Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries select a word that captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and in 2016, the term “post-truth” was chosen as the word of the year. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”Simply put, objective truth is accepted as being truly true; however, it has lost its value over to relativism. This is seen clearly in the events of 2016, where fake news set aside facts in order to advance agendas coupled with an American presidential election that was “marked by so many competing and false claims, allegations of fraud, and proven mistruths, it was difficult to know who to believe.”Undoubtedly, these factors contributed to Oxford Dictionaries choosing of the term “post-truth” to define the current mood not just within the United States but of the entire world. That said, what the Oxford Dictionaries have affirmed by selecting the term is that post-truth is the new chapter of which postmodernism has turned the page over to. This paper will show how postmodernism has progressed into the era of post-truth and that the Church, in addition to continuing the epistemological argument on truth, which has been the norm, now holds the responsibility of upholding objective truth-value in a world that no longer holds truth in the highest esteem. This will be accomplished by tracing the history of truth (both objective and subjective) from the threshold of Christendom and the Enlightenment all the way to the doorstep of post-truth of which humanity now stands. The paper will conclude with a brief Christian response on how the Church is still called to be a city set upon a hill for all the world to see the light of truth – who is no other than Jesus the Christ.
When approaching a topic such as postmodernism as a whole, it is important to recognize up front that everything postmodern should not be immediately perceived as a challenge to Christianity. This is because postmodernism can mean different things to different people. For example, to an artist it could mean a certain style that breaks away from the previous one; to the political theorist, it marks the end of utopian ideologies; and to the economist it is a transition from an industrial-age economy over to an information-age economy.Generally, these things are not thought of as challenges to Christianity. However, there is a common thread that ties together the above examples where the challenge to Christianity does arise. All of the above, in some way, are a revolt against the world in which they were born out of. Straight to the point, postmodernism is a revolt against modernism.
One of the key themes, whether unconscious or conscious, in postmodernism is that it is “a reaction against the key tenets of modernism such as scientism (all truth must be scientifically proven), rationalism and the supposed myth of human progress.”However, it must not be assumed that all new ideologies and cultural perspectives are a result of revolt, although it is historically common, rather some ideologies are an extension of something former – such as modernism was to the Enlightenment, and likewise, just as post-truth is as an extension of postmodernism. A brief history summarizing each philosophical period will make this clear, as well as provide the transition into a discussion on objective truth, which, to be clear, is understood as something that is true regardless of an individual’s belief.
Modernism can be initially defined as “the ideology originating with and promoted by the Enlightenment.”It is important to know that everything prior to the Enlightenment period, beginning with the early Middle Ages, was a world of Christendom where the majority lived in a context of ideas influenced and informed by the Christian faith.”Consequently, this meant that very few challenged the existence of God and the truth proclamations contained in the Scriptures. In other words, Christendom was a world where Christian truth was universal and therefore, if the Scriptures stated that God was in control then God was absolutely in control. However, with the Enlightenment came the scientific revolution, which began to drive a wedge between the world of science and Christian theology. This paper’s interest in the Enlightenment is purely on its basic presupposition that “human reason is perfectly capable of telling us everything we need to know about the world, ourselves, and God (if there is one).”It is this basic presupposition that provided the backbone to which modernism constructed its worldview.
With human reason elevated, the modernist vision was focused on the human ability to discover objective truth. Groothuis describes this where he writes, “they desired a rational, scientific worldview over the perceived irrationality and acrimony stemming from religion, and the possibility of progress through humanity’s emancipation from received dogma and superstition.”Groothuis emphasizes the wedge that was driven between religion and science where religion equated to superstition and science to fact. The main point here revolves around the source of objective truth. Recall, in Christendom, truth was revealed through Scripture, which pointed to another outside source – God. However, beginning with the Enlightenment and then on toward modernity the source shifted from Scripture over to human beings.
