The Question of Truth and Apologetics in a Modern/Postmodern World
Introduction · The Situation · The Modernist and Postmodernist Worldviews Examined · Modernism and Postmodernism Critiqued · So Then, What is Truth?" An Epistemological Conclusion · A Christian Apologetic to Modernists and Postmodernists · Conclusion
"What is truth," Pilate remarked to Jesus (John 18:38). This question of truth is ever before us. Anyone who has ever doubted anything evidences that they have asked the truth question, for one would not doubt what they have been told, believed, or thought to be true unless they believed they could be mistaken and that there was another option available which was "more true." Humans innately seek to know whether what they think they know corresponds to reality, and if reality exists at all.
The question of truth is the question of the ages. The pluralistic world in which we live offers many answers to this question. Some, such as Christianity, claim that there are objective realities not contingent on human knowing for their existence. Others, such as Buddhism and the postmodern consensus, maintain that truth is what we make of it, a personal or community-based reality constructed from within the mind and through the use of language, but not objectively "out there" to know. The Western world has divided between two primary views of reality: objectivism (universals exist independently of the mind/perception), relativism (knowledge is not absolute, but relative to the mind of the individual/group who confesses it). As a generality Christians have tended to side with the former while the educated among the secular world has sided with the latter.
The church is vying for the beliefs of the world's population, but the world has come to speak such a different language than the church that the church is having a difficult time communicating the Gospel message. The apologetics employed in the past are no longer as effective as they once were. The church is in need of finding new ways of communicating to our world, ways in which they will understand.
This paper is an attempt to define and evaluate the reigning worldviews offered to us today: modernism and postmodernism; develop a solid epistemological base which can answer the truth question; and develop an apologetic which can reach those who espouse to either the modern or postmodern worldview. It seeks to know if truth exists, what truth is, to what extent we can know it, and the manner in which we can share it with others.
The Western world has been dominated by a particular worldview for over three centuries: modernism. This worldview is now crumbling from its ivory tower of prestige and being replaced by a new worldview: postmodernism. Modernism can no longer be said to be the overarching view of the Western world. Both views have their adherents. As a generality modernism is the worldview held to more among the ranks of those educated before the 1970's, while postmodernism reflects the ideology of those educated in the post-1970's. While postmodernism has its roots among intellectuals living much earlier than this time, it was not until the 1970’s that the movement began to take hold of the intellectual climate of the United States in particular, and is now spreading from the educational institutions to the streets of America's social and ethical milieu.
Today we are faced with two primary, competing worldviews, both very different from one another, and each with great followings. This brings many challenges for the Christian community. Such includes our epistemological basis for the gospel's claim to universally applicable truth, our understanding of reality and truth, and our approach to Christian apologetics. We are facing a war on two fronts.
Western Christianity has adopted the Enlightenment worldview and understanding of truth from our forefathers, nearly in toto without much question as to its validity. It is precisely the Enlightenment worldview and understanding which is currently under a complete frontal attack from the educators and philosophers of our day. They have brought new evidence and considerations to the table of understanding which challenge the truth and validity of the modernist worldview. The first challenge we Christians face today, then, is to critically evaluate our own worldview. We must evaluate the presuppositions of modernism to determine if indeed they hold water, or if they are skewed in some respects, not faithfully dealing with all relevant data. If the foundations upon which we have formulated the gospel of Jesus Christ to our world are shaky, we must find a new and better foundation lest the gospel be fused to that which is perishing.
Secondly, Christians must find a way to minister both to those who are of the modernist and postmodern mind. Our apologetic cannot be uniform, but must be multiform. There is no universal apologetic that will apply to all people. We must tailor our apologetic to our audience. We must evaluate our current approaches to see if indeed they are valuable and/or efficient in dealing with the questions/needs of both modernists and postmodernists. We must find new ways of reaching those of the postmodern worldview. The church is no longer in Kansas. Things are different than they used to be, and truth is stranger than it used to be. We must arise to the occasion rather than hiding from the reality of our situation, under the comfortable blanket of tradition. If there is universal truth in the Gospel, then the church must be able to communicate such both to those inside and outside of Kansas, adapting our approach to the needs of our generation, entering their worldview, speaking to them where they are at, and bringing them to where they need to be.
Our task is not to defend modernism, nor to forsake it to embrace postmodernism, but rather to view the new intellectual climate through Christian eyes. We cannot reject the entire modern or postmodern ethos, and neither can we embrace them uncritically either. We must figure out which parts of each are true and beneficial, and which parts of Christianity will speak to those who hold to either.
Modernist and Postmodernist Worldviews Examined
A worldview is "some overarching, guiding, and directing vision of life" through which an individual or group of individuals view and experience the world.1 Such includes one's understanding of the nature of reality, truth, good/evil, right/wrong, worth, duty, teleology (purpose), etc. It conditions the art we create, the kind of homes we live in, the roles of male and female in the home and society, the way we view success, and the way we worship God. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh have delineated three questions to which every individual/society seeks to provide an answer; the answers to which define their worldview.
The first of these is, Where are we? This question seeks to answer the concerns of our place and purpose in the cosmos. The second is, Who are we? which seeks to find one's identity. Lastly is the question of, What is wrong with the world and how can it be fixed?2 This question pertains to one's sense of good/evil, right/wrong. It is the answers to these questions that are the foundational presuppositions of all worldviews. No matter how rationalistic we may be, the answers to the above worldview-defining questions are ultimately based on faith.3 The stories we tell to answer the questions of identity, purpose, and right/wrong are faith-answers, often unquestioned stories upon which we build our lives—presuppositions which shape our destiny.
The Rise of Modernism
The Renaissance is the birthplace of modernism, although it did not develop as a well-defined worldview until a slightly later time. The Renaissance elevated humans to the center of the universe, paving the way for the Enlightenment to elevate the human mind to the place of the sole arbiter of truth and "self-determining center of the world."4
Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who stood at the crossroads of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason (Enlightenment), paved the way for the enthronement of reason over empiricism and authoritarianism with the development of his scientific method. He saw the scientific method as the means by which to discover great truths, and that these truths would demonstrate a unified whole of all sciences. From Bacon until the present it has been the goal of Western humanity to unlock the secrets of nature, having faith that technology will better human existence and the world.5 The Enlightenment spurred the technological revolution that we have seen explode in the last fifty years.
Until the time of the Enlightenment (~1650-1800) men relied on the authority of common-sense realism and the church. Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the universe demonstrated by Galileo and his telescope, the discovery of the microscopic level of life with the invention of the microscope, and the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648) between Catholics and Protestants dethroned both common-sense realism and authoritarianism as epistemological bases. People came to realize that both the senses and authorities were capable of deception and contradiction, which led to the quest for an unquestionable, objective truth apart from an authority or faith commitment.
Renee Descartes (1596-1650), the father of the Enlightenment, sought to build all knowledge from a foundation that could not be questioned. He sought to find this foundation by doubting all things, questioning all supposed knowledge. This led him to the one thing he could not doubt; i.e. the fact that he doubted. His famous line is cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." Descartes could not doubt the fact that he was doubting, and the ability to doubt implied his existence as a thinking individual. It was from this point that Descartes built his epistemology. Descartes’ standard for something to be considered knowledge and true was that it be indubitable, a certainty equivalent to mathematical truth. This set the tone for the Enlightenment quest for knowledge. One could be entirely objective about reality, and through use of pure reason, come to discover universal, indubitable truths.
Philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume argued that one cannot arrive at such indubitable knowledge as that required by Descartes. This led them to an extreme skepticism claiming that all knowledge is passively received by the mind, which is itself a blank-slate. When incoming sensory impressions are received, the mind organizes them into ideas, but these ideas are relative to the individual. There is no external world out there to which our knowledge corresponds. Our knowledge of the world can never penetrate the sense experience, and thus we can never have any knowledge of the world "out there." The mind only knows its own ideas, and cannot posit any true existence of anything beyond its ideas. Every person's perspective, then, is just as valid as the next person's. Truth is found, not as the mind's understanding is compared with some objective reality, but in the coherence of the ideas generated in the mind.
