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A Critical Analysis of Jean-Francois

Lyotards The Postmodern Condition: A

Report on Knowledge, With Respect To
Christian Apologetics.

Andy Kench
MA in Transformational Theology

MT7401 Transformation Dissertation

Robert Willoughby

A Critical Analysis of Jean-Francois Lyotards The Postmodern Condition: A Report on

Knowledge, With Respect To Christian Apologetics.
Essay Plan
What is Postmodernism?
The Postmodern Condition
Survey of Lyotards Work
Setting The Scene
The Social Bond
The Pragmatics of Knowledge
The Legitimation of Knowledge Through Narrative
Scientific Research and Education
Postmodern Science
Secular Critiques of Lyotard
Coherence Test
Balance Test
Explanatory Power and Scope Test
Correspondence Test
Verification Test
Pragmatic Test
Existential Test
Cumulative Test
Competitive Competence Test
Christian Perspectives on Lyotard
James K. A. Smith
Middleton, Walsh and Grenz


The world has changed enormously for Christians and non-Christians since the time of
Jesus ministry, death, resurrection and the emergence of the early Church in the first
century AD. During these social, economic, political, industrial and theological changes,
Christianity has thrived both through its accommodation to and opposition to changes in
the world.

Such changes are often accompanied or followed by a change or innovation in the field of
philosophy. Often a new school of thought emerges at an academic level and the
philosophy then gradually tickles down to the general populous.1 The Church must decide
whether to accept or challenge this new philosophy, depending on whether it aids or
hinders the spreading of the Gospel. This is true both of the clergy preaching to the
converted and of apologists spreading the Gospel to those who have not heard.

During the modern era, discoveries in the hugely successful human endeavour of science
and the corresponding philosophy of Positivism, posed a serious threat to Christianity as
scientists working with a naturalistic methodology sought and then claimed to explain the
workings of the world without the need to postulate the intervention of the God of the Bible
or any other supernatural force.

The Western world is now entering a post-industrial era, where information (or knowledge)
is becoming the key resource of individuals, businesses and governments instead of
industrial or military power. Consequently, some philosophers have heralded the coming
of the post-modern age, where science and other modern ideas, are scrutinized and their
claims to supremacy over religious or tribal myth are rejected. In this essay, the postmodern
philosophy presented by Jean-Franois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition will be
examined and critiqued from the point of view of evangelical Christians engaged in an
active and public defence of their faith. The aim is to show that while postmodernism (as



Lyotard understands it) may make some observations about modernism that are useful to
Christians engaging in discourse regarding the challenges science may pose to theism,
ultimately to embrace postmodern thinking would require Christians to jettison much of
Christianitys advantages over competing worldviews including its strong philosophical
and scientific arguments, which hold up well in reasoned debate.

What is Postmodernism?
Before beginning, it will be useful to define the term postmodernism. Since it describes a
philosophy by reference to its predecessor modernism, it is first necessary to establish an
understanding of the pre-modern and modern eras that came before it. To gain a proper
grasp of the present, one must see how the situation came about historically, and
understand the philosophical developments which have led here.2

Today, many historians and sociologists divide human cultures into three broad categories:
pre-modern, modern and postmodern. These labels can refer to the sequential phases of
Western culture or to the state of different cultures around the world today.3

A pre-modern culture is one with little or no religious diversity, rarely experiencing

exposure to outsiders, bound together with fixed roles and relationships and undisturbed by
secularization or the advent of science.4 In such a culture, one would rarely be challenged
by the culture shock of encountering another with wildly different values or beliefs the
kind of experience that in contemporary Western society one has a couple of times before
lunch.5 Christendom presents a good example of a pre-modern society; one religion
dominated over Europe, it was deeply enmeshed with the political authorities, prescribed
roles and beliefs and shaped every aspect of peoples lives.



However, modernity arrived in Europe with the Renaissance and the Reformation. For
Schaeffer, there is no doubt that one man was responsible for the philosophical changes that
brought about the modern era. He argues that Thomas Aquinas changed the world in a
very real way, when he divided nature and grace into separate realms. According to
Aquinas, mans will was fallen but his intellect was not and his intellect thus became part of
the realm of nature, independent and autonomous from God. From this point forward,
philosophy was free from theology. Art, music and many other areas of life soon followed.6

Conversely, Groothuis argues the autonomy of philosophy began with the rediscovery of
Greek thought and the development of humanism. Yet he also argues that the Reformation,
with the primacy of Scripture over against Roman ecclesial authority, brought about a
further destabilization of Christendom, as Europe was divided in two.7 The
Enlightenment followed and this is typically regarded as the beginning of modernism, as
not just Roman Catholic authority was questioned but also Christianity itself and even
divine revelation as a source of knowledge. The goal of the Enlightenment Project and
modernism was to throw off all superstitions and found humanity on a philosophy and
civilization based solely on rational inquiry, empirical evidence and scientific discovery.8
Beneath this philosophy was the presupposed power of rationality to discover objective
truth and the desire for the progress of humanity through scientific discoveries and the
emancipation of received dogma.9 David Harvey points out that modern thinkers as diverse
as Voltaire and Hume, were all united in pursuing the one answer to any given question and
believed that finding that answer would lead to humanitys increased control over and
order of the world.10 Their worship of science and reason meant some modern thinkers
rejected theism yet retained deism (belief in a non-personal creator god) but eventually even
this gave way, leaving modernity to be characterised by naturalism.



The beginning of postmodernity is much more difficult to define. Though it is far more
recent, there is much debate as to when exactly postmodernity arrived, so much so that
some even consider the quest for an inaugurating event to be foolish.11 Others have linked
the moment of change to the fall of the Berlin Wall or the abandonment of the gold
standard.12 Grenz is quite certain that postmodernity was established at 15:22 on July 15
1972 as the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis Missouri was razed to the ground. As the
walls of this landmark of modern architecture crumbled, so also did the aspirations of
modernity to bring about a utopian society through the advancement of science and
technology.13 Other events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall similarly heralded the collapse
of other great modern ideas such as Marxism.

Accompanying postmodernity is postmodernism, a movement in architecture, art, popular

culture and philosophy that includes the work of Lyotard. While modernity held to a notion
of an objective world, understandable through human rationality, postmodernism rejects
this realist understanding of knowledge and truth in favour of a nonrealist understanding;
objectivism has been replaced by constructivism.14 This means that the correspondence
theory of reality that the modern thinkers extended to all areas of life (believing they could
comprehend everything about the physical world) is rejected by postmoderns. They instead
argue that people dont encounter the world but rather construct a world using the concepts
they bring to it.15 Postmoderns argue there is no way of knowing if ones construction of the
world is the true construction as no human has a God-like view of the world, only their
own vantage point.



Some aspects of modernism continue into postmodernism including atheism, though for
different reasons. Moderns rejected God and all supernatural beliefs as they reduced the
world to material processes based on reason and rejected revelation and narrative as the
product of myth. However, many postmodern thinkers reject theism simply because of its
claims of objective truth.16

The postmodern abandonment of objectivism extends relativism to many areas of life

including art, theology and philosophy but also to basic human structures like morality and
language. Steiner described the splitting apart of the one-to-one associations between
language and reality, whether on the subject of God, art or science, as the breaking of the
covenant between word and world.17 Consequently, all language is reduced to mere social
construction, no more able to describe objective reality than any myth or story.

The hard sciences such as physics stubbornly resisted the onset of postmodernism and
relativism, holding fast to modernism and realism. But when Louis de Broglie, building on
the work of Planck, Einstein and Bohr, formulated quantum theory, he showed that all
matter has both particle and wave-like qualities depending on how one measures it.
Combined with the parallel discovery of Relativity Theory, science had to admit that the
world was no longer reducible to simple mechanical commonsense processes as supposed
by Newton and others in the modern era.18 Science, in the postmodern view, merely
produces observer-dependent constructions of reality with mere pretentions of grandeur
and objectivity.

Some observers like Groothuis argue that postmodernism isnt such a radical departure
from modernism but a grown-up version of it. Postmodernism exposes the exaggerated
claims of modernism, that human reason could be completely objective, that scientific study
defined the limits of knowledge (scientism) and that progress is inevitable when science and



reason are our tools.19 Postmodernism derides these boasts as domineering, unrealistic or
mere myths employed to serve the interests of the dominant culture.

It is unclear just how far postmodernism has spread throughout the world today. Indeed,
many argue that the world is not postmodern at all but still deeply modernist; a world
where most people are firmly committed to science as the means to pursue objective truth.20
Some even regard the whole postmodern movement as a product of those aiming to
continue the social and political transformation based on the ideals of the 1960s. They argue
that while this movement may have won support in the humanities and social sciences, it
has been thoroughly rejected by those in philosophy and the hard sciences.21 Furthermore, it
is important to note the difference between postmodernism (the philosophy) and
postmodernity (the social conditions) and that to live in a postmodernity (post-industrial
computerised society) does not require people to embrace postmodernism.22

It is important to make clear that the purpose of this essay is not to examine the actual world
in order to determine how postmodern it is; research into the pervasiveness of
postmodernism is the domain of sociologists and this investigation will instead be based on
the philosophy Lyotard outlines in his work, which may or may not be the present or future
state of Western society.

Most commentators agree that three authors describe the new outlook of postmodernity
more than any others: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Franois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.23
Lyotard was the first of the three to write, publishing in 1979 a report on knowledge in the



most highly developed societies,24 at the request of the Conseil des Universities of the
government of Quebec, Canada.25 Although Lyotard wasnt the first to write on
postmodernism and borrows the term from its use elsewhere, it was his book The Postmodern
Condition: A Report on Knowledge that put postmodernism on the intellectual map.26 His
work offers an extensive and thorough insight into the philosophy undergirding
postmodernity and a description of how he perceives the changing way society views
knowledge and science.

Because of its relevance, comprehensiveness and impact, The Postmodern Condition will be
the primary text for this investigation into postmodernism, the first part of which will be a
examination of the book and summary of its findings throughout and the overall conclusion.
Next, a thorough critique of Lyotards work will be given. The philosophy of Lyotard will
be examined as a worldview described by the author and critiqued according to various
criteria suggested by Samples in his book A World of Difference. Samples presents a series of
tests that he suggests allows one to evaluate any worldview. For example, he argues that a
worldview must be coherent if it is to be held as true.27 It must be stated that Samples tests,
while theologically neutral, are philosophically biased toward modernism. Qualities such as
coherence, verifiability and correspondence to reality are thoroughly modern
considerations. They are therefore only of importance to (and valid rules in the language
game of) those in modern Western society, at least according to postmodern thinkers like
Lyotard. However, when applying the tests suggested by Samples, an attempt will be made
to justify each criteria along with its findings for postmodernism.28

After secular critiques of Lyotard have been considered, three critiques from Christian
perspectives will be examined. For this critique to be fair and full, a range of Christian view



on Lyotards postmodernism will be presented, from the straightforward adoption, to

accommodation and finally outright rejection. The perspectives will include not just a
critique of Lyotards philosophy but also its impact on Christianity and specifically on
apologetics to those who adopt the Lyotardian worldview. These various opinions will also
be contrasted with one another to ensure they too are scrutinized. This will lead to some
broad conclusions about the general reception and treatment of Lyotards work within the
Christian community.

Finally, a conclusion will be drawn as to what the attitude of the Christian community
should be to Lyotards postmodernism, given the critiques discussed previously. Some
recommendations will then be made as to how apologetics might operate to those with such
a worldview.

The Postmodern Condition

Survey of Lyotards Work
It is important to note that Lyotards work is not about issues of faith and apologetics but
about science and its supporting narratives. In the introduction, Lyotard states his main
thesis, that according to science, most narratives (particularly folklore and religions
narratives) are judged to be little more than fables. Yet science itself, he argues, relies on
narrative-based philosophies for its legitimation when making grand claims of universal

Throughout his work, he uses the word modern to refer to any science that legitimates
itself with an explicit appeal to some grand narrative,29 and he famously defines
postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives.30 Lyotard predicts that this crisis of
narratives just described will lead to future societies resembling less the Newtonian
anthropology of a mechanical systems theory and more the pragmatics of language



particles, or language games, the exact meaning of which is explained later.31 Finally by
way of introduction, Lyotard defines himself as, a philosopher, not an expert.32 He
elaborates this, saying that an expert has knowledge and knows the limits of his knowledge
whereas a philosopher merely asks questions. With this confession, Lyotard admits he does
not have all the answers to the current state of knowledge but believes he is at least asking
the important questions.

