The following is Part 10 of an open letter to Colonel Vaughn Doner and a critique of his 2012 book, Christian Jihad: Neo-Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America. Throughout the series, I address Colonel Doner in the second person, “you.” This book review is part of a series examining Christian Postmodernism.
Dear Colonel Doner,
Only Christianity is rational. Jesus Christ the Living Word (or the LOGOS) is the unifying principle of all human knowledge and the basis for all rational thought. Christianity does not deny scientific and rational thought. All philosophy up until the time of Immanuel Kant was rational in nature. Western philosophy had been divided into two groups — Christian and Greek pagan. But both groups were looking for a “unifying principle” that would unite the study of both the seen material world and the unseen spiritual world. To Christians, this unifying principle was Christ, since the LOGOS was both a linguistic (Biblical literature) and logical (the God-man Jesus Christ as a real historical teacher) answer to the problem of the natural/spiritual dichotomy.
When Immanuel Kant wrote Critique of Pure Reason, he rejected the idea that there can be a principle that unites all fields of knowledge. He was actually arguing for an “irrational” system that tells us that we must forever accept a total dichotomy between the visible and invisible worlds. Modern philosophy and liberal theology now sees the two worlds (the noumenal world and the phenomenal world) as two airtight compartments. If the spiritual world exists, we cannot know anything about it through rational thought according to Kant.
Georg Hegel came along soon after and proposed that all truth is a synthesis between thesis and antithesis. That is, there are no objective truths, just what we end up agreeing upon after argument and debate. In fact, we make up new truths in the process. Thus Kant and Hegel together ended up creating an irrational basis for human philosophy that can never explain how the universe fits together as a whole. Even in the world of science, history, education, literature, and politics, people now see a divided universe that exists in many small compartments, but cannot be understood as a whole. People seek to understand the “many” while denying the “one.”
Unfortunately, these ideas did have dire consequences. Hegel has affected every aspect of Western culture, including politics. In fact, Adolf Hitler was simply echoing Hegelian thought when he said:
Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.… How fortunate for leaders that men do not think…. The great masses of the people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one.
In other words, the “lie” becomes the new “truth” if most people will just believe it. What Kant and Hegel did was to crack open the door to irrational thought in the form of existentialism and postmodernism. Now most people don’t think in such heady terms. Most Americans may have never heard of philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Very few have read any of their works unless it has been (as in my case) in a philosophy survey course or book. Nevertheless, these philosophers set down the underpinning for much of the modern university system. Therefore, any educated American has been influenced. In fact, we are already well down the slippery slope to irrational philosophy even though we don’t realize it. Or as Lewis Carroll wrote:
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
The modern reliance on a Kantian, Hegelian dualistic view of the universe that excludes what we cannot measure scientifically as irrational is indeed in itself “irrational.” The modern skeptic has gone so far down the rabbit hole of existentialism, that he doesn’t even understand the irrationality of Kantian and Hegelian thought. In the long run, his position isn’t a philosophical or religious problem at all. It’s a moral problem fueled by irrational passions.
The Centuries Old Culture War
The last section of your book deals with the fact that there are both “secular fundamentalists” and “Christian fundamentalists” who are driving either end of the culture war. You worry that this could turn into a real civil war. My initial reaction to this is that this is just the nature of politics. Look at how the British Parliament members as a matter of custom try to shout each other down. Or watch a few videos of the fist-fights that have become the norm in Ukraine’s parliament. In comparison, the “lively debate” by some of America’s political pundits on cable news seems quite tame.
Americans have less patience for rancor and scandal in politics than other nationalities. We are less prone to judge a candidate based on their personal morality even when the media uses scandal to try to destroy a political candidate. Even in the supposedly repressed days of Victorian morality, there was one instance that illustrates this well. According to a book by Allan Nevins:
During the 1884 presidential campaign, a disreputable newspaper in Buffalo, NY published allegations that [Grover] Cleveland fathered an illegitimate son with a 36-year-old widow, Maria Halpin, in 1874. Cleveland was never sure the child was his. But because he could not be sure the child was not his, he did the honorable thing and “consented to make provision for the child.”
Halpin claimed Cleveland had raped her, but Cleveland’s campaign staff spun the story to suggest that Halpin was an alcoholic who carried on affairs with married men and the only reason that Cleveland took the responsibility for the presidency was that he was the only bachelor among her men. Although the Cleveland’s opponents used the affair to smear him, the Democratic nominee easily won the election due to what many historians today think was a cover-up.
Forget Arnold Schwarzenegger or John Edwards. This was the worst sex scandal in U.S. history. America survived it. America also survived a Civil War, a Great Depression, Two World Wars and the Cold War. We will survive the current “culture war” too, which is a blip on the radar screen if you would honestly consider America’s past divisions.
Having said that, I agree with your concerns, but I am on the other side of the fence. I don’t believe that conciliatory postmodernism can possibly be the answer to resolving the conflicts in our culture.
