Sunday, May 01, 2005
2 Myths About Postmoderns
From Brian McLaren's book The Church On the Other Side:

Myth 1: Postmoderns don't believe in absolute truth.

The dismissal of absolute truth is an easy misconception to have because this is what postmoderns will say and what the most radical may believe. But I do not think this is what rank-and-file postmoderns mean. When they answer no to the question, Do you believe in absolute truth? this is what I think they really mean: "Well, of course there is absolute truth out there. I don't doubt that. I just doubt your ability, or my own for that matter, to apprehend that truth and comprehend it and remember it and encode it in language and communicate it to others and have them understand in any absolutely accurate way."

In other words, what postmodern people tend to reject is not absolute truth but absolute knowledge. And to the degree we seek to defend absolute knowledge, we show ourselves to be defenders not of biblical faith (which repeatedly affirms that we "know in part") but of modern rationalism (which displays an overconfidence about its autonomous powers of knowledge that is hard to overexaggerate).

(This clarification by Brian is key, and I think he's right about what a lot of postmoderns actually mean when they say they don't believe in absolute truth. But I think the confusion goes a little deeper than that as well. I think a lot of modern Christians aren't actually clearly saying what they mean either when they affirm their belief in "absolute truth". I think what they often mean is that they believe in absolute reality. That is, they believe that God exists and the world exists independently of what we humans know or believe about them, and that this reality is binding on all of us. But then Christians make the mistake of equivocating "reality" (the way things really are) with "truth" (what we accurately know about the way things really are). In other words, when modern Christians use the term "absolute truth" they mean "absolute reality" but when postmoderns use the term "absolute truth" they mean "absolute knowledge", hence the confusion. Of course, in terms of technical philosophical usage, the postmodern understanding of the term "absolute truth" is more correct. But perhaps Brian is right, we'd be better off dropping the term "absolute truth" altogether and speak instead in terms of absolute reality and our limited abilities to know that reality.)

Myth 2: Postmoderns don't care about truth.

I believe that postmoderns care about truth so much that they don't want to pretend a subjective opinion or "view from a point" is more than it really is. And they care about truth so much that they question the ability of language to convey it sufficiently.

Actually, deep down, although they would probably not risk fighting about it, postmoderns might say that most Christians don't care about the truth as much as many postmoderns do: "If Christians prize truth so highly, why can you turn on late-night cable TV and see a dozen different Christian preachers, with a dozen different spins on the truth, all proclaiming with apparent certainty that their version is right and everyone else's is wrong?" Maybe that tendency to arrogant debate and presumptuous proclamation is what they don't believe in when they say they don't believe in truth. But, if by "truth" we came to mean honesty, authenticity, and genuineness, all but the most radical will sign on as believers in a heartbeat.

(Brian is right on about this. Postmoderns do care about truth, so much that we get angry when we see modern Christians disrespecting truth by upholding their own personal, subjective opinions and interpretations of it as "absolute". By failing to recognize the limits to our abilities as human creatures to know the truth, modern Christians dishonor both the truth and the God who is the Truth and the only one who is ever capable of actually grasping Truth in an absolute way.)
posted by Mike Clawson at 11:22 AM | Permalink |


At 5/01/2005 01:22:00 PM, Anonymous Kyra

Hey there, I've been watching your blog for a little bit now hoping that you might write something about this topic. In fact I'm writing a paper about this very topic (how you can still have God if objective truth doesn't exist)Hopefully you'll help clarify some issues I have here.

To be clear, what is the difference between absolute truth and absolute knowledge? Is it simply that one is created and compiled by our everyday actions, and the other is an untouchable, unchangable and the same for everyone?

Maybe to clarify even more, what is your definition of "absolute"?

From what I know and what I've read of the anti foundationalists, there is no absolute truth. anything we know (maybe this is what you mean by absolute knowledge) is contructed, created by power relations. So how can there be a structure on which everything is based if we live in a web of created "truths"?

Isn't it just that God exists but that She doesn't mean the same thing to you as She does me? Maybe this again is where what your idea of AK comes in? Do you think that God exists outside of these boundries? But how can He?

On a side note, do you think that I could read that article you wrote for your small group? I understand if it is still too sensative or whatnot, but I was hoping that it might be helpful. I'm trying to figure out a way to articulate my beliefs. I suppose I'm also trying to figure out what and how I believe.


At 5/01/2005 10:32:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Kyra!

Good to hear from you. Those are some great questions. I'd love to discuss them with you in greater detail. Why don't you send me an email (send it to and that way we discuss this more easily.

To give you a quick answer to your questions... I'd say that I mean pretty much the same thing by "absolute truth" and "absolute knowledge" (and I don't think either exist except in the mind of God); but I would distinguish both of these from "absolute reality".

(And by "absolute" I mean that which is universal, certain, and non-contingent.)

I believe that absolute reality exists, that is I believe God exists. However, I believe this on faith, not because I know it for certain or because I have any kind of absolute proof for it. It could very well be the case that there is no underlying reality, that all that exists is our perceptions, and that web of created truths. But I choose to believe that our perceptions, our web, is connected in some way to a non-contingent, independent reality.

