TRUTH AT STAKE
Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who moved from a prison cell to leading a liberated Czechoslovakia, says he’s given himself to “living in truth.” Such courage provides the stuff for martyrs and saints–and for heroic Havels and Solzhenitsyns–but today’s culture seems marked more by a contempt for truth than a willingness to live in it. Fifty years ago publisher Henry Luce declared “The most dangerous fault in American life today is the lack of interest in truth.” Today he’d probably be even more concerned, for the mood has shifted from disinterest to denial.
Lynn Cheney served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986-1992, asks, in Telling the Truth (N.Y.: Simon & Schuster, c. 1995), “why our culture and our country have stopped making sense–and what we can do about it.” The book’s theme comes packaged in an opening statement of George Orwell’s: “Any attack on intellectual liberty, and on the concept of objective truth, threatens in the long run every department of thought” (p. 11).
Cheney’s stint as NEH chairman tossed her into the trenches of contemporary academic warfare, most evident in the furious struggle for federal grants. There she encountered (behind the various slogans and facades of gender, race, class, etc.) an intense power struggle for the soul of the university and, in the long run, the soul of the nation.
Thus, in her first chapter, she deals with “politics in the schoolroom,” documenting various educationists’ assaults on America’s patriotic traditions and the dignity of Western Civilization. What was once widely used as the title for a staple general education course has now become an object of derision. For example, The National History Standards, put together at UCLA and issued in 1994, celebrate the architecture and agriculture of the Aztecs but conveniently ignore their slave-gathering wars and temples devoted to human sacrifice. They fail to note that George Washington was America’s first president or that James Madison drafted its Constitution. Joseph McCarthy, however, gets mentioned nineteen times!
“Patriarchy” and men in general also take a beating in today’s schools. Despite clear evidence that girls do better in schools, despite the fact that more women than men now attend college, those who orchestrate the educational establishment inject pro-female biases into textbooks and classroom strategies. Relativistic, womanly, “lateral thinking,” Peggy McIntosh argues, must supplant male-style “vertical thinking,” with its concern for “facts” and “objectivity.” An influential professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College castigated competition, “norms of success, effectiveness, [and] efficiency,” insisting “there are no such things as ‘objective norms'” (p. 36).
That being so, it stands to reason that grades and standards which recognize excellence must be abandoned. Grade inflation results. One study shows that high school teachers gave twice as many C’s as A’s in 1966; 12 years later they were giving more A’s than C’s. In many colleges today, B’s indicate “average” work. Harvard’s William Cole blames “relativism” for this malady. “‘There’s a general conception in the literary-academic world that holding things to high standards–like logic, argument, having an interesting thesis–is patriarchal, Eurocentric and conservative'” (p. 38).
Further clouding the integrity of the modern university, Cheney says, is “PC: Alive and Entrenched.” Campus radicals of the 1960’s who screamed “free speech” have become thought police in the 1990’s! Students who are never disciplined for drunkenness or fornication in dorms may be expelled for violating racial or sexual sensitivities. Profanity abounds–even seems approved–in college classrooms, but politically incorrect statements invite instant administrative action!
Applicants for teaching positions frequently must pass litmus texts concerning their orthodoxy on race and gender. Articles published in scholarly be carefully sanitized to avoid offensive language. When some Duke University professors organized a chapter of the National Association of Scholars (an organization committed to the traditional curricula), Stanley Fish (a prominent “post-modernist”) urged the university provost to bar NAS members from important committees or distinguished positions. A renowned Harvard professor was accused of “racism” for using the word “Indian” in class. Though most real Indians prefer that word, the academic elite has decreed that one must speak only of “Native Americans.” Rather than tolerate his students’ attacks, he stopped teaching the class. Apparently “verbal abuse” is fine if it assails scholars whose language fails the PC test.
To understand such incidents, Cheney points us to Michael Foucault and his “post-modernist” epigones, whose assault on Western Civilization entails a thorough rejection of “externally verifiable truth” and objective reality. According to Yale’s J. Hollis Miller, a Foucault follower, “‘A deconstructionist is not a parasite but a parricide. He is a bad son demolishing beyond hope of repair the machine of Western metaphysics.’ Andrew Ross, an academic superstar of the 1990’s, calls himself and like-minded colleagues ‘assassins of objectivity'” (p. 91).
All truth and reality, Ross and Miller hold, indeed our very “self,” are social constructs. To change the world, therefore, one needs simply change the ways we think, the ways we choose to envision it. Those who get positions which enable them to shape others’ discourse get control over them. Thus Oliver Stone directs movies such as “JFK” and “Nixon,” deliberately distorting the actual record to impose his jaundiced hostilities. In a revealing speech, Stone said: “I have come to have severe doubts about Columbus, Washington, the Civil War Being fought for slavery, the Indian Wars, World War I, World War II, the supposed fight against Nazism and/or Japanese control of resources in Southeast Asia. I’ve doubted everything. I don’t even know if I was born and who my parents were. It may be virtual reality” (p. 158). Still more, he replied, when challenged concerning the facts in his films, “Even if I am totally wrong . . . . I am still right. . . . I am essentially right because I am depicting the Evil with a capital E of government” (p. 158).
