Swallowing the Poison Pill

Years ago, it was popular among young evangelicals to be enamored with postmodern philosophy and begin to interpret their Christian faith through its lens. For those who are not old enough to remember, twenty years ago postmodern philosophy created its own wave of popular Christian deconversion stories. We saw this primarily in what was called the “emergent church” movement. And while they did not always call their theological development a deconversion, that is was it was. Christians became enamored with a very popular philosophical movement, subsumed their Christian theology to it, and (predictably) gave up their faith in favor of the philosophy. This theological development was not universal, but it was significant.

If postmodernism was dangerous to Christian faith, why was it so popular, and why did so many pastors and theologians defend it at the time? Often, the argument was that there were several truths in postmodernism that Christians needed to listen to and adjust their theology accordingly. While that may have been true (in fact, I think it was true), why didn’t I become a postmodernist? Why did I openly and often criticize emergent pastors and write critical reviews of their books? Because postmodernism is a philosophical poison pill. If you swallow the pill for one benefit, the side effects will still kill you.

Over the years, I have thought a lot about what it means for an ideology to be a poison pill, and what these ideas have to do with the development of Christian theology in the face of the constant onslaught of cultural pressures. Very few of us are concerned about Jean-Francois Lyotard’s influence on Christian missiology any more, but many of us are wrestling with the resurgence of Marxist ideology and how that vision of social justice does or does not relate with a biblical theology of justice. The cross pressures are always present; the ideological context is ever-changing.

My basic rule of thumb, developed while studying postmodernism, is this: If there is a truth in a bad ideology, place that truth in the context of Christian orthodoxy and drop the ideology.

If there is a truth in a bad ideology, place that truth in the context of Christian orthodoxy and drop the ideology.

For example, postmodernism allegedly showed us that an individual’s experience varied so greatly from culture to culture, there was no way to discover or assert a universal moral system. This idea was so pervasive, it led to strange moral summersaults with moral positions on clearly right and wrong issues. The American postmodernist, Richard Rorty, for example, could not bring himself to condemn racism outright because that would mean asserting a universal moral value. Instead, he asserted a position he called, “anti-anti-ethnocentrism”. Even Microsoft Word knows that is nonsensical.

But postmodernism was far from the first philosophy to teach that cultural experiences varied greatly. One can go to the early missionary movements of both the Catholic church (the early Jesuits) and the early Protestant missionaries. Many of them famously “adopted” the culture they moved to in order to communicate the gospel more clearly. Where postmodernism argued that experience varied greatly and therefore, we should throw up our hands and give up, Christian missionaries showed us that extreme differences did not negate the moral tap root present in every culture.

Postmodernism fails at a critical juncture in human existence while Christianity makes sense of even the most complicated issues. Postmodernism is a poison pill.

What is an ideological poison pill? My attempt at a definition:

A poison ideology is one that lacks the internal constraints necessary to protect itself from negative ideological movement.

If racism is clearly immoral, but a robust philosophical point of view cannot assert that truth, the philosophical position fails at exactly the point where it should succeed. Postmodernism not only lacked the ability to “hold the center” when bad ideas came up, it quickly morphed to embrace those bad ideas. Its core tenants were not robust enough to keep it from an ideological shift from bad to worse.

We find ourselves at the same point now with every new brand of Neo-Marxism, Cultural Marxism, Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, “Wokeism”, and all their variants.

Central to every one of these ideologies is a belief that objective reason, morality, and human nature do not exist (they are, after all, part of the same ideological family tree). Instead of rooting their positions in a reasoned argument from first principles about how nature is, they begin with power and power struggles, radically redefining common moral terms. This quickly leads these ideologies into strange and untenable territory. The magic, however, of holding to a theory without first principles rooted in nature or nature’s God, is that no territory really needs to be defended with reason. Reason itself, after all, is a power play and should be rejected.

A poison ideology is one that lacks the internal constraints necessary to protect itself from negative ideological movement.

Intersectionality is a good example. The idea that a person’s oppression is determined by the intersection of all their cultural (thus power) positions, is a prima face slippery slope. It may begin with sexuality, gender, and ethnicity, but now that every one of those terms is up for grabs there is no philosophically stable way of cataloguing a person’s place in the system of oppression.

Additionally, if these positions rely on the exposition of power structures, they end up condoning, even praising, some forms of violence against innocents. If a self-professed oppressed person, or a sufficiently woke person, sees fit to destroy property or assault a person of the “oppressor class”, then their actions are morally praiseworthy. Thus, a clear moral tenant rooted in every human soul is turned on its head, terms are redefined (“innocent”, “violence”, etc.), and moral evil is embraced as a moral necessity.

So, according to my definition and explanation, these ideologies need to be rejected by people of reason, and especially by Christians. If and where there are truths within them, they should be found and supported, but quickly taken from their toxic ideological mothers. Take the truths, place them in the sound reasoning of Christian orthodoxy, and reject the poison pill.

Photo by Danilo Alvesd on Unsplash

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