Truth and Postmodernism

November 19th, 2009 / 17 Comments

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.


Extreme Relativism

            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.

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Andrew Flescher

Very nice job elucidating the humility of the so hard to define “postmodern” movement. As you suggest, postmodernism is consistent rather than antithetical to religious worldviews if it is seen as a “hermeneutic of suspicion” in search of adding to the growing base of what we know (in this world). Nice job, as well, distancing the pursuit of religious knowledge from the accumulation of dogma.

Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks, Andy. I agree.  I think that often the hermeneutics of suspicion is not well balanced by speculative attempts to provide handles on what we might plausibly affirm.



How can we “fit” the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection into postmodernity? These are clearly not scientific truth claims.


Dean Zimmerman

Hey, Tom.  “Freedom from Certainty” is one postmodern theme that resonates with me, and I like the way you develop the idea here (by “resonates with me” I mean “seems clearly true”, and by “true” I don’t mean anything relative!).  The desperate search by religious folk for a certain foundation is an unseemly holdover from hopeless modernist ambitions. I wasn’t sure that commitment to “propositions” as part of the analysis of belief and other propositional attitudes has much to do with the pursuit of certainty.  One can be a nominalist about propositions, identifying them with sets of sentences or something like that, and still believe in the need for certain foundations for religious belief; and one can believe in propositions while denying that such foundations can be found or are necessary.  So I didn’t see how that fit in.

Some more general thoughts… “Postmodern” is such an amorphous concept…  The one element in postmodernism you affirm here — the unfeasibility of reaching indubitable conclusions about important matters by certainty-preserving arguments from certain foundations — is basically accepted by every important analytic philosopher of religion I can think of, and by analytic philosophers more generally, including those who profess disdain for all things postmodern (of course “analytic” is about as useful as “postmodern”!).  We’re all postmodernists now!  Since, in this sense, we’re all postmodern, the REAL postmodernists are people who make radical claims about the socially constructed nature of reality, the relativity of all truth claims, etc.  So I don’t see much of a percentage in affirming the compatibility of Christianity with “postmodernism”; it can only be interpreted as sympathy with the more distinctive, radical trends in postmodern thought.  Why encourage that? 

I may have a jaundiced view of the matter, but my impression is that radical postmodernism has very little influence in academic philosophy, and its influence in other disciplines (English, history, religious studies, “science studies”) seems to be in decline; not a horse to bet on, especially for Christians, given how much of the postmodern soup has to be rejected by us.  Plus it’s like waving a red flag in front of the bullish watchdogs of conservative theological circles; they need to be challenged, but on turf that’s really worth defending.  Emphasizing the compatibility of Christianity with a few distinctive themes in postmodern thought by saying “Christianity and postmodern thought are compatible, postmodernists are right about some things” is kind of like defending Arminian views about free will in front of Calvinists by saying “You know, Pelagius was right about a lot of things, especially free will; so you see, we Arminians think Pelagius was an alright kind of guy!”  Not what you want to lead with!

Well, those are my two cents, Tom!  You invited me to check out your site—I think it’s awesome, and wish I had one half so cool…


Thomas Jay Oord

Dean—I agree with just about everything you wrote.  Thanks for this post.

Chuck—Some postmodernists think that postmodernism is a boon precisely because it allows a place for the Virgin birth and resurrection.  Others disagree.  In general, though, most postmodernists are respectful of science and find it helpful.  But they are adamant that science—at least as commonly defined—cannot give us the full truth about all things.

Ryan Donley

I remember having this conversation sophomore year with Dr. Peterson. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed the necessary act of reformulating my stance on and definition of “postmodernism”. I now feel comfortable talking about truth in less solid terms, in that I feel there is just alot more out there than we can know and we must remain humble in our ignorance. Modernism probably suggested too high of a degree of certainty which we cannot attain. I think it’s effective and helpful to allow greater flexibility in this postmodern time. I do advocate one caution with the advent of postmodernism: it can quickly become a slippery slope leading to skepticism. Though we are unable to fully realize reality, this does not mean that we ought to abandon any hope of reliable knowledge of reality. We do have tools – our senses, divine revelation, logic, reasoning, etc. – which can lead us to very real conclusions, even if our knowledge falls short. I feel that you have covered this well in your above essay, Dr. Oord. Thank you for keeping this consideration in mind as you write.


