Sunday, July 5, 2009

Postmodern Christians and Truth

I just listened to an interesting sermon by Don Heatley, a man I had never heard of before, on the Emergent Village web site. After listening to it, I finally realized something about the emergents' postmodern approach to Christianity.

See, when I was growing up, I thought postmodernism was just silly. I bet lots of us evangelicals could imagine some conversation like this:
Postmodern: "I believe truth is relative, not absolute."
You: "That sounds like an absolute statement."
Postmodern: "No, not exactly."
You: "Oh, so I don't have to believe it?"
Postmodern: "Not if you don't want to, I guess..."
To my mathematical mind, it was as simple as a reductio ad absurdum: if truth is relative, then the statement "truth is relative" is not absolutely true, therefore truth is not actually relative, a contradiction. Now I realize I was missing the point.

What I think the postmodern means to say is that words fail to totally embody truth. This point shines through in Heatley's sermon, which emphasizes that the experience of God is mysterious, and can't totally be put into words.

Now many clever evangelicals would be quick to jump all over this. How can you be saying that the experience of God is mysterious and can't be put into words, when you yourself have used words to say that--and preaching from a biblical text, at that?

But words just have to be put in their place. The idea is simply that words fail to totally embody truth, not that words fail utterly to point to anything true. That is why for emergents, experiencing God and becoming more Christ-like are far more important than doctrine. Yet they immerse themselves in scripture as much as any evangelical, because the scriptures provide powerful glimpses of Christ.

A little while ago I argued that we Christians need a new epistemology--that is, a new theory about what we know and how we know it. The reason I think so is that I've seen certain kinds of epistemology totally ruin discussion: "You're not taking scripture seriously!" "Well, you're taking it out of context!" "Heretic!" "Closed-minded!" etc.

This isn't just people being rude, or mean, or whatever. This is the result of people having a certain conception of what truth is, and acting on that. For many, truth is "right there" in scripture, as if pulling truth out of scripture is like pulling ketchup out of a refrigerator. I think this is a seriously deficient understanding of truth.

It would have been more helpful if throughout church history we had taken more closely to heart the words of Jesus: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." For one thing, I think "truth" is much more connected to the way of life that one takes than it is to statements that one may pull out of scripture.

For another, these words of Jesus point to a more personal meaning of truth. You find truth by finding Jesus, not by finding the right words to say. Yes, I know, I just used words to say that. But the question is how perfectly you think words embody the truth. We must be careful not to make an idol out of words.

I have found that those who believe the words of scripture perfectly embody truth do more than just cling to those words. They cling to a particular interpretation of those words. If they admit there is more than one plausible interpretation of the text, then they've given up on the idea that the words perfectly embody the truth--it's not a perfect embodiment if there's room for error.

Perhaps the real irony to this whole thing, however, is that postmodernists really are often too absolutist (as is so often claimed). The statement "nothing is absolute" becomes a mantra, so that eventually the people who say it implicitly believe that it perfectly embodies a certain ethos that they're trying to achieve, and at that point they've defeated themselves.

My experience on both sides of this culture war has been that ultimately words are tools, and I've seen them used both to help and to hurt. I can only hope that my words can somehow be of help... and therefore I blog.

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