Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BPC Worldview Conference Notes: Lecture 4 "What is Truth: Confronting Postmodernism with Christianity"


What is Truth: Confronting Postmodernism with Christianity

Introduction (Groothius): What is Truth? (John 18:37-38) When Pontius Pilate interrogated Jesus before his crucifixion, Jesus proclaimed that "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37).

To this, Pilate replied "What is truth?" and immediately left Jesus to address the Jews who wanted Christ crucified (v. 38). Francis Bacon once wrote about Pilate. He asked, “What is truth?' but “would not stay for an answer." Although we have no record of any reply by Jesus, Christians affirm that Pilate was staring Truth in the face, for Jesus had earlier said to Thomas, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). For Pilate and his world (quite postmodern in many ways), there are only different interpretations, religions, personal and cultural constructions, pragmatic concerns, political and economic interests, but there is no unified body of Truth by which or through which we correctly interpret the world. Rather, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist." Nietzsche
II. What is Postmodernism?
A. Most recognized scholars define it broadly as “incredulity towards metanarratives” (no single story, no single worldview) that does or is needed to hold society together. No story, no understanding about what’s really going on, is any more credible than any other. Rather, all stories are relative, whether they are stories defining a person or group. However, more than a developed philosophy, some have said that postmodernism is “long on attitude and short on argument” (Mark Lilla). This has been my experience among college students. It’s just the “in thing” to shrug your shoulders at religious claims, concern of truth, and adopt a posture of “whateverism” (which is Pilate’s reaction).
B. Contrast with Modernism – Like modernism, postmodernism says that all knowledge begins with the knower, but argues that the knower’s knowledge is limited by his personal experience, personal interpretations, and by the inadequacy of human language, all of which make true knowledge of reality impossible to obtain and communicate. All this is to say, with E. O. Wilson, that modernists (including naturalism) “believe we can know everything [without appealing to God], and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing.” As Christians, we agree with modernism that truth is knowable, but not with its method (unaided reason can get us there). As Christians, we agree with postmodernism that everyone interprets the world through a grid or worldview, but we disagree that all interpretations are equal making truth unknowable.
C. Postmodernism and Christianity –
1. Modernism’s bad attitude - At first blush, one might think that postmodernism, with its celebration of all our worldviews and insistence that no one should challenge our worldview, might be more hospitable to Christianity than modernism and naturalism. After all, Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and other ‘New Atheists’ directly openly assault and scoff at the claims of Christ and the integrity and authority of the Word of God. But what postmodernism gives with one hand (toleration and sometimes space), it takes with the other (an indifferent attitude towards Christianity). Indeed, postmodernism assaults the most distinguishing claims of Christianity, that there is one Truth, revealed and understood by men in human language and it is found in Christ alone.
2. What does postmodernism say of historic Christianity? It is simply one of many stories or narratives, but it is just as far removed from reality as all the other narratives. Very different that modernism’s more direct assault on the claims of Christianity. Screwtape Letters – “It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily 'true' or 'false', but as 'academic' or 'practical', 'outworn' or 'contemporary', 'conventional' or 'ruthless'. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. - Screwtape to Wormwood in C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters
III. The Implosion of Postmodernism: The inherent problem in postmodernism is that it contradicts itself each and every time it makes a claim. That is, it dies the death of self-refutation in a multiplicity of ways. When you apply the assumptions of postmodernism to postmodernism, it self-destructs. Read Socrates and Protagoras
Plato’s dialogue Protagoras:
Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.
Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?
Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.
Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?
Protagoras: Indeed I do.
Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.
Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates.
A. Can there be no Truth? – Student story. “It would be better if we all just recognized that no one has the truth and that no one should try to persuade others to embrace their version of the truth.” I asked him if it is true that no one should claim to know the truth. I also asked him if he was trying to persuade us that we should embrace his version of the truth. He suddenly realized that if he said yes, then he would be claiming and doing the very thing he rejects (claiming to know the truth and trying to persuade others of it). So, he said no, “What I’m saying is not true, it’s just my opinion.” I then asked, “So then what have you actually said to us?”
B. Religious Pluralism –
There are two kinds of people in the world, the conscious dogmatists and the
unconscious dogmatists. I have always found myself that the unconscious
dogmatists were by far the most dogmatic. - G. K. Chesterton




