Gospel & Culture blog
Christian leaders spend a lot of time talking about "how to reach Gen Xers and millennial who grew up with postmodernism." The old apologetics of CS Lewis and Josh McDowell don't work for kids (or adults) that don't expect religion to be rational, and don't think history can be known, and don't think truth can be grasped. So how do we reach these kids? With actions, rather than words? With gripping testimonies? Will it take miracles and dreams to capture them, rather than air tight logic?
I think the Gen Xers and millennials need to learn air tight logic- I think they need to learn to expect rationality; to grasp the value of the old apologetics. In other words, I'm not ready to roll over and admit defeat to postmodernism. If Postmodernism is the obstacle that is keeping them from understanding the Christian faith, we need to remove the obstacle, rather than continuing to leap over it or walk around it. IN other words, rather than ask "how do we reach postmoderns with the gospel" I think we should keep asking "how do we help postmoderns be more rational and
believe in absolute truth like their grandparents did?"
When I was in seminary years ago, as I was decrying the failings of postmodernism, a professor asked me, "If you dislike postmodernism so much, what's your alternative? You want to go back to the Modern era- was that so much greater?" Remember, Modernism gave us secular humanism, Bultmann's "demythologizing" of scripture (no miracles, all the stories of miraculous are just allegory) and insisted that "what you see is what you get in the universe- there is no supernatural" (a worldview tenet called "materialism"). The professor was trying to force me into a false dilemma: either appreciate the relativism of Postmodernism or go back to the unfettered materialism of the modern era. CS Lewis is a great example. He employed the rationality and positivist epistemology of Moderns, but was certainly not handicapped by materialism, Remember, along with a long list of modern natural theologians, he arrived at a belief in the supernatural precisely by employing modern epistemology. I suppose my professor needed to distinguish between different types of moderns: The kind who were positivists and believed in the supernatural, and the kind who were positivists but didn't believe in the supernatural.
There are of course, other alternatives. In the past thirty years, Christians have explored other ontologies that fit somewhere between postmodernism and modernism (or positivism), like critical realism and constructivism.
But the seminary professor was also trying a tactic of "guilt by association:" The rational, positivist era of Modernism gave birth to materialism and "demythologizing." Therefore, Modernism is inherently inimical to a belief in the supernatural. But the two are not intrinsically linked. It is possible to emphasize rational, scientific methods, rely on empirical evidence, and still believe in the supernatural. It is possible to believe in absolute truths (as many philosophers and scientists did in the Modern era) without buying into the hyper-materialism that many philosophers and scientists of the Modern era bought into.
What my seminary professor didn't recognize- and what many Christian students who are new to philosophy fail to recognize- is that no epistemology is suitable for every sort of inquiry. You want your structural engineer to be a good old fashioned Modern-era positivist - to obey the laws of nature and to expect rationality. It terrifies me, and probably you as well, to think that our judges or doctors or mathematicians may not believe in absolutes. You want your medical doctor to rely on empirical data like the Moderns did.
However, there is also a place for postmodern epistemologies in other areas of inquiry. It is appropriate for political scientists, psychologists and sociologists to subscribe to constructivism. For example, postmodernism suggests that maybe there are no stages of childhood development for all children in all times and places; there probably are no "irrefutable laws of leadership." In many aspects, we do construct our own realities. Many aspects of life really are relative to context.
So I'm not asking for Millennials and Gen Xers to go back to modernism; I'm asking them to employ the positivist epistemology of modernism when it's appropriate (physical sciences, logic, and propositional truth claims in religion) and to employ constructivism when it's appropriate (understanding humans and social phenomena).
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor