becoming postmodern at Liberty University
A year or so ago I posted for a while about what it was like being at Liberty University in the mid-Eighties; recent events (some involving Liberty, some not) have me thinking about this again. The upshot is this: I entered Liberty as a kind of “early Modern” person, and left as a kind of modern person with postmodern tendencies.
I think it’s fair to say that despite the occasional claim that Jerry Falwell and Liberty University herald the end of the Enlightenment, etc. Liberty is a very modern place full of people who see the world in a very modern way. And by this I don’t just mean that the vast majority of graduates enter fields that are industrial or postindustrial; I mean, there are lots of Business and Psychology graduates. But there’s more to it than that.
If we think of the history of Christianity as stretching from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Modern Era to whatever we are today, we have to acknowledge that the New Testament was written during the latter part of Ancient history, and the Reformation occurring on the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Era, but we are/were thoroughly modern. We tended to think in terms of “absolute truths,” “propositional logic,” and finally “propositional truth,” it didn’t occur to us to ask whether e.g. Paul’s readers would have read his letters the same way we read them, or whether they would have thought the same thing we did when they read them. We read our understanding of Paul’s words back into the text, mostly because we didn’t know of another way to read Paul.
One consequence of thinking this way was that I tended to see the world as existing in a kind of fixed matrix of truth, anchored by fixed points of divine revelation. Or as we often put it “all truth is God’s truth.” And since God is omniscient, everything true can be known.
It was at Liberty, and in class no less, that I stumbled onto two problems: one from Kurt Gödel and the other from Thomas Kuhn. Gödel dealt with issues of decidability; he proved that if a logical system is of sufficient complexity then it is either inconsistent or incomplete. Kuhn was more of a historian or a philosopher of science, and he argued pretty convincingly that while most of the time science consists of problem solving, and so is fairly stable and logical, there are occasional crises where science as it is practiced jumps more for social reasons than for logical reasons. What’s worse is his claim that scientists before and after the crisis are not mutually intelligible to each other. Or as he puts it “they talk past each other.”
Gödel led me to question that everything that is true could ever be known; I still haven’t worked my way out of that one. I’m not entirely sure it has theological implications per se, but I think I’d have to say that before reading Gödel I believed the correspondence between revelation and “ordinary truth” was close; afterward not so much.
Kuhn in a sense was and is more of a problem; his recasting of “scientists do science” as “science is what scientists do” plagues me still. I tend to see a lot of theological discussions as being centered in the theologians discussing rather than in an observable external theological phenomenon being discussed. Strictly speaking it’s a misapplication of what Kuhn argued, but unfortunately it’s a perspective that’s hard to shake.
So there you go; I’m still very modern in a lot of ways. I still believe that an author’s intent matters when reading a text, for example, but I lost a lot of the fundamentalist (or if you which presuppositionalist) certainty I took with me to Liberty. And I’m not entirely sure I would have gone through the same transition if I’d gone to school elsewhere. There was something jarring about hearing respectable authority figures claim both
“All truth is God’s truth”
“These [people] believe that there’s only one moral absolute, and that’s there are no moral absolutes.”
While at the same time reading Kuhn and realizing that not only do thinkers organize themselves socially as much as logically, but also that how these thinkers think varies from one period of history to another, with grave implications for whether they are mutually intelligible. I suppose it’s entirely possible that if I’d been someplace less linear (for lack of a better term) I might never have reached my own crisis.