Beyond the absolute/relative truth binary wrt postmodernism

The sermon I heard today was on “truth” and I was frustrated yet again by the contingent of Evangelicalism that tries to explain modernism and postmodernism (and the answer to both, “kingdom truth”) from their white Western Enlightenment modernist perspective, using charts, and definitions, and binaries no one agreed on, and wonders why all the people under 50 in their congregation think they are clueless.

I’ve noticed that in these explanations, there are two binaries that always get pulled out:

absolute/relative
objective/subjective

The ridiculous argument goes something like, “Modernity thought that absolute truth could be found in science, but they were wrong. Postmodernity thinks that there is no absolute truth and all truth is relative, and they are wrong. WE believe that the Bible is absolute truth, and we are right.”

And of course by that, they presuppose a bunch of modernist stuff like “absolute truth exists in some abstract form and we can represent it propositionally in language and math and then “possess” it.” And that the historical-grammatical method of Bible study (a modernist attempt to “derive” absolute truth from Scripture) is objective, and what they come up with using it equals “the word of God” and not simply the preferred (subjective) interpretations of the word of God shaped by predominantly Western, male, Reformed, Enlightenment worldviews.

I propose that a better binary for actually understanding the difference between modern and postmodern conceptions of truth is not absolute vs relative, but abstract vs embodied.

Postmodern Christians say Truth is always embodied. It’s embodied in the language and the story of God relating to humans in Scripture, in the person of Christ, and in the faithful Church. It’s embodied in believers who live out Christ-like lives in their context. It is never embodied in exactly the same way because different languages, cultures, and times offer different vehicles of embodiment and create different contexts in which embodied Truth is experienced by those who encounter it. And every individual sees and experiences that embodiment from a unique perspective and interacts with it in a unique place. No single embodiment of Truth will capture all that Truth is or will be experienced in exactly the same ways by everyone. That is why we need diversity and creativity and listening and empathy, because it is with those things that we get the fullest picture of Truth from all the ways we encounter it embodied. This isn’t relativism, it’s just reality.

Acknowledging that we can only encounter truth in embodied forms and there isn’t really this abstract thing “absolute truth” that we can possess is not at all the same thing as saying that postmodern Christians think everyone gets to decide for themselves what is true, or that truth is subjective and objective truth doesn’t exist, or that truth is relative and absolute truth doesn’t exist, or that truth is something other than a description of reality, or that welcoming a pluralistic and diverse world means that you have to agree that everyone’s ideas about what is true are equally valid. Can we please leave those strawmen back in the late 90s where they belong?

Pluralism is that everyone gets to hold out their preferred linguistic and cultural embodiment of Truth and their preferred narratives that make sense of their experience with it and make their case that it’s the real deal. No one gets to say my preferred embodiment and narratives ARE absolute truth. No one gets to say that their perception of reality is the only valid perception of reality. People can still be wrong, deluded, and biased. Some peoples perceptions of reality can be better than others and some people’s embodiments of Truth can be closer to real reality than others.

This postmodern context does make it harder to call your preferred views “absolute truth” and impose them on others as something they can’t argue with, but that’s the situation we are trying to communicate about God’s word in now. Modernity is over, people. It’s long past time some of you dealt with that fact and fixed your talking points.

But it’s much easier to create strawmen that say “postmodernism says there is no absolute truth” “Christians believe absolute truth is in the Bible” (even though they still rely on modern epistemologies that say somehow people can “extract” this abstract absolute truth from the embodiment of it that is Jesus and Scripture in a way that isn’t inherently subjective and relative. In reality all presentations of the absolute truths of Christianity are reembodiments. When white Western Reformed males think the reembodiment they are offering is THE TRUTH, it’s not going to make sense.

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I definitely agree that no one can say that their truth is the absolute truth or that their perception of reality is the whole picture of best picture. Regardless if it’s social issues, political
views, ethics in their diet or biblical interpretation. No that single strands can’t be absolute truth but the complexity of the bigger picture contains to many if, ands and buts. That goes for everyone and not just straight white men western men.

When it comes to people trying to argue that the Bible is the one and one truth though I point out that there are a few issues with that. Which I’m sure you, and everyone else does the same.

  1. Ancient Mesopotamian world views is different than current views concerning the natural world and that plays a role in how they understood their scientific perceptions.

  2. In the Bible there are different kinds of truths. There are theological truths, their are historical accounts, and there are proverbial truths and there are absolute truths that we as Christian’s hold to as in Jesus Christ is the Lord of Lords.

  3. There are major changes between the Old Testament and the New. We see for example Christ fulfilling the law and doing away with animal sacrifices to shed blood to forgive them.

  4. We see other things that let us know everything God permitted , or said, was not actually what he wanted but what he felt was necessary for the hardness of human’s hearts such as divorce and remarriage.