Before pressing forward, some clarification is in order. Where the above states that the source of our capacity to know or obtain truth shifted from Scripture over to human beings, it does not mean that modernists believed that they, themselves, were the source of truth. This line of thought does eventually occur, but not yet. What this does mean is that they believed that by studying the universe around them (God’s natural revelation) they could know truth. This philosophy is most evident within the Deistic perspective in which Sire explains that “because the universe is essentially as God created it, and because people have the intellectual capacity to understand the world around them, they can learn about God from a study of his universe.”
There are two significant factors that are revealed in Sire’s statement, which continue to bleed out into the postmodern world. First, where Sire states that the universe is “essentially as God created it,” he is referring to the belief that God’s creation is not fallen. With this assertion, comes the abandonment of the Scriptural doctrine of original sin, which, as Christians know: all sixty-six books in the Protestant Scriptures spend time resolving. This view, beginning with the humanists of the Enlightenment and then picked-up by the Deists of modernism, impacted the shrinking world of Christendom by placing supreme emphasis on the human ability to lead a moral life autonomous from the supernatural aid of God through His Scriptures.Therefore, shifting the source of objective truth away from the Scriptures and onto human beings also shifts what the Scriptures proclaim about human moral, which causes everything else that follows, at least for the non-Christian, to come undone. Simply put, the whole applecart has been upset.
The second factor in Sire’s statement, regarding knowing God by studying the universe, points the way toward naturalism, which brings this paper right into the epicenter of modernism. C. Lloyd Morgan, in his journal published in 1895, provides the definition, “[Naturalism], whatever the world may be ‘in its reality’ (supposing such an expression to be otherwise than meaningless), the world for us, the world with which alone we are concerned, or of which alone we can have any cognizance, is that world which is revealed to us through perception, and which is the subject-matter of the natural sciences.”To rephrase, naturalism asserts that truth can only be known through what can be examined through scientific study, which, according to science -are things with substance, otherwise known as matter.
It is important to recognize that God does not exist in the world of naturalism and all that does exist is matter. With naturalism, the wedge between Christian theism and science had been driven completely through and had thus divided reality into two, with the supernatural realm on one side and the natural world on the other.However, at this point in the juncture – the notion of objective truth remained a reality for both worlds. For the Christian now distanced from the bygone world of Christendom – Scripture was still the source for truth and for the naturalists – human progress through science was the source.
Before moving into postmodernism, there are two crucial points that need to be emphasized, with the first point being a reemphasis. First, it must be completely clear that modernity “has been marked with a quest for certainty and absolute, ‘totalizing’ knowledge.”This statement is applicable to both the Christian and the scientist; however, the distinction between the two is found in the source or foundation in which people base their beliefs or worldview on. Regarding that foundation, it must be absolutely solid and secure and in terms of knowledge, likewise, the foundation must be certain, which leads to the second crucial point.
The second point is more of a classical apologetic assertion, which states that “if you know truth with absolute certainty, then you must debunk any who see things differently.”Clearly, this assertion is perfectly acceptable among the likeminded; however; problems immediately arise when diversity is introduced, such as when one culture encounters the belief customs of another culture. To one, there is only one correct way to live – their way, but should this mean that everyone else is wrong and should conform to their particular way of living? Absolute certainty would say yes, if they want to live correctly.
Scott, on the topic of the absolute certainty of modernism, states that “In this kind of ethos, our apologetics naturally becomes a defense, which terminology also implies that there is a war going on . . . . [and] in our apologetics, we try to give airtight, irrefutable arguments aimed to win the debate, but that puts us in a position from which we challenge others to prove us wrong while we prove to them that we are right.”
To be clear, absolute certainty is not entirely negative – a mathematician can be absolutely certain that 1+1=2 and a scientist, or most reasonable people, can be absolutely certain that human beings are born from other human beings and not from something as absurd as a fish or an elephant. However, when absolute certainty is used as a method to force conformity – it then becomes a negative. The main point here is that it was the attitude of absolute certainty that was prevalent in the broadened culture at the height of modernism, which has led N.T. Wright to say that, “we should not be frightened of the postmodern critique. It had to come; it is, I believe, a necessary judgment on the arrogance of modernity, a judgment from within.”With this in mind, then, the paper will now address the question of truth in the postmodern world.
