate Moreland’s point that postmodernists mistakenly conflate all forms of foundationalism into the most extreme Cartesian foundationalism or classic foundationalism.  Postmodernists do not even consider modest foundationalism in their critiques, which is unfortunate, since modest foundationalism answers most postmodernists’ concerns without succumbing to cultural relativism or nominal doctrines.  Among contemporary epistemologists, modest foundationalism in some form is the dominant position today.  Modest foundationalism holds that the ground of belief is devoid of Cartesian anxiety; nevertheless, it is properly basic, truth-conducive, and subject to being shown as false by subsequent evidence.

Third, I appreciate Moreland’s point about postmodernists building up and tearing down a straw man when they argue that there is no objective truth due to language being inadequate.  Language corresponds to truth and communicates truth, but language is not truth.  Language is only as true as its relation to truth.  Since the Scriptures are divinely inspired, and since Christians are divinely illuminated, the Bible possesses objective truth, and we may understand this truth objectively.

This article was originally posted at my site. Only some of my articles are posted on SBC Voices. If you would like access to all of my articles, you can follow my feed here. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Comments

  1. says

    So. Just to bring up a dead horse as an illustration that there is something to be learned from postmodernism without fully embracing it, i.e. that “morality” can be a social construct in some circumstances, let me ask this: Is it OK for me to drink alcohol as a beverage?

    More important than getting a yes/no answer to the question is the basis for the proposed answer. It will go to social context, not moral absolutes. Unless it is a moral absolute about the social context, i.e. it would be fine in these circumstances but wrong in those circumstances. Most poignantly, Paul’s advice to Timothy was OK “under the circumstances” and that makes for a socially constructed framework. I don’t know many Baptist churches that would agree with me taking “a little wine for my stomach’s sake.”

    And just to make the point clear. I am NOT interested in answering the question of whether alcohol consumption is right or wrong. I AM interested in how one arrives at an answer. And an application. There are plenty of Baptists who would agree that alcohol consumption is not a moral prohibition but they still aren’t going to do it due to cultural or sociological constraints. Which I believe is the point. We take a relativistic approach when it suits us and say, “It’s fine here but not there.”

    Or if that is too much of a hot-button issue, let’s look at Baptist polity and the phenomenon of divorce and remarriage. And just to add fuel to the fire, what about missionaries to polygamous countries? Yes, I know, tired old arguments. But once again, not interested in settling the “issue” but more interested in the basis for the positions.

    Bottom line, I’m afraid we will find that we are already a lot more postmodern than we would like to think.

      • Blake says

        You’re oversimplifying Jared. The Bible is AN objective truth that can be understood objectively. In that respect it is no different than any other object or idea we may encounter. Whether or not the Bible is THE objective truth for everyone and can be understood objectively by everyone is a matter of faith. Faith is not objective. Faith allows me to trust the Bible is objectively true for everyone and can be objectively known. [Tangentially, it’s annoying how Christians, even Southern Baptists on this blog, can be so ready to assign particular contradictory interpretations of scripture to the realm of opinion rather than engage the arguments and evidence (sounds like we, too, are more postmodern than we think).] However, the end result is that objective truth still must navigate a subjective medium (the individual). The Biola School argues past “postmodern” Christians because they aren’t addressing the same thing the postmodernists are.

        • says

          Blake,

          A Christian’s faith is not subjective. A Christian’s faith is based on the objective reality of Jesus Christ. Granted, the target of one’s faith may be subjective in that it is based solely on feelings, but that type of faith has no real foundation.

          • Blake says

            Mark, I’m not sure you know what objectivity is. Your faith is not objective. If it were I could describe it to you. It is not an external reality clear to all who encounter it. Similarly, Jesus is not objectively real. If he were there would be only one Church with one confession and there would not be unbelief in the world. Christ is not an external reality observable to anyone and everyone on a whim. He will become that when He returns, but until then we’ve got to deal with the current mess we find ourselves in spiritually, theologically and epistemologically. The objectivity of anything is dependent on its universal verifiability.

          • Frank L. says

            Blake. By your criteria objectivity is an illusion.

            For example by your criteria electrons are subjective because one cannot “describe them for another.”

            I believe Jesus is as “universally verifiable” as any other historically distant phenomenon.

          • says

            Mark, you seriously believe a Christian’s faith is not subjective? A subjective entity is based, in part, on experience. Your argument, if pursued to a logical next step, would conclude that faith, being an objective reality, can be ascertained without actually having a personal experience.

