The following is Part 13 and the final installment 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. In a few weeks, I’ll be offering the entire postmodernist series as a book that may be ordered in either paperback or in e-book format for download.
Dear Colonel Doner,
I know how postmodernists think because I was one all throughout my college years even though I did not know the term. I was a nominal Christian teenager who slowly became postmodernist through an immersion in liberal academic culture. Eventually, I rejected these values and converted to Christ. Then I began to understand that Christianity was more than just a personal experience of salvation, but included the renewing of the mind through a self-conscious biblical ethic resulting in a total biblical worldview.
In my experience, uncertainty on moral issues led to self-centeredness, isolation and depression. The Gospel, on the other hand calls us to deny ourselves and take up the cross. It is in this crucifixion of our sinful desires that we experience true joy. Then the love for God that results out of this freedom overflows into the world around us. It is this leaven of the Gospel that will one day fill the whole world (Matthew 13:33).
There were some clues along the way as to exactly why the postmodernist system of ethics (or lack of one) was a dead end. “Civility,” which you mention in your book, became an official policy at my university in the mid-1980s. The term “civility” was a precursor to the idea of multiculturalism and politically correct speech. The original use of the term referred to training in the humanities. In all liberal arts classes, we were supposed to be for racial equality, tolerance and diversity, and not allowed to express hatred towards others, or to incite hatred based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation or origin. So far so good. As a new Christian working to get a teacher’s certificate, I could agree with that. I certainly also wanted to go along with the program and be successful in my field.
Then something odd happened on my journey to this brave new world of multiculturalism. My first encounter with this contradiction occurred in an “Education for Cultural Understanding” class in which we were taught that a classroom teacher ought not try to “indoctrinate” his students with teachings on morals and ethics. (Note that throughout this book I purposefully avoid the “gender-neutral” rule in defiance of my “multicultural” training.) I had become a born-again believer about a year earlier. I realized the naïve impossibility of this statement intuitively. In a class discussion, I used the example of the holocaust.
“Do you mean to tell me that I should not tell my students that I believe the holocaust was morally wrong? Do you mean to say that I should not tell my students that the killing millions of innocent people in gas chambers and using them for medical experiments was not wrong?” I asked my fellow classmates.
Immediately a lively debate began to erupt and my professor, who was Jewish, wisely stopped the conversation. He said that I was correct in showing that it is impossible not to make moral statements. However, we had to be prepared as teachers to deal with the consequences when our morality conflicted with that of the students and their parents.
Some belief propositions are mutually exclusive. Using the holocaust as an example, there was simply no room for accommodation or “civility” in a discussion with someone who truly believed that the Jews were the Untermensch (subhumans) and Hitler’s Endlösung (Final Solution) was sound civil policy. Of course, it would have been risky to oppose such a policy as a German in the days of the Third Reich. However, I am convinced that in coming centuries, if not decades, people will look back at the abortion issue with the same disdain that they now have for Nazi eugenics. In fact, they will rightfully recognize that that are two sides of the same coin.
Years later, when I discovered Van Til, I immediately began to understand his point that there is no such thing as a morally neutral statement from a biblical presuppositionalist viewpoint. This is the reason why civility, multiculturalism, pluralism, politically correct speech, or whatever we want to call it, cannot solve the problem of the culture war. In reality, there is no neutrality. A purely “democratic” solution just represents the transition of one dominant worldview to another. We don’t end up with a tolerance for a wide range of social mores, but rather the enforcement of one group’s ethics over another.
Newspeak Runs Amok
Throughout the next few years, critics noticed that the verbiage of politically correct speech was hollow and resembled more of an Orwellian “Newspeak” than a meaningful attempt at the reform of intolerant behavior.
By the early 1990s, the “campus cultural wars” erupted in places like Harvard University. When a conservative student publication, Peninsula, ran articles calling to bring the topic of homosexual politics into open debate, the magazine issue was characterized as “hate speech” by several school administrators. To make matters worse, a “homophobic slur” was scrawled as graffiti on the door of a gay student’s dorm room shortly after the magazine issue appeared. Practically every campus newspaper entered into the debate with full abandon.
Christian students felt further intimidated when a “professor of Christian morals” openly condemned Peninsula’s articles as “wicked writing,” and also publicly acknowledged his own homosexuality. In the end, the contradiction of having a university policy that “does not discriminate” was exposed by Christian students who were willing to stand up and take the verbal abuse of being labeled as “homophobic” by the school administration.
There is a homosexual community that promotes a political agenda and a Christian community that believes homosexual behavior is a serious sin. Public policy cannot simply allow both ideas freedom of expression in the name of neutrality and pluralism. Government policy, whether on the campus or at the national level, will always choose one over the other. Politically correct speech in reality is not about tolerance and respect. It is about enforcing the revolutionary mores of the 1960s as the new cultural norm.
