Whence Truth? The Journey Away from THE Truth
Our digital age has created a snowstorm of media choices for us and along with it has created a problem for truth - it is often buried by the overwhelming amount of material coming at us and the speed by which it does. Information overwhelms us in many ways and it is almost impossible to sift through all of it to find the truth.
But there is another problem in trying to discern an answer to the question - what is truth? In North America, for the past 70 years or so, we have been moving away from belief in THE truth as an objective entity that all can find and hold onto and toward the belief that truth is nothing more than a story told by those who are in power in order to subjugate those who are not. Sound familiar? It is the central mantra of the critical theorists on the left who seem to have taken over the media and a vast majority of government policymakers. But I digress. This philosophical movement means that truth is malleable, changeable according to whoever holds the authority, the power, in any given system. So, then, the truth is not objective, but subjective, it is not discovered but made, it is not universal, but local, it is not spoken about, it is created by my speech… and on and on we could go.
Let me explain how we got here and how our current weltanschauung makes it all the more difficult to defend biblical ideas of truth.
To understand where we are now we need to go all the way back to the period of history known as the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. (Roughly dated from 1689-1789) During this time and in the subsequent centuries afterward, a number of things were believed about truth and its pursuit (known as epistemology). I will summarize only the relevant points:
Truth and its discovery are objective. The truth is out there awaiting discovery from observers who are able to ascertain it with certainty.
Reason and science provide accurate, objective, and reliable foundations for knowledge.
Truth and the use of reason are universal. This means that all people everywhere can find the truth… if they only look properly for it.
The language we use communicates the truth in a one-to-one relationship between the word we use and what we are signifying by that word.
In sum, truth exists independent of human consciousness, can be known through the application of reason, and communicated universally through language.
Notice the keywords here - objective, universal, reason, certainty. This philosophy brought with it an overwhelming sense that the future was wide-open. Optimism in the human ability to conquer all problems abounded and there was hope for a future in which human reason and science would create an almost utopian existence for humankind.
But then World War I and II happened along with many other worldwide changes - the collapse of colonialism, the restructuring of Empires, the destructive results of communism, activism, fear of technology brought about by the world wars, the sexual revolution, etc. In concert with these realities, certain philosophers were thinking through the implications of Immanuel Kant’s work (18th century) and drawing it to its natural conclusions. Men like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fredrick Nietzsche, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacque Derrida were exploring how claims to truth (language) influenced power structures of various kinds. In the 1960s this kind of thinking reached its height through the works of the latter two Frenchmen and postmodernism was finally born in the Western world.
Its worldview is fundamentally different than that of modernism. I will summarize only the relevant points:
Truth and its discovery are subject to whatever context the individual who is pursuing truth find themselves.
Reason and science are not accurate, objective, and reliable foundations for knowledge because they are subject to the context in which the individual using them finds themselves.
Truth and the use of reason are subject to our context. Thus they are not universal but localized to the person using reason and pursuing truth within their social group.
Language is a power structure. It is fluid and arbitrary and carries no one-to-one correspondence between the signifier (word) and the thing signified. (object, action, etc.) Language creates truth, it does not reflect it.
In sum, “Truth may exist independent of human consciousness but there are no objective means of discovering it or speaking of it.”
Notice the keywords used here - subjective, cultural, fluid, arbitrary, power, language. Postmodernism does not necessarily deny that truth exists somewhere out there (objectively), but that it is impossible for anyone to grasp due to the legion of factors that stand in our way. It emphasizes that all truth claims are simply a power grab by a particular group to subjugate another group. They do so by using a certain kind of language in order to retain their power. What’s more, the individual is deleted and is replaced by group dynamics. A person is no longer an individual but a sum (intersection) of whatever group dynamics of which they are a part.
Put this kind of philosophy on the streets, so to speak, and what you get is relativism of the highest order. Richard Phillips observes, “The postmodern junta now governing Western culture holds this relativism as its sole absolute: no one has the right to say that he possesses the truth absolutely so that others are absolutely wrong. There may be “my truth” and “your truth,” but the postmodern mind dogmatizes against anyone claiming dogmatically to possess the truth.” (Notice the sad irony of this dogmatic statement!) Pluckrose and Lindsay summarize, “Knowledge, truth, meaning, and morality are therefore, according to postmodernist thinking, culturally constructed and relative products of individual cultures, none of which possess the necessary tools or terms to evaluate the others.”
At first postmodern philosophy and linguistic theory were shrugged off in the universities. But soon, as is evident today, these things were taken as self-evident truths. (Again notice the irony of this statement!) This movement is devastating. We are only now seeing the damage this perspective is capable of as it has been seized by critical theorists and the Social Justice Movement. (Pluckrose and Lindsay are surely correct when they say that this movement has become one of the least tolerant and most authoritative ideologies since communism and colonialism have passed) Let me summarize a few ways this has been done:
Issues of gender - gender is a social construct not an issue of biology
Heteronormism - we live in a heteronormative power culture which actively seeks to subjugate those who are not heterosexual - typically described as the LGBTQ community
Racism - we live in a white power culture which actively seeks to subjugate people of color
Feminism - we live in a patriarchal power culture which actively subjugates women
Socialism - we live in a capitalist power culture that actively subjugates the poor
All of this stuff falls under the heading of the “Social Justice Movement.” (This is different from “social justice” lowercase “s” and “j”) SJM is a notoriously difficult idea to define but it carries with it the fundamental belief that our society is structured as a power culture (more specifically a white, heterosexual male power culture) designed to subjugate people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, the poor, the disabled, the fat, etc. - through the language that we use. Thus the idea of “political correctness” becomes more important than ‘the truth’ and its discovery. Since those in power speak a certain language in order to affirm their power position and subjugate others we need to change the way we speak about just about everything in order to overcome this. Pluckrose and Lindsay are surely correct when they observe, “If knowledge is a construct of power, which functions through ways of talking about things, knowledge can be changed and power structures toppled by changing the way we talk about things.” This means, quite simply, we don’t look for the truth in anything in order to adhere to it, we simply look for ways to change the way we talk about things. The idea is that if we get rid of problem language, we will change the world.
The truth? That is so 18th century.
At this point, I think we all realize that this kind of postmodern turn is problematic and unsustainable. The seeds for the destruction of the SJM are there within its own ideology; (Maybe a topic for another series of blogs) not the least of which being that it leads to delusion. It is wildly inconsistent. It is highly suspicious of everything. People cannot live with these things as central parts of their worldview. People are truth seekers. People need something to hold onto, something to believe in, something to guide them. We need these things because that is how we have been designed. When the truth is taken from us we go mad. We can’t make sense of the world. We can’t make sense of ourselves. We devolve into madness. We find ourselves in bondage. We become depressed, anxious, angry, etc..
“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”” (John 8:31-32)
We must stand against postmodern views of truth and the critical theory which it has spawned. To do so will set us free. But to do so we need to discover the truth and grasp onto it tightly. Jesus tells us that we will find the truth in his word. Within his word, we will also find the character of truth so that we know what to look for as we navigate our world seeking the truth.
So it is to Scripture that we will turn over the next number of blogs as we seek to ascertain the nature of truth.
Soli Deo Gloria