Immanuel Kant reacted to such skepticism. He took the best ideas of Descartes’ rationalism and Locke's/Hume's empiricism to combine them into one new synthesis. Kant maintained that the mind is not a blank-slate, but has built-in categories to process and organize incoming sensory data into knowledge. These categories act as filters and provide the parameters to make knowledge possible.6 While this does not guarantee any objective knowledge of the world out there, it does rule out any radical relativism, bringing knowledge back from the completely private realm to the public and universal realm once again. Even if our knowledge does not correspond to reality, everybody has access to the same knowledge, and therefore knowledge can be critiqued. Kant, effectively reintroduced "the notion of truth and falsity" to the realm of knowledge, and paved the way for the modern mind.7
The Enlightenment project, from which modernism was birthed, is based on certain epistemological assumptions in regards to knowledge: it is certain, objective, good, and accessible.8 Modernism believes in the ability of the mind to attain truth through the use of observation, reflection, and reason. The modernist worldview believes in the inevitable progress of mankind through the accumulation of knowledge, and discovery/implementation of technological advances.
Its view of truth is the correspondence theory of truth, which states that there is an objective world "out there," which we can know first-hand. There is a direct correspondence between the objective reality and the thoughts of the knower.9 Modernism espouses to a Cartesian (pertaining to Renee Descartes) ideal of absolute truth, commonly termed realism.10 It is believed that our minds can reflect reality in a similar manner that a mirror clearly reflects one's face. Modernism links the concept of truth with human rationality, thus making reason and logical argumentation the sole judge of truth and correct belief.
Our understanding of the world can be gained from a perspectiveless perspective, as unconditioned observers, "from a vantage point outside the flux of history."11 This bird's-eye view of reality can only be accomplished by use of reason. Understanding gained from this vantage point is universal and accessible to all, because there is a universal structure of all human minds that correspond to the structure of the universe.12
While postmodernism is not easily defined due to its many nuances among its varied adherents, one certain characteristic of postmodernism is that it is opposed to the Enlightenment project in its attempt to establish an absolute, universally accessible truth based solely on human reason. Postmodernism opposes all claims to universality and totality, preferring diversity and local social "truths." Postmodernism dethrones reason as the sole determiner of truth. Emotion and intuition also have their value in this endeavor.
Postmodernism denies that knowledge is objective, and that the knower is a passive observer. It is maintained, rather, that all knowledge is historically, relationally, and personally conditioned. Reality is not "out there" waiting to be discovered, but is relative, indeterminate, and participatory.13 The knower is actively involved in the knowing process, bringing to the activity certain presuppositions that color what the knower comes to "know."
The postmodern epistemology rests on two assumptions: reality is a construction of the mind which is useful but not objectively or universally true; humans lack the ability to step outside of their particular vantage point to view reality (in this latter tenant postmodernism reflects the thinking of Locke and Hume).14 Knowledge and truth are not universal realities to which all can arrive. While there is a sense in which there is a world "out there" (in that it is not an illusion) that we experience, our knowledge of that world does not truly correspond with it. There is no true description of the way the world "really is."15 There can be no objective world because the postmodern ethos rejects the realist concept of knowledge. Rather, we construct reality by the concepts we bring to the world we encounter.16 It is not possible to view our world from the view from nowhere, as an unbiased observer, gaining a bird's-eye view of reality. There is no privileged vantage point from which anyone can claim to view reality/truth.17 We bring to our world our pre-conditioned understandings, and what we "see" reflects our own particular pre-understandings more than it does reality.
Truth does not exist. What we find in the world is a host of conflicting viewpoints and interpretations, and linguistically formed worlds, all of which are equally invalid, and thus equally valid. The only thing that might make one viewpoint preferable over another is the pragmatics of such a view.18 Pragmatism is center in the mind of those who hold to a postmodern worldview. The question foremost in their mind is not, "Is it true?," but rather, "What does it do?," or "What is the outcome?".19
The only valid truth for postmodern adherents is the local narrative of a particular society. Truth is socially conditioned, thus our understanding of truth is conditioned by the community in which we find ourselves. While truth is not universal, postmodernism does not relativize truth to that of each individual, but rather to that of each community. Truth is cultural, and each person participates in that truth. Seeing that there are many cultures, there are many truths. The postmodern worldview is thoroughly pluralistic. Not only does it deny the possibility of having a bird's-eye, unbiased view of reality/truth, but denies the very existence of a unified reality/truth. Both our perceptions of truth and the essence of truth are relative.20 Reality is a human construct determined by the group which guides and even dictates social life, mores, and values. As a result postmodernism has abandoned the Enlightenment quest for a grasp of an objective, unified reality.
This is not to say that postmodernists are complete skeptics and empiricists. They do not exactly deny the existence of a real world "out there," but do deny that any features of that world which are known by a given community can function as norms for all communities. There can be no appeal to any universal criteria for truth, goodness, or ethics. While we do not each have our own private reality (because it is socially constructed, and thus shared by the community), we are bound perspectively, and thus our rationality cannot function as a universal.21
Postmodernism has also abandoned the modern belief in the goodness of knowledge, technology, inevitable progress, and the general optimism so characteristic of the modern world. Instead of seeing knowledge/technology and progress as bringing about goodness in the world, it has caused the exploitation of others, and the greedy consumption of the earth’s natural resources. This, in turn, has convinced postmodern advocates that truth is historically relative, and no particular societies’ concept of truth has more intrinsic value than another’s.22
Modernism and Postmodernism Contrasted
The Enlightenment was a project to free knowledge from all faith-claims, wanting no subjective truth. Postmodernism, on the other hand, wants no part of objective truth, claiming that all truth is little more than personal and community-based faith.
While modernism maintains that there is an objective world "out there" to which we can have a direct knowledge of, universally accessible and applicable to all, postmodernism claims that there is no objective world "out there," and all knowledge we possess is not a direct, corresponding knowledge of the "real world," but is one of many perspectives, socially conditioned, and not universally accessible or applicable.
While modernism maintains that knowledge is certain, objective, and good, postmodernism maintains that knowledge is uncertain, subjective, and not always good.
Modernism maintains that reason is the sole arbiter of truth, while postmodernism maintains that reason is only one avenue toward a constructed knowledge.
Modernism maintains the inevitable progress of mankind through the acquisition and application of knowledge, while postmodernism has given up that ideology as a historical fairy-tail.
Finally, modernism maintains that the knower is an objective and passive observer in the knowing process, able to view the world from a perspectiveless perspective; postmodernism declares that the knower is actively engaged as a subjective participator in the knowing process, only able to view the world from one’s own community-based, historically and culturally influenced vantage point.
Implications of the Postmodern Worldview
Postmodernism’s answer to the question, Where are we? is that we are in a world we have constructed ourselves.23 One is left with little more than a hopeless world that they construct. Ultimately, happiness and sadness, successes and failures, are merely community constructs with no foundational basis to claim their true and meaningful existence.
The postmodern worldview, with its insistence that there is no universal truths applicable to all people of all times, has great implications for Christianity which posits that it alone possesses universal religious truth, applicable to all people of all times. The Christian insistence to have true knowledge of God contained in the Bible can no longer be maintained in a postmodern worldview. The Bible becomes merely one narrative among many, possessing no more inherent truth or authority than the next narrative. Christians can no longer claim the absolute truth of the existence of God, Satan, angels, demons, heaven, and hell. We can no longer claim that non-Christians will go to hell for their unbelief. The notion that Christians will go to heaven is looked at as a vain hope, a delusion based on the Christian metanarrative, but with no objective basis in reality. Christianity must cease to make any claim to truth, and instead tolerate and accept the validity of all other religions. Christianity is not the only game in town, but rather one of many teams playing the game, none of which can ever win.
Modernism and Postmodernism Critiqued
While postmodernism has faced Christianity with some serious ontological and epistemological challenges, it has also offered some very positive contributions.
The first value of the postmodern worldview is its reintroduction of faith to the knowing process. The Enlightenment sought to secure a faithless knowledge, the acquisition of facts which reason could demonstrate to be indubitably true apart from any prior faith commitment. Postmodernism, however, with its emphasis on the local community narrative, and its allowance for a concept of knowledge which cannot and indeed need not be proven, has reintroduced the notion of faith in our thinking. It has demonstrated that faith is necessary in all things. Faith is the fundamental disposition of the knower; "a disposition of commitment and trust, a willingness to accept and to build upon unproved assumptions and beliefs as an entirely suitable platform for" knowledge.24
Rather than being the stepchild of reason, or as John Locke described it, "a persuasion which falls short of knowledge," faith is the necessary starting point for all thinking and every act of human knowing. All thinking occurs within a given framework of faith commitments of one sort or another.25 The element of faith is unavoidable in any epistemology because it furnishes the basis upon which all of our reasoning takes place. There is no dichotomy between faith and reason; faith is indispensable to reason.
