Seldom All Right or All Wrong

A good way to insure that a conversation will go nowhere is to insist that all your beliefs on the issue at hand are right and those of your conversation partner are all wrong. That could be appropriate, as when talking about issues for which there is irrefutable empirical evidence. But for most complex issues, it is seldom that any one person has a corner on the truth.

There are a number of Christians who believe that postmodernism has it “all wrong.” Since I don’t believe that to be the case, it was refreshing for me to recently read an analysis of postmodernism presented by Tim Muehlhoff and Todd Lewis in their book Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture (chapters 9 & 10). For each of the five “postmodern ideas” that they summarized, they followed with sections on “Areas of Agreement” and “Areas of Concern,” thereby acknowledging that although they didn’t agree with all the tenets of this variegated movement there are aspects of postmodern thought that fit well with the Christian faith.

To illustrate, let me briefly comment on the analysis of these authors regarding the “postmodern idea” that “Truth depends on your point of view” (p. 166). They embrace the postmodern insight that “the world and the truths we embrace are greatly influenced by culture and our social position within culture” (what communications theorists call “standpoint theory” – p. 167 – and what I have called “perspectivalism” in my essay “The Postmodern Opportunity: Christians in the Academy”). I heartily concur. But that doesn’t mean that all truth claims are relative, reflecting only the differing standpoints of the claimants. These authors and I reject such crass relativism. I believe that it is possible to discuss the relative adequacy of competing truth claims using criteria for evaluation that are pertinent to the given area of discourse.

My way of calling into question such crass relativism, borrowed from Merold Westphal, is to distinguish between “Truth” (with a capital T), which is that perfect understanding of reality that only God possesses, and “truth” (with a lower case t), which is the limited and partial understanding of God’s “Truth” that I can grasp as a finite and fallible human being. Therefore, I believe that “truth depends on your point of view,” but “Truth” (as God fully knows it) does not depend on your point of view.

My point in this illustrative example is that Christians need to be careful not to dismiss wholesale the beliefs of those in other intellectual traditions or movements, especially movements having as many strands as postmodernism. No tradition or movement, including my Christian tradition, has it all right or all wrong, for as finite, fallible human beings we all “see through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12). Therefore, we need to have respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree for the purpose of learning from one another.

[For interested readers, since one criticism of the “Emergent Church” is that it is “soft on the truth,” my counter to that critique, along the lines of what I say above, can be accessed on this web site in the section “On Truth or Not” in the piece titled “Some Characteristics of the Emerging Church”].