Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 2

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Many times philosophy is denigrated as irrelevant and uninteresting. Far from irrelevant, it gives form to our thoughts—our default settings—and motivates us to take actions that we never really think about. For example, why do postmoderns head to the mall when they are upset, while back in the day moderns typically stopped to pray in a church? Far from uninteresting, philosophy shapes our music, explains trends in art, and leads us both to see and explain the world and ourselves in fresh, new ways and to rediscover aspects of our history which previously seemed mysterious or simply a bit nonlinear.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher makes three observations about the postmodern apologetics project that bear repeating.

  1. Because we cannot argue from a foundation of absolute truth for the truth of Christ, neither can anyone else, such as secular modernists or scientists, argue from a foundation of absolute truth. This is an important observation because if Christian apologists continue to play by Enlightenment rules, there is no inherent reason why anyone should listen (138) and there is the danger that they may simply be shouted down by “imperialistic Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism” (168).
  1. While conversation cannot proceed from a foundation of absolute truth, common cause can still be found on an ad hoc basis. Placher observes that Christians can agree with both Jews and Marxists on the need to extend assistance to the homeless among us (167).
  1. In a real sense, our theology is justified in the eyes of the world by our actions, not the other way around (167).

Let me turn to each of these observations in turn.

No absolute truth, but shouted truth. The Enlightenment effort to find a foundation for absolute truth failed to discover a set of observations or logical relationships which could be used to justify objective truth. In its absence, competition has opened up to substitute subjective truth or truths of various sorts.

In the political realm, an early development of postmodern thinking evolved in Germany in the early twentieth century in the form of national socialism. If no absolute foundation exists, then let’s pick a leader to tell us what to believe. The logic was as unmistakable as the evil that it implied. Fear motivates us to seek easy answers and to accept solutions that would otherwise be unacceptable. The link of national socialism to the philosophy of Nietzsche, particularly his “will to power” is direct and undisputed among those that have studied it.[1] Political correctness, which originates with Karl Marx,[2] flows out of this line of thinking because once you promote a subjective alternative for absolute truth it is terribly inconvenient having your opponents point out the subjective nature of your alternative.[3]

In an economic realm, the absence of absolute truth helps explain the critical role of advertising and Hollywood movie productions in forming public opinion and preferences in daily purchases. If subjective truth is the only truth, storytelling is extremely interesting and important in cultural development because it persuades.[4]

Agree not on truth but on service. Placher makes the point that when we meet someone, we do not lay out a detailed foundation for conversation; we just look for points of agreement and start talking.

At one point I attended my uncle’s retirement from the Council of Churches in New York city and, although he worked as a pastor, a table of orthodox Jews attended the retirement gala. This observation interested me and I invited myself to sit with them. When I asked why so many orthodox Jews were attending a meeting of the Council of Churches, they told me that although they do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they agreed with many of the service projects undertaken by Council of Churches and wanted to get involved.

Service points to Gospel truth. Although Placher does not develop this theme, it is an inference that can be drawn. In a world where many voices scream for attention, actions speak louder than words and point to the motivations that brought them to fruition. Jesus said: “each tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:44) No one cares for a tree that bears no fruit and such it is with philosophies.

William C. Placher (1948 – 2008) was a postliberal theologian, a professor at Wabash in Indiana College, and the author of numerous books. His doctorate (1975) was from Yale University.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, reviews modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part 1 of this review I summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part 2 I summarized key implications of his work. Placher’s work is a fascinating read written for college students, but helpful to anyone concerned about cultural trends.

References

Lind, William S.  2009. “The Roots of Political Correctness.” Online: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2009/11/19/the-roots-of-political-correctness. November 19.

Schaeffer, Francis A. 1976. How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Wheaton: Crossway Books. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-wW).

Sacks, Jonah. 2012. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell—and Live—the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1E0)

[1] For example, Nazi propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, named her documentary on the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg a paraphrase of Nietzsche’s famous phrase, Triumph of the Will (Schaeffer1976, 62).

[2] For example, see: (Lind 2009).

[3] Marx tried to substitute his concept of dialectal materialism for the existence of God, but enthroning man or man’s thinking in place of God begged a creation account. Evolution seemed to fit the bill here until scientists in the ninetieth disproved the concept of spontaneous generation. Rather than explain how mankind could not evolve to be the center of the universe, Marx and his followers refused to talk about it and began to restrict access to Bibles, which competing creation account. It was curious to see why communist countries, such as North Korean, imprison anyone with a Bible while also arguing that God does not exist! This persecution is not arbitrary but has a philosophical foundation that goes all the way back to Marx.

[4]This is the theme of a recent book by Sachs (2012).

You may also like

Leave a Reply