From Postmodernism to Post-Truth
Regarding truth, the modernist backdrop has been set, but only for the ideologies of postmodernism to tear it down. That said, it is important to note that modernism and postmodernism are united in their philosophical naturalism; meaning that both “deny the objective existence of God and the supernatural, and take the material universe to be all there is.”Being that naturalism is the one unifying factor between modernism and postmodernism, this also means that the chasm between Christian theism and science was carried over to postmodernism as well. However, where the truth proclamations within Scripture remained consistent (not the interpreters – but Scripture itself), in postmodernism, the source of truth began to shift once more, only this time, the truth eventually ended up in the lap of the individual knower. Simply put, truth became purely subjective at its height thus, negating objective truth and the attitude of absolute certainty altogether.
Postmodernism began with a level of skepticism, again, not necessarily toward the truth proclamations of Christian theism, but toward truth itself. Notably, there were several predeterminers that influenced the first sparks of postmodernity. For example, the nuclear bomb, which was brought into fruition through science in the 1940s, cast a shadow over all human endeavors. This is significant when one recalls that science was sought after for its ability to deliver objective truth, which in turn promised a better existence. Now, science had delivered a bomb instead. Furthermore, there was also a growing awareness that the American dream was limited in scope and was “still predominantly middle class (or above), white, and male.”Worldwide factors also influenced the revolt of postmodernism. To name a few, “Nazism, concentration camps (in both East and West), genocide, Hiroshima, [and] Vietnam.”That said, modernity entered history as a progressive force promising to liberate humankind from ignorance and irrationality but was unable to fulfill its promises.Even more so, modernity did not take a position of humility but one of arrogance, as the previous section pointed out. Therefore, postmodernity entered the scene as a skeptic critic fully prepared to lead the people away from objective truth. The following will address certain key pillars within postmodernism as well as show the Christian response.
One of the first pillars in postmodernism’s revolt against modernism revolves around suspicion, which was implied above. This ideology exhorts that any claim to absolute truth are “attempts by the powerful or those with vested interests to stifle dissent and push their agenda.”Michel Foucault can be credited as a leading voice here with claims like “we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth, and truth can be twisted and distorted to suit those in control.”Here, truth is not liberating (in contrast to modernism) rather it is wielded as a way to keep others under the thumb of higher officials.
Unlike Foucault’s perception that truth is not liberating, Christian theism is highly invested in a truth that is liberating. Jesus claims to be the truth (John 14:6), and furthermore, Jesus came to “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk. 4:18, English Standard Version). In John 8:32, Jesus declares that “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Clearly, these are liberating declarations; however, one must also consider that postmodernism’s suspicion toward hierarchical systems is rightfully stated. After all, discovering the truth that the Nazis used medical science to perform heinous experiments on Jewish subjects is reason enough for Foucault’s accusations, but not reason enough to apply it to all systems – Christianity being one example. Yes, Christians have wielded truth to bring about conformity. At times, not so lovingly, such as at the height of modernism; however, when presented with the love of Christ, Christianity is the most liberating of all.
Another major pillar is the rejection of an authoritative meta-narrative (overarching stories that explain and give meaning to life). Some will immediately be directed toward the postmodern thinker Jean-Francois Lyotard who, in reference toward postmodernity characterized it as, “incredulity toward metanarratives.”What this stance does is “denies the possibility of a ‘God’s eye view’ of anything, and in place of universal and objective truth that transcends all expressions of it.”In place of metanarratives, postmodernism has argued that we only have our present “community-specific” stories, which have zero truth-validity outside of themselves. This can be a good thing – if there was one unified utopian community that presumably assented to what was truly true, which clearly, is not a present reality.
