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The Way Things Ought to Be: Postmodernism and the Question of Reality

“What I told you was true, from a certain point of view. . . . Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

— Obi Won Kenobi, to Luke Skywalker, in The Return of the Jedi (1983)

In the previous two chapters, we have looked at the way modern science and psychology have changed the way we look at our world and ourselves and the challenges these new ideas pose to the Christian faith. Arguably the greatest challenge to the Christian faith, though, has yet to be considered. It is one thing to ask questions about the nature of the world or of ourselves — such as how old is the earth or whether human beings possess a soul. It is another thing altogether to ask questions about whether any questions about the world or ourselves can actually be answered. We are now living in a culture that increasingly questions the whole idea of truth as a reality that is the same for all people and according to which all people must order their lives.

For the past two centuries, philosophers and scientists, artists and theologians have turned in large numbers away from the supernaturalistic faith of historic Christianity and have sought an understanding and perspective of the world on a naturalistic basis. The goal was nothing less than a total rethinking of reality in terms fully comprehended by the human mind. Just as modern civilization seemed to be closing in on this goal, the whole project began to break down.

Culture watchers commonly refer to the breakdown of the modern world view and the resulting abandonment of the notion of objective truth and reality as postmodernism. At the heart of the postmodernist revolution is the claim that objectivism, the belief that truth and values exist independently of our perceiving them or believing in them, has been declared an outmoded, unrealizable ideal. Not only has God been declared dead, but Truth also has been pronounced dead. How can we tell a postmodernist that Jesus Christ is the Truth, when they don’t believe in truth any more? William Lane Craig has explained the problem this way:

The postmodernist is not merely saying that we cannot know with certainty which religious worldview is true and we therefore must be open-minded; rather he maintains that none of the religious worldviews is objectively true, and therefore none can be excluded in deference to the allegedly one true religion.1

Relativism and Reality

The seeds of postmodernism were actually sown in the eighteenth century debates about epistemology — the branch of philosophy that asks how and whether we can know anything, and how we know what we know. Such debates seem esoteric to most people today, yet our culture has been profoundly affected by their outcome.

Some philosophers, called rationalists, maintained that we know things through the use of our mental, reasoning faculties. The problem with this claim was that by itself the mind would not have any information about which to think or reason. Other philosophers, called empiricists, maintained that we know things because the world external to us impacts us with information through our senses. One difficulty with this claim was that it could not explain how we know that certain things are always so (for example, how we know that two plus two always equals four). The mind is evidently not a mere blank slate on which the information that passes through our senses are written.

Immanuel Kant: Why We Can’t Know the Real World

Into this debate came the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant argued that the rationalists and empiricists were both half right and half wrong. “Pure reason” by itself has nothing to know, and mere sensations by themselves cannot be known. The mind, Kant argued, imposes a structure on the world as it receives information through the senses. It orders the chaos of sensations and, in effect, creates a world out of them. We can and do gain knowledge this way — but, Kant concluded, not knowledge of things in themselves, but things as they are perceived by us. What we know is not “out there,” but is rather what our minds have done with what is “out there.”

This way of looking at knowledge, Kant claimed, was akin to a Copernican revolution in epistemology. In the Copernican revolution we learned that the appearance of a regular motion of the sun is an illusion and that it is we that are moving, imposing the apparent motion on the sun. In the Kantian revolution we were told that the appearance of a regular structure of the world is an illusion and that it is we that are structuring the world, imposing the apparent structure on the world.

Kant was not a postmodernist. He believed that all of our minds imposed the same structure on the world, and therefore expected knowledge gained by one person to be recognizable by and shareable with other persons. But it should be obvious how short was the step from Kant’s modernism to today’s postmodernism. Take away the assumption that all human minds employ the same structural grid in organizing sense perceptions into intelligent knowledge, and the radical relativism of the postmodern era follows naturally. And that assumption itself could not be supported on Kant’s theory of knowledge. How can I know that other minds impose the same sort of structural form on the world as my mind does? If I cannot know things as they are in themselves, I certainly cannot know how other minds work in themselves.

Relativism: Why We Can’t Know the World Is Real

Not surprisingly, then, as the modern civilization of the West became an intercontinental, global civilization of diverse cultures, religions, and philosophies, the modernist assumption of a common rationality fell by the wayside. What has arisen in its place is another assumption, that of relativism. According to relativism, all knowledge is a construction, a way of looking at things, which has merit or value relative to the person or group of people who utilize it. Because the constructions used by a group have certain similarities and are developed as the individuals in the group interact, many postmodernists speak of “the social construction of reality.” Relativism, then, does not mean that an individual constructs his or her view of reality in isolation. It does mean, however, that no one view of reality is supreme or privileged. There is no objective reality “out there” that is known in this construction but not in that one. If there is anything existing independent of our perceptions of it (and postmodernists have differing “constructions” on that question!), there is no determinable, absolute reality that is waiting to be discovered and known. There are only varying constructions of that reality that differ because of our differing experiences, capacities, and conditions.

