Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.
Among the world currencies, some are strong, others weak. And yes, there are the parasitic counterfeits. Unfortunately, these pretenders can do a lot of damage, trading on another’s good name. Albert Talton is a case in point: Using only a standard inkjet printer in the early 2000’s, he managed to produce seven million dollars’ worth of phony one-hundred-dollar bills, circulating many of them before going to jail in 2009. Unfortunately — even tragically — postmodernism and critical theory have generated epistemological counterfeits that have beguiled and bankrupted much of our culture.
Treasury agents are trained to spot counterfeits by first scrutinizing the real thing, and so we shall begin with the classic definition of “knowledge” — what it is, how you get it, and how you can be confident you have it — the subject of epistemology. The formula traces back to Plato, who, in the Theaetetus, has Socrates identifying it as “correct belief” together with “an account” of why the judgment is made. Socrates hesitated to endorse it, since, as worded, it was circular, including knowledge of supporting evidence in the definition of “knowledge.” But the core notion endured, thanks in large measure to the identification of the need for and availability of foundational, epistemic premises, whether empirical or rationalistic. So, we press on with the ancient characterization, today expressed as “justified true belief.”
Of course, all sorts of philosophical analysis have challenged and refined the definition. For instance, we contrast “knowledge that” (propositional) with “knowledge of” (e.g., how to ride a bike), and a fellow named Edmund Gettier came up with an ingenious counter-argument in the 1960’s, where all three elements were present, but still no knowledge — prompting philosophers to rise in defense of the received concept. But there is a strange new assault on it, mounted by purveyors of postmodernism and critical theory.
Just as Christian Science is neither Christian nor scientific, critical theory is hostile to critical thinking, and it commends a posture, not a theory. A genuine theory, such as plate tectonics, generates testable/falsifiable hypotheses, in this instance seabed fissures oozing magma and continual earthquakes along the “Ring of Fire.” But the “theory” in critical theory is a snide conceit, immune — yea hostile — to rational pushback. It’s the very antithesis of judicious inquiry, the practice that has prospered the Judeo-Christian West. Indeed, it attempts to lay the ax at the roots of the best in our civilization, nullifying the truths of the created order laid out in the opening chapters of Genesis.
So, back to the definition, as it relates to a given proposition:
If it’s true and warranted, but I don’t believe it, then I don’t know it. (Think of an atheist actor mouthing the lines of a faithfully-biblical sermon.)
If it’s true and I believe it, but I lack good reasons for my belief, then I don’t know it. (A hypochondrial hysteric can get things right now and then, even when his self-diagnosis is based on the flimsiest of evidence.)
If my belief is warranted, but it turns out to be false, then you don’t say I had knowledge of it. (Such is the case when I’m deceived by a typically reliable, but currently addled, source.)
So, again: Justified. True. Belief. Sad to say, these three are cast aside today by cultural patricians and plebeians alike under the postmodernist spell.
So what is casting these spells?
As Gene Veith demonstrated in his 1994 book, Postmodern Times, postmodernism boils down to relativism and pluralism, which have replaced modernism, whose god was the latest deliverances of scientific materialism. The chaos has now been nurtured by new technologies, a topic Veith takes up in Post Christian: “Individuals can latch onto the ‘truths’ (often put into quotation marks today) that they want to believe in or that accords with their will to power (the will taking the place of the intellect; power taking the place of reason).”
Postmodern Times discussed the sexual revolution in terms of extramarital sex; now the issues are homosexuality, pornography, and sex robots. In the 1990s we were deconstructing literature; in the twenty-first century we are deconstructing marriage. In the 1990s we were constructing ideas; in the twenty-first century we are constructing the human body. In the 1990s we had feminism; in the twenty-first century we have transgenderism. In the 1990s we were urged to embrace multiculturalism; in the twenty-first century we are warned about committing cultural appropriation. Pluralism has given way to identity politics. Relativism has given way to speech codes. Humanism has given way to transhumanism, the union of human beings and machines.
In the confusion, social commentators are scrambling to coin new terms to catch up with developments, e.g., “post-postmodernsm,” “metamodernisim,” “transpostmoderism,” “altermodernism,” and “performatism,” but all are fruit of relativism.
Venturing outside the evangelical camp, we find substantial testimony to complement Veith’s portrayal. British professor Zygmunt Bauman (a Polish, Jewish expatriate) construed postmodernism in these terms:
The mistrust of human spontaneity, of drives, impulses and inclinations resistant to prediction and rational justification, has been all but replaced by the mistrust of unemotional, calculating reason. Dignity has been returned to emotions; legitimacy to the “inexplicable,” nay irrational, sympathies and loyalties which cannot “explain themselves” in terms of their usefulness and purpose . . . . [In the postmodern world] things may happen that have no cause which made them necessary; and people do things which would hardly pass the test of accountable, let alone “reasonable,” purpose . . . . We learn again to respect ambiguity, to feel regard for human emotions, to appreciate actions without purpose and calculable rewards. We accept that not all actions, and particularly not all among the most important of actions, need to justify and explain themselves to be worthy of our esteem.
Of course, there is a place of honor in Christianity for emotions, spontaneity, and mystery, but when these are the ruling criteria, contemptuous of reasonableness, then we gut the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” as well as “the whole counsel of God.”
Unfortunately, postmodern relativism produces thuggery rather than a joyous festival down at Vanity Fair. Ohio State professor Brian McHale plays off Jean François Lyotard’s characterization of postmodernism as “incredulity toward the master narratives of Western culture” as he presents Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, as “a test case of postmodern incredulity, relentlessly questioning, opposing, and undermining cultural narratives about scientific knowledge and technological progress, about the nation and the people, about liberalism and democracy.” Its “[c]haracters’ epistemological quests succumb to ontological uncertainty in a world — a plurality of worlds — where nothing is stable or reliably knowable.” Rather, he says we need to put our faith in “little narratives” which support “small-scale separatist cultural enclaves.” And so, armed with postmodern tools, academic departments, media empires, and even the military are bullied into honoring heretofore-considered-degenerate “cultural enclaves,” as wonderful giftings and exemplars of treasured diversity, protected under pain of penalty.
Earlier, I mentioned Socrates’ reservation over the definition, “justified, true, belief.” The problem was that you had to assume to know certain things (items you raise in justification, e.g., “I’m sure the accused was in the mall that afternoon. I saw him there.”) in order to demonstrate that you knew other things, and so looms the threat of circularity. Well, indeed, there needs to be external grounding for our claims, items philosopher Alvin Plantinga has called “properly basic.” If we can’t agree on those matters, then we reach an impasse, and this destroys perhaps the main tool of analytical reasoning, the reductio ad absurdum (“reduction to absurdity”). On this model, a thinker will advance a fact-claim or alleged principle, and then his interlocutors will jump in to trace the implications. If these prove to be laughable or grotesque, then the assertion must be retooled or discarded for another try. The problem comes when the parties involved are unable to agree on what is laughable or grotesque. Take for instance the rejoinder to the claim that people can self-identify with a gender at odds with the chromosomal facts. When you show that this could mean that a young man might compete in womens’ events at the Olympics, sane people would agree that you’ve blown up the transgender conceit. But there are those who would ask, “What’s your point? I don’t see a problem there.” And that is where we are today. A rare madness has fallen upon our nation, whereby unmasked fools are standing their ground and making public policy.
American English professor Lois Tyson provides a crisp and enthusiastic account of critical theory’s realm and ethos:
Simply speaking, when we interpret a literary text, we are doing literary criticism; when we examine the criteria upon which our interpretation rests, we are doing critical theory . . . . Of course, when we apply critical theories that involve a desire to change the world for the better — such as feminism, Marxism, African American criticism, lesbian/gay/queer criticism, and postcolonial criticism — we will sometimes find a literary work flawed in terms of its deliberate or inadvertent promotion of, for example, sexist, classist, racist, heterosexist, or colonialist values. But even in these cases, the flawed work has value because we can use it to understand how these repressive ideologies operate.
She continues by working from the thought of Jacques Derrida, the French postmodernist who dismissed “structuralists,” those who saw universal commonalities in the way we grasp and construe the world (the sort of thing that could reflect and point to a created order). Rather, he magnified the variations, licensing human language (rather than the logos of John 1:1) to make a mockery of overarching accounts of reality.
[A]ll systems of Western philosophy derive from and are organized around one ground principle from which we believe we can figure out the meaning of existence . . . . While these ground concepts produce our understanding of the dynamic evolving world around us — and of our dynamic, evolving selves as well — the concepts themselves remain stable. Unlike everything they explain, they are not dynamic and evolving . . . . They are “out of play,” as Derrida would put it. This type of philosophy — in short, all Western philosophy — Derrida calls logocentric because it places at the center (centric) of this understanding of the world a concept (logos) that organizes and explains the world for us while remaining outside of the world it organizes and explains. But for Derrida, this is Western philosophy’s greatest illusion. Given that each grounding concept —Plato’s Forms, Descartes’ cogito, structuralism’s innate structures of human consciousness, and so on — is itself a human concept and therefore a product of human language, how can it be outside the ambiguities of language? That is, how can any concept be outside the dynamic, evolving, ideologically saturated operations of the language that produced it?
For Derrida, the answer is that no concept is beyond the dynamic instability of language, which disseminates (as a flower scatters its seed on the wind) an infinite number of possible meanings with each written or spoken utterance. For deconstruction, then, language is the ground of being, but that ground is not out of play; it is itself as dynamic, evolving, problematical, and ideologically saturated as the worldviews it produces. For this reason, there is no center to our understanding of existence there are, instead, an infinite number of vantage points from which to view it, and each of these vantage points has a language of its own, which deconstruction calls its discourse. For example, there is the discourse of modern physics, the discourse of Christian fundamentalism, the discourse of liberal arts education in the 1990s, the discourse of nineteenth-century American medicine, and so on . . . . For deconstruction, if language is the ground of being, then the world is infinite text, that is, an infinite chain of signifiers always in play.
Again, relativism, albeit a tendentious and aggressive relativism.
With this in mind, let’s return to the three-part definition of knowledge, taking a closer look at how these elements have been undermined and dismissed in our culture. For starters, the traditional standard of truth is correspondence with reality, and it’s propositional: “The cat is on the mat” is true if the cat is on the mat.
So what’s the problem? Well, as Cambridge-educated, Kenyan-Christian-school-administrator Philip Dow explains, postmodernism makes the pursuit of knowledge pointless:
Relativistic openness . . . undermines progress for the simple reason that progress assumes a goal. We only know we are making progress when we are getting closer to that goal. Take away the goal of truth and any talk of advancing becomes meaningless. All our attempts at moral scientific or spiritual improvement simply become nonsense unless we believe that there are targets we are shooting for.
Furthermore, it makes us prey to the notions of “my truth” and “your truth,” casting aside the sensible concept of the truth. Nevertheless, Middlebury professor Heidi Grasswick is all in on jettisoning objective knowledge, in effect dismissing Kepler’s notion that, in our studies, we should be concerned with “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”:
Analysis of testimony has formed one of the largest and most active areas of discussion in contemporary social epistemology. Feminists’ attention to the role of social power relations in the economics of credibility has provided a distinct angle from which to develop insightful descriptive and normative assessments of testimony across differently situated agents . . . The basic idea of socially situated knowing amounts to a denial of the traditional framing of the epistemic point of view as a “view from nowhere,” embracing instead the idea that knowing is inherently perspectival, with perspectives being tied to our materially and socially grounded position in the world.”
Biblical Regard for Truth
It’s obvious to any student of the Bible that truth is a non-negotiable feature of Christianity, from its grounding in Old Testament prophecy (where Amos pictures God holding a plumb line accusingly beside Israel’s morally crooked wall) on through the Gospels (where, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly uses “truly” and “you have heard it said, but I say . . .” to set the record straight), the epistles (where, in 2 Timothy 3, Paul compares current enemies of the gospel to the truth-opposing Jannes and Jambres of Moses’s day), and Revelation 21, where liars are consigned to “the lake that burns with fire and sulphur). And, of course, we have Jesus’ explanation in John 8, that the devil is “the father of lies,” his declaration in John 14, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 13, “Love . . . rejoices with the truth.” Scriptural testimony to the reality and value of truth is manifold.
Of course, the possibility of a proposition’s being true depends upon the meaning of the words. When you say that the whale is a mammal, you need to have a reliable, exacting definition of “mammal.” And fastidiousness must extend beyond the glossary to punctuation, as underscored in the book title, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. (As it stands, you have a gunfighter extracting himself from a hostile saloon. Drop the commas, and you’re talking about a panda.)
Knowing that pesky matters of truth and falsity can wreck their enterprise, postmodernists and critical theorists can simply queer (in both senses) the issue upstream. Simply commandeer the language, and you avoid accountability. Consider the expression, “begs the question.” It’s typically cast as “raises the question,” as in “The advance of the polar ice sheet this year begs the question, ‘Is anthropogenic global warming a reality?’” However, the concept refers classically to unfairly front-end-loading the conclusion, often in the form of a “question-begging epithet” — a slur that rigs the conversation. Imagine, for instance, a survey that asks, “Do you oppose the tyrannical Texas law, robbing women of their right to choose their own path to reproductive health?” It seems as though the right answer would be Yes. But more dispassionate wording might shift the results. If you spoke more clinically about a fetal-heartbeat red line, you’d see more No’s.
Notice that both nouns (“health”) and adjectives (“tyrannical”) do heavy lifting in the original question. No, there’s nothing wrong per se in the use of highly charged words. No one should object to the sentence, “In territories under his control, the despotic Adolph Hitler implemented a policy of genocide against the Jews.” The problem comes when you assume the very thing you’re trying to demonstrate, either through specious definitions or super-charged modifiers. And both are stock-in-trade for critical theory.
A favorite suffix, serving both nouns and adjectives, derives from the Greek word for fear, phobos. It shows up in “homophobia” and “homophobic” and signals a malady. Consider the poor fellow who stays cooped up in his home, terrified of normal contact with folks at the mall (“agoraphobia”); who insists upon the statistically more dangerous highway for long trips, refusing to fly (“aerophobia”); or who clicks past Channel 13, feeling much safer watching Channel 14 (“triskaidekaphobia”). Even when the danger may be real in certain circumstances, e.g., for the “germaphobe,” the subject’s fear is judged irrational, ideally addressed by therapy. But when you label as a “phobia” a phenomenon warranting concern, revulsion, or indignation, you speak viciously, not judiciously. If, for instance, you raise the alarm over the erasure of gender identity and the abominable public policy implications that follow from it (e.g., with boys self-identifying as girls in the girls’ locker room), you’re dismissed as a “phobe” rather than a “guide,” a distinction whose soundness should be in play, not something to be bulldozed by raw stipulation.
One of the most breathtaking examples of linguistic bulldozing involves the construal of “racism” as beyond the capability of disadvantaged people. The traditional and plausible understanding of the term disparages those who refuse to “judge people by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character” (cf. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech). But what if the prejudice flows upward rather than downward, it’s excused — whether from a financially struggling Malay toward the prosperous Chinese immigrant with a shop in the atrium; from a black custodian living on Chicago’s Near West Side toward the white building manager who enjoys better lodging on the city’s North Shore; from Filipino contract workers serving as housekeepers in shimmering, high-rise condos in Dubai. This curious definition gives “underdogs” a blank check to despise, indiscriminately, Chinese, Anglos, and Arabs for being Chinese, Anglo, and Arab. Guilt-free racism, utterly un-Christian, yet touted even by some who call themselves Christian.
The list goes on and on: disagreement-discourse called “hate speech;” dispute-free zones called “safe-spaces;” straightforward speech labeled a “dog whistle,” implying subterfuge; “We need to have a conversation,” meaning “You need to meekly receive my authoritative lecture;” and “Just listen,” implying, “Just alter your behavior to accommodate my feelings and convictions,” as in “They doesn’t listen to me.” Of course, on many of these matters, we’ve been listening for centuries, even millennia, and those suggesting that we’ve not done our civilizational homework or are suffering from ethical and logical malformation are likely trading in insult and specious implication.
As the account goes, if you don’t “just listen,” you’re guilty of “testimonial injustice.” This “occurs when prejudice on the part of the hearer leads to the speaker receiving less credibility than he or she deserves.” And some would cast this offense as a failure of distributive justice: “If we think of credibility as a good (like wealth, healthcare, education or information), then it is natural to think that testimonial injustice consists in an unjust (or unfair) distribution of this good . . .” Of course, that kicks the can down the road. You still have to determine whether the speaker is sagacious, befuddled, or mendacious. But the postmodernists have an answer: If and only if he’s marginalized, his account is important, and to ignore it is evil. For them, it’s obvious that you must grant some sort of epistemological equity to all voices so that no one is denied a seat of honor at the roundtable of adepts.
On the contrary, it’s reasonable to think that much marginalization is due to the bad epistemological choices the marginalized have made. That sounds harsh, but everyone — postmodernists included — must make such value choices. Consider the counsel of Tasmanian philosopher David Coady. He begins with a veneer of dispassionate wisdom, but then shows his esteem for the deliverances of wanton sexual passion:
There is nothing unjust about distributing credibility unequally. On the contrary, justice requires credibility to be distributed unequally. Something similar may be true of hermeneutic power.
This seems to be more than a hypothetical possibility. Take neo-Nazis, for example. They appear to be a hermeneutically marginalized social group. They have very little impact on the generation of social meanings. They understand the world “Jew” and “Muslim” quite differently from the wider society in which they live, and their attempts to popularize certain expressions, such a “Jewish conspiracy” and “Islamization,” to explain their social experiences have been largely unsuccessful. It seems in short that they are victims of hermeneutical injustice . . . because they have had some significant areas of their “social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to hermeneutic marginalization.” If I am right, hermeneutic marginalization in this case is not an injustice. It is a good thing. Even if I am wrong, and it is not true that neo-Nazis have been hermeneutically marginalized, there seems to be a very good case that they should be. Some groups of people, I suggest, do not deserve to have as much hermeneutic power as others.
Neo-Nazis are, of course, a very extreme case, so I will consider another example, which makes the same point in a somewhat different way. In the past, proponents of same-sex marriage were hermeneutically marginalized. They were members of a group that did not have equal access to the generation of social meaning. In particular, they did not have an equal say in the social (and more specifically, legal) meaning of the word “marriage.” But increasingly the tables are turning, with large majorities in most Western countries in favour of marriage equality and more and more countries legislating to keep pace with public opinion. What are we to make of this? Certainly opponents of same-sex marriage have lost their hermeneutical monopoly, but more than this, it seems clear that they have themselves been hermeneutically marginalized (at least in Western counties). Their claims and arguments are (rightly, in my opinion) given scant consideration in the public domain, and, as a result, they are often not heard and have little or no influence on the social meaning of “marriage.” If hermeneutic egalitarianism were correct, their hermeneutic marginalization would constitute an injustice. But it seems to me that this is not an injustice . . .
This example also makes it clear that hermeneutic power, like credibility, is a finite resource and, as a result, there can be competition for it. The political and social struggle over the meaning of the word “marriage” is a zero-sum game.
Philosopher Alvin Goldman brings an important word of corrective counsel to this effort to supplant the wisdom of the past.
Many writers, especially postmodernists, defend multiculturalism by appeal to a kind of relativism . . . . Respecting other cultures, according to such writers, involves respecting their epistemologies as equally valid or legitimate. To insist on the superiority of one’s own Western or Enlightenment epistemology would be cultural imperialism. Since the hallmarks of Enlightenment epistemology are standards like truth, reason, and justification, these standards cannot be invoked under relativism . . . .
In reply to this defense of multiculturalism, I first challenge the claim that non-Western cultures have no concept of or commitment to truth in their epistemologies . . . . [T]ruth is a goal for humankind across history and culture. Diverse cultures have certainly differed on the best methods for arriving at truth, as Westerners have differed among themselves, but that does not mean that they reject or ignore truth as a goal. The conception of education as a knowledge-producing enterprise, in the truth-entailing sense of “knowledge,” is not a piece of Western imperialism.
Next let us look more carefully at the relativist or postmodern claim that respecting other cultures involves respecting their epistemologies as equally valid or legitimate. Granting the moral imperative of respecting the view of others, the question arises whether this means regarding their views as having equal merit as one’s own . . . . [T]his is not an appropriate construal. Respecting the view of others would involve taking them seriously, recognizing that many people accept them, seeing what can be said for them, and allowing them to challenge one’s own view. But it does not necessarily mean agreeing with them . . . [A] hearer might reasonably decline to accept a speaker’s view even if she (the hearer) grants that the speaker has some good reasons for it. The hearer may simply think that she has good defeaters of that view. So it is not illegitimate to employ Enlightenment epistemology even in the context of multiculturalism.
Furthermore, Enlightenment epistemology is required for postmodernism even to get its defense of multiculturalism off the ground. When the post-modernist claims that other cultures deserve respect, she makes a moral claim, a claim endorsed as true and justified. But this already presupposed the Enlightenment concepts of truth and justification. Such a claim also clashes with postmodernism’s rejection of universalism and “totalizing metanarratives.” In endorsing the universal moral claim that other cultures deserve respect, postmodernists undercut their own often-repeated strictures against universalizing . . . . Thus, whereas multiculturalism is defensible from [an] . . . Enlightenment standpoint, it cannot be successfully defended from a postmodern one.
Sad to say, Goldman and other traditionalists have daunting work cut out for them. They face, for instance, feminist epistemologists who argue that the woman’s perspective is to be preferred in STEM enterprises, in that they make the best use of holistic, intuitionist modes of thought — the better to do justice to the phenomena. And across the board, it’s not just a matter of, “Why not try this?”, but rather one of addressing grievances with a vengeance. And so we have “decolonialising, queer, and trans epistemologies.”
Well, yes, we need to be sure to do our homework. If we’re missing something important from any sector, we need to incorporate it in our calculations. (Following Acts 6:1: “What’s that you say? The Hellenistic widows are being ignored in the daily distribution of food! Sorry. We’ll get right on it.”) Since the goal is optimum church life, you need to be well informed. But, of course, not every utterance is worthy of honor. When a child in the grocery store pitches a fit because mom didn’t get the candy he wanted, she doesn’t have to bow to that “information.” When an internet phisher says he needs personal information to send good things your way (or to keep bad things from coming your way), you do best to ignore him. He’s toxic, as are all sorts of adult crybabies and frauds. And it’s not the job of epistemology to indulge the counsel of fools and malefactors; rather, epistemology is instituted to filter out their blandishments.
