Epistemological Repentance:
A Response to Post-Modernism

Jerry L. Sherman, Ph.D.


Jerry L. Sherman earned his MA and Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. JerSherm@aol.com, JerSherm@tvi.cc.nm.us.


I will first consider what positions are available to a Christian scholar in response to the influence of post-modernism in the academic world. Then I will focus on one of those alternatives, "partial repentance," applying it mainly to epistemology. Epistemological repentance is the recognition that our way of knowing the world in modern times is technological, that is, controlling, and tempts us with idolatry. What the Bible tells us about such idolatry is supplemented and philosophically expressed by post-modern thinkers, primarily Nietzsche and Heidegger. But in the end I ask, What part of the biblical tradition stands against and cannot be destroyed by the post-modern challenge?

The possible responses to post-modernism include ignoring the challenge, succumbing to it, prophetically embracing it, resisting it, and recognizing how it applies to us, which leads to repentance in some areas. There are points in favor of most of these positions, but partial repentance brings out what is important in the movement and lets us be selective in applying its claims.

The particular repentance I focus on has to do with the controlling motive in the human attempt to know the world. Since we cannot control the world as a whole, our way of knowing it should not be modeled after technology, which gives us control over limited aspects of it. Nietzsche and Heidegger have given us insight into a technological consciousness that may be an aspect of the prevalent Christian world view. Repentance here can produce a bigger experience of worship.

Yet to have deconstructed some of our world view in a Nietzschean way is not to accept that this whole tradition is corrupt. The task that remains is to explore exactly what it is in the biblical world view that cannot be deconstructed.

Who fashions a god or casts an image, that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his fellows shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are but men; let them all assemble, let them stand forth, they shall be terrified, they shall be put to shame together. (Isaiah 44.10,11 R.S.V.)

A Christian scholar faced with the challenges of post-modern thinking might choose to ignore the challenge, succumb to it, embrace it prophetically, or resist it. Lastly, one might receive part of its challenge as valid and be moved toward repentance in some areas of thought. Most of these responses have something to recommend them. I will look at each and move toward what I think is the best response, a partial repentance in which some of the post-modern message is applied to Christian thinking. I will give examples in several areas of thought but look more closely at epistemology.

To ignore post-modernism is reasonable in areas of study where there is important work to be done that is not much affected by the movement. And to ignore it, in practice, may be advisable in those disciplines, such as English, where post-modernism practically requires a teacher to ignore important literature or otherwise harms the educational process. In any of these areas, on the other hand, to ignore a trend may mean to be out of touch with the life-experiences of students and colleagues. Regardless of how post-modernism affects one's discipline, it has much to do with the culture in which we all live.

In philosophy it is almost impossible to ignore post-modernism, for it seems to be what is happening, the next stage of philosophical history. A professor in the Eighteenth Century might have ignored the Enlightenment, but history would later show him to have been out of touch with what was, for better or worse, happening in his time. If one believes, as I do, that history is a kind of pilgrimage, with meaningful stages headed toward a definite result, then post-modernism is a dark but important chapter in that story.

The Christian scholar cannot wave post-modernism away, but neither will he want to succumb to it. It is, after all, the world and its thinking we are talking about. Let's consider just what we Christians find so hostile to our world view. I will define the movement and focus my attention on certain aspects of it.

Philosophically, post-modernism seems to consist largely of two claims. First, "Justice" is only power. This was introduced by Thrasymachus and, after being resisted for two millennia, revived very effectively by Nietzsche. Second, "Truth" is nothing but perspective. This, too, appeared in the ancients, especially with Protagoras, was held at bay, and then came roaring back to life for this century, again, thanks to Nietzsche. These two statements comprise the post-modern attack on traditional ethics and epistemology. They are closely related, because power is seen to lie behind not only morality but truth itself. Those who have power determine what is right and even what is true. Thus all thought is politicized, and those who once had influence are considered the enemies of the disadvantaged.