If these constructions or reality differ from one another, then, of what use are they? Different answers to that question can also be found, of course, but we will mention two of the most common. Constructions of reality are often held to be of relative validity to the extent that they provide a coherent or internally consistent way of looking at things. That is, as long as a person or group has a world view that makes sense of everything or nearly everything that they experience or encounter in life, that world view is valid for them. The other answer commonly given is that constructions of reality are of relative value to the extent that they provide an effective method for achieving goals. On this understanding, to the extent that a person or group has a world view that enables them to succeed in life, that world view is valid for them. If the first approach asks whether it makes sense, the second asks whether it works. Either question is allowable on postmodernist, relativistic premises. The question that is disallowed, that cannot even be asked, is whether it corresponds with external or objective reality — that is, whether it is true. Such a question is regarded as meaningless. For postmodernists, the only thing that is meaningful is the choice to embrace a world view that has no objective reality. One critic describes the philosophy this way:

Chinese food or French cuisine, Jesus or Nostradamus, permed or straight, life or death: they are all the same. What you choose does not matter, only your freedom in choosing.2

This Message Will Self-Destruct . . .

Despite the enormous sophistication and growing popularity of postmodernism, its relativistic view of knowledge and truth suffers from a simple, fatal flaw: relativism is self-defeating. That is, the claim that all knowledge is relative is a claim that refutes itself, or destroys itself, in the very act of making the claim.

The concept of a self-defeating or self-refuting claim is easy to understand. Suppose one of us were to write, “I cannot write a single sentence in English.” Obviously, in writing that sentence, I have just disproved it. A similar, more famous example is the “liar’s paradox.” If one of us were to say to you, “Everything I tell you is a lie,” that statement is self-refuting, because if it were true, that very statement would be a lie — but if it were a lie, then not everything I told you would be a lie.3 No evidence outside the statement is needed to show that it is false, and no amount of evidence could ever make it true.

Similarly, any statement affirming relativism is self-refuting. For example, if we assert that “all knowledge is relative,” then we are making a claim about the knowledge all other persons have, and thus we are making an absolute statement of truth. If “all knowledge is relative,” then we cannot know that! Perhaps the most blatant example of a self-defeating affirmation of relativism is John Caputo’s assertion, “The truth is that there is no truth.”4 Obviously, if this is true, it is false (since there would be at least this one truth). Such self-defeating statements also appear in moral discourse, such as the dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre’s mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, “It is forbidden to forbid.”5 One would think such transparently self-refuting statements would be rare, but they are commonplace in the literature, probably because they sound profoundly paradoxical. The fact of the matter, though, is that they are simply nonsense (that is, they make no sense).

This self-defeating nature of relativistic statements cannot be avoided by changing the terminology used. For example, if I claim that “all knowledge is a human construction,” that claim must apply to my knowledge that all knowledge is a human construction. But if my “knowledge” in this regard is itself a construction, it is only one way of looking at the question, and I have eliminated any possible basis for asserting it to be true of all knowledge possessed by other persons. Here is yet another example of a self-defeating statement, this one from postmodernist Walter Anderson: “In the postmodern world we are all required to make choices about our realities. . . . The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices. . . .”6 If we must “all” make such choices — if it is “required” and there is “no option” in this regard — and if, as Anderson in context clearly means, we are all living in “the postmodern world” whether we like it or not, then his whole statement assumes that there is one world in which we all live and about which one truth rules over all of us. In short, Anderson’s argument destroys itself because it presupposes the exact opposite of what it asserts. Of course, a softer claim might have been made — that we cannot avoid choosing what we will believe — but this is not Anderson’s claim, and it is not relativism.

Nor can the problem be avoided by adopting a softer, more humble form of relativism. For example, suppose someone were to say, “Well, I don’t know if all knowledge is relative for everyone else, but I know that all knowledge is relative for me.” To such an assertion we must ask whether this knowledge is itself relative. Is the humble relativist’s knowledge of the relativism of his knowledge subject to change depending on time, place, or circumstance? If it is, then it is not always or necessarily true even for him. If his knowledge of relativism is not subject to change, then it is an absolute, and his relativism is false — even for him!