This is not to say that you utterly dismiss the claims, proposals, and practices of any group of people. If the ancient Egyptians, who venerated beetles and used slaves to build the Pyramids, seemed to find pain relief in the bark of the willow, we should take notice. (The ingredient, which we know as salicin, is the key component in aspirin.) All truth is God’s truth, whoever might stumble upon it.
Nevertheless, it’s good to recall a classic example of proper disdain for another culture’s convictions. It comes from Sir Charles James Napier, who commanded British forces in India in the mid-nineteenth century. When a Hindu priest objected to the abolition of sati, Napier replied, “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”
Discerning God’s Will
Epistemology is a theoretical enterprise concerning both destination (believed truth) and the route to it (justification). Not surprisingly, there are many versions of how to get there. Within the church, we differ over how to discern God’s will for the particulars of our lives, whether, for instance, I should become a minister or marry someone or buy a house. The book, How Then Should We Choose?, presents three approaches, namely “specific-will” (Henry and Richard Blackaby), “wisdom” (Garry Friesen), and “relationship” (Gordon Smith). Into the conversation, John MacArthur has pitched a warning against “charismatic chaos,” wherein believers run off on extra-biblical tangents, spurred by personal experiences, issuing in “God showed me that . . .” Tradition, encapsulated in creeds and catechisms, can also play a role in our sorting things out, as when the pastor politely declines the gift of a framed copy of Salman’s Head of Christ for the church lobby, appealing to the Westminster Divines’ treatment of the Second Commandment. And on it goes down through sects and cults and world religions, with the devotees settling things by appeals to papal encyclicals, the fatwas of imams, pretenders to scripture, and such.
Lie Detectors versus Tesla Coils
The jury trial is a mainstay of the Western judicial system, but its record is less than flawless if the aim is to generate correct decisions. Any number of embarrassing decisions come to mind, including the O. J. Simpson acquittal and the 1963 hung juries who freed Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Still, it’s an improvement over the Star Chamber, kangaroos courts, and their many counterparts throughout history. Of course, a host of procedural safeguards (at best) and gratuitous obstacles (at worst) alternatively lubricate, maintain, or cripple courtroom “truth machines” — whether depositions and other rules of evidence, the employment of grand juries, voir dire sessions in the selection of jurors, and the adversarial (as opposed to the inquisitorial) system. It’s complex, but the question always remains, “Did the accused really murder the victim? Did the court get it right?”
All around the world, cultures are fielding their own deciders with varying compositions and reliability. The French favor “guilty till proven innocent” over “innocent till proven guilty,” and in their cours d’assises, dealing with serious criminal cases, the jury is made up of three professional judges and nine citizen jurors. Thailand works with specialty courts, made up of jurors with expertise in the matters at hand. History also records the operation of all-woman juries, dealing, for instance, in the pleas of pregnant women.
In stark contrast, Lavrentiy Beria, Soviet head of security/internal affairs and engineer of the purges Stalin directed, is well known for assuring his boss, “Show me the man; I’ll find you the crime.” His policy machine generated power, not truth. The end alone justified the means, and the end, the goal, was different. Think of the distinction between a lie detector and a Tesla coil: The former takes the best readings it can to determine the veracity of the subject; the latter fills the air around it with colorful, brush-and-streamer-like, electric discharges.
While Beria murdered and imprisoned millions on specious pretexts (when they were offered at all), contemporary Western postmodernists do their vicious work through “high-tech lynchings” (to use Clarence Thomas’s expression) — in the form of “cancelling” and “deplatforming” and through “running out of town on a rail” folks who would dare to question their pieties — from Portland State, where philosophy professor Peter Boghossian resigned amidst torment, to ESPN, where Rachel Nichols criticized “fatally” a diversity hiring. The issue is not whether they uttered justified truth, but whether they spoke truth to power-merchants, and thus disqualified themselves from further commentary. It’s as though they touched the Tesla coil, and it made their hair stand straight out.
It can make for exquisite delirium: Playing off Freud’s 1935 letter saying that homosexuality was “nothing to be ashamed of,” but only a “variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development,” UC Riverside English professor Gregory Bredbeck suggested a better take, that “we view homosexuality not as a sexuality but as epistemological conditionality — that is, a set of conditions, propositions, discourses, and assumptions that delineate a field of significance.” Sexual perversion is then analogue to a literary genre, like haiku or limerick, satire or memoir, personal essay or fairy tale. To dismiss a type out of hand or force it to follow another’s rules (as in, “Wait a minute. Are you saying Orcs exist?”) is to totally misunderstand the world of letters.
Bredbeck’s counsel suggests that what spunky Catholic writer E. Michael Jones claimed of modernity is also a force in postmodernity:
[W]e know that cultural relativism, as propounded by Margaret Mead, was nothing more than a clever rationalization for her own adultery. What better way to salve the conscience than to find that Samoans, the natural man, don’t take adultery seriously. . . . The evidence . . . is all in, and the verdict is clear: modernity is rationalized lust.
It’s a commonplace that “ideas have consequences.” After first reading Jones, it occurred to me that, so to speak (awkwardly), “consequences have ideas” — that people find themselves in reputational binds so they hatch conceptual schemes that will erase their stigmas, elevate their status, and rank down those who’ve heretofore enjoyed a measure of honor. Mead used her “study” (the results of which have been thoroughly debunked) to cast herself as noble while construing her critics as “repressed,” “puritanical,” or otherwise damaged and damaging. This would fit the pattern we see in postmodernism and critical theory: Identify the disparaged and turn the tables, valorizing the disparaged and then disparaging their disparagers, regardless of the merits of their case.