Setting The Scene

Lyotard begins by establishing his field of study, the problem he will be addressing and by
describing the method he will use throughout his thesis. He defines his field as the
contemporary post-industrial nations where learning and knowledge are being transformed
by the development of computer technology. Even in the 1970s, he saw that the
proliferation of information-processing machines is having as much of an effect on the
circulation of learning as did advancements in human circulation (transportation) and later
in the circulation of sounds and visual images (the media).33 He further predicts that
knowledge will only survive in this new age if it can be adequately captured using
computers, conforming to the set of prescriptions determining which statements are
accepted as knowledge statements.34 Lyotard anticipates that knowledge will become a
commodity, not an end in itself,35 noting that knowledge has already become the principle
force of production, in post-industrial countries and that science in particular plays an
increasingly major part in the knowledge creation industry.36

Lyotard next describes the problem he is addressing, legitimation, and employs the
metaphor of a civil legislator to explain the process of legitimation for scientific knowledge.
Just as a law is promulgated as a norm for citizens of a state by an authorized legislator, so



in the scientific world, legitimation is the process whereby a scientific statement must fulfil
a given set of conditions in order to be accepted as scientific. A legislator, dealing with
scientific discourse decides on these rules and therefore which statements can be included in
the discourse.37 Lyotard denies the metaphor is stretched and points out that even as far
back as Plato, the link was established between deciding what was true (science) and what
was right (ethics). He argues that both ethics and science stem from the same choices, today
based upon reason and made in the Western world.38

Lyotard goes on to describes the method for his report, which is based on Wittgensteins
language games. Lyotard gives examples of common language utterances (denotative,
performative, prescriptions, questions and promises) and points out that all of them have
their own rules regarding how the sender, addressee and referents are affected by the
utterance. He makes three observations about language games, 1) that the rules are not selflegitimating but are a contract between sender and addressee, 2) without the rules there is
no game and any modification of the rules alters the nature of the game, and 3) every
utterance is a move in the game.39 He concludes that as in the game of chess, in language
games to move is to fight and importantly that the observable social bond is composed of

The Social Bond

Lyotard then examines this social bond as it was in the modern era and identifies two types;
those that emphasise the unitary of society as a whole (Talcott Parsons, system theory etc.)
and those that divide society in two (e.g. Marxism). He explains that, it is impossible to
know what the state of knowledge is without knowing something of the society within
which it is situated. If society is seen as one great machine, then the role of knowledge is
to aid the functioning of that machine but if society is characterised by division, then the



critical function of knowledge is its primary use.41 Lyotard also airs a third alternative, that
knowledge may take both roles.42

However, he rejects this latter partition solution, in the postmodern age since new
technology means the nature of knowledge is changing. The ruling class is becoming those
with access to the best knowledge; decreasingly this role is taken by traditional politicians
and increasingly by corporate leaders and the heads of major professional, labour, political
and religious organisations.43 As a result, the traditional poles of attraction, such as nation
states and political parties are losing their appeal. In such circumstance, the grand
narratives that helped form these structures are lost and Lyotard acknowledges that some
see individualism as the only outcome. He rejects this, arguing that each individual exists in
a fabric of relations, now more complex than ever.44

Returning to his methodology of language games, he argues that in postmodernity, all are
located at a post through which various kinds of messages pass, and even the least
privileged have some power over the messages that pass by them. In saying this, Lyotard
doesnt claim all of society is reducible to language games but that they are the minimum
relation for society to exist. Finally, he distinguishes between friendly conversations which
may jump between many language games (questions, narrative and performative
statements) and an institution like the university or the scientific journal, which, always
requires supplementary constraints for statements to be declared admissible.45

The Pragmatics of Knowledge

Lyotard next looks at the pragmatics of narrative and scientific knowledge but before doing
so, he explains that knowledge and science are not synonymous. Science is a subset of



knowledge that requires its statements to be based on repeatedly observable phenomena

and it must be possible for them to be judged valid or not by the appointed experts.

He goes on to argue that knowledge generally (unlike scientific knowledge) contains not just
denotative statements of truth but also statements on ethical, aesthetical and of technical
wisdom and someone with such knowledge, capable of making good utterances, is deemed
competent in their respective field. Lyotard argues that these criteria for good utterances
are culturally specific and this leads him to narrative knowledge, the quintessential form of
customary knowledge.46

He says that popular stories within society serve as myths to establish institutions or as
legends or fables representing positive or negative models of integration into those
institutions. Using the example of the Cashinahua people (a pre-modern culture) whose
stories always begin and end with agreed formulae (explaining who the narrator is, how he
knows the story and why others should listen) Lyotard explains that, narrative tradition is
also the tradition of the criteria defining a three-fold competence, know-how, knowing
how to speak and knowing how to listen. This is the set of rules that form the social
bond in that society. The same social bond is established in more developed types of
knowledge (such as science) but in a more elaborate form.47 Lyotard notes that in less
developed cultures, there is no need to legitimate or authorize a narrator, the narratives
themselves have this authority. The people are that which actualizes the narratives, by
putting them into play in their daily lives.48

Next and by comparison, Lyotard examines the pragmatics of scientific knowledge. He

states that in scientific research, statements must speak the truth about their referent
(providing proof and refuting opposing statements), the addressee should be able to give
their assent to the statement (implying they too are a potential sender) and the referent



should be expressed, in conformity to what it actually is (adequation). He explains that the

third criterion (adequation) is problematic as the only proof a scientist can provide to show
that the world is the way their statement describes, would itself be a scientific statement.
But what proof is there of this proof? Lyotard outlines two solutions to this: firstly it is
rhetorically permissible to assume the world is as a statement describes if one can provide a
reasonable scientific proof and secondly, it is assumed the same referent cannot produce a
plurality of contradictory or inconsistent proofs.49 This is what science calls verificationism
or falsificationism and both rely on the consensus of expert opinion. Once a statement has
been sufficiently argued and proven in research, it may then be passed on to students as
scientific fact.50

Lyotard then makes five observations about scientific statements when compared to
narrative statements: 1) scientific knowledge requires the use of denotative statements to the
exclusion of all others, 2) It is therefore separated from those language games that form the
social bond, 3) within research, competence is only required of the sender, not the addressee
or referent, 4) a statement gains nothing from its transmission as it can always be falsified, 5)
the science game has a diachronic temporality, whereby to engage in the agonistics, one
must have a memory of the previous moves in the game and present a new statement in
respect to these.51

By examining narrative and scientific knowledge, Lyotard aims to show that both are
equally valid forms of knowledge. They are language games featuring various statements
(moves) with their own rules judging which are good moves and a good move in one game
may not be a good move in another. While narrative knowledge does not need to provide
its own legitimacy (authorising itself in the pragmatics of its transmission), scientific
knowledge does require proof. Those who hold to narrative knowledge may tolerate
scientific statements but the same is not true in reverse; to the scientist, Lyotard argues,



narratives are, fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children.52 He says this
unequal relationship is the, entire history of imperialism from the dawn of Western
civilization, and at the heart of it is the demand for legitimation.53

The Legitimation of Knowledge Through Narrative

Lyotard argues that during modernity, science resorted to narrative forms of knowledge for
its legitimacy.54 He even says this recourse may be inevitable as science requires its
statements to be legitimate but lacks the resources to make this so.55 He argues, Scientific
knowledge cannot know and make known that it is the true knowledge without resorting to
the other, narrative, knowledge.56

Lyotard notes that modern science has given up the metaphysical search for transcendent
authority to decide on the conditions of truth, relying on nothing more than the consensus
of experts.57 Scientists however, are not content with simply knowing, they also prescribe
based on their scientific knowledge and in their narratives, the subject (humanity) can
become the hero of knowledge or the hero of liberty.58

Lyotard looks at instances of such narratives, focusing first on those that present humanity
as the hero of knowledge, that all people have a right to science.59 The second comes from
German Idealism, specifically Humboldts aim for science to develop the spiritual and
moral training of the nation.60 This obviously involves teaching on ethical and social
matters that lay beyond the realm of sciences denotative utterances but Humboldt sought to
overcome this with his Spirit. This Spirit involved deriving everything from an originating



principle (science), relating everything to an ideal (ethical) and, that of unifying this
principle and this ideal in a single idea, ensuring science was tied up with the pursuit of the
moral good for society. It is this all-encompassing Spirit that contains and produces the
metanarratives for science. Lyotard believes this second narrative is today broken so the
first has become more common. With this narrative, knowledge was seen as necessary for
the people to make wise decisions about self-governance using denotative statements to
derive prescriptive ones e.g. laws.61

Lyotard now arrives at his most important point, that in contemporary postmodern society
all of these grand narratives have lost their credibility. He argues that speculative apparatus
shows that statements such as A scientific statement is knowledge if and only if it can take
its place in a universal process of engendering, is not itself scientific but is rooted in prescientific knowledge and presuppositions e.g. that a universal process of engendering exists
and that scientific statements are valid additions to this process.62 However, Lyotard
argues, in a postmodern culture such statements can be accepted as the rules by which one
chooses to play their science game.63

The other narrative, known as emancipation, fails because of the chasm between a
denotative and prescriptive statement. The game of science has no special calling to
supervise the game of praxis. Lyotard believes that if this process of delegitimation
continues, the road is then open for an important current of postmodernity, where science
plays its own game, incapable of legitimating other games or even itself.64 Importantly, he
admits this can lead to a profound pessimism as the social bond is broken; everyone plays



their own language game, new games are added and there is no metalanguage to unify
them all.65

Scientific Research and Education

Lyotard next looks again at scientific research and the rules governing how a denotative
utterance can obtain its addressees assent.66 The metalanguage for deciding the axiomatic
of science is based on logic. Lyotard lists some of the properties that the axiomatic must
have including that of completeness but then points out that Gdel showed first-order logic
and the arithmetic system fail to satisfy this condition. Natural language is also not sound
as it allows for paradoxes. Thus science finds its legitimation in languages whose rules are
not demonstrable but merely a matter of consensus. There is therefore no metalanguage but
a series of language and axiomatics, some of which allow for what others may consider

Lyotard next looks at the impact on the education of scientific knowledge. In a

computerized age, the priority of performativity means that learning is now focused on
areas that best increase the performance of society. This may be training in a particular field
of expertise that aids a nations export industries or in skills that are important to the
cohesion of society. No longer is the emancipation narrative employed to motivate learning
for the purposes of liberation.68 If knowledge ceases to be an end in itself to fulfil a
narrative, then the old institutions and methods of teaching are no longer necessary
according to Lyotard. Students need only learn the art of interrogation as they seek
knowledge in libraries and in other memory banks.69 In a world of perfect knowledge, the
advantage will be to the student with the greatest imagination, able to bring together two
areas of knowledge that appear separate, hence the rise of interdisciplinary approaches in



studies.70 Such approaches are specific to an era of delegitimation as in the modern system
of the university this encroachment was considered a sign of confusion.71

Postmodern Science
Lyotard concludes by looking at science in a postmodern world, which he characterises as
seeking a resolution to the crisis of determinism.72 Modern science attempted to model the
world as stable systems whereby a certain input determinatively gives a calculable output
but quantum mechanics and atomic physics cast serious doubt on this approach. At a
microphysics level, for example, determinism is replaced by probability; a scientist has to
work out what game nature is playing and produce probabilistic rather than absolute
statements.73 Lyotard concludes from this that postmodern scientists do not strive for
performativity or use a deterministic model but strives to produce theories and ideas. The
scientist becomes one who simply tells stories, with the only difference being that, he is
duty bound to verify them.74

Finally, Lyotard defines these stories as little narratives. He concludes that having
dispensed with all the big narratives (metanarratives) is no bad thing since the little
narratives are the quintessential form of imaginative invention.75 Lyotard also dispenses
with consensus as a tool only of use within metanarratives. He instead champions paralogy
as the new move within the science game. He argues that now dissension is the key to
research, whereas consensus can not only never be reached but the goal of consensus also
stifles creativity along the way.76 Lyotard sees consensus seeking as a form of terror like



that of Orwells paradox in 1984; players in the science game are told to Adapt your
aspirations to our ends or else.77

Lyotard argues that the postmodern science game of discussing denotative statements
requires metaprescriptive statements or rules for the game. These are the presuppositions
of science and in a postmodern world these not only need to be pointed out but new ones
can be introduce, legitimated by the fact that doing so will help produce new moves in the
game. The rules of the game become local. Lyotard argues this is also the case in society
where the social bond is flexible and local, not universal. He thus optimistically sees the
computerization of society and the arrival of postmodernism as a good thing where local
stories and metaprescriptives can be discussed and become most productive with access to
perfect information via computers.

