Worldviews Summer: Christian World View – Postmodernism #2

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 11, 2004

John 18:33-38

Wednesday Evening

August 11, 2004

John 18:33-38

“Christian World View” — Postmodernism II

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Before we begin tonight I have just a few announcements,
some of which pertain to our study this summer, and some which don’t. And the
first announcement has to do with books. I’ve mentioned the two books that I’m
about to tell you about a couple of times during the course of our study this
summer, and Doug has managed to get hold of these two books (which are pretty
hard to get hold of).

One is a book by Harry Blamires.
I had mentioned to you earlier in the summer, Blamires has a number of books in
print. He’s an educator from Kent, in England; he’s taught at Oxford; he was a
student of C. S. Lewis in the English department at Oxford, and has followed in
his footsteps writing in the area of education and worldview. And his book
The Christian Mind
is the first book, perhaps, that he published that caught
a lot of folks’ attention in terms of the way he presented these issues. If you
go by the Library Bookstore, you should be able to find a copy of Harry Blamires’
The Christian Mind. Really, if you stumble across a Blamires’ book in
the bookstore, it’s always worth getting. So anything that you see by him would
be well worth your time.

The second book that I mentioned,
and I just mentioned this one last week, is Dinesh D’Souza’s book, Illiberal
. That book was, I believe, published sometime in the early
‘90’s. D’Souza was a staff member in the Reagan administration, lectures on
college campuses all over the place on areas from education policy to racism, to
this and that and the other. Outstanding writer. You will occasionally see his
columns in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The National Review,
et cetera. His book, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on

There is a sense in which
D’Souza’s book illustrates the point that Allen Bloom made in his book The
Closing of the American Mind,
and I’m going to quote from that book tonight,
because it’s the best single representation of how Postmodernism has impacted
the college and university campuses of the United States. But what D’Souza does
is, he takes Bloom’s brilliant point out of the sphere of theory and he shows
you how that point is working out in practice all over the nation. I’ll give
you an example that was shared with me by one of our staff members tonight,
later on. But that book will be available next week in our Library Bookstore.
So I want to thank Doug for letting me know that, and I wanted to let you know
about that.

Now, if you have your Bibles, let
me ask you to turn with me to John, the Gospel of John, and the eighteenth
chapter. Since we’re looking at Postmodernism…we looked at Postmodernism last
week, and this week we’re looking at “Postmodernism Goes to College,” it seemed
appropriate to go to this passage which actually reflects something of the
spirit of Postmodernism being in existence some twenty centuries before
Postmodernism became a coined term. And I want to direct your attention to John
18, beginning in verse 33. This is Jesus on the night of His betrayal, already
having been taken before the priests, now having been taken before Pilate, the
Roman official; and here is the interview between Jesus and Pilate.

Verse 33: “Pilate therefore
entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus, and said to Him, “You are
the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own
initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew,
am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You up to me; what have
You done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom
were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be
delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
Pilate therefore said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say
correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come
into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth
hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”

That is so Postmodern! It is also so Roman. Notice
his interest is in power, not in truth. He wants to know if Jesus is a King.
He doesn’t care about Jesus’ message. All he’s interested in is if Jesus is on
a power trip. That’s all he cares about, and he’s a Roman! That’s just so
classical Roman. It’s also so Postmodernism: “What is truth?”

Now John, recording those words
of Pilate, knows that you remember that something like four hours earlier than
this interview Jesus had been asked a question by His disciples. Are you
remembering the question? Turn back to John 14. Thomas, of all people, has
asked Him a question in John 14:5: “Thomas said to Him, “Lord we do not know
where You are going; how do we know the way?”

And John knows that you remember when you hear
Pilate cynically saying, “What is truth?”–John knows that you remember that
Jesus had answered doubting Thomas by saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and
the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me.” And so here’s cynical
Pilate saying, “What is truth?” And Truth is standing in front of him. It’s
just…it’s colossally ironic, but you know what? It’s a picture of the gospel
speaking to this postmodern world of ours that doesn’t believe in truth any
more, and so inoculates itself against the message of truth and hope and life.
So that’s what we’re going to look at in the college setting tonight.

