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Monday, March 21, 2011

Are the things we know really things?

I make an effort (sometimes less successfully than others), when I run across an idea that first strikes me as silly or clearly wrong, to learn what the wise people who hold an idea think about it and how they justify it before I will assert my first impression. When I am able to do this, it has usually served me fairly well. Some ideas have turned out to be incredibly profound and have become important influences to my understanding of the world. Others have turned out to be just as silly as they seemed at first, but either way I certainly understand much more after my investigations than I did before.

I am currently working through that process with an approach to theology and philosophy which I will call theological post-modernism. I have a bit of a history with post-modernism in general and had even come to the conclusion that it was one of the ultimately wrong ideas I have tried to give some real consideration to. My reason for rejecting post-modernism so far is fairly straight forward: post-modernism claims to deny the existence of absolute truth. I know that to many of us living in a generally post-modern culture, even the idea of absolute truth sounds harsh, unloving and somehow academically totalitarian, and I suppose that in some ways it is. As I understand it, believing in absolute truth means believing that there are some things, events and even abstractions which absolutely do exist. Examples would be moral absolute truths like "it was evil of Hitler to instigate the holocaust" or ontological truths like "I exist" or "God exists" or "you exist". These absolute truths are things which are part of our universal reality. They just are and they are completely unaffected by whether or not any one of us consents to them, how we feel about them, whether or not we know them and whether or not we believe them to be true. Another way to put it would be that because there is absolute truth, it is possible for people to be wrong about things.

I still believe in absolute truth, but I am not sure that this theological post-modernism is attacking it. Instead, theological post-modernism seems to be attacking the idea that we can (and sometimes even should) prove things in an indubitable way. In other words it questions the validity of iron clad empirical or rational proof. It want's to suggest (I think and hope) that there are other ways of knowing, other ways of getting at the absolute truths which we want and whom we crave in Christ. People and writers who fall into this camp seem to be fond of criticizing the enlightenment and to some extent the reformation as a time when the western world narrowed down to the two categories of empirical and rational truth thereby excluding the many other forms of knowing. They seem to call this enlightenment approach "objective truth" which has really thrown me off balance because I was right with them (I like to think of myself as a neo-pre-modern thinker) until they started denouncing objective truth since "objective truth" sounds so much like "absolute truth"; especially since "subjective truth" works as an opposite to both of them.

But I think that this initial impression was mistaken. I think that by "objective truth", theological post-modernists really mean "objective knowledge" and don't mean "the real nature of the cosmos in all it's natural and supernatural aspects". If I am right, then there is some really good, really exciting thinking going on. If not then I will have to be a little worried about the future of a Church which worships a God they do not believe to exist in any absolute or universally applicable way.
 Let me conclude with two cautions; one to theological modernists and one to theological post-modernists. To the theological modernists I want to say that you need to notice who and what the post-modernists are worshiping. They are worshiping Christ. The Christ who is and who was and who is to come. They are not denying the Logos and because they have re-discovered ways of knowing God which were common to the apostles and the Church up until the enlightenment, they may well be drawing nearer to Him than you are, limited as you might be by mere empiricism and rationalism.

To the theological post-modernists I want to say, please re-examine your language. to those of us brought up in a traditional church it often sounds like you are saying that Jesus doesn't really exist, that you just get a good emotional rush from pretending that He does. It sounds like you are telling us that is would be fine to orient our lives around an illusion even if we know that it was an illusion. Can you see why your conservative brethren become defensive when they "hear" you saying that it doesn't matter whether or not their Saviour really is. Taken to the extreme it feels to them like you are denying God's first revelation of His name "I Am That I Am". I don't believe you mean that but because you are using post-modern language, that is what it sounds like.

Can we all say that God is Love?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. i think there are some really exciting ideas at work presently as well. as you might have noticed at the not-the-religious-type blog conversation along these lines, i like the distinction that james k.a. smith gives us here:

  3. Just out of curiosity: what is the difference between believing in an absolute Christ versus an illusory Christ if the end result as it pertains to your life and behavior towards fellow man is the same?

  4. Steve, I just got a chance to listen to the lecture and Dr. Smith does make a useful distinction in it. I particularly like his suggestion that secular post-modernism stops short of its own project. It still leaves me a little confused though. It seems to me that there are two very separate things being talked about and called post-modernism. One is what Dr. Smith is talking about and I find that very exciting (although I'm not entirely clear on how it differs from pre-modernism as a worldview) and the other is a doctrine which many of my own students espouse and which they call post-modernism. This second thing defines itself by denying the existence of truth. They retreat to the subjective so that each person can have their "own truth" and live in their "own reality". I find this thing to be extremely worrying and I am still concerned that the second may spill over into the first, something I may have caught glimpses of on the non-the-religious-type blog (I'm the Bill that comments there). I would love to hear your thoughts on this one.

  5. Auturgist: That is a very important question and when I started to formulate my answer to it I realized that it deserved a full post so I hope you will swing back in a day or two by which time I hope to have something posted. In the mean time I can recommend C.S. Lewis' essay "Man or Rabbit" on the subject.