All knowledge is built upon unproved assumptions. While we may be able to justify many of our beliefs through reason, justification must stop somewhere. There comes a point in which the reasons we offer for our beliefs and assumptions cannot be supported with apodictic certainty, and we are left wallowing in the waters of faith. To find ourselves in such a predicament we need not examine our beliefs very far. While aspects of postmodern epistemology are disenchanting, it is beneficial in that it has lowered the bar for certainty from the level of apodictic certainty to the more realistic level of certitude; i.e. a sure confidence that a thing is true based on all known evidence.
Postmodernism has demonstrated that all knowledge is perspectively and culturally bound. We are neither thoroughly passive or objective in our interaction with the world. Rather, our minds are actively engaged with the world, in some sense creating the world we see. We do not merely see things as things, but see them as something.26 This is our worldview. What one person sees as reality, another may not.
For example, a thirteenth century man looking at the sun would naturally say that the sun revolved around the earth, while the twenty-first century man looking at the sun would say that the earth is revolving around the sun. While the sun only appears to be moving, it is in reality stationary. Both men have the same set of eyes, the same sun and the same earth, but do not see the same thing. They have an entirely different conception of reality because they bring their preunderstandings to the world they interact with, and cannot allow reality to 'speak for itself,' viewing it with complete objectivity.
Another example of preunderstandings at work that affect one's worldview is that of matter. The common man looks at a desk and sees solid wood. A scientist, looking through a microscope sees 1% molecules/matter, and 99% space. This does not make the scientist's view any more real than the common man's, but it does make what they "see" very different. While it is tempting to say that what we see through the microscope is more real than what we see with our natural eyes, it must be remembered that it is our eyes which look through the microscope to discern reality on a smaller scale. Both observations may be an inaccurate portrayal of reality. It is only a matter of being able to see from a new perspective, not having our perspective obliterated.
Consider, also, the stars. When we look into the sky we think we are looking directly at the stars. However, because of the great distance of the star, and the speed at which the light of that star travels to the earth, the star that we are supposedly objectively viewing does not truly exist as it appears to be. We are not even seeing the star. We are seeing the light from the star, which has taken thousands of years to reach the earth. We can never see the star directly. In fact, by the time the starlight reaches the earth the star may have long since exploded, and thus no longer exist. The star we wish upon may not even exist, which does not give our wish much hope! While a star may explode today, we will still see its light in the night sky for thousands of years as though it did still exist, never knowing that our view of reality is flawed in the most serious degree.
Postmodernism does not recognize itself as a worldview. It views itself, not as a dish on the buffet of worldviews, but rather as the table which supports all the dishes.27 Postmodernism is seen as the framework through which all local narratives and worldviews should be viewed. It fails to see that it too is a narrative, and one of many dishes. It fails to be aware that it attempts to universalize its concept of knowledge and truth, turning its narrative into a metanarrative. It fails to answer the question as to why its construction of reality and truth should be given precedence over other worldviews, if indeed no worldview can have a handle on objective truth.
It is quite strange that postmodernism, with its emphasis on community-based perspectivism, and thus a limited and skewed epistemology, would claim to have knowledge that should inform all of the world's epistemology. While it claims that there is no "view from nowhere" that can transcend one's culturally informed perspective it advocates such a view when it claims to know that the reality is that no one can have direct access to reality. Such a claim universalizes their perspective. Postmodernism is flawed in that it falls prey to the attempt to speak from the perspective it claims is inaccessible, and it tries to universalize its community-based view of reality upon all other communities. Either way the postmodern bread is sliced, it goes against its own philosophical worldview.
With no universal truth, but only the existence of many perspectives, all of which are equally invalid and thus equally valid, there is no basis upon which to judge various interpretations of the world, and really no need to do so. Truth and understanding become meaningless concepts, no longer descriptive of what is, but what we have made it to be. Truth, then, becomes little more than the autobiography of a particular community.
Postmodernists often sense a crisis of identity because the world they inhabit is socially determined, and thus it is formed by themselves, not independent of themselves.28 Because the world is our own construct, there is nothing beyond it for which to look to, to journey towards, or to hope in. At best we can hope to change our reality by putting ourselves into a different community with a different narrative, for where we are will determine who we are.
Because the modern and postmodern worldviews are virtual opposites, the values of modernity are found in the problems of postmodernism, and the problems with modernity are found in the truths of postmodernism.
Modernism is to be credited with its insistence that reality is not something which we merely create in our own minds. It has allowed one to have confidence in a reality beyond themselves in which they can interact with confidence that they are truly interacting with a world outside of their own making. When reality has an ontological existence apart from the human mind, one does not face the crisis of identity associated with postmodernism. There is some semblance of enduring hope and meaning in life.
Because modernism insists on an objective reality, and seeks universal truths, it guards against the radical relativism that pluralism so often brings. It causes people to seek justification for their beliefs, rather than simply accepting the view of reality offered them by common-sense realism and authoritarianism.
While the Evangelical community as a whole has found the modern worldview very comfortable, and indeed favorable to the gospel, there are aspects of modernism that are opposed to the gospel. As uncomfortable as it may seem, there is a need to clearly evaluate modernism’s weaknesses, and postmodernism’s strengths, so as to formulate a worldview based on the best of both worlds, while avoiding the weaknesses of the same.
Modernism has been guilty of deifying reason. It was believed that the problems of the world were caused by ignorance, and could be solved by reason. This runs smack in the face of the Christian doctrine of the Fall and the perversion of the will. While knowledge/reason aids us in overcoming the many problems of humanity, knowledge/reason alone cannot overcome the root of humanity’s problem; i.e. sin. Our problem is not with ignorance, but with the perverted will resulting from the Fall.29
Descartes’ standard for truth was that it have indubitable certainty on par with mathematical certainty. The Christian gospel cannot offer that level of certainty, and thus was excluded as truth in the Enlightenment sense because the Enlightenment project attempted to rid knowledge of any basis in faith. Such a goal is not compatible with Christianity because the Gospel requires faith.
Also, there are some things which reason cannot explain or understand. The fall has perverted our understanding, and sin can cause our reasoning to lead us away from God.30 Postmodernism, with its emphasis on the narrative and socially inherited, unquestioned presuppositions about our world, has demonstrated that faith is involved in all knowledge. It is impossible for us to arrive at pure reason, or to have indubitable knowledge about much of anything. We may have reasons to believe X, but we cannot prove X to be absolutely true because our perspective of X is always limited. Modernism, then, is to be faulted in that it raised the bar too high for epistemology. Postmodernism has lowered this bar to a more realistic level, from apodictic certainty to certitude.
We must also agree with postmodernists that knowledge cannot be entirely objective, nor is the knowing process passive and dispassionate. The knower brings his own preunderstandings to that which is being observed. We stand within the stream of history, among a particular people with a particular culture. In such a predicament it is impossible to obtain culturally neutral, unconditioned knowledge.31 We are bound by our present understanding, which (based on past experience where we discover we are wrong in areas we thought we were right in) we must freely admit is skewed in areas. Advances in knowledge have always shown prior understandings to be either inadequate or entirely incorrect. Seeing that some of our present understandings will surely be improved upon, or even discarded in light of future advances in knowledge, our present view of reality and truth is most assuredly deficient in certain areas.
Finally, modernism maintains that we can obtain a 'spectator's gallery,' or 'God's-eye view' of the world. But postmodernism has demonstrated that we have no privileged, wholly objective glimpse of the world, unhindered by our own perspective.32 The shape of a coin, for example, changes according to the perspective from which we view it. When we look at it "directly," it appears to be a circle; however, when we change our locale, and thus our perspective, the coin appears to be an ellipse. Is it a circle, or an ellipse? While it may be argued that it truly is a circle, the only reason we can say such is because we are able to have more than one perspective of the coin. However, seeing that knowledge is culturally and experientially conditioned, we are not naturally able to transcend a particular perspective of the world at large, and thus our perception of the world may be that it is elliptical, when in reality it is a circle.
While modernism is to be praised in its quest for the "God's-eye view" of reality, we must criticize the attempt as being impossible. There is no such view from nowhere. All human knowledge, understanding, and interpretation arise from the biases and pre-understandings we bring to bear on the evidence. We are actively engaged in the knowing process, and our findings will not always reflect what is objectively real, but will reflect the person who is involved in the knowing process.
