Back to Christian Witnessing: Secular Postmoderns
Conﬁdent Belief: What Does it Mean to Know Truth?
This is one of what will hopefully be many articles on ways to effectively witness within our increasingly post-modern and post-Christian society. These articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of those working with path2prayer ministries, but provide helpful insights on this significant topic. Dan A.
It’s hard to imagine how any Christian at any time in history could live life completely free from any doubts about the truth of the faith. Suffering, inconsistent behavior among Christians, the lure of the world, intellectual misgivings-these things and others can lead us to question whether it’s all true.
Since the days of the early church there have been objections to the gospel which have given pause to Christians. Can I really believe this? Should I believe this? Doubt is part of human experience, and Christians experience it no less than non-Christians. Doubts about our faith are more momentous than many we deal with, however, because of their implications. I have my doubts about whether my favorite football team will be in the Super Bowl, but I can still hang in there with them as a fan. The claims of Christ are much more momentous, however. Our individual destinies and more are at stake.
We ﬁnd ourselves today in the West beset by two different schools of thought which can cause us to doubt. On the one hand are the modernists, heirs of the Enlightenment, who believe that reason is sufﬁcient for true knowledge and that Christianity just doesn’t measure up to sound reason. On the other hand are postmodernists who don’t believe anyone can know what is true, and are astonished that we dare lay claim to having the truth about ultimate reality.
I’d like to look at these two mindsets to see if they have legitimate claims. The goal is to see if either should be allowed to rob us of our conﬁdence.
Modernism and Certain Knowledge
Modernists believe that our reason is sufﬁcient to know truth, in fact the only reliable means of attaining knowledge. Only that which can be scientiﬁcally measured and quantiﬁed and reasoned through logically can constitute true knowledge.
What does this say, however, about things that can’t be so measured, things such as beauty, morals, and matters of the spirit? Can we not have knowledge of such things? We have inherited the belief that such things are at best matters of opinion; they are subjective matters having to do only with the individual’s experiences and tastes.
This way of thinking is disastrous for religious beliefs of almost any kind. Christianity in particular makes claims that can’t be weighed or counted or measured (although there are elements which can be empirically tested): the nature of God, justiﬁcation by faith, the deity of Christ, and the reality of the Holy Spirit are a few examples. Since these elements are central but don’t ﬁt within our logical, scientiﬁc mindset, they are said to be matters of personal opinion at best, or ﬁgments of our imagination at worst.
The matter of the “knowability” of the faith is a problem for nonbelievers, but it can be a worse problem for believers. Those whom Daniel Taylor calls “reﬂective Christians” often ﬁnd themselves betrayed by their own doubts; they feel the weight of providing for themselves the kind of evidences a nonbeliever might demand and feel guilty when they cannot produce in their own minds a logical certainty for their beliefs.1 What such a believer typically does is continue to mount up evidence and arguments and think and talk and think some more and hope that one day either the missing link will come clear or he will be able to “call off thoughts awhile,” in the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.2
Times are changing, though, and the problem Christians face more and more is the challenge coming from the other end of the spectrum. If modernists demand indubitable knowledge, postmodernists deny the very possibility of true knowledge at all. While on the one hand modernists say there is not enough evidence to trust our beliefs, on the other hand postmodernists tell us our evidences mean nothing regarding the truth value of our faith.
Postmodernists believe that truth is a construct of our own imagination and desires. They believe there is no single, unifying account of reality that covers everything, one metnarrative as they call it. They believe one must leave everything an open question, that one shouldn’t settle anywhere since there is no way to know ultimate truths at all. Our own realities are created for us partly by our society and partly by our own exercise of power, often by the very words we use.
Is the Christian, then, now to think of her faith as just that? Her faith? Something that has validity for her and her group but not necessarily for everyone? This kind of thinking fosters religious pluralism, the belief that truth is found in many different religions. This is disastrous for Christianity for it leaves us wondering why we should hold to these beliefs when others might be more attractive.
Thus, there is on the one hand the modernist who thinks we can know everything we need to know using our reason, and on the other the postmodernist who thinks the search for knowledge is a waste of time. In the face of these mindsets, what should we do? Should we resign ourselves to feeling guilty and maybe a little intellectually perverse because we can’t assign mathematical certainty to our beliefs? Or do we swallow the skepticism of postmodernists and just hold our beliefs as the creations of our own minds and wills? It is my contention that we needn’t be bound by either position on truth and knowledge, but that we can have knowledgeable conﬁdence in the truth of the faith.
