So I left my readers hanging on my last post that showed folks how not to argue with a postmodernist. Since then life got busy, so I’m later than I wanted to be (a month–sheesh!), but here you go. Let’s begin by remembering the way the postmodernist thinks. Postmodernism is a mindset which considers the truth to be something constructed by each person based on their life experiences. Someone born and raised in Asia will see life differently than one in America, or Brazil, or Africa. This is a phenomenon we’ve noticed in the Christian church. Christians of the same tradition, on the other side of the globe will have a different take on many different things religiously. Different life experiences make people ask different questions about life. Each individual is forced to come up with answers to those questions on his own.
The “authorities” on any subject are often eyed with suspicion. Everyone knows that for every expert on a given topic, you can find another one with different or even opposite views. Both of them will have great reasons for their positions. Which one will you believe? How will you determine which one is “right”? You’re not an expert in that field. You’re not qualified to decide. You don’t have the smarts that they do. So what are you going to do? Easy…you’re going to choose. Your choice may not be “right,” and you may never be able to tell if it is with absolute certainty; but the choice you make gives you power and ownership over the situation. You may choose to side with scholar A, scholar B, or not to side at all. Whatever choice you make, your choice is completely yours.
Agent Smith and Neo. Neo is the one in the dress.
If you recall, this is one of the themes of the Matrix films. The main character Neo tries to figure out what is going on in his life, asking some of the deepest questions one can. Questions like “what is my purpose?” and “What is reality?” In the end of the last movie (the most disappointing of the trilogy, by the way), the arch-villain Agent Smith pummels poor Neo nearly to death. Utterly broken, Neo stands to fight again. A frustrated Agent Smith then starts a
lengthy tirade of questions, wanting to find the purpose and motivation behind Neo’s ambition:
Agent Smith: Why, Mr. Anderson? Why do you do it? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom? Or truth? Perhaps peace? Yes? No? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson. Vagaries of perception. The temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now. You can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr. Anderson? Why? Why do you persist?
To Smith’s maniacal rant, Neo pants out a simple answer:
Neo: Because I choose to.
This is the triumphant answer of the postmodernist to life’s deepest questions. There are many why’s and many systems of belief in the world. Every one of them have logical reasons for their system. Every one of them have logical inconsistencies as well. Ultimately, people choose to believe what they believe. This relates to my previous post where I mentioned that I won a debate with an acquaintance but apparently didn’t convince him of anything. He lost the debate, but I really didn’t convince him of anything. In a way, I was Agent Smith, questioning all the logical problems of my opponent–but I didn’t win anything. No, I wasn’t as nihilistic as Smith, but my badgering was the same. So, what’s a Christian to do?
Here’s where the sovereignty of God comes into play. If you’ll remember a secretive meeting between Jesus and one of the Pharisees in John 3, the Lord mentioned that the work of the Spirit–conversion–is as unpredictable as the wind (v. 8) [an obvious play on words since wind and spirit are the same Greek word]. Luke tells us of a woman named Lydia who believed because God opened her heart, enabling her to respond (Acts 16:14). Paul states that we believed because God made us spiritually alive (Eph. 2:5). The point is, Christians tend to believe that a supernatural element is involved in all your conversations about Christ. You may carry the message, but God will determine it’s efficacy. Though important, apologetics and arguments go only so far, especially with a person who has a solid postmodern perspective. Remember that the postmodernist sees your best argument as an attempt to control and manipulate others. So when we talk to people about Christ and Church, you need to have a conversation and not a debate.
In the same way, I’m reminded of something Alvin Plantinga(John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame) said in a podcast interview some years ago (Unbelievable? July 26, 2008, ~30:00-32:00). When asked if philosophical arguments could be effectively used to persuade someone to become a Christian, Plantinga indicated that most people are not moved by such an approach. Instead, people tend to believe in God for existential reasons–that is, life experiences and events which have direct bearing on their thinking. So experience tends to be more meaningful to people than well-reasoned arguments. Certainly, God himself interacts with the human heart on this level. But God also interacts with people externally, and we are privileged to be a part of that process. That brings us back to the main question of this post: what’s the best way to talk religion with a postmodernist?
It seems to me that a person is not argued into the Christian faith, but is instead wooed. Certainly, logic and reason are a part of the process and you shouldn’t abandon your convictions. But there are some things that we can do to communicate a little more clearly.
Disagree, don’t correct. “Jesus is not the Son of God” If you are a Christian, what’s your immediate response? Naturally, you want to say “Oh yes he is!” Your knee-jerk reaction is to correct something that you see as error–a very big error. But the moment you try to correct someone in this way, they will likely see you as arrogant and even manipulative. Think of the people that correct you in life; who are they? They are usually authority figures such as teachers, parents, judges, etc. When you move to correct a friend in conversation, you’re acting more like an authority figure than an equal. A more welcoming response would be disagreement: “I think that Jesus really is the Son of God” or “I have a different view on that.” Even “I don’t think that’s accurate” works better, because you’re saying what you think. Instead of trying to be the truth-police, talk about why you believe what you do. Otherwise, you may come across like a teacher trying to grade their oral report on religious ideas.
Ask meaningful questions. One of my most influential professors at seminary was a man who knew how to ask great questions. When the topics became particularly controversial he tried not to tell us what to think. Instead, he asked us a series of important questions about the topic so we could probe deeply. Each of our answers revealed something about how we all thought about theology, God, and ourselves…which led to some great discussion. In that class we learned that theology is not a cold machine-like system of facts, but is much more organic. It is an extension of ourselves, and is subject to growth and change over time. The prof had at least three reasons for asking questions: (1) so he could evaluate our thinking, (2) so we could evaluate our own thinking, and (3) so he could get to know us a little better. Essentially, he asked us questions because he cared for us and for what we thought (unlike Agent Smith). As we answered these questions out loud in class, we learned to value each other’s opinions and understand how we got to the ideas we had. Theology was not simply about right and wrong; it valued human relationships and experiences.
No doubt, Christians believe in right and wrong, good and bad. I’m not denying that. But when you ask questions with a genuine interest in the other person’s views, you’ll find it helps you communicate better. It will help develop the relationship. It also shows that you value that person, even though you may not agree with their views. This makes a much greater impact than a debate approach.
Find common ground. People grow through community and conversation, but what do you do if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone who believes that all religion is worthless? You need to find some issues on which you both agree. People who give public speeches to foreign audiences do this all the time. An American speaking to an audience in Germany might try to speak some German just to bridge the obvious gap. I remember the UK Prime Minister and tremendous orator Tony Blair’s speech to the US Congress, where he mentioned the following:
“On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is, kind of, late, but sorry.”
Funny stuff! And it helped to bridge gap between this British leader and the US Congress. Such gestures show your good will and desire to have a friendship.
Likewise, there will be an obvious gap between you and someone with another religious view. You may not be able to agree with someone’s religious ideas, but you can find something that you both agree on. Finding common ground will give both of you confidence with each other. And you do that by asking meaningful questions! Take an interest in the other’s views even if you disagree. You may be surprised how much you agree with each other after all. That’s valuable to the postmodernist because it shows respect for the other person even though you may not agree with them.
The best argument you have is love. It’s really a simple and powerful concept and one that Jesus stressed. No argument speaks louder than a genuine concern for the well-being of others. The Christian believes that the crescendo of everyone’s well-being comes through embracing the Gospel message…and that’s why some folks want to present it so urgently…it’s why they are so quick to disagree with other religious views. But that kind of urgency to present the Gospel looks very suspicious to the postmodernist. He thinks you’re trying to con him, to trick him. But if you show a genuine interest in his views, if you live out the Gospel daily in front of him, if you are there for him when he needs you, that makes the Gospel clearer than any philosopher or theologian’s approach.
Overall, how should you talk to a postmodernist about Christianity? Take it easy. Respect that other person’s views and interact with them. Rest in the sovereignty of God. Love first and speak the Gospel when God presents the opportunity.