(November 2002 – Volume 8, Issue 8)
“Whatever Happened to Truth?”
The main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous novel, Nausea, examines life carefully and comes to these gloomy conclusions; “I was just thinking, that here we sit, all of us, eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence and really there is nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing…. I exist – the world exists – and I know that the world exists. That’s all. It makes no difference to me…. Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance…. I do not believe in God; His existence is belied by science. But, in the internment camp, I learned to believe in men.” Sartre was a leading proponent of the philosophical system known as existentialism, which was a reaction to the materialistic optimism of modernity with its infinite faith in reason and science. The existentialist measured life by other criteria and decided that it really was meaningless and absurd. Truth and purpose could not be found in science or reason, for that matter, it could not even be found in revelation. Truth, if truth exists at all, could only be found within the individual. Truth, then, is a personal matter. It is not something one searches for and finds; it is something one creates for himself. Your truth may not be truth for me and I may therefore reject it, for truth is not universal, it is individualistic. But this fact does not negate that truth for you. You can embrace your truth and I can embrace mine, but we dare not attempt to impose our truth on anyone else. To claim to have found truth is a deceitful tool by which we attempt to manipulate and control one another. It is a power play, pure and simple.
It is from this fountain of existential philosophical thought that postmodernism has sprung. Postmodernity has adjusted and expanded the teachings of existentialism, but its connection is unquestionable, as we will see as we outline some of the basic tenets of the system. The reader might be warned that much within postmodernism is complicated, ridiculous and contradictory. It is a system that makes little sense and is basically unworkable. Nevertheless it is the mood of the moment and has infiltrated the thinking of countless people in our society.
Rejection of Universal Truth
That the rejection of truth lies at the center of postmodernity must be grasped to have any kind of handle on what is being taught. As with existentialism, there is a rejection of absolute truth. As in existentialism, truth is not found. It is created. But unlike existentialism, truth is constructed not individually but socially. That is, individual societies, cultures and subcultures develop their truth to which members of that community must adhere. However, this socially constructed truth is subject to change and is highly subjective.
When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he surely was not calling for a debate, but every philosophical and religious system before and since has dealt with that question. The prevalent answers to the truth question in Western society today are rooted in one of three sources: Scripture, the Enlightenment, or postmodernism. “In the biblical view, truth is that which is ultimately, finally, and absolutely real, or the ‘way it is,’ and therefore is utterly trustworthy and dependable, being grounded in God’s own reality and truthfulness” – and I would add, is revealed in Scripture. The Enlightenment placed faith in rationalism, which taught that truth is knowable by the unaided intellect of the sincere truth seeker. Revelation was not needed; reason and science could provide the answers. It was under the influence of Enlightenment thinking that the framers of America’s Declaration of Independence would state, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Truth, not revealed by God but self-evident to the reasoning mind, was the hallmark of the Enlightenment. Some have claimed in recent times that fundamental/evangelical thinking is nothing but a product of the Enlightenment. Mark Noll (professor at Wheaton College), for example, has stated, “Virtually every aspect of the profound evangelical attachment to the Bible was shaped by the Enlightenment.” But the rationalism of the Enlightenment, as Iain Murray tells us “is a use of the mind, which trusts in its own ability to arrive at truth about God without his aid and apart from revelation: it treats the mind as a source of knowledge rather than as a channel.” So the Enlightenment and modernity believe the ultimate source of authority in the pursuit of truth is human reason; the Bible claims that source is found in the revelation of Scripture – a huge difference that Professor Noll has ignored.
So what does postmodernity propose? Kruger answers, “What are the postmodernists’ criteria for ‘truth’? Simply what works. Postmodernists are not concerned about absolute truth like the modernist; they define their ‘truth’ by more pragmatic concerns: What makes me feel good? What solves my problems? What is attractive to me?” Os Guinness is therefore right when he observes that due to postmodernism’s assault on truth and reason “objective, experimental, scientific data [has been replaced] with personal, anecdotal experience [as the source of truth in society].” In the Christian world, as we will see next time, things are not a lot better.
Of course, if truth, at the end of the day, is unknowable in any objective sense, and is reduced to what is good for “me,” where does that lead us? To chaos, confusion and the “grand sez who.” Groothuis writes, “If God is not invoked as the ultimate evaluator, the One whose words constitute moral truth… why should a given legal system be endorsed? Why should selves legislate morality…? Why should we seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number? What makes the Constitution the proper glue for our society? Says who?” He then quotes this rather sacrilegious poem,
Napalming babies is bad
Starving the poor is wicked.