Thanks Tom, for explaining this complicated topic in such accessible language; it gives me the tools and words I need to explain my attitude in this to others. I fully agree with your view on this.

Theologically, I find the Wesleyan quadrilateral very helpful. The truth is to be found (I would not say found, but approached…) by using as sources the Bible, tradition, reason and experience. In a way, this is a very postmodern view ! By adding reason and, mostly, experience the truth becomes less static. I love to use this to get to the deeper meaning and usefulness of things.


    It is interesting to read some of your earlier work and how much of these early concerns still animate what you are doing currently.  As I think on the theme of postmodern truth, I am reminded of lessons learned concerning David Ray Griffin’s process approach to reality and epistemology that tends to land between the Hegelian Dialectic.  Specifically, I am thinking of “hard core common sense” philosophy and nonsensory perception.  These seem to offer some broad strokes for a theoretically sound epistemology in response to the concerns you not in your blog.  I do, however, have concerns with the brevity and inarticulation that seems to surround, and even demonize, those thinkers of more postmodern persuasion also called “nihilists” by Gunther Cunningham and others (his work Genealogy of Nihilism is the most formidable I know of).  These nihilists are also those thinkers many times likened as relativists.  Griffin is a careful thinker and an erudite logician, but I think he may misread some of the philosophers labeled “deconstructive.”  Many of the critiques against propositions from this more phenomenologically based paradigm are little read, and few are done so carefully.  The result makes straw men of some issues you have highlighted, particularly extreme relativism.  While relativism may be a concern, I am not sure any of these poster-children (Derrida, Lacan, Badiou, Delueze, Vattimo, etc.)thinkers would agree they are relativists (now Rorty might, so in his case the label fits). 
  The name that comes to me as I read Griffin, and am reminded by your posts (and some older WTJ material), is Derrida.  He may go down as one of the most misunderstood philosophers of our time, yet he is one that many theologians like to throw around whimsically. 
    To stay on this example, Derrida himself will say that we all must live within the traditions we have been given, that we cannot “get away” from them, so to speak.  To use his language, our traditions never stop being written.  As a secular thinker, Derrida could never get away from Catholicism and it peppers his thought with influence and insight.  Further, Derrida’s critique is not that there is no meaning or that meaning has been “deconstructed”…this is a simplistic reading of his work (and the work of others).  Derrida’s underlying revelation is that because difference is real there is TOO MUCH meaning.  Hence, a trinitarian paradigm following Derrida’s thought would suggest that difference is not reduced to unity, as in a reduction into onto-theology, but that the unity of the trinity is a unity of difference that promotes real differance….(I am, of course, interpreting at this point). 
    This reading of Derrida that expands meaning, rather than obliterating it, seems to be what you were suggesting a few blogs over in the Nazarene umbrella question.  Is there an umbrella big enough for the pluralism that already exists in our Church?  Per Derrida, one should say yes…
  Back to Griffin, he opens up a whole world of options for Christians living under the theme of less certainty that range from low Christology, to inclusivism, to pluralism, to a robust theology of religions, and yes, as you have argued elsewhere, a rigorous Post-Lockeian Wesleyan philosophy (WTJ Sp. 2000).  As Wesleyan’s argue, God’s prevenient grace extends to the world and people before it/they are “awake,” so it seems to reason that God is working through the pluralocity of the spirit to open up our ability to find truth, wherever it may be found, and to not be the bully on the theological block suggesting our corner is best.
  Along with the above, I would like to see more careful ear and eye be given to those who are READ to espouse certain views, so as to see if this is REALLY what is being said.  We are all being read; it is always a matter of what is always already read in our writing.  I just hope Griffin is not guilty of this theological sin.  My guess is that many of his followers already are.   
  I appreciate you taking up this complex issue.  Thanks for inviting me to your blog.  I am sorry I have delayed taking you up on the invite to post.I will surely visit often…and thank you for your hospitality in conjunction with the WTS and other previous correspondences.


