The following is Part 11 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,
The presuppositionalism of Cornelius Van Til is the antithesis to postmodernism. His arguments against Barthian neo-orthodox theology work against postmodernism just as well. Van Til is the 800-pound gorilla in the room with respect to your book. You mention almost every one of Van Til’s notable heirs, but don’t ever get to the place where you feel it’s necessary to refute presuppositionalism. Maybe you realize Van Til is irrefutable?
Cornelius Van Til proposed that only premises that come from a perfect mind, such as those ideas originating from the Word of God, are trustworthy and reliable. Van Til’s system of apologetics states that the Christian ought not to use rational argument to attempt to prove the truth of God’s Word to non-believers. The Christian ought to start all argumentation with Scripture as a presupposition.
Van Til did not deny that there are rational arguments that prove the validity of the Word of God. On the contrary, nothing exists except proof. Yet human beings always have a problem with comprehending the Word of God as truth. The problem is not philosophical in nature, but rather moral. The problem is that our understanding is clouded by original sin and therefore we have a problem with comprehending the truth.
This way of thinking cuts across the grain of modern rational thought which proposes that one must prove something in order to believe it to be true. However, Van Tillian logic has had many forerunners in the medieval and ancient world.
St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury wrote, “For I seek not to understand in order that I may believe; but I believe in order that I may understand, for I believe for this reason: that unless I believe, I cannot understand.”
This is the opposite of Descartes’ famous maxim, “I think therefore I am.” Rationalists have always wanted to “understand it” or “prove it” in order to believe it. However, Anselm’s statement is undeniably true. All truth is based on certain unprovable presuppositions. We must first have faith in order to know anything. First we believe, then we know and finally we understand. Of course there is a feedback loop in all of this that makes it seem that we understand and then know something as a basis of belief, but in reality faith must always precede every idea that we perceive as true.
For the Christian the starting point is God. For the modernist, the starting point is nature, but eventually he will be led back to Darwin’s “horrid doubt” and slide into existential doubt leading to the malaise of postmodernist uncertainty.
Faith as a starting point does not refute the possibility of rational argument, but only the possibility of rational argument that does not presuppose the existence of God. Faith, in Christian theology, is not a “mental assent,” but a gift from God. We are also told that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). All human thought would be impossible if God does not exist, because then we would know nothing to be true. Or as Edith Schaeffer put it, “It makes sense that there is no sense without God.”
So even the atheist is a theocrat because he unknowingly borrows theological capital in order to disprove God’s existence. First, the atheist must presuppose God to exist in order to argue anything at all to be true – even God’s nonexistence.
Misunderstanding the Paradox
Of course, the way that the existentialist and the postmodernist see this state of affairs is much different. Frank Schaeffer has repeatedly cajoled and criticized Christian “fundamentalists” over the years for “embracing the paradox, which he defines as “admitting the truth of our own limits.” On the contrary, Deuteronomy 29:29 spells out clearly what our limits are in understanding truth. The Apostle Paul in the New Testament then describes clearly why we cannot trust our own understanding. Paul states that in our sinful state we will always “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18-21).
So both postmodernism and Christianity agree that our grasp of truth is corrupted. However, Frank Schaeffer’s definition of “paradox” does not solve the problem. A paradox is a statement that on the surface appears to be contradictory, but when examined more carefully contains a higher truth than either of the two contradictory statements supply. In Zen Buddhism, this is known as “the sound of one hand clapping” question. It is designed to make the student look for an answer from every possible angle and never stop looking for the answer even if it isn’t there.
In Socrates school, there was the paradoxical statement, “I know that I know nothing at all.” This designed to force his students to come to the same conclusion upon which Descartes founded his system of philosophy. The very fact that we know something, even that we know nothing, tells us that not knowing anything to be true is impossible.
Truth can also be derived from Aristotle’s syllogism. There are many propositions that have only a “yes or no” answer. While we should always determine first whether we are making an “either-or” fallacy, we must also realize that mutually exclusive opposites (if it is not A, then it is B) is the basis of all logic. For instance, all computer systems are based only on 1’s and 0’s. If it were not for this reality, then this piece of writing in its current form would not be possible.
So when the secularist makes the charge that Christians are forcing their morality on people, they make a logical fallacy. Even if we don’t know whether God exists with absolute certainty, we know one thing – either God exists, or He does not. There cannot possibly be a universe in which both propositions are equally true. Even in Eastern Monistic religions that teach that reality and truth have higher “planes” in which the rules change (which is also a tenet of Islam, by the way) the children of that culture still learn mathematics and know that 1 plus 1 equals 2. So if God exists as a certainty, then His standards of morality cannot “forced” on others by Christians any more than the law of gravity can be forced on a person who denies that gravity exists.