The cultural and political side of post-modernism tells us that European thinking has little to offer today except apology. And this is because Europeans did in the extreme what the human animal does, and the human animal, as distinguished from nature and animals in general, needs also to apologize for existing. But this negative view of western culture and human existence is not repentance. Repentance is impossible without something to turn to, and the only genuine alternative to human sin is hidden within the western culture that is so hated. We are left with a humanism that hates itself but cannot let go of itself, that has lost its naiveté and its charm, that looks more defiant and ruthless each time it shows its face.

This is something we would not want to succumb to and have to resist, unless we can prophetically embrace it as the agonizing end stage of humanity's rebellion against God. This alternative was highlighted in the May/June, 1997 issue of Books and Culture, in the review of three books by Christians about post-modernism.{1} The cover art and the title suggest that the world is ending chaotically and that we could watch with some sort of glee. But the reviewer notes that there is something inappropriate about rejoicing in the demise of culture. It is our death, too, at least in part. I agree that this crisis happens to us, not just around us. Biblical thought itself stands apart from what is decaying and offers a genuine alternative, but contemporary Christian culture does not stand apart so totally. We are partly involved in what is being torn apart.

Because of our involvement in the projects that post-modernism is tearing down, we cannot cheerfully embrace it as the death throes of this world. We can recognize our involvement, which is repentance, but this give us no comfortable place to stand. We have no island of Christian culture from which to watch the world go to pieces, or from which to launch a counter-attack. But neither are we discharged from the battle to defend culture. The family and the educational process, for instance, we consider God-given necessities for life on earth, requiring that we fight the good fight. So the option of prophetically embracing post-modernism may be part of a Christian response, but it does not in itself tell us how to act.

Given the serious evils involved in post-modern thought, it goes almost without saying that we will resist it. But because of our involvement in this culture, we need to be prepared to repent when we are validly implicated in the crimes post-modernism sees. This is the "partial repentance" I am recommending. We can explore it by considering what might go wrong if we set out simply to resist the movement. I will begin here to address the specific philosophical issues involved, especially epistemology.

Resisting post-modernism might mean that we do not understand our colleagues and students. Even if we are not just ignoring these thoughts, we may approach them in such an adversarial fashion that we never understand them from within. If a teacher says, "Yes, there is Truth with a capital T," that will encourage some students but fail to relate to many. Being shown that relativism refutes itself will not change many minds, because that argument depends upon the notion of argumentation itself, which is out of favor, too. I think we need instead to think about what it means when a student has no faith in Truth and argument. She feels, I submit, that there is nothing in reality that can be trusted, so she has to trust only herself. Believing in Truth was a bargain her culture had with God or Nature or Reality, but she now feels no one exists at the other end of that bargain. The idea that relativistic thinking leads toward solipsism will not function as a reduction to absurdity, because the loneliness of solipsism is not absurd, but realistic. Or, it is absurd, but in the existentialist's sense, and this is the way things really are. One can argue that this is not the way reality is, but not as a logician. One would have to show that life is not an empty and lonely affair. That requires feeling the emotional source of post-modernism's intense doubts.

Similarly, if a teacher argues that justice is something more than the power of the stronger man, he may be preaching only to the choir. The post-modern mind will subjectivize the entire process of believing in transcendent justice and will blame it on the political vices of cultural leaders. It is misplaced blame, generally, but it reflects a blame aimed at all authority, and ultimately at God. The world feels there is no good power running this show, so people can no longer entrust themselves to the rules of truth and morality that were once thought to reflect God's government. Instead, since "Truth" and "Justice" have never been anything but the maneuvers of the powerful, people now must form their own centers of power and truth, individually and tribally, and empower themselves.

To understand these feelings of the post-modern world view is not to live within it ourselves. But it does require, I think, that we seriously reflect upon its claims. The second risk we run, if we mainly resist post-modernism, is that we will miss an important stage of reflection that our culture is going through. If the relativistic student does not believe in Truth because he trusts nothing outside himself, then what is it that we who do believe in Truth are doing? That is, if there is a value judgment involved in one's view of truth, what value judgment are we traditionalists making? Ultimately, it is our trust in God that anchors our world view, which is why we won't succumb to post-modern thinking. But what happens "ultimately" may not be what needs to happen now. It may not be God himself that lies at the heart of a Christian's world view. This is where we need to reflect and look for possible areas of repentance.