The New Atheism and Postmodernism
In the last few years, I’ve had many interactions with New Atheists on the Internet in response to a video series I produced, called The Real Jesus. As a result, I’ve become more concerned about postmodernism in our culture, but especially in the church. Much of what the “Christian” postmodernists say sounds perfectly reasonable on the surface when I agree with their conclusions. However, when I analyze their thinking on what I disagree with, I find a lot of empty platitudes that are absolutely nonsensical when I break them down. The sad thing is that some intelligent people have gotten pulled into this cultural train wreck in progress.
The first time I ever used the word “postmodern” was in my first feature article for The Forerunner in 1989 about America’s excessive fascination with movie superheroes. At the time, I gave a spiritual explanation for this phenomenon and tied it to the rising problem of violence in America, but I used postmodern in the sense of “futuristic.”
By 2012, our culture has gone so far down the postmodernist rabbit hole that it has become possible for an intelligent person to live in a fantasy world in which he became the Joker and innocent movie-goers became his victims in a mass shooting incident.
It wasn’t until in 1993, when I was living across the street from an abortion clinic in Melbourne, Florida, a friend of mine, a pastor of a Reformed Church, was the first person who defined the term “postmodernist” for me. He mentioned that he liked to watch the reality shows on MTV because they were a good study on how many young people think that there are no absolutes.
In recent years, I began to notice that many of the comments on my YouTube videos from the New Atheists were thoroughly postmodern. They seemed to repeat the same inane banalities. I found myself responding to the same fallacies over and over again. It was as though none of these teenage and twenty-something postmodernists ever had an original thought in their heads.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses delivers a message to the children of Israel recounting the covenant and the oath that the Lord had made with them. He then reminds them:
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).
This is the essential difference between traditional Enlightenment skepticism and the New Atheism. The former at least tries to delineate between what is knowable by science and reason and what is unknowable – much like the delineation that Moses makes between Divine revelation and hidden truth. The New Atheists begin with the premise that “absence of evidence is evidence of absence” – “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs” – and “the burden of proof always lies on a person making an extraordinary claim.”
This has been called pseudo-skepticism or pseudo-intellectualism simply because making negative claims without also bearing the burden of proof of those claims isn’t really a valid counter-argument. A person denying a positive claim is actually making a claim in the negative. Further, the term “extraordinary” is totally subjective. For instance, I may think that there is nothing except evidence for the existence of God. Therefore, atheism is an extraordinary claim and theism is perfectly reasonable.
The New Atheists also use a tactic that has been called “hurling the elephant.” That means that they will come with a long list of objections that they have compiled from somewhere else – a list so long that the sheer mass would discourage thorough answers to each point. It occurred to me that these people were not really interested in dialog or truth. They were interested in using words as weapons. Further, they were not willing to engage in a reasonable response or rebuttal, but would simply move on to another objection they had culled from yet another secondary source.
Their heroes, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other atheist polemicists, are not really interested in proving that God does not exist. Dawkins, for instance, makes the claim that the “God-hypothesis” is a scientific hypothesis and proposes that God cannot be proved by the standards of modern science. Lack of “scientific” proof for God becomes a proof for atheism. It doesn’t occur to him that an essentially supernatural being cannot be measured using a naturalistic standard. Such a standard would be akin in natural science to claiming that since an earthquake that cannot be measured on the Richter scale with a barometer, earthquakes do not exist.
This is not traditional modernism, which lends itself to either the belief in no God or the skeptical stance of agnosticism. The atheist makes the claim that he can know there is no God using the sum of his knowledge. However, this is an extraordinarily arrogant claim given that one cannot know everything there is to know. Therefore, God may always exist outside the limits of the atheist’s knowledge. The agnostic tries to solve this problem by claiming he “knows that he cannot know.” But here too, he is making an absolute claim that one know for sure that he cannot know God exists. The only rational position to take in relation to the existence of God is either that of a theist or a seeker after truth.
The New Atheists do exactly the opposite. Hitchens for instance, did not describe himself as an atheist, but rather an “anti-theist.” He lived his life hoping there was no God and that when he died he would be dead and gone forever. Hitchens went as far as to write a parting screed when he found out he had terminal cancer. He denied ahead of time any “death bed conversion.” I recently saw a comment by a New Atheist who said, “Then that’s what I am, an anti-theist. Not only have I said there is no god, but if there were, I would try to kill him after I die.”
I came to see that the New Atheism is not rational, but based on emotional response and was in fact a form of postmodernism. Then I asked a friend who wrote an excellent response to one of these comments to recommend some books for me to understand postmodernism. His response was so good that I edited it into an article, which I’ve included as Appendix 2 of this book. I’ve used his explanation as a kind of blueprint in my responses to postmodernist blatherings ever since.