In response, Christian theism maintains that the Bible is “the” one and only authoritative meta-narrative in which God has chosen to communicate through. Furthermore, the narratives in the Bible are not just mere stories, but actual historic events. Granted, the Scriptures do contain various literary forms; however, each form is intended to communicate the truth-proclamations of which Christians assent to. “Postmodernists,” Groothuis states, “are correct in their assessment of stories within culture, from bedtime stories told to children, to the historical narratives of nations and peoples. Their downfall comes in shrinking the metanarrative to a micronarrative and then severing these stories from objective truth.”In maintaining the meta-narrative, then, Christians are the vessels of objective truth in the world.
Keep in mind that Christians are sustaining, through their meta-narrative, objective truth in the postmodern/post-truth world and not absolute certainty. Postmodernity did successfully manage to shrink the propaganda of absolute certainty, which is a positive. Recall that the absolute certainty of modernism caused both Christians and naturalists to force their narrative because they were absolutely certain that it was the only way, thus, making the ability to choose an illusion.However, with absolute certainty out of the picture, the choice to freely accept the Christian narrative has been regenerated. Moreover, absolute certainty negates faith and believing in Jesus the Christ is, in all truth, an act of faith – and faith – is a choice.
Before addressing the world of post-truth, one more pillar (out of many) should be addressed and that is the relativizing of truth-claims in an effort to celebrate diversity. Recall that modernity sought a truth that was objectively out there somewhere waiting to be discovered. With postmodernism, the notion of truth being out there is void. Chan writes that “all we have is truth that is essentially a social construct made up of raw materials supplied by historical and social conditions . . . . [and consequently] truth is perspectival. The quest for objective truth independent of the knower is a lost cause. Instead of the truth, we only have truths.”With this ideology, then, truth has been devalued to a purely subjective state.
Chan’s statement is extremely bleak, however, it is important to know that Chan was addressing the world extrinsic to Christianity and not the Christian community, who have assented to the truth proclamations of the Scripture. In other words, Christians who maintain a high-view of the Scriptures, are still very much maintaining the ideology of objective truth in the world. Simply put, the truth of Scripture has been the one constant in history. That said, a world that consists of many truths does not consign all truths to the realm of relativism and being that people are freed from absolute certainty means that they can freely choose what truths they will or will not assent to, with Christianity being one of them. Is this not too different than the world that the Apostle Paul was sent to proclaim the gospel message to? (1 Cor. 1:23). Did the city of Athens not contain philosophers who promoted their own interpretations of what truth was? (Acts 17:18-19). Yes, absolutely! Even more so, did everyone who heard Paul’s narrative assent to the truths of Christianity? Absolutely not. Like then, people who hear the gospel can either choose to assent or not. It seems, then, that the postmodern world is not much unlike the Ancient World in the plurality of beliefs; however, it is entirely different when it comes to truth-value.
The introduction of this essay gave several examples of how objective truth has now been accepted as being truly true; however, it has lost its value over to relativism. This is evident in the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 word of the year “post-truth.” As a reminder, post-truth means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”Take note that within the definition, objective truth is affirmed; however, it is trumped by emotion and individual belief, otherwise known as hyperindividualism. What the introduction did not report is that “although the word dates back at least to 1992, the usage of post-truth ballooned in 2016 by 2,000 percent.”It seems, then, that post-truth is more than the word of the year rather it has become the new poster child of postmodernism. In the words of Pilate, which has become borderline heresy not to include in any paper on truth, the Roman asks, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38). The current response would be – Jesus is the truth but why should we care? This is what Christians are now up against and the Christian can no longer just resort to modernism’s go to response of absolute certainty – “because the Bible says so!” Christians, more than ever, must be prepared with a proper, gentle and respectful response (1 Pet. 3:15), and not just those “professional” Christians who have been raised up in the art of apologetics but all Christians.