Lyotard believes that the nature of knowledge is changing in the age of computing. This
introduction of technology however, is not the problem, it merely presents a new set of
challenges to and hastens along the exiting crisis which began in the late nineteenth century.
This is a crisis of legitimation and it is this problem that Lyotard addresses in his report.78
To do this, he employs the theory of language games, a belief that all interaction can be
classed as the exchange of various kinds of utterances and these utterances are like moves in
a game. Just like the game of chess, there are rules as to what constitutes a good move and
these rules are agreed by the players. When the Fdration Internationale des checs (the
international body responsible for regulating Chess) agreed the rules of Chess, they did so
by consensus in order to synchronise them across all tournaments.79 No one claimed that
these rules were somehow universal or that what constitutes a good move in Chess is a good
move in any other game.



In language games, Lyotard supposes that the same situation applies. Narrative and
scientific knowledge are both constituted of various moves accepted if they are judged to
be good. In narrative knowledge, typical of pre-modern cultures, the rules are set by the
practice of the storytelling and there is no need for legitimation. A culture lives out the story
as it establishes institutions in their culture. Science however is a different matter. People of
science relegate narrative knowledge and promote science as a universal source of
knowledge, objectively true, surpassing all stories and providing justice as well as truth. To
do this, science has, surprisingly, resorted to various narratives in order to legitimate its
imperial claims. However, in the twentieth century, these narratives have been discredited;
Science is delegitimated. The claims of modern science to liberate people through the
enlightenment it provided are seen for what they are, arrogant and inflated. Postmodernism
shows that as a language game, science is not capable of making judgements on narrative
knowledge as this is a different game. Worse, science is not capable of passing judgement
on itself, as there is no scientifically provable utterance that proves science is legitimate.

Lyotard notes that advances in microphysics, quantum theory and mathematics in the
twentieth century have repeatedly backed up this claim and shown modern science to be
built on shaky foundations.

And yet Lyotard does not see postmodernity as the end of the scientific endeavour; in fact
quite the reverse. He believes that modern sciences striving for consensus on scientific
matters with arguments being waged on agreed (supposedly) universal rules stifled
imagination. He argues that the great new innovations in science happen not because
someone plays by the agreed rules but because they dreamt up a theory that broke them.
He therefore argues that the abandonment of consensus will lead to a multitude of language
games being played, each agreeing their own rules and none claiming to be universal.

The consequences of postmodernism as Lyotard describes go far beyond the scientific lab
and impact all areas of human life. The benefit is that no one is able to legitimately claim to


have objective truth, only a local truth. This is also the enormous pitfall of the philosophy as
it spells the end of an objective world with its truth and justice. For Lyotard, the benefits far
outweigh the downside and he believes that this philosophy, coupled with knowledge
shared instantly and freely by computers will lead to ever-greater innovations in all areas of

Lyotards thesis does however lack clarity at times or makes unqualified assumptions, for
example, he makes little attempt to legitimate his use of language games, on which his entire
thesis is based. Lyotard also claims that the legitimation of narrative knowledge happens in
its transmission and subsequent performance in a society, something scientific knowledge
cannot do as its legitimation is external. However, is scientific knowledge not legitimated
by its performativity, its application within a community? Is not the employment of science
in electronic devices, medicines and weather forecasting, each integral to contemporary
everyday life, a way in which society actualises scientific knowledge? Even without its
supporting metanarratives, science lives on and is no less trusted today because its
predictions are still true in as far they simply appear to work. In other words, does any
care if science can legitimate itself or not? As long as their mobile phone works, they trust
science to provide truth.

Secular Critiques of Lyotard

One way to critique the philosophy that Lyotard presents in The Postmodern Condition is to
treat his overall thesis as a worldview; a worldview which he presumably holds and
encourages others to adopt or anticipates them adopting as postmodernity spreads.80 It can
well be argued (indeed Lyotard would probably argue himself) that the rejection of
consensus prevents postmodernism from being classified as a single worldview. It is rather,
best characterised as a heterogeneous melting pot of contradictory and paralogical views. In
his A Primer on Postmodernism, Grenz (who is unconvinced by postmodernism) has a chapter
entitled The Postmodern World View but on the contents page listing, the word World is



crossed out, suggesting Grenz agrees that postmodernism is not a homogeneous world
view.81 He goes on to argue that with the abandonment of the objective world, such unity
within ones view is no longer possible yet postmodernism still provides a perspective on
the world even if that is a perspective of heterogeneity.82

A worldview is simply the way one sees the world, a lens that, helps people makes sense of
life and comprehend the world around them.83 Lyotard and others stepped forward to
present their new worldview so as to make sense of the world once modernism was found
to be bankrupt. As such, it is quite appropriate to weigh this postmodern philosophy as a
worldview and to evaluate it using the same criteria used to judge others.

It is argued by Samples that for a worldview to be true it must be coherent or logically
consistent; it must be wholly consistent within itself.84 Here is the first problem with
judging postmodernism as a worldview by rational categories: postmodernism desires and
promote non-consistence and so one should not expect to find a coherent truth contained
within it. However, if a worldview is to be taken seriously, the basic premises must be
consistent with each other even if its view of the world is deliberately not.

It has been pointed out by many that Lyotards theory of postmodernism is incoherent. His
report announces the end of the grand narratives and presents his new approach to life
without such narratives, which itself forms a replacement grand narrative. It forms the
metanarrative of postmodernity, the metanarrative that says that there are no longer any
objective realities or narratives to legitimate science, except for the universal and selflegitimating truth of postmodernism. This is a classic example of bootstrapping, asserting
something that is self-contradictory, a theory that is true in all cases, except when applied to



itself. If postmodernity is true, then there are no metanarratives, including that

metanarrative proposed by Lyotard, which must therefore be false. Curiously, Lyotard even
comes close to admitting this problem himself in a later work when he rhetorically asks,
Are we not telling, whether bitterly or gladly, the great narrative of the end of great
narratives?85 Tellingly, he also suggests he may have personal motivations for promoting
postmodernism to the wider world, perhaps implying he has a wider agenda in mind.

Related to this is the similar assertion that, if all can be reduced to a mere language game
that may or may not bare any resemblance to the objective world, then postmodernism as a
theory must also accept that it may not claim to legitimately describe the real world.
Lyotards postmodern condition may be fairly regarded (by its own logic) as being just a
theory, one that works for Lyotard but bares no resemblance to real human social interaction
and scientific discourse.

Furthermore, Manfred Frank has illustrated what is known as the Frankfurt School
Criticism of Lyotard. This also points to the incoherence of Lyotards worldview, with
apparently serious pragmatic consequences.86 According to this objection, Lyotards
promotion of dissensus over consensus is a philosophical mistake since Lyotard apparently
fails to notice that an underlying condition for consensus also underlies the successful
communication of his own theories. It is self-defeating, for Lyotard to give an argument that
appeals to reason on behalf of a difference that is supposed to elude it.87 In defence,
Lyotard may suggest that his report on the state of postmodernity does not depend on
reason but is an observation of the postmodern condition, based as it is on the use and
methodology of language games and not empirical reason.88 However, the more
prescriptive elements to his report, propose a method for postmodern science and this, at
the very least, assume a causality that is grounded in reason. Frank argues this is worse



than just a philosophical fallacy however; it is a move that aligns Lyotard with irrational
forces that often give rise to injustice. Having dispensed with reason and consensus,
Lyotard has disarmed and prevented himself from dealing with such injustice. He is thus
reduced simply to testify to it.89 The latter is more of a pragmatic issue than one of
coherence but Frank rightly points out the dangers of Lyotards woefully and deliberately
incoherent worldview.

The more that the claims of a worldview correspond to the actual state of affairs in the
world, the better it performs in the test for correspondence.90 For a worldview to be taken
seriously it must offer some real-world evidential support. This presents two problems for
this essay: 1) this investigation is not focusing on the spread of postmodernism in the real
world and 2) postmodernism rejects the modern correspondence theory of reality on which
this test is based. In answer to the first problem, this investigation is not a sociological study
so the aim will be simply to document whether or not postmodernism is accepted
(particularly in the scientific community) without quantifying this acceptance. In answer to
he second problem, if a philosophy is accepted by individuals, then it can be considered de
facto to correspond to reality, at least reality for those individuals. Lyotard does offer
examples of where he believes contemporary science corresponds to postmodern scientific
pragmatics but these are discussed below in the section on verifiability.

One quite surprising example of a scientist endorsing postmodern praxis is cosmologist

Stephen Hawking. In his book The Grand Design, Hawking begins by announcing that
philosophy is dead since it has not kept up with advancements in physics. Consequently,
scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery for the big questions of life and
the universe.91 He goes on to explain at a popular level that classical (modern) physics and
the correspondence theory of reality doesnt apply on the subatomic level and so



contemporary physics (which he confusingly calls modern physics) takes over with a new
set of quantum theories. By invoking Richard Feynmans Sum of all Histories theory,
Hawking argues that systems in scientific models do not have one history but all possible
histories and thus lays the groundwork for a less common-sense approach to physics.92 He
goes on to promote what he calls model-dependent realism, his belief that individuals
create models of the world based on the data from their sensory organs, and that there may
be many ways to model the same data. He concludes that, if two such physical theories or
models accurately predict the same events, one cannot be said to be more real than the other;
rather, we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.93

What is so surprising about this is that such an eminent natural scientist should promote an
anti-realist philosophy of science. In Lyotardian terms, Hawking is advocating that each
person design their own science language game and if it is the most convenient for them,
they should play by those rules. Note, Hawking does not concern himself with whether
ones model corresponds to reality; he is interested in the convenience of ones game not its
objective truth. Hawking even goes as far as saying that there is no model independent
reality at all and that a well-constructed model creates a reality of its own.94

This is an example of ontological relativity, where individuals create reality for themselves
based on their own model; this is truly a step beyond even Lyotard. Not only does everyone
play his or her own game but also the game inherently corresponds to the reality of that
individual. This radical endorsement by Hawking has caused critics to speculate why such
an eminent scientist would dabble in extreme anti-realist, postmodern beliefs, not to
mention that Hawking sounds the death knail for philosophy on the first page of his book,
at least a third of which is dedicating to the promotion of his philosophy of science.



Physicist and philosopher Roger Penrose argues that model-dependent realism is not a new
theory of Hawking and is not as radical as he makes out. Penrose describes it as a halfway
house between realism and anti-realism with objective reality not being completely
abandoned but taking different forms depending upon the particular theoretical
perspective it is viewed from.95 He argues that Einsteins theory of relativity already allows
for different observers to use different co-ordinate systems for local descriptions of a single
objective space-time. He admits this takes much more sophisticated mathematics than
normal Euclidean geometry but the mathematical space-time, whereby the theory
describes the world, has complete objectivity96 To Penrose, model-dependent realism is
nothing new and he is willing to accept it provided the range of competing theories is not
used to deny the objective world on which they are based. In Lyotardian terms, Penrose
believes that relativity theory allows multiple language games to be employed by scientists
yet, regardless of the game chosen, the predictions are both identical to one another and to
experiments conducted in the real world. If a local game didnt make accurate predictions,
it would be rejected. The different games all lead to the same conclusions and thus
consensus and this suggests that, according to Penrose, relativity theory as an example of
Hawkings model-dependent realism is not postmodern science but modern science with
the same modern goal of consensus.

In his review of Hawkings book, Cornwell describes Hawkings theories as a collection of

unproved and unprovable hypotheses. His greatest criticism however is of Hawkings
claim that philosophy has not kept up with science, which he describes as unfair on the
distinguished department of history and philosophy of science in his [Hawkings] own
university.97 He concludes by suggesting it may be the oracular Professor Hawking who is
failing to keep up with the philosophers and the theologians, rather than the other way



around?98 It is however, unlikely that Hawking is unaware of his colleagues work.

Instead, he appears to be trying to draw his readers away from philosophy and theologys
discoveries, toward a postmodern view that better suits his overall goals.