You suggest that the idea that “when we are right, our opponents must be wrong,” is little more than stimulus-response left over from our “caveman” days, a coping mechanism for survival. This train of thought leads us into a deterministic, behaviorist model that cannot account for everything we do. As Gary DeMar has written:
The Bible teaches that we are basically covenantal creatures, not biological creatures. Our nearest environment is God Himself, and we respond most fundamentally to Him. We respond either in obedience to or rebellion against His Word…. In summary, the ethical consequences of behaviorism are great. Man is stripped of his responsibility, freedom, and dignity, and is reduced to a purely biological being, to be “shaped” by those who are able to use the tools of behaviorism effectively.
What is wrong with Christian postmodernism?
You list a pantheon of postmodern thinkers, such as Rob Bell, Joel Hunter and Brian McLaren, who have jettisoned the “certainties” of modernism and are “calling Christians back to the love, compassion, and humility that Jesus modeled.” This statement is loaded with false presumption.
First, it presupposes that Christians who are certain about moral truth (homosexuality is perversion; abortion is murder; Islam is a lie, etc.) are unloving, while postmodernists who are “not so sure about that” are modeling Jesus’ love, humility and compassion.
Second, it fails to take into account the principle that some moral questions are an “either-or” proposition. Either abortion is always the killing of a person made in the image of God or it is not. Either homosexual behavior is a perverse sin in the eyes of God or it is not. Either Islam is the one true religion or it is not. Simply not taking a position on these questions or claiming that we cannot know for sure is not a response out of love, compassion and humility. On the contrary, it is a strong denial of Christian morality. It is hostility toward Christ himself and destructive to the system of ethics and morals that has sustained our culture.
You then quote several postmodernists who proceed to speak with forked tongues. First, Richard Tarmas tells us that the determinist, modernist worldview was inadequate to explain objective reality.
From Hume and Kant through Darwin, Marx, Freud and beyond, an unsettling conclusion was becoming inescapable: Human thought was determined, structured, and very probably distorted by a multitude of overlapping factors – innate but nonabsolute mental categories, habit, history, culture, social class, biology, language, imagination, emotion, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious. In the end, the human mind could not be relied upon as an accurate judge of reality. The original Cartesian certainty, that which served as foundation for the modern confidence in human reason, was no longer defensible….
Henceforth, philosophy concerned itself largely with the clarification of epistemological problems, with the analysis of language, with the philosophy of science, or with phenomenological and existentialist analyses of human experience. Despite the incongruence of aims and pre-dispositions among the various schools of twentieth-century philosophy, there was general agreement on one crucial point: the impossibility of apprehending an objective cosmic order with the human intelligence. (The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas, Harmony, New York, 1991, pp. 340-353.)
The problem with this statement is that it presumes reality as a transcendent truth to be grasped in the first place before it concludes that such a truth is unknowable. This hearkens back to the Socratic paradox. How is it that we know nothing for certain, if we can state with certainty that we don’t know?
Then you quote another postmodernist theologian, Merold Westphal, who also opines that we can never know truth with certainty.
Because we cannot transcend the limited perspective of our location in time and in cultural history, knowledge can never be truth…. The truth is that there is Truth, but in our finitude and fallenness we do not have access to it. We’ll have to make do with the truths available to us; but that does not mean either that we should deny the reality of Truth or that we should abandon the distinction between truth and falsity. Moreover, the most we should claim for this claim itself is that it is true, that it is the best way for us humans to think about the matter.
This again presumes again a transcendent Truth as opposed to lesser truth, which is a meaningless concept without a source. This is yet another example of a statement that sounds right on the surface and even echoes Moses warning to Israel in Deuteronomy 29:29. While Westphal’s bold statement of “humility” seems profound and wise, when you break down his presupposition that there is an objective Truth that only God can know, the rest of this statement is pure nonsense. Since the very presupposition that such a Truth exists is apparently knowable, it is therefore a self-contradictory train of thought to conclude that we cannot know the “Truth that God only knows.” How does Merold Westphal of all people know that anyway? If we accept that idea, we’ve simply traded one Lawgiver for another. Instead of Moses descending from Mount Sinai, we have Merold from the Bronx.
At least one Van Tillian presuppositionalist, Doug Wilson, has deftly deconstructed Westphal’s error in delineating the difference between “Truth” and “truth.”
