Truth and Postmodernism
Truth is difficult, if not impossible, to fathom fully. And yet truth seems so basic to life. In the book, Postmodern and Wesleyan?, which I edited with my colleagues, Jay Akkerman and Brent Peterson, I try to address what we might want to say about Truth in a postmodern world. I write in an accessible way so that a wide audience might engage the conversation. Let me know what you think…
Is that the Truth?
Postmodernism rejects truth.
At least that’s what many Christians think. Type “Christian,” “truth,” and “postmodern” into an internet search engine, and you’ll find plenty of Christian apologists saying that postmodernism eradicates truth.
Apologists typically react to postmodernism by declaring that God is truth. They quote the biblical passage saying that Jesus is the truth. Or they contrast postmodernism with Biblical Truth (capital letters required).
But does postmodernism require rejecting truth?
A variety of postmodern traditions exist. So answering this question well is difficult.
The Loss of Certainty
The story of truth in the postmodern traditions begins with a modernist: Rene Descartes. Descartes discovered that our five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste, sound – cannot give absolute certain knowledge about the world.
We all make mistakes. These mistakes often occur because of faulty sense perception. We think we see water on the roadway, for instance, but it turns out an optical illusion. We think we hear our name being called, but our hearing is impaired. We think we’re tasting beef, but it turns out to be deer. Our senses are not foolproof.
Descartes comes to believe that we cannot know with absolutely certainty the truth about objects beyond ourselves. Certainty cannot be attained through sense perception.
It’s hard to overestimate the impact of this loss of absolute certainty about what we can know through our senses. So much of what we consider true comes from sensory perception. And yet we have to admit that our senses are not 100% accurate.
One modern response to Descartes is to say that language gives us certain foundation for knowledge. We can be certain about verbal statements that are logically coherent with one another. Various statements – often called “propositions” – claim to faithfully mirror reality or describe reality that cannot be perceived through our senses..
Some Christians jump on the bandwagon that propositions provide absolute certainty. We can have absolute certainty about reality, they say, if the dogmatic propositions we affirm rest on a certain and sure foundation.
The foundation many modern Christians adopt is the Bible. They assume that God inspired the writing of the Bible in such a way as to produce it error-free. These Christians insist that biblical inerrancy and infallibility guarantee the Bible as a certain foundation for knowledge. Such deduction defends Christianity from both infidels and modern critics.
Sadly, the modern project of biblical inerrancy collapses on itself. A close reading of the text reveals numerous inconsistencies. And the oldest manuscripts from which our Bibles come differ. Those who cling to the idea of an inerrant Bible must invent wild interpretations to reconcile these inconsistencies. Or they offer the worthless claim that the biblical autographs – which no longer exist – are inerrant. And when history, science, or literature contradicts the Bible, inerrantists are forced to reject this knowledge. They claim that the Bible is THE book of all truth. It is the authority concerning all things religious but also all things economic, civic, historic, and scientific.
If our perceptions about the world cannot provide us with absolute certainty, if language cannot give certainty, and if the Bible is not a certain foundation, on what basis can we speak of truth at all?
Extreme relativists – including some who adopt the label “postmodernist” – believe we cannot be confident that some statements about reality are truer than others. The truth of any statement – e.g., the sun is hot – is ultimately up to the individual or is socially constructed. Extreme relativism says that truth is whatever any person or group decides.
Extreme relativism has many problems. These problems lead other postmodernists to reject the idea that truth is completely dependent upon the individual or the group.
The first problem is that extreme relativism is inconsistent with itself. After all, extreme relativism says it is true that there is no ultimate truth. And yet extreme relativists sound like they intend this claim to be ultimately true even if some people choose not to believe it.
The second problem with extreme relativism, say some postmodernists, is that it cannot be consistently lived. We all presuppose that some statements about the world are truer than others. The way we live reveals this presupposition. Our friendships, our court system, our agricultural practices, our marriage arrangements, etc., all presuppose that some views are truer than others. We don’t have to know all truth to know this.
Finally, extreme relativism flies in the face of a number of central Christian claims about the superiority and enhanced value of living a life of love. Even if Christians cannot know reality in its fullness, the Christian message seems based upon the view that some ways of living are better than others. And some statements about reality are truer.
Humility and Conviction
Postmodern Christians can live faithfully between the absence of absolute certainty and the abyss of extreme relativism. This middle ground promotes both humility and conviction.
Postmodernists reject the idea that we can know with absolute certainty the full truth about reality. Absolute certainty requires inerrant sense perception. It requires a set of inerrant ideas. Or it requires inerrant interpretation of an inerrant source. Such inerrancy does not exist.
This lack of absolute certainty about the full truth of reality, however, is not bad news for Christians. After all, faith resides at the heart of the Christian message. Christians are believers not proposition defenders.
Faith is different from absolute certainty. But it’s different from absolute mystery too. Faith need not be blind or unreasonable.
To believe is not to reject reason or evidence altogether. One can affirm a degree of confidence in the greater plausibility of statements, ways of living, or perceptions. And this greater confidence can foster reasonable conviction. Faith can be grounded.
A number of postmodernists affirm that what we regard as true extends well beyond verbal statements. Truth also has a livable, embodied element. It has an aesthetic element too. Truth is personal, communal, and even cosmic. Truth is multi-faceted.
Postmodernists recognize that we cannot comprehend truth entirely. We see through a glass darkly. And this inability to be absolutely certain or to know reality fully should lead us to humility.
Pride still comes before a fall. But pride emerges not only when we retain full control of our lives. We can also sin through pride by thinking we have full and certain knowledge. We forget that the just live by faith. Postmodernism can foster the virtue of humble living.
In sum, postmodernists need not reject truth. But postmodernism reminds us that “we know in part.” Christian convictions embraced in humility can help us live abundant life in our emerging world.