Tag Archives: Truth

Are there really rights and wrongs, truths and falsehoods? Part Three: Truth in a Postmodern World

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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.

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Are there really rights, wrongs, truths and falsehoods? Part Two: Tolerance in a Postmodern World

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In part one of this three-part series, the problem of both tolerance and truth in a postmodern context was introduced.  One of the highest virtues in postmodernity is tolerance.  The basic idea is that we should seek to understand, appreciate, and respect countries, cultures, peoples, and religions very different from our own.  And this, I think, is a commendable goal.

Unfortunately, the underlying—and frequently unspoken—assumption in this process of respect and appreciation often goes far beyond mere understanding.  For the postmodernist, all variant perspectives of life, death, and ethics should not only be understood, they should be accepted and embraced as equally valid ways of looking at and living in our world.

A Fatal Flaw

This passion for equal validity reveals a fatal flaw in the postmodern view.  In general, tolerance of other perspectives is easy enough, so long as the other perspectives in question hold certain central values in common.

In Christianity, for example, we have a unifying set of claims—the core truths of Christ’s gospel—that allows us to tolerate many expressions of that faith (often called denominations) so long as the core remains common to all.  This gives us the unique ability to tolerate diversity and maintain unity all at the same time.

But what can be done with truly and radically different worldviews alongside their widely divergent applications in the real world?  What shall we do with those who value anarchy and chaos over order; tyranny and domination over freedom; bigotry and racism over equality?  And who defines what is bigoted, tyrannical, and anarchist?

These are genuinely difficult questions that have been wrestled with throughout the ages.  And well they should be, for if tolerance is the highest and only ultimate virtue, how can anyone or anything be considered truly “intolerable?”  How much, and who, should we tolerate?  Should we tolerate none but ourselves—totalitarian tribalism?  Or perhaps, like the postmodernist, we should try (or at least pretend to try) and tolerate everyone and everything.

If, however, we are to tolerate everyone and everything, must we therefore allow the Ku Klux Klan to hold recruitment rallies, public lynchings, and cross burnings?  Should we allow females to be “circumcised” because it is a long-standing cultural practice in some societies?  Or perhaps even more extremely, should members of NAMBLA be granted the “right” to have sex with “consenting” children—all in the name of “tolerance?”

The Need for a More Basic Foundation

Such examples illustrate that tolerance must be rooted in a more basic (and often unspoken) foundation of what is really right and wrong.  Many postmodernists have trouble making judgments against others because they reject the idea that any such foundation exists, or even if it does, they purport it cannot be known.

Thus, when the need to evaluate a potentially or clearly harmful and damaging (i.e., morally wrong) view and behavior, postmodernism claims to be ideologically opposed to passing judgment.  This is all fine and good when talking about the differences between moderate Muslims and liberal Protestants, but the problem becomes especially acute when discussing the differences between, say, neo-Nazi skinheads and ultraconservative Hasidic Jews.

At some point, an evaluation concerning who should be tolerated and who should be restrained and censored must enter in.  Otherwise, we could not say that killing people on the basis of their ethnic or religious background is morally wrong.  All we could say is we “prefer” that people not do such “unpleasant things” to one another—the essence of relativistic moral emotivism.

Toleration requires a way to pass judgment.

Because of this deficiency, most postmodernists “smuggle in,” under cover of silence or thoughtless ignorance, several important but unspoken evaluative criteria.  Every cry for tolerance requires an evaluative source, a way to pass judgment, so that the right from the wrong, the good from the bad, can be adequately discerned.  The question, then, is not should there be limits to toleration, but what should those limits be and how are they determined?

For postmodernists, there are, first and foremost, no absolutes, either ethically or intellectually.  No one has the right to make moral and intellectual judgments of other views because no one has access—except maybe the perspicacious postmodernist—to this kind of “privileged information.”  Second, all those who claim to have a comprehensive view of the world—save the highly progressive postmodernists—are at best naïve and much more likely arrogant.  And third, all who claim to be correct about the way the world really is—gloriously “postmodern,” according to postmodernists—are labeled intolerant and imperialistic, always trying to force others to accept their view of reality.

Christianity in the Postmodern Doghouse

All of this puts classical Christians in the postmodern doghouse since for us, some things really are right and wrong, true and false, and worthy of our rejection.  But of course, the same is true for the postmodern relativist.  All that is not relative is wrong, false, and worthy of rejection.  The postmodernist finds himself indicted and convicted by the same thing he claims to eradicate—the intolerance of any intolerance.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have recently been witness to public expressions of some of the most hateful, intolerant, and bigoted behavior from people who consider themselves “champions” of tolerance?  Tolerance has been recast into toleration for all who agree with their perspective, while rabid intolerance has been cast toward all who dare to disagree.

The Critical Need for Genuine Debate

This highlights a critical need for the resurrection of genuine moral and intellectual debate.  Contrary to the mantras of some, not all perspectives—religious or otherwise—are created equal.  Some ideas, by their very nature, are worthy of rejection, not because they are culturally and politically unpopular, but because they do not stand up to the test of moral and intellectual scrutiny.