  5. We also know that the Bible does not contain all truth. It may tell us to love our neighbors, but it does not go into all the details of how do we love our neighbors as unique individuals. It does not contain information such as what makes a good movie or book. It does not teach us math or science.

But there is definitely a tipping point for most of us that we recognize. I know that a far right young earth creationist will probably never understand , let alone see eye to eye , with a far left evolutionary creationist and vice versa. That’s why I always think we do whatever we can, but mostly we look for those on the verge. When I respond to YECers in various Facebook groups I don’t expect to actually change their minds. It may happen once in a blue moon but I have a better chance at so many other things. Instead, I respond in a way that in the future if some young college kid on the brink of walking away from their faith can instead be encouraged to deconstruct and reconstruct their faith.

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How lucky are you to attend a church which takes on postmodernism? How lucky are they to have your constructive criticism to help them gain a better appreciation of the nature of truths expressed by the Bible and the way our being limits and shapes what we can know? Something else you mentioned recently about the depth of implicit meanings vs the seeming clarity of explicit meaning seems in play here too. The simplistic summary conclusions they offered you about postmodernism entirely miss that point and exemplify the reductionary distortion which can result.

While straightening out some things today I came across an online article I’d printed out from a site called Prospect titled Wittgenstein’s Forgotten Lesson. Interesting that the problem is identified in terms of scientism which very often leads people to summarily dismiss religion. Yet when during todays sermon they made those simplistic summary statements they were falling into the same error.

If we wanted a label to describe this tide, we might call it “scientism,” the view that every intelligible question has either a scientific solution or no solution at all. It is against this view that Wittgenstein set his face.

Scientism takes many forms. In the humanities, it takes the form of pretending that philosophy, literature, history, music and art can be studied as if they were sciences, with “researchers” compelled to spell out their “methodologies”—a pretence which has led to huge quantities of bad academic writing, characterised by bogus theorising, spurious specialisation and the development of pseudo-technical vocabularies. Wittgenstein would have looked upon these developments and wept.

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/ray-monk-wittgenstein

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I hope they read this. And you were able to speak truth to power. Even though the evangelical mind very very rarely can hear it. My first Anglican fellowship was terrified of postmodern heresy, why, it could lead to universalism!

Historical-grammatical method is just another form of ID and logomancy.

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Great share, Christy. Fwiw, this Reformed white male thinks you ámame some excellent points!

It saddens me that so many Reformed seem to think that ‘always reforming’ means adopting uncritically the beliefs of the Reformers and/or their cultural worldview, rather than allowing ourselves to be reshaped into the image of Christ by the Holy Spirit as we engage with God’s revelation of himself and his plan in the Bible.

I would argue only God can know absolute truth since only he can see reality from every perspective, standpoint, time, culture, etc. However, I think it is interesting that he chose to reveal himself to us through people who lived in a particular time and place and through the nuances of their languages and personalities. Rather than say… a bunch of culturally unbound, abstract propositional statements, though I suppose he could have done.

So if I understand the categories correctly Postmodernism doesn’t mean that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is any less true or any less morally binding (in a biblical sense)…. But it does mean we have to work harder to prove it, which I think is no bad things. And perhaps will allow Evangelicals and/or the Reformed to rely less on the power of their rhetoric and more on the power of the Spirit.

Welcome any feedback, especially if I’ve misunderstood you.

Including the view expressed in that very premise. [which is one of the favorite retorts of the ‘absolutists’ when faced with this challenge.] Or in short, the conversation in apologetics books is imagined something like this:

Postmodernist: “There is no universal absolute truth.”
Opponent: “Then what was that you just uttered?”

While that exchange appears to me to have an undeniable logic, it is in such abstract and rarefied airs as to not really meet the realities we live and think in. The opponent will have a point that nobody (including any postmodernist) will even so much as live as if there was no objective truth. So the argument over the existence of such is of no consequence anyway since we all (postmodernist included) push them as defacto truths in our daily lives.

So I appreciate that the discussion can be brought back down into the practical nuances of if and how we have access to such truth. “Embodied truth” is a great phrase! And that does seem to me to be a great contribution of postmodernism that intersects significantly with Christianity. And it seems to me to allow for truth to be seen in a form other than merely propositional. A person can be true or not true, which is a much deeper claim than merely saying that the statements coming out of their mouth pass muster with all the “fact-checker” police.

If we can emerge from our early, simple-minded, reactionary apologetics, we can engage the more productive discussion of how to listen to others and to helpfully evaluate each others claims (instead of automatically dismissing them) in order to expand on our own provincial, and sometimes faulty perceptions of truth.

Not really how things work in churches like that. I come process my thoughts here where people care that I have thoughts.

