27 July 2009

Can We Talk?

Can't we all just get along?
Why "playing nice" by postmodernist standards is a losing proposition
by Phil Johnson

This post is from 2005, the year I began blogging. It states some things that have been recurring themes here ever since. Enjoy.


The favorite buzzwords of the postmodern spirit all sound so warm and friendly, don't they? Conversation, dialogue, openness, generosity, tolerance. Who wouldn't want to participate in discourse with someone who truly prized human values such as those?

On the other hand, the very same Zeitgeist has demonized a host of other essential biblical values, such as authority, conviction, clarity, and even truth. In the milieu of the emerging discussion, this second category of words has been made to sound harsh, unreasonable, arrogant, and extreme—if not downright evil.

Moreover, postmodern human values are increasingly being defined in a way that expressly precludes eternal biblical values. For example, the prevailing opinion nowadays is that you cannot be "open" and certain at the same time. A person who speaks with too much conviction is ipso facto deemed an "intolerant" person. Above all, anyone who recognizes the full authority of Scripture and insists that God's Word deserves our unconditional submission will inevitably be accused of deliberately trying to stymie the whole "conversation."

This is not to suggest that disagreement per se is prohibited in the postmodern dialectic. Quite the contrary, "deconstruction" is all about disputes over words. Postmoderns thrive on dissent, debate, and contradiction.

And (giving credit where credit is due) it should be noted that postmodernists can sometimes be amazingly congenial in their verbal sparring with one another.

One thing the participants in the postmodern "conversation" simply will not tolerate, however, is someone who disagrees and thinks the point is really serious. Virtually no heresy is ever to be regarded as damnable. The notion that erroneous doctrine can actually be dangerous is deemed uncouth and naive. Every bizarre notion gets equal respect. Truth itself is only a matter of personal perspective, you see. Everything is ultimately negotiable.

Now, if you want to join the postmodern "conversation," you are expected to acknowledge all this up front—at least tacitly. That's the price of admission to the discussion. Once you're in, you can throw any bizarre idea you want on the table, no matter how outlandish. You can use virtually any tone or language to make your point, no matter how outrageous. But you must bear in mind that all disputation at this table is purely for sport. At the end of the day, you mustn't really be concerned about the truth or falsehood of any mere propositions.

Some "conversation." The ground rules guarantee that truth itself will be a casualty in every controversy, because regardless of the substance or the outcome of the dialogue, participants have in effect agreed up front that the propositions under debate don't really matter.

Entering the "conversation" at all is tantamount to breaking the seal on a software package. The moment you do it, you have putatively given your consent to the postmodernist's ground rules. If you then violate those rules—meaning if you take any doctrine too seriously or insist that Scripture is really authoritative—you will be savaged as someone who is cruel, intolerant, unenlightened, and hopelessly arrogant.

That's why it is well-nigh impossible to have an authentic, meaningful conversation with a devoted postmodernist and ever see anything genuinely resolved. The postmodernist by definition has no real hope or expectation of arriving at the truth of any matter. That's not the goal of the postmodernist exercise. It's not even a desirable objective. The only real point is to eliminate certitude altogether. This is done not by settling disputes, but by silencing or assimilating everyone who resists the unrestrained free flow of the postmodernist idea-exchange.

Truth is under attack on countless fronts today. What's popular these days—even among professing Christians—is glorying in ambiguity and uncertainty. Precious few are still committed without reservation to the truth and authority of Scripture. The very last thing I would willingly do in times like these would be to pledge a moratorium on candor or agree to a ceasefire with people who delight in testing the limits of orthodoxy. See Nehemiah 6:2-4.

Phil's signature


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Thanks for reposting this. This essay has stood the test of time since 2005.

Paul said...

There is that, which is well stated, but there is also the Christocentric approach which leaves every verse of scripture limited to the gospel and open to a subjective interpretation thereof. Whats the difference? Mac bemoans the following on page 14 of Truth War:
“Even some professing Christians nowadays argue along these lines: 'If truth is personal, it cannot be propositional. If truth is embodied in the person of Christ, then the form of a proposition can't possibly express authentic truth. That is why most of scripture is told to us in narrative form-as a story- not as a set of propositions.'

This is the exact same mantra I constantly hear coming out of the New Covenant Theology crowd. That “story” is the gospel. When you use a faulty hermeneutic, anything can come out the other end: works, let go and let God, or whatever else. The more I study the issues, the more I have to believe that contemporary forms of NCT actually came out of Postmodern thought.

Mesa Mike said...

Have faith in your doubt.
"Dubeism" as someone else has called it.

stratagem said...

I personally have concluded that to be a believer in these times, one has to conscioulsy let go of the notion of wanting to be thought of as "open-minded," "tolerant," and other feel-good phrases that supposedly everyone wants to be these days. I have gotten to the point that I am resigned to being thought of by some as being intolerant and even bigoted, narrow-minded, and so on. As long as I am satisfied that I don't meet the Biblical standard of those terms, I am pretty much at peace with some people thinking that about me. The alternative would be to stand for nothing.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

If I were an Emerger, I would ask myself if whether Phil's essay is a straw-man caricature of the postmodern emerger ethos. If it is, then I could safely dismiss it. But if it isn't, then I'd have to do a serious rethink about whether to stand in the stream of Emerger conversation.

IMHO, this essay hits home and is not a strawman argument.

Paul said...

To stratagems point, a large part of the NT is an apostolic call to discernment in the "last days" which is marked by Christ dieing on the cross. We are told constantly that this would be an age characterized by deception.

jeff said...

It seems to me that creeds and confessions are very much on the "outs" in protestant denominations.

Anonymous said...

I think the reasons for this are varied. One thing has been the shift from foundationalism to a "web" or coherence view of truth (truth is an interrelated system of ideas, not absolute propositions) reinforced by technological connectivity. The result is a generation used to tapping into a vast sea of "experts." Theology is less about listening to tradition and dogma, but now about self-discovered truths. Dialogue can be helpful in showing the interrelatedness of tradition and practice, though as you wisely observe, it requires an honest DIalogue, not the MONOlogues common to some of the more extreme memebers of the emerging stream (though some of the latter have lost momentum in the last few years).

Chris Wiles

Phil Johnson said...


Johnny Dialectic said...

What we need is a conversation about Phil's Miami crime boss photo. That, and the premature obituary of foundtionalism.

Mesa Mike said...

... and I think we need to stand in a stream of conversation about whether self-discovered truths are better than the ones already written down for us by God.

Anonymous said...

I have yet to meet any of these post-moderns who merely tolerate anything. If your complaint is that nothing is resolved, well that's often true of conversations with people of opposing viewpoints no matter the subject.