There are problems, but reading Stanley Grenz is not at all like reading Brian McLaren. In his book A Primer on Postmodernism, Grenz begins by giving us a general survey of the intellectual landscape, which he does competently. It is when we get to the “and therefore we shoulds” that I start to object.
Even so, there are some places where comments need to be made, because even though he is describing here, not promoting, the stage is being set for promotion. In his first chapter, Grenz compares the old modern Star Trek with the new postmodern Star Trek: The Next Generation, and makes some good observations about the differences between them being the result of the different generations that made the shows. But later on in the chapter, the analogy runs away from him and causes some problems.
His characterization of the modern mind is good, as far as it goes, but it leaves something out that is actually crucial. “The modern human can appropriately be characterized as Descartes’s autonomous, rational substance encountering Newton’s mechanistic world”(p. 3).
He goes on to say that the “modern mind assumes that knowledge is certain, objective, and good” (p. 4). This is a good summary, but left out is the crucial fact that knowledge is assumed to be certain, objective, and good, and that such knowledge is immediately attainable by the autonomous human mind. The issue is not the certainty, objectivity or goodness of knowledge, the issue is whether such things are within the grasp of men apart from the gifting of our gracious triune God. They most certainly are not. But the stage is being set in order to be able to say that (centuries after Descartes) if any Christians claim certain or objective knowledge, they must be getting this from the modernists. But the issue is not the certainty, objectivity or goodness of knowledge, as I will not tire of saying. The issue is idolatrous autonomy.
Grenz acknowledges that modernists have “absolute faith in human rational capacities” (p. 4). But this, in order to be modernist, has to be faith in human reason, run by humans, for humans, measured by humans. If true knowledge is accounted as a gift from God, we can receive the gift without tipping our hat to the modernists.
The reaction to secular modernists by secular postmodernists is relativistic, whether it wants to be or not. Some relativists embrace relativism, and others (enabled by our relativistic ethos) deny it. Grenz appears to acknowledge, at the very least, a strong relativistic impulse from the foundering fathers of postmodernism — Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty. And no, that was not a typo. “The work of Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty reflects what seems to have become the central dictum of postmodern philosophy: ‘All is difference.’ This view sweeps away the ‘uni’ of the ‘universe sought by the Enlightenment project” (p. 7). But the Enlightenment project was not seeking a universe that no one had ever known. They were trying to get away from the Christiverse, the universe of the Christian era. Christ is the uni, Christ is the arche, Christ is the only point of integration. The Enlightenment johnnies were running away from a universe, and trying to establish their own, which they were not able to do. But the Enlightenment project was seeking a universe the same way that the prodigal son began thinking about food that had not been in the pig troughs. Had it once, don’t have it now, want to find it again.
Grenz refers to a second Enlightenment assumption, “that truth is certain and hence purely rational” (p. 7). This is a problem too. For once it has been shown that truth is not “purely rational” (which is easy to do), everybody then concludes that truth must not be certain. But consistent Christians don’t buy the notion that in order to be certain, truth must be founded on rationalism alone. This is yet another area where modernists and postmodernists are playing footsie under the table. They share the assumption that in order to be certain, truth must be rational. The modernists think it possible, and the postmodernists think it impossible. They agree on what it would take. But it is beyond me why a Christian would fall for this. Was John the Baptist certain about the Messiah when he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb. What syllogisms had he worked through? What passages had he studied? Knowledge is a gift, not an achievement.
But with the postmodernists having banished the uni from the universe, Grenz demonstrates that they still have some trouble getting rid of it. The way things actually are is like gum on your shoe. One of the differences between the two Star Treks is that the newer one has a crew that is much more diverse. And what does this represent? “This change represents the broader universality of postmodernity” (p. 8. Emphasis, naturally, is mine.). “The crew of the Enterprise symbolizes the ‘new ecology’ of humankind in partnership with the universe” (p. 9). What universe?!
There are clearly some bugs to work out. The problem with postmodernism is actually that absolutely no one believes it. This, it would seem to me, is a troubling deficiency. There are people who pretend to believe it, but that is a power grab shrouded in language games. And I am therefore skeptical of all appeals to evangelicals to get with the program.
Grenz assumes that evangelicalism “with its focus on scientific thinking, the empirical approach, and common sense — is a child of early modernity” (p. 10). He says that “we dare not fall into the trap of wistfully longing for a return to the early modernity that gave evangelicalism its birth” (p. 10).
First, why not? Isn’t it a modernist assumption that history progresses? If we have jettisoned modernity, why can’t we turn back the clock? Why couldn’t we all pack up our local community narratives and head right on back to early modernity? Or maybe the late medieval period? Secondly, detailed work needs to be done on the central claim here, which is that evangelicalism is a child of modernity, a claim which I hotly dispute. Have there been modern influences, pressures, and so on? Of course, but I see a far more radical divide between a Trinitarian Christian and modernity than I do between postmodernity and modernity. We cannot make our case by hauling out some dopey cartoon from the fifties that announces a Christian conference teaching “Space Age Bible Truths.” Far more basic issues are at stake — with the faithful Christian and the modernist completely at odds. And when a postmodernists types out his ravings on a laptop handed to him by all the scientists, he cannot just wave this off as a surface issue, a cultural thing. This is because the shared atheism and/or agnosticism is a profound bond.
Grenz warns us (slightly) about postmodernism, but his call to us is upside down and bass-ackwards. “Postmodernism poses certain dangers. Nevertheless, it would be ironic — indeed, it would be tragic — if evangelicals ended up as the last defenders of the now dying modernity. To reach people in the new postmodern context, we must set ourselves to the task of deciphering the implications of postmodernism for the gospel” (p. 10). By thunder, this is precisely what we must not do. Rather, we must set ourselves to the task of deciphering the implications of the gospel for postmodernism. We don’t modify our medicines to suit the patient. We modify the patient by means of the medicine. And gospel medicine cannot be altered because the patent office is in heaven.