I posted this as a comment elsewhere, but thought it might be an interesting read...now it was not written as a research piece, and while I was stupid tired, but I think it may be helpful in understanding the times in which we live...
The question was asked about whether in all our discussions and debates about Postmodernism and ministry, are people really asking the philosophical questions today or are these merely intramural debates which are perhaps distracting from the main issues folk are wrestling with.
I think your are right about the questions people are asking...I would call these more existential longings than first or second order in philosophy. I love Ravi's deal here - we reach in through existential longings, through use of culture, to bring truth to bear, and the gospel on the conscience. Then I would add, let God save his sheep...
A few thoughts...Postmodernism is brought into the discussion for a very, very long winded reason. In the Western tradition postmodernism was not a random occurrence, it flows consistently out of a long history of ideas with which we have wrestled.
The ancients and medievals wrestled mainly with issues related to what you are calling first order. Namely, there was a deep concern of knowing reality as it is and adapting ones life to it accordingly. If we knew what, or more accurately WHO is, we could arrive at wisdom and live rightly amidst our existential struggles. Plato rightly knew there was a world "out there" which was beyond the sights and sounds we perceived. He sought an answer in absolute forms, realities of which all of life is but a shadow. Philosophy was then to be used to uncover our innate knowledge of these forms be they the archetypes of all things, ethical truths, the "good" etc. This was his first order pursuit, his metaphysical interests. His way of knowing (2nd order to use your language), was through the recollection of innate ideas. His problem was that his forms were a bit groundless. So his top pupil pretty much called him an idiot, yet still kept his pursuit of reality.
This pupil's method (2nd order/epistemology) was empirical, through observation and many feel Aristotle made a proper shift here, many think he was destined to fail, especially in grounding ethics...he would be revisited later for sure. Aristotle still believed reality was real, objective and knowable by reason. You could know things through the use of good thinking (he rightfully championed logic). So Plato and Aristotle’s 2nd order method, though different, still had the same end - they both cared about Metaphysics, things "out there" "reality" as such.
This thinking continued through the fantastic Christian minds - Augustine rightly grounded Plato - understanding that things as they are, the forms, were much more marvelous. They were to be grounded in the very mind of God - all things were patterned after the ideas of the divine mind. I think he was on to something there. Reformed dudes like Nash champion his epistemology, that all knowledge is grounded by divine light upon the soul - hence the absolute necessity of revelation, but through the light of grace and Word. This tradition is very alive today.
Aquinas pretty much tried to marry everyone - and many, especially certain Catholics (and Norm Geisler) think he brought the house in philosophy. You should read Chesterton about Aquinas – man, he loved the “Dumb Ox”. The Shekinah Glory synthesis where all knowledge is grounded in being (the I AM), and the creature can use logic (given by God who is the Logos) to understand his world, and revelation to teach him the mysteries of the faith…it was on. Many give credit to the rise of the scientific worldview to guys like Aquinas and those like Bacon who followed. However, all this was pretty "certain" stuff. And the skeptics abounded. Sextus Empricus was dug up and his modes of skepticism were used to disbelieve about anything (Sextus thought the schools of Plato and Aristotle were goofy and bound for frustration...his solution was to disbelieve, and be a happy mush, who would tell everyone they are wrong - sound familiar?).
During the early modern period the Scholastics were trying to hit the grand slammer home run and eliminate all doubt and ground all philosophy in indubitable proof - the problem is the ground became something in us, not given to us. The knowledge of WHO IS (1st order) became muddled by wanting certain epistemological proof. So our buddy Rene (sounds like a punk) gave us the cogito, I think therefore I am. It is ironic to me that in doing so the I AM was pushed out of knowing, and “I am” was slowly becoming a terrible replacement. And the downward spiral was on. Man was never to have undoubting certainty about everything - such ground is unachievable and not necessary for knowledge, but who can hold back the hounds.
Of course the conversation continued but the Copernican Shift which led to our situation had not yet come. Hume no doubt, taught us you could doubt everything, causality, your self persisting into tomorrow...we could believe such things, but not know. His goal was to cure many a dogmatists who were certain about their knowledge. One he shook out of sleep was Kant, who moved the locus with force from "Being" to "Knowing" - Kant told us that we could not know things as there are (noumenal world) we could only know how they appear to us (the phenomenal world). He believed that the mind worked the same for everyone and that we all had the same categories for understanding. So we could know things "well enough" to get along fine. The move away from Metaphysics (1st order, what/who is) to only concerns of Epistemology (2nd order, how we know) was about complete. Then the race track is set for PoMo man to emerge (sorry for the pun).
Of course, once we structure knowledge, knowledge was soon taught to be "constructed" by us. Communities, culture, and linguistic groups form our realities - Wittgenstein arrives! Much that has followed has made knowledge trapped in a linguistic games, word games we play to talk to each other within cultures, but pretty much locked out from ultimate reality or saying anything at all about metaphysics - which I agree, people really do care about. Is there God, is God good, what is truth, right and wrong. These things lost ground in the modern world of ideas.
Now, the problem is these dudes were wrong, but the accompanying social and political realities gave them force. Particularly in Europe. A world was almost destroyed by various sides making absolute claims and lobbing boulders, cannon bombs,fire bombs, and almost nukes along side the ideas. So absolutes scare the hell out of Europeans. So here is the predicament. People still have existential struggles, they still long for transcendence and truth, yet are afraid to think there is an answer - for this is scary, for some evil people may use the force of the absolute to kill and rape and plunder.
So there are two types of children of modern philosophy. The brave - ala Nietzsche. The fearful ala the Postmodern retreat. The old "certain" modernists are still with us as well - Dennett, Dawkins, Provine and others...but they do not hold the sway in broad culture today.
The emergent Christian dudes have bought the constructivist story, that truth only lives in narrative communities and linguistic games (of course all of that schmack is self-defeating, but heck I like truth). Bad people are certain, smug, absolutists who need a whipping from Pomo skepticism. Certainly "modernistic" lovers of Cartesian certainty...certain kinds of Christians even. So we need a new kind. Who are pacifistic (there's the fear), environmentalists, reject a bloody cross, a certain and angry God, and a unique savior for all men.
But you are right, most don't give a rip about all this, they just want meaning, purpose, life to connect...And you are right we should start within our story pointed through culture to answers to the questions people have. Creation, fall, redemption (including atonement and rescue from sin, death, and hell) is our story, we should stick to it. Heck the guys who clamor for narrative theology etc, for some goofy reason, want to substitute the current cultural narrative (pomo) which does not answer the longings of the soul.
So we can learn from postmodernism - that arrogance is bad, sin does puff up and lead us to do crazy stuff to each other (mind you all that is in the stinkin Bible). That Truth is a person to be submitted to, loved in being not only in abstract, and walked with on the earth.
I wish more Christians would actually read dudes like Augustine and Aquinas - for their children are more ours than Rorty or Lyotard or Focoult. In the Christian worldview we can have Jesus loves me this I know, and an answer to all our existential struggles as well as truth and science. Why not have it all? God has graciously given us all these things, for our marveling and worship - to glory in him, not ourselves and our epistemology.
But all that to say - the dialogue is fun and the mind is important, but people need God...to love him with heart, soul, mind and strength. To be both think and weep, ponder and have guilt relieved. Our full being exploded and captured by mercy and grace in the old old story. It is, afterall, to quote McLaren, the story we find ourselves in. I just want to ask him to quit editing our story, redacting it with the whorish ideas of spirit of the age.
Brian, please stop...