Recently, one of my former students brought me an article by prominent postmodernist Brian McLaren. The excerpt was from a book titled "Adventures in Missing the Point." She knew it was deeply flawed but had trouble articulating why. While I don't usually take the time to address things like this in writing, I thought it would be good to point out the incapatibilities of postmodernism and Christianity. These need to be pointed out because the deceptive nature and allure to postmodern philosophy, which can fly below the radar of the untrained reader. It is a deadly spiritual poison that needs to be exposed. I will not reproduce the article here since it is not published free online, I offer only my rebuttal as follows:
Before I start my response to this excerpt, I would like to say somethings of utmost importance: any discerning Christian should see red flags with any material attempting to teach about God that does not involve scripture. It’s ironic that we have here a text that is attempting to teach us how to have a correct relationship with God when we already have a text that teaches us that exact thing (the Bible). The text in question has almost no Bible in it (only one scripture reference). I suspect the motive is not really to connect us to God, but something different.
It is Jesus who enables us to have a relationship to God and who teaches us what that relationship is to look like. In John 14:21-24 Jesus teaches us: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.” Here we see that a relationship with Jesus has to do with loving Him, which is proved by keeping His commandments/law which are given by His word, recorded in the Bible.
In addition to that, I will add: any discerning Christian should see red flags with any material attempting to diminish the importance of careful and sincere study of God’s word. Remember how the first deception started in Genesis 3:1, “Did God really say…” With that said, on to my rebuttal:
In our selection, Brian McLaren basically argues that a “modern” and objective approach to the world, scripture, and God (an approach of study, fact finding, and truth-seeking) is not possible, optimal, or biblical. Instead, he argues that the secular turn towards postmodernism is good, and that a new experiential/relational approach (intersubjective) is the more authentic way to know God and all else.
I believe this essay (and the views of the author) are deeply flawed. It would take a semester’s worth of material to appropriately sort out the tangle. But, I will attempt to explain why this material is unhealthy and unchristian with some sort of brevity by handling these philosophical topics in a coherent order: truth, objectivity, and postmodernism.
Let’s begin by discussing truth. The definition of truth is simple. Truth is a statement or idea that corresponds to reality. McLaren makes several claims about truth. He claims that Christians are obsessed with absolute truth and states it is not a biblical concept on par with “repentance, salvation, prayer, God, love…” McLaren states that people are not even able to know the absolute truth because “We cannot help but approach the Bible as subjects encountering a subject, with our background, prejudices, assumptions, biases, needs, misunderstandings, experiences-in a word, our subjectivities-intact. And with our respect for the subjectivities of the writers intact, too.” Here he essentially says that we are not able to read the Bible objectively because we are human and vulnerable to bias. Therefore, there is no truth capable of knowing absolutely (and if you are quick you will see he notes that the authors of the Bible were subjective which means that he believes the Bible is not breathed-out by God or authoritative). He repeats this more clearly in his final bullets: “We must admit that our quest for ultimate and absolute truth is impossible…”
So, can we learn what is true or is it impossible like McLaren argues? This question is ultimately epistemological in nature. If a philosopher reacted to this article, he or she would immediately point out that the statement “our quest for ultimate and absolute truth is impossible” is, in itself, an absolute truth claim. He is making a claim he thinks is true with no exceptions or subjectivity about it. I hope you can see that saying “truth is impossible” is an oxymoron. It is a self-defeating statement, like saying “this sentence is a lie” or “kill all violent people.” If absolute truth were impossible, you would not be able to claim it was impossible because your statement would not be absolutely true. This is a simple way to prove there is absolute truth. When someone claims there is no absolute truth, ask them if they are absolutely sure. Either way they answer, they lose the argument.
But more importantly, what does the Bible say about truth? Is there absolute truth in the Bible? According to the Apostle John, one of the main reasons Jesus came was to explain to us the absolute truth about God: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… For the law was given through Moses; grace andtruth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.” -John 1:14, 17-18. If then truth is one of the central reasons Jesus came, then absolute truth is up there with “repentance, salvation, and prayer.” In fact, according to this scripture it is exactly on par with salvation (here John lists salvation as “grace”). Furthermore, if we can’t ever possibly know the truth, then Jesus failed in one of His primary tasks. So, who am I to believe, the Bible or this guy? Easy choice.
Absolute truth is not impossible, it is necessary to have a relationship with Jesus: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” -John 8:31-32. Absolute truth does not hinder a relationship with God, it is essential to having a loving relationship at all: “(love) it does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” -1 Corinthians 13:6.
Moving on to objectivity, again a philosophical idea. Here it is quite apparent that McLaren operates in fallacies (strawmen and equivocations) or he does not know what objectivity is at all. “What was the goal of theology in the modern era, other than this: to describe God as a scientist describes an object- objective, detached, sanitized of subjectivity, removed from the variable of personal relationship.” This is an incorrect view.
