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:
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.