To put it another way, I choose to believe that God exists independently of what any of us think about him - that his existence and nature is not contingent on what we happen to believe about it.

However, to say that absolute reality exists is not to say that we necessarily are able to know it in any kind of absolute or certain way. As scripture says in 1 Corinthians 13, "We know in part... we see but a poor reflction as in a mirror." Thus you are very right, knowledge, what we call "truth", is constructed, created through our linguistic categories, personal experiences, and socio-cultural influences.

To me this recognition drives me to humility, to say that what I think I know, or what I believe about God, may only be a rough and grossly inadequate metaphor for who She really is. But it doesn't drive me to complete skepticism about Her existence or Her nature entirely, because that kind of radical doubt is ultimately unlivable. We must make a leap of faith and choose to believe that something beyond our our own ideas does actually exists, whether we can perfectly know it or not.

Anyhow, I'd love to discuss this with you more. Why don't you email me if you have more questions; or if you're going to be back in Wheaton sometime soon, maybe you, me and Julie could get together have a good philosophical discussion over coffee or food.

BTW, if you're really trying to figure this stuff out for yourself, I'd highly recommend to you a book by Lesslie Newbigin entitled The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. He discusses these kind of questions from a postmodern perspective that I think you could respect.

Oh, and feel free to read my paper. You'll find a link to it on the sidebar of this blog. It's the first one under "Recommended Links" entitled "How Postmodernism Transformed My Faith". And I'd be happy to answer any questions you have about it as well. Again, just email me.




At 5/02/2005 09:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Hey Mike its Jess.
Because where Kyra is, there I am also : )
Anyway, I just read your paper. I thought it was awesome, this is just the type of stuff we talk about everyday in our religion classes. Such a shame that certain people can not get past their prejudice of the word "post-modernism" and see that it might have something good to offer. Also, Mars Hill is a very cool place, but I heard that they even have there own swimming pool. Which brings me to what I wanted to ask you about.
For a long time I have felt bad giving tithes. Do not get me wrong, I give money to charities and pretty much anything world relief related, but when it comes to giving money so a church can get "repainted" or something like that, I feel like it is such a waste of money. As Christians, shouldn't we be giving money to save starving people in Africa instead of using it to fix toilets in our church? I know the argument that the money is used to further help the ministry, but how is something like getting new hymnals even comparable to the lives we could have saved if we used the money elsewhere.
It just really disgusts me. Lets stop talking all this crap about helping the ministry by remodeling churches and start saving peoples lives first eh?
Next time you guys are in Grand Rapids you should stop by. I might even be able to put you up in my apartment. : )


At 5/02/2005 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Hey Jess,

I can assure you that Mars Hill does not have a swimming pool! :) They meet in an old mall, and their decor is fairly basic and functional.

I understand your feelings about giving money to churches, and you're right, a lot of what we spend our money on could be better used to feed the hungry and similar needs. But I don't think that completely invalidates spending any money on churches. Consider... if churches didn't gather to worship and build relationships (which does require money), then odds are very few Christians would actually end up giving any of their money to better causes either. It's nice to say that we should just give all of our money to the poor, but as any investor knows, you have to spend money to make money. If you want to have any money to give to the poor in the first place, then you need to give some money to local churches so they can do ministry, attract people, and motivate those people to want to give even more of their resources to people in need. In other words, it's not an either/or - either give to the local church or give to social causes. Giving to the first helps there to be more resources over all to give to the second.

But of course, that's not to say that a lot of churches probably spend too much on themselves and their own worship gatherings and not enough on people in need. I think it's an area that every church needs to look at more carefully and ask themselves whether they're really using their resources wisely.

See you around!



At 5/09/2005 12:36:00 PM, Blogger AutobodyCAD


These definitions of "absolute truth" and the like are what turn me away from the whole postmodern Christian thing. (not to mention the effeminated version of god).

Yes, Paul said we "know in part...we see but a poor reflection." But we DO know SOMETHING. We don't kinda sorta have a half a grasp around half-truths. Neither do we know all, nor can our finite minds even approach the full understanding of Yahweh. We don't see merely a swirl of amorphous, indescribable colors, we see a poor reflection.

We DO know, though in part. We DO see, though poorly. And we can spread the Truth that we DO know, the Word Himself, Jesus Christ.

If no single truth can be both grasped and expressed effectively, I think I'll get my jollies in this world and take my chances in the next.


At 5/11/2005 03:49:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

But what we "know" we know by faith. That's the point. Left to your own faculties you don't even know in part. Any knowledge at all starts with a leap of faith.


At 5/11/2005 02:41:00 PM, Blogger AutobodyCAD

True, I didn't mean to minimize the impact of faith. Our physical eyes can't see God, and we won't see His Son in this life.

Yes, faith is also required. Sorry if I sound like Mr. Negative, but it comes easily -- I'm a cynic by nature.

I just get frustrated by people who say we don't and can't really know anything at all. If that's our starting point philosophically, it is by default our ending point as well.



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