When I first heard the phrase, "create your own reality," I found it nonsensical, since "reality" was for me precisely that which I did not create and that from which I was created. This was not just theism speaking, but a world view I had as well twenty-five years earlier, reading Ayn Rand. If I had not come to believe that God created me, I would nevertheless have believed I arose from natural forces that transcended me. But as I studied philosophy and heard more of the attitudes of today's college students, I began to realize that my faith in an objective reality is a value judgment, a decision about what to trust. Realism is my judgment that there is something greater than myself that I can rely on, appeal to, and bargain with. And the person who speaks of creating his or her own reality has judged that there is no such thing, so she has to take control. She knows she cannot change the course of the stars, but with respect to personal matters, her life experience, her beliefs and value judgments and politics, she feels she must choose for herself the kind of life she will have. Natural law is taken for granted as necessary for technology, but it is not central to her world view. So she feels free to speak of creating her own reality.

The difference between such a student and me, apart from the theism, which I will discuss below, is largely a matter of historical time. I was raised in the household of an engineer in the middle of this century, when natural science was assumed to provide the most reliable and important truth. My realism was basically that of natural science. Thus I believed there were laws that could be counted upon and appealed to and interacted with for the benefit of human life. I would have continued to believe that without having added the idea that God created it. But my fellow students and students in my classes as I began to teach were mostly younger, and even if not younger they were more affected by late twentieth century thought than I, because I had spent twenty adult years shielded within Christian culture. They were actually at a later stage of philosophical reflection. This is my concern: that there is a valid result of philosophical reflection that Christians, while resisting the malaise of post-modernism, will be missing.

The students I am speaking of cheerfully use natural science as technology, but they do not swallow it as a world view. They do not find that science gives them a knowable world, just a usable one. It is not intelligible in a satisfying way, but there to be manipulated as best one can for the sake of some human comfort. They bear out what Heidegger said about technological consciousness. Even if they do not know of Heidegger and are no reflecting on what he claimed about how they live, they manifest the message because they live quite single-mindedly in it, having abandoned their hope for a transcendent understanding of life.

I, too, could have been asking whether natural science itself can satisfy one's need for an intelligible reality. But I had been enjoying peace for twenty years, finding life meaningful, because of Christ. It was simple enough, then, to enjoy that peace and to give God credit for the lawful universe that our technology relies upon, without reflecting much on how I understand reality.

Serious study, though, intruded on that scene. My faith was not shaken, but my metaphysics changed. Through Kant and the pragmatists and the Nietzscheans I discovered that "objective reality" was in fact my construct. Christians will say that the creation is God's "construct," not ours, but this is just where I suggest caution: we probably don't yet know what reality will look like when we see it as God sees it; we may now be seeing it partly as God sees it and partly as we have chosen to see it, given what we are trying to do with it. That is, we may have a mixed view of reality, combining theism with a realism that has roots outside theism.

I think this because it is plain that I could have continued my realism of natural science without having become a Christian, and I could have continued in it as a Christian, if I had not become a philosopher. This realism is not essential to Christianity but coexists with it. It seems to be historically conditioned, since it exists more in my generation than in the one after me. Christians tend to hang on to it longer than non-Christians, but this could be just a lapse of reflection.

What is this realism that coexists with Christianity and is perhaps even protected by Christianity, but which yet can exist without it? We tend to think of it as reason itself, but I suggest it is a particular kind of reasoning, what Heidegger called "technological consciousness" (die Technik), which has been prevalent in the modern era and became visible--because of critical reflection--in the post-modern. Possibly Christians are remaining "modern," practicing this kind of thought and failing to see its true nature, for reasons that are not innocent. If we mainly resist post-modern thought,we may be dodging an important stage of humanity's philosophical pilgrimage, the time when we become aware of the motives lying behind our world view, and of the nihilism caused by those motives.

Martin Heidegger's term, die Technik, can be translated simply as "technology." But it has been translated with the neologism, "technicity," which means "technological consciousness," a kind of thinking. It is the human way of thinking that construes reality as material for human control. As such, reality is value-free material. We have purposes to impose upon it, but it imposes no purposes on us. This is a world view that maximizes human autonomy and produces nihilism.

