Revealing God’s Revelation in a Postmodern World
by Derrick G. Jeter
It’s been said that philosophers talk about subjects they don’t understand but make everyone else believe it’s their fault. This is often the case when it comes to postmodernism, about which much is said but little is understood. However, having some grasp on this philosophical movement is vital if Christians are to understand the times in which we live, as the long-ago sons of Issachar understood theirs and knew how their nation should respond (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Though the implications of postmodernism are far-reaching, we will cover only the most basic ideas here, limiting our discussion to the concepts of knowledge and truth.
An Historical and Philosophical Overview
Terms like postmodernism, modernism, and premodernism are slippery things. In the broadest historical sense, the premodern period covers the time from creation to the rise of science (6000 BC–AD 1600); modernity from the rise of science to World War I or possibly World War II (1600–1917/1945); and postmodernity from World War I/World War II to the present (1917/1945–present). Some argue that the postmodern period began as late as the 1960s with the radicalization of society, starting on university campuses, while others argue that it began as early as the 1890s with the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
While the historical timeline is helpful, it is not the most important aspect of understanding these ideological movements; the philosophical underpinnings are. Each of these historic periods addresses central philosophical questions concerning truth and knowledge: “Is there such as thing as truth?” “Where does truth come from?” and “How certain is our knowledge of truth?” In the context of our discussion here, it’s important to note that at the most fundamental level, questions of truth and knowledge revolve around revelation—the notion that truth exists outside of ourselves and resides in the mind, words, and person of God.
In general, we can summarize the philosophy behind each of these historic periods as follows. Premodernity championed divine revelation (oral revelation, before the writing of Scripture, and afterward written revelation itself) and valued the tradition of sages and fathers and the richness of community. Modernity trumpeted human reason over revelation, the certitude, objectivity, and goodness of knowledge, a universal worldview (sometimes called a “metanarrative”), the transcendence of ideals (especially in art), and individualism. Postmodernity, conversely, values community, doubts the certitude and goodness of knowledge, favors subjectivity, rejects the universal to celebrate diverse or pluralistic views (sometimes called social constructs), believes in the transience of artistic expression and in the importance of experience more than reason and direct revelation.
In postmodern thought, truth is not discovered through reason but through experience. One of the best illustrations of this idea was captured in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society. In one scene, Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams), the English teacher at a boys’ prep school, is attempting to teach his students to value poetry. Reading aloud from the introduction of their textbook, Mr. Keating declares that, according to “Dr. J. Evan Prichard, Ph.D.,” poetry can only be appreciated through a mathematical approach of charting various degrees of meter and rhyme. Keating will have none of it. Persuading the boys to rip the introduction from their books, he gathers in close and tells them a secret—poetry must be felt; it must be experienced. Medicine, law, business, engineering—these are all worthwhile pursuits—but, he says, we don’t live for them. We live for something more, for what poetry stirs within our souls—love, passion, experience. Such ideology is the hallmark of postmodern thought.
While it’s true we may not learn to appreciate poetry by plotting it on a graph, the rejection of rationalism, to say nothing of revelation, begs this question regarding truth: Can we really know truth apart from revelation, from something outside of ourselves?
How We Come to Know Truth
For premodernists, knowledge of truth did not exist apart from God’s revelation, whether written or oral. Revelation trumped and served as a truth filter for human tradition, reason, and experience. At the other end of the spectrum, many postmodernists say there is no God and therefore we cannot know truth, at least not in an absolute sense. Though some people argue that absolute truth doesn’t exist, this doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no such thing as absolute truth . . . only that we cannot know it absolutely. What we do know, according to postmodernists, is what we experience. And because we all experience life differently, truth is relative. At only one time in the history of humanity did we believe that we could know truth without God or His revelation. This was during the time of modernity, when most people believed truth was discovered within ourselves through reason or the experience of scientific observations. Ironically, premodernists and postmodernists agree on the necessity of God and revelation to know truth; they just disagree on our certitude to know whether or not God and revelation exist.
Communicating Truth in a Postmodern Culture
This, of course, leaves adherents of postmodernism centerless and weightless but not necessarily truthless. Christians who hold to the premodern belief that truth is revealed by God’s revelation and that we can possess a reasonable certitude of knowledge have a daunting task before us. How do we relate to and nail down a culture whose notions of truth seem to be light as air and floating upon a changing breeze? In other words, how do we communicate our knowledge of truth in a culture that doubts our ability to know truth? This is not a simple question, but the answer must start with understanding that postmodernism is a reaction to and a rejection of modernism.
Modernity originated the idea that knowledge only comes through reason—that knowledge is solely intellectual, logical, deductive, and abstract. It is this lifeless theory that postmodernity is rebelling against. Unfortunately, in most cases, postmodernists have swung the pendulum too far. But perhaps if modernists had been more reasonable in communicating the ancient and broader sense of reason as sanity, vision, and discernment—what the Bible calls wisdom—the pendulum could come closer to the center. Postmodernists could then embrace, rather than reject, reason as a form of knowledge.
To link the importance of revelation to our knowledge of truth, Christians should challenge postmodernists to wrestle with God’s three modes of presenting His revelation. First, God reveals truth through our consciences, which He has placed within every human soul. Solomon said that God has “set eternity in [our] heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Anyone who has felt guilt over wrongdoing or a deep satisfaction over justice done can testify that God has placed a moral compass within us.
Second, God reveals truth through His written Word. Undoubtedly, our age has placed the Bible in the dustbin of objective authority, to our own demise. But it is the very fact of our demise—that gut-gnawing feeling that something is not right with the world—that we can use to help center postmodernists. Christians can show how Scripture addresses life’s perplexing questions and problems.
Third, God revealed truth through His living revelation—God’s story written in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Christ invites all people to know Him, not only through our minds but also to know Him through a personal relationship with Him. Living in a postmodern society may mean a change in how Christians communicate the gospel, but it doesn’t change the gospel itself: that forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God come through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is a message many postmodernists can understand and would wish to experience, because it’s an invitation to experience a transformed spiritual life.
It is critical that postmodernists think carefully about the various means of God’s revelation and our ability as humans to know the truth because the consequences are literally a matter of eternal life and eternal death. All of us are dependent on God and His revelation, whether we label ourselves modernists or postmodernists. The only eternal difference is that some of us have been rescued from the narrow confines of our own reason and experiences, and the Rescuer is God’s own revelation, Jesus Christ—the embodiment of knowledge and truth.
Adapted from Derrick G. Jeter, “The Relative Truth of Postmodernism: A Sketchy Outline,” January 31, 2008, https://derrickjeter.wordpress.com/2008/01/31/the-relative-truth-of-postmodernism-a-sketchy-outline/, and “Milking the Cow of Truth,” delivered to Coffee House Fellowship, August 31, 2008. Copyright © 2008 by Derrick G. Jeter. All rights reserved worldwide.
Copyright © 2009 by Derrick G. Jeter. All rights reserved worldwide. Originally published on the Insight for Living website, http://www.insight.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=14805&news_iv_ctrl=1541.