A host of questions arise immediately. Presumably, the fact that there is Truth is true, not True. What good does this do us unless we know the relationship between Truth and truth? Is there one? If we say yes, how did we come to know this about the Truth? If we say no, how did we come to know this about the Truth? When we say that we cannot access the Truth, is this True or merely true? If the former, then how did we do that? If the latter, then how confident should we be about it?… So, we don’t have access to the Truth? What do we have access to then? Why do we have to “make do” with truths? Why can’t we preach them, embrace them, love them, declare them dogmatically to an unbelieving world, excommunicate on the basis of them, comfort the afflicted with them? Why the downgrade to “make do?”
Westphal’s notion that God reveals “truth” – but not “Truth” – is a false middle way. It does not actually solve the problem of not knowing Truth with absolute certainty since we cannot really understand the delineation between Truth and truth. Doug Wilson rightly points this out.
When God stoops and reveals truth to us (not Truth), does He expect us to act boldly with these truths, or in a diffident manner because, after all, it is not the Truth? Does God expect us to do very important things in the world on the basis of these truths? Things like declaring war, signing execution papers or papers of pardon, issuing eviction notices, or teaching a classroom full of children? Does the rejection of Truth for humans lead us to wholeheartedly embrace truths? Or do we now look sideways at truth, like a nervous skater, as though the truth were a half-inch of ice on the pond of hubris?
Even the title of Westphal’s book defies common sense, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. Ontotheology is the theology of Being, or specifically as Immanuel Kant coined the term, an apologetic for the existence of God based on the Anselm’s ontological argument. It goes without saying that it is internally inconsistent to claim that Truth exists and simultaneously claim that Truth is not graspable. In understanding the concept of the “big Truth,” the postmodernist agrees that there is a “little truth” in his understanding. Therefore, to “overcome ontotheology” is to argue a little truth claim. Why then is it illogical to argue a big Truth claim?
You can’t handle the Truth!
When we understand that biblically speaking, Jesus Christ is synonymous with Truth and Reason (LOGOS), the ontological argument of Anselm makes perfect sense. When we accept the existence of Truth, we are accepting the existence of God, whether we know accept Him in an intimate sense or not. The existentialist novelist Kurt Vonnegut described this conundrum by using a humorous analogy.
Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.
That is a good analogy of most philosophical discourses on postmodernism. Even the atheist who rails against His creator exists for God’s good pleasure and purposes. This is why I consider “Christian postmodernism” to be an oxymoron. What the Christian postmodernist is actually proposing is a practical atheism. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis describes the attempt of the modern culture to debunk “natural values” that correspond closely to natural law morality that all cultures share in common. Lewis terms this common morality the Tao – a Chinese philosophical term for the “Way.”
This thing which I called for convenience the Tao, and others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitude, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) “ideologies,” all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess…. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.
Postmodernism is an impossibility because is impossible not to be certain about some things. It is absurd to say that we cannot know anything to be certain. No one actually operates a piece of heavy machinery with “uncertainty” as set proposition. Postmodernism does not seek to apply itself to everyday mundane activities such as driving a car or what will happen if I run a red light. In reality, postmodernism is a smokescreen to cover autonomous man’s guile or an escape hatch from moral certainties.
Postmodernism is simply not a mature viewpoint from a moral perspective, but is infantile and narcissistic. It allows us for a brief moment to “become like God knowing both good and evil” (Genesis 3:5) by denying that an objective definition of good and evil even exists. It allows us to subjectively decide where good and evil exists while pretending the impossibility of objectivity. Satan was the original postmodernist in the Garden of Eden, “Did God really say …” (Genesis 3:1) and Pontius Pilate anticipated the arrival of postmodernism in our day by scornfully asking, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) and then washing his hands of the whole affair.
You go on to quote the favorite Gospel verses of postmodernists, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:29) and “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7). These are favorite verses of many postmodernists because taken out of context they seem to make people unaccountable. It is true that Jesus was a friend of sinners, tax collectors, thieves and prostitutes. This is often twisted out of context by postmodernists to conclude: “In fact, the only people Jesus seemed to exclude were the religious leaders of His day.”
Frankly, I am surprised that you use this argument. Proper exegesis of these passages show that far from excusing sin, they force us as believers to call out sin after first making sure that we are not covering own sin in hypocrisy. Jesus had compassion on the sick, but also said, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (John 15:14). Jesus forgave the woman in adultery, but commanded her to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). So it’s a popular fallacy to say that when Christians reprove sin in our perverse and wicked society that we are not showing the love and compassion of Jesus.