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Getting Our Bearings
Adapting and changing our way of sharing the Gospel is necessary in our culture comprised of several opposing world views.


Mike was raised as a Christian, but abandoned his faith during college. "I don't know what happened," he shrugged. "I just left it." His father, a pastor, was devastated. He rushed Mike C.S. Lewis' works of apologetics, hoping they might lure his son back to the faith. Mike read the books but remained unmoved.

I was ready for … objections. But I wasn't ready for what he said.

Since Lewis had been a formative influence in my own spiritual journey, I was intrigued by Mike's indifference. Mike and I had been friends in high school. When he came to visit, I probed him with questions.

"What do you think of Christ's values and His actions—His ethics?"

"I can't see anything wrong with them," Mike conceded.

Now I have him cornered, I thought. "Okay, then how do you deal with His claim to be God? How can someone with flawless ethics lie about His identity?"

Mike is intelligent and educated, and he knows the Bible. I expected him to make a clever explanation for this apparent contradiction. Maybe he would attack the historicity of the Gospels or challenge our traditional Christian interpretations of them. I was ready for such objections. But I wasn't ready for what he said.

"I don't really believe in all that rationality," he said. "Reason and logic come from the Western philosophical tradition. I don't think that's the only way to find truth."

His response silenced me. How could I reason with someone who didn't believe in reason?

Of course I should have been prepared. Mike's mental framework is now a fairly common one. It's often called the postmodern world view. As I researched the term I felt as though I was reading Mike's personal manifesto.

According to philosopher J.P. Moreland, "On a postmodernist view, there is no such thing as objective truth, reality, value, reason and so forth." This suspicion of absolutes stems from the belief that truths actually come from "meta-narratives," the over-arching stories that a group of people share. There are many, many such stories. The postmodernist mind assumes it is impossible to believe any universally held truth.

"True for you, but not for me" is the postmodernist mantra.

A second kind of unbelief

Just weeks after talking to Mike, I encountered Brent. I didn't have to broach the topic of faith with Brent. He brought it up the first time we met, taking no pains to mask his antipathy. "How can you believe in religion? If the Bible is true why are there no miracles today?"

This time I recognized the world view. So I saved my new friend some breath.

"Let me guess," I asked him. "You believe that everything we don't understand we automatically consign to the realm of the supernatural—a tendency that only demonstrates our ignorance and fear of the unknown. You think science will eventually eliminate the need for religion by pushing back the boundaries of knowledge, elucidating all mysteries." He was a little stunned to hear this coming from a Christian.

"Yeah … that's about it," he agreed. Brent was a modernist.

Since postmodern thinking developed as a reaction to modernism, it is no surprise that the two are very different. From a modernist perspective, "There is no such thing as a spirit, soul or the supernatural," writes Rick Wade. Modernists believe that truth isn't found through revelation but through scientific investigation and reason. The 20th century thinkers who promoted modernism argued that "knowledge now had to be dispassionate, objective, and certain."

Brent's irritation with what he deemed "irrational belief" placed him firmly in this camp.

Mike and Brent were both unbelievers, But they operated under different ways of thinking. For Mike the claims of Christianity are too exclusive, and he is suspicious of absolutes. Brent, on the other hand, is still intoxicated with a set of ideas that have been influential since the 1700s (professors call it the Enlightenment tradition). Brent has no problem with reason and truth. He has simply pushed God aside and set science in His place.

Brent and Mike can help us understand the two main ways of thinking among non-Christians today. My conversations with them taught me that conveying Christian faith to modernists and postmodernists takes two radically different approaches.

Speaking to Brent and Modernists

Modernist thought and Christianity are often viewed as polar opposites. One seeks empirical proof, dismissing as superstitious any belief in the supernatural. The other focuses on the unseen, claiming that the physical world is but a shadow of a higher reality. Evolutionists rigorously debate creationists. The philosophical sparring of atheists and theists fills bookstores. (Atheists are almost always modernists, since they absolutely negate God's existence.)

Many modernists have simply rejected the wrong God …

Rarely do the entrenched debaters pause to consider how much they have in common. Yet the vitality of such debates testifies to the presence of common ground. On at least one crucial point both modernism and Christianity agree: truth and absolutes do exist, and they are worth fighting for!

For Christians who want to reach modernists, this is a good place to start.

Modernists are less likely to be offended by truth claims, so Christians can lay out their beliefs with conviction. Modernists may resonate with a good, logical defence of the faith—good apologetics.

We need to take care, though, not to assume that every modernist, even intellectual ones, understand the basic tenets of Christian faith. Even though many have strong feelings about religion, they may never have truly investigated Christianity. Many people today have serious misperceptions about what Christian faith is. Brent, for example, is dogmatic about his atheism, although he confessed to me that he had "never actually read the Bible."

A cogent presentation of the Gospel message can really impact a modernist thinker. Many modernists have simply rejected the wrong God—a deity assembled from popular sentiments, bearing little resemblance to the God of Scripture. After I discussed Christ's life and teaching fro an evening with one modernist thinker, he conceded that he had never really understood Christianity.

"Okay," he said. "Maybe I could follow that."

Speaking to Mike and Postmodernists

I have a Christian friend in Los Angeles who recently told me how he was getting frustrated trying to share his faith. "People are nice to me. They just don't listen."

In a way Christian faith encompasses aspects of both world views.

He had talked with a co-worker who even thanked him. "I'm so glad you found something that makes you happy. Thanks for sharing," the co-worker said. "I'm glad that works for you."

My friend had encountered a postmodern thinker.

According to the postmodernist view, there is a different "truth" for each person. And experience—not rationality—is the key to finding that truth.

Yet postmodernism also has similarities to Christianity. Postmodernism involves a concern for marginalized groups. Andy Crouch writes, "Many streams of postmodern thought are animated by the desire to do justice to the claims of those whom the dominant culture has excluded." On this point Christianity emphatically agrees. One can hardly open the Bible without seeing God's concern for the poor and disenfranchised. Contrary to what is taught or implied in a secular colleges, it is Christians who do the bulk of relief and charity work worldwide.

Dwelling on this commonality will move a postmodern thinker more than launching into traditional apologetics. Christians can point out that Christ championed the cause of marginalized people and even linked His identity to the lowly (see Matthew 25:45). Catholic theologians remind us of God's "preferential option for the poor." The Book of James stipulates that "pure religion" is attending to the needs of widows and orphans (see James 1:27).

These facts are crucial topics to address with postmodernists.

In a way Christian faith encompasses aspects of both world views. Though logic and philosophy play a part in discovering and defending the faith, they do not tell the whole story. There is an important postmodern element in Christianity. The Bible speaks of knowing God in terms of revelation.

Yes, God's existence can be deduced through philosophical reasoning. But the experience of a personal relationship with a loving Creator is not the same—rather, it is inculcated. Christians become frustrated when they must mount clunky, academic defences of what, for them, has become living reality. For postmodernists, though, nothing speaks as loudly as the fresh and joyful expression of dynamic faith.

Even for the modernist, the same can be true. The ultimate evidence of God is still a life changed by Him.

Drew Dyck is a freelance writer from Red Deer, Alberta, currently studying for a theological degree in Portland, Oregon.

Originally published in Faith Today, July/August 2005.
www.evangelicalfellowship.ca

 

 
 
 
 

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