Since university life is a microcosm of our greater society, the effect was to quash the “politically correct” movement and expose it for its own hypocrisy. A few months after the controversy, Roger Landry, who was one of the conservative students at Harvard who launched the anti-P.C. publication Peninsula, said:
P.C. has already been thrown out the windows by most Northeast schools. We were hit by P.C. before everyone else. Among students here, people are so sick and tired of the arguments. After a few issues of Peninsula and the debate in the national press, most people have admitted that the issue is ridiculous. Eventually P.C. will lose its steam everywhere.
The Hubris of False Humility
Attempts by the liberal social activists and theologians, such as Jim Wallis, Stephen Carter and Richard John Neuhaus, to promote a “Covenant of Civility” or a “Neutral Public Square” are not in reality attempts to make opponents in the culture war more “civil” to each other. It is rather an attempt to get conservatives to capitulate to the liberal point of view.
So when an erstwhile respected voice such as Os Guinness writes, “Civility is a key not only to civil society but to civilization itself,” I have to laugh. Here is a pious sounding platitude that says nothing and means nothing. I had to check to see if this tautology was not taken out of context. But there it was as the concluding line from a chapter in Guinness’ book, The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It.
Here is yet another case of a thoughtful, intelligent man missing the forest for the trees. Here is yet another attempt to try to appear more acceptable in the world’s eyes than “fundamentalist” Christians who are more strident in their forays into the culture war. In reality, what Guinness is saying is “our civility ought to appear more civil than their civility.” The ruse that Christian postmodernists often use is to appear to be more humble than both their opponents and those “intolerant” Christians. I call this the “hubris of false humility” syndrome. That is unfortunately what has happened to many who have tried to refute postmodernism. Os Guinness has imbibed some of the froth from the strange brew of his opposition.
Postmodernism is a false middle way. Any attempt to try to make sense out of something that is in its nature nonsensical or to compromise with its ideals that mimic Christian ethics, just leads to another form of postmodernism – to move forward without going back to a foundation of certain truth – or what some have called a post-post-modernism. (I am really not kidding, look it up if you don’t believe there is such a thing.)
Humanism in its Death Throes?
I am convinced that one of the reasons we are seeing a more strident attack on Christianity in recent years is that Western humanism is in its death throes, much like its Eastern cousin, Soviet Communism experienced over 20 years ago. Since the seeds of destruction are always sown into the foundation of any false worldview, what we are seeing is the rattling of humanism’s support structure.
You make a big deal throughout your book about “distrusting presuppositions.” I would be inclined to agree with you if you would modify that to “distrusting faulty presuppositions.” Without presuppositions, linear thinking would not even be possible. I experience a dizzying bout of déjà vu when you ask, “Can we start by embracing the reality that pluralism is here to stay, please?” I’ve heard that argument from the militant pro-abortion advocates almost to the letter. “Can we start by embracing the reality that a woman’s right to choose is here to stay, please?” Pluralism is a smokescreen for a leftist agenda. When someone says, “A woman’s right to choose is here to stay!” or “Abortion is murder!” neither is a pluralistic proposition. The “national consensus” you propose will always choose one and suppress the other.
You wrongly believe that the culture war is unwinnable in the long run. On the contrary, the side that appeases first is the side that will lose. Winston Churchill demonstrated an all too tragic example of this when he called out Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.”
Realistically, you must intuitively understand that you cannot appease two worldviews that are both bent on world dominion – Western humanism and historic Christianity. In reality, what you are proposing is not an end to the culture war, but a strategy to defeat both sides with a “third way.” However, you can’t win the culture war with nice-sounding, feel-good, idealistic, vacuous nonsense. Or as Gary North has repeatedly said, “You can’t beat something with nothing.”
One of the things that amused me about hearing R.J. Rushdoony speak was that before critiquing worldviews that carried the seeds of their own destruction, he would sometimes summarize the philosophy with the phrase, “That’s nonsense!” He would always say it with such a tone and emphasis that you got the meaning that “nonsense” is that which makes no sense.
A Light That is Darkness
Jesus’ parables about salt and light say much the same thing.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).
These are well known Bible verses. However, it always struck me as strange that Jesus would use the metaphor of the salt losing its flavor. Of course, salt is pure sodium chloride, NaCl, it cannot lose its flavor. It cannot become either more salty or less salty. It either is salt or is not salt. The same is true for light. There is also a companion verse later in the Sermon on the Mount that drives home the point.
“The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22,23).
How can there be a light that is darkness? While there are different degrees of light, there is no such thing as a light that is darkness. Here Jesus is driving home a point. The truth and righteousness that is in us as Christians is so powerful that it cannot be compromised. What postmodern Christianity tries to do is reduce the certainty of that light and truth to make it more palatable to a “postmodern generation.” But according to Jesus, it cannot be done. Light and darkness cannot coexist. Truth cannot be made less certain. A Christian must ultimately stand for Light and Truth.