How Not to Convince a Postmodernist

Postmodernism is rebellion against modern reasoning.  In a earlier post, I showed how modernism used reason to liberate itself from the corrupt control of premodern authorities (kings, lords, popes, etc.).  Modernism indulged in reason and promoted the hope that reasonable societies were on their way to Utopia.  However, the bloodshed in the twentieth century was the worst the world had ever seen. People began to realize that even the best educated and most intellectual people disagreed about many things.  So, postmodernists rebelled against the modernist approach.  Instead of trying to find meaning in objective truth, they found purpose in their own subjective views. Personal opinion became everyone’s own reality, and the pursuit of an objective truth (a True truth) was abandoned all together.  Sure, some people still believed in one supreme truth, but the postmodernist doubted that we could see it for what it was.

Since the postmodernist has such a great suspicion against the keepers of reason, the Evangelical Church was frustrated time and time again in its efforts to reach them.  People started saying that they were against organized religion, though they found a spiritual side of life important.  Jon Meacham‘s “The End of Christian America” revealed just such an idea.  This disinterest in the church has been called the post-Christian Era.  Postmodernism has clearly affected the religious affections of America.  Though a number of scholars suggest that we have actually moved beyond postmodernism into a new era (some give it the tedious name post-postmodernism), the remnants of postmodern thinking remain.  How can the church expect to reach a post-Christian and postmodern society that distrusts (1) organized religion and (2) a pre-packaged, well-reasoned argument such as a gospel presentation or church sermon?

Let’s begin with an approach that isn’t as effective.  That is, a purely modernist approach.  When I was growing up, one of the most popular Christian books was Josh McDowell‘s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and a second volume would follow. The book was an attempt to prove without a shadow of doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the divine Son of God who had physically resurrected from the dead and offered salvation to those who place their trust in him.  Supposedly after reading the evidence, you wouldn’t be able to deny McDowell’s claims.  The approach is clearly modernist: the truth exists and we’ll get there with reason.  The postmodernist scoffs at this kind of book.  He knows that there are many other books that seek to prove that Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all, or that he existed only as a good teacher.  The postmodernist sees a book like this as an attempt to control, not to convince. The postmodernist is not surprised that I find such books helpful because it reinforces my beliefs, but he does not because it doesn’t reinforce his.

(To McDowell’s credit, he dealt with this problem in a later book, Beyond Belief to Convictions)

If somebody wants to have meaningful dialogue with someone in this [post-]postmodern era, the best approach I’ve found is one that genuinely seeks to understand another person’s perspective.  Some years ago, I prided myself how well I could debate with others.  I had taken my college philosophy classes seriously and enjoyed any logical dialogue I could get.  I remember one rather intense conversation with a fellow who had studied to become a priest, but had later abandoned all that in favor of atheistic ideals.

My attitude? I was going to change that guy’s life.

My ego was a little too strong.  I knew the One truth, the One God, and the One way, and I wielded the tools of logic and rhetoric well enough to defeat virtually anyone.  My conversation with this gentleman was pleasant, though we disagreed about many things.  To each point he made, I offered a solid rebuttal; and at the end of the conversation, I had him in a logical corner where he had to admit that his own position contradicted itself.  It was a victory; I was very proud of myself. But I was shocked at his final response: That’s just what I’ve always believed, and I still believe it today.  It didn’t matter to him that I had out-argued him in a debate, he was still committed to his thought-system.  That day I learned a very important lesson.  Few are argued out of their positions, they are wooed.  I had engaged this man in a logical wrestling match and won.  I may have bested his outer defences, but I had not touched his inner world.  The only thing that I taught him was that his outer defences needed to be improved.

No one will woo a person by arguing them to the ground.  And the postmodernist who is cynical to a packaged logical system (and there are lots of them) will resist any notion that one logical system is objectively superior to another. So if you defeat him in debate, he is not going to abandon his system over that.  In fact, you may have inadvertently entrenched him even more, making him harder to reach next time.

There’s another approach that works much better.  I’ll propose that in my next post.

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Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “How Not to Convince a Postmodernist

  1. I can’t wait for the next post. This is a big problem of mine, I argue the logic so strongly and wonder why people still don’t believe.

  2. Hi Randall!
    I think one reason is because even the most logical among us tend to behave in very illogical ways. And that’s not necessarily bad. It’s in our nature. We pick at sores knowing that they won’t heal and are eager to smell the carton of rancid milk in the fridge for no *reason* at all. God is not a computer in the sky making his best case for us to believe. Most of us came to believe because of our experience with Christ. Empirical evidence supporting our beliefs has some value, but we must engage more to be relevant to the people of this age (and probably any age).
    Glad you’re reading. Stay tuned.

  3. A couple thoughts I had about postmodern Christianity. http://andykalan.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/postmodern-christianity/

  4. Wes Brown

    “few are argued out of their positions; they are wooed.”
    I think I’m going to steal that quote from you. Love it.

  5. I strongly suggest reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s two books–“After Virtue” and “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?”–if you have not already. They deal with the same topics you are dealing with, and, in my mind, he steps past much of postmodern philosophy, or rather, steps beyond it, into the area postmodernism has yet to go–namely, what to do after having defeated modernism. MacIntyre, of course, is more interested in the restoration of virtue than in the restoration of reason and rational discussion, but to do one he must do the other. It’s important to note that he swam the Tiber between the two books, but it doesn’t change too much of his point. Except that he is, rather obviously I should think, more right in the second book than he is in the first.

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