There are aspects of modernism and postmodernism which are both beneficial and damaging to the gospel. Neither worldview can be discounted, and neither can be adopted in toto. Enlightenment rationalism gave Christianity no hearing because it was faith-based, and above the critique of reason. If a modernist would accept Christianity based on reason, however, Christianity would be given a privileged status of truth. Postmodernism, with its dethronement of reason as the sole arbiter of truth, and its emphasis on the local narrative, will give Christianity a hearing, but will not give Christianity any privileged position of truth.33
So Then, What is Truth?: An Epistemological Conclusion
Truth is simply letting the facts speak for themselves, right? Not exactly. Facts do not speak for themselves. There is no such thing as the "bare facts." Facts are not "pre-theoretical, value-free, pure units of give 'public' experience that popular mythology would have us to believe. … Real facts are theory-laden, quarried from the mass of our experience via a complex process of interpretation….34 Two people can view the same "facts" and come up with two entirely different interpretations of those facts. Facts have no ontological reality apart from the knower who contemplates them. Facts are meaningless by themselves. It is the interpretation of the facts that makes the difference.
There is more involved in meaning than simply the facts. One’s background, cultural surroundings, personal bias’, education, etc. influence how they understand the facts. If facts existed by themselves apart from any bias of the interpreter of those facts, then everybody would come up with the same interpretations and conclusions. Why is this not the case? Because each person’s understanding and knowledge is perspectively conditioned.
Understanding is not achieved in a vacuum. Knowing is never an impersonal transaction with the world, but an activity of faith engaging with the world, brining prior faith commitments and knowledge to the evidence being viewed. Nobody is neutral in their approach to the world. Pre-understandings are always at work, and we bring them to the world in which we live.
We view the world through our own particular set of colored glasses. While all of us have such glasses, we are not naturally aware of them because they are always on our noses. We get used to them, and used to viewing the world through them. We often deny their existence because we have never been able to view the world without them to see the difference. While modernists have recognized the existence of such glasses, they have been confused as to who wears them. They have wrongly assumed that they themselves are not wearing any. It is only those who disagree with the conclusions of the modernist who are wearing the colored glasses! Their solution is to remove the glasses so that one may see clearly (like them). While such may be possible in the modernist worldview, the postmodern worldview has demonstrated that these glasses are part of us, unable to be removed from our eyes. We all come to the world with basic presuppositions and a particular worldview, and understand it through these glasses. While we make every attempt to be critically aware of and free ourselves of the perspective offered to us by these glasses, we cannot be entirely free from their effects.
Seeing that there are no two people who understand the world in exactly the same way, the wise thing to do would be to question our own findings against others’ findings. It has been said, "A wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own; a foolish man because it differs from his own." Most assuredly there are problems in our own present understanding, although we tend to think we are right (because if we believed we were wrong we would obviously change our belief). But if our understanding is always right, then there is no room for growing in knowledge, which is contradictory to experience. Why is it that we continually find areas where we are wrong, and continue to grow in knowledge and understanding?—because our understanding is colored, just like everyone else’s is. We spend our lifetime trying to expose these colored perspectives so that we can grow in truth, but it is a difficult task indeed, and one that will never be completely accomplished.
Objectivism and Relativism
How do we know that what we think we know is true indeed? Postmodernism has brought us to an epistemological crisis, causing doubt in our ability to objectively know our external world. How can we ground our knowledge in reality, or is such an endeavor even possible?
The question of epistemology is based on the question of ontology. In other words, how we know is based on what there is to know. The postmodern ethos believes that there is no truly objective, ontological reality to know. If there is, it cannot be known. We only have our ideas and language. If there is no objective reality then the epistemological question is not so difficult to answer, because there is nothing in which we can truly know. The quest for an assurance of the correspondence between our knowledge and the world "out there" becomes purposeless because there is no corresponding reality to our thoughts. In such a predicament it does not matter how we know what we know, but rather what we know and why we know it.
We are faced with objectivism on one hand which believes there is a truth to be known that is public in nature, ontologically and objectively true for all people of all times whether they know it or not; and relativism on the other hand which recognizes that "every bid to discover or handle this truth, rests on a basis which is inherently corrigible, on points of view which are generated by particular social and cultural locations or traditions."35
The question we are faced with, then, is twofold. First, we must seek to discover whether or not there is an ontological reality beyond ourselves, and if so, how we can know that reality epistemologically. Secondly, from the Christian perspective we believe God has given us some understanding of objective reality in the person of Christ and through divinely revealed truth in the Bible. We cannot allow the notion of a reality which exists beyond us, which is not dependent on our knowledge of it for its ontological existence, to be dismissed, for in so doing the very foundation of Christianity would also crumble which claims to be universal truth. On the other hand we recognize that not all knowledge of our world comes by revelation, and is perspectivaly limited. Such observations lead us to espouse to aspects of both objectivism and relativism. We must evaluate, then, whether it is possible for such a union of these two views.
Traditionally we have only been allowed to subscribe to either objectivism (the ideology of modernism) or relativism (the ideology of postmodernism). Relegating our choices to either of these two stances is a false dichotomy, for there are other options.
I would contend that it is possible to confess the congruent existence of objective reality and relativism without encountering a contradiction. Objective reality exists ontologically; i.e. there is an objective reality "out there" to which we strive to know. Epistemologically, however objective reality cannot be known in its fullness. "Because we are finite, our knowing is always limited, fallible, and particular. We know from a particular perspective or worldview that can function both to open the world to us and to close it down."36 The human knower is limited in space and time and culture. The relative, perspectival nature of knowledge, however, need not mean that all truth-claims are meaningless.
While we must surrender the notion of a mirror-like understanding of reality, we need not succumb to the idea that all understanding is created by the individual and community with no basis in reality. Our knowledge of objective reality may be likened to viewing ourselves in a fun-house mirror. While many parts of our body are out of perspective to their real proportions, there are indeed parts of our body which are mirrored accurately. While we may never have a mirror-like image of objective reality, our knowledge can accurately reflect some aspects of objective reality.
While it may seem that since we cannot have absolute certainty that our knowledge does indeed correspond with the objective reality existing outside of our own selves, that we must bow our knee to absolute relativism, such is not the case. There are more alternatives to absolute certainty than absolute uncertainty and relativism. There can be reliable knowledge based on faith seeking understanding. "Such knowledge, recognizing its own fragility, is characterized by a degree of humility, yet claims to have made fruitful contact with reality, and to furnish a reliable route … to further discovery in engagement with this same reality."37 With such a stance our knowledge is not arbitrary, and neither is it without substance.
Epistemological relativism is just as bankrupt as epistemological objectivism. The former denies that we can know that anything corresponds to reality, while the latter maintains we can know reality perfectly without bias. Both are extreme positions that do not match up to the facts, logic, and experience. We must embrace the truths of both positions, while rejecting their weaknesses. We admit the fallibility of human knowledge, human bias, human ignorance, and presuppositions, but we maintain that we are not always fallible and ignorant, and that our biases may be bent toward the truth. While we do not know truth perfectly, we are not cut off from truth. While not everything we think we know corresponds to the way the world really is, that does not mean that what we think we know cannot have any correspondence to the objective world.
Problems with Objectivism and Relativism
We need not, and indeed should not make a choice between objectivism and relativism because neither view is acceptable. They both fall short in their description of reality because both falsely assume that it is possible to "transcend one's particularity in an absolute manner, gaining access to a view of reality which is no one's in particular, the view from nowhere. Perspectivism proves to be self-referentially flawed: for only on the assumption that we know what the truth really is can we assert with any certainty that no human perspective coincides with it, or that it lies beyond the reach of all perspectives!"38 In the end the search for a view from nowhere will lead us nowhere.39
There are some dangers in the notion of objective truth that we must be aware of. The demand for a knowledge of objective truth can create in us a hopeless anxiety because one can never have apodictic certainty that their knowledge corresponds exactly with objective truth.40 Because the goal is unattainable, one can work themselves into a frenzy over the epistemological question, rather than being content with their finiteness on a journey closer to truth. If, however, we recognize that we cannot transcend the perspectival nature of our knowledge, we can be comfortable with such imperfect knowledge, not denigrating it to second-class knowledge or mere opinion, but recognizing it as all that we are able to have and thus being comfortable with it.41 Once we are freed from having to possess apodictic certainty of the universal nature of our beliefs, and can believe some things without it dying the death of a thousand levels of justification, we can avoid the common epistemological challenges to Christianity. We can avoid such challenging questions as "How do you know that God…?" in the same manner that we can escape complete justification and certainty to questions like "How can you be sure of so-and-so's motive?", or "How do you know that Socrates ever lived?" There is no reason for Christians to be trapped into having to justify with apodictic certainty its truth claims when the most basic things in this world which we take as general truths cannot supply the same level of justification/certainty either.