For Socrates, the Sophists were his epistemological foils, much as the Pharisees were special targets of Christ. Sophists were say-anything-to-win lawyers, ready to deploy whatever might sway the crowd, contradicting themselves from issue to issue, indifferent to consistency. They were allergic to the judicial marshalling of evidence, unless that is, by chance, it served their cause. Against their ilk, philosophers have identified scores of their “fallacies,” cheap moves to bypass responsible argument. Some of the most familiar are ad hominem (attacking the person rather than his claim), ad misericordiam (appeal to pity), ad populum (appeal to the prejudice or ignorance of the mob), and ad baculum (enlisting threats to compel agreement). And, without the Latin, we speak of statistical shenanigans (e.g., “100% of heroin users began on milk.”), fantastical slippery slopes (e.g., “Elect him, and you’ll be back in chains.”); false dichotomies (e.g., “If you love Jesus, you’ll open the borders.”). There are scores of these lame and noxious maneuvers, scorned in responsible discourse, but deployed with gusto and shamelessness by postmodern sharpies facing off against truth-searchers and “deplorables” employing “linear thinking.”
Biblical Regard for Justification
Isaiah 1:18 records the Lord’s saying, “Come now, let us reason together,” a passage in which God invites them to get a proper fix on their circumstances. And in 2 Corinthians 5:11, Paul says that he seeks to persuade (not coerce) people to accept the truth of the gospel. Though both passages reference dire consequences facing those who dismiss this reasoning, the counsel is cast in the language of entreaty, not threat — “Can’t you see the funnel cloud? Please come with me to the storm shelter,” not “See this pistol? Give me your wallet.”
In Athens, according to Acts 17:16–33, we see Paul reasoning with “the Jews and the devout persons” in the synagogue (presumably from the Tanakh) and with philosophers on Mars Hill (explicitly from their religious statuary and poetry). He urges the Thessalonians (in 1 Thess 5:21) to be neither sweepingly dismissive of, nor naively open to, proffered prophecy. Rather, they should “test everything” and “hold fast what is good.” He called them and us to be proposition-scrutinizers.
Both Jesus and Paul employed arguments as they went about fishing for men. For instance, the Lord pointed analogously to the need for financial prudence in tower construction to ensure clear-eyed assent to the cost of discipleship (Luke 14:25–33); and, in 1 Corinthians 15:12–34, Paul dismantled the untenable reasoning of those who claimed to believe in the risen Christ but denied the resurrection of the dead in Christ.
To be sure, “lowly” biblical figures also offered helpful rationales in their dealings with skeptics. Take, for instance, the case of the leprous Syrian general Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1–14. His captive Israelite servants reasoned with him that Elisha’s directive to bathe in the Jordan River was worth a try. To his contemptuous “It can’t help,” they responded, “It can’t hurt,” and so he complied and was cured.
When you make a knowledge claim, you, so to speak, lay down your “paperwork” for assessment by an audience you more or less respect, and the project is universal. Muslims are concerned with their standing in the eyes of Western critics. Though they’ve suffered centuries of embarrassment for the relative squalor and technological fruitlessness on display in their homelands, they point to their “golden age” when they built the Alhambra Palace in occupied Spain and refined “algebra” (from the Arabic al-jabr). While many argue that the accomplishments of medieval Muslims were informed by other cultures and that notable achievements are the product of ethnic ingenuity, not religion, Muslims insist that the ummah was an excellence-generator across the board; alas, the full flowering of the caliphate’s potential was crippled by the machinations of infidels. In doing so, Muslims join a host of others who bring their justificatory credentials to the table of public opinion.
Or we might speak of “laying one’s epistemological cards down.” Someone made his propositional bet; now he has to show what he’s got to back up his wager. Some appeal to “justified group belief,” where, for instance, committees have been deemed better than individuals at “tracking the truth.” Then there’s Alvin Goldman, who has given fairly high marks to the track record of “Wikipistemology.” And in our current fixation on “pandemic,” we’ve seen deference to the contrasting statements and behaviors of Dr. Fauci and Gov. DeSantis. All concerned are following the example of Thomas Jefferson, who, in the Declaration of Independence made his case saying, “To prove [the rightness of our cause], let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Postmodernists find this a quaint and toxic conceit. They’re not interested in ingratiating themselves to those in power; rather, they want to bulldoze them with whatever power they can muster. On this model, community organizer Saul Alinsky has written the playbook, Rules for Radicals. He begins with a tip of the hat to Machiavelli, who thought nothing of lying, a technique he commended in The Prince:
Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in the prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who are doing great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who rely on their word . . . . [I]t it is necessary . . . to be a great pretender and dissembler . . .”
Alinsky proceeds, then, to urge his readers to use whatever means are necessary in effecting social change; (“[O]ne’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s distance from the scene of conflict.”); to discount objections as just so much empty whining (“[A]ny effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.”); to treat their reasoning as lame excuse-giving (“Learn to search out the rationalizations, treat them as rationalizations, and break through”); to cloak whatever you do in fine moral talk (“[G]oals must be phrased in general terms like ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ ‘Of the Common Welfare,’ ‘Pursuit of Happiness,’ or ‘Bread and Peace.’”); to employ smoke and mirrors freely (“Always remember the first rule of power tactics: Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.”); and to strip the opponent of his dignity (“Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”)
Of course, there is a time to deflate pretense, to speak of grand ideals, and to ridicule, but Alinsky is not commending the principled use of these utterances, but rather their employment as first-strike bludgeons or as intricate weapons of treachery. He has no patience for those who would give their opponents credit for a measure of understanding or for those who might venture a joint-pursuit of truth with dissenters. No: “The thirteenth rule: Pick the target, freeze it, paralyze it, and polarize it.” This is war.