The bald exercise of power, be it through executive orders, riots in the streets, or general bullying on either side of the cultural divide, is a poor substitute for thoughtful and respectful conversation and debate over the things that matter the most, both in this life and the life to come.  But when concepts of truth have been relegated to the category of “alternative facts,” and moral standards have been deemed mere “personal preferences,” there is little room for reasoned disagreement and considerate compromise.

At the end of the day, however, every sane person still maintains—justified or not—that what they believe is actually true.  It’s not believing some things are true and others are false that’s the problem.  What’s wrong is condemning a certain class of people for believing something solely because they believe differently than you.  As Greg Koukl (The Story of Reality, 24) puts it: “Since everyone—religious person, atheist scientists, skeptic—believes his beliefs are true, it has always struck me as odd when some have been faulted simply for thinking their views correct.  They’ve been labeled intolerant or bigoted for doing so.  But what is the alternative?  The person objecting thinks his own views correct as well, which is why he’s objecting.  Both parties in the conversation think they’re right and the other wrong.  Why, then, is only the religious person (usually) branded a bigot for doing so?”

Everyone I know who supports the legalization of homosexual marriage (for example), genuinely believes that our world is a better and morally superior place when such marriage is legal, celebrated, promoted, and most importantly for the purposes of this discussion, legally protected.  At the same time, those who believe it to be wrong believe it should be discouraged and rejected as a viable human lifestyle.  And whether we admit it or not, legalization is an implicit and explicit endorsement, immediately creating legal and social challenges for all who oppose such unions.

All of this highlights the fact that Christians need to stand for what is true and right and good.  After all, someone, postmodern or otherwise, is setting public and private criteria for evaluating acceptable and unacceptable points of view.  As those with a well thought through moral and intellectual perspective that has stood the test of time, why shouldn’t Christians be intimately involved in that evaluative process?  If God has given us a revelation of what is good and true, then we have a biblical responsibility to raise His values and standards as a primary means of sorting out our world’s debilitating moral and intellectual confusion.

From my limited observation, believers in Christ have been somewhat embarrassed by and rendered silent about this problem for far too long.  If the gospel truly is good news for everyone, then for the sake of all humanity, not merely for the Church of Jesus Christ, we can ill afford to maintain our religious laryngitis any longer.  The cultural price for our silence is, for everyone, costly and not worth the toll it will inevitably demand of us all.

Are there really rights and wrongs, truths and falsehoods? Part One: The Goodness of Passing Judgment

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Some contemporary philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and even theologians have tried to argue that in our postmodern relativistic age nothing is truly right and wrong, purely true or false, or absolutely good or evil.  These realities, nevertheless, always have a way of pushing themselves up when the things that really matter are at stake.

If recent reactions to the latest US presidential election tell us anything, they “demonstrate” that people are still far more concerned about what they believe is right and wrong than they are about “tolerating” those with whom they strongly disagree.  An inevitable corollary of moral dispute is that some things really do matter more (or less) than others, and some things really are better (or worse) than others.

Passing judgment is a good thing.

People in our postmodern relativistic era pretend—and sometimes even try very hard—to be genuinely tolerant of alternative viewpoints.  At the end of the day, however, when something we really care about comes to the fore, we are just as judgmental as we’ve always been.  And passing this kind of judgment is actually a good thing.

I have no problem at all with people speaking out for the things they care about and against the things they find “deplorable.”  In fact, I would encourage it.  But one thing is certain: postmodernists need to stop pretending that they don’t really stand for anything or judge anyone—that whatever works for you is fine so long as you don’t tell me how to live my life or what I should or shouldn’t believe.  That statement itself is a value judgment in favor of an attitude of “live and let live” which stands against making “intrusive” laws and social standards against the things postmodern thinkers find acceptable and/or desirable.

Tolerance Defined Rightly

Tolerance is not the absence of discernment, but the decision to permit those with differing views to express themselves without assuming their expression—simply because it is expressed—therefore constitutes a valid way of life.

As John Lennox writes (Against the Flow, 104-05), “We do not tolerate people with whom we agree—the word itself indicates that it is people with whom we disagree.  But we support their right to hold and express their worldview, provided it is without threat or incitement to violence.  However, in many countries tolerance has degenerated into a simplistic, all-affirming political correctness: a debilitating and very dangerous attitude that prevents people saying what they believe in case anyone should take offense.  It is the very antithesis of free speech, and it is having a paralysing effect on public discourse.”

We can shout our value of tolerance up to the heavens and down to the earth as long and loud as we want.  We will never escape both the necessity and propriety of passing moral and epistemological judgments upon one another.  The issue is never a question of whether there are rights and wrongs, goods and ills, truths and falsehoods.  The only real issue is this: What things are right and wrong, true and false, good and evil, and how do we know and decide?  Who gets the final say in these matters and why?

I’ll say more about this in parts two and three of this series, beginning in part two which takes a deeper look at the notion of tolerance.