Modernism: The Enlightenment Search for Knowledge
Modernity was the era which had its roots in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and which continued until recent years. Although postmodernism seems to be the order of the day, one worldview doesn’t come to a screeching halt one day and another pick up the next. Thus, there are still many people who view life in modernist terms.
Modernists believe that reason is the only truly reliable source of knowledge. Revelation is set aside. Since reason is the authority, only that which has logical or mathematical certainty can be accepted as true knowledge. Anything less can only have some level of probability. The attacks of empiricists such as David Hume apparently rendered Christianity highly improbable.
Lesslie Newbigin argues that this demand for indubitable knowledge gave rise to the skepticism of our day. In fact, postmodern skepticism is a sharp rejection of Enlightenment thought.
Let’s look brieﬂy at the Enlightenment ideal of knowledge.
Ren Descartes and the Search for Certainty In response to the skepticism of the 17th century, mathematician/philosopher Ren Descartes accepted the challenge of providing an argument for the existence of God which would be beyond doubt.3 Descartes’s approach was to use the tool of the skeptics-which is doubt-as his starting point. He threw out everything that couldn’t be known indubitably, and was left with one idea which he couldn’t doubt: I think, therefore I am. He developed his philosophy from this starting point.
Two important points are to be made about Descartes’s method. First, he made the break from starting with God as the measure of all things to starting with the individual person. Human reason was now the supreme arbiter of truth.4 Second, Descartes established doubt as a principle of knowledge.5 In modern times, critical thinking doubts everything until it is proved true.
On this basis, Western man devoted himself to knowing as much as he could about his world without any reference to God, and with the idea that knowledge had to be logically or mathematically certain.
Knowledge is quantiﬁable; one must strip away anything other than brute, objective facts which can be weighed, counted, or measured or deduced from facts which can be so quantiﬁed. Knowledge was to be objective, certain, and dispassionate-not subject to personal feelings or values or faith commitments. As theologian Stanley Grenz says, “The new tools of research included precise methods of measurement and a dependence on mathematical logic. In turning to this method, Enlightenment investigators narrowed their focus of interest-and hence began to treat as real only those aspects of the universe that are measurable.”6
On the heels of Descartes came Isaac Newton who gave us a vision of the cosmos as being an orderly machine, an idea in keeping with the rationalism of Descartes. The universe could be understood once its laws were understood. Although Descartes and Newton believed their ideas gave support to their Christian beliefs, they were subsequently used for just the opposite. “The modern world turned out to be Newton’s mechanistic universe populated by Descartes’s autonomous, rational substance,” says Grenz. “In such a world, theology was forced to give place to the natural sciences, and the central role formerly enjoyed by the theologian became the prerogative of the natural scientist.”7
Was Descartes’s method signiﬁcant in Western History? Grenz notes that “Descartes set the agenda for philosophy for the next three hundred years” by making human reason central.8 In time, this approach was applied to other disciplines as well, from politics to ethics to theology. “In this way,” says Grenz, “all ﬁelds of the human endeavor became, in effect, branches of natural science.”9
Time has proved the value of scientiﬁc and mathematical reasoning. We all enjoy the beneﬁts of technology. This being the case, however, why is it that we at the turn of the century ﬁnd ourselves so skeptical? What has happened to the conﬁdence modern man had in his ability to know?
Postmodernism: The Rejection of the Enlightenment Idea
With the acceptance of Ren Descartes’s idea that truth was to be found ultimately in reason, and that the starting point for knowledge was doubt, the die was cast for the period of history we call modernity. Using just his reason, and denying anything which wasn’t certain, the individual could come to true knowledge with no reference to God.
But skeptical attacks continued through such philosophers as David Hume. In response, Immanuel Kant formulated a new understanding of knowledge. He believed that knowledge came from data received by the senses which was then formed into understandable ideas by the workings of our own minds. Thus, the structure of our own minds became a crucial component of the known world. With Kant, the thinking individual was now ﬁrmly established as the ﬁnal authority for truth. Even with this, however, Kant still believed there is a reality external to us, and that all our minds work the same way to understand it.