Craig suggests Hawking chooses this approach because it enables [him] to cloak [his}
amateurish philosophizing with the mantle of scientific authority and so avoid the hard
work of actually arguing for, rather than merely asserting, [his] philosophical viewpoints.99
To Craig and others, this endorsement of postmodernism is just a smoke screen, a way of
avoiding deep questions posed by philosophy that Hawking is just unable to answer. Such
a reading puts his popular level book on a par with propaganda. In his case, Hawkings
book has a clear agenda to disabuse the reader of the God-concept100 and yet to do so he
must resort to postmodern anti-realist theories to usurp the big philosophical questions.

Hawkings book is an illustration of where an expert scientist willingly endorse Lyotards

notion of postmodern science simply for its convenience. Critics however, are suspicious of
Hawkings motivations for doing so, accusing him of being intellectually evasive, rather
than enlightened by postmodernism.

A worldview is considered trustworthy if its truth claims are testable. If its claims are
shown to be true in a variety of circumstance, it may be considered verifiable. If however,
the claims cannot be scrutinised and falsified, then that belief system is considered to carry
little rational weight.101 In some ways, Lyotards postmodernism evades scrutiny by
reducing all enquiry (including the rational) to mere language games of local scope; if this
criteria shows postmodernism to be unfalsifiable, thats just the result of the rules of this
worldview testing game. However, if Lyotards philosophy is to have any application, it

100 Raman,Review,246.
101 Samples,world,35.


must present some evidence of its verifiability and fortunately Lyotard attempts to do just

In his section on postmodern science, Lyotard argues that scientific research is in the process
of finding a resolution to what he calls the crisis of determinism.102 Determinism, he
argues, was the positivist approach to science, based on efficiency. It viewed reality as a
system that could be fully specified. Any input to that system could be accompanied by a
predictable output. His aim is to show, with examples, that today, science no longer works
by these thoroughly modern rules but embraces paralogy and other postmodern aspects like
the local invention of new rules for the science game.103

Spurrett and other scholars have taken Lyotard to task for his attempts to legitimize
postmodernism through the discoveries of contemporary science. Spurretts comments are
not limited merely to the scientific aspects however; he also calls Lyotards prediction of a
knowledge stock exchange ridiculous, not least because knowledge, unlike money, can be
shared with another and yet still retained by the original owner.104 Spurrett regards this idea
of knowledge as profoundly Wittgensteinian, although he acknowledges Wittgenstein only
attacked the unity of spoken or written language. Lyotard has extended this theory far
beyond its original field to the whole of knowledge.105

Spurrett rejects Lyotards idea that science is dependent on metanarratives or that science
collapses with the rejection of such narratives. He argues that a narrative can be a useful
didactic tool (like Descartes Discourse on the Method) or as propaganda, allowing scientists to
achieve their ambitions more quickly than if funders knew what they were really up to. In
both cases, the narratives are dispensable, although pragmatically useful nonetheless.106

102 Lyotard,Postmodern,53.
103 Ibid,54.
104 Spurrett,Lyotard,34.
105 Ibid,35.
106 Ibid,38.


Spurrett does admit that science is susceptible to political and social forces though his
defence is that scientific knowledge is constituted by the idea of an epistemological bottom
line to which it has the best possible kind of access, and is consequently somewhat
immune from discourses that do not have this privilege (e.g. myths and religious
narratives).107 This presupposed insight available only to science is behind much of
Spurretts criticism of Lyotard and he fails to articulate what exactly he mans by a bottom
line. Spurrett is comfortable to simply state that some discoveries of science are just true
and that political deliberation would be futile. Furthermore, he argues that science is quite
capable of passing judgment on narrative knowledge (contra Lyotards argument based on
the incommensurability of different language games) because of its apparent monopoly on

Along similar lines, Spurrett attacks Lyotards methodology of language games as it is

insufficiently discriminating with reference to the question of the truth of any given
scientific theory.109 Spurretts criticism is based on the work of Bhaskar whose central
paradox stated that scientists produce objects of knowledge that are social products yet are
about objects that are not social constructs but very real. He called these transitive and
intransitive objects respectively.110 The flaw that Spurrett sees in the application of
language games to natural science is that the method focuses purely on the transitive
objects, the social activity of theory creation, to the neglect of the intransitive objects, the
reality of the world and the actual truth of scientific theories.111 Since postmodernism
embraces an anti-realist, constructivist view of the world, this is not surprising, nor is it
surprising that a natural scientist would find it objectionable.

107 Ibid,39.
108 Ibid.
109 Ibid,40.
110 Bhaskar,,22.
111 Spurrett,Lyotard,41.


With all this said, Spurrett examines Lyotards chapter on postmodern science and states
upfront what this section must do in order to successfully verify Lyotards claims about
postmodern science. He must show a convincing picture of natural science operating
without either legitimation by metanarrative or the expectation of commensurability, but also
to show that such expectations are themselves no longer legitimate in the discourse of

Firstly, Lyotard claims that science does not progress by means of the 'positivism of
efficiency,' but the pragmatics of scientific research emphasizes the invention of new
"moves" and even new rules for language games.113 That is to say, science progresses not
just by finding out what works and making it work better but by challenging established
knowledge with new ideas. Spurrett considers this a blind truism of all science, since any
genuine progress must involve a break with the past. He also warns against a kind of
avant-garde fallacy whereby new moves in the science game are legitimated simple by the
virtue of being novel, a fallacy he believes Lyotard is committing. He asserts that the
legitimacy and acceptance of scientific statements is never based on their age or novelty.114

Spurrett also attacks Lyotards assumption that all modern science stands or falls based on
determinism. He argues that a physical description is still preferred over a non-physical one
even if it isnt fully deterministic. The bar for determinism in scientific theory was
previously lowered by Papineau who said that, physical events are determined, or have
their chances determined, by prior physical events according to physical laws.115
Importantly, this does not allow for the intervention of supernatural agency in the physical
world (the title of Papineaus book, Philosophical Naturalism confirms this) but it does mean
that some physical processes cannot have their result determined in every instance, only a
probability of each outcomes can be reliably given.

112 Ibid,42.
113 Lyotard,Postmodern,53.
114 Spurrett,Lyotard,42.
115 Papineau,Naturalism,16.


Lyotard gives four examples of where he believes contemporary science has developed to
the point where it is no longer legitimated by the performativity of theories based on stable
systems. The first is in quantum mechanics and his first point is that at a quantum level, a
complete definition of the initial state of a system would require an expenditure of energy
at least equivalent to that consumed by the system to be defined.116 This is indeed true of
systems at all levels but Spurrett argues that this only makes the case that some science is
uneconomical, however, expensive determinism is still determinism.117

Lyotards next example is a thought experiment based on measuring the density of a gas
within a sphere. He argues that for a large sphere, accurate approximations can be
measured but as the size of the sphere is decreased to where it is the size of a single particle
in the gas, the measurement may vary down to zero (when no particle is in the sphere) or up
to infinity (when it contains a whole particle). According to Lyotard, the knowledge of the
density of air thus resolves into a multitude of absolutely incompatible statements.118
Spurrett vigorously denies that Lyotards argument proves anything or even has anything to
do with quantum mechanics. He points out that the sensitivity of density calculations to
location and scale can hardly be surprising when density is a ratio between mass and
volume and furthermore, measurements taken at specific places and times will only ever
yield results for those instants. Taking the average of a series of measurements over time
and space give a result equal to the very classical prediction Lyotard thinks he has shown to
be inconsistent with observation.119

Spurrett concludes that Lyotard has fundamentally misunderstood the current state of
quantum physics. For all its unexpectedness from a narrow classical point of view,
quantum physics is not paralogical but is now a well-established, tested and successful part

116 Lyotard,Postmodern,55.
117 Spurrett,Lyotard,42.
118 Lyotard,Postmodern,57.
119 Spurrett,Lyotard,46.


of mainstream physics that is transmitted through the very procedures that Lyotard
describes in his account of scientific education. Furthermore, there is no break within the
hegemony of physics and as a result, no one in physics seriously thinks quantum
mechanics shows that any non-physical factor could possibly have any beating on the
development of a microphysical system.120

In concluding, Spurrett does acknowledge that some of the social changes in science that
Lyotard outlined are indeed occurring, such as the tendency for funding to favour
performativity over theoretical scholarly research. However, he believes that Lyotard saw
natural science as a barrier to the philosophy he wished to promote and attempted to co-opt
science for this purpose, using a number of examples of what he thought were his
postmodern pragmatics in action. However, Spurrett believes that the failure of all of
Lyotards scientific arguments shows that natural science is not along for the postmodern

Spurrett is right to say that science is at the heart of The Postmodern Condition and to some
extent, the thesis stands or falls based on Lyotards ability to verify his philosophy with realworld examples. Spurretts rejection of these examples is damning but is based on some
presuppositions that he fails to fully address. Firstly, his realist and modern belief that
scientists theorise are about an objective world is never justified. Similarly, he speaks of an
epistemological bottom line to which science has the best possible kind of access yet never
explains why this is. This philosophy of science is precisely that which Lyotard believes he
undermines with his application of language games, showing that science is just another
game with no special insight into truth, no legitimacy. Spurretts supposed defeater to the
language game methodology is the criticism that it focuses too much on the social aspects
rather than the truth claims of science, but this does not completely disarm Lyotards

120 Ibid,46.
121 Ibid,49.


criticisms. To do this, he would have to show that the problem of legitimacy exposed by
language games is not sufficient to produce false positives in scientific discourse.

Secondly, Spurrett plays an methodological sleight of hand by lowering the precision

required for a physical theory to be accepted. He adopts Papineaus thesis that determinism
requires only that the chance of a physical event occurring be determined as opposed to a full
description of all the variables in that event. This adaptation is one readily accepted by the
scientific community and is in fact therefore a new move in the science game, precisely
what Lyotard predicted. Lyotard was wrong however, in thinking this would be a local
move in fact it is global, which is why Spurrett so readily advocates it as a part of
contemporary physics. For all of these reasons, Lyotards postmodern theory does not
extend to science, at least not based on the example he provided.

According to Samples, an acceptable worldview must, be sensible and workable and
therefore externally liveable.122 Essentially, if it can be shown that Lyotards
postmodernism is unliveable or unworkable, one may deem the philosophy

Intricately linked with Lyotards philosophy of science is his philosophy of the social bond,
so, though focusing mainly on the scientific, the scope of this pragmatic test goes beyond
laboratories to the everyday lives of those in postmodernity. Shalkwyk argues that Lyotard
unsuccessfully relegates the social bond, not only to the past but also to what is pass and
thus fails to convincingly show that postmodernism is a liveable worldview123

It is suggested by Shalkwyk that Lyotard is writing against the work of Jrgern Habermas
whose supremely modern ideas claimed that the goal of all rational communication was to

122 Samples,World,35.
123 Shalkwyk,Bond,116.


find consensus.124 By contrast, Shalkwyk notes that Lyotard sees consensus in postmodern
societies not only as a thing of the past but a danger to the future, for it can only be imposed
as one of the tyrannical myths of the enlightenment, foreclosing all experimentation,
exploration and pluralist dlssensus.125 Shalkwyk however argues that consensus is essential
for the social bond; it is a matter of what we have to agree in before we can begin to know
what we wish to agree or disagree about.126

Lyotard argues that since the collapse of the grand narratives, there has been a shift in
science toward legitimacy by performativity and he says that the performativity of a
scientific utterance increases proportionally to the amount of information about its referent
one has at one's disposal.127 He then invokes the pragmatics of postmodern science to
show that paradoxically the search for performativity is destined for failure the closer one
gets to this goal. Using the example of microphysics, Lyotard concludes that science does
not develop by means of commonsense theories and proofs but in fact the opposite, by
inventing counterexamples and seeing the unintelligible.128 Postmodern science is thus
changing the meaning of knowledge, producing not the known but the unknown.129

For Shalkwyk, postmodern science has become, the exemplar of what was earlier called
narrative knowledge, i.e. that which legitimises itself through its own pragmatics,
proliferates incommensurable language games, and constitutes the social subject.130
Shalkwyk calls this the insight of postmodernity, that science plays its own game and
cannot legitimate others or even itself yet he points out that Lyotard, has been able to
outwit the claims of pcrformativity only by appealing to the game of sciatica. How ironic
that the way postmodernism can be established by Lyotard is through a recourse to science;

124 Habermas,Action,5.
125 Shalkwyk,Bond,117.
126 Ibid.
127 Lyotard,Postmodern,47.
128 Ibid,54.
129 Ibid,60.
130 Shalkwyk,Bond,122.


