Postmodernity, Relativism, and Truth

epistemology postmodernism relativism truth

Mikel Collins, Children's Pastor at Element Church in Forest City, NC, also serves as the Operations Director for Psalm68Five Ministries. He is the host of two podcasts, "Talking With Intention" and "Maximize Youth Ministry," and shares his writing on his blog at mwcollins.org. Passionate about making a positive change in the day-to-day lives of the people he meets, Mikel's work and writing are inspired by a desire for real Truth to be known and lived out.

When I was 20 years old, I met a man whose goal was to rid the world of religion. Thankfully, he didn't intend to use violence to accomplish this goal; otherwise, I would not have been able to hang out with him for very long. He had grown up in a Christian home and even had a cross tattoo on his arm. He told me that he had realized how foolish it was to believe in God and abandoned his faith a few years back. We worked together, and just about every day, we would get into a discussion about the existence of God.

I really enjoyed these talks, despite our opposing views.

None of our coworkers ever joined in on these discussions. I assumed they just were not interested. One day, however, after we finished talking, another friend of mine came over with a concerned look on his face. He said in a hushed whisper so that my atheist friend wouldn't overhear, "Was he telling you that you were wrong?”

At first, I didn't understand the question. Of course, he was; that's what made the discussion interesting. I paused for a moment to make sure I understood what he meant before saying,

"Well, yes, but it's alright. I'm fine."

"Are you sure?" he said.

"Yes," I said. I chuckled slightly to show him that I wasn't upset.

"Alright, just let me know if he is bothering you,"

I thought about this interaction for a long time. While I appreciated my friend's concern and willingness to look out for me, I was caught off guard by his concern that I was being seemingly mistreated in some way. It was the first time I had ever encountered a postmodern view of truth.

The idea of subjective truth, otherwise known as relativism, is not new, of course. There is nothing new under the sun. Protagoras, in the 5th century B.C., said, "Man is the measure of all things," which means that what is true for you might not be true for me.

Plato strongly disagreed with this idea, as did C.S. Lewis, Richard Dawkins, and most other people until recently. If you go on Twitter for about two seconds, you will likely run into someone arguing for subjective truth. And if the media is to be believed (HA!), relativism is taking over the nation at an alarming rate. I don't believe that logic is in nearly as dire a situation as most media outlets make it seem. Rather, I think it is an example of how the people with the weakest argument typically have the loudest voices.

On its face, the idea of subjective truth seems so ridiculous to me that it is tempting to ignore it rather than spending energy trying to refute it. But every day, there are people being convinced that relativism is true. And although the irony of that statement is not lost on me, I think it is important that those of us who still hold to objective truth raise our voices in calm opposition to the relativistic shouting. And if relativism is false and real truth does exist, the best way to discover it is through honest discussion and evaluation, which is what I am attempting to do here.

One of the common beliefs of postmodern relativists is that their view is the only one that a person can hold if they are going to truly love their neighbor. They would say that you cannot love someone and tell them that their "truth" is wrong. The reality is that you cannot love someone unless you are willing to tell them when they are wrong. If I love my neighbor, I am duty-bound to tell him that his drinking problem is bound to end in disaster. If he tells me that he has been called to drink a bottle of whiskey every day by the small wooden idol he keeps in his closet, I have to tell him that his god is false. If I remain silent and allow him to destroy his life, how can I say that I love him? Truth and love are so closely intertwined that they are very nearly the same thing. It is impossible to tear down one and preserve the other. This makes sense when you realize that they both come from the same source, which is God (1 John 4:8, John 14:6). When truth is reduced to opinion, love is reduced to tolerance. Thus, tolerance is hailed as the supreme virtue by many in postmodern culture. They think that they have moved beyond the values of their grandparents and found something greater in themselves. In reality, they have stopped looking to God as the source of truth and love and started trying to become the source themselves.

Ultimately, this view of the self as the ultimate source of truth can never lead to a meaningful life because it goes against our nature as human beings. We were created as beings that worship. Everyone worships something; we have to, otherwise, we will collapse into ourselves like a balloon with no breath to fill it. If you doubt this, ask yourself why you got out of bed this morning. You will probably say, "because I had to go to work." Or something similar. If that is the case, ask yourself why you went to work. If you continue to ask yourself “why?”, and you continue to answer honestly, eventually you will land on an answer similar to "Because nothing is more important to me than..." And whatever that object of ultimate importance is for you, that is what you worship. You may not call it worship, especially if the term worship brings to mind images of temples and chanting and groups of people on their knees in prayer. But if for are living FOR something, you are worshiping. To my knowledge, Friedrich Nietzsche has been the only man to make a real, honest attempt to live for nothing, and it drove him to insanity.

Postmodernity says we ought to worship ourselves. This is echoed in the common phrase "Follow your Heart," which claims that we ought to listen to our desires above all else. But scripture warns us that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). There is nothing worse, nothing less fulfilling, for a worshipful being than to worship itself. If you will not worship God, then worship money, worship your spouse, worship your political party, but please do not worship yourself. Ultimately, everything other than God will lead you into emptiness, but nothing will empty your life of meaning faster or more completely than trying to worship yourself.

At its core, postmodern thought is an attempt to do away with everything greater than the individual. If "man is the measure of all things," nothing can be larger than a man. You can't measure an ocean with a ruler. Some argue for this idea in the name of freedom, as if eliminating everything greater than ourselves frees us from everything that would hold us back. In other words, