Illusion, Confusion, and Solution

Doug Powell
Friday, October 30th 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
I am the mindfreak
There’s no reality
Just this world of illusion
That keeps on haunting me

So sings magician Criss Angel during the opening to Mindfreak, his popular television show on the A&E channel. But Angel’s popularity may be grounded in something more than his excellence in magic. The way he presents magic may have struck a chord with how our culture has come to view truth and our ability to know it. His claim of “what you see is what you get” seems aimed at challenging our most basic beliefs about how the world works. And his use of magic to present a world where there are no rules and where interpretation is the measure of truth has prompted MTV to call him the “postmodern Houdini.”

In fact, his theme song could be an anthem for the postmodern mindset in general. And the questions that are raised by the lyrics begin to show us some ways we can answer postmodern claims. For example, if there is no reality, as the song claims, then there is no standard by which we can judge and identify illusion, so how would we know an illusion if we saw it? If only illusion existed in the world, then it wouldn’t be illusion, it would be reality. And if he claims to be the Mindfreak, then he must not be since all is illusion. So it’s not illusion that haunts Criss Angel, but reality. Or really, it’s truth that haunts Angel, since an illusion isn’t the denial of reality, only a misinterpretation of it. Illusions are, after all, untrue representations about how the world actually is. Although the mechanics of a magic illusion are extremely logical, the effect they produce is designed to encourage people to accept, if only for a moment, the illogical, and become skeptical about having truth about the world. This skepticism that we can have knowledge about the way the world is, that there is no reality we can access, and that all is illusion or interpretation is at the very heart of the popular concept of postmodernism.

But there is an elephant in the room that even Houdini couldn’t vanish: The only way an illusion can exist is as a parasite on something that contradicts it-reality. An illusion has no independent existence. It is like what dark is to light, or cold is to heat. Postmodernism has that same kind of dependence; it is not a thing itself, but a rejection of something. And the thing it rejects is any thinking that there is a view of the world that is universally valid and that we can have knowledge of the world rather than just our interpretation.

This poses an interesting problem for anyone who wants to defend the truths of the historic Christian faith. Christianity views the world as a kind of map; it describes an origin, a destination, and a deliberate, purposeful process that connects the two. The map of postmodernism is a blank page where each person ascribes to it an origin, destination, purpose, and process. Where the Christian uses the map of Christianity as a guide, the map of the postmodern is not a guide, but is itself guided by each person’s beliefs. How do we make a truth-claim to a culture that is increasingly skeptical that objective truth exists and can be known? How do we convince those who think everything is interpretation and that their interpretation is only as good as its reflection of reality? How do we answer someone who can, along with Terry Gilliam’s screen version of Baron von Munchausen, say, “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.” How do we reach those who believe they are trapped in a metanarrative and that the only way out is to accept some other metanarrative? How are Christians to navigate a relativistic and pluralistic culture that denies there are objective directions by which to navigate and labels anyone who tries as arrogant and intolerant?

The answer is to expose the illusion, to reveal how the magic trick works by showing the truth that makes the lie possible. Like illusions, postmodernism works only from a certain angle, by accepting its terms and presuppositions. Outside those angles, postmodernism is exposed as being an insufficient description of the way the world is. Truth, after all, is true from any angle. This means that postmodernism cannot account for the reality it claims to encompass and that no matter how hard it tries, some reality remains exposed and reveals a contradiction that shows postmodernism is false. And it’s usually not too hard to see. It’s like a glass on the ocean floor claiming it contains the ocean. These contradictions provide an access point that allows Christians to speak of objective truth in a way that can resonate with those who deny it exists.

Take, for example, the recent change in the Québec Education Program’s curriculum. Prior to the 2008-09 school year, school children in Québec were required to take classes in religious and moral education, which were designed to generally reflect the religious confession of each student and their family. Roman Catholics and Protestants each had their own classes on the subject, and a third section covered everybody else.

But beginning in September 2008, those classes were replaced by a program called “Ethics and Religious Culture,” which is described by its architects as an “entirely nonreligious structure.” According to a Québec Education Program document on the curriculum,

By talking about “ethics” rather than “morality,” emphasis is placed on how students examine the underlying values and norms regarding, in various situations, human behavior. While endeavoring to form autonomous individuals, capable of exercising their critical judgment, this instruction also has the objective of fostering dialogue and community life in a pluralist society.

The document goes on to explain that the values and norms that students will examine are grounded in society. The main components of religion are “built on the exploration of the socio-cultural contexts in which they take root and continue to develop.” Furthermore,

[E]thics essentially consists in critically reflecting on the meaning of conduct and on the values and norms that the members of a given society or group adopt in order to guide or regulate their conduct….The reflection will focus on such subjects as…questions that concern us as members of a society in constant flux.

The program encourages students to analyze “values and norms specific to groups, institutions, and organizations by examining how to explain the presence and transformation of these values and norms in a given society.” It also tries to give students the tools “for seeking out common values, the valorization of projects that foster community life and the promotion of the democratic principles and ideals inherent in Québec society.” Taken together, these things should foster a “spirit of openness” and point students toward the two main goals of the program: “The recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good.” And this recognition of others is “linked to the principle that all people possess equal value and dignity.”

The program’s postmodern philosophy can be seen most obviously in a couple of places. First, the emphasis of the program is on the knowledge of a diverse range of beliefs, while carefully avoiding the idea that any of the beliefs could actually be true. Religious belief is presented as a way that people choose to define themselves, and no belief is any better or worse than any other. Second, it contains the same fatal contradiction that all postmodern claims have: although it treats all views of the world as if they are of equal value, by doing so it tacitly claims that the only correct view of the world is the postmodern one. But part of the ways differing views differ is in the factual claims they make about the way the world is. This leaves only two possibilities regarding their truthfulness: either all the views are false or one of them is correct. They can’t all be correct. To claim they are all of equal value is to misunderstand or misrepresent them. And to claim that they are all equal but that the only correct way to see the world is the pluralistic, postmodern way is just nonsensical, like saying that some things are more equal than others. It is a self-refuting statement because the claim fails on its own terms. Both of these postmodern aspects of the program are made even clearer in light of the fact that the program is not just for public schools but is mandated in all private schools as well, including parochial ones.

Recently, seven students were suspended and faced expulsion over their refusal to participate in the program. They saw it for what it is-an attack on the ability to recognize objective truth and an attempt to reduce religious belief to mere preference. But while we can applaud the students for their insight, courage, and rejection of such ideas, apologetic engagement is perhaps a more effective way to expose the bankruptcy of the program. Asking the right questions and critiquing the program’s claims on its own terms show not only how it is entirely insufficient as a description of the world, but that it inadvertently borrows from and assumes the truthfulness of Christianity.

Take the program’s goal of trying to teach students to strive for the “common good.” According to the curriculum, values and norms like goodness are products of particular societies. But the curriculum also describes those societies as always being in flux. Given that, what could possibly be meant by “good”? If the thing that grounds values is always in flux, then the values are arbitrary because they are always subject to change. This ethical conventionalism is a form of relativism where consensus decides what is right and wrong, and majority rules. What is moral, or in favor, at one point in time can become immoral, or out of favor, at another point if the mood of the majority changes. Society can never change for the better; it can only change. This also means there is no room for reform. After all, how could anyone claim the moral authority to challenge a culture’s values if the values are determined by consensus? Anyone who made such a challenge (such as William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, Jr.) would be immoral and unethical by definition, which is clearly counterintuitive. And any society that truly embraced such a view has nothing to restrain them from punishing such so-called reformers.

The same is true for the program’s goal of “openness.” What makes openness a virtue? And, given that society is in flux, will there ever be a time when openness becomes a vice? If so, would the Ethics and Religious Culture Program be abandoned? And what gives all people equal value and dignity? Again, an objective standard is appealed to by the program-the very thing it is designed to deny. And just because all people have equal value and dignity doesn’t mean that all their ideas are equally valid. Beliefs are only as good as their accurate description of the way the world is, something the program denies on the one hand and claims for itself on the other.

So we see that for postmodernism to claim there is no access to objective truth, it must actually have access to objective truth; and that although it uses the language of values, it cannot account for the standards to which it appeals in any meaningful way. Also, if postmodernism rejects the idea of a universally valid way of seeing the world, then in claiming to be the correct way to view the world, it violates its own principle. In postmodernism, a denial is actually an affirmation. Thus it fails on its own terms.

And this is what gives Christians their greatest apologetics opportunity-demonstrating the failure of postmodernism is not enough, after all. Christians must show why a biblical worldview is the best account of the world and our experience. One of the most effective ways to do this is to ask what the necessary preconditions are for the existence of a value such as goodness or virtue. What has to be true in order for “good” to exist? If grounding it in an arbitrary source renders it meaningless, then the source must be immutable or unchanging. The source must also be infinite since there could never be a time when the value didn’t exist. For example, there was never a time when good wasn’t good. This would also mean the source is transcendent from the universe since the source did not come into existence like the universe. Because this source is transcendent, infinite, and unchanging, it would also be universal; it would not change from culture to culture. And because values prescribe behaviors and govern oughtness, or the way things should be, the source would have to be personal since a physical universe cannot account for something nonphysical, such as what governs what we ought to do. These things are within the exclusive domain of the mind and personhood. The necessary precondition for any kind of meaningful concept of values, then, is the existence of a transcendent, universal, immutable, infinite person. In other words, God.

This biblical view of the world also solves postmodernism’s other major tenet-that we cannot escape interpretation. Of course, to make such a claim someone would have to transcend interpretation, once again demonstrating that in postmodernism denial is affirmation. But although Christianity agrees that people are trapped in interpretation if left to themselves because of their fallenness and finitude, it also holds that God has revealed himself to us. Our interpretations are corrected and guided by God’s self-disclosure-Scripture-and ultimately belong to him (Gen. 40:8).

Within the three religions that have a personal view of God as described above (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), only Christianity truly provides robust grounds for values. And this is because of the Trinity. The Trinity allows us to see God interact with himself; it is a window into his character. For example, how do we know God is a loving God? Surely, we could point to the Incarnation, but that relies on something outside himself (the world) and God doesn’t rely on the world for the way he is. In the Trinity, however, we see him actively loving within the Godhead, but without being contingent on anything outside himself. Only the Trinity allows God to escape being arbitrary or relying on something or some standard outside himself. Islam’s view of God as radically one fails on one or both of these problems and prevents it from providing a proper grounding of values. And the non-trinitarian view of Judaism fails for the same reason. The way we can have confidence in God’s character and his promises is through the Trinity.

Now, an apologetic response to postmodernism doesn’t mean we have to walk everyone through the philosophical merits of holding to Trinitarianism. But we should understand that it is the engine that drives the whole enterprise if we are going to exclusively defend Christianity and not simply monotheism. It doesn’t have to be front and center in our arguments, but it is at the core of them.

For example, let’s say you’ve just gone to see the latest Spider-Man movie with a buddy who holds to postmodern views. As you talk about the movie you both mention how much you liked it. As a Christian, you can make sense of Spider-Man’s objective morality and sense of oughtness, and you know your friend, as a postmodernist, cannot. When you start trading favorite lines, your friend quotes the constant refrain throughout the movie: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

“Ever wonder who you think he’s responsible to?” you ask.

“To society,” says your friend, “for the greater good.”

“But he can do pretty much anything he wants with little or no consequence,” you reply. “Why should he care about the greater good?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do, of course.”

“Says who? What makes the well-being of people a good thing and why should he care?”

“Those things were discovered as societies evolved,” says your friend. “Certain things were destructive to the community and others promoted peace, prosperity, and the propagation of the race.”

“Even if that’s true, it doesn’t answer the question. Where do the criteria come from for recognizing what is good?”

“Hey, why all the fuss? It’s just a movie!”

“No, it’s a worldview contained in a movie,” you point out. “I agree with you that those things are good and that Spider-Man is obliged to them. But I’m not sure I understand what you liked about the movie, given that it seems to run counter to what you say you believe.”

“Honestly, that sounds a bit arrogant,” your friend protests. “It sounds like you think you have the truth and everyone else is wrong.”

“Do you think what you believe is true?”

“Of course! That’s why I believe it.”

“Me too,” you respond. “So why are you saying I’m arrogant for thinking I’m right?”

“Because different people have different truths. I don’t think anyone should push their views on anyone else.”

“Different people have different truths? Is that true? Because if it is, then it’s false. And if you don’t think anyone should push their views on someone else, then why are you trying to change my mind?”

“Because,” says your friend (who is now wishing he would have gone to the latest Woody Allen movie instead), “you’re acting as if there is only one valid way to see the world when you can’t transcend your own interpretation. If you’d been born in India, you’d see it much differently.”

“Maybe so,” you admit, “but that doesn’t mean the view is correct. Anyway, by saying there is more than one valid way to see the world, you are claiming to have the only valid way of seeing the world. That doesn’t make any sense. Not only can you not account for any values in any meaningful way, but your entire system is self-refuting; it contradicts itself. And to make any meaningful statement, you have to borrow from my Christian worldview even as you reject it. Just by trying to talk me out of my view defeats your view and proves my case.”

The framework of the Christian worldview and proper grounding for the things being debated are all there, but without being overt. If we understand the parasitic nature of postmodernism, we can exploit its weaknesses by asking questions until the view collapses under its own weight. At that point we can give them the good news and provide a biblical worldview as the solution that makes sense of their world and their place in it.

Legendary nineteenth-century magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin described a magician’s stage patter as a “tissue of lies.” In the end, postmodernism is no different. Its misrepresentations of the world are obvious and easily exposed. And what it does get right, it cannot account for. But rather than being discouraged by the mood of the contemporary culture, .and of offering a view of the world that provides meaning and value to people who have none. The vast difference between our current culture and a biblical worldview allows Christians to speak with great contrast and volume. Postmodernism doesn’t mute the good news of the gospel; it inadvertently amplifies it if we take advantage of our apologetics opportunities.

Friday, October 30th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church