Shalkwyk concludes that, no other current language games is sexy enough to validate the
postmodern claims.131

Shalkwyk then rightly asks, if the paralogy of postmodern science is the postmodern
condition of all language games (social as well as scientific), what now constitutes the social
bond that was previously established in the forms of narrative knowledge in pre-modern
societies? He argues against Lyotard that consensus still fulfils this role and is not an
unreachable goal but an immanent condition of the very possibility of knowledge and

To illustrate this, Shalkwyk turns to the work of philosophy G. E. Moore. Moore claimed
that there were, certain propositions of which one can be and is indubitably and objectively
certain. Wittgenstein (who proposed the language game theory) agreed that there were
certain cases where one can rightly say they are certain of a proposition, citing Moore as the
supplier of some examples.133 Such claims are known as proper basic beliefs; they are not
grounded in evidence as experience speaks to their truth. Wittgenstein takes this further
saying they are beyond enquiry and therefore, beyond both doubt and proof.134 Shalkwyk
argues that because of this, they belong to a realm of consensus that can neither be rendered
pass by the postmodern turn of events, nor become the subject of testable validity claims
and that such knowledge constitutes a framework or system which cannot be examined or
ignored because of an ideology.135 To Wittgenstein, this system is not so much a point of
departure as the elements in which arguments have their life.136

Shalkwyk goes on to defend Wittgensteins argument that certain beliefs that make up this
system eventually become hardened into rules that take on a logical role and underlie

131 Ibid.
132 Ibid,124.
133 Ibid.
134 Wittgenstein,Contrary,88.
135 Shalkwyk,Bond,125.
136 Wittgenstein,Contrary,105.


scientific enquiry.137 He further argues that this is not a form of relativism where human
consensus determines truth but an indication of the conditions necessary for any truth
claims whatsoever.138

Shalkwyk agrees with Lyotard that science is unable to legitimate itself but based on the
above analysis, he argues legitimation of science is impossible and unnecessary, saying It
makes as little sense to justify the practices of science as it does to justify the claim that you
know that you are a human being.139 Lyotards solution is postmodern science that, like
narrative knowledge, contains within it the pragmatics of its production.140 Shalkwyk rejects
this for two reasons. Firstly he argues that it cannot fulfil the synchronous requirement of
immemorial beating141 that is the essence of narrative self-justification. Secondly, the
pragmatics of narrative knowledge are only self-justifying when they constitute the social
bond. Lyotard defines this social bond as the pragmatics of, knowing knowing how to
speak and knowing how to listen and yet Lyotard makes clear from early in his report that
such a bond cannot be established from the learning of science.142 Indeed, Lyotards
attraction to postmodern science appears to be its very disruption of the social bond,
favouring dissensus over consensus. Shalkwyk concludes that the social bond is not
something that can be deemed old-fashioned and rejected as Lyotard attempted to do.
Postmodern sciences production of the unknown can therefore not be more self-justifying
than modern sciences production of the known.143

Essentially, Shalkwyk is attempting to take the argument of legitimation one step higher
than Lyotard. He rejects the idea that all can be reduced to language games (as Lyotard
concedes) and argues that while such games do not contain their own legitimation, some

137 Shalkwyk,Bond,128.
138 Ibid,129.
139 Ibid,130.
140 Lyotard,Postmodern,66.
141 Ibid,22.
142 Ibid.
143 Shalkwyk,Bond,131.


beliefs do. These proper basic beliefs cover much of what people generally accept without
question such as the reality of the outside world, memory and other beliefs that do not
require the support of evidence in order to be rational.144 Here the word rational is used to
suggest the belief is used in an argument based on reason, without the need for external
justification. Wittgenstein gives the example that his having two hands is as certain as any
evidence he could provide to support the belief.145 This is a powerful argument against the
perpetual scepticism of the postmodern view; not everything is fluid and a matter of
construction by individuals or local groups, some things genuinely are objective and science
can be built on at least some of these foundations.

The ramifications for this analysis obviously flow beyond the language game of science to
the political, ethical and artistic. It is impossible to live by a system that is sceptical to the
point of doubting if ones hand really exists and then seek to legitimate all knowledge on the
basis of dissensus and local language games alone. Human knowledge is based on some
proper basic beliefs and to doubt this would be to doubt everything that makes living a
human life possible.

Christian Perspectives on Lyotard

Now that Lyotards postmodernism has been critiqued on a secular basis it is next necessary
to look at various Christian perspectives on and reactions to his philosophy. As noted in the
introduction, Christians may choose to embrace or reject a new philosophy depending on
whether it aids their efforts at evangelism. In the following section, various Christian
perspectives of postmodernism will be examined, ranging form the very accommodating to
flat-out rejection. These are treated as perspectives rather than critiques, as the relationship
between postmodernism and Christian apologetics will be discussed alongside an appraisal
of Lyotards philosophy. In each case, a summary of the authors thesis will be given,
followed by a review of the benefits and drawbacks of their approach and a critique of how

144 Clark,Reformed,267.
145 Wittgenstein,Contrary,250.


they see Christianity existing and being defended in Lyotards postmodernity. Of particular
interest is how Christianity maintains its uniqueness within the plurality of competing
narratives and the ability for apologists to apply reason in their defence of Christianity.

James K. A. Smith
Smith has written a number of articles and a book on how he believes Christians ought to
approach postmodernism. Chief among these is Whos afraid of Postmodernism? In which he
examines the philosophies of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault and explains why he believes
they are not a threat but an ally to Christianity. He argues that, while the views of these
non-Christians must be critiqued, it is quite possible to benefit from some of their insights.
He draws a parallel to the story of the Hebrews who left Egypt with Egyptian gold that they
later used in their worship of Yahweh (Exodus 12:35-6). Today, he argues, Christians can
similarly find resources in non-Christian thought that can be put to work for the glory of
God.146 Smith here is employing an old Christian argument first introduced by the Church
Fathers when they also had to decide whether to accept the philosophies of other cultures.
Based on the command by Yahweh in Exodus 3:22 and its fulfilment in 12:36 this became
known as Spoiling the Egyptians and is a powerful argument for plundering foreign

Interestingly, Smith notes that the Hebrews use of Egyptian gold led them to sins (such as
idolatry in Exodus 32:4) but he doesnt acknowledge that similar dangers may await
Christians who appropriate postmodernism as he is advocating. Furthermore, the argument
can be rebutted by its opposite, which might be called Devoting the Canaanites. When it
came to those nations who stood between the Hebrews and their promised land, Yahweh
was clear that their sin was so great that the Hebrews were to devote them to complete
destruction (Deuteronomy 7:2,17). It is unclear why plundering the Egyptians was
acceptable yet only complete destruction was allowed for the Canaanites but, if nothing else,
this shows that Yahweh was selective in allowing treasures from other nations to be

146 Smith,Postmodernism,23.


gathered by Israel. So also Christians today should not assume the Egyptian gold metaphor
stands in all cases.

It is important to note that Smiths enthusiasm for postmodernism is partly fuelled by his
dislike of modernity and how, for him, the Church has become too modern. He sees an
embrace of postmodernism as a chance for the Church to return to its roots in the premodern era. To that end, he argues that mush of what is described as postmodern in fact
constitutes a significant recovery, of pre-modern ways of knowing, being, and doing.147

Smiths desire to banish modernism from Christianity means that he rejects classical
apologetics which he argues adopts an Enlightenment view and fails to appreciate the
effects of sin on reason.148 He goes further, saying that unless apologetics starts with
revelation we have conceded the game to modernity.149 He appears to assume that the
natural reason game cannot be played and won by the classical apologist and that playing
this game (to use a sporting metaphor) requires apologists to concede their home advantage.
While most apologists would acknowledge the noetic effects of sin, many would disagree
that natural reason has no value whatsoever.

Smith is influenced by the writings of Francis Schaeffer and even describes his work as a
postmodern sequel to Schaeffers own engagements with humanism and existentialism.
He aims to adopt a Schaefferian approach by focusing on the philosophy underlying
postmodernity and by writing in an accessible way so that non-philosophically trained
Christians can engage with his thoughts.150 Exactly how much Smiths work is a
continuation of Schaeffers will be addressed below.

147 Ibid,25.
148 Ibid,28.
149 Ibid.
150 Ibid,21.


Smiths examination and response to Lyotard begins with him defining Lyotards form of
postmodernism as erosion of confidence in the rational as sole guarantor and deliverer of
truth, and a deep suspicion of modern sciences claim to explain everything.151 He notes
that in the famous definition of postmodernism offered by Lyotard (incredulity toward
metanarratives) the word metanarrative is a translation of grand recits, literally meaning
big stories and that there is hardly a bigger story than that presented in Scripture.152 He
acknowledges this suggests that postmodernism and Christianity are antithetical, as many
have argued, however, he sees this as a superficial reading that lacks a careful
understanding of just what Lyotard means by a metanarrative.153 His apparently more
careful reading of Lyotard leads Smith to claim him as an ally to Christians and further to
claim that orthodox Christianity requires that we [Christians], too, stop believing in

Smith begins his case by pointing out that when Lyotard uses the term metanarrative he
doesnt express incredulity toward these big stories because of their scope, simply for being
big. If this were the case, Christianity, with its big story from creation to redemption,
certainly could not adopt postmodernism.155 What defines a metanarrative (as Lyotard uses
the word) is not its scope but its attempt to legitimate its claims through an appeal to
universal reason.156 Myths and religious stories by contrast, are a matter of proclamation or
kerygma, which demand the response of faith.157 Here, Smith picks up on Lyotards
dichotomy of scientific knowledge and narrative knowledge and the association of scientific
knowledge with metanarratives. This explains Smiths aversion to classical apologetics; to
defend a narrative like Christian Scripture with scientific knowledge and by means of the

151 Ibid,62.
152 Ibid,63.
153 Ibid,64.
154 Ibid.
155 Ibid.
156 Ibid,65.
157 Ibid.


scientific language game is to make the same error as modern science and slip into the
incredulous metanarrative game.

Smith next surveys Lyotards conclusions about modern science, concluding that
metanarratives that appeal to universal reason are just another language game, albeit
masquerading as the game above all games.158 Smith doesnt speak extensively about
language games and doesnt question Lyotards choice or application of Wittgensteins
theory. But for Lyotards report to stand, it must be shown that language games are a
suitable method for modelling human communication, that meaningful communication is
not possible except through the use of these language games and that they therefore act as a
barrier between people and reality, hence the anti-realist stance of postmodernism. This
postmodern shift in the view of language has become known as the linguistic turn,159 and
in an article written against R. Scott Smiths view of this turn, Smith argues it is a restrictive
understanding of language.160 He goes on to explain that language is a part of this world,
as are the users of language and that it is naive to distinguish language from the world or
even to abstract us, its users, as somehow outside the world.161 It would appear than in
his attempts to defend postmodernism from its Christian critics elsewhere, Smith has
endorsed a quite realist view of language that seriously challenges the methodology and
conclusions of Lyotard, and therefore his own conclusions about Lyotardian

Nevertheless, Smith agrees with Lyotard that metanarratives are false appeals to universal,
rational, scientific criteria and therefore the Christian faith is not a metanarrative, as it is
legitimated by an appeal to faith.162 Smith does address the classical or evidential apologist
whom he says, might argue that Christian faith is grounded in reason and thus constitutes a

158 Ibid,67.
159 Smith,Christian,54.
160 Smith,Postmodernism,222.
161 Ibid.
162 Smith,Postmodernism,68.


metanarrative. He dismisses this objection on the grounds that it too would fall prey to
Lyotards critique of metanarratives, based as it is on an appeal to universal reason.163
However, Smith fails to acknowledge the difference between the appeal to reason in an
apologetic discussion and grounding ones faith in reason, as he puts it. If ones faith were
grounded in reason it would hardly be faith at all. If ones faith stemmed from an
encounter with God through the Holy Spirit but was backed up and defended by reason,
that would not constitute a metanarrative. Smith mischaracterises apologetics, confusing
ones grounds for belief (de jure) with ones defence of their belief (de facto) and hence creates
a straw man argument against classical apologetics. To draw an analogy, the Apostle Paul
probably didnt believe that his God was the unknown god represented by an object of
worship in Athens, yet he used this and the philosophy of the Greeks in a discussion, to
explain his monotheistic faith to them (Acts 17:23). If he were consistent, Smith should
probably accuse Paul of conceding the game to polytheism.