The question of objective truth is often misleading. It treats truth as an entity "out there," rather than a philosophical concept, which it is. There is a difference between saying that there is a reality "out there" not contingent on human knowing, and saying that truth is out there. Most assuredly God and the world exist apart from the knower (as many things are not contingent on human causes or mental states), but truth does not exist apart from the knower, because truth is understood in one's mind.42 We use human language to think about, and discuss truth. Seeing that human language is inextricably connected with perspectival and social discernment, truth is a social affair, and thus cannot be objective.43
How can we be sure that our knowledge corresponds to objective reality, then? We cannot. Such is the predicament we find ourselves in because of our finite, limited perspective. We must admit that we cannot have apodictic certainty that our knowledge corresponds with reality, but we can have a growing certitude of the same. This is where diligent seeking, faith, humility, and wisdom come in to play in our quest for understanding. We need not fall into the "all or nothing" trap to the epistemological question.
The Role of Tradition
The Enlightenment quest for an impartial view of reality, neutral, universal, and free from presuppositions and faith has been overthrown by postmodernism because it was a "quest for a non-existent standpoint."44 Such a standpoint is not possible. Each of us is socially conditioned, bound by our own particular community. All rational activity is "inescapably historically and socially context-bound."45 Each of us inherits a particular social tradition, a standpoint from which we begin all rational inquiry. All knowledge is mediated through a certain inherited perspective.
Tradition "is a historically extended, socially embodied argument about how best to interpret" reality as we experience it and think it ought to be.46 We cannot escape tradition. While we may choose to stand elsewhere, we are simply changing from one perspective to another, from one set of unproved assumptions to another, not from a tradition-laden perspective to a tradition-free perspective. The basic assumptions of this inherited tradition are assumed uncritically in our everyday engagement with the world. Thus we begin our inquiry into our world assuming certain basic beliefs belonging to our tradition "which cannot be disbelieved while they serve as assumptions."47 While there will be occasions in which the fundamental assumptions of our tradition are recognized and called into question for their inherent justification, the assumptions can never be questioned in toto, because one cannot completely step outside of their tradition. They can only evaluate their tradition and its assumptions in light of other traditions, being compared for their rational justification.
We must "abandon the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous critical thinking, therefore, and face up to the inevitability of our locatedness within and indebtedness to some tradition or other."48 We are born into a community which has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and ways of viewing the world from the past, which is passed down to the succeeding generations. "In order to think, to communicate, to live at all we rely wholly on our freedom to participate within this shared tradition of thought and action, the bulk of which we are never in any position to verify personally."49
Seeing that all of us inherit a tradition which is culturally and historically bound, not able to transcend it to access a view from nowhere, we must concede that all knowledge is perspectively defined, and cannot be given universal status.
The fact that we inherit a particular tradition which gives our knowledge a perspectival slant which may not correspond to reality does not mean that our tradition cuts us off from reality itself. The recognition that we may not always be able to see behind the veil does not mean that we can never see behind the veil.
We can compensate for our perspectival particularity by transcending our particular tradition, viewing reality from the perspective of other traditions. This is not to say that we can abandon the 'view from here' and gain a 'view from nowhere,' but rather it is to say that we can gain a view from a different 'here.'50 We can attempt to get a better view of reality by examining the world from the perspective of another worldview. Such a situation allows us to transcend our own fish-bowl, not to be suspended in mid-air to view reality apart from any bowl, but to enter into another fishbowl and view reality from there.
Relativism concludes that because knowledge is perspectival, and many different worldviews exist, that all truth claims are equally invalid, and thus equally valid. The conclusion, however, does not logically follow from the data. The recognition of the perspectival nature of all knowledge need not lead to radical relativism which sees all viewpoints as equally invalid, and to be treated equally. We recognize that not all viewpoints are equally valid, nor do all offer an equally satisfactory and fruitful understanding of reality. "Some positions afford a better view of things than others. Some approaches lead to a more fruitful engagement with reality than others."51 One perspective may give us a better view of the world than another. Each perspective is making a bid for truth, and some bids are worth more than others. Such an examination of truth claims to discover which are more plausible and carry more weight has often been abandoned in the name of tolerance. The tolerance being espoused to is not the allowance of other rival viewpoints to exist alongside one's personal views, but has been redefined to mean uncritical acceptance of all views with no critical evaluation of any. Such is not a necessary or logical conclusion to pluralism.
Does the fact that we inherit a particular tradition mean we are locked into that particular perspective? No. In the course of truth inquiries our tradition is utilized, but also transformed by our findings. While our social and communal tradition is our starting-point for rational inquiry, it is not immune to critical questioning, alteration, and revision in light of better traditions. When we view reality from other perspectives, and find that a different tradition other than the one we inherited offers a better grid through which to interpret and understand our world, we altar our tradition to accommodate such knowledge. This sort of critical realism is not closed-minded, but open to hear other voices and reform our own tradition when it is necessary or appropriate to do so. We must determine which account of reality, or which parts of differing accounts of reality offer the most satisfactory and fruitful explanation of our world, and alter our tradition accordingly. Such altering of our tradition does not mean that we will ever come to have a perspectiveless understanding of reality, but it does give us hope of arriving closer to such a goal.
While we cannot arrive at the view from nowhere, we can strive to stand in the place that offers the best view available.52 Such an approach avoids the errors of both objectivism and relativism. We can affirm that there are some things that are true for every community, in every time and place. Reality is rational, and in many respects does not change from time to time and place to place, and exists apart from the knower’s awareness of it. On the other hand reality does not provide us with fixed points of reference, but our knowledge of reality is conditioned by our own particularity. Thus what we know may not be the "way things truly are," but the way they appear from our particular standpoint. "Failure to make this distinction leads objectivists to confuse their particular perspectives with the abiding truth of reality itself, and relativists to conclude from the obvious fluctuations of perspective that truth itself fluctuates from one time and place to the next."53
We cannot ever be certain that our view of reality corresponds to reality itself, but we can adopt the most satisfactory and fruitful views known to us. Being convinced of the superiority of the perspective we have discovered "as the best and most reliable route to reality known to us,"54 we commit ourselves passionately to that standpoint and
invest it with universal intent, claiming for it a truth which is not only ‘for us’ but for all, eagerly inviting others to come and share our outlook on the basis that ‘you get a much better view of things from over here.’ We cannot prove that it is so. While such a commitment to this critical realism is a faith commitment, but not a blind faith commitment. But we passionately believe it to be so, and we invite other to put it to the test, in the hope that the truth which has, at it were, seized us from beyond ourselves, may do the same to them.55
The stand we take on our view of reality is not arbitrary as in relativism, but is a stand based on our interaction with and critical evaluation of many perspectives, involving personal responsibility in our engagement with reality.56 We can be content with the status of our tradition as true knowledge until other views arise to change our views.
The level of truth we may prescribe to in light of the recognition that we cannot completely transcend tradition, and thus our perspectives are limited, is that of certitude. Transcending our own traditions, gaining views from other perspectives, and developing the best view of things does not give us the apodictic certainty desired and demanded by the Enlightenment (which postmodernism has shown to be impossible), but it does give us the best certainty possible. While we cannot have certainty that our knowledge is a one-to-one correspondence with reality, we can have certitude that it does because we have attempted to view it from several perspectives, and have adopted the best perspective from which to view it. We can say that we have found a truer perspective from which to view reality than others, but we must admit that there may be a better perspective yet available.57 With this critical view of reality we cannot confuse our understanding of reality with reality itself (for our understanding is limited and provisional), but we can have the best bid in town.
A Christian Apologetic to Modernists and Postmodernists
Each day Christians encounter individuals with a modernist worldview, a postmodern worldview, and a blend of each. There is no homogenized worldview because our society's worldview is in a transitional period from modernism to postmodernism.58 Our apologetic, therefore, cannot be limited to only one particular audience. In this section I hope to detail several ways to reach both modernists and postmodernists.
The Necessity of Logic and Reason
While logic is the bed-partner of modernity, it is not limited to that worldview. Logic is a necessary component of all worldviews, even postmodernism which tends to degenerate logic to mere opinion. Logic cannot be avoided, and is foundational to all worldviews no matter how much that worldview may deny its existence. Most who deny logic do so because it contradicts their worldview at some point. To accept the rules of logic would force them to reckon with the fact that their system is incoherent, and thus not plausible. Those who deny logic most often do so using logical reasoning.59 They presuppose and use the very logic that they try to deny.
