In this three-part series, questions of truth and tolerance in our postmodern world have been explored. In this third and final installment, issues surrounding truth and falsehood will be briefly examined.
Three Derogatory Labels
When it comes to the question of truth, postmodern thought typically gives Christians three derogatory labels, attempting to discredit and marginalize it. First, we are considered arrogant if we claim that Jesus is the only way to have a relationship with God. Second, we are considered colonial and imperialistic if we claim that our perspective of truth and morality is universal in nature and scope. Third, we are considered intolerant since we do not accept some views of the world as valid interpretations of reality.
These are hefty indictments. Can anything be said in Christianity’s defense, or should we meekly turn aside to pay silent homage to the intellectual and moral gatekeepers of “tolerance” in our postmodern world?
Tolerance always has limits.
The third accusation, that of intolerance, was already addressed in parts one and two of this series and will not be revisited here, except to reiterate that tolerance always has limits. Those who decide those limits need some sort of evaluative criteria to exclude and hinder unacceptable ways of living in our world. Will these criteria be solid or shifting? Postmodernism stands upon very sandy soil, whereas Christianity stands upon the rock of Jesus Christ.
Are exclusive truth claims arrogant?
But what of the first claim, namely that it is inherently arrogant to make exclusive truth claims? Are we arrogant, for example, to say that Jesus is the only way to know God? While those who know the truth can certainly be arrogant about it, that is no reason to reject the facts simply because the fact holders are proud people. For example, I may not like the fact that some professional athletes are very arrogant and full of themselves, but this does not change the reality that they are good athletes. It is always a good reminder to be humble in the way that you hold onto the truth. Christians should take this keenly to heart for it was and is the way of Jesus Christ. While He was the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), He also reminded us that He was “gentle and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29).
But what of the idea that exclusive truth claims are inherently arrogant? I am not necessarily arrogant when I claim that I am my father’s only son. If I make an exclusive claim like this, it is not inherently arrogant of me to do so, especially if it’s true and I do not come off as being full of myself in making the claim. Exclusive claims to truth may or may not be true, but contrary to the postmodernist, just because they are exclusive does not disqualify them out of hand.
Another way to look at arrogance is to note that the more a pluralist claims the “exclusivist” is wrong to hold exclusive views, the more the pluralist becomes an exclusivist in pluralist clothing. Why? To say that exclusivism is wrong, the pluralist must in the same breath claim that he is right. That is, the more the pluralist castigates the exclusivist for claiming to be right, the more he becomes an exclusivist by claiming himself to be right!
When Christians make exclusive claims about truth, we do need to assert that we have reasonable and accessible bases upon which to judge the way things really are and aren’t. But this is directly analogous to many other fields of study and concern. Science, for example, is constantly making claims about the nature of reality. And most (but not all) of these claims are testable. But are Christianity’s claims any less testable? Not entirely. While there are some issues that remain beyond to the scope of testability, as there are in science, there are many others which clearly are. And this gives us the bases upon which to test and judge the rightness of any claim, religious or otherwise.
Is truth imperialistic?
Let’s close by moving to the concern of imperialism. It is often charged that those claiming to have and know universal truth are imperialistically trying to impose their views and values upon the world. This is a serious charge. One doesn’t have to look very hard or very far to find examples of people and institutions (both today and throughout history) who have done this. Exclusive truth claims—religious and otherwise—have often been used to execute, destroy, and subjugate both peoples and nations.
But the misuse of exclusive truth is no more an indictment against that kind of truth than the misuse of pairing knives is an indictment against master chefs. That exclusive truth can and will be misused by wicked people is a given. But it does not change the nature of the truth. People have frequently used the name of Christ to manipulate and kill, but that does not vilify Christ! It vilifies those who have used His name wrongly, in vain, and/or for sordid gain. It confirms the doctrine of human depravity, not the doctrine of postmodern pluralism!
We must admit that claiming to know the truth does include aspect of control. This is the kernel of truth in the criticism. After all, reality (truth) does have a way of imposing itself upon us. Just as we might wish to be able to fly without aid, we are, in fact, unable. Truth does place limits on what we can and cannot do.
For example, if I am married, I am now no longer able to marry any woman I want. Truth is like this. It tends to restrain and limit us, something many in the 21st century don’t always appreciate. But just because truth is constraining, does not mean it is either bad or false. It simply means that we must use it with great care and caution.
The Powerfully Intolerant Postmodernists
The greatest and most tragic irony in all of this is that those claiming exclusive truth claims are a tool for political domination, are the self-same ones wielding the most widespread cultural influence and dominating power. The rise of “political correctness” and the “thought police” against so-called “hate crimes” are extremely repressive structures designed to prevent anyone from making repressively exclusive truth claims or hurting anyone’s feelings. The problem is, their perspective is shockingly exclusive and repressive! There seems to be no way around the dilemma of holding to some universal system of truth and morality. The question only becomes which one and why?
We have the greatest and only cure.
Christians have the most important message ever communicated to anyone anywhere. Whether or not the world wants to hear or believe it, it remains true and desperately needs to be proclaimed again and again. If we have the only cure for cancer, it would be ridiculous and wrong to keep it a secret. And we have an antidote that is far more important than a cure for cancer. We have in Jesus the only cure for spiritual cancer, a cancer that will cost people their eternal, not just their physical, lives.
Thus, contrary to the assertions of some, we are not wrong or insensitive to tell everyone everywhere they need Jesus Christ to be their Savior from sin. Rather, we are far more wrong and uncaring to keep it a secret!
Early Christians lived in a pluralistic culture, not unlike that of our day. It was within this context that they boldly proclaimed the exclusive truth claims of Jesus Christ. Why? They truly believed those who did not know Jesus would not and could not know God. I also believe this and am compelled to make the gospel known “in season and out of season,” whether or not it is popular, appreciated, or safe.