In December 2011, I had the immense privilege of nearly 2 hours of interview time with Dr. Stewart Kelly, professor of philosophy at Minot State University. Dr. Kelly is the author of the book, Truth Considered and Applied: Examining Postmodernism, History and Christian Faith.
This 11-minute video is an initial, very generalized summary of our discussion topics, with more to follow. Here, we summarize three worldviews that have greatly influenced Western history and culture: modernism, postmodernism and Christianity. A transcript follows the book info below.
Suffice to say, the book is much fuller in its considerations than what I can capture in a ~10 minute snapshot.
Dr. Kelly’s book is an academic read. Suitable for late senior high school, college/adult. Availability:
It goes without saying that the nature and existence of truth have great significance for the modern Christian.
-Dr. Stewart Kelly, Truth Considered and Applied
CD: I’m here with Dr. Stewart Kelly, and he is the author of Truth Considered and Applied: Examining Postmodernism, History and Christian Faith. This is a book from Broadman & Holman. And we’re going to talk about all kinds of things today.
What is Truth?
CD: I guess that we should probably start by defining postmodernism. It’s sort of a word–it’s like a catchphrase these days. People my age and younger have grown up in this worldview, and we don’t really know anything else. So we don’t have much to compare it to, and that’s fundamental to how we look at the world. What is postmodernism?
SK: It’s not an easy question. It’s complicated in the sense that it involves lots of details. You can’t really say what postmodernism is until you say what modernism is, because postmodernism is a reaction to modernism.
While the premodern outlook had been broadly theocentric, the moderns moved the locus of authority to an autonomous human reason. (quoted from Truth Considered and Applied)
SK: Briefly, modernism is the dominant worldview of the European Enlightenment, and even that is a broad generic claim, because Britain and France,The Netherlands and Germany all had their own Enlightenments, and even all those subdivide into the moderates, and the radicals, and the conservatives.
It’s the generic core view of the European Enlightenment, which is about 1660 to 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. That’s the main phase. But then it continues as the dominant worldview all the way up until 1914, when World War I starts. And, late eighteen-, early nineteen-hundreds, there’s a widespread optimism in the West that the world’s getting better, we’re making progress, and WWI devastates all of that. It’s hard to underestimate that.
But then that worldview sort of hangs on in popular culture and academia all the way until the 1960’s, and in the ’60s, in the West at least, everything comes unglued.
SK: Like modernism, there are core beliefs that many–certainly not all–postmoderns would share. They all agree that modernism is dead and gone, that it’s no longer a viable alternative or reasonable worldview.
A second one is, they stress–to use a slightly big word–our situatedness, which simply means our place in the world: the fact that our culture, our environment, our peers, the media, our country, our subculture, all come together and…
CD: And sort of…warp our perspective, I guess you might say.
SK: Well, warp depending on your point of view. But heavily influence, and if you’re not careful, pretty much 100% determine or dictate what you think about almost everything, because it’s just natural to go along with what you’re familiar with.
They also believe that there aren’t any methods for carefully evaluating reality. The big phrase is methodological objectivity. So if you talk to people in sociology, in psychology and anthropology, they would say that they have scientific or at least semi-scientific ways of studying society and humanity, and they can gather data and reach conclusions, and so forth. And that even historians have methods that they use to get in touch with what they take to be a genuine past.
But if those methods are ultimately entirely subjective, and just reflect the individuals’ desires and prejudices, and just their situation, then the possibility of having genuine knowledge goes down the tubes.
And one last point on postmodernism: they see all truth claims, not just some of them, ultimately as representing people in power, and as oppressive. And if all they are instead of being truth claims are claims that represent the powerful and keeping other people down, so to speak, then they need to be rejected.
Even though much history is politically and ideologically charged, it hardly follows that we cannot tell the difference between truthful history and propaganda. (quoted from Truth Considered and Applied)
CD: I guess people about ten years younger than myself–I’m thinking of one friend in particular who has encountered a lot of what’s being called the Emergent movement in Christianity, and really struggled and really had questions about how can we even know God? Because his way of looking at the world was that every person’s knowledge is limited, every person’s experience is situational, and every person’s experience of ‘god’ is different, so how do we know who or what God is? And how do we know if we’ve got things right, and can we ever know? And this caused him great pain, because he had no anchor for any outside objective truth.
SK: That’s heavily influenced by modern postmodernism. If you focus so much on our situation, our place in life, and then you look around and you see how many different opinions even decent, civilized people and people you respect have, you can begin to think that maybe we don’t really have access to reality or to genuine knowledge, and the best we can do are sort of…educated guesses that are pretty much subjective.
CD: That’s another problem I see with young postmodern Christians, is they really struggle with the idea of, Can Jesus be the only way? What if a person, you know, has faith, or believes in God? If they sort of believe in God from within their own paradigm, isn’t that good enough? And so there’s a loss of any sense of what a truth claim even is.
Though we live and move and have our being in cultures, our basic needs (spiritual and otherwise) transcend our situation. (quoted from Truth Considered and Applied)
SK: In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 14, when Jesus appears before Caiaphas the high priest and there’s a trial, there are a lot of issues there, but one of the ones that’s always interested me is, why exactly are they putting Jesus to death?
It’s not because he claimed to be the Messiah. They were looking for a Messiah, there had been other Messianic claimants who were at least given a chance.
Caiaphas asked him, “Are you the son of God, as people claim that you say?” And he makes a startling response and basically says, “Yes, I am,” and then he says, “And you will see the Son of Man returning on the clouds in judgment, and seated at the right hand of God.” And once he puts himself at the right hand of God, which is a claim to be divine, Caiaphas–correctly, from the Jewish viewpoint of that time–tears his robe. Blasphemy!
It’s not because he’s a great moral leader or because he’s–see, even the Messiah didn’t mean, to them, divinity. It meant a leader who would lead them out of their bondage. Political. Historical. And Jesus combines–he is the Messiah, but he combines the concept of Messiah with this Old Testament idea of the Son of Man from Daniel 7.
Historic Christianity has a huge investment in the historical enterprise. [quoted from Truth Considered and Applied]
SK: The Son of Man clearly has divine overtones, so when Caiaphas hears that, he basically tears his robe and says, you’ve heard it, what more is there to say? And he has it right, he [Jesus] is claiming to be divine.
Plus, (laughs) he’s claiming, I’m going to come back and I’m going to judge you bozos when I come back.
CD: (laughs) Which, of course, never goes over well with anyone.
SK: ‘Not only am I divine, but I’m coming back to judge you guys, and you guys are toast,’ is what he’s telling them. And that’s what gets him executed.
SK: So I don’t know any way to affirm traditional, either historic or evangelical, Christianity without also affirming that Jesus is who he claimed he is, and there are not a whole bunch of ways to get there.
History refers both to what happened in the past, and to writing about the past.
Whatever else the Gospels might be, they are historically reliable documents.
(quoted from Truth Considered and Applied)