1. All religious claims about truth can only be partially true – Question: Is that totally true, or only partially true? Story: Three Blind Men and the Elephant. Three blind men are walking and come across an elephant. They each lay hold of something on the elephant and try to figure out what it is. One grabs the trunk and says it’s long and flexible, it’s a snake. Another grabs a leg and says no it’s think and round, must be a tree trunk. The third grabs feels the elephant’s large and flat side and figures the other two are wrong. The point of this very popular illustration originating in India but used in comparative religion courses all over is that each man felt only part of the elephant and no one could grasp the whole elephant. Likewise, religions have a grasp of part of the truth about reality, but none can and should claim to have the whole truth about reality. But there is a fatal problem with those who use this illustration in defense of religious pluralism. Newbigin and Keller point out that the story is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind. How could we know that each blind man grasped only part of the elephant unless someone was able to see the whole elephant. Keller: How could you claim to know that no religion has the whole truth unless “you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed none of the religions have?
2. All claims about religion are culturally conditioned and can’t be trusted – If all claims about religion are culturally conditioned, then so is the postmodernist’s claims about religion. I guess they can’t be trusted either. Plantinga – “Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would be quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist...If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he probably wouldn't be a pluralist. Does it follow that...his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process?" which can’t be trusted?
3. We can’t know anything about God or ultimate reality – Wow, you sure seem to know a lot about both. This one statement is a sweeping claim about ultimate reality. It claims to know much about the nature of God and of man (God does not speak, has not revealed Himself, man can’t understand Him or know Him, etc.). Keller: You can’t say that all claims about religion are historically conditioned except the one I am making right now.
4. It is arrogant to say that only your claims about religion are true, exclusively true – Keller: It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about religion (that they are equal) is right.” As soon as anyone says anything about religion (whether only one is right or all are wrong) one makes an exclusive claim about religion. And if that is arrogance, the postmodernist is arrogant too.
5. It is arrogant and ethnocentric to say that some cultures/religions are inferior – Are you saying that religions and cultures that claim to be superior are worse than the ones that do not claim to be superior? If true, then there goes Human Rights campaigns. Story of Anthropologist from Rhode Island, well-steeped in moral and cultural relativism in grad school; went to Africa to promote human rights for women. Tribal chiefs said leave us alone, morals are locally and culturally constructed; don’t say that your way of doing things is superior, how arrogant! She realized, either Human Rights or Moral/Cultural relativism, but not both.
6. Religions that claim to be exclusively true and are intense in nature are dangerous – Response: The person who says there is no truth is just as scary or scarier than the person who accuses me of not having the truth. (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, French Revolution). What makes one dangerous is not that they believe but what they believe (we all have that). Postmoderns like to say that atheists don’t fly planes into towers, but as Michael Horton has said, neither do Baptists and Presbyterians. It’s also not how intensely they believe it (we are told the religious extremism is the problem). Keller: Ever heard of an Amish terrorist? Can’t get more intense in belief than that! Indeed, a very intense devoted Christian who is genuinely Christ like would be zealous and courageous for the truth of the gospel – YES - but also patient, gentle, loving, forgiving, and seeking to serve, suffer, and die for others. In other words, the Christian who is self-righteous and unsympathetic to unbelievers needs to be more intense in faith, not less.
7. What matters is deeds, not creeds – Answer: is that your creed? Or they say it’s not about what you believe, but what you do. Question – Is that what you believe?
8. You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right – The title of this recently published book nicely captures what DA Carson calls the New Tolerance. According to the NT, it is intolerant for anyone to say that their way of thinking is better than another person’s. That’s a different understanding of tolerance than in years past where intolerance meant trying to suppress or exclude views with which you disagree. I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it. Ravi Zacherias once was a guest lecturer in an undergraduate class on world religions. He explained that Christianity is exclusively true. Afterwards, he and the class professor went to lunch. The prof challenged Ravi’s view of the nature of religion and logic. The prof said, Ravi your problem is that you have adopted a Western system of logic. The Western logic is either/or. Opposite statements can’t both be true in the Western either/or logic. But in eastern logic, they can. This is because eastern logic is a both/and system. Two opposite statements can both be true (or not wrong). So finally he concluded: “So, Either/Or Logic, the Law of Non-Contradiction, is Western. Both/And logic, the Law of Dialectic, is Eastern.” Adopt the eastern form, and viola! Your tolerant! Ravi asked if he was finished, and said this: "What you are telling me is this: when I am studying Hinduism, I either use the Both/And system, or nothing else. Is that right?" Do you know what he said? He put his knife and fork down and he said, "The Either/Or does seem to emerge, doesn't it? You see, he was using Either/Or logic to prove the Both/And logic. And the more he tried to clobber the Law of Non-Contradiction, the more it clobbered him. So, Jesus' claim about himself, that he was/is THE way, is reasonable. The question is, was he right? Jesus' claim was reasonable. All religions are exclusive. I looked at that professor and said, "Sir, I've got some shocking news for you: Even in India, you look before crossing the street. It is either the bus, or you, not both of you." It has nothing to do with Eastern and Western; it's what best reflects reality.
9. Since we can’t agree on which religion is correct, we ought to keep our religious views away from the public space or conversation (like politics). First, I’ve already demonstrated that everyone is religious in the sense that everyone starts with unprovable faith assumptions about ultimate reality, ethics, knowledge, and destiny. That is, everyone has a worldview, including secularists or naturalists. Excluding “religion” from the public space, then, discriminates against all worldviews but one, naturalism. That’s not freedom of religion and it’s sure not democracy. It’s not even a public space anymore; it’s a private gathering of secularists and “religious” folk who are forced to masquerade as if they are naturalists when they are really not. How fair is that? This is a slight of hand tactic, where secularists are allowed to argue openly and publicly from their worldview but Christians are not. Second, if Christians should be discredited and excluded because they ground their opinions in the Bible, then secularists should be discredited and excluded because they ground their opinions in their feelings and there’s no clear reason why politics should treat one source of authority better than the other. Third, all politics is ethics. It is about what we ought to do as a society. If it is impossible to be worldview neutral about anything it is ethics. Fourth, what’s wrong with having an open civil discussion in the public space where worldviews are allowed? Since when in a democracy does everyone have to agree on everything (our goals, our motives, our reasons, etc.) before the discussion takes place? And what do we do in a democracy when we reach a point where we just can’t convince the other person to change their preferences. We vote.
IV. Christianity clears up the confusion –
A. In the place of skepticism about knowledge and truth, Christianity has a personal God who reveals what is true to the mind of man and who created man with the ability to know the truth with varying degrees of certainty.
B. In the place of moral relativism, Christianity has moral absolutes grounded in the revealed character of God. In the morning lecture (naturalism), we saw how ethics and therefore human rights would be meaningless. With postmodernism, we see that it is impossible; this is because all morals are relative, totally self-referential, culturally determined, and always equal. If there is no God, then we may always say to anyone who tells us how to live and how to treat others, Says Who? You? You are just telling me what your tribe thinks is right, not what is right for all people at all times. But if God has spoken, then we have an external superior moral standard to which we all are obligated and by which we may judge the actions of ourselves and others. We are no longer a law unto ourselves. It is amazing how many non-Christian scholars have admitted that Christianity would clear up the confusion concerning morality and human rights and skepticism about truth and knowledge and so on, but simply refuse to take that step. Keller: If a premise (There is no God) leads to a conclusion you know isn’t true (nothing is wrong), then why not change the premise? Best example of this I can think of, is Arthur Leff’s classic essay in the Duke Law Journal. He writes page after page explaining how ethics without God is impossible and how if there is no God, nothing can take His place, and how confused we must remain about the basis of all law. But his conclusion, like Pilate’s reaction to Jesus, is to stare truth in the face but refuse to acknowledge what he knows deep down.


Remember this, if tyrants have nothing to fear from atheists, because death is the end of existence with no heaven or hell, then they likewise having nothing to fear from postmodernists who preach moral relativism, because we can’t know whether tyranny is evil at all. We only have our feelings and cultures and personal preferences. As Ravi has said, in some cultures they love their neighbors, in other cultures they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. Do you have a preference?

Remember Pilate? Jesus had said to Pilate, Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” And Pilate the relativist scoffed, What is Truth? And walked away. Pilate did not hear the voice of the Master. He was not of the truth. He remained lost in a sea of skepticism, confusion, schizophrenia, and moral relativism, and hopelessness. My question for you is, do you hear his voice?


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From Arthur Allen Leff . Duke Law Journal, Vol. 1979, No. 6, Symposium on Law and Ethics (Dec., 1979), pp. 1229-1249.

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