            Objective entities exist independently of human experience.

            The old question “If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound,” is the dividing point. Objectivists say it does. Subjectivists say it doesn’t. (Grossly oversimplified, btw)

            In essence, by putting faith in the realm of the objective, you have relegated it to having an independent existence apart from any human interaction with it. I’m sure you can see how this is self-contradictory.

          • Blake says

            Frank L., objectivity is not an illusion even by the definition I gave, but it is much more illusory than most who cherish it so much tend to recognize. Electrons are not subjective. Any good scientist could explain why they’re not even though they’d probably lose most of us in the nuances of the math and science on the way to proving it. You are right that Jesus is as verifiable as any other historically distant phenomenon and that’s part of my point. Historically distant phenomenon are very hard to verify up to the level of the mythical descriptions we give them in the present. That’s why theology is not a science and should not be treated as such by fundamentalists.

          • Frank L. says

            Blake,

            Math aside, you seem willing to give electrons an objectivity (that many if not most scientists would not in this quantum age), that you do not similarly give to the Bible and theology.

            I suspect your view may have as much to do with your disdain for “fundamentalists” as it does with any lack of objectivity in theology.

            I do not accept your categories that put “science” on one level of objectivity, and “theology” on a lower rung. That is the position that modernism degenerated into, sometimes called “scientism, or scientific naturalism.”

            I do accept that there is a measure of subjectivity in all human understanding that cannot be denied as long as humans are doing the “knowing.”

            Plato dealt with this by developing his idea of “forms.” While our observation of reality may have a degree of subjectivity, the reality (Biblical truth) lying behind our observation is quite “objective.”

            Language, it seems to me, often gets in the way of understanding such concepts. If I am reading you correctly, then I think we are perhaps not on the same page, but at least in the same chapter.

            I agree that many whom you call “fundamentalists” do charge past some of the nuances of theology and are much more “certain” about what they speak than perhaps is always warranted.

          • Blake says

            Frank L.,
            1) I’m not sure what you’re referring to in your comments on electrons. I’m not a scientist, but I can’t imagine the Wikipedia article on electrons would have all the info in it it does if what you’re implying is true. I’m willing to put a stop to that tangent.

            2) Sure, sometimes I disdain fundamentalists because I don’t think they’re very good fundamentalists. However, I suspect I’m actually more of a fundamentalist than anyone on this blog, so you might reconsider what you’re reading into my words.

            3) I did not say there is no objectivity in theology, but compared to science it has far less. Like you said language clouds things as does social-historical context (since that affects language and prejudice towards certain ideas or against others). The problem is that foundationalists and postmodernists can not seem to agree on the amount of influence these things play into the debate. Foundationalists rarely seem to give enough credit to such things and mostly complain that postmodernists give too much credit (and maybe some do, but I don’t think it is any universal symptom of postmodernism).

            Again, I highly recommend Myron Penner’s Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views. It is very accessible and concise and anyone can get an excellent overview of this debate there by some of the best evangelical thinkers around.

          • Frank L. says

            Blake,

            Thank you for your critique.

            I certainly don’t want to take you on a tangent.

            Have a great day.

        • Christiane says

          BLAKE,
          faith goes beyond reason, but it is not a contradiction of reason, or a denial of reason . . .
          God is the Author of Reason, He does not contradict Himself

          • Blake says

            Christiane, you’re highlighting the problem. Whose reason? Which reason? Are we speaking as Christians of like confession or as humans debating the relationship between knowledge and theology? If the former then sure I agree with everything you say, but none of that is of any use or will convince an unbeliever. This is part of the problem and why people keep talking past each other. To the world, all they see is begging the question: “Jesus is objectively real because I have faith that he is real and I can have faith because God is the author of reason.” You have to realize that in most instances this is bad or suspect logic. This is why we have to be very careful when discussing these things.

            Absolutely faith goes beyond reason, does not contradict reason or deny reason since God is the author of reason, but I am not God and am not omniscient and although the Bible may provide clues to what is reasonable from God’s perspective it is not exhaustively spelled out in Scripture (1 Cor. 13:12). Taking such things into consideration, and especially the testimony of scripture itself, we must be very ready to admit that what is reasonable from a faith perspective may appear contradictory from a worldly perspective (indeed Kierkegaard shows there is no other way to understand God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice of Isaac). This should not upset us and it should not bother us when the world is upset by such a position.