Logic transcends all belief systems, but will not justify all systems. Logic provides meaning, thought, and communication. It is the basis of all thought and actions. Nobody can escape it. The relativist reasons that since logic is purported to be universal in nature, and universals cannot exist, logic cannot exist. The problem with such an argument is that deductive logic is being used to arrive at that position. Such use of logic to argue against logic is like a man who denies the existence of air until his dying breath.
Some say God cannot be governed by propositions or laws of logic. If so there is no basis upon which to think about and discuss God. The "logical" conclusion for those who hold to such a position should be silence. Because there is nothing to assess, there should be nothing to say. The actions of those who claim such, however, contradict their supposed belief. Rather than retreating in silence they write books trying to prove their view of God.60 Postmodernism is also built upon a logical basis, and thus we cannot abandon a logical apologetic to those who hold to its worldview.
One task of the apologist is to expose these sorts of contradictions for what they are. For example, postmodern linguistic theory claims that language is virtually meaningless. Their contradiction will be apparent when asked "What do you mean by that?" When the relativist says there are no absolutes, his flaw will be evident when asked, "Except that one?" There are no absolutes except for the fact that there are no absolutes. When one claims there is no such thing as truth, their error will be exposed when asked, "Is that true?" Any defense of the faith is a defense against another form and content of faith.61 We must make the other person aware of their own belief systems, exposing its flaws, and pointing out where and how it does not adequately explain the world as we encounter it.
Everybody believes something. When one claims to believe nothing, that is what they believe. Beliefs are inescapable, and beliefs have consequences. One can claim to believe anything, but that belief may not be logical and the consequences of that belief will often demonstrate the fact. It is as the man who believed he could fly, so he jumped off an eighty-story building. On his way down he said, "So far, so good!" The end result, however, showed that his belief did not correspond with logic.
In our apologetic to both modernists and postmodernists, we cannot abandon the rational part of our human existence. The emphasis on the rational was one benefit of the Enlightenment that we cannot dispense with. We need not fear that a cognitive apologetic is passé simply because it is out of vogue in postmodernism. Dennis Hollinger had this to say:
Though postmodernity as an intellectual movement debunks this rationalistic component, in reality its adherents and the masses continue to employ it. Even the narrative purists and deconstructionists utilize rational discourse to repudiate the traditional rational approaches to discovering and defending truth. Therefore, we need not shy away from some appeal to classical apologetics as long as it is buttressed by other modes of discourse and defense.62
Our human existence, however, consists of more than our rational selves. Humans are also emotional beings who live in a real world, with real experiences, and real problems. While acknowledging the importance and function of the cognitive dimension of apologetics to demonstrate the validity of Christian truth claims, we cannot approach any unbeliever from an entirely cognitive standpoint (yet alone a postmodernist). There is more to Christianity than propositions and doctrinal truth. There is more to apologetics than an intellectual defense of the faith through argumentation. It is an invitation to meet Jesus Christ. We are not trying to get people to merely believe right things, but to have an encounter with Jesus Christ, and allow Jesus and His truth to transform their lives. While such a project will necessarily involve propositional, logical arguments, such a basis is not sufficient for faith in Christ. We must also show our postmodern world the relevancy of faith in Christ for all aspects of life, and allow the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts.
The Postmodern Challenge of Pluralism
There can be no doubt that we live in a pluralistic world. There are many competing viewpoints in the marketplace, whether it be concerning politics, social issues, governmental theories, or religious truth. The acknowledgment of a plurality of ideas, however, is much different than the doctrine of pluralism that pervades our world today. Plurality used to mean that everybody could put their two cents into the marketplace of ideas, but it has come to mean that everybody's view is worth two cents. Pluralism, as it is now understood, indicates not only the existence of many ideas, but also the equal validity of those ideas.
We are being told that because of the diversity of beliefs existing today we need to be open-minded to all of them. While diversity does call for openness, it does not call for the sort of openness being advocated by postmodernists; i.e. uncritical acceptance or the relativizing of truth.63 While Christians can recognize that truth is found in all religions, it is quite another thing to say that all religions are equally valid or equally true. The former recognizes our intellectual humility and the existence of truth in all worldviews, while the latter demands that we do not evaluate any claims to truth or reality to determine their worth, accepting them uncritically, not making any claims to exclusive truth ourselves.
If there is no truth as postmodernists claim, why should we be open-minded?64 Indeed, if there is no truth then the mind is truly closed, not open. It can only be open if there is indeed something to consider. If there is no truth to find then I should be able to believe whatever I want regardless of what anyone else thinks. There is no reason to be open-minded, to hear what others have to say. I have my opinion and that is all that matters. At best being open to hear others’ viewpoints could add to or change my opinion, but it can never improve my opinion because improvement is based on the notion of progress toward an end. Since there is no truth, there is no end, and thus there cannot be any improvement. After all is said and done we are still only left with opinions.
When we lose the idea of a reality existing apart from the knower, that is able of correspondence with human recognition and understanding in at least some degree, we lose all purposes for the discussion of ides. If we merely create our own reality, and what can be true for you may not be true for me, then there is no reason to discuss our viewpoint or attempt to persuade someone else of the validity of our beliefs. It is even pointless for a pluralist to convince a Christian that they are being mean-spirited or divisive for claiming that the Christian religion is the only valid religion, for in doing so the pluralist is critically evaluating Christianity, and making its own judgment as to what the truth really is; i.e. there is no truth.
Pluralism ignores the fact that many religious truth claims are not compatible with one another, or flatly contradict one another. The law of the excluded middle indicates that something cannot be both true and untrue at the same time. Either the Jews are right that Jesus was not the Messiah, or Christians are right that He is the Messiah. Jesus cannot be both the Messiah, and not the Messiah. Likewise, the Biblical teaching of resurrection is incompatible with the notion of reincarnation. While neither may be true, both cannot be true at the same time and in the same manner. All roads do not lead to Rome. The concept of "Rome" in each religion is quite different. All religions do not offer different ways to the same salvation, but have different, and at times, contradictory concepts concerning the nature of salvation itself.65
All truth claims cannot be true, but it does not follow that we cannot know if any are true.66 Truth claims need to be critically evaluated. While everyone may have a voice, not all voices deserve equal hearing.
The Objective Side of Relativism
Relativism denies the idea of any non-contingent truth, relegating all things to mere likes/dislikes, opinions, and pragmatics. Relativism is the outflow of postmodern pluralism. If everyone is perspectively bound, and cannot know if their understanding of the world truly corresponds with reality (if there is such a thing as a non-contingent reality), then it seems to follow that each person’s relative perspective indicates that reality itself is relative. As has been demonstrated above in our discussion of transcending tradition, relativism is not the only option to the lack of apodictic epistemological certainty.
Not only is relativism not our only option to perspectivism, but relativism as a system of thought and practice is inconsistent and incoherent. Relativism falls apart internally and externally as a philosophical position.
Those who claim to be a relativist in theory can never live out that theory in real life. There is no place where this is better demonstrated than in the area of morality and ethics. Relativists claim that there is no moral standard by which all must abide, and which all can recognize. If all morality is relative, relativists must excise many words from their vocabulary. They must cease speaking of justice and fairness, personal accountability, praise and blame, evil and good, moral reform and improvement, and even their favorite word…tolerance. All of these words imply an outside standard by which to judge these things.67 One cannot praise another person because in doing so they are making a value judgment regarding their behavior, which is completely subjective to the individual appraising the behavior. Another individual could consider the same behavior to be reprehensible (although such a reaction is even relative), and blame the individual for such behavior. Justice and fairness are concepts that demand comparable treatment for all people, "based on a common standard of what is right."68 Tolerance cannot be advocated because the imperative to tolerate all views is a universal ought, a moral rule, an obligation of sorts to which all people must prescribe to. But if there is no moral imperatives, there is no need for us to tolerate any one else’s views. Relativism is the best reason to insist on my own views and disregard everyone else’s, because my personal ethics will allow for it, and thus it is true for me.
Relativists often argue that if a universal moral standard truly exists, why is it that there is not a universal recognition of such? Instead of finding all cultures holding to the same moral and ethical standards, we find much variety. This argument, however, confuses ontology with epistemology. Just because some people do not seem to be aware of, or do not follow a universal moral standard does not mean that such does not exist ontologically.