Could he have though? I agree that God is not bound by any of it, but can we ever get outside our culturally bound languages and experience-shaped worldviews and understand something apart from it all? I think that is the fundamental difference in epistemology. Postmodernism pretty much said, look people, you can’t know anything new unless you can hook it into what you already know, and what you already know you know from interacting with your world and labeling your experiences with your language. I think maybe we have always known that there were limits to the human ability to grasp truth and God and reality are bigger than our minds can conceive, but I think with modernism there was this false sense of universality about the human experience. The people who were doing the investigating presumed that the understandings they arrived at were universally human understanding of universal truth and that was a big error.

I’m working on a paper for a conference and I last night I was reading a discussion of Indigenous biblical studies in Canada and the author (not Indigenous himself, he referred to himself as a “settler”) and was advocating “Aware-Settler” hermeneutics) used the metaphor of treaty and landedness to talk about how Western scholars and missionaries have approached the Bible and the truth they have found in it. He linked the text to the “land” and said that they have often entered Indigenous Christian contexts with the attitude that they own the land (the interpretations, the meaning, the correct understanding of what the Bible says) and that this “ownership” paradigm has been very damaging to Indigenous Christianity. It resonated with what I had been thinking about because in my church and in many other Evangelical contexts, it seems people are always fighting over who “owns” the truth. At the heart of it all are some pretty colonialist attitudes.

Yes. Or maybe we stop working hard to prove it, and start working harder to live it. We definitely need more Spirit empowered Christ-likeness and less arguing about why we’re right and others are wrong.

LOL. That one gives me hives. That was last week’s sermon. Those bad liberals are trying to get us to see their views as absolute truth so they can cancel everyone, and they don’t even realize they aren’t playing by their own rules.

I love this. It’s actually strikes me a pretty typical non-Western view of the world. I am reading the First Nations Version that just came out. (It’s an English translation of the NT into the cadences and conceptual frames of English used by Indigenous people in the US and Canada.) It is really fascinating to me how sin and righteousness are put into words, and it reminds me of the ways the translators I work with in Mexico talk about things, though those conversations are always in Spanish or Me’phaa, so it never quite hit me the same way as reading it in English. Belief is often expressed as walking the true path, which puts more emphasis on the living out of truth than the mental grasping of truth.

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Don’t worry Christy. I know how it works. One can never have the conversation.

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@Christy, thank you for sharing. I hope you wouldn’t mind if I share my thoughts on this topic. Please look at the definition of absolute below.

What does absolute mean?

  • IPA (US): Dictionary entry overview: What does absolute mean? • ABSOLUTE (noun) The noun ABSOLUTE has 1 sense: 1. something that is conceived or that exists independently and not in relation to other things; something that does not depend on anything else and is beyond human control; something that is not relative.

Now of course God is absolute in that God is beyond human control, but God is not beyond relationship with humans and others according to Jesus Christ. God is Love.

Humans are not totally dependent on God. God is not totally independent of humans. God and humans are mutually interdependent on each other. One could well ask, “How can this be since God is so much superior to humans?” It is because this is how God made things. See Psalm 8. “I AM WHO I AM.”

As I read it, God’s Truth is not True because it is Absolute, independent of humans or life, but because on the contrary it is related to humans. Love your neighbor as yourself. Or if I am reading you right because it is embodied, especially in the Incarnate Savior, Jesus Christ.

This use of the term embodiment is new to me. Would you please share where it come from?

Relative and relationship are cognates, but for most people do not mean the same thing. For me truth is right relationship. We might understand this differently, but this can be worked out with time and effort, if it is important.

On the other hand the command of Jesus to “Judge not” is a warning not to condemn others who we do not understand…

You right. There is no Absolute Truth. There is only embodied relational Truth.

Thanks for the discussion, it helps clarify a lot of things, especially the idea of embodiment.
It is sort of amusing to see post-modernism decried in churches while at the same time they are using post-modern ideas in many of their ministry programs, particularly missions. At the same time, they are often blind to the problems brought to the church by modernism.

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I would say God’s truth is the ultimate truth because God’s reality is the ultimate reality. But since none of us, as limited embodied creatures with finite minds, can rightly perceive God’s ultimate reality, none of us can equate our perception of reality with God’s and with ultimate truth. Jesus is the best example we have of someone embodying God’s reality in human form.

Embodiment is used all the time in my communities of discourse. It is a key concept in missiology when talking about contextualization, which is a big topic of concern in Bible translation and Scripture Engagement. I have been thinking about the relationship of embodiment and truth for a while (See this article I wrote for BioLogos for example:)

I don’t know that I would go so far as to claim there is no absolute truth, I just think the real issue is not its existence or non-existence, but how we access truth. The idea of absolute truth is kind of an abstraction of an abstraction. I’m most interested in how we know truth and on what basis we grant authority to make truth claims (no matter which adjectives you want to put in front of it to designate it as the really true captal-T important kind of truth).