A good introduction to this concept, in a few pages, is Michael E. Zimmerman's article "Beyond `Humanism': Heidegger's Understanding of Technology." Zimmerman explains how the Greeks, according to Heidegger, had an awareness of Being, itself, of `presence', that would be displaced later by consciousness of beings, that is, things. "The uncanny fact THAT there is something rather than nothing, THAT beings are somehow accessible to man, this was neglected."{2}

Technicity really took hold through the thought of Descartes. In his quest for certainty apart from authority he made man the determiner of what is real. Metaphysical views reflect insecure humans' choices about where to place their trust, and Descartes moved us toward trusting ourselves, which changed our view of the real. The real became that which we could control.

As Zimmerman tells it:

For the Greeks, the reality of the real was constant presence. For Medieval man, too, presence was determinative for reality: God's absolute presence maintained the existence of all His creatures. With Descartes, the reality of the entire cosmos was also revealed as presence, but as something present FOR the self-certain subject (man). "To be" meant to be conceived by and through the subject and held over against the subject. Everything got determined and evaluated from the standpoint of man.{3}

Descartes's quest was for certain knowledge, but the way to find that was to conceive reality as that which could be certainly known. So the epistemological method had a pronounced metaphysical effect. As Zimmerman puts it, "The universe now stands revealed as a mathematically quantifiable field of energy present as an object for the subject." And, "This is the dawn of the age of technology. The essence of technology, it should be clear, is nothing technical. Instead, its essence is the fact that the Being or reality of things is disclosed as calculable, wholly `rational' (mathematical), and thus controllable."{4}

This understanding of modern human experience is part of a diagnosis of nihilism. The value-free and non-teleological character of reality is a product of our fundamental controlling posture toward it. If we believers are not struggling with nihilism in our world view, this reflection on its source may not be important to us. But maybe we are living with nihilism in our every day experience. Possibly our experience of worship is limited and circumscribed within religious practices because the way we normally see the world is under the spell of technicity. We have peace in our hearts, but is our vision of reality much different than that of the non-Christians around us? Heidegger glimpsed an aesthetic worship experience that would produce a transformed experience of reality. We who do have access to God's glory could be missing the experience of it because we are preoccupied with the world we can control. I am not talking about a high-tech mentality, but about something so fundamental to normal human consciousness that we can hardly imagine anything different. But Heidegger's criticism could lead us to imagine an alternative.

Probably the best approach is not to gauge whether our experience of reality is sufficiently "lit up with Being"--which runs the risk of leading only to the same deceptive aestheticism that Nietzsche and Heidegger settled for{5}--but to ask if we are in fact living double lives. We have peace and believe life has purpose, but do we also rely so much on science and logic that we see mainly a mechanized world? I am not speaking of being an engineer, but of something more far-reaching. We believe in truth and the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle, but are these really the gateposts of God's kingdom, or are they human constructs that help us make sense of the world, from our point of view, given the interests and agendas we have? We believe in the laws of science, and we are grateful that God has given them to us. But are they the ultimate description of God's reality? Or are they human constructs that give us a little power over nature? Technology itself cannot be bad, for humanity is impossible without it, but if it is giving us a world view, then we may need to struggle more with how that world view and the one revealed to us by God are fitting together.

I suggest that we need some Nietzschean suspicion.{6} We present to our students a world view filled with Truth and many structured certainties, and we present it as an alternative to the world view in which everything is just a power-play. But what if our certainties are really just devices by which we empower ourselves in nature? Worse, what if when we believe in Justice we really seek to put other people under our thumbs, to be the good guys? These are what Nietzsche claimed about us. Unless it is totally untrue, our effectiveness in the fight depends upon discerning to what extent it is true.

Possibly the Nietzschean interpretation of what we do is just an interpretation, as he himself might say. Then even if we were innocent he could cast this suspicious light on us. But I think what actually happened with Nietzsche is that he saw the religiosity and legalism and double-mindedness that really do exist perennially in the church, and he thought this was the whole story, the essence of Christianity. Unbelievers can't see what genuine faith really is. This means Nietzsche is wrong in the final analysis, but not that we can afford to ignore his criticism, because we may be very involved in the phenomena that he mistook for Christianity.