I. The cultural move to Postmodernism

Let me just remind you of a couple of things that we
said last week. We gave a definition of Postmodernism last week, but let me
start off with three definitions tonight. We’ll come back to that definition of
Postmodernism, because first of all, the short definition of it was a pretty
multi-syllabic definition, and we want to make sure we’ve got it clear in our
minds. But I want you to be aware of some precursors to Postmodernism, and I
want to speak three terms to you: Modernization; Modernity; and, Postmodern.

Just keep those in your mind for a minute, and I want to define those
things, because Modernization sets the stage for what sociologists call
Modernity; and Modernity sets the stage for what we call Postmodernism.

What do we mean by Modernization? Well,
sociologically speaking, by Modernization we mean that process of
reorganization of our society that has occurred via urbanization
(the cities
becoming bigger and more central to our culture); industrialization; the
communications and transportation revolution. Sociologists will point out that
all those things–the communication and transportation revolution,
industrialization, and urbanization–have resulted in a reorganization of our
society. We don’t function like we used to, because of those things. Those
things have changed a lot of realities about the way we normally would have
functioned. If you go back before the Industrial Revolution, or you go back
before the urbanization explosion that really began in the nineteenth century,
and you go back before the communications and transportation revolution (which
is primarily a twentieth century phenomenon), life looks very different. You
live very differently.

Now, sociologists make this observation: those very
kinds of hard changes to society create what they call “new plausibility
structures.” By that, they simply mean that those changes make you have a
tendency to view the world differently than people would have before those
And so the effect of Modernization is what they call the
“Plausibility Structure of Modernity.” So Modernization–all these technological
and industrial advances–Modernization leads to Modernity.

What is Modernity?” Well, it’s the result of
Modernization. It’s the thought-world, or the outlook that is produced by
our experience of Modernization, and it disposes us to believe certain key
Think of it: the immigration patterns of the nineteenth century
changed America from being predominantly a Protestant country to being a
multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious entity. We’ve always talked about
America being a melting pot. The bottom line is, before the massive immigration
changes of the nineteenth century, we were predominantly a Protestant country.
We weren’t, of course, according to our Constitution; but we were socially and
culturally a Protestant country.

That has been changed. Current sociologists are
already preparing us for the time when those of Anglo-Saxon descent are a
distinct minority in America. Now, you couldn’t even have conceived of such a
thing in 1850.

Now, what impact does that have? Well, think of the way we
look at the world now, in terms of pluralism–the idea that you can’t say that
any one religion or any one worldview is better than another. Well, in 1850
that idea in a predominantly Protestant society would not have had much
plausibility to it. You would have been surrounded by people who basically
thought like you thought. The big arguments would have been between Lutherans,
Presbyterians, and Baptists! Well, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Baptists look
like kissing-cousins in 2004, when you look at the landscape of belief in the
United States. So the very societal changed, the demographic changes that we’ve
gone through in our society have created a greater plausibility for someone who
wants to look out at the world and say that all religions are the same. Because
we’re surrounded by a multi-cultural, multi-religious society, and to get along
with those folks you don’t want to be saying that they’re dead wrong about the
most important thing in life all the time!

So the social change creates a mental climate where
you can buy into things more easily than you might have bought into them
before. Now that doesn’t make those things right or wrong, or true or false.
In fact, we’re going to argue that some of those social changes have made it
easier for us to buy into things that are wrong, rather than to buy into things
that are right. But you need to understand that process: that Modernization
leads to Modernity–this outlook which has, in large measure, grown out of some
of these realities of the communications and transportation revolution,
industrialization, and urbanization–has predisposed us to look at the world in a
particular way, especially with regard to individualism, relativism, pluralism,
and privatization (and I’ll define those in just a moment).

Now, in the wake of that–that thought-world, that
outlook that sociologists call Modernity–comes what we call Postmodernism,
which is a worldview. And Postmodernism, you remember, we said–here’s the big
multi-syllabic three-word definition–Postmodernism means an incredulity to
. Now, nobody but linguists and English professors are with
me at this point, so let me just back up and say all that means is this:
the Postmodernist doesn’t think, and doesn’t like
people to come up with one overarching story that explains everything, and claim
it to be true in contrast to other overarching stories that try and explain
. So it’s fine for the Hindu to have his story, and for
the American Indian to have his story, and for the Presbyterian to have his
story, and the atheist to have his story, and the Naturalist to have his
story…as long as none of them claim that they have The Story.