Naturally, there are other techniques to short circuit the justification enterprise. A favorite is to tell the interlocutor, “Stay in your lane.” It’s used to dismiss the judgment of “outsiders,” whether those with “white privilege” giving advice to persons of color; men saying that women shouldn’t elect abortions for the sake of personal freedom (“No Womb; No Opinion”); or, back in the day, civilians condemning Lt. Calley for leading his troops to effect the My Lai Massacre. “How dare you pass judgment, Sir! You have no idea what it’s like to operate under enemy fire!” (Or suffer an unwanted pregnancy or have to navigate the streets when the police are itching to humiliate or harm you.)
What great insulation from accountability. But the question remains, “Are ethical judgments best rendered in the heat of battle or at a distance, when you are cool and collected?” Of course, one can be too detached, utterly insensitive to the stress, strain, and experiential particularities of others in a bind. But arguably, one of the worst times to make a sound moral call is when chaos, embarrassment, or the prospect of personal disadvantage overtakes you. Better to have your principles sorted out before entering the maelstrom. Indeed, epistemology was “invented” for just such situations; it presses us to cut through the fog and fury of partisanship, expediency, and precipitous judgment to grasp reality with as much detachment as we can manage. But this is far from the postmodern/critical theorist’s mind and heart.
Devotees of critical theory don’t even have to believe what they say. Their behavior mirrors that of the Allies in WWII, who fielded a mock army with inflatable tanks near Dover, across from Calais, implying that the invasion wouldn’t touch Normandy. (No moral problem with that since we were dealing with horrific Nazis who didn’t deserve the truth.)
Biblical Regard for Genuine Belief
Of course, the Bible insists upon belief from start to finish, and provides a roll call of faith in Hebrews 11. It also condemns those who profess belief on the surface, but harbor contrary convictions underneath. Jesus lowered the boom on scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 15:7–8, when he declared, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’”
Scholars speak of a “dispositional analysis” of belief and affective states: If you truly believe something (or love someone or admire the work of an artist), then you will act accordingly. You’ll step out in confidence, extend warm thoughtfulness, or invest time in their (or its) company. These behavioral indicators, or the lack thereof, can confirm or disconfirm your outward pledges. You may even be fooling yourself, thinking that you believe one thing when your performance belies that claim. Jesus warned in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus also had no patience for oaths, as if your veracity were so tenuous that you had to enlist exotic modes of swearing to back up your statements: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’: anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:33–37). Though this simple directive hit his first-century hearers hard, it is especially challenging to postmodernists in that 1) they have such a slippery notion of truth and falsity that they’re in no position to land firmly on a “Yes” or a “No”; and 2) honesty and candor are not postmodern values when it comes to cultural struggles, the same as with Muslims who practice taqiyyah (tactical and strategic lying to protect or advance themselves or their cause).
The Culpable Believer
In recent years, fresh attention has been given to “virtue epistemology,” to the believing parties’ stewardship of their doxastic capacities. In this vein, Wheaton philosopher Jay Wood speaks of “acquisitional,” “motivational,” and “dialectical virtues,” including “inquisitiveness, teachableness, attentiveness, persistence, circumspection . . . [and] tenacity . . . ,” all connected to moral integrity. On the other hand, he discusses “epistemic vices” such a “obtuseness, gullibility, superstitiousness, close-mindedness, willful naivete and superficiality of thought.” Attention to these standards is a component of human flourishing.
But in the spirit of zero-sum power plays, nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared, “The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.” Why bother with the niceties of developing circumspect convictions when circumspection is a fool’s game? And even when you know the truth, it can be to your advantage to foster flimsy beliefs in your followers. So says Saul Alinsky:
The organizer must become schizoid, politically, in order not to slip into becoming a true believer. Before men can act an issue must be polarized. Men will act when they are convinced that their cause is 100 per cent on the side of the angels and that the opposition are 100 per cent on the side of the devil. He knows that there can be no action until issues are polarized to this degree . . . . What I am saying is that the organizer must be able to split himself into two parts — one part in the arena of action where he polarizes the issue to 100 to nothing, and helps to lead his forces into conflict, while the other part knows that when the time comes for negotiations that it really is only a 10 per cent difference — and yet both parts have to live comfortably with each other. Only a well-organized person can split and yet stay together. But this is what the organizer must do.
So we turn to gamesmanship, where sincerity is incidental. It’s stock-in-trade for politicians, who act as if a deed were horrific if a member of the opposition party did it, but treat it as negligible when it involves one of their own. We know that many of them will say anything to win. One wonders whether this habit of insular dissembling so corrupts their minds and hearts that they finally arrive at the sorry state of believing anything.
A Tale of Two, Yea Three, Cities
Though the devotees of postmodernism and critical theory love to sport epistemological terminology, they betray its essence at every turn. Truth is a fiction. Justification is a waste of time. Belief is purely optional. Their epistemology is counterfeit.
It’s as though one group — the epistemologically earnest — is on the highway, at least aspirationally, toward Sanity City in the framing and defense of propositions. Some make good progress in roadworthy vehicles, such as those acquired at a faithfully Christian liberal arts college. Others chug along as best they can with their scientism, selecting the wrong gear or backfiring when they turn their attention to metaphysics. Still others, like tea-leaf readers, end up in the ditch right away. But they’re all at least pointed toward the right destination.
In contrast, the postmodernists are racing toward Power City. They care not a whit for the “epistemological three,” but, instead are obsessed with turf, leverage, and privilege, regardless of whether they are acquired licitly. And they’ll run right over thoughtfulness, circumspection, and civil discourse if it’s convenient. But there’s a big hitch. Though they may gain access to Power City, it soon evolves into Rubble City. As I write this, the United States has just ceded Kabul to the Taliban, and the ruin of that city is well underway. They have the power, but that over which they have power is less and less desirable. And, of course, we Americans can point sadly to swaths of San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, where often-riotous occupiers have turned blocks into large outdoor toilets. “You win. Now look at what you’ve done with your winnings.”
