Postmodernism teaches us that human concepts are not God-given. Many postmodernists believe that some forms of understanding “may” be innate to our humanness but most are clearly the products of human conventions that were formed within particular cultures and historical events. This whole new way of thinking calls into question the very way that we use language. But if language no longer communicates objective reality then how can we rely on words themselves to faithfully communicate the truth of the gospel? Is this not a short cut to religious and moral relativism?

It would be helpful to define relativism at this point. It is the philosophical doctrine that all criteria of judgment are relative to the individuals and situations involved. It is the theory, especially as it is used in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but only relative. The term, especially when it is employed by Christians, refers to idea that there are no absolute truths; i.e. truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as language or culture. This then leads to moral relativism where there are no moral laws thus we decide what to do, or not do, based upon our (personal) way of thinking about it.

It is plainly true that a growing number of people believe there are no absolute truths. Of those under 35 years of age the percentage is very high. Every poll known to mankind reveals this to be a fact. And if this is true then the common (modern) basis for belief in God is seriously undermined, to say the least. Westphal_Merold But Christian philosopher Merold E. Westphal rightly concludes:

It seems to me that the postmodern arguments are about the limits of human understanding and that they support the claim that we do not have access to the Truth. But what is different from this claim that there is no Truth, which would be true only if there were no other subject or subjects capable of Truth (Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith, 86).

I would thus suggest that a proper use of the postmodern contribution is to be found by embracing a kind of skepticism that is suspicious about our personal (easy) access to the truth. If we are Christians we should plainly refuse the idea that there is no absolute truth (such as God). Christians who want to use postmodern thought do not argue that we have no access to the truth but rather that we do not have the kind of access that modernity offered to us. What they are saying is that we do not have a certainty that can be framed by a very human system and then spoken about as if this was the truth in ways that fit nicely into the scientific model. When we do theology in this way we make theology more like mathematics than like art or poetry. I believe a good theological method can still chastely use some elements of the old model but it desperately needs the insights of the new to return Christian thinking to its proper place.

Overcoming Onto-Theology Keep in mind again that postmodernity is not only hard to define but many Christians have been taught that it is nothing more than a positive evil. When this has been done they will hear little or no explanation of what postmodernity actually is and thus easily equate it with moral relativism and then condemn it. The fact is that postmodernity is still in its infancy. Remember, the dominant way to understand postmodernism is to see it as a rejection of the principles upon which modernity was founded. It is, at least right now, a reaction against the past. Postmodernists are rejecting Enlightenment (modernist) beliefs, attitudes and methods. Even science now admits that “knowledge as a human endeavor, though never certain, can be overwhelmingly probable” (Kenell Touryan, “Are Truth Claims in Science Socially Constructed,” in Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith, June, 1999, 103). Christians can admit the same in a chaste and humble manner.

In theology the problem is quite obvious, at least to an increasingly large number of thinkers and teachers. Modernists, who are often very conservative in their theological conclusions, embrace a theology that equates their knowledge of a theological system with faithfulness, or real certainty. Many times it sounds like these conservative Christians are actually equating their conclusions with God’s mind. They seem quite sure that they have a one-for-one correspondence between their thoughts and God’s thoughts. Not all such modernists respond in the same way but this kind of certitude very often feeds pride and leads to endless fights about the truth. These modernist approaches helped fuel religious wars in the post-Reformation age, have created numerous Christian schisms since and have resulted in so many denominations and “truth” wars that one is left gasping for air in the face of this sad reality.

If the postmodern shift has done anything positive for Christians I think we find a reason here. The developing postmodern critique has helped more and more Christians become aware of a simple fact: God knows the truth in a way that we humans do not. The right use of postmodern suspicion is to employ it to combat the notion that we have easy access to the truth. When conservative pastors tell their people that solid exposition and Bible study will make them into mature disciples then they get very close to this danger! (This is not an attack on study and Bible exposition so read the statement carefully.)

A secular postmodernist deduces that there is no absolute truth. The reason for this is that the person has not yet met the one who is the truth in Jesus Christ. But no postmodern Christian, who knows the one who is the truth, will ever claim that there is no absolute truth since they have a personal relationship with the one who incarnates the absolute truth.

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  1. John Henry I. October 14, 2010 at 4:38 am

    John, You wrote, “When conservative pastors tell their people that solid exposition and Bible study will make them into mature disciples then they get very close to this danger! (This is not an attack on study and Bible exposition so read the statement carefully.)”
    I believe that many “conservative” pastors believe that they are engaging in “solid exposition” and call it what you state as being “Bible exposition”. These pastors therefore believe that their Bible exposition is solid exposition.

  2. John Metz October 14, 2010 at 11:55 am

    John, I find this discussion fascinating, especially as it applies to the analysis of systematic theology as a system for knowing God. It is too easy to substitute knowing about God or knowing about the things of God or knowing good, solid Bible teaching for knowing God Himself. Although we honor and cherish the truths of the Bible, the truth of God, the truth of justification, regeneration, and salvation, simply knowing about these things cannot substitute for knowing Christ in a practical, daily way. Thanks for your provocative post.

  3. Chris Criminger October 14, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    Hi John,
    An excellent Christian response to the limits of knowledge and certainty is Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship” (Eerdmans, 1995).

  4. Emily October 15, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Being one of those under 35-postmodern Christian leaders, I hope that maybe you could potentially benefit from the voice of those you speak of.
    Have you ready Paul Lakeland’s Postmodernity? Its in this book that I realized what I believed from my world view was most clearly defined. I am postmodern, I think that truth as we have defined it is rarely True. What is True with a “Capital T”, is God. God is the absolute Truth. However, as humanity, we’ll never get there. Our language, our reasoning, our pictures, everything is finite and fails us. We’ll find lots of “little t” truths that might get close to God, but we’ll never know the exact actual Truth that is God, in the same way we’ll never be able to clearly define God. Our human definitions are wonderful, but finite.
    You say things like, “its plainly true that a growing number of people there is no absolute Truth”. Yet I have seen studies show a belief in a higher power is growing. Postmoderns aren’t so sure there are very many, “plain truths”. Instead there are tons of little truths–most are complicated and lovely. And in the end, they point to a beautiful picture of God, that will never be perfect or true when seen through my eyes.
    Postmodern millenials live in a world where we’ve been asked to believe lots of Truths. Political pundits and media outlets throw numbers in our face to prove what they want. So, we choose to listen to John Stewart for our news–because he makes us laugh and is clear that he’s telling us HIS truth. There are notable preachers who tell us that there are Biblical Truths that somehow miraculously aline with their worldview (that women should be less than, that gay people are evil, and that if we’re good Christians we’ll vote Republican and drive Lexus’s). And that doesn’t match up with the Truths we’ve been taught. So, we don’t go to church.
    This is the culture I live in, preach in, and serve. These are the people I minister to. And time and time again, I talk about finding the Truth. About finding God. Some tell me (even if they can’t say it aloud) that there is no Truth. And we talk and pray and laugh and eventually, most of them agree with my logic and my heart. Eventually so many of them start their journey looking for God.
    In the end, postmodernity brings a lot of good things. The humility you spoke of–knowing that we will never have all the answers. It also bring about a sensitivity and understanding to those around us. It allows us to love and accept others the way Christ did–instead of having to judge their truths all the time. Most of all, it reminds us that God is in charge, all the time.
    I think a lot of good can come out of it, but I also wonder if we refuse to change the way we operate, if we’ll ever reach the youth. I don’t know about you, but I think its worth it.

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