That brings me to the direct question: what is the sin that we might discover through this post-modern reflection? Well, it has to do with power. In Nietzsche's thinking the worst sin is sneaky empowerment, gaining power by insincerely bowing before a constructed god. As I began my personal story above, I spoke of my belief in "something greater than myself that I can rely on, appeal to, and bargain with." My realism was my judgment that such a source was important to me and available. The question is, was this God or an idol that I constructed? I can rely on God and appeal to him, but can I bargain with God? Not exactly. In the practice of human religion, in legalistic, phariseeical experiences of theism, we try to bargain. God sets the standards, we think, but we provide the ability to conform to them. God's standards are rewritten in our heads so that he seems not so holy and man not so sinful. But in order to do this one must construct an idol, for God himself is not subject to manipulation through religious law.

Nietzsche saw this pattern in effect everywhere, in religion and moral practices and politics, and even in scientific thinking. The scientist bargains with God, or thinks he does. Really, he must have before him a construct of his own, for God himself cannot be bargained with. If nature has been construed, in a technological understanding of it, as value-free, manipulable matter, then we have empowered ourselves, but not in relation to God, only in relation to this construct.

The "construct" is quite real: technology is not a dream but an actual interaction with genuine power. We say that God has given us the laws of nature, or that he has expressed himself in those laws, so that we can successfully interact with nature. None of this is exactly false. But we may be failing to see that God has given us even our survival, rather than having given us laws by which to earn it. The proof of that is that he will also take it away, despite all technology. The temptation is to feel that we are in the driver's seat, able to make choices and interact with a set of laws that must be faithful to us.

Nietzsche had an important alternative to this view. I call it "epistemic pessimism." It is not skepticism. Nietzsche is not pessimistic about whether his ideas correspond to the real world or cohere well with all the other ideas that exist. He understood knowledge not as connection to an object but as an attempt to do something. Human motives produce the constructs we call objective reality, and epistemic pessimism is about these motives, about what we are trying to do. Knowledge is an attempted power-relationship with the world, a way of trying to handle it. And Nietzsche's pessimism is his conclusion that nothing can be done with it, except for a possible aesthetic mastery. The world likes to emphasize this hope for mastery, but Nietzsche saw the long-term futility of all technology, and of knowledge, technologically conceived.

Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil 22 that "a new interpreter" might find that the world "has a `necessary' and `calculable' course, not because laws obtain in it, but because they are absolutely lacking . . .." Heidegger refers to a "necessitous chaos of eternal becoming" and to the "most abysmal thought" that this is a world with which we can do nothing.{7} In this view, the lawful constructs we employ to deal with reality are not the real truth about it, and if the universe lacks laws then one does not know how to interact successfully with it. Nietzsche knew, of course, that technology is a successful interaction with a lawful world, but he was not enthralled with this ability. His pessimism keeps sight of the fact that in the long run technology does not solve the human problem. It cannot overcome death of either the individual or the species. We can do limited things, but ultimately science does not make sense of the world.

This will seem far too negative for Christians, who do thank God for a lawful world. But if we realize that technological knowledge is our attempt to get "into the loop" of causality and thus to make the universe run in our direction, then we could recognize with Nietzsche that in the long run it is a futile attempt. If technology arises from our attempt to survive bodily, then technological consciousness gets its character from a doomed attempt. Nietzsche and Heidegger hoped there was another way to know the world, aesthetically, that was not caught up in this futile enterprise, and Christians have another way of knowing reality, spiritually, that also requires giving up the task of survival. But technicity may be deadening our experience of that spiritual alternative.

If our world view is technological, then when we say that the world is intelligible and that we understand it, what we mean is that we have it handled; we believe we are partially in control through a lawful interaction. We understand the if-then relationships that occur in the world and have some power through them. To receive the Nietzschean pessimism is to recognize that none of this has ultimate value. It does not really keep us alive, and it does not satisfy our genuine needs.