You remember I shared with you that my Russian history professor made a
statement in class. We were discussing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the
unlikely victory of this minority party in Russian politics, which changed the
landscape of the twentieth century, and he was talking about Bolsheviks and he
began to compare them to Puritans. And he said, “You know, the Bolsheviks were
really a lot like the Puritans. They thought they had found truth with a
capital “T”.” And then he paused and he said, “Now just remember, any time you
meet anyone who thinks that he or she has found truth with a capital “T”, you
run in the opposite direction as fast as you can.” Now the history stopped
there, and what we got was a little bit of a worldview lesson. And what was the
worldview lesson? It was a worldview lesson in Relativism. (If I had known it,
I could have called it Postmodernism then, but I was a junior in college–what
did I know? But that’s what he was doing.) He was assessing this claim to
absolute truth in light of a commitment to no one story being authoritative, no
one story being true, no one explanatory framework being true. This is the
essence of Postmodernism.

II. Influence of Postmodernism on education

Now what happens when that goes to college? What
happens when that kind of a commitment, that there is no authoritative story
that gives an overarching explanation of the whole of life, what happens when
that goes to college? Well, Allen Bloom says that when that goes to
college the possibility of education ceases, because the
function of the university becomes to convince you that there is no truth to be
And that’s why Dinesh D’Souza calls his book
Illiberal Education
. The education experience is really not open to
learning. It precludes the possibility of learning. Once
you have decided that there is nothing true to learn, how can you learn anything
true? The university becomes the place that continues to reinforce in
you your own presupposition, your own worldview that there is no such thing as
absolute truth.

Listen to what Allen Bloom says about this in his
Closing of the American Mind.
This book was published back in the 1980’s,
and here’s what he’s saying about students:

“There is one thing a
professor can be absolutely certain of. Almost every student entering the
university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this
belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction. They will be
uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident
astonishes them, as though he were calling into question two plus two equals
four. These are things you don’t even have to think about.

“The students’ backgrounds are
as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some atheists; some to
the left, some to the right. Some intend to be scientists, some, humanists or
professionals or business men. Some are poor, some rich. They are unified only
in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality, and the two are related
in moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight, but a
moral postulate. It is the condition of a free society (or so they see it).

“They have all been
equipped with this framework early on. It is the modern replacement for the
inalienable rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free
society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of
their response when challenged: a combination of disbelief and indignation: “Are
you an absolutist?”–the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as,
“Are you a monarchist?” or “Do you really believe in witches?” The latter leads
into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a
witch-hunter, or a Salem judge.

“The danger they have been
taught to fear from Absolutism is not error, but intolerance.
Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is the only
virtue which all primary education for more than fifty years has been dedicated
to inculcating. The true believer is the real danger. The point is not to
correct the mistakes and to really be right; the point of education is rather
not to think that you are right at all.”

Fifty years ago, when you were in college, you might
have had a liberal in your college religion department trying to convince you
that you were wrong. But your own children have someone sitting in the chair
today, not who is trying to convince them that he or she is wrong, but that
everybody’s wrong, and everybody’s right; and nobody’s wrong, and nobody’s
right; and that may be true for you, but it’s not true for them. It’s a very,
very different dynamic, and it poses very different challenges for you as
parents who are preparing young people for that kind of environment.

When my dad went to college, he went to college as a
veteran of the Second World War. He had been a Marine in the South Pacific,
came back from North China and enrolled in Wofford College, which was a college
not unlike Millsaps, right across the street. The Methodist college of South
Carolina had very liberal religion professors, and in his religion class in the
first semester his religion professor went after historic evangelical
Christianity hammer and tong. But his premise was, it was wrong. And he was
trying to convince the class that their closely held beliefs were wrong.

In the final exam, the students were to give fifteen
psychological reasons why Jesus felt the need to die, because Jesus’ death was
explained as the consequence of some sort of psychological malfunction. My
father did not answer any of the questions in the way the professor had wanted
the questions to be answered, and signed his test and handed it in with these
words at the bottom: “You don’t have guts enough to fail me.” He took that
course three more times at Wofford College, and finally passed as a senior with
a D minus.