Although Kant believed that we could truly know the world around us, his ideas pushed us a signiﬁcant step away from that reality. He believed that we are thus incapable of knowing things as they are in themselves; we only know things as they appear to us. Thus, since God doesn’t appear to us empirically, we do not have real knowledge of Him. Philosophers following him began to pick away at this ideas. Johann Fichte, for example, accepted Kant’s ideas for the most part, but denied the idea that there are things—themselves; in other words, that there is something to reality apart from our perceptions of it. What we perceive is what is there. Now the way was made clear to think in terms of “alternative conceptual frameworks.” There could now be multiple ways of understanding and interpreting the world.
Other philosophers picked away at Kant as well, but we’ll only consider one more, the man who has been called the “patron saint of postmodern philosophy,”10 Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a true foe of modernism. He believed the whole project of building up these “great ediﬁces of ideas” 11 was fundamentally ﬂawed. Our attempts to abstract general knowledge from the particulars around us only results in distortion, he thought. He argued that “what we commonly accept as human knowledge is in fact merely a self-contained set of illusions. He essentially viewed ‘truth’ as a function of the language we employ and hence believed that truth ‘exists’ only within speciﬁc linguistic contexts.”12 Our world is only a construction of our own perspective, an aesthetic creation. And it has its roots in the will to power, “the desire to perfect and transcend the self through the exercise of personal creative power rather than dependence on anything external.” Thus, “Motivated by the will to power,” he thought, “we devise metaphysical concepts-conceptions of ‘truth’-that advance the cause of a certain species or people.”13
This is the heart of postmodern thought, and it surrounds us today. We cannot know the truth about reality; we only know our own constructions of it. We can hope to convince others to join us in our beliefs, but there is no room for rational argumentation, because one’s views about the world are no better or worse than any others. As Stanley Grenz says, “all human interpretations-including the Christian worldview-are equally valid because all are equally invalid.”14 No one can really know, so believe what you want. But in attacking the possibility of knowing truth, postmodernism has cut off the limb upon which it sits. One writer has noted that postmodernism has destroyed itself. “It has deconstructed its entire universe. So all that are left are pieces. All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces-that is postmodern.”15
These, then, are the primary choices our society offers for considering the truth value of Christianity. Either we can afﬁrm the modernist attitude and be satisﬁed only with scientiﬁc or mathematical certainty, or with the postmodernist we can throw the whole truth thing out the window.
Impossible Demands, Groundless Limitations: A Critique
When challenged directly or indirectly by the world about the validity of our faith, what do we do? Do we continue to use modernistic ways of thinking to make a case for the faith, believing that we must provide logically certain proof? Or do we offer a postmodern, “true for me” argument relying on subjective matters which we use to persuade people to believe?16 The answer lies in rejecting both the demands of modernism and the limitations of postmodernism.
Neither Mathematical Certainty …
In his book Proper Conﬁdence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship, Lesslie Newbigin argues that the modern approach was essentially wrong-headed, that it called for something which was unattainable.
With respect to the insistence on mathematical certainty, Newbigin notes ﬁrst that this way of thinking takes us away from the real world rather than moving us closer to it. He says, “The certainty of mathematical propositions, as Einstein often observed, is strictly proportionate to their remoteness from reality.”17 For example, there is no such thing as a point as understood mathematically. Certainty belongs to the world of pure forms, not that of material things. “Only statements that can be doubted make contact with reality,” he says.18
Second, thinkers in the Romantic period argued that “mathematical reason could not do justice to the fullness of human experience.” Such things as art and music and cultural traditions can’t be mapped out mathematically.19
Third, the ambition of dealing with facts apart from values or other non-factual biases is an impossible dream. We are never value-free in our thinking, even in the laboratory. As writers such as Thomas Kuhn and Michael Polanyi have shown (both of whom were scientists turned philosophers), what one studies and for what purpose, how one acts ethically in the lab and in the reporting of studies, what ones overall goals are for particular scientiﬁc work-all these reﬂect unproved value commitments; no one gives indubitable evidence for their validity. For all practical purposes it is impossible to remove such values held by faith.