Instead of classical apologetics, Smith recommends apologists living in postmodernity to

embrace presuppositional apologetics as this method is aware of the bias imposed by ones
presuppositions and the role these play in language games, including apologetics.164 Smith
concludes that postmodernism is not incredulity toward narrative or myth; on the contrary,
it unveils that all knowledge is grounded in such and argues that this understanding breaks
the false dichotomy that some have constructed between postmodernism and the Christian
narrative.165 He goes further in saying that postmodernisms critique of science gives new
opportunities for Christian apologetics as it reveals that objections to faith posed by science
lack legitimation.

Much of what Smith says is in keeping with reformed epistemology, which holds that all
begins with faith. Because of their reliance on narrative, he even concludes that every

163 Ibid.
164 Ibid,69.
165 Ibid.


scientist is a believer along with theists.166 The problem with the Lyotardian view of
knowledge and the reformed epistemological stance is that, following their logic to its
conclusion leads to the incommensurability of belief systems.167 Theissen explains this is
the situation where each individual lives in his or her own paradigm or presuppositional
framework, and these incommensurable language games mean that no one can
communicate with anyone else. As Theissen points out, this simply isnt the case as people
are generally able to communicate well, regardless of their varied beliefs. Furthermore, he
argues, the Christian doctrine of creation, that all are made in the image of God, suggests all
individuals have at least some of their epistemic capacities in common.168 To argue from
everyday experience is always problematic since Theissen does not establish that he is living
in a postmodern society. Lyotard is never clear how postmodern he believes the world is
though Smith appears more certain of postmodernisms prevalence. But Theissen is right to
appeal to common grace and creation in the Imago Dei to dispel the complete heterogeneity
proposed by Lyotard and seconded by Smith, at least from a Christian point of view.

Amid all his banner waving for postmodernism, Smith does admit one drawback. Though
he doesnt use the exact word, the problem, in short, is relativism. This is caused by what
Lyotard called the problem of legitimation,169 which means there is no longer (the belief in)
a supreme court of appeal or metalanguage to decide between the different claims of rival
games. This incommensurability has far reaching implication in morality for example where
different concepts of good, conditioned by different historical paradigms, can neither be
contrasted with or imposed on others.170 Smith acknowledges that many lament this feature
of postmodernism but tries to play it down by suggesting that objective morality was a very
modern hegemony of America and that the plurality of morals was exactly the situation

166 Ibid,68.
167 Theissen,Review,349.
168 Ibid.
169 Lyotard,Postmodern,8.
170 Smith,Postmodernism,69.


that the Apostle Paul and others found themselves in. Smiths solution is simply for the
Church to be a witness in this plurality of morals.171

Relativism is surely the major criticism of postmodernism advocates and one that Lyotard
and Smith both attempt to refute. Smiths vision of a plurality of moral games may be more
like Ancient Rome than the modern USA but would he not agree that the values of justice,
rule of law and equality on which his country was built are more Biblical than those of
Ancient Rome, even if these values were based on a misplaced faith in reason? Secondly, it
is difficult to know how one could actively witness to a society without, at least occasionally,
imposing moral values upon others. This imposition of one games rules on another is what
Lyotard called terror and he saw it as the bane of modern sciences goal of consensus.172 Yet
Paul (not to mention Jesus!) travelled the ancient world preaching the Gospel, which
offended many Jews, Romans and pagans, leading to his persecution, imprisonment, torture
and possibly to his death.173 There is no greater example of terror than execution for
challenging societys game, so how the plurality would eliminate terror is far from clear. In
fact, whos to say that terror is wrong anyway? It may be in Lyotards rules but others may
find it quite justifiable.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Smiths enthusiasm for postmodernism and his willingness to
abandon reason for being too modern, stand in stark contrast to the thoughts of Schaeffer.
As noted above, Smith declares his book as a sequel to Schaeffers and so it is bizarre that
Smith should disagree with Schaeffer on such important matters as the role of reason and
truth claims. Throughout Escape From Reason, Schaeffer charts the history of the upper and
lower stories, first separated by Aquinas. By this he means the separation of nature from
grace, where grace occupies the upper story and nature the lower story. Grace included

171 Ibid,70.
172 Lyotard,Postmodern,63.
173 ScholarsdisagreeonwhetherornotPauldiedinJerusalemasaconsequenceofhis


all the things of God, while nature was creation. The latter, it was assumed, was
autonomous from God and over time this lower story began to eat up more of the upper
story as reason was applied more widely.174

Schaeffer documents an attempt in the 1960s by a new kind of mysticism, to move questions
of religion to the upper story, from the world of the discussable, placing them in the world
of the non-discussable, where you can say anything without fear of proof or disproof. By so
doing, one shirks any burden of proof by reducing faith to a mere mystery. Schaeffer
reports hearing a similar move made by his contemporary Christians, replacing the assertion
of truth claims and proofs with the experience of an encounter with Jesus. To this,
Schaeffer offers a stern rebuke: When a Christian has made such a statement he has, in an
analysed or unanalysed form, moved upstairs, by which he means, placed Christianity as a
whole, beyond reasons reach.175 Schaeffer argues this is foolish; although it evades the need
to present reasoned arguments, it renders Christianity indistinguishable from other religious
and secular mysticisms such as Schaeffer saw emerging from humanism and New
Theology.176 He goes on to ask, if the Scriptures are not discussed and open to verification
where they touch the cosmos and history then why should one choose the evangelical faith
over any other, or no faith at all?177 Schaefers point is that, while a move toward the
mystical may avoid difficult questions posed by science and reason, to do so also rids
Christianity of its uniqueness compared with other narratives. This includes its verifiability
by modern methods including historical criticism.

The problem for Smith is, this is exactly what he seeks to do through his embrace of
postmodernism. By endorsing Lyotards assertion that reason is a myth, he moves
Christianity to the upper story, excluding it from reasoned criticism, in complete defiance

174 Schaeffer,Reason,9.
175 Ibid,76.
176 Ibid,77.
177 Ibid.


of the warnings from his predecessor Schaeffer.178 Schaeffer, like Smith, also notes that the
real-life consequence of this move is relativism, though he is more comfortable with
admitting this. Schaeffer argues that without a social bond grounded in the upper story,
there can be no absolute moral values, just social conventions whereby anything can be
declared good. Smiths only reply to this, noted above, is blind optimism and a
comparison to the pre-modern era of Paul. As such, the burden of proof is still on Smith to
show that the benefits of postmodern Christianity outweigh the enormous losses outlined
by Schaeffer.

In his review of Smiths book, Haskell fears that the uninitiated reader may come away with
the impression that there is no reason to prefer one religion or worldview over another,
except perhaps by who tells the better story. He concludes by questioning if worldviews
can be measured at all without legitimation by reason.179 Theissen rightly sums up the
situation by saying that Christians dont just want to accept their story is one equal among a
plurality of narratives, they also want to say that ours is the best story, indeed the true
story. To do this, he believes Christians must participate in modernist apologetics with its
appeals to reason and therefore should not cozy up too closely with Lyotard, as Smith has
chosen to do.180

It appears Smiths loathing for modernism means he too readily accepts postmodernism as a
fine alternative. His analysis of Lyotard is quite accurate and he is clear in explaining the
perceived benefits to Christianity. He does however gloss over some of the more
problematic consequences of his proposal, namely relativism and pluralism. He tries briefly
and unsatisfactorily to claim that relativism isnt a problem and sees a level playing field
between worldviews as preferable. Smith may be right that Christianity was compromised
by blindly becoming too modern but his answer is to repeat this mistake, only this time by
blindly becoming too postmodern.

178 Smith,Postmodernism,69.
179 Haskell,Review,272.
180 Theissen,Review,349.


Middleton, Walsh and Grenz

In their book Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be, Middleton and Walsh present a very
different Christian perspective on Lyotards postmodernism to that of Smith. Grenzs book
A Primer on Postmodernism takes a similar line so these works will be examined together.

Middleton and Walsh address the issues posed by the onset of postmodernity in terms of a
shift in worldviews, from modernism to postmodern. They define a worldviews as giving
faith answers to s set of ultimate and grounding questions, questions concerning personal
identity, the problems in the world and the remedies to these problems. Their book surveys
the modern answers and provides some postmodern answers to these questions.181 They
encounter Lyotard when addressing the latter questions about evil and redemption, which
they note are typically communicated in narrative.182 After quoting Lyotards key
statement on metanarratives, they outline what they see as the two problems postmodern
thinkers have with metanarratives. In doing so, they are answering whats wrong? and
whats the solution? for the postmodern worldview.

The first problem is one of scope. They suggest that if a story claims to be more than just a
local ad hoc account of a communitys experience, the universal story of the world from
beginning to end, then such a narrative claims more than it can possibly know.183 They
maintain that since all knowledge is socially constructed (as they showed in previous
chapters) metanarratives are too, while all the time purporting to be universal. As such,
these overarching stories, blind to their own limitations, promote homogeneity and closure
over difference, heterogeneity, otherness and openness.184 The second problem with
metanarratives as Middleton and Walsh see it is that they are inevitably oppressive and

181 Middleton,Truth,11.
182 Ibid,63.
183 Ibid,70.
184 Ibid.


violent in their false claims to totality.185 This criticism, they say, begins with the modern
imperialist metanarratives and the violence perpetuated in the name of autonomous
progress but also extends to any overarching story that claims to make total claims,
including the Christian narrative in Scripture. So, in the postmodern worldview,
metanarratives are whats wrong and postmodern incredulity is the solution.186

Grenz argues along similar lines that according to postmoderns such as Lyotard,
postmodernity is not just the move from one set of legitimating myths to the next (as
happens throughout history) but the end of the appeal to any central legitimating myth
whatsoever. However, he continues by saying that the postmodern outlook demands an
attack on any claimant to universality it demands, in fact, a war on totality.187

It is worth pausing at this point to take note of the assertions of these authors. Middleton,
Walsh and Grenz all take the term metanarrative to mean a story that is of universal scope
yet socially constructed. Such a story is incapable of properly respecting the diversity and
heterogeneity of the world (let alone the universe) and when these metanarratives are
adopted, they lead to violence toward anyone or anything that does not fit the narrative.
This rejection of overarching narratives is indeed part of what Lyotard meant when he uses
the term metanarrative and in fact his original French phrase grand recit literally meant
big story.188 These authors effectively equate meta-narrative to mega-narrative but
Lyotard meant more than just a big story.189

Smith correctly argues that Lyotard had a very specific meaning of metanarrative.190 Lyotard
believed that the metanarratives of modernity were bankrupt because they lacked the means
to legitimate themselves. As a result, they turned to narrative, while simultaneously

185 Ibid,71.
186 Ibid.
187 Grenz,Primer,45.
188 Lyotard,Postmodern,63.
189 Smith,Postmodernism,64.
190 Smith,Story,128.


claiming narrative knowledge was of no value.191 This problem of legitimation has nothing
do with the metanarratives universal claims or totality as Middleton, Walsh and Grenz

These authors all make the same error in failing to understand the nuance of Lyotards
complaint about metanarratives. Consequently, they setup a dichotomy between Christian
faith and postmodernism. Grenz states it succinctly, because of our faith in Christ, we
cannot totally affirm the central tenet of postmodernism as defined by Lyotard the
rejection of the metanarrative.192 The authors deal with this dichotomy in different ways so
it is best to critique them separately from now on.

