Chuck Colson’s Response

Introduction: Chuck Colson wrote a column in Christianity Today, to which I responded on this website. He kindly replied, and granted me permission to post his response here. If you would like to dialogue about his article, my response, and his reply, may I suggest you start a thread at,, or I am not planning to reply, although there is much here that strikes me as deserving a response. My hope would be that some of Chuck’s close friends might engage him in dialogue about these matters, or perhaps he and I will have an opportunity to dialogue in person and in private in the future. This interchange at least makes our differences clear, and does so in a cordial way.
To Brian McLaren
From Chuck Colson
February 2004
I’ve just had an opportunity to read fully your interesting response to my column in Christianity Today. I appreciate very much the loving and constructive spirit in which you write, and also your encouraging remarks about my ministry, particularly my work with Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
I must say at the outset that the four points you stated in your opening paragraph as to why you normally wouldn’t try to respond to a piece like mine smack of postmodern despair. We should not say it’s “fruitless to even try to dialogue” or that people can’t understand things and it doesn’t make any difference. In my view misunderstandings matter greatly because there are consequences to ideas. As has been true from the time of the Greeks till today, vigorous healthy debate is vital as all of us search for truth. Our differences – yours and mine – need to be discussed in the service of Truth.
Admittedly, in the religious tradition debate has often been divisive, and therefore I suppose you could say it was dangerous spiritually. On the other hand, I believe in the sovereignty of God, that He uses many of our debates and differences to produce powerfully important movements of His church with an attendant impact upon culture. I think of the Reformation as a case in point. That was certainly a divisive religious debate. It even led to religious wars and in some ways had a very negative impact upon the witness of the Christian church at the time. But look at what has come out of it. The Reformation has produced religious reformation. Until the Reformation nobody read the Bible. Now it is universally and widely read. On the Protestant side in the Reformation, I believe the essence of the gospel was preserved and maintained; and the priesthood of believers has given enormous energy and resurgence to the church. On the Catholic side, as I have discovered in my discussions with ECT, huge progress has been made in the stance of the Catholic Church with respect to church/state questions and in some very significant doctrinal areas. The Reformation has affected the Catholic Church almost as much as the Protestants. So even though we’re divided, which is something all Christians should deplore, we have made huge progress religiously from where the church was before the Reformation.
On the cultural front, the effect of the Reformation has been nothing less than revolutionary. Do not forget that the Protestant work ethic, exported to this country, fueled the great Industrial Revolution. We should all be mindful of and grateful for the Reformation’s impact on politics; the whole doctrine of sphere sovereignty had huge political ramifications, as did the book Lex Rex and its influence on the rule of law. Remember, too, Calvin was a great advocate of a republican form of government.
It is significant as well that because of the Reformation and the vitality of the evangelical movement born in post-Reformation England great spiritual awakenings were birthed in the 18th and 19th centuries. I would dare say that were it not for the Wesley-Wilberforce awakenings, along with the leadership of Edmund Burke, the Jacobeans might have spilled across the English Channel and infested every land as they did France. This would have greatly weakened the church. Instead the precise opposite happened. Out of the Oxford movement in England came the spread of the gospel around the world, particularly in areas not reached before then.
So I do not agree that religious debate, discussions over opinions right and wrong, don’t matter. They do. Profoundly so.
On the matter of Truth, which is going to be central to what perhaps you and I disagree on, I think it is the critical issue of the day. The Greeks examined the issue, of course, as has almost every philosopher of note. Immanuel Kant spent his life thinking about whether truth is knowable and how you can know it. The issue is clear: are the answers to life found by a thinker sitting in a Dutch oven and exclaiming after much reflection, cogito ergo sum, which in some ways led to the rise of a humanist view of the world, unintended though it was? Or is the meaning of life found in Revelation (which I believe is aided by reason)? This is a very fundamental question.
On the subject of Truth, let me say humbly that I consider myself a seeker. Pascal said once that there are only two kinds of people in the world, those who have given up to despair or don’t think, and seekers. I want to stay in the latter. Postmodernists, by the way, are among the former, because, they say it doesn’t matter. Believe me, Brian, it does.
Let me clarify also what I believe can be said about postmodernity and postmodernism which you seem to think people have difficulty understanding. In one way, of course, they do, because vacuums are never easily described. But the fact is that postmodernity is not something to argue about or engage in passionate debate for. Postmodernity simply means that we have emerged, for better or worse, from the modern era and we are in whatever comes after it (which I would submit is largely an intellectual vacuum which leads to nihilism.)