In addition, I suggest that it isn’t merely practically impossible to remove these faith/value commitments: it would be wrong to attempt to do so. One must always situate one’s work in a framework of values to give it any signiﬁcant meaning at all. Otherwise we are just acting, just doing things with no purpose to give coherence and direction.
Someone might object here that ones value commitments can be veriﬁed so as to render them no longer just faith commitments. To this Newbigin responds that faith is fundamental, even to doubt! For even doubt must rest on beliefs which are not themselves doubted. This is because one doubts something because it conﬂicts with something else one already believes. If that prior belief is also subjected to the test of doubt, it, too, can only be doubted because of something else one believes, and so on. Further, if one’s doubt itself is based upon certain criteria of truth, then those criteria themselves must be believed. If they, too, are subjected to doubt, then the criteria for evaluating them must be believed to be true criteria, and so on again. Of course, one could simply doubt everything-in other words, become a skeptic. But no one can live consistently as a skeptic. To get in a car and drive on the highway indicates that one believes the brakes will work. And we expect people to have a basic understanding of some normative moral values. Newbigin sums up: “One does not learn anything except by believing something, and-conversely-if one doubts everything one learns nothing …Rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa.”20
It’s important to realize, too, that the mathematical model simply doesn’t apply across the board. Few areas of our lives are governed by such a high standard. Christianity isn’t just a set of ideas to be logically constructed and evaluated. It is a Person relating to persons in particular historical contexts. We can place no stricter demands on this relationship regarding the certainty of knowledge than we do on the relationships we experience with people on earth in particular historical contexts.
On the plus side, we do have a signiﬁcant body of evidence supporting our belief including historical evidences, rational arguments, and matters of the human experience such as the question of meaning-things which can’t be quantiﬁed and thus ﬁnd no place in modernistic thought. We also have no reason to adopt the reductionistic naturalism of modernism just on modernists’ say so, but rather recognize the reality of and intrusion of the supernatural into our world.
In addition, it must also be kept in mind that the truth of Christianity doesn’t rest on the fragility of human reason, although it is through our minds that we recognize its truth. It rests on the faithfulness of God who has made Himself known to us.21 Our assurance comes from the combination of knowing, believing, and following the One who is true, not just from working out logical arguments.
Thus, we conclude that beliefs do not have to be indubitable to be held as true-in fact, very little of what we know has indubitable certainty-and unproved values form a necessary part of our knowledge. Modernists are not justiﬁed in requiring us to conform to their narrow standards for rationality.
…Nor Postmodern Skepticism
Although modernism was nave in its expectations of reason, the reaction of postmodernism has been too severe.
In its reaction against modernism, postmodernism threw off the classical understanding of truth-namely, correspondence with reality. Having rejected the possibility of knowing what is real external to us, postmodernists have left us with only our own minds, wills, and words. Truth is the product of the creative activity of the individual.
But this clearly isn’t the way we live. We assume that whenever we say something like, “It’s raining outside,” or even, “It’s wrong to wantonly destroy the earth,” we intend our words to reﬂect what really is the case.22 Even the postmodernist will believe that injustice and oppression are wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated. Otherwise, how would we know that one act is morally acceptable and another unacceptable, even across cultures?23 Thus, we reveal that we believe truth is there and accessible. Is there any reason to think that spiritual beliefs can’t also correspond with reality? I can’t think of any, unless one simply presupposes that spiritual realities can’t be known.
What’s more, we typically act as if we believe truth is objective, by which we mean that something really is the case apart from whether we believe it or not.24 How can we meaningfully interact with the world around us if we don’t think we can truly know it and not simply our individual or group construction of it?
Postmoderns’ belief that there can be multiple and conﬂicting truths must be rejected also, for if truth is that which conforms to reality and reality itself cannot be contradictory, truth cannot be either. Either it is raining outside my window or it’s not. It can’t be doing both at the same time in the same location.
Likewise, for example, either God exists or He doesn’t. It can’t be both
Against postmodernism, we hold that there is no reason to think there can’t be one explanation for all of reality unless one accepts a radical perspectivalism; i.e., that our beliefs are only our own perspectives and not reﬂections of reality itself. For the postmodernist to say this is to reveal that he assumes he has the inside scoop on ultimate reality which he claims no one has. This is therefore a faith commitment. Furthermore, there’s no reason to think we can’t know what the true explanation is, especially if the One who knows about it perfectly tells us.
