What is real?
This is not a new query. Philosophers, theologians, and all of humanity have
been asking this question as long as we have been able to formulate questions.
Plato, a philosopher who lived in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., taught
about a group of people sitting in a cave believing that the flickering shadows
on the walls were the deepest reality. One of their number left the cave and
saw the sunlight and other people who were the cause of the shadows, and he
returned to the cave to tell his friends. Not convinced, they killed him - they
could not comprehend nor convey that someone (namely, a philosopher) could
discover a "more real" reality than they could see.
Do you remember when you first wrapped your mind around this question? I
was in grade school and someone suggested to me that maybe our entire lives
were merely another being's dream. That blew my second-grade mind!
This analogy is perfect. For the last few years I've had a
cartoon depicting the Plato's cave analogy hanging next
to my desk. It's a constant reminder that I may not be
totally crazy when I find myself mumbling and stumbling
for words when asked why we do certain things
differently at Graceland - or responding to questions
with precise words about what postmodernism is and
explaining that change truly is happening and a new
culture is emerging.
The Enlightenment and Modernism
Many centuries after Plato, René Descartes (1596-1650) fired
another major salvo in this battle over reality. The Enlightenment was
a time of great intellectual growth following the rediscovery of
classical thought and art in the Renaissance. The Enlightenment
project was meant to show that human beings were kings of the
universe, and, although God was still a major player, many thinkers
were out to show that human beings are not dependent upon him.
Descartes is most famous for his formula cogito ergo sum: "I think,
therefore I am." By this he meant that our existence, yours and mine, is
provable by and dependent upon our ability to doubt and reason. That
is, we are not dependent on anything we cannot prove - a divine being,
for instance. This is the genesis of foundationalism: the methodology by
which one breaks everything down to its most fundamental
components and builds up from there. (And yes, that is where fundamentalism
Following Descartes, a group of British philosophers called the
empiricists moved away from deductive reasoning as the foundation of
knowledge and instead based their system on sensory impressions.
And subsequently the "logical positivists" made sensory experience the
Whether the foundation is an absolute belief that cannot be questioned
or simply the sensory experience of an individual human being, the
foundation is one of fact. Something absolute - experience or
knowledge - is considered the "truth" and the basis of all thought.
Descartes also changed the starting point for people. Instead
of starting in belief, Descartes suggests that we must start
in doubt, then the only things to be believed are the things
proven to be absolutely certain. In modernity everyone
becomes a skeptic because that's the "higher ground." It has
been intriguing to see children - who naturally adopt belief
as their starting point - grow up and be trained to adopt
doubt as the higher ground. It reminds me of the words of
Christ - "except you become as little children."
For example, a Christian foundation might be Scripture - most of the
framework of Christianity is built on the Bible. A foundationalist Christian
might even say that everything - all Christian belief and practice - is based
on the Bible.
Structurally, such a system might look like this:
The Enlightenment scientists who came after Descartes built upon his
foundation with the newfound belief that everything is ultimately knowable
by the all-powerful human mind. The universe was quantified into laws of
physics (laws, not theories), the celestial realm was figured out, and it no
longer needed a God turning a crank to keep it moving.
Thus the Modern Era was born.
If there was an underlying credo of modernity, it might have been, "It's good
to be king!" Human beings finally stood as the crown of God's creation - even
at the cost of discarding God himself. The birth of modern machines
and technology gave rise to the Industrial Revolution. Protestantism, a
branch of Christianity predicated on every believer's ability to work out an
individual relationship with God, flourished. And humankind seemed to be
on the brink of making God an irrelevant concept.
The Birth of Postmodernism
Frederick Nietzche (1844-1900) understood this trend. His
famous declaration, "God is dead," began a movement that's at the
heart of postmodernism: deconstruction.
A philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional
assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth, asserts that words can only refer to
other words, and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their
But rather than damaging the Christian faith, Nietzche may have saved the
church from itself. He brought to light an underlying weakness of foundationalism - we
had done away with the Unknowable. God, the Great Mystery, is no
longer necessary when human beings can know all and be all without him. If
science can objectively discover all truth and if, given enough time, humankind
can master the cosmos, then where is God in that system? Nowhere.
Nietzche's point was that we killed God, or, more specifically, we need God.
It would indeed be terrifying to worship
a God we could figure out. The enigmas, mysteries, and antinomies of God are
what make him God. Without these, he
would be just a very cool guy.
Deconstruction gained momentum in the first half of the 20th
century as it became clear that science is not capable of
answering all questions and the human mind may not be able to
solve every problem. All the foundations constructed during the
modern period were questioned, and all of the premises that were
taken for granted were scrutinized.
The premise of postmodernism is, then, to question all premises.
All assumptions are out the window for a postmodern philosopher,
who's on a quest to show that all is relative and nothing can be
taken for granted. Skepticism and cynicism rule the day.
Take the presumption that the Bible is the foundation upon which
all of Christian theology and practice is built: Of course, that
makes perfect sense to Christians - the Bible is God's inspired
word, and it's the Christian's rule of life.
But the advent of modern scientific
investigation led to the discipline of
literary criticism and deconstruction
which, in turn, led to similar
practices in biblical studies.