The Impossibility of Pluralism
Your prescription to end the rancor of the culture wars is “pluralism.” It is ironic to me because the Christian Reconstructionists we have both known have spent a great deal of time refuting the idea of total latitudinarian pluralism. While it is true that we can have a great deal of tolerance for opposing ideas and beliefs, it is simply impossible to use pluralism as a guiding ethic for civil polity. The very nature of law and government proposes that one side wins and the other loses. Civil representatives decide which laws we will follow. Laws define what is criminal and what is legal.
So while pluralism can hold true for the specific beliefs and values of individuals, it cannot be the foundation for a culture. For example, a Christian might believe that marriage is between one man and one woman, while a secularist might believe that homosexuals have the right to be married. Both sides certainly have the right to hold their private beliefs, but the civil polity cannot be both at the same time. Marriage is either going to be defined as one man and one woman or it will be expanded to include same sex unions.
The same is true of the abortion issue. A pro-life advocate believes abortion is the murder of an unborn child, while an abortion rights advocate believes that it is a matter of choice for a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Again, no one is suggesting that people should be forced to believe a certain way, but we can’t have a law that says that a human being is a person with the right to life from biological beginnings, while also saying that it is a women’s right to choose abortion for any reason.
As Harvey Cox said, “Not to decide is to decide.” The pro-abortion taunt of “If you are against abortion, then don’t have one!” works only if abortion is legal in all cases. There is no pluralism when the “right to abortion” is legal under any circumstance. There is no pluralism when abortion is illegal in either all or most cases. Pluralism, just like its twin sister, neutrality, is a myth. But why can’t we all just get along? It sounds wonderful, but it is impossible in the real world.
I think, therefore I am … or do I?
You lay a lot of blame at the feet of René Descartes as the culprit who laid the foundation of modern rationalism. In part, I agree with you. There is actually a common ground between Christianity and postmodernism in that both reject certainty based on human knowledge. Christianity does not teach certainty about everything, but only about things that are revealed in the written Word of God.
Here is the key to understanding how postmodernism is separated from Christian rationalism. We cannot arrive at all truth through human reason. God has revealed the truth that we need to know in His unchanging Word. While our understanding of truth will always be limited, the Word of God itself tells us that some truth is given to us.
René Descartes, wanted to completely abolish the Greek philosophical worldview, which relied on premises that were unprovable. Descartes proposed a universal picture of the world, based on human reasoning and mathematical proofs. However, Descartes taught only the necessity of reason. Truth can be understood through the existence of natural revelation, natural law and the rational thought. That is consistent with a biblical worldview. Protestants of the Enlightenment era, including the marginally orthodox John Locke and David Hume, recognized that God and Truth were revealed in nature. They believed that the character of God could be understood through both natural law and biblical law. Locke and Hume argued that since man was created in God’s image, man was able to grasp biblical truth through human reason. Deism took the argument a step further and proposed that natural revelation was the only standard and denied the necessity of the Bible altogether.
Thus the necessity of reason gave way to the sufficiency of reason. There is a world of difference. Deism then became a broad term use to describe the group of Enlightenment era philosophers – from Locke and Hume, who were orthodox in the central tenets of the Christian faith – to François Voltaire and Thomas Paine, who were openly hostile to Christianity. This led us to the modernist philosophy, which came to dominate much Western thinking.
Darwin’s “Horrid Doubt”
The fallacy of philosophical systems, such as rationalism or existentialism, is bound up in the feigned existence of human autonomy. If human beings are autonomous, then they have no Creator to which they are accountable. If human beings are products of chance, then there is no possibility of knowing anything to be true. Charles Darwin recognized this problem when he wrote in a letter:
The horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? (Darwin).
Indeed if we are just protoplasm wandering aimlessly through the void, then all this talk about truth and certainty at best is just a coping mechanism for our survival. At worst it is an illusion. But there is a great truth in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. The fact that we can communicate with each other as beings possessing individual consciousness indicates that we are not mere protoplasm. There is some type of universal natural law that is immutable and inerrant that allows us to posit the certainty of our existence. There is some type of transcendent idea or truth that drives our ability to self-consciously communicate with each other. The problem is that the starting point can never be provable. It must be a self-evident given.
All logic is based on the idea that a true premise must first be presupposed in order to for an argument to be built upon and draw a conclusion. That’s Philosophy 101. However, a “true” premise based on human philosophy implies the sufficiency of human reason. One may attempt to remedy that by proving a premise through an additional line of argumentation. Yet these arguments will be supported by equally unprovable premises. A true premise implies that one has either consciously or unconsciously arrived at a foregone conclusion. Therefore, circular reasoning is inescapable. Furthermore, this is always the reasoning of an imperfect mind.
A true premise that originates with a transcendent source is another matter. If we could somehow know something to be true without having to prove it, then we would have the basis to build a reasonable argument. Our thinking even then might still go askew, but at least we would have a sure foundation.