The postmodern era was either ushered in by or reflected by a variety of movements, most of which have their origin in Europe; deconstruction, relativism, subjectivism, and existentialism (not an exhaustive list.) The powerful existential movement in Europe, which then swept the campuses of America in the 60’s, undermined the concept of reason and truth, which was of course central to the Enlightenment project. You could not have deconstructionism and at the same time any transcendent authority, or even guiding force of history. So postmodernity is simply a fact of history. It is an era which marks an end to the modern era. Someone, I’ve forgotten who at the moment, once said that modernity began with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Those are convenient delineation markers and pretty close to the truth, although modernity, I would argue, began to crumble under the assault of the existentialists and deconstructionists in the 60’s.
The issue you and I might have, I think, is not over postmodernity; that’s simply a chronological marking of eras; but rather over postmodernism. What happens when you add the “ism” to an era or any subject for that matter, is that you turn it into an ideology—a set of ideas and pre-suppositions that form a strong view about politics or behavior or life (ideology is the enemy of Revelation). It is not postmodernity I criticize—and particularly because there are some good things about it: in the Enlightenment reason stifled faith; it is postmodernism I object to, which is an attempt to make an ideological formulation out of those elements which contributed to the demise of the modern era.
I don’t have time or space here to delineate for you why I think each of those movements were pernicious, although I think you’ve probably read enough about deconstructionism and existentialism to agree with me if you think it through. To put it in the most shorthand way, relativism and deconstruction and existentialism have to lead to the loss of any transcendent authority. Whenever a society lacks transcendent authority, it is going to be governed by whoever can obtain power – and there will be no restraints upon that person or party. The process is almost inevitable. Even democracies – and remember Franklin said democracy is a good thing if you can keep it – must have some overarching objective standards to support a rule of law; without that it will fall into chaos just like any other governing structure. If postmodernism succeeds in destroying transcendent authority, the inevitable consequences are anarchy and nihilism. But nihilism is a vacuum and all vacuums must be filled; so without the restraint of a higher law a tyrant can always be depended upon to step in to fill the power vacuum; and people always choose order over liberty.
Some postmodernists are quite honest about this. Look at the writings of Stanley Fish – Fish was for a while at least the leading deconstructionist in America. He quite frankly acknowledged that in the absence of truth, all intellectual discourse eventually degenerates into a power struggle. Remember his book, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too, and his stirring defense of the politically correct movement, which in my view stifles academic debate on the campuses. If you stop looking for truth and you stop debating primary questions, that is, the fundamental issues people deal with in life, then whoever occupies the seat of power makes those decisions for us. The utopians may think this is a good thing. They believe the victors (their choice) will be more enlightened and benign than the white oppressors who wrote history and of course were only expressing their view of life, which they imposed upon culture. The utopian myth, which for generations has been the principal enemy of liberty, is based on false premises as Christians who are aware of the Fall know.
I’m sorry if you think I have resorted in my arguments in Christianity Today to hyperbole or that I have dumbed down or simplified the case. It is anything but a simple case, but a 750 word limit imposes constraints; I could only hit the highlights. And my point was, in any event, that postmodernism is imploding because it has no rational basis to defend it. It’s like Schaeffer used to say about modern man: his feet are planted firmly in midair.
You seem to think in your letter that I am attacking Christians who are postmodernists. I hope that’s not so because as a Christian I don’t think I should attack any other Christian. But as one who wants to employ the powers of reason and thinking, I think I have every right to debate and critique them as strenuously as I possibly can. It should all be in good spirit.
I think there may also be some confusion between us in distinguishing between those who are debating the post-modernists, which I do, and those Christians who are trying to reach the postmoderns. I’m sure you realize there’s a huge difference here. I can engage in vigorous debate and should. But if you’re trying to be sensitive to the postmodern mind, you should be loving and caring. You should be presenting our narrative as superior to any other, by letting them experience Jesus (but of course you cannot stop there. Once they know who Christ is you’ve got to lead them to the proposition that Christ is Truth and knowable. I’ll come back to that in a few moments.)
I for one have a lot of sympathy for post moderns. They’re drifting. They don’t even know the questions they’re supposed to be asking let alone the answers. They’ve been anesthetized by a culture which emphasizes pleasure and personal autonomy. A generation raised on channel-surfing has lost the capacity for linear thinking and analytical reasoning.
Let me confess at this point that I have had little experience in trying to win over post-moderns (by that I mean the people who live in this generation and have never known anything other than postmodern thought.) I’ve had experience, however, dealing with and battling postmodernists. I’ve also studied their writings, which I do not think, as you put in your letter, qualify for the phrase “density of postmodern philosophical writing.” It isn’t philosophical at all in the sense of the love of knowledge. It is, in my opinion, stridently ideological, which falls closer to the propaganda side of the fence than the side of reason. Okay, I’ll admit, Christians do the same thing, often unthinkingly, and hurt our cause when they do.
