Apologetics, Cultural Liturgies, and Our Postmodern Age

by Trevin Wax

Yesterday, I began a conversation with Nancy Pearcey about her new book, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. Today, we continue this discussion and focus on the benefits and limits of worldview training.

Trevin Wax: James K. A. Smith makes the case that worldview analysis isn’t enough when it comes to discipleship, since we are formed by cultural liturgies, not just philosophical beliefs. What are the limits of worldview training?

Nancy Pearcey: The issue raised by James K. A. Smith is whether we are shaped less by belief than by practice — by ways of life or what he calls “liturgies.” The idea of the primacy of practice comes out of postmodernism, which claims that people’s beliefs are shaped by the patterns of life embodied in their communities. On one hand, that seems obvious. On the other hand, when we borrow an idea from an existing intellectual tradition, we must analyze it carefully to make sure we are not absorbing non-biblical assumptions in the process.

The idea that individuals are constituted by their communities is a common theme in a philosophical tradition called continental philosophy. The theme can be traced back to the German philosopher Hegel, who taught that the real actor in history is not the individual but a Universal Mind, a kind of collective consciousness. As philosopher Robert Solomon explains, the Universal Mind creates the world “through the shared aspects of a culture, a society, and above all through a shared language.” Individuals are constituted by the customs, values, and habits of the groups to which they belong.

Over time, Hegel’s Universal Mind was dropped, but what remained was the idea that individuals are shaped by communal forces. They are not producers of culture so much as products of a particular culture with its forms of life.

In our own day, this has led to the postmodern claim that ideas are merely social constructions stitched together by cultural forces. Individuals are little more than mouthpieces for communities based on race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity. The implication is that people believe what they do not because they have good reasons but because they are black or white, male or female, Asian or Hispanic, or whatever.

This is radically dehumanizing. It implies that individuals are powerless to rise above the communities to which they belong. It is a form of reductionism that dissolves individual identity into group identity. Christian philosopher Dooyeweerd called it the “ideology of community.”

In Finding Truth, I argue that every worldview gets some things right, which means we can be open and respectful, gleaning what is good wherever we find it. Postmodernism has been a helpful corrective to modernism. It has done good service in countering the lonely individualism of the Enlightenment’s autonomous self. It rejects the modernist project of thinkers like Bacon and Descartes to start history over from scratch within the isolated individual consciousness.

But just as we should not uncritically accept Enlightenment-inspired philosophies, so we should not uncritically accept postmodernism.

Postmodernists reject the Enlightenment ideal of neutral, objective knowledge on the grounds that everyone’s perspective is “situated” in a context that is particular, local, and historically contingent. But they often overlook the fact that their own claims are likewise situated. After all, where did postmodernism come from? As we just saw, it is a strand of modern European intellectual history, stemming from post-Hegelian continental philosophy with its claim that consciousness is shaped by communal ways of life. Postmodernists are just as restricted by their own historical horizons as the more traditional people whom they tend to look down on.

Finding Truth gives guidelines for practicing biblical discernment with any set of ideas, identifying what they get right and where they go wrong.

Trevin Wax: You present a five-step approach to apologetics…

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Apologetics, Cultural Liturgies, and Our Postmodern Age | TGC