Buying and selling each other is wicked.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol
Pot – and General Custer too – have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserved to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
(All together now:) Sez who?
God help us.
Postmodern societies seem workable as long as communities, with their individualized brand of truth, stay isolated. But what happens when societies, each packing their own understanding of truth, collide? How is a country like America, with its melting pot of religions, ethnic backgrounds and the like, going to exist? By adopting a relativism mindset, which recognizes everyone’s truth as equal. Since there is no absolute truth anyway, your view is as good as mine. We should all live and let live; and by no means ever impose our understanding of right, wrongs, morals, and ethics on those of another philosophical community. This is the ultimate sin, perhaps the only sin, in a postmodern world. To a postmodernist an individual culture really does not traffic its truth, it tells stories – something they like to call narratives. To these thinkers, claims of truth are fictional, hence stories. When people develop a worldview all they are doing is telling a story (fiction) about stories (fiction), which is called a metanarrative. When all the dust has settled and the fancy words and ideas are reduced to their essence, what we have is a worldview that denies worldviews. In other words a true universal worldview is impossible because absolute truth is impossible. We may have values, morals, and concepts that work for us, or our subculture, but we cannot expect other subcultures to adopt our understandings for they may not work for them. Truth is simply that which works for a particular community and nothing more. A particularly interesting (and destructive) aspect of this is that postmodernists feel perfectly free to rewrite history to suit their own agenda. This freedom is warranted, they believe, because historical accounts are little more than fiction anyway, created by those who were attempting to manipulate and control the masses. Since history is a power play why not arrange it so as to accommodate our own interests now? A couple of examples of this would be helpful. Take first the historical/dramas of the modern media. Whether the facts support the murder of John Kennedy, the assassination of the Pope or the improper/immoral relationship of Thomas Jefferson with his slaves, does not matter. We are free to present history as we like, as long as we place the disclaimer that “some” of the events are fictional. Another good example would be the recent amnesia on the part of Westerners concerning the past Islamic/Christian conflicts in general and the Crusades in particular. Until recently both the Christian and Islamic communities were in agreement that the Crusades were part of a mutual contest between the two religions, a conflict that Islam initiated. But such sentiments are nowhere to be found today. It is fashionable to believe wicked Christians attempted to annihilate the innocent and peace loving Muslims, which is a complete distortion and rewriting of history. In any other age such fabrications would be revealed and debunked, but in this postmodern era they are embraced.
Nothing is more important in the comprehension of postmodernism than its convoluted, incredible view of language. Veith says it well,
Postmodernists base this new relativism and the view that all meaning is socially constructed on a particular view of language. This set of theories, along with the analytical method that they make possible, can be referred to as “deconstruction.”… Postmodernist theories begin with the assumption that language cannot render truths about the world in an objective way. Language, by its very nature, shapes what we think, Since language is a cultural creation, meaning is ultimately (again) a social construction.
Kruger adds, “Deconstructionism has relegated all texts to simply societal constructions – i.e., the reader’s own experience and perspective so conditions interpretations that there can be no one ‘right’ interpretation.”
A number of problems are immediately apparent with deconstructionism. First, if words have no objective meaning; and all interpretation lies in the mind of the reader (hearer), then the logical deduction is that communication is impossible. Additionally, the reasoning, logic, and pronouncements of the postmodernist proponents are just as preposterous as anyone else’s. If the content of their words have no meaning, apart from the meaning you or I choose to give them, then they have nothing meaningful to say. Of course, that does not stop them from saying it.
Secondly, the evidence of postmodern thought within Christian circles is striking. It is becoming increasingly rare for Bible studies, sermons and Christian books to be based on proper hermeneutical methods. Rather, “what does it mean to me” is in vogue. Iain Murray, in his excellent book, Evangelicalism Divided, quotes Michael Saward as he surveys the evangelical scene of the 1980s that laid the groundwork for the postmodern church,
This is the disturbing legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. A generation brought up on guitars, choruses, and home group discussion. Educated, as one of them put it to me, not to use words with precision because the image is dominant, not the word. Equipped not to handle doctrine but rather to “share.” A compassionate, caring generation, suspicious of definition and labels, uneasy at, and sometimes incapable of, being asked to wrestle with sustained didactic exposition of theology. Excellent when it comes to providing religious music, drama, and art. Not so good when asked to preach and teach the Faith.
How the postmodern worldview has infected society and the church will be the subject of our next two Think on These Things.