One of the areas in which we differ is the change that post-modern people resent Christians because we are trying to impose some morality on them. They are misguided. Remember that Lincoln in the 1860 campaign was bitterly attacked for attempting to “impose morality.” This is an old canard, probably in one way, going back to the Garden, God was imposing His morality. The serpent’s temptation was that we could figure this out for ourselves and didn’t need it imposed. I take this argument by postmodernists as spurious. (Whoever “wins” in a free political system “imposes” his will. Laws impose on people.)
There is no parallel reality, as you put it, with the rise of Stalin and Hitler. In fact the opposite case could be made. Surely you realize that some of the figures advancing leading postmodernist ideas have been Nazis. I think of course of Heidegger who was a member of the Nazi party (existentialism) and Paul de Man who was a Nazi sympathizer (deconstructionism), and Jacques Derrida who defended Nazi intellectuals. These men, among others, hated the West for its bourgeois capitalism, and saw an opportunity to challenge it first through the Nazi Socialist movement and when that failed, advanced their ideas on American campuses. These are men with an agenda, which includes gaining power for their ideas. Yes, to impose them.
Of course, the postmoderns are right in saying that looking over European history, those who have “a passionate commitment to a system of belief will be most willing not only to die for it but to kill for it.” But is it wrong to die for a noble cause—or to kill in a just war, restraining evil? The Greeks recognized courage as one of the four cardinal virtues – courage to defend justice. Where would we be if people did not have a wholehearted commitment to a system of belief like democracy, freedom, and liberty? We’d still be living under monarchs. The issue isn’t whether you’re willing to die for a particular system of belief – or in some way to kill for it. The problem is whether that system of belief is truth or a lie. In the case of fascism and communism, it was a utopian lie, predicated upon a number of ideas common to postmodernism. So I really think you’ve got that one backwards.
I know what you’re thinking and that is that Christians have used their passionate commitment to their belief system to not only die for it but to kill for it (wrongly, as in the Crusades). That’s true, because we’re fallen as well. But it is far less true than those who have abused their system of belief in non-Christian systems of thought (witness Islamists versus democratic liberals today). A dispassionate look at history bears this out. In the inquisitions, over several centuries, three thousand people were killed. (Moderns think it’s in the millions). That is absolutely horrible, indefensible; an abuse of Christian religious beliefs. But you see, it was an abuse of it, whereas often when people act in pursuit of a lie, that is, fascism or communism, they are acting consistent with their beliefs – a big difference. Remember, too, that in the Crusades, where thousands died and were slaughtered, the aim of the Crusaders was every bit as much political as religious. I am not a student of the Crusades, but I would dare say the political outweighed the religious.
On the other hand, Christianity has advanced the cause of humankind in ways that no other system in history has ever done—not Islam, certainly not communism, fascism, not Freudianism, not pragmatism, not socialism, not utilitarianism or any other “ism.” Just look at the glories of Western civilization—the great art treasures, music, learning, accomplishment, universal reading, education. It’s quite remarkable.
And as for being willing to not only die but kill for our belief system, if Lincoln, who was deeply motivated by his strong faith (informed admittedly by a confused theology) did not pursue the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the slaves, we might still live under slavery today. Yes, hundreds of thousands died, but it was tragically necessary to end evil.
So my only point is that the view that people have of Christians as being oppressors who have done these horrible things through the ages is a result of propaganda and misinformation and a lack of an objective study of history. We ought to be correcting them, not pandering to them. If you really look at the history you cannot support their conclusion. More people died in the name of atheism in the 20th century than had died in all centuries prior to that in any cause. You as a Christian and I as a Christian have to put down this terrible distortion, often promoted by America’s strongly secular cultural elite.
Your seem to worry, as the postmodernists do, that because some bad things have been done in the name of faith, our faith is no different than all the destructive ideologies. If there is no Truth, then that could be correct. But if some of these things are true and some false, and that distinction is made, then of course we take a very different perspective on the world.
I have great trouble with your argument near the end of the text before you get into the seven questions, which seems to frame the debate as between “my concern for the supposed denial of truth in the interest of self-indulgence” and the postmoderns belief that I am involved in “monopolization of truth in the interest of political dominance.” Apparently, you’re partly convinced that is true.
Dear brother, it is false. No one has a monopolization of truth. And the motive, of those of us who consider ourselves seekers of the truth, is surely not political dominance. It is cultural reformation. It is seeking justice, what the Hebrews called shalom, that is, peace and harmony in the community. For heaven’s sake, I of all people have worked for the poor, the marginalized, the suffering, the outcasts, the kids of inmates. Why? Because I’m a Christian, because I’ve seen up close what has happened to some of the most disadvantaged people in our society.