That’s a classic picture of a conflict between a
liberal and a conservative in the old world, before Postmodernism. Now the
conflict is entirely different. Now the conflict is not between the professor
who says, “You’re stupid and wrong, and I’m smart and right.” It’s between the
professor who says. “Our problem is that you believe you’re right, and you need
to come to understand that there’s no such thing as truth at all; and that what
you think is true is fine for you, as long as you don’t impose it on anybody

Now the danger that poses for us is that in Sunday
School and at your kitchen table, your young person may hear you saying, “This
is what we believe; this is why we believe it; this is where we believe it
from.” And he or she may nod his or her head, “Yeah. I believe that’s true.”
And you, hearing them from that old framework, hear them affirming the same
truth that you believe to be universally and absolutely true. But in their mind
what they are saying is not, “I believe that this is universally and absolutely
true.” They’re saying, “OK, Mom, OK Dad. I can embrace that that’s true for
us.” But when they get into their high school classroom here in town, or their
college or university classroom out of town (or in town), they have a harder
time believing that what they believe is true is absolutely and universally true
for everyone in their class, even dear friends they have met who have radically
different worldviews.

III. Impact of postmodernism on
religion and Christians in school

And so Postmodernism impacts religion and Christians in the
educational system in the following six ways:

1. First of all, it asserts that all religions
boil down to the same thing.
Now, don’t try and confuse somebody with the
facts on this. You know, it doesn’t matter whether you can show that a Muslim
does not in fact have the same doctrinal beliefs and commitments that an
evangelical Christian has. The assumption will be made on the part of the
Postmodernist that all religions boil down to the same thing.

2. Secondly, what’s true for you may not be true
for me.

3. Thirdly, all religious systems, followed
sincerely, lead to the same spiritual reality.
Woe unto you if you suggest
that the sincere believer of another religious system is not going to end up
with the same eternal reward that you expect for yourself.

4. Fourth, no religious assertions can claim to
be true, and all of them are subject to revision.

5. Fifth, truth claims are simply linguistic
constructs, and they are derived from our own presuppositions.
They’re not
based on anything real. They don’t derive from something transcendent. They
basically come from our language, and they are derived from the things that we
have already presupposed about the world. In other words, truth is our own
personal grid imposed upon the world. It’s not something discovered in the
world that forms the way that we look at the world.

6. And sixth, religious assertions are good
insofar as they help people live in harmony.
So you can believe what you
want, as long as it leads to harmony. That’s why, in almost all of the cases of
your students in university, going into university this year, going into
orientation courses, one of the key things that will be beat into their heads is
their moral judgments and their truth claims are perfectly fine, as long as they
impose them on no one else.

I was told by a staff member this afternoon to take
a look at his daughter’s web log. She’s a recruiter for a major state
university in a nearby state, a state that thinks of itself as a “whole ‘nother
country”–and they have an orientation week for freshmen. And one of the things
they do at that orientation week is, they make jolly well sure that you
understand that heterosexuality is no better than homosexuality. They have
instituted a gender-sensitivity training component of the orientation
curriculum, and are even now establishing same-sex dorm halls, and establishing
recruiting quotas for homosexual students in comparison to the heterosexual
population. And every student going through that orientation class is going to
be told that “you must respect this as a legitimate lifestyle, and you cannot
impose your own bigotry on other people if you disagree. You want to think that
privately, that’s fine: you keep it to yourself. The way we’re going to operate
in public is, we’re going to accept this as equally valid, because religious
assertions are good only insofar as they contribute to the harmony of the
community.” And should you ever contribute to the disharmony of the community,
your religious assertions have lost their value.

There you see Postmodernism working out in the
university. Over the next few weeks, Derek’s going to explore with us the
impact of Postmodernity on the church. We’ll be looking at the Bible and the
glorious truth claims of the Bible, as well as the Christian doctrine of God,
and how that biblical teaching about who God is helps us to speak to this
particular situation in our own day and time.

Thanks for hanging
with me through two weeks on Postmodernism. You get a blue ribbon for your
patience! Let’s stand and pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank You that Jesus is the way and
the truth, and the life; and even when we speak in a culture which is cynical
about truth, we take great joy and comfort in the thought that the disciples had
to speak to a culture that was also skeptical about the truth, and in which
there were every manner of truth claim under the sun, and yet the gospel
prevailed. And it prevailed precisely because it was true, and Jesus is the
truth. And we thank You that that’s still true today. Help us to live in
confidence, but also with discernment, in our own day and time about this
important reality. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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