Word on Wednesday – by John Mason
‘Postmodernism…’ – November 29, 2017
Our age of postmodernism arose out of the ashes of the ‘Deconstruction’ of the Age of Reason (Enlightenment). Over the last century science and mathematics pointed to the limits of logic – especially with the greater understanding of the complexity of ‘light’. Further, the atrocities of two world wars and the systematic murder of millions under various totalitarian regimes dented humanity’s dream of being able to produce a world of peace.
With the rejection of reason we have the rise of postmodernism. As Robert Letham observes: The modern world’s (the Enlightenment’s) reliance on reason has been replaced by a preference for emotion. The cardinal fault in interpersonal relations now is to hurt someone’s feelings (The Holy Trinity, P&R Publishing: 2004, p.449). Today’s world insists there is no absolute truth.
It follows that there is no absolute morality or norm to guide human behavior. This makes life and the choices we make, entirely arbitrary. Letham concludes, Postmodernism cannot stand the test of everyday life. It does not work and it will not work. It fails the test of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who insisted that language and philosophy must have ‘cash value’ in terms of the real world in which we go about our business from day to day… We assume there is an objective world and act accordingly… Wittgenstein compared a situation of there being no objective truth to someone buying several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true! (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1963, pp.93f; quoted in R Letham, p.453.)
How then do we respond? Today and over following Wednesdays I plan to suggest some topics for ‘coffee conversations’.
Something the postmodern world accepts is story. It is therefore worth taking the time to think about how you might frame your story of faith. In telling my story I recount how I was keen to find out answers to two key questions during an undergraduate degree at Sydney University – ‘Did Jesus really rise from the dead?’ And, behind that: ‘Is the New Testament authentic?’
Yes, my questions are those of the Age of Reason, but I find that I receive a hearing because my response is framed in a personal story.
As one of my subjects was Ancient History I had professors to speak with and sources to examine. I understood that the Christian Bible, written by many different writers over more than two thousand years, provides us with historical context. We see this, for example in the ‘birth narratives’ of Luke.
In his introduction Luke writes: Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who were from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may have the certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke wants us to know:
He was writing a history—he was setting down an accurate and orderly account of events that had recently occurred. His writing is not myth or legend that have the appearance of a history such as Tolkein’s, The Lord of the Rings.
His research is thorough. While he says that he himself is not an eyewitness, he was careful to check the accuracy of the facts (1:2). Thucydides said: Where I have not been an eyewitness myself, I have investigated with the utmost accuracy attainable every detail that I have taken at second hand (History of the Peloponnesian War).
His narrative is true. Luke’s reference to eyewitnesses was more than just a convention. The picture we have in Luke and Acts leads us to conclude that he met with people who had been with Jesus throughout his public ministry – the twelve disciples and other close followers, including Mary. It seems that he met with these people in Jerusalem when Paul was under house arrest in 56-59AD.
Dr Edwin Judge, an internationally acclaimed historian comments: ‘An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomenon of Jesus as an historical one. His many surprising aspects only help anchor him in history. Myth or legend would have created a more predictable figure. The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it.
My story – over my first cup of coffee – begins with an unexpected figure whose own story looms larger than that of anyone else. I suggest to my interlocutors that they might like to read Luke chapters 1-4 before our next cup of coffee.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com