My sole desire is to pursue truth wherever it leads, never allowing it to be colored by partisan agenda or by cultural prejudice. I am a seeker, but being a seeker does not mean that one does not believe there is something to seek. If you read some of my writings, you will see that I believe there is Truth. I don’t know how a Christian could believe otherwise because ultimate reality has to be in God the Creator. But I also believe that this truth can be known through a variety of ways, not just through scripture. I believe we can also make a very compelling argument to the postmodern generation, which is what I am desperately anxious to see us do. I want to see us lovingly approach them (that’s technique or strategy), but then bring them to the point where they have to deal with the question of truth (substance). Schaeffer used to say that this was the issue of our age, and he was absolutely right, talking about “true truth” or “flaming truth.” He talked about the concept of the law of non-contradiction, which postmodernists have seemed to suspend. I shouldn’t say seemed to suspend, they have suspended it. They’ve dispensed with logic, reason and critical thinking.
I gather you also think that my colleagues and I in religious broadcasting would benefit from a “few off the air moments of thoughtful reflection on the word truth.” Perhaps. But, I for one, have spent twenty years thinking about it very deeply, talking with the best scholars I know, reading the best works I could find, both secular and Christian.
By the way, I believe we are winning this debate over the question of truth or ultimate reality or discovering the way things really are. In a number of debates, Stanley Fish has been pushed into a corner, so much so that in the New York Times last year, he answered an inquiring reporter’s question on this subject by saying: okay, there is truth, but it is impossible for human beings to know it. (That’s a paraphrase because I don’t have the article in front of me. It was a piece by Edward Rothstein, I believe, and you can find it, I’m sure, searching the Internet.) The postmodernist when pushed, finds it untenable to argue that there is no ultimate reality, no beginning, no origin, no source of authority. As I’ve noticed it, the postmodernist position is becoming more agnostic. We have a wonderful case that demonstrates that it can be known. I’ve lectured on this and would be happy to have you read or listen to my lectures. I’ve written about it in Being the Body and of course in How Now Shall We Live? This is where we must directly confront postmodernism, take advantage of all the opportunities it gives us – and I recognize there are some of course – to press the ultimate issue.
I have read your seven points in which you deal with the question of truth. I have no problem with point one in which you describe truth as reality, a description of what actually is. Where we get into some difficulty is when you start talking about a human perception of reality. People may think something is true, but of course truth is never determined by what people think. We might, as you put it, tell the truth as we know it and even swear to it. That happens all the time in a court room. What you’re getting there is a human perception of circumstances or something that was witnessed or believed. It is a pursuit of what is true, that is a true account of things that help settle the issues in that trial. That is quite different than Truth or ultimate reality. Truth is truth and all of us are seeking it – however imperfectly we may perceive events. But our perceptions do not make it truth nor does our imperfection negate Truth.
Point three, if I understand it, which I’m not sure I do, I think I agree with, but it has nothing to do with the question of truth, other than you are correct that it ultimately rests in God.
Point four I think says that we’re all seeking, and that sometimes in the process of seeking we make claims that are later proven to be untrue. Trust me, in my own intellectual pursuits, I’ve changed my opinion on things many times when I’ve learned more about them. But you have to be very careful in the way you’re describing your position in point four that you don’t fall into the great philosophical trap of believing that reality is only a mater of what we see, that it has no objective standing on its own, that truth is in the eyes of the beholder, or that the only thing we can possibly know about something is what we see in it. It’s that line of reasoning that caused C.S. Lewis to write The Abolition of Man and particularly the wonderful essay “Men Without Chests.” Two current day Christian philosophers have written on this powerfully. One is Alvin Plantinga, the other Nick Wolterstorff at Yale.
Your point five is whether moral truths change over the years. No they do not. It has always been true that murder is considered evil. We may gain a more advanced understanding of the truth as we seek to discover it and our moral consensus or moral understanding may change, we may become better informed about what is moral with respect to particular issues as the slavery example you use demonstrates. But that doesn’t mean that the underlying truth about human dignity, for example, is changed. On this point, note that in the NIV, in 1 Timothy, Paul describes slave traders in the category with murderers and adulterers and perverts. He also set slaves free. Christians were in the vanguard of that movement. What we were doing was conforming society in a fallen world more closely to what are enduring, unchanging truths.
Certainly we cannot say that God’s revelation changes over the years. The Bible is true yesterday, today and forever. It’s God speaking and it of course is the ultimate source of moral truth.