      • says

        Jared, with all due respect, that is not the question.

        As an archaeologist, I can believe the Bible is objectively true and that that its truth can not only be understood objectively, but also tested and proven through archaeological activity, investigation, and discovery.

        And that is entirely irrelevant to the reason we have the Bible.

        • says

          Rick, I agree with what you said here. I don’t think you’re a postmodernist though. You’re a soft/modest foundationalist. What you said here, “I can believe the Bible is objectively true and that that its truth can not only be understood objectively, but also tested and proven through archaeological activity, investigation, and discovery” is the same as Moreland’s statement about modest foundationalism: “Modest foundationalism holds that the ground of belief is devoid of Cartesian anxiety; nevertheless, it is properly basic, truth-conducive, and subject to being shown as false by subsequent evidence.”

          • says

            Jared, I make no pretense of being an -ist of any sort. It depends on the domain in which I’m working. When I’m doing science, I like foundationalism, empricism, and modernism. It makes the report writing easier. When I’m doing art, I’m far less sanguine, whether that involves painting, sculpture, cinema, or literature. “The Matrix” is a pomo manifesto that had so many holes and internal contradictions, I couldn’t watch much past the first half of the second one. However, I did find “The Life of Pi” (the book, haven’t seen the movie), fascinating. I would consider it a pomo masterpiece.

            I tend to view ideologies as I do sports. I don’t expect the rules of soccer to apply on the football field or vice versa. If I’m playing in your game, you get to make up the rules, and I’m fine to play along just so long as you don’t try to make your rule apply to someone else’s game and you follow the rules you make up. But when scientists try to tell me why art is beautiful or not and literary rhetoricians try to tell me why scientific truth is a social construct then I tend to get more than a little impatient.

    • John Wylie says

      Rick,

      You assume that all moral relativism is derived from postmodernism, but that is not the case. Paul’s teaching on eating meats sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians is a great example, one could eat such meats but not in the presence of someone who would stumble because of it. Extrapolating the application of those texts to other areas could also be applied even in your alcohol example, where it would be appropriate to drink in some contexts and not appropriate in other contexts. My point is that there are different kinds of moral relativism and it doesn’t require the death of propositional truth.

      • says

        John, go back and read what I wrote, not what you think I meant.

        I never made such an absolutist statement about either postmodernism or relativism. Nor is it a necessary condition for my argument, i.e. I don’t have to make that assumption in order to state what I did.

        You stated that “…it would be appropriate to drink in some contexts and not appropriate in other contexts,” as evidence of a moral relativism based on propositional truth. Good luck getting Baptists to agree with your statement and even better luck getting them to agree to embracing moral relativism based on propositional truth. I wish you all the best with that.

  2. Greg Harvey says

    It is extraordinarily difficult for me to avoid thinking a single word when I read about postmodernism’s claims regarding relative truth: “maya” the Sanskrit word for illusion. It’s a central theme in Hinduism.

    I think at the end of the day we have to remember that there is only one Adversary of Truth. He notably has been called not the Father of Illusion but the Father of Lies.

  3. Blake says

    For any interested, I would very highly recommend reading Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views edited by Myron Penner. It offers a very concise view of the debate surrounding foundationalism and postmodernism through essays and responses by six evangelical thinkers: James K.A. Smith, John Franke, Merold Westphal, Kevin Vanhoozer, Douglas Geivett and R. Scott Smith.

  4. Jess Alford says

    My thoughts on this thread would match up exactely with the Apostle Peter’s thoughts after reading this blog.

  5. says

    At the risk of over-simplifying, our faith rests on historical facts – an objective basis – not on our personal feelings.

    But none of us is completely objective in the way we approach our faith. We all bring our preconceptions and experiences with us into hermenteutics and theology.

    So, the faith is objective, we are not nearly as much so as we would like to think.

    • says

      Dave, when you say our faith is objective, are you speaking about the object of our faith or the act of having faith? I would agree that Jesus Christ, the object of our faith, does exist independently from our experience of him and therefore is an objective reality.

      Where I have trouble is identifying my act of placing my trust in Jesus Christ as personal savior as an object. I cannot see how a personal experience can be anything BUT subjective. And for this reason I believe God comes to us as persons and not as objects.

      Or are you referring to something else altogether different when you say “faith is objective”? Are you saying that faith exists somewhere independently from our experience of it?

      I’m not sure what you mean by saying faith is objective and hope you can clarify.