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These last two years I have seen some of the most postmodern claims ever from the very folks who taught postmodernism was a dragon to be slayed. Alternative facts and creating your own reality and claiming your own truth and deconstructing authority have become an Evangelical specialty. You just have to make sure that you only do it when it comes to who won elections and whether masks work and what happened on January 6 and whether global warming is a thing, not when it comes to race, gender, or sexuality. :slight_smile:

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I see you’ve met Francis Schaeffer.

I get where you’re coming from – embodied cognition and linguistics – but I wonder why you choose “abstract”? Just thinking out loud, but there are many abstract truths that can be described in language or “acted out” in life. I suppose that makes them abstract-embodied truths. Abstract is confusing to me. I almost think absolute v embodied would be closer to what you’re trying to say. The absolute, capital T “Truth” can’t be put into words. Lower case t can be embodied in limited form. Sorry. Don’t know if any of that made sense.

I just wonder if this is itself a modern construct from a disposition to privilege the abstract over the concrete. When did we decide “Truth” was an abstracted entity and not a category?

Yes, abstract ideas can be labelled with language.

If something can’t be put into words or experience (i.e. “embodied” in some form), it’s inaccessible and irrelevant to humans. So I don’t think this represents the distinction I was trying to make. I was objecting to the idea that anything meaningful to humans can be divorced from human experience and language and live in some realm of abstraction “that exists independently and not in relation to other things” as Roger’s definition says. How is that even possible?

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Maybe a reprise of the Latin anagram that answers Pilate’s question would fit here.

Quid est veritas? “What is truth?”
Est vir qui adest: “It is the man who is here.”

As you said, “…the ultimate embodiment of God’s truth, the Incarnation…”

That may indeed be a better binary for understanding the difference between modern and postmodern. But I think even this religionist use of the other binaries is nonsensical. The truth found by science is clearly absolute and objective because it looks for the demonstrable reasons why they are correct, only using convention as a tool to that end. It is religion which typically confuses their cultural conventions with absolutes. And you would have to be blind to all the religions of the world to think there is anything absolute or objective in the declarations of your one religion. By using these words for the opposite as required by any possible consistency, they render the words meaningless.

And I suspect this explains why postmodernism has simply lost patience with such categories. And it is likely this refusal to accept those categories which has resulted in such a frustrated response by the religious.

Since the religionist use of the word “absolute” simply looks incoherent to me I guess I essentially agree… though my response is to find the coherent meaning of the word instead as something which is true for a reason rather than simply as a matter of convention (relative truth). And we would require the reason to be demonstrable if we would claim it to be objective as well as absolute.

Ahhh… That is the reality of subjective truths anyway. I wouldn’t agree that this is applicable to the demonstrable findings of science.

Or how about simply: theoretical vs non theoretical, with scientific understanding clearly being theoretical?

Scientific understanding is given through the construction and testing of hypotheses and theories …

Non-theoretical understanding is the kind of understanding we have when we say that we understand a poem, a piece of music, a person or even a sentence. Take the case of a child learning her native language. When she begins to understand what is said to her, is it because she has formulated a theory? We can say that if we like—and many linguists and psychologists have said just that—but it is a misleading way of describing what is going on. The criterion we use for saying that a child understands what is said to her is that she behaves appropriately-she shows that she understands the phrase “put this piece of paper in the bin,” for example, by obeying the instruction.

https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/ray-monk-wittgenstein

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I tend to think there is a category of facts that are objective, but it’s a limited abstract category and includes things that can be described by math and formulas. I don’t think every factual finding of science goes in this category though. And I conceive of the “demonstration” of scientific realities through scientific experimentation and empirical observation to be an embodiment of reality with limitations and imperfections. Our instruments of measurement are limited, our senses that perceive evidence are limited, our brains (and our surrogate brains computers) that put data together and find patterns are limited. Those limitations lead to differences of perspective on what science demonstrates. Acknowledging the limitations and differences and deciding what is fact by consensus isn’t relativism, but it would be mislabeled relativism by some people.

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Wow. As someone else outside the Evangelical group (though culturally less distant than indigenous people would likely be) I have certainly experienced many in the group who seem not only sure they owned the truth but all too eager to speak and elaborate on God’s behalf and with His authority. That is really what I appreciate most about this setting is that you mods and quite a few regulars are more aware in that regard as well as more modest in your willingness to speak for God.

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It seems to me like the discussed “embodiment”, has some purchase towards being seen as “incarnation” and perhaps are even the same thing - though we reserve the latter term for our understandings of how the Divine enters into creation. Embodiment would perhaps be more of a general word that need not invoke explicitly religious handles, but nonetheless might give us another handle for getting some purchase on religious concepts. I particularly like how embodiment can be in reference to non-human creation as well as human. It is an expansive idea and might help us broaden out our western humanistic tendencies.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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