You and I could agree that we humans imperfectly attempt to formulate our understandings of truth. Perhaps. But this is why I’ve become such a strong advocate of natural law, that is a recognition of what C.S. Lewis called the Tao in Mere Christianity, an understanding all people in all societies and all cultures at all times have shared. We look to the wisdom of the past for guidance, we see what others have discovered and we try to learn from it, that we may order human affairs accordingly. The problem in the postmodern era is that according to all the polls and my anecdotal experience, people believe there is no such thing as moral truth and it is unknowable. Previous generations back in the age of faith and in the age of reason have believed there was truth and that it was the highest goal in life to pursue it. We have abandoned that now, which is why the postmodern era is marked by such despair. Postmodernism has no answers. But that does not change the fact that there is moral truth; post moderns have simply given up trying to find it.
As to point six, I don’t know if you’ve had an opportunity to read my book How Now Shall We Live? Or Jim Sire’s book The Universe Next Door, but these are attempts to expound a Christian worldview, not based on a particular theological system, and certainly not governed by conservative Republican or liberal Democratic politics. How Now Shall We Live? is rooted in scripture and in some cases natural law. I will grant you that many people do not understand even what worldview means let alone what a Christian worldview is, but hopefully we’ve been doing a half decent job of educating them. As you probably know from reading my Christianity Today columns over the years I have gone to great lengths to expound this.
On point seven, you may be right that some people use the word truth and then are closed to further intellectual inquiry. This is tragic. Somebody who thinks he has all of the truth can be both insufferable and dangerous. I suppose people do that, but just because some people abuse a concept, doesn’t mean that the concept is flawed.
Now we come to the question that really matters. How do we approach postmodernism and the postmodern vacuum? My most fervent prayer is that Christians will lovingly and gently give a reason for the hope which is within us and that we will rescue reason. In throwing out modernity, the postmodern era has gone to an excess. The pendulum always swings too far to one side or the other. It has abandoned reason. (Admittedly reason was once the enemy of the faith, but I don’t think it need be.) My ultimate authority is in the scripture, but analytical, critical thinking (reason) enables me to decide how scripture applies to life. It enables me to be discerning about false values. If I only knew what was in the scripture, I couldn’t possibly understand what’s wrong with many other propositions being advanced in general discourse. I believe Christianity is the ally of reason.
If we’re able to make a good, well reasoned case, and if people like you who are working with the postmoderns can show them love and a sensitivity to their need for a narrative and understanding but eventually lead them to the issue of truth, then there is a very good prospect that something good will come out of what I believe to be the emerging crack-up of postmodernity. It will not be a return to the age of faith, which to me seems impossible in a culture that has gone so far from its religious roots. Nor will it be a resurrection of the modern era, resting on reason and science. I think it could very well be a combination of both: a faith that is reasonable. I think 9-11 has moved us dramatically in this direction.
I saw something the other day that brings this hope to me. Louise Slaughter, a congresswoman from New York, was talking about how important it was that President Bush’s request for increased funding for the National Endowment of the Arts be enacted. (That’s one Bush initiative I’m not happy with, believing as I do that funding should be private and municipal perhaps, but not federal.) What Slaughter said is, “There’s nothing in the world that helps economic development more than arts programs…it was foolish for Congress to choke them and starve them. We should cherish the people who can tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we hope to go.” What this tells me is that people are still asking the same questions the Greeks asked. They’re still looking for ultimate meaning, still looking for first principles. They’re still plagued by the questions that exist within us because the Imago Dei is within us. The problem is that you are not going to find that answer in the art world. I think we really have a much better answer if we have the opportunity to explain this to her. And that, dear brother, is what my column was all about.
I do have concern that we are promoting in our churches “an image and emotion-driven message” when of course what we ought to be advancing revealed propositional truth. This generation has been largely raised on images. That’s one reason why postmodern people find the narrative so attractive. Now I recognize that we may use techniques, even some I don’t like, to get the attention of the postmodern. But we can’t assume their basic presuppositions. We’ve got to be guided by ours and lovingly and gently lead them to understand ours. Admittedly, this is very difficult because they have been deeply culturally ingrained and their natural capacities for reason and analysis impaired. But I refuse to submit to despair. I want us to press on. I want the church, for all her flaws, to clean herself up and be the bride of Christ, and I want us vigorously and lovingly defending truth.
This is a longer reply than I intended. I will ask apologies in advance for a bit of sloppiness, but this is largely stream of consciousness dictation. While I could spend the time to tighten up these arguments, I don’t have it. So imperfect though the presentation may be, the convictions are sincerely and deeply held. God bless you, brother.