Christianity has not been immune to postmodernism’s newly born petulant child – post-truth. On November 20, 2014, Susan Otey became the first Montana member of the clergy to officiate at a homosexual marriage – contrary to the teaching of her denomination (United Methodist) and to the vows she took upon ordainment. The irony of the situation is ghastly, “Here stands a ‘pastor,’ presumably chosen for the sake of the integrity of the office, asking two people to be faithful to their vows, while simultaneously breaking her own vow.” Her response to officiating the ceremony affirmed the post-truth attitude, “I really felt that God was calling me to be part of that . . . . sometimes, to stand with the love of Jesus Christ for all people, you have to break a vow you’ve taken.”The key word in Otey’s statement is the term felt. Otey did not look to the objective truth of Scripture; rather, she appealed to her feelings. Here, we see that Otey – recognized what the Scripture decrees on the matter; however, she chose herself as the higher authority (Judges 21:25). It seems that Otey has a low-view of Scripture, unlike the high-view that has enabled Christians to maintain objective truth in the world, which – I might add also maintains truth-value.
This paper has traced the varying perspectives of truth for the past three hundred years – beginning with the Enlightenment and ending on what appears to be the doorstep of post-truth, which I have referred to as the petulant child of postmodernism. A tremendous amount of material has been written on postmodernism; however, very little has been presented on post-truth – although the bookshelves (be it physical or virtual) are now starting to stack up; with most being published after 2016. This too, confirms the arrival of a new era of which the Church must see as another opportunity to voice herself, which is what this paper will conclude on.
The Christian Response
In closing, I will side with an argument made by James K. A. Smith, “The postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient, that the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition, and that the most effective means of discipleship is found in liturgy.”This paper has shown that the truth proclamations of the Scriptures have been the one constant in history. In light of this, then, the Church must respond not by contemporizing the Ancient narrative but by telling and living the Ancient narrative as it presents itself in Scripture against the backdrop of the contemporary context of a post-truth world. For example, if you were sent back in time to witness a grand event, and then suddenly found yourself back in the contemporary world – you would tell the story as you just experienced it – as it unfolded at that particular point in history. What you would not do is alter the event to suit the preferences of the peoples’ desires, which would diminish the story’s validity. The Ancient story of Christianity is just as relevant today as it was then and still maintains the power of salvation through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. Therefore, Christians must join the oral-tradition of the Ancients and tell the story precisely as the Holy Spirit has revealed it in the Scriptures.
The Church must also learn from her past mistakes and avoid marrying the Ancient narrative to absolute certainty when telling the story. Already stated in the paper, like then, after hearing the story, people can choose for themselves and in the process, some may be won over to Christ (1 Cor. 9:22). In conclusion, then, Christianity has weathered through many philosophies of the world, all without being windswept. The current ideology is post-truth, which will bring about the next challenge, and so on. However, one thing has shown permanency – that is the truth of God’s special revelation to human kind – the truth of His Word. – Ἀμήν.
– Kendell Linh Healy
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. Abdu Murray, Saving Truth: Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2018), 13.
. Mark Chan, “Following Jesus as the Truth: Postmodernity and Challenges of Relativism,” Evangelical Review of Theology 31, no 4 (2007): #, accessed August 26, 2018.
. Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2000), 40.
.Stewart E. Kelly, Truth Considered & Applied: Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, ©2011), 11.
. James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5thed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2009), 26.
. Kelly, 14.
. Groothuis, 35.
. Sire, 54.
. Kelly, 17.
. Sire, 67.
. R. Scott Smith, Truth & the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, ©2005), 53.
. Ibid., 55.
. N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1999), 154.
. Groothuis, 38.
. Kelly, 50.
. Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions: 1st ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, ©1992), 5.
. Chan, 309.
. Michel Foucault, Powerknowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, American ed., ed. and trans. Colin Gordon (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, ©1980), 132.
. James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Post Modernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2006), 22.
. Chan, 308.
. Groothuis, 135-136.
. James K. A. Smith, 73-74.
. Chan, 308.
. “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year: Post-Truth,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed September 5, 2018, https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/press/news/2016/11/15/WOTY-16
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. James K. A. Smith, 25.
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