McLaren continues with his criticism. The modern view of Christianity is not the absolute, ultimate truth; it is rather a “view from a point”. As modern Christians, what we thought of as objective certainty is really reliant on our subjective preference for our personal viewpoint.[i] Instead of our faith being compared to a building (an allusion to foundationalist epistemology), it is a spiderweb. Neo explains, “Instead of one foundation, it has several anchor points. Those points might be spiritual experiences, exemplary people or institutions that one has come to trust.”[ii] McLaren is not explicit in outlining the philosophical argument in the text, but it becomes evident as the reader puts the pieces together and examines his footnotes.
McLaren credits and takes his lead from both Nancey Murphy and Alasdair MacIntrye (both postmodern Christian philosophers) in his thought. Postmodern philosophy is primarily a reinterpretation for what counts as knowledge and is a form of cultural relativism. Historically in western thought (well before the modern age), there has been a commitment to metaphysical realism, i.e. the existence of a theory-independent or language-independent reality. Related to this is the notion that there is one way the world really is and that basic laws of logic (identity, noncontradiction, excluded middle) apply to reality. For postmoderns, “reality” is a social construction which is created by language.[iii] So instead of the Kantian idea of being trapped behind our senses so that we cannot get to reality, they stipulate that we are trapped behind language and cannot know reality for what it is. They do not deny that something is out there but rather that we cannot know it for what it really is.
Postmodernists in turn reject the correspondence theory of truth, the notion that the truth of a proposition is related to whether it corresponds to “reality”. Truth or what we know is shaped by the culture in which we live as controlled by our emotions, aesthetics and heritage.[iv] McLaren derives this epistemology by pointing to examples in history where certain models were discarded for new models (such as Copernicus to Newton to Einstein). Surely, if humanity has been mistaken in the past, we should not be so sure of our knowledge now, as it has been shaped by our culture or community. This is misguided. What McLaren shows in examples such as Copernicus, Newton and Einstein is not that the previous model in each case was inaccurate in corresponding to reality but that the models were incomplete or inadequate. It isn’t that Newton’s model did not work any longer, but Einstein’s model explained reality better. It becomes false to conclude that we cannot get to reality at all. This leads to the next point.
Another contributor for rejecting a correspondence theory of knowledge by postmoderns is the idea that we must know something absolutely, perfectly and exhaustively for it to qualify as knowledge. Since this is impossible, this leads to the conclusion that “human knowledge” is only the perspective of some individual or community. This assumption demands that we must be God to know something or we cannot know anything objective. This becomes the “straw man” that postmoderns attack as the representative of foundationalist epistemology.
So is foundationalist epistemology (one of the hallmarks of western philosophy) dead? Foundationalism is the theory that all knowledge rests on foundations and distinguishes between some beliefs that depend on other beliefs and some beliefs that are justified in a basic way.[v] This is also called basic and nonbasic beliefs. An example of a nonbasic belief is the belief that the wind is blowing by hearing the leaves rustling. Some examples of basic beliefs are those formed on the basis of our sensory experiences, memory, truths of mathematics (2+2=4) and logical truths (If P, then Q: P, therefore Q).[vi] These beliefs are not based on any other beliefs for their justification.
What postmoderns do not explain is that there are two varieties of foundationalism: strong and weak foundationalism. Strong foundationalists insist that basic beliefs are infallible, indubitable, certain or incorrigible. In other words, it would be impossible for the belief to be mistaken, or there exists no grounds for doubting the belief in question.[vii] The philosopher Descartes (1596-1650AD) conducted an experiment to determine what he could use as a foundation for knowledge that could not be doubted. What he found is that there are very few such certain foundations in order to build knowledge e.g. “I think, therefore I exist.” Postmoderns would be hard pressed to find any living philosopher who insists on this Cartesian certainty for knowledge. On the other hand, weak foundationalists deny that the basic beliefs must have such a strong epistemic status – the person must merely have no reason to think there are defeaters of the belief. If such defeaters did exist, then this would remove the justification for the belief. Also, foundationalists allow some role for coherence to play in overall justification. If a person’s set of beliefs are incoherent, then this would count against the justification for that set of beliefs, whereas if an entire set of beliefs cohere well with each others, this provides positive epistemic support to any nonbasic beliefs.[viii]
Postmoderns instead value coherency as the only reason for justification. A belief constitutes knowledge if it is coherent with a whole set of beliefs, which in turn was developed by your community. Knowledge becomes a construction of one’s social group or language community. They reject the foundationalist view as they portray this as the search for epistemic certainty (which is impossible). This means basic beliefs from the foundationalist view are no longer justified, such as perception. This is because all those perceptions are done within our community and are “theory-laden,” and only beliefs can justify other beliefs.[ix] This leads to the postmoderns’ claim that the “external world” is just a construction – not just of our perceptions (as Kant or Descartes would suggest), but of the language of our community. This language is not just the words we use but one’s linguistic categories and practices within your community – this becomes the barrier to get to the external world.[x] Because of this, postmoderns deny the referential use of language, such that when we consider a sentence, “There is a computer in front of me,” the word computer does not refer to some specific thing in a language independent world. Instead, the word computer gets its meaning from the community by its relationship to other words[xi] and it only has use within the language community because of our inability to access the “external world”. Lastly, postmoderns claim there are no metanarratives, since there is no God’s eye view whereby one can determine between the competing conceptual schemes (or worldviews) which one is true or more rational.
There are many problems with this view of knowledge starting with the fact that it is self-refuting or meaningless at best. Postmoderns attempt to tell us how “reality” is but, at the same time, deny we can know “reality” – this is self-refuting. In other words, they presuppose what they deny – access to a mind and language independent reality.[xii] These writers claim to give us knowledge about the superiority of postmodernism including what language is and how it works, but with no metanarratives available to them. The question becomes how can they be telling us anything but knowledge within their own community (which does not apply to anyone outside of it)? The information has no meaning (if what they say is true), or if what they claim corresponds to reality, it refutes their own view (since we cannot have access to this).
Another objection to postmodern epistemology is answering how one can adjudicate between different language communities. If no foundations exist for knowledge, logic itself becomes inherent to the language community, and this resource is unavailable to judge whether one worldview is rationally superior to another, i.e. closer to reality. A postmodern response might be that we cannot determine which is better as this was the problem with the modern age – in trying to suggest there is an objective reality and objective truths that we can know. This seems counter-intuitive, but more importantly this also goes back to the first objection in that postmoderns are telling us their view of reality is more accurate (than the modern one) without the resources to do so.
Lastly, postmodern’s rejection of the referential use of language does not follow from their analysis. Our access (on their view) is through our language, which acts as a map to reality. We cannot check the validity of the map against reality, and thus, we can know nothing outside of our language. Douglas Groothuis criticizes this logic by comparing this to claiming that because we can drive any number of kinds of trucks, cars, bicycles or motorcycles; we can never arrive at the same destination. He continues, “We do not create different worlds through our languages as the postmodernists would have it, but we do use varying descriptions of the actual world, which may correspond or fail to correspond to the world that is there.”[xiii]
[i] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, 35.
[ii] Ibid., 54.
[iii] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 145.
[iv] D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church, 27.
[v] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations For a Christian Worldview, 112.
[vi] Ibid., 112-113.
[viii] Ibid., 115.
[ix] Ibid., 124.
[x] Ibid., 148.
[xi] Ibid., 149.
[xii] Ibid., 150-151. Also, Scott Smith emphasized this point in lectures for this class.
[xiii] Douglas Groothuis, “Facing the Challenge of Postmodernism,” in To Everyone An Answer ed. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).