Epistemological repentance is our recognition that we have put our trust in constructed realities that were built around a futile project of ours. Unlike the Nietzscheans, we have an actual path of repentance available, because we do trust in a personal and good God. He has not left the picture, but some of what we have been calling an intelligible world may have less to do with him than it does with our own projects.

I am not suggesting that we think negatively of technology, but that we separate it from spiritual knowledge. The search for an intelligible world has mixed together our attempt at control and our potential worship, and if we separate them we can use technology while enjoying worship.

Early this year I participated in the conference on "Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise" at Austin.{8} I claimed in my paper that theists looking at origins tend to turn God into an efficient cause in their system of causal understanding, and I offered instead that believing in God's design is a value judgment about reality, rather than a way of completing a causal explanation. To employ God in a causal explanation is to make an object of him to fit into our construct, so that we feel we are empowered. It extends a way of thinking intended for the limited application of technology into a world view. And my claim in this paper is that such a world view detracts from the worship experience of Christians.

I was surprised, in preparing that paper, how drawn I was to Socrates' notion of "explanation" from the Phaedo. To explain something is to say why it is good that it happened that way. He saw technological thought coming, but resisted it, preferring his theory of forms. A thing is beautiful because it partakes of absolute Beauty. (Phaedo 100c) Now, such an "explanation" of something being beautiful is perfectly worthless if one wants to know how to make a beautiful thing. It completely fails to empower us. But it is a great "explanation" if we want to give credit to that Goodness that transcends us. With respect to the origin of the universe and of life, there is not much empowering to be done, for we are beyond the limits of technology. It makes sense to think of the intelligibility of the world in terms of its goodness, and to abandon the if-then thinking that we use when we are trying to empower ourselves in some small corner of the world.

Drawing this back to the classroom where the post-modernist student sits, I am hoping that we will recognize our own technicity. When we say to a student, "The world makes sense, because there are laws of science, and there is logic, and there is an objective moral standard," he may hear us saying, "The world makes sense to me because I've got control of it and I know how to think and what to do." He won't see any transcendence in that, just our self-empowering point of view. The problem is that he may be largely right. The transcendent Truth may not be in those certainties of ours at all, but in the God we worship, who is not known through self-empowering technological thought. When we "know" him in scientific laws and logic, we are mixing our love of him with our attempt at control. To the extent that this is true, the antidote is realizing how little power we really have.

Epistemological repentance is allowing Nietzsche to deconstruct some of our certainties and show us some of the sneaky self-empowerment that lies within them. It does not tear down the Christian experience, but purifies it. And it leads to the next task: determining what it is in the Christian world view that is not subject to such deconstructive criticism. Sometimes I think when the whole story is told our certainty will be in just one thing: God is good. Maybe in heaven that is the only fact.


{1}Roger Lundin, "Toasting the Eve of Destruction." The books are A Primer on Postmodernism, by Stanley Grenz, Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be: Biblical Faith in Post-Modern Age, by J. Richard Middleton, and Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology: Vanquishing God's Shadow, by Brian D. Ingraffia.

{2}Michael E. Zimmerman, "Beyond 'Humanism': Heidegger's Understanding of Technology," in Thomas Sheehan, ed. and trans., Heidegger: the Man and the Thinker (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, Inc, 1981.), 221.

{3}Ibid., 222.


{5}I argued in my dissertation, Fallen Reason and Value-Free Thought: A Christian-Platonist Account of Nietzschean Thought and Nihilism (The University of New Mexico, 1996), that Nietzsche and Heidegger fall prey to their own critique, because aestheticism is still a controlling mentality.

{6}Cf. Merold Westphal's Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993). His book gives the details on how Nietzsche and Marx and Freud can speak to believers today.

{7}Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche Volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same, David Farrell Krell, trans. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1984), p. 129. Cf. Nietzche's The Gay Science, sec. 109.

{8}The paper is titled, "Explanationb and Value-Free Thought." The papers of that conference can be found by searching on the conference title, "Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise," or by going to: utexas.edu/depts/philosophy/faculty/koons/ntse/papers/sherman.html.