Postmoderns also believe that truth is a construct of language. Because the meanings of words can vary, each linquistic group has its own truth. However, the fact that there are different words for the same thing doesn’t change the fact that the referent is the same. We don’t change the nature of something simply by changing the words we use for it. This is the weakness of what has been called “political correctness.” It is thought, it seems, that by using different words for something we thereby change the thing itself. While a thought, it seems, that by using different words for something we thereby change the thing itself. While a change of terminology might change our attitude about something, it doesn’t change that something itself.
Thus, we reject the skepticism of postmodernity and conﬁdently rest of the faith we hold as describing the way things really are.
We believe that there is no reason to accept postmodern skepticism. Skepticism is ultimately unlivable, and we needn’t spend our lives “playing with the pieces.” There is no reason in principle to assume we can’t know ultimate realities just because of our human limitations. It is arbitrary to simply decide God cannot reveal truth to us because of our limitations.
Further, there is no reason why there can’t be one explanation of reality. The good news for postmodernists is that we have been met by the One who created the “story” of the world and is able to put the pieces together into a coherent whole. His is the one true explanation of reality. We deny that we are trapped behind our own perspectives, cut off from direct contact with reality,25 and thus not able to “impose” truth on others. Truth is knowable and sharable.
Postmodernists believe that each person can only have his or her own “story” or life’s situation, that each of us can only have his or her own little piece. We respond that we have a story that puts all the pieces together, a story which is coherent and consistent and which matches the nature of the needs of humanity. As we look around the world we see that we all are very much alike in our basic needs and aspirations. If there is such a thing as human nature and a human condition, it isn’t unreasonable to think there could be one explanation of it.
Modernism served to produce doubts through its insistence upon certain knowledge, and postmodernism produces doubt through its insistence that no one can really know ultimate truths. Can we have conﬁdence in the trustworthiness of our beliefs in the face of modernist and postmodernist ideas?
In response to doubts produced by modernism we look to Jesus, a historical Person who has revealed to us more than our reason is capable of discovering on its own. In response to doubts engendered by postmodernism, we look to Jesus the Creator of all and the ﬁnal Word who has revealed to us ultimate truth. In him we ﬁnd truth in its fullest sense, as the one who is real and trustworthy and who speaks. We can have conﬁdence in our beliefs.
1. Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty: The Reﬂective Christian and the Risk of Commitment (Waco: Word Books, 1986), 18-19.
2. Ibid., 19.
3. Leslie Newbigin, Proper Conﬁdence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 20.
4. Carl F.H. Henry, Remaking the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 22-23, 227-28.
5. For this reason Descartes has been called the father of modern philosophy. Dagobert D. Runes, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: Philosophical Library, 1983), s.v. “Descartes, Ren,” by St. Elmo Nauman, Jr.
6. Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 66.
7. Ibid., 67. Grenz notes that “Descartes set the agenda for philosophy for the next three hundred years” by making human reason central.
8. Ibid., 64.
9. Ibid., 67.
10. Ibid., 88.
11. Ibid., 89.
12. Ibid., 90.
13. Ibid., 92.
14. Ibid., 164.
15. Jean Baudrillard, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, Ill.: 2000), 169.
16. There are some who believe we can put to use some of the perspectives of postmodernism, but it would take us too far aﬁeld of our subject to develop that now. For our purposes, I’m only concerned with the central skepticism of postmodernism.
17. Newbigin, 51.
18. Ibid., 52.
19. Ibid., 31.
20. Ibid., 24, 25.
21. Ibid., 67.
22. For a recent study on truth in relation to postmodernism, see Groothuis, Truth Decay.
23. Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 197-199.
24. Against modernism, however, we can afﬁrm that believing in objective truth doesn’t require that there be no non-provable elements involved in coming to know truth.
25. Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 63.
2001 Probe Ministries International
About the Author
Rick Wade graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a B.A. in Communications (radio broadcasting) in 1986. He graduated cum laude in 1990 from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School with an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) where his studies culminated in a thesis on the apologetics of Carl F.H. Henry. Rich and his family make their home in Garland, Texas. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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