The True Haves and Have Nots
Saul Alinsky began his book saying, “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away”; and he adds, “The Haves develop their own morality to justify their means of repression and all other means employed to maintain the status quo.” This is the counsel of a fool.
For one thing, it may well be the case that his Have-Nots are short on benefits because of choices they have made. A variety of studies have shown, for instance, that by doing a handful of things, (e.g., finishing high school; holding a job for a year; avoiding out-of-wedlock pregnancy, drugs, and the abuse of alcohol), a person can almost surely avoid poverty. The status of those who neglect these minimal items is not so much the result of oppression, as personal, moral immobilization or regression. And this applies to baleful cultures as well as individuals; you don’t get a Mogadishu out of a Judeo-Christian base. Yes, of course, there are genuine victims, and, yes, injustices occur. But Alinsky’s typology doesn’t allow for nuance. He only works with conceptual blunt objects.
A big problem is Alinsky’s resonance with Marxist folly in identifying man as an economic being, whose having and not having are basically fiscal. What he does not realize is that man is above all a spiritual being, whose eternal fate is in the balance, and whose hope of joy lies in regeneration, not material accumulation or power multiplication. Envy, resentment, and confiscation are not the skyways to satisfaction. Little does he understand that the morality that motivates the born again is beneficent and salubrious, the outworkings of the abundant life, a life with high regard for truth, accountability, and belief. These are the Haves, and such having is offered free to all — not something to be seized by resentful people but received humbly by self-consciously broken people.
Where shall we begin in vitiating the charm of postmodernism and critical theory? We might start with a visit to the Decalogue, upon which we break ourselves to the extent that we break them. Starting with the Tenth Commandment, proscribing covetousness, we remove the stinger from the hatred of Haves. Then, working back through them, we excise illicit paths to power (stealing, lying, and murder) as well as a reason to gin up fictions of the Margaret Mead variety (adultery). As we approach the top of the list, we find other antiseptic directives built upon the created order, centered on the Living God, whose special revelation in Scripture is unmistakably zealous for truth, epistemic accountability, and genuine belief.
Mark Coppenger has authored, edited, and contributed to numerous books. His articles and reviews have appeared in Touchstone, American Spectator, Criswell Review, USA Today, and Christian Scholar’s Review. Coppenger has served as Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at Southern Seminary and President of Midwestern Seminary. He is a retired infantry officer.
 Plato, Theaetetus, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 918
 To paraphrase his problematic example, imagine that a Ford salesman has bought a Volkswagen, and he’s embarrassed to drive up to his dealership in it, so he parks it a few blocks away and then shifts to a new Ford he pre-positioned there the previous afternoon. When he arrives at work, the showroom personnel think (belief) he has a new car. They’re right (truth), he does. And they have good reason (justification) to believe it. But they don’t really know it, because of the misalignment of the conceptual parts.
 Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994).
 Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 72.
 Veith, Post Christian, 17.
 Veith, Post Christian, 17–18.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), 33.
 Brian McHale, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism (New York: Cambridge, 2015), 72–74.
 Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 6.
 Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 256–57.
 Philip E. Dow, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2013), 49.
 Heidi Grasswick, “Feminist Epistemology,” The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology, ed. Miranda Fricker, Peter J. Graham, David Henderson, and Nikolaj J. L. L Pedersen (New York: Routledge, 2020), 296
 Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (London: Profile, 2003).
 David Coady, “Epistemic Injustice as Distributive Justice,” The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, ed. Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. (New York: Rutledge, 2017), 61. The cover of this book is dominated by the image of an outstretched hand, with “LISTEN” scrawled on the palm.
 Serving as the SBC Executive Committee’s Vice-President for Convention Relations in the early 1990’s, with access to a clippings service revealing our daily coverage in the press nationwide, I saw this slippage in real time as the gay agenda was implemented apace, even as we were acting to exclude churches affirming homosexuality.
 David Coady, “Epistemic Injustice As Distributive Justice,” The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, Jose’ Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus (New York: Routledge, 2017), 65–66.
 Alvin Goldman, Knowledge in a Social World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 355–56.
 Kidd, Medina, and Pohlhaus, Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, 1.
 William Francis Patrick Napier, The History of General Sir Charles Napier’s Administration of Scinde, and Campaign in the Cutchee Hills (London: C. Westerton, 1851), 35.
 How Then Should We Choose?: Three Views on God’s Will and Decisionmaking, ed. Douglas S. Huffman (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).
 Valerie P. Hans, “Jury Systems Around the World,” Cornell Law Faculty Publications, January 1, 2008. 278–79, accessed October 1, 2021, https://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1378&context=facpub.
 Gregory W. Bredbeck, “The Postmodernist and the Homosexual,” Postmodernism Across the Ages: Essays for a Postmodernity That Wasn’t Born Yesterday, ed. Bill Readings and Bennet Schaber (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993), 234–35.
 E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity As Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 16–17.
 Jennifer Lackey, The Epistemology of Groups (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 91.
 Don Fallis, “Wikipistemology,” Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, ed. Alvin i. Goldman and Dennis Whitcomb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 297–313.
 Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971).
 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince in Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, editor in chief, Volume 23, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 25.
 Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 26, 35, 112, 45, 126–27, 128.
 Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 130.
 W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 34–53.
 Friederich Nietzsche, “Epigrams and Interludes,” Beyond Good and Evil: Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1992), 276.
 Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 78–79.
 Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 3, 42.
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