When The Shift Hits The Fan (Part 2)

Read part 1

Postmodernism is almost impossible to define, and serves more as a “junk-draw” term for anything that is anti-modernism. A frequently discussed feature, however, of Postmodernism  is epistemology. “Epistemology” is a philosophical term that refers to the science/study of how we acquire knowledge. There are roughly three stages to Western Epistemology: (1) Pre-Modern Epistemology, (2) Modern Epistemology, (3) Postmodern Epistemology.[1]

Pre-Modern epistemology began with the conviction that all knowledge was from God, was a sub-set of His own larger knowledge, and was therefore only accessible by virtue of His revelation. They affirmed an Open Universe, or perhaps a better term would be a controlled universe, where God was orchestrating things, and was intimately involved in the running and continuance of the world and all existence. Of course many remained unconvinced of Christian doctrine, and this type of belief was never isolated solely to Christianity.[2] The primary features of this approach to knowledge are simply: (1) It Began With God, (2) It Held to an Open Universe, and (3) It Affirmed Objective, Universal, Foundational Truth.

Modern epistemology changed this belief in major ways, ways that ultimately changed thought about life itself. It first came to life in the philosophical work of a devout Roman Catholic philosopher named René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes wanted to provide a foundation for belief in God, and so he set out to remove everything that could not finally and ultimately support belief in God and when he was finished all he was left with was himself. So he said, “I think, therefore I am.” Meaning, since he was thinking, he must exist. From there he launched into the sort of typical Pre-Modern proofs for God’s existence (i.e. if things exist someone must have made them, and that something must have been God).[3]

The result was that Modern Epistemology was born, and it began not with belief in God, but with belief in the self, or as Dr. Carson calls it “the finite ‘I.’” Carson writes, “This means that for the modernist thinker, God is not the ‘given,’ but at best the conclusion of the argument…We are no longer dependent upon God for all our knowing.”[4] While Modern Epistemology was still foundationalist and affirmed objective truth it had dropped God and along with Him the concept of an open universe. Since knowledge was now possible without God many began to operate on these terms and when Darwin, doing just that, developed the theory of Evolution then philosophical naturalism took a rapid rise, dragging behind it a view of a “closed” universe.

Modernism, however, was not all it was cracked up to be. With its belief in the superiority of human reasoning and achievement, and with its new-found friend “naturalism” all the romanticism, all the mystery, was taken right out of existence. Many began to doubt the sufficiency of human reasoning and wondered if there was not something more to life. The full explanation of the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism is far more involved than I wish to go and bridges numerous disciplines (including, but not limited too: Hermeneutics, Sociology, Anthropology, Literary Theory, and even Art) most of which I am ill-equipped to speak on.[5] Nonetheless Postmodernism developed as a response to the failings and weaknesses of Modernism, which, as well, include far more than I care to go into here.

Postmodern epistemology kept the “finite I” that Modernism had given us, and built off of it. For the Postmodern the “I” was not singular, but plural. There were multiple “I”s and each one was as valid as the next. And each “I” is less an individual and more of a “group, culture, or identifiable unit,”[6] each with its own influences and ways of looking at the world. Naturally accompanying this move to a more subjective starting place (the finite “I”s) was a removal of the foundationalist, objective nature of knowledge. Knowledge was no longer true for everyone, everywhere, at all times. One I’s knowledge was not the same as another’s, and objective truth was lost. What’s interesting is the view of the universe that attached itself to this epistemology. While Pre-Modernism held to a controlled universe (that controller being God), and Modernism held to a closed universe (where God was insignificant), Postmodernism affirmed an entirely open universe (where God was unknown and open to interpretation).

This open universe allowed for a belief in mysticism and superstition, a belief in religious pluralism where a myriad of gods could operate and work in the world and who were entirely involved in human existence. This rise in postmodern belief in American culture, when it met with the massive Eastern Immigration and religious diversity, sparked a new wave of cultural belief that had never been experienced in American history. Postmodernism’s union with the new religious diversity resulted in five major correlatives: (1) syncretism, the joining of divergent religious elements to create something new from both; (2) Secularization, The conviction that religious truth is only an opinion for individuals/groups, and is to be moved to the periphery of life; (3) Biblical Illiteracy, Where knowledge of the Bible is minimal at best, and more frequently is non-existent; (4) Ill-Defined Spirituality, The hallmark for where a “Faith Supermarket,” where elements of various religions can be borrowed and used to fit ones own personal conviction, and the acceptance of ideas of tolerance and Postmodern subjective truth meet. Here there is only “Spirituality,” without definition…in this way everyone can agree; (5) Glocalization[7], The questioning that with so many vastly different cultures being introduced to our nation how can we be sure that ours is the “right” one. Each of these correlatives has had their effect on our nation at large but the question I now want to address is how they affect the individual cities, particularly cities with less ethnic diversity, cities like Portsmouth, OH.

[1] I am borrowing these labels and much of this information from the brilliant work of Dr. D.A. Carson and his book The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.  Also see chapter four in Becoming Conversant With the Emergent Church.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005. 87-124.

[2] Plato himself had very similar ideas about the world and its operation, even as a pre-cursor to the emergence of Christianity.

[3] Again I know this is extremely reductionist of me, and that this was not exactly how the arguments went. By now you are realizing, however, that I am not attempting to go into major detail about any of this material.

[4] Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church. 93.

[5] I recommend seeing Francish Schaeffer, Escape from Reason. Downers Grove: IVP, 1968. And its companion volume The God Who is There. Downers Grove: IVP, 1968.

[6]Carson, 95.

[7] I have borrowed all of these labels and their understandings from Dr. Carson, Becoming Conversant.98-100, with the exception of the last one. Dr. Carson refers to this as Globalization, but in keeping with my previous discussion I have altered it to say “Glocalization.”


  1. I’ll start by guessing that most people in Portsmouth have no idea what you’re talking about in this post. 🙂

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