Objectivity is defined as freedom from bias. It is the approach we must take to know what is true, so that we are not mistaken when we attempt to know things. Objectivity is necessary to know what is really true and it is necessary for any honest and true relationship to exist. If I didn’t objectively know that I was married to my wife, and I allowed my subjective feelings to interfere, so that when I was mad or disappointed with her I no longer considered her my wife, my marriage wouldn’t last very long, would it? McLaren argues that an objective view of God is somehow relationally deficient. On the contrary, any view of God other than Him as the supreme, sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, transcendent, immutable, creator of all things is a deficient view and thus an incorrect relationship. Instead, by making God “intersubjective” he is only inflating himself to an importance he does not intrinsically have and/or diminishing God to a level too low for such a Holy entity. Any other approach than a reverent, fearing, objective view of God lacks humility and we know that “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6-7). The goal of theology in all eras is then to describe God accurately and know Him truly. Only in being accurate about God can we truly worship Him in the first place: “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” -John 4:23-24
Ironically, the story of Jane Goodall presented in this essay is a perfect example of why objectivity is necessary to have a proper relationship. Jane failed in her job to objectively analyze the apes she was assigned. In compromising her objectivity and inappropriately interacting with the apes, she made several serious errors. She made all the science she had collected worthless; she tainted it. Her research was then powerless to help or benefit the apes because she then did not know how they truly operate in their own, unhindered environment. If she had studied properly, objectively, perhaps she could have foreseen the collision course the apes were going to have with poachers since their territories were overlapping. Or maybe if she chose to study economics objectively, she would have understood the incentives poachers had for hunting the apes. And, instead of viewing them as immoral or unjust, she could have offered them an economic alternative and saved both the apes and the poachers.
But, that’s not what she did. Instead, she chose to anthropomorphize wild animals and mistakenly involve her imagination and feelings. What would have happened if, instead of touching her hand gently, the ape would have ripped her arm off? Would she have the objective wherewithal to realize they are wild animals and that it was a bad idea to touch one? Or, would she subjectively assume they are evil monsters (much like sheltered suburbanites view pit-bulls)? If her experience was bad and her subjective bias was negative, would she then sound a call for some hero poachers to hunt down the “evil” apes that harmed her like Ahab hunted the Great White Whale that ate his leg? Clearly, making yourself objective in order to learn the truth about a matter is the best and only appropriate approach in her line of work.
The real question is, what does the Bible say about objectivity (making observations free of bias)? James teaches us that “…the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” -James 3:17. Impartiality is a synonym for objectivity. Paul teaches us that God approves studying scripture objectively: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” -2 Timothy 2:15. Peter insists his testimony about Jesus is objectively true: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” -2 Peter 1:16.
We have seen the side effects of a culture without objectivity. We now live among journalists who are incapable and unwilling to report events accurately, a supreme court justice who can’t define the term “woman,” schools that teach children whatever they imagine holds more truth than what their physical bodies display, and college students who interpret almost every event they encounter as some subliminal, nefarious motive or phobia with no corresponding evidence. So, you tell me, does discarding objectivity help relationships or hurt them? Likewise, objectivity does not hinder a true relationship with God, an objective approach is a necessary component of a true relationship with God. For there are many who assume they have a good relationship with God, but are deceived (Matthew 7:21-23).
There are many, many more errors in this essay I could expound on. McLaren argues we should not see ourselves as “the sovereign top of the food chain” even though we literally biologically are, and scripture calls us to take dominion of creation (Genesis 1:26-30). McLaren argues that God does not “render reality as objects to be used and discarded” although scripture indicates that in some cases God clearly does and has the right to do so (Isaiah 43:3-4, Romans 9:21-23). McLaren calls for a “new kind of Christian” but scripture calls for an old type of Christian (1 Thessalonians 2:15, Revelation 2:5). McLaren states “we live, move and have our being in relationships” but scripture says, “In [God] we live and move and have our being” -Acts 17:28. McLaren thinks we should grab hold of the philosophies of sinners and diminishes the sufficiency, authority, and necessity of studying the Bible analytically and objectively, but scripture says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” -Psalm 1:1-2.
But, in a way this essay is a great blessing because it shows the true mechanisms involved in what is shipwrecking the faith of so many people right now. Truly, if we are to give a response to those who are attempting to deceive us and discredit Christ, this is the type of apologetics we must do. Postmodern arguments do not attempt to give you bad theology as heresies in the past have. Instead, it attempts to govern theology completely by deconstructing philosophy and hijacking the basic building blocks of thinking. For example, you could explain to someone in perfect detail the Gospel of Jesus Christ and have them completely agree with your theology, but then have them turn around and say, “Yes that theology is true and good… for white people only.” Or “Yes, Jesus is the only way to heaven… for you.” Or in the case of this essay, “The Bible is fine, but you can’t really know what it means. God exists, but you can only know him if you reduce him to an equal person in the grand narrative of your life.”
By muddying up the waters of epistemology (casting doubt on your ability and mandate to think critically and clearly) postmodernists have essentially cut our culture off at the legs (philosophically speaking). Now we know things but we don’t know why or how we know things. We a massive gap in our worldview and our ability to think clearly about what is true. We have deconstructed objective logic and made ourselves vulnerable to rogue philosophies. This is why Marxism has gotten a foothold in America; it offers a philosophical filler to the gaps created by postmodern thinking. It sounds ideologically ethical, but we don’t have the critical thinking skills to discern the grave danger is poses (or the wherewithal to read a history book and count the 100 million bodies it has left in places it has been tried). Yet scripture is clear: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” -Colossians 2:8.
McLaren attempts to tell us we need to have a warm relationship with God, but the Bible already teaches that, and teaches it properly. McLaren attempts to tell us to be good to animals and take care of them, but the Bible already teaches that, and teaches it more seriously. McLaren attempts to tell us theology is more than just factoids and scripture memorization, but the Bible already teaches that, and teaches it wisely. I have a section in my personal library for “theology” books that do not use scripture and are thus not Christian in nature. That is where I will file this essay. “…while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” -2 Timothy 13-14.