Relativism will not allow one’s views to be critiqued, judged or praised. They cannot be challenged no matter how offensive they may be. According to relativism it would be as equally moral and true to say that Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews was good and just, as it would be to say that it was unjust. Relativists would have to conclude that the allies were just as morally correct in attempting to stop Hitler as was Hitler’s attempt to defeat the allies.
To the relativistic notion that what is true for you is not for me, ask them whether Nazism, totalitarianism, repression, rape, torture of the innocent, and terrorism, is good or bad. If they attempt to answer the question they cease being relativists because they are trying to make a value judgment which is universally applicable. No matter how they answer the question, they ought to be further questioned as to why they believe what they believe, and upon what basis they believe it. It will be demonstrated that indeed the relativist does have some standard of judgment he uses which excludes certain viewpoints as unacceptable, and others as acceptable and desirable.69 Without a standard even such personal conclusions could not be made.
It also becomes evident that relativism cannot be true when encountering a relativist who desires to argue for the truth of his particular position. Their behavior demonstrates the fact that there is some underlying agreement about right and wrong to which one can arrive in agreement.70 The underlying purpose of quarreling is to demonstrate that the other person is wrong and we are right.71 There would be no sense in doing so, however, unless subconsciously the relativist believes that his morality is right, and should be seen as such by others as well as himself.
The ultimate exposure of the objective side of relativism is when one’s personal truth/morality conflicts with another’s personal truth/morality. The same individual who does not believe in any moral absolutes, when he is ripped off by a thief, will show by his reaction to such treatment that he does not believe that such behavior is right. If he were a true relativist he would have to shrug his shoulders and conclude that although he personally feels that robbery is not right, the robber apparently felt it was right, and thus is justified in his actions. Instead he begins speaking of things not being fair, and wanting justice to be done. We can see what one believes to be universal oughts (morality), or what should be when the opposite is done to them, or failed to be done to them. Nobody is a thoroughgoing, consistent relativist—not even a relativist himself!
Apologetics to the Postmodernist
As has been demonstrated previously, postmodernism has good and bad elements attached to it. The church cannot adopt postmodernism as a worldview in toto because its flaws simply make it the wrong tool for the job. While we recognize the perspectival nature of truth, our apologetic must be grounded in the notion that at least some of our knowledge can correspond with reality.72 If such was not the case, then apologetics loses its own goal, for we would only be convincing others of another faulty view of reality. Christians need to emphasize that while there are many stories about gods and the nature of the universe/mankind, not all views are equally coherent, nor adequately reflect our experience with reality, and thus some stories should be given a favored status.
However, Christianity can use some postmodern concepts to reach the postmodern individual. We can present the gospel to them within their own framework, allowing them to discover what we have discovered in the person of Jesus Christ.
Seeing that postmodernism assumes that true knowledge of the world is inaccessible to the human mind, leaving us only with language and metanarratives, we would do well to tell them the story of Christianity. This allows us the perfect opportunity to communicate the Gospel message, and allow God to speak to the individual through it, rather than us trying to convince one of Christianity apart from its primary witness.
While we may understand the universal nature of the Biblical story, this should not be our emphasis to the postmodernist. Before they can take the step to see Christianity as being true, they must first see that Christianity is plausible, and deserves a hearing. It is only once they find it to be the most sa=isfactory worldview that they can begin to immerse themselves into Scripture, to be convinced by God's witness that the Gospel is universal in nature. We need not shoot for the bulls-eye right from the start; we need only put the arrow on the target.
Because postmodernists see all worldviews as equally invalid, and thus equally valid and true, we must prod them to see that the plurality of worldviews does not mean that all must be true, or that we cannot know if any are true. They must see that their position is an assumption they are making which need not and should not be made. We must demonstrate to the individual that not all worldviews are equally valid. Some are inadequate, incoherent, failing to take all of the data into account, or misunderstanding that which they do. At this point they will be open to the Christian worldview to see how it deals with the data, relevant human issues, and with the problems that other worldviews flounder on.73
Once the postmodernist begins to look at the narrative of Scripture, they will begin to see for themselves that it is different from other narratives. We can exploit the fact that in Scripture we can access a truth that has been given to the church from Someone with a view from nowhere. While such revelation from beyond was mediated through historically-bound human beings, the Scripture is not a composite of human reflections on God or His revelation (II Peter 1:20-21), but is an "irruption of God’s Word and Spirit which transcends and even disturbs and challenges our natural capacities to grasp and make sense of things."74 As a result "we must reckon with a more than purely human authority at work" who is limited by his own particular perspective.75 While the particular perspective of the authors of Scripture cannot be ignored, the revelation they received allowed them to transcend their own tradition, allowing them to see and understand realities that could not be gained from the perspective of any man without God's revelation.
Who is in the Hot Seat?
One mistake in our apologetic is that we often feel the need to constantly defend and prove Christianity’s truth, developing long monologues in response to certain key points of the Christian message. Such a method often puts the Christian on trial, himself being witnessed to by the unbeliever’s philosophical challenges to the many statements of the Christian, causing the Christian to question his own claims rather than the potential convert questioning his. While we need to offer some sort of justification for the Christian gospel and its claims to truth, we need not be the only person to stand on trial, having our faith examined. Everybody believes something, and all beliefs rest on certain unproved, and often unchallenged assumptions. We need to learn how to also play the plaintiff, putting the individual we are witnessing to on the stand, allowing them to evaluate their own beliefs, seeing their rootedness in faith. The burden of proof ought to rest on the unbeliever, especially when the discussion is started by them as a challenge to the Christian faith. Greg Koukl's insight is enlightening:
The Christian doesn't have to be the expert in everything. If we keep the burden on the other side when they're making the claim, we don't have to know it all. In fact, we can be effective knowing very little if we ask the right questions. After all, everyone in the discussion has a point of view. There's no reason to let the other side have a free ride. … You'll be pleasantly surprised to find out that most critics, when asked some very basic questions, aren't prepared to defend their faith. As with the emperor and his new clothes, all it takes is one person to calmly say, "You're naked," and the game is up.76
The most effective method for making the unbeliever evaluate his own beliefs is the use of the question. Instead of constantly being on the defense, we can be on the offense, asking particular probing, purpose-driven questions to the effect that the individual will question his own presuppositions and evaluate his own belief system for justification, maybe seeing its inherent inconsistencies and faults for the first time. Only after one can see the deficiencies in their own current position will they be open to a paradigm shift to another position. Once they see the need for a new paradigm we lead them to answer the question as to what worldview can best explain what they now need explained.77 What does not fare well in this respect should be marginalized as a viable option.
There are three questions which are most helpful in generating healthy dialogue with an unbeliever in a non-threatening way.78 These questions should be asked with a goal in mind, trying to bring a particular response out of the individual, but being prepared for anything.
The first question concerns clarification: What do you mean by that? This allows us to understand what exactly is being argued so that we do not find ourselves trying to respond to an issue which the unbeliever does not truly have. It may also force the individual to clearly think through what he does in fact mean, when he may have never thought it through before. Also, such a question is flattering to the individual because it demonstrates a desire on our part to truly engage in dialogue, and not just push our beliefs on him. It demonstrates that we are truly open to hear what the unbeliever has to say, and everybody likes being heard. Many times our witnessing turns into angry shouting matches because each person is trying to be heard by the other, but feels as though they are not being heard, because in fact they are not.
The second question concerns justification for one’s beliefs: How did you arrive at that conclusion?" The answer to this question allows us to see not only what he believes, but also how he reasons. Such information is most beneficial because it is the answer to this question that allows us to see the logic being employed for his beliefs, and thus pinpoint his error in thinking. Once this is discovered, it can be pointed out to the unbeliever for consideration or further clarification/explanation.
Once the unbeliever sees the inherent contradictions or gaps in his beliefs, he will be open to the third question: Have you ever considered…? After having to rethink his position, and his justification for that position, being made aware of logical contradictions and gaps, the unbeliever can be brought to the place where he is open to consider a new paradigm.
What is so amazing about this method is that it accomplishes in just a few words more than is often accomplished in fifty apologetic monologues. It has been said that in order to convince someone in our culture of something, you must make them think they came to the conclusion themselves. The above method allows one to feel just that. Instead of being told they are wrong, and justifying our own beliefs, we invite the unbeliever to be his own critic, exposing his own errors through the form of honest and truthful questions. By offering him an alternative view, then, we are no longer seen as being pushy, but helpful. This approach is interactive, involves no "preaching," shifts the burden of proof onto the one making the intellectual challenges against Christianity, and allows one to make a case without stating it themselves.