Politicians and the press, as well as the movies, disregard the truth. George Orwell envisioned, in 1984, a time when “All words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink.” The new way of thinking means getting control of the media. Routinely, it seems, the persons portrayed have no control over the ways their acts and thoughts will be presented.
Those who control the stories are the reporters, and “In both television and print, reporters increasingly had power to turn the candidates’ words and deeds into illustrative material for the stories they wanted to tell” (p. 177). Following the Bush-Clinton campaign, a careful study of stories, pictures, headlines, etc., showed there five times as many negative portraits of Bush as of Clinton. While the nation’s economy was actually improving in 1992, the press insisted on portraying it as getting worse–thus supporting the Clinton message. As soon as the election was held, the press flipflopped and began giving truthful data.
To rectify the loss of truth, Cheney closes her book with a focus on three academicians who, like Havel, live in truth. She believes truth-telling must begin in the academy, for “it is from our colleges and universities that messages radiate–or fail to radiate–to schools, to legal institutions, to popular culture, and to politics about the importance of reason, of trying to overcome bias, of seeking truth through evidence and verification” (p. 198).
One of her heroes is Frank M. Snowden, an African-America professor who taught for years at Howard University. He has courageously stood up against “Afrocentrist” professors who have sought to overstate the importance of Africa in world history. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, after founding Emory University’s Women’s Studies program, found herself shoved aside by radicals intent on making it a center not for scholarly reflection but for political agitation. Alan Kors, a Jewish scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, endured savage criticism for daring to brand fashionable “diversity orientation sessions” as political indoctrination.
Each of these professors dared to speak the truth, eliciting hostility from colleagues and students. But unless there are more folks like Snowden, Fox-Genovese, and Kors, our culture will surely collapse.
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Grant R. Osborne, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, says: “Postmodernism is one of the most dangerous movements of the century for Christians, and all too many evangelicals are falling prey to its allure.” To make a healthy response to it, he recommends The Death of Truth, edited by Dennis McCallum (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, c. 1960). McCallum is senior pastor of Xenos Christian Fellowship in Columbus, Ohio, which includes as part of its ministry an outreach to Ohio State University. Professors at the university, as well as members of the church staff, contribute essays to this volume, giving it a unique mix of perspectives and making it a handy treatise for laymen needing orientation to an increasingly influential intellectual movement.
In his introductory chapter, “Are We Ready?”, McCallum says postmodernism is mainly “a mood–a view of the world characterized by a deep distrust of reason, not to mention a disdain for the knowledge Christians believe the Bible provides. It’s a methodology–a completely new way of analyzing ideas. For all its diverse ideas and advocates, postmodernism is also a movement–a fresh onslaught on truth that brings a more or less cohesive approach to literature, history, politics, education, law, sociology, linguistics, and virtually every other discipline, including science. And it is ushering in a cultural metamorphosis–transforming every area of everyday life as it spreads through education, movies, television, and other media” (p. 12). Still more: “Postmodernism, as it applies to our everyday lives, is the death of truth as we know it” (p. 14), for it insists we create rather than discover truth, that reality is a social construct rather than a metaphysical given.
To illustrate: we routinely hear expressions such as “Truth is whatever you believe,” or “There is no absolute truth,” or “People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous.” “Personhood,” to abortion-rights advocates, is merely “a social construct” and thus as malleable as potters’ clay; humans are what they are by definition, not by nature.
Generally unsupported by evidence or logic, such statements nevertheless free folks from much concern for consistency in thought or action. Even natural science is being challenged by postmodern advocates! Traditional concerns for objectivity, rationality, empirical data, have been discounted, since according to the postmodernist credo all “reality” is socially constructed.
In health care, according to Donal O’Mathuna (who holds a Ph.D. in medical chemistry), postmodernists call for “alternative medicine,” “New Age healing,” and “Therapeutic Touch.” Though unverified by traditional scientific means, a recent nursing textbook recommends Therapeutic Touch because it helps “celebrate the diversity among us” since it reflects Eastern rather than Western thought. What makes health care “right” is often reduced to the caregiver’s love and compassion, for if one’s “in contact with Being” he or she radiates healing energy. According to Deepak Chopra, “true healing will occur when we finally realize that each one of us literally is God. ‘I know myself as the immeasurable potential of all that was, is, and will be. . . . There is no other I in the entire universe. I am being and I am nowhere and everywhere at the same time. I am omnipresent, omniscient; I am the eternal spirit that animates everyone in existence'” (p. 77).
Postmodern educators give something of the same spin to reality. Construct it to your own liking! Especially find ways to build “self-esteem” in the process, for one’s inner essence is not a given. It’s a construct which can be re-shaped and fine-tuned at will. Still more: since all persons are equal, all cultures are equal, and all constructions of reality are likewise equal insofar as they prove useful. Classrooms, consequently, should be “cooperative learning” centers where students and teachers construct useful readings of texts or laboratory findings. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers, since it all depends on one’s own (or one’s own group’s) perspective.
Postmodern “history” means the study of what various people think happened rather than what in fact happened. Historians have always acknowledged the relativity of historical study, the incompleteness of our knowledge of what actually happened. But they insisted the past is an objective reality which careful investigation, with reasonable accuracy, discloses.
Moving in radical directions, postmodernists question the very possibility of verifiable historical events. In the judgment of E. H. Carr, a British historian, “The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy” (p. 131). Accordingly, various social groups construct different versions of the past, so we have black history, labor history, women’s history, gay history, etc., each setting forth distinctive stories, none of which is necessarily “true,” but of which serves the interests of the groups in question. Consequently, a 1994 Gallup poll “showed that 33 percent of Americans think it possible that the Holocaust never happened” (p. 127).
In legal circles, postmodernists, “best known as ‘anti-foundationalists’ or advocates of ‘Critical Legal Studies,’ claim the law has no objective basis” (165). We construct law just as we construct history, and “Law is whatever a society’s most powerful cultural group makes it” (p. 165). This stance has, apparently, become the dominant paradigm in law schools, if not yet dominant in the legal profession.
Given the influence of postmodernism, Evangelicals must get informed and thoughtfully respond, for “postmodernism is nothing less than the death of truth!” (p. 244). Without ignoring some of its salutatory insights–slashing revelations of the failures of “modernism”–we must clearly discern the profoundly anti-Christian ramifications of postmodernism and staunchly defend truth, reason, and biblical revelation.
This is a fine book, fitting its designed niche, helping believers understand and engage in the work of apologetics which is always part of the Christian mission.
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Basic to the postmodernist agenda is the question with which Philip E. Johnson begins his most recent treatise, Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1995): “Is God the true Creator of everything that exists, or is God a product of the human imagination, real only in the minds of those who believe” (p. 7). At stake is the question of Ultimate Truth, the Being of God, and of our ability to know Him and realities He created–beings–which exist independently of ourselves. “In fact, one way to define theism is that it is a story about the universe that proclaims the reality of the true, the good, and the beautiful” (p. 197). Postmodernists generally beg this question, assuming God’s unreal.
Johnson’s persuaded that we need “a qualified opposition party that is willing and able to challenge the established religious philosophy itself, the metaphysical naturalism that is so successfully promoted in the name of science by such as Weinberg, Hawking, Sagan, Gould, Dawkins and Crick” (p. 96). He’s willing to enlist in the party, and he’s already one of the paratroopers–a battle-scarred commando working behind enemy lines, preparing the way for a coming corps of dissidents, willing to assail the bunkers and dismantle the reigning orthodoxies of naturalistic evolution.
The case he builds in this book is simply this: the presuppositions of naturalistic science make sense only if there’s no God. If God really is, as Johnson holds, the metaphysical assumptions undergirding monistic materialism (widely shared by mechanistic Darwinians) cannot stand. If God really is and created all that is, “the living world is the product of an intelligent and purposeful Creator rather than merely a combination of chance events and impersonal natural laws” (p. 74). Conversely, those who eliminate God from the cosmos allow only random events in an iron-clad impersonal universe–“chance and necessity” in Jacques Monod’s view. This position Johnson calls the “blind watchmaker thesis,” using the title of Richard Dawkins’ work whose subtitle declares that “the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.” Admitting that much in our marvelous world seems to be as designed as Chartre Cathedral, that a single cell has more data “than all the volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica put together” (p. 76), Dawkins adamantly insists such “design” is merely an illusion, a mirage in a mirror, and everything can be explained by “natural selection.”
To call into question such reductionistic declarations, Johnson takes us to the evidence, such as fossils and genetics, which to many thinkers suggest design. Perhaps the marvels of nature Dawkins admits appear as if designed were, in fact, designed! Christian scholars, especially, need the courage to live in truth, “to assert that God is real and that the evidence reflects the truth that nature was created by God” (p. 202). Johnson finds it thoroughly mystifying that “Christian” scholars, whether scientists or theologians, seemingly fear to challenge Darwinian pieties when they should be among their most vigorous and articulate critics.
In fact: “Christianity makes sense only if its factual premises are true and if it is providing meaningful answers to questions that people ought to be asking. The essential factual premise is that God created us for a purpose, and our destiny is a glorious one in eternity” (p. 204). If you’ve read Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, you know the precision with which this U.C. Berkeley law professor develops arguments and builds a case. Reason in the Balance admirably sustains that pattern.