Not only can no one affirm relativism without refuting it, no one can argue for it or provide evidence for it without refuting it. Relativists often appeal to the differing belief systems which human beings espouse as proof of relativism. For example, Anderson criticizes “fundamentalists” for their belief in absolute truths by pointing out that “there is not, in most parts of the contemporary world, much of a consensus about what those truths are — if there are any. . . .”7 But the argument assumes that I am living in the same “contemporary world” as Anderson and am aware of the diverse belief systems to which Anderson refers. Or again, relativists often point out that the appearance of a stick partially submerged in water differs depending on the direction from which it is viewed. But the experiment depends on our recognizing that it is the same stick, the same water, and the same glass that we both see — and the fact that we can exchange places and see what the other saw proves that relativism is indeed false. Any attempt to persuade someone to adopt relativism assumes absolutism.

It is true, of course, that we “construct” our world views through a process of interacting with our environment and with each other. This has the further implication that none of us knows everything, and that even what we know in common will have a different set of associations and be set in somewhat differing contexts. We must part company with the relativist and the postmodernist, however, when they reason from these facts to the conclusion that reality itself is a construction of the human mind. Rather, reality is the given setting in which our efforts to construct a world view take place and which set the boundaries and conditions of those efforts. In other words, reality is both the field on which we play the game of knowledge and the rules by which the game of knowledge is governed.

The postmodernist is right in claiming that the modernist project of acquiring absolutely objective, complete, and comprehensive knowledge of the world is impossible for finite humans. For this reason postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment and modern thought have value. But the postmodernist has really not abandoned modernism; he is really more of an ultramodernist. He retains the belief that human beings must determine for themselves what is real and what is right on the assumption of human self-sufficiency. The postmodernist is therefore every bit a humanist as the modernist. Postmodernists have simply concluded that this human determination of the real is to be taken even more literally: to determine what is real now means to make it real.

Reimagining Reality

Postmodernism and its relativistic view of knowledge are more widespread than the number of persons who self-consciously accept these labels. Throughout our civilization the belief in objective truth and objective reality is under assault. Relativism shows up in some of the strangest places. In every case, the argument is ultimately self-defeating.

For example, we are told that all texts, from the Bible to the U.S. Constitution, have different meanings depending on the political, ideological stance from which they are read. Those who disagree with the traditional interpretation of these texts advocate “deconstructing” them, that is, dismantling their actual meanings by showing their ideological assumptions. But if this theory were true, any and all statements that expressed this theory would also vary in meaning in this way — so that, from at least one particular ideological stance, the theory could still be interpreted to mean that texts have fixed meanings which all readers should respect. By this reasoning the postmodernist theory of interpretation of texts can itself be dismissed as reflecting a particular ideological stance.

Or again, it is claimed that modern physics, especially Einstein’s theories of relativity, have proved relativism. This claim, of course, is self-defeating, since it could only be true if Einstein’s theories of relativity were itself true. That is, it assumes that Einstein’s theories refer to absolute truths, not truths judged only from a certain perspective. Moreover, the argument completely misunderstands Einstein. Relativity is not the same thing as relativism. Relativity theory correlates space and time, matter and energy according to certain constant (i.e., absolute) truths, such as the formula E = mc2 or the velocity of light as equaling 186,242 miles per second for all observers. Thus, relativity theory assumes that relativism is false and that some things are true for everyone.

History: The Way We Imagine We Were

One of the areas of thought in which relativism has made especially significant inroads is the field of historical knowledge. History used to be defined as the study of the past — the search for knowledge of what actually took place in the past. The assumption was that certain events took place at certain times for certain reasons, and to the extent that effects of those events have survived or can be found, we can acquire knowledge of those events and an understanding of how and why they happened. It was also assumed that the more accurate our understanding of the past, the more likely we were to be able to act effectively in the present and plan for the future.

This philosophy of history is now widely regarded as out of fashion. We are now told that history is constructed according to the perspectives (i.e., biases) of the historian, and that there is no objective way to judge which perspectives must be used and no way to be sure that our constructions correspond to the way things “really” were.

No one doubts that historians are guided by their own assumptions, experiences, training, and values, and that these factors play a part in shaping the conclusions reached by historians. But what is controversial is that such subjective factors make impossible comparisons of historical constructions in light of objective facts. But the reason for adopting this philosophy of history is not a secret. Many postmodern historians are quite open about the fact that in their view history serves ideological purposes. That is, the purpose of history is not to learn what actually happened in the past (which is supposedly an unrealizable goal), but rather to further a social or political agenda. For virtually all such postmodernists, that agenda is one of liberation of oppressed peoples, providing a voice for those whose perspective has been ignored or suppressed by the powerful.