Middleton and Walsh offer a reasonable critique of postmodernism (as they understand it)
pointing out its performative contradiction of substituting modern metanarratives with a
metanarrative about the end of metanarratives. They also argue that metanarratives are not
the sole cause of violence since, in the case of the Balkan states for example, it was the
modern metanarrative of Marxism, imposed by the USSR that kept local tribal narratives
from developing into warfare. Once the USSR fell, war soon followed.193

They then set the scene for their discussion of Christianity in postmodernity by asking
whether, the Christian faith, rooted as it is in a metanarrative of cosmic proportions, is
subject to the postmodern charge of totalizing violence.194 They are arguing against
metanarratives because of their scope and the totalizing violence done in their names and as
important as these issues are, they are not what Lyotard, in his Report on Knowledge is
discussing.195 In fairness, the authors do concede that in Lyotards analysis, it is only
modern scientific culture that leads to metanarratives but this admission (in an endnote at

191 Lyotard,Postmodern,29.
192 Grenz,Primer,164.
193 Middleton,Truth,77.
194 Ibid,83.
195 Smith,Story,126.


the back of their book) means they are describing a form of postmodernism, similar to but
developed on from Lyotards. They fail to explain why they choose to do this or whose
version of incredulity toward metanarratives they are answering.196

Because of this, their defence of Christianity in postmodern times aims to show that the
Christian metanarrative works ultimately against totalization i.e. does not cause the
violence and totalizing problems that they attribute to metanarratives. Their argument is
that the Christian narrative in Scripture contains two antitotalizing factors: a radical
sensitivity to suffering and Gods overarching creational intent.197 A story, they argue,
which is saturated in the suffering of its heroes (from The Exodus to The Cross) cannot
legitimate the suffering of others, nor can the story of one all-powerful deity over all creation
be employed to legitimate any narrow or local partisan end.198

If one accepts the view of postmodernism presented by Middleton and Walsh, it is still
difficult to agree with their assessment of Christianity since throughout history (albeit
mainly modern history) the Christian story has been used for both of these purposes. From
South African Apartheid to the defence of modern-day Israel over and against the
Palestinian people, the narrative from Scripture has been employed by some to justify
suffering and partisan goals. Even if the wider Christian community rejects these readings
as flawed, the fact remains that the apparent safeguards Middleton and Walsh suppose the
Bible contains have not prevented some from inflicting violence and terror on others.

By contrast, Grenz argues that, contrary to Lyotard, Christians claim that there is a single
grand narrative encompassing all people and that they know what it is. It is Gods action in
history for the salvation of fallen humankind, a story that focuses on Jesus of Nazareth.199
Grenz acknowledges the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment projects search for

196 Middleton,Truth,214n32.
197 Ibid,87.
198 Ibid.
199 Grenz,Primer,164.


absolute truth through natural reason but sidesteps this by saying that Ultimately the
metanarrative we [Christians} proclaim lies beyond the pale of reason. He goes on to argue
that while in postmodernism reason is no longer held as a transcendent metalanguage for
discerning truth, the Christian belief in the Word becoming flesh can provide this criteria for
discerning the truth of the Christian narrative and elevating it above all others.200 This
however is wholly compatible with Lyotards views since Grenz is suggesting Christians
legitimate their narrative by an appeal to faith not reason. In other words, the narrative of
Scripture is self-legitimating. Inadvertently and as a response to Lyotard, Grenz has
proposed a form of Christianity that is as postmodern as any of Lyotards own ideas.201

Grenz is not totally dismissive of postmodernism, in fact like Smith he wishes to salvage
what he can from the philosophy if it may be used to glorify God. He suggests that
Christians may welcome Lyotards arguments when applied to science but stop short of
applying his theory to reality as a whole.202 Smith however, finds this unacceptable
describing it as trying to have our cake and eat it too. He argues that to apply
postmodernism to science but not to Christianity, because Christians believe the latter, is to
beg the question.203 This somewhat contradicts his Egyptian gold metaphor explained
above but he is correct to require consistency in the Christian approach to postmodernism
and not to allow believers to just apply the theories when it suits them.

However, Grenz does note some important observations of postmodern thinkers that fit well
with Christian doctrine and he agrees with Smith that the Church has, in some ways,
become too modern. Grenz argues for example that the certainty of knowledge and its
criteria for certainty based in human rationality is both rejected by postmoderns and by
Christian doctrine that affirms some knowledge lies beyond reason. Furthermore, Grenz
argues Christians should affirm the knowledge is not objective and dispassionate but a

200 Ibid,165.
201 Lyotard,Postmodernism,20.
202 Grenz,Primer,164.
203 Smith,Story,128.


product of ones historical and cultural context and finally that not all knowledge is good
and progress is not inevitable. In each case, the postmodern insight is in keeping with
Christian beliefs about the limits of fallen humans and the noetic effects of sin.204

Grenz however, is too quick to concede the game to postmodernism. He acknowledges that
Evangelical Christians have developed solid modern arguments to defend their faith against
secularism in modernity, yet he is willing to give all this up because it belongs to a now
apparently defunct worldview.205 In his attempt to employ postmodern thought to score
points against those who critique Christianity with modern science, he inadvertently
surrenders some of the great weapons for Christian apologetics, since they too are based in
reason. Furthermore, he does so because of his misunderstanding of what Lyotard meant by

All three authors take postmodernism beyond what Lyotard describes and focus too much
on the social issues and violence produced by metanarratives. While Middleton and Walsh
argue unsuccessfully that Christianity has built-in protection against its use as an instrument
of terror, Grenz unknowingly adopts a somewhat postmodern Christian perspective with
which Lyotard would probably have no problem. In doing so, however, he is too quick to
jettison much of the great work done by modern apologists that allow Christianity to
compete well with the scientific worldview in public debate. In attempting to pull the rug
out from under the feet of his opponents, he fails to see that a great Christian army of
apologists are also standing on that rug and they too tumble to the ground.

The Christian perspective of the authors discussed so far could fairly be described as
acceptance (Smith) and accommodation (Middleton, Walsh and Grenz). From early in his

204 Grenz,Primer,167.
205 Ibid,161.


book, Groothuis makes clear that for him, both these approaches are deeply problematic.206
Groothuis sees two major errors made by those attempting to adopt postmodern ways into
Christianity: the rejection of the propositional emphasis on scripture and the replacement of
more abstract and conceptual lines in theology with a focus on narrative.

Groothuis begins his argument with a defence of what he calls propositional revelation,
(which he claims is central to Evangelicalism) and an inerrant view of Scripture, to which he
subscribes. Even though Scripture contains many genres, Groothuis maintains that all of
scripture can be expressed in propositional truth claims.207 He argues that the Biblical
revelations were given to people in various communities, not socially constructed by those
communities. Essentially he says that whenever postmoderns promote their incredulity
toward metanarratives, deconstruct into language games or celebrate subjective pluralism,
Evangelicals should bring objective truth back to the table.208

Naturally, this flies in the face of postmodern thinking with its emphasis on narrative.
Smith argues that too many Christians have reduced Christianity to the modernist
verbalisation of modernist facts.209 He decries the statements of faith that reduce Scripture
to that which can easily be encoded in propositions, while Gods revelation was in the form
of narrative. He argues that narrative is a rounded form of communication, activating the
imagination and involving the whole person.210 However, it is curious that Smith should
deride statements of faith (or creeds) as a trait of modernism; the Apostles Creed and
Nycene Creed probably derive from the Old Roman Creed, a statement of faith for
baptismal confession in the Roman Church, circa 100 AD.211 The act of compiling
propositional statements of faith could therefore predate even the canonisation of Scripture,
so can hardly be deemed a product of modernity.

206 Groothuis,Truth,111.
207 Ibid,113.
208 Ibid,115.
209 Smith,Postmodernism,74.
210 Ibid,75.
211 Badcock,History,2.


This point aside, postmoderns like Smith do help the Church recapture the narrative beauty
of Scripture that may have been lost due to the influence of modernism. For example, is
God glorified more by a sermon on the science of how Jonah may have survived inside a
fish for three days (Jonah 1:17) or a sermon on the symbolism of the fish, Jonahs prayers
and his transformation during his journey to Nineveh?212 Groothuis argues that the oracles
of revelation must be true since they are from God but truth can be presented in many
forms and even disguised in parable, allegory and poetry. The process of finding the truth
in such genres of literature is not as straightforward as Groothuis may suggest.213

One of Groothuiss key arguments against postmodern adoption by theologians is his

defence of reason. Authors such as McGrath and Grenz have argued that one should not
expect revelation to be logically consistent, deeming such rationality as a mere holdover
from the Enlightenment and therefore too modern.214 Groothuis however argues that logical
consistency is a basic fact of intelligible discourse and he goes as far as saying humans
cannot believe contradictory things.215 His defence of this bold assertion is two-fold: firstly
that if the law of contradiction is not universal then God cannot be distinguished from nonGod and secondly, that The Word became flash (John 1:3) speaks to the intelligibility and
rationality of the pre-incarnate Christ as the Logos. He argues that logic flows from the
being of God and is intrinsic to our created natures and cognitive structures.216

To Groothuis, logic and rationality are not just social constructions but are an essential part
of Gods character and hence humans made in his image. Furthermore, to give up
rationality would make it impossible to distinguish between true and false revelation or to
show the falsity of other belief systems. Finally, not to subject Christianity to logical

212 Zimmerman,Problems,582.
213 Groothuis,Truth,116.
214 McGrath,Passion,170.
215 Groothuis,Truth,121.
216 Ibid,124.


consistency would fuel the charge that Christianity is illogical and anti-intellectual.217 The
first of these points is a valid defeater to the employment of postmodernism in theology,
establishing a legitimation mechanism for reason that elevates it to the position of a valid
metalanguage for discerning absolute truth. The latter two points are more concerned with
defending Christianity to modern thinkers as in postmodernism, distinguishing between
incommensurable games makes no sense whether these games be rival theistic beliefs or
reason and logic.

When it comes specifically to Lyotard and metanarratives, Groothuis quotes from Terry
Eagleton who correctly identifies postmodernism as the end of metanarratives whose
secretly terrorist function was to round and legitimate the illusion of a universal human
history heralding postmodernity with a plurality of language games that do not seek to
legitimate themselves.218 Groothuis argues that while the error of modernity was to depend
solely on human reason to the exclusion of divine revelation, postmodernity errs in
abandoning metanarratives and adopting relativism. In this, Groothuis agrees with
Eagleton that Lyotards postmodernism does not allow one to condemn social injustice as
objectively evil.219 Because each narrative is legitimated by the pragmatics of its own
transmission, there is no place for argument or proof. This is true for modernism but also
Marxism and Nazism and this inability to critique clearly unjust ideologies is, according to
Groothuis, the result of the postmodern abandonment of universal rationality.

Groothuis also describes how he believes apologetics should be conducted in a postmodern

age. He starts by noting that Scripture makes a distinction between the proclamation,
defence and communal manifestation of the Gospel. He believes that postmodern thinkers
like Smith, absorb defence into the roles of proclamation and manifestation. Along with
Bruce, Groothuis argues that Peter and Paul both describe defence as a distinct activity that

217 Ibid,125.
218 Eagleton,Awakening,195ascitedbyGroothuis,Truth,129.
219 Groothuis,Truth,130.


later led to the age of the apologists in the second century.220 With this in mind, he sets out a
few ways to uncompromisingly defend Christianity in a postmodern world.

The first part of his approach is to demonstrate that with respect to ethics and meaning in
life, [postmodernism] reduces to nihilism.221 This is a negative apologetic whereby one
points out the loss that accompanies incredulity toward metanarratives; the universe is
replaced by a plura-verse, which resists comprehension and cohesion and offers only
chaos.222 He says Christians should seize on the dizzying meaninglessness of
postmodernism and name it for what it is nihilism ultimately unliveable.223 Groothuis
argues that the human conditions demands that people praise the good, condemn the evil
and seek value in human activities and argues that Christianity best explains this since
meaning-seeking humans are made in the image of a meaningful God.224 This apologetic
approach was popular in modern times with people like Schaeffer, for countering
existentialism and Groothuis is right to point out its continued use in a new age where
meaning and purpose are still considered illusory, yet most fail or refuse to see this as the

Next, Groothuis argues in favour of foundationalism (as did Shalkwyk above) on the basis
that certain beliefs simply are not cultural but universal. He argues that there are essential
truths of logic necessary for intelligible thought and rational discourse and that there are
basic forms of reasoning which are non-negotiable.225 That these truths are necessary is
affirmed by Arthur Holmes who states that Good logic is one of Gods good gifts, and it is
essential to thinking in this and any world.226 This is not just based on faith, Groothuis
demonstrates that reasoning such as modus ponens and modus tolens are employed by people

220 Ibid,163.
221 Ibid,168.
222 Ibid,169.
223 Ibid,170.
224 Ibid,172.
225 Ibid,177.
226 Holmes,Contours,131.


of all cultures and always have been, regardless of their historical context.227 Lyotard may
counter this belief by suggesting that these moves that some call reasoning may well be
paralleled by similar moves in other games but this does not make them universal.228
However, Groothuis convincingly demonstrates that it is difficult to conceive even of human
survival without these basic forms of reasoning, so he is right to consider them at least
universal to and necessary within human experience.

