SUNDAY, AUGUST 3, 2014
Our Confusing Times
We live in a time of great moral and intellectual confusion. At the risk of being misunderstood, I have come to the conclusion that this confusion results from the inordinate influence of the philosophers and intellectuals of the last two centuries. I say this after spending the last months trying to understand postmodernism and in particular the writings of Jacque Derrida and his opposition to metaphysics. While philosophy means “love of wisdom” (philos + sophia), it has not always produced wisdom. Too often, and in our generation particularly, philosophy and philosophers have contributed to folly and confusion. One would think that scholars, who build their careers on using the rules of logic would be able to think clearly, but sadly, they do not. Philosophers excel at obfuscation. They use difficult terms (which they often invent) in order to argue for things that if clearly understood would be revealed to be false or contradictory or simply devoid of common sense. For example Immanuel Kant is considered the most influential philosopher of the last 300 years. In his famous book, The Critique of Pure Reason, he argued that we, human beings, have only a partial and ultimately inadequate knowledge of the world in which we live. He said that we are only capable of perceptions of the objects in the world (phenomena) and have no access to the “thing-in-itself” (noumena). In other words, when we touch an object, the nerves in our fingers activate a region of our brain to give us the sensation of touching the object, but that does not give us direct knowledge of the object, it only gives us the “sensation” of touching it. Kant went further in his writings to claim that our minds are the ordering principle of the world. In other words, we “see” order in the world because that is how our brains are wired. According to Kant, order may or may not actually be there. Thus, our knowledge of the world is indirect and occurs mainly in our heads. If you think about it (which we often don’t do because we’re intimidated by the philosophical language), we would see that this is a very cynical and even distorted way of describing how we use our senses to navigate through the world in which we live. Our eyes are like video cameras, they are taking pictures of the objects around us. Their function can be explained using the laws of physics, and we are well within our logical rights to believe that we are obtaining an accurate “picture” of the world we see. While our “knowledge” of the object we are seeing is not absolute, it is adequate. We are able to corroborate what we are seeing by asking the person standing next to us if they see it too. We can even ask them to describe the color, shape, and size. In our everyday lives, we rely on our senses and have nearly complete confidence that they are accurately seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching the real objects that inhabit our world. We prove their reliability and accuracy every day as we use them to safely cross a street, handle the everyday objects of life, and observe our surroundings. Each of our senses are independent means of detecting the real objects and phenomenon that make up the reality of the world we live in, and we clearly rely on them every moment of our lives. Only a philosopher could question the reliability of our senses and their capacity to give us knowledge of our world. Kant opened the philosophical door to the profound skepticism of the present postmodern culture. Kevin Vanhoozer in his important book,Is There a Meaning in This Text? points out that several of the most significant postmodern writers, Richard Rorty, Jacque Derrida, and Stanley Fisch, believe that there is no determinate meaning in any written text, and that, in essence, we can interpret any written document according to our personal, ideological, cultural, or political preferences. This means, of course, that nothing is really true, and that everything is relative to our condition, desires, or needs. It is the modern equivalence of “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” But even worse, it is a complete offense to common sense. To claim that a written text doesn’t have an inherent meaning is to deny the very act of written communication. We have to ask why several generations of intellectuals have embraced assumptions about the world and our capacity for knowledge that are so clearly at odds with common sense and practical experience? Some of it is peer pressure and the power of the shared worldview of the academic community. But, as I have argued in my book and elsewhere, there is another force at work in modern culture: the desire to escape the rules and restrictions of traditional Christian values. It is Dostoyevsky’s famous quotation, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” Whether they are conscious of it or not, these men are anti-authoritarian as much or more than they are intellectually skeptical. But there has been a very dark side to this pursuit of libertarian freedom. It has given rise to the kinds of moral confusion that we see all around us. As was famously said (Chesterton, I think), if we cease believing in God we do not end up believing in nothing, we end up believing inanything. In many ways, postmodernism is a Pandora’s box that has unleashed moral and spiritual chaos. Who would have thought that the heirs of Plato and Aristotle, the professional thinkers and logicians, would lead us into such a wasteland? I believe it is because they have ulterior motives (conscious or unconscious) to reject the moral restrictions that accompany Christianity. They are the fulfillment of David’s description of the world rulers in Psalm 2: “Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!” What are these “fetters,” what are these “cords?” Are they not the moral restrictions that we have spent the last several decades “liberating” ourselves from? The problem is that this process has not given us liberty but rather resulted in moral and social dysfunction. One could rightly ask how many lives have been damaged or destroyed by their ideas? This is a truly serious problem and, those of us who follow Jesus must work to counter this terrible assault on reason and truth. We must live out our faith and show by word and deed what is good and right and true. The only way to push back the darkness is to shine the light.