This ideological philosophy of history is self-defeating, as its relativistic assumptions would suggest. After all, one can only commend revisioning history in the interests of the oppressed peoples if it is possible to identify who the oppressed peoples are. Every citation of slavery, genocide, persecution, or marginalization of a people assumes that we can examine the facts and agree that in truth the people in question did receive such treatment.

Afrocentrism: Teaching Myth as History

An excellent example of this trend in postmodern historiography is Afrocentrism, a program of revisionism aimed at claiming African origins for numerous famous people, inventions, and cultural developments traditionally attributed to European or other non-African sources. What is controversial here is not a search for the actual contributions of African peoples to the history and cultures of the world, or an effort to show that some African contributions have been overlooked or co-opted by Eurocentrists. Such a program would assume an objectivist philosophy of history as the search for knowledge of the actual past. What makes Afrocentrism troubling is its disregard for the facts and its open advocacy, at least on the part of some, of a view of history as essentially an ideological tool rather than a pursuit of the truth.

Mary Lefkowitz has authored an incisive critique of such Afrocentric revisionism in her book Not Out of Africa, in which she refutes the claim that Socrates (for example) was black and that the Greeks stole their philosophy and other intellectual legacies from African culture. Lefkowitz, a Jewish historian, is naturally sensitive to revisionism, since the Nazis created fictions about Jewish history to justify the Holocaust, and since more than a half century later a stubborn minority of people in the West still deny that the Holocaust occurred. Her comparison of the two examples of revisionism is to the point:

Academics ought to have seen right from the start that this “new historicism” has some serious shortcomings. But in fact most of us are just beginning to emerge from the fog far enough to see where history-without-facts can lead us, which is right back to fictive history of the kind developed to serve the Third Reich. It is not coincidental that ours is the era not just of Holocaust denial but of denial that the ancient Greeks were ancient Greeks and creators of their own intellectual heritage. . . . There are of course many possible interpretations of the truth, but some things are simply not true. It is not true that there was no Holocaust. There was a Holocaust, although we may disagree about the numbers of people killed. Likewise, it is not true that the Greeks stole their philosophy from Egypt. . . .” 8

Any attempt to circumvent this problem by claiming that there are different “truths” and that the Afrocentrists are as entitled to their truth as anyone else would miss the point. These revisionists are not seeking toleration, but are demanding (and in some cases getting) official acceptance as the new historical paradigm in universities and throughout the educational establishment. Competition among divergent theories or beliefs is nothing new in academia; what is new is that the players in some cases are explicitly denying that the competition must be awarded to the view that makes the best case for being true to the real world. Lefkowitz asks,

Are there, can there be, multiple, diverse “truths?” If there are, which “truth” should win? The one that is most loudly argued, or most persuasively phrased? Diverse “truths” are possible only if “truth” is understood to mean something like “point of view.” . . . . The notion of diversity does not extend to truth. 9

The fact that people acting on the basis of postmodern assumptions often insist that their view be given priority and acceptance while older, traditional views be discarded suggests something very disturbing. We have already seen that at its root the relativism of postmodern thought is irrational, indeed self-refuting. Why, then, would anyone insist on it? While this cannot be said about all who espouse relativism, in many cases it would seem to be little more than a cover for beliefs that cannot withstand rational, objective scrutiny.

We have been using Afrocentrism as an example of an interpretation of history that is typically postmodern and relativistic, but there are many more examples that could be given (such as the debates about the place of Christopher Columbus in history that raged during 1992, or the postmodern interpretations of history offered by Oliver Stone in such movies as JFK). Indeed, even the historical narratives of the Bible have been subject to revisionist constructions that assume a relativistic understanding of historical knowledge. It is one thing for skeptics to claim that the crucial historical events of the Bible never happened. It is another thing altogether for postmodernists to “re-read” biblical history and come away with completely different meanings that deny the reality of that history. In this regard they have made common cause with the modernist approach to biblical interpretation that has characterized theological liberalism for the past two centuries. It is liberalism and its postmodern successors that will occupy our attention in the next chapter.


1 William Lane Craig, “Politically Incorrect Salvation,” in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Ockholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 77.

2 Roger Lundin, “The Pragmatics of Postmodernity,” in Christian Apologetics in the Modern World, ed. Phillips and Ockholm, 35.

3 An amusing use of this “liar’s paradox” appears in the classic Star Trek episode “I, Mudd,” in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock use the self-defeating paradox to paralyze the collective computerized mind of a race of androids!

4 John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 156, cited in Craig, “Politically Incorrect Salvation,” 82.

5 Quoted in Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 57.

6 Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 7, 8 (emphasis in original).

7 Ibid., xi.

8 Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, A New Republic Book (New York: HarperCollins — BasicBooks, 1996), 51, 161.

9 Ibid., 162.

Related Topics: Apologetics