In light of such an approach, we ought to discuss Christianity with the postmodernist, not assert Christianity. The postmodern individual believes that all voices are to be heard, but none are to be given a privileged status. Any story which is being presented as the only story available will turn off the individual's ear to fully hear that story. Such an approach is not a compromise of the truth, but is putting the horse before the cart; making the gospel story heard before it must be believed as the story.
A discussion of Christianity involves considering the plausibility of its story. One will never be convinced of its truth before they are convinced of its plausibility. A local church grasped the power of this form of apologetic to the postmodern world. It ran a radio-ad that simply said, "Christianity. What if it's true?" While the objectivist would view such an approach as watered down and without substance, it is precisely such an approach that causes a postmodern individual to hear the story of Christianity. If we can get the postmodern person to consider the story of Christianity as the best explanation of our world, and to consider the implications of the Christian message, we will leave them with much more than if we only offer rational arguments to demonstrate that their worldview is flawed, and they are going to hell if they fail to accept Christianity.
The Church as an Apologetic
While to the modern mind the church could hardly be considered an apologetic, to the postmodern mind it can be for two reasons. Postmodernists, because they view life holistically, are not only interested in the intellectual framework of Christianity, but are also interested in the way the Christian worldview is lived out. While the postmodern audience does need the cognitive aspects of Christianity to be converted to Christianity, the cognitive dimension is most powerfully communicated when it is connected to a living body.79 The church supplies the solution to this need. The church becomes a visible expression of the Christian worldview.80
To some this may send a chill of anxiety through their consciousness, realizing that the church is not in the shape to exemplify the Christian worldview. There is indeed in many local assemblies a bifurcation between faith and practice, the cognitive and the practical. There can be no doubt that the church will function as an apologetic to the postmodern world, but its present condition must change for the church to be an effective apologetic.
The second reason the church is an apologetic to the postmodern culture is because the church is a community. Postmodernists have abandoned the radical individualism of the Enlightenment and modern age, opting for the more Biblical idea of people in community bound together by a common metanarrative (tradition).
This postmodern emphasis on community metanarratives is favorable toward tradition, rather than opposed to it. Protestant modernists have attempted to critically evaluate every tradition of the church so as to be bound by no tradition that cannot be substantiated by the Scripture or reason. While there is much good with such an endeavor, it can go too far in trying to do away with all traditions, even those which are not incompatible with, or a hindrance to the Gospel.
As has been discussed previously, all of us inherit a tradition, and though we may alter it, or change traditions altogether, we can never escape tradition. The Protestant modernists, therefore, are striving for an impossible task, and in trying to do away with tradition, deny the historically rooted, community-based context of our Christian experience. Postmodernists are more likely to see the value of traditions, viewing them as community stories that bind the community together. Good traditions will not be questioned as much, but accepted more gladly, being viewed as that which identifies the community as a community.
The emergence of postmodernism has challenged the church’s claim to universal truth, but such a challenge is not insurmountable if the church is willing to critically evaluate its historical rootedness in modernism in light of the valid points of postmodernism. The church’s understanding of truth, reality, and knowledge need not be overturned, but rather tweaked to account for all the data. We can adopt the best of modernism and postmodernism, building a solid epistemology which is intellectually honest enough to account for our finiteness and place in the flux of history, but also strong enough to account for the existence of a non-contingent reality and universal truth as revealed to us by God in the person of Christ and the Bible.
Because we are dealing with a world that has no universal worldview, our apologetic must be flexible. No one method will reach all people. While we must continue to employ reason in our apologetic, this is not our only tool. The story of Christianity, open dialogue in the form of questions, and the church itself can all be powerful apologetics in dealing with both a modern and postmodern world.
Christians need not buckle under the pressures of the postmodern ethos, bowing to its radical forms of pluralism and relativism. Rather, we can view the world from its many perspectives, adopt the best view available to us, and invite others to see the same. While the world has not closed its doors to Christianity, we must learn to employ newer forms of apologetics that will speak to our age lest we slam the door in our own face when confronting the postmodern world!
1. J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 134. <back>
2. J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 4. <back>
3. Truth is Stranger, 11. <back>
4. Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 60. <back>
5. Grenz, 81. <back>
6. Ibid., 76. <back>
7. Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 43. <back>
8. Grenz, 4. <back>
9. Truth is Stranger, 32. <back>
10. Ibid., 41. <back>
11. Grenz, 4. <back>
12. Ibid., 75. <back>
13. Ibid., 7. <back>
14. Ibid., 43. <back>
15. Ibid., 41. <back>
16. Ibid. <back>
17. Ibid. <back>
18. Ibid., 164. <back>
19. Ibid., 43. <back>
20. Ibid., 8. <back>
21. Truth is Stranger, 32. <back>
22. Ibid., 29. <back>
23. Ibid., 31. <back>
24. Hart, 20. <back>
25. Ibid., 21. <back>
26. Alister McGrath, Intellectuals Don't Need God & Other Modern Myths: Building Bridges to Faith Through Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 153. <back>
27. Truth is Stranger, 77. <back>
28. Ibid., 56. <back>
29. Grenz, 167. <back>
30. Ibid., 166. <back>
31. Ibid. <back>
32. Hart, 31. <back>
33. McGrath, 177. <back>
34. Hart, 56. <back>
35. Ibid., 90. <back>
36. Truth is Stranger, 170. <back>
37. Hart, 94. <back>
38. Ibid., 69. <back>
39. Ibid. <back>
40. Philip Kenneson, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 157. <back>
41. Ibid., 163. <back>
42. Ibid., 159. <back>
43. Ibid. <back>
44. Hart, 62. <back>
45. Ibid., 62. <back>
46. Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 103. <back>
47. Hart, 98. <back>
48. Ibid., 178. <back>
49. Ibid. <back>
50. Ibid., 64. <back>
51. Ibid., 222. <back>
52. Ibid., 223. <back>
53. Ibid., 224. <back>
54. Ibid., 65. <back>
55. Ibid., 223. <back>
56. Ibid., 67. <back>
57. Ibid., 224. <back>
58. I say transitional tongue-in-cheek, for such may not be the case. It could be that postmodernism will gain a large following which will challenge modernism, but ultimately die out in a few generations. Postmodernism may simply be the emergence of a competing worldview which has some good points to offer in regards to knowledge and truth. While those positive elements will abide, postmodernism as an all-embracing philosophy may pass off the scene. While modernism is on the decline, and postmodernism on the incline, there is no guarantee that postmodernism will supplant modernism as the dominant worldview of Western society. At this point the outcome is impossible to ascertain, but it may not be an actual transition that is occurring. <back>
59. Harvey Bluedorn, "The Logical Defense of the Faith"; available from http://www.christianlogic.com/articles/logical_defense.htm; Internet; accessed 25 May 2001. <back>
60. William Lane Craig, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 81-82. <back>
61. Bluedorn, http://www.christianlogic.com/articles/logical_defense.htm <back>
62. Dennis Hollinger, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 188-9. <back>
63. Craig, 76. <back>
64. Greg Koukl, "Interpretation, Not Pluralism"; available from http://str.org/free/commentaries/theology/amattero.htm; Internet; accessed 10 February 2000. <back>
65. McGrath, 112. <back>
66. Craig, 77. <back>
67. Greg Koukl, "Relativists and Sociopaths"; available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/apologetics/relativism/relsocio.htm; Internet; accessed 05 February 2000. <back>
68. Greg Koukl, "Relativism Self-Destructs"; available from http://www.str.org/free/commentaries/apologetics/relativism/relselfd.htm; Internet; accessed 05 February 2000. <back>
69. McGrath, 179. <back>
70. Ibid., 40. <back>
71. Ibid., 40. <back>
72. James Sire, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 105. <back>
73. Ibid., 115. <back>
74. Hart, 204. <back>
75. Ibid., 204-5. <back>
76. Greg Koukl, "A Tip From Lt. Columbo"; available from http://www.str.org/free/solid_ground/SG9911.htm; Internet; accessed 17 June 2000. <back>
77. Sire, 115. <back>
78. The following information regarding the three questions is based largely on the material from Greg Koukl, "A Tip From Lt. Columbo" http://www.str.org/free/solid_ground/SG9911.htm <back>
79. Hollinger, 189. <back>
80. Ibid., 183. <back>
IBS | Statement of Faith | Home
| Browse by Author | Q
Links | Virtual Classroom | Copyright | Submitting Articles | Search