Tom- Forgive my reference, it was actually Connor Cunningham that wrote Genealogy of Nihilism, not Gunther.  I just wanted to correct this in case others would like to reference this work.  Thanks!

Robert Uehlin

Someone once told me that postmodernism “keeps us from being pricks”.  A decent summary, don’t you think? 

More seriously, while I agree with the general premises above, I disagree with two of the particular premises.  First, I disagree that extreem relativism is synonymous with socially defined truth.  A broad view of history, I believe, reveals the nebulous nature of what makes life “better” or “truer”.

Secondly, I disagree that “faith need not be blind or unreasonable”.  I see faith as a belief in something for which their is no evidence—for or against.  Any proposition for which there is probabilistic evidence, even a minuscule amount, is a wager, not a faith claim.  Faith is blind.  Everything else is a wager.

Arielle Askren

Within today’s Christian circles terminologies get thrown out without proper definition or thought. I appreciated the fact that you took the time to define this particular terminology, and I agree with your statements about the Bible. By defining post modernity as you did, it allows for more people to grasp the ideologies behind it and help those with questions find some answers.

Tyler Mostul

I have recently been wrestling with the issue of truth and Absolute truth. What does that even mean anyways? How do we know? How does faith fit in with these “Absolute Truth” claims.  I mean, I understand that we can have faith and believe that something is Absolutely true, but can we prove it. I think not.

I think we have to consider who it sounds to those who dont agree with our absolute truth claims. They probably hear something like, “I am smart enough and have been enlightened enough to know with absolute certainty that God is real, and becasue you dont believe, you are small, insignificant, and a lower human than I. I hope you one day become enlightened like me.” The problem is that there is no love in this statement. I think we must rethink our confidence in our knowledge of truth, and humbly admit our small and limited human perspective.  We can have faith and believe something to be true, even have enough faith to die for what we believe to be true. Our faith cannot become something that is proven or absolutely certain or faith ceases to exist.


I think, when we discuss the truth, we must reexamine how we define truth itself. Truth, for me, doesn’t necessarily have to be something provable. I think you somewhat allude to this when you say that faith can be grounded. I feel that we can have absolute certainty about our faith without making claims of biblical inerrancy, or making statements like the example that Tyler gave, which as he said, lack love. We have “a truth”, that is true and certain to us and this is shown by us having faith. We have faith that it is true. Faith and proof are not necessarily antonyms. Faith is a form of proof for the Christian, that we are able to have it in something is “a truth”. I feel that you must arrive at this conclusion on truth if you rely on the Wesley Quadrilateral at all because it is a form of truth seeking that uses faith as a requirement for receiving the output. One thing that is necessary in defining truth in this way is to be conscience of the fact that we may not have the only truth. We should definitely avoid language that suggest we have “the truth”. Faith is perhaps a form of certainty for ourselves.

Kara Notson

I have heard the term post-modernism before but was unsure of what it entails. This was helpful for me to understand how it relates to faith and truth. I attended a high school that really pushed the inerrancy of the Bible and absolute certainty. I was never comfortable with this but neither was a comfortable with extreme relativism. It is good to know that there is a middle ground and that post-modernism isn’t entirely a bad thing.


Postmodernism rejects truth?  That assumes there is one notion of truth, or maybe even truth with a capital “T”.  This seems to miss the point that many of us are concerned with, that there are 3 main definitions of truth in the history of philosophy.  You mentioned Descartes with truth as certainty.  But there is also Aristotle with truth as representation.  And let’s not forget Heidegger with truth as unveiling.  Which definition of truth or truths is postmodernism rejecting? This might be a better question to consider.  And with which definition of truth is theology most affiliated?

Ben Duarte

Is freedom from all certainty something positive?


Talitha Edwards

I hear so many people who take on the topic of postmodernism or other such topics and respond to it in a very simplistic manner. It is all too easy for most people to take on a topic, such as postmodernism, and simplify it to its flaws and if they cannot figure out a good flaw to beat up on they formulate one. The fact that people, and often Christians, are not willing to look into the strengths and the value within a topic/culture/viewpoint disturbs me. Not to say that there are not flaws in essentially every culture or viewpoint but to boil them down to their flaws is a foolish and highly inadequate approach.

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