Because of this foundation of logic and reason, Groothuis believes that Christianity is public
truth available to anyone who looks at the evidence and follows the arguments, as Paul
demonstrated on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31). Groothuis argues that Pauls defence of
Christianity does not involve an appeal for his hearers to adopt a new language game or any
of the techniques employed by Christians who adopt postmodern thinking. Paul simply
argues in a way that people from a completely different culture could understand, using
basic universal reason and evidence.229

Groothuiss apologetic amounts to a cumulative case argument where he believe it can be

argued that Christianity is the best explanation for a wide range of facts about the universe,
humans and history.230 He then lists nine aspects of this case which include the logical
inconsistency and existential inadequacy of postmodernism, classic arguments like the
cosmological and moral arguments, correspondence between Christianity and the human
experience and historical evidence for the identify and resurrection of Jesus. He concludes
that there is a wealth of solid apologetic resources produced by Evangelicals during
modern times that Christian intellectuals intoxicated by postmodernism would be ready to
throw out and he argues this should not be.231

227 Groothuis,Truth,177.
228 Lyotard,Postmodernism,10.
229 Groothuis,Truth,179.
230 Ibid.
231 Ibid,183.


Groothuis is uncompromising in his firm stance against postmodernism. He fails, for

example, even to acknowledge the insights of postmodern thought such as the renewed
emphasis on narrative and the value this brings to Bible study and communal reading of
Scripture. His insistence on Biblical inerrancy and propositional revelation is exactly the
sort of certainty in a matter of faith that postmodern Christians deride. Also, though he
argues from human experience, some of his foundationalism is rooted in beliefs from
Scripture, in other words it is rooted in faith. Here again we find a form of legitimation that
Lyotard would not oppose; he would happily agree with Groothuis that, in a Christian
language game reason has legitimation but cannot pronounce on moves by players of other
games e.g. Muslims, Hindus or postmodern agnostics.

That said, Groothuis produces a strong cumulative case for Christianity, defends this
method using examples from Christian history and includes critiques of other worldviews
from both secular and Christian perspectives. While others quiver, Groothuis stands strong
in his faith, looking to Scripture for inspiration and examples of how to do cross-cultural
mission, a mission that he believes faces the same challenges today as it did in New
Testament times. As such, he encourages apologetics to work the same way as Paul did but
with all the added benefits of arguments and evidence gathered in the modern era.

Groothuis principles that certain levels of communication and logic are common to all
humans is not only attested to by the stories of Paul but also in that other great example of
apologetics, the clash between Moses and Pharaoh. This whole confrontation is repeatedly
attributed to Yahwehs desire that The Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD and to
show his superiority to Pharaoh, Yahweh enables Moses and Aaron to perform various
miracles. Many of these could be replicated by Pharaohs sorcerers but eventually they
conceded the works must be done by the finger of God (Exodus 8:19). Despite believing in
very different theologies and incompatible worldviews, Moses and Pharaoh were quite
capable of engaging in dialogue through the language of miracle working. Pharaoh did not
refuse Israels release because he didnt understand their belief; he understood only too well


that Yahweh was a threat to his claim to divinity and authority. This along with many other
examples in Scripture, show that the Christian (and Jewish) faith is quite capable of being
defended in ways in which people of all cultures can understand.

To summarise these Christian perspectives, Smith believes in accepting most if not all of
what Lyotard describes as postmodernism. He understands what Lyotard meant by
metanarratives and believes that there is much to be appreciated about postmodernism. He
appears to believe that postmodernism is almost identical to pre-modernism and therefore
closer to the philosophy of the Biblical authors. He is happy to Spoil the Egyptians but fails
to adequately support his thesis with examples from Scripture, perhaps because Scripture
doesnt see the world as a competition between incommensurable language games but as a
battle between good and evil, sin and grace, God and Satan.

Middleton, Walsh and Grenz all read their own understandings of metanarratives into
Lyotards work. They are not prepared to see a metanarrative in the narrow sense that
Lyotard defines it and therefore dont find the same fault with metanarratives that he does.
Their arguments are against totalitarianism not false claims to legitimation and their
solutions are largely irrelevant to the problem that Lyotard outlines. Finally, Groothuis,
who is perhaps the most Biblical in his defence, argues for foundationalism and strong
negative and positive apologetics based on basic logic and reason, which he convincingly
argues is common to all.

In some ways, the challenge of postmodernism is nothing new. Christians observe a new
philosophy, critique it and form various opinions on whether or not to adopt any of its
insights. What is new however, is that postmodernism heralds the end of dominant,
overarching modern narratives as it attempts to levels the playing field, reducing all
previous philosophies to a mere plurality of local and temporal myths. One of


postmodernisms greatest promoters, Lyotard, describes how this situation came about and
how he thinks it will lead to a better future than that offered by modernism.

In his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report On Knowledge, Lyotard describes the crisis of
legitimation facing all metanarratives that attempt to legitimise themselves through an
appeal to universal reason. Chief among these is science, though it also includes many
metanarratives with a much more social focus. To Lyotard, these are just stories that
attempt to legitimate their single, homogenous account of humanity through reason. They
do this, he supposes, in order to justify the oppression of opponents and he appears to
welcome the downfall of metanarratives in postmodernity.

Lyotard takes Wittgensteins language game theory far beyond its original scope and applies
it to all of life, without fully justifying his decision to do so. As noted previously, he also
claims that, by his reckoning, science has lost its legitimation but fails to address the issue of
its legitimation by performativity as scientific discoveries are welcomed and adopted by
society in new technologies, medicine, engineering and many other disciplines. Science is
therefore somewhat legitimated simply because its discoveries lead to innovations that

As a worldview, Lyotards postmodernism performs quite poorly. It is logically inconsistent

in a variety of ways that mean it approaches the realm of the anti-intellectual. Even Lyotard
admits that he is telling the metanarrative of the end of metanarratives yet for him this is not
a problem. He attempts to verify his philosophy by pointing to examples in contemporary
physics where classical modern approaches yield inconsistent results and therefore where
his postmodern science is apparently emerging as the suitable replacement. Scientists like
Spurrett deliver a devastating blow to Lyotards whole thesis with their critique of his
amateurish uses of science. Where Lyotard sees the failure of modern physics, Shalkwyk
shows that physicists simply adapt their methods and expectations to meet the new
challenges in new areas of discovery, producing very successful theories that are widely


accepted. Far from being local narratives with their own rules, these new methods are
almost universally adopted.

In attempting to justify his thesis with science, Lyotard has in fact proposed a God of the
gaps type argument. In this case it is the less catchy, Postmodern Science of the gaps
argument but essentially the fallacy is the same. Lyotard looks for areas of science that
appear to play by different rules, where deterministic description of the entire system is
unattainable or about which scientists are somewhat ignorant and claims that these verify
his postmodern scientific approach. Spurrett points out that while complete determinism
(the modern goal) of for example a subatomic system is indeed problematic, probabilistic
determinism is not. This latter approach has been well tested and is treated as scientific fact
just as Newtonian physics was in the modern era. This is not so much a new local science
game with new rules, but more like a new level to the old game with universal rules specific
to certain particles. There are always areas of science that defy current explanation but to
posit a postmodern method for finding an explanation is as fallacious as posing a God of
the Gaps explanation. History strongly suggests that science will find a natural,
deterministic explanation sooner or later and once proven, the new explanation will become
universally accepted as a new rule in the global science game. Spurrett also rightly
questions Lyotards assumption that science needs its metanarratives to be legitimate. He
notes various ways in which metanarratives may be useful to science but sees them as
ultimately dispensable, completely undermining the problem Lyotard was addressing.

One example of where Lyotards postmodern view of science has been adopted is in the
more recent works of Stephen Hawking. His model-dependent reality has a lot in common
with Lyotards views except that Hawkings philosophy still retains the belief in an objective

Hawkings book is a popular level work written for the purpose of ridiculing the

positing of God, not just in physics but also in metaphysics. To avoid the more difficult
metaphysical questions posed by theology and philosophy however, Hawking pronounces
philosophy dead and attempts to construct his own philosophy of science employing


various postmodern traits. Critics are quick to point out that his theories are neither as
ground-breaking or as sound as he would like and are deeply suspicious of his reasons for
adopting postmodern thought, supposing he simply does so to avoid the more challenging
questions posed by those better trained to deal with the big questions of metaphysics.

Shalkwyk argued against the extreme scepticism of Lyotard, suggesting that certain
propositions are simply beyond reason and therefore beyond doubt. Proper basic beliefs are
firm enough foundations on which to build and, he argues, certain forms of logic are
universal. So, science never needed to be legitimised by narrative and loses nothing if those
narratives are discarded. Science would have done fine and will do fine without resorting to
metanarratives. Shalkwyk also argued that Lyotard commits the genetic fallacy by focusing
too much on the social nature of science and not on the truth of its socially constructed
theories. Even if a theory is produced as a result of various social processes and games that
does not, by itself, mean the theory is false.

When it comes to Christian perspectives, there is a wide range to choose from. Smiths near
hatred for modernity (especially its religious expression in fundamentalism) means he
welcomes postmodernity with open arms. He appears to see postmodernity as a return to
pre-modernity and his fanaticism leaves him unable to fully appreciate the subtleties and
real consequences of this new philosophy. The biggest of these is relativism to which
neither Smith nor Lyotard provide an adequate answer.

Other authors fail to understand what Lyotard meant by metanarrative, believing his gripe
to be with any big story simply for being a big overarching story. Incredulity toward these
stories may in fact be a trait of postmodern Western society but this is not how Lyotard saw
it or what he was addressing. For Lyotard, the problem was with the legitimation of
knowledge and any social consequences that flowed from that knowledge were largely
beyond the scope of his report.


Others like Groothuis show an understandable apprehension toward postmodernism and

refuse to adapt or accommodate to it at all. Groothuis believes there is a greater danger in
abandoning reason and feels there are good grounds (both philosophical and theological)
for holding on to reason and all the apologetic arguments developed during modernity. He
believes that a convincing cumulative case can be given in the defence of Christianity that
not only defends the truth claims of the faith but also the use of reason in defending thee
claims. Interestingly, it may be that in Lyotards postmodern world, both scientific and
religious institutions may need to employ apologists for their respective causes and both
may begin by defending reason as key to their arguments.

Grenz and Smith both point out some of the areas in which postmodernism has illuminated
the shortcomings and exaggerated claims of modernity. Many of these resonate well with
Christian theology and Christians should not be afraid to acknowledge these insights. This
is less a case of Spoiling the Egyptians with all the inherent dangers that brings, and more
like a wake-up call as a modern Church that can re-examine itself and correct its previous
errors in accommodating to the philosophy of the modern era.

In conclusion, postmodernism with its attacks on science, the great foe of Christianity in
modernity may look like a tempting opportunity for Christian and especially apologists.
But as with the fruit in the Garden of Eden, partaking of it will cost man dearly. Christians
have more to gain by defending reason and arguing for their faith by employing reason,
than if they adopt the postmodern thought of Lyotard. In the postmodern plura-verse, there
is nothing that allows Christianity to standout, no unique selling point, and it becomes just
another story competing for acceptance. Furthermore, with Lyotards plurality of
incommensurable language games, Christians are not just prevented from arguing over
truth but also arguing for justice, as there would be no appropriate discourse for
pronouncing judgement or issues of morality when each person or culture plays by the rules
of their own game.


Lyotard tries to sweeten the pill of postmodernism by optimistically forecasting a better

future for science and humanity, once his philosophy is adopted. But many are sceptical of
his motivations for attacking science and promoting a philosophy of relativism that has clear
political consequences. Hawking too is suspected of adopting postmodern-like philosophy
in his science as part of an ulterior motive. In his case, it is the promotion of his pro-science
and anti-religion agenda. To couple with these forces would be as big a mistake for the
Church as its accommodation to modernism in the previous centuries. If it is to effectively
communicate the message of the Gospel, the Church must be sensitive to changes in society
(social, economic, political and philosophical) and adapt the message to challenge society
appropriately. The challenge for the Church is to defend to a postmodern audience without
itself becoming postmodern.

Paul was able to empathise with many people groups in order that some might be saved. In
1 Corinthians 9:21-22 he writes:
To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not
under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I
became like one not having the law (though I am not free from Gods law but am
under Christs law), so as to win those not having the law.

His example here is one to follow today; Christians should try to understand people in
postmodernity and share the Gospel appropriately with them without ever letting go of who
they are, Christians made in the image of a rational God, who hold to the objective truth of
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