Continental biblical scholars at the
turn of the twentieth century put
the Bible under more exacting
scrutiny than anyone had before.
For instance, the modern "search
for the historical Jesus" reached a
crescendo with Albert Schweitzer,
a scientifically trained biblical
scholar. In 1906 Schweitzer
"discovered" that Jesus was a
prophet who had suffered under
the misapprehension that the end
of the world was imminent. Jesus
had thrown himself upon the wheel
of history and, though he reversed
its course, he was crushed by it.
Schweitzer was not trying to
demean the Christian message in
his conclusion. He was a faithful
believer who was attempting to
make the gospel story believable
for himself and other educated
rationalists. To accomplish this, he
had to take the "unbelievable,"
supernatural elements out of the
gospel. His foundationalism
(science) forced him into this
position. Then his modernism
blinded him to the realizations
that he was not objective and
that one cannot scientifically
prove anything about Jesus. As
a result, Schweitzer's picture of
Jesus came out looking a lot
Likewise, the Jesus Seminar
participants are latter-day
modernists working at the
same project that Schweitzer
and so many others have
attempted. They are all doomed
to fail, because they are playing
with an outdated rulebook.
The problem with foundationalism is that
scientific discoveries and philosophical
theories chip away at foundations. In the
philosophy of science, for example, Karl
Popper questioned the very facts upon which
science was based. He said instead of a
foundation, the base of scientific knowledge
should be thought of as pilings driven into a
swamp. So, in the example of Christianity,
scholars had to keep propping up the
foundation - they had to buttress it, building a
substructure to support the Bible.
Note well, the problem is not with Scripture - the
problem is with foundationalism. In a scientifically
oriented world, students are going to ask us, "How do
we really know that the Bible is the word of God?" This
is not a question that was asked about the Bible in past
centuries - it was a given. Now we try to prove the
inerrancy of Scripture, and most often we defend it with
a self-referential statement: "Because 2 Timothy 3:16
says it is." That's no proof; that's a circular argument.
But instead of frantically trying to justify our reliance on
Scripture using an outdated epistemological scheme,
let's stop using the foundationalism of the modern
period and get on to looking at Scripture and the world
through postmodern eyes - the kind of eyes our
students have been born with.
What Is Postmodernism?
The last century has been a time of questioning and deconstruction, especially in the
upper echelons of academic philosophy, literary criticism, architecture, and art
history. In literary criticism, for example, postmoderns have argued that no text has
an actual meaning since each reader imports meaning into the text; even the
author's meaning for the text has been deconstructed. Postmodern philosophers
have argued that there is no grand metanarrative (an overarching story or common
experience that unites all human beings), and they have thereby attempted to
deconstruct most philosophies and religions.
In order to communicate, live, and breathe in this emerging world, it's crucial to get a grip on
postmodern cultural patterns and thought processes. The following is an incomplete list of
Objectivity is out, subjectivity is in. One person, or group of people, cannot claim an
objective viewpoint. To be objective means one can stand outside of something, look
in, and judge it. But you cannot really be objective because you're always standingsomewhere. Therefore I should preface all my thoughts with the statement: "I am a 32
year-old, fairly affluent, Christian Euro white male living in middle America at the turn of
the century," because those facts inherently influence everything I think, do, and say.
Question everything. Nothing escapes deconstruction. There are no thoughts, theories, assumptions, or hypotheses that get a free pass, even if they make perfect sense. By
questioning the prevailing assumptions, scientists have made all their progress - it's
just that they've too often replaced old assumptions with new ones. Postmoderns are
deeply skeptical people.
There is no Truth with a capital "T." Truth is in the eye of the beholder - one person's
truth is another person's theory. So, as I found out sitting at a table trying to persuade
a postmodern nonbeliever with foundationalist arguments, the language surrounding
religion and belief has changed. Everything is relative.
Tell stories. Narrative is becoming the primary means of communicating beliefs. Since propositional
logic has fallen on hard times, stories carry more weight in conveying truths. Author
and pastor Brian McLaren calls this abductive reasoning. As opposed to deductive or
inductive methods, when you tell a story, you abduct listeners from their known worlds into
Never make lists! Things are simply not objectively quantifiable. Remember the scientist inJurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum)? He's a mathematician who teaches Chaos
Theory - everything will eventually happen, and the only thing you can predict is that it will happen, not when it will happen. Chaos and inevitability are the rule, so when you make a
list or attempt to quantify something, you will surely leave something out (which I surely
have), and you will definitely betray your own subjectivity (which I definitely have).
Conceived, written, and directed by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, reclusive
housepainters-philosophers-theologians-filmmakers, The Matrix tells the story of Neo, a
messiah figure predestined to save the world from an all-powerful, evil computer. The
parallels between Neo and his cohorts and Jesus and his followers are enough to
interest most thoughtful Christians.
In The Matrix, Neo, the Christ figure, journeys to see a prophetess. In her waiting area,
he meets a young boy, "a potential," dressed like a Buddhist monk. The boy is holding
a spoon in his hand and bending it, presumably with mental powers. The following
repartee takes place:
BOY: Do not try to bend the spoon - that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.
NEO: What truth?
BOY: There is no spoon.