Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 1)

What do you get a bookish former Christian for Christmas? Apologetics material, of course! I hear this often happens to apostates, and it's usually well-meant from caring people. I take things in the spirit they are given.

Anyway, this year I received a CD set of Ligonier Ministries’ 2007 conference "Contending for the Truth" [freely watchable here]. It's billed as a way to "equip believers to answer the false claims of postmodernism, naturalism, and our culture’s other atheistic theories." It's heavy on philosophy, so I feel this blog is an appropriate place to analyze the talks. We can pretend I'm one of Hemant Mehta's conference spies reporters.


1. Index; Postmodernism and Philosophy
2. Postmodernism and Society
3. Postmodernism and Christianity
4. Questions and Answers #1; The Task of Apologetics
5. Faith and Reason
6. The Challenge of Science
7. The Challenge of Science (continued)
8. The Challenge of Relativism
9. The Problem of Evil
10. The Existence of God
11. The Authority of Scripture
12. The Holy Spirit and Apologetics; Questions and Answers #2
13. The Resurrection of Christ

Postmodernism and Philosophy

a talk by Ravi Zacharias

Zacharias is a personable speaker, but his introduction to the already-fuzzy concept of postmodernism just makes it fuzzier. He starts by characterizing it as "We don't know where we are. We don't know who we are." Then, he contrasts the belief that words have no meaning with the belief that word meaning is an ontological matter. Since he only finds fault with the first theory, I presume he holds to the second one. I find both absurd. He's leaving out the standard view:
All natural languages are both arbitrary and conventional. [...] To take a simple example, English conventionally categorizes eating utensils as forks, knives, and spoons. A single English speaker cannot whimsically decide to call a fork, a spoon, and a knife, a kiuma, a volochka, or a krof. On the other hand, there is no particular reason why a prolonged eating implement should have been called a fork in the first place; the French do nicely calling it a fourchette, and German speakers find Gabel quite satisfactory.1
So it's true that 'fork' means a certain kind of utensil, but this is a truth-by-convention rather than an objective fact about the world. I suppose this would qualify as some kind of anti-Christian relativism? (Kidding, sort of.) To be fair, Zacharias is mostly targeting individual word meaning-making as Lewis Carroll did with Humpty Dumpty, but I want to point out that it's easy to make one's own views seem unquestionable by only mentioning implausible alternatives.

He goes on to present the option of absolute morality vs. individual morality. See the pattern?

Zacharias paints the picture of a succession of popular intellectual movements: Rationalism -> Empiricism -> Naturalism -> Existentialism -> Postmodernism. He seems to consider all but the last to be part of Modernism. I just want to note that this progression has some rough historical basis, but it sure wasn't a clear-cut evolution of one thing to another. In fact, I think apologists are prone to exaggerate the intellectual influence of postmodernism today by associating Every Bad Thing with the term. Modern science is still an empiricist affair, though some non-scientist academics (e.g. Kuhn and Feyerabend) have tried to infect the process with postmodernism. Rationalists are still kicking in philosophy departments. Really, outside the circles of literary criticism, postmodernism has weak influence. I don't understand why it's given so much attention here.

Earning himself some irony points, Zacharias reads postmodernism into the story of Eve and the serpent. He claims that the serpent was encouraging her to eat the fruit so she could "redefine good and evil" and redefine reality. But the text clearly implies the serpent was right and that eating the fruit resulted in greater understanding of the truth, not a redefinition. It's a story about setting aside the moral ignorance of animals and becoming a morally responsible human being. This is why eating is followed by the realization of nakedness ("the eyes of both of them were opened") and why the human distinctive of farming was established as part of the follow-up curse. But I suppose Every Bad Thing must go back to original sin, right?

The remainder of the talk is mostly about the laws of logic and how reality catches up to you if you take dangerous drugs and have promiscuous sex. Plus a very funny rendition of The Good Samaritan.

1. Millward, C.M., Hayes, M. (2011). A biography of the English language (Third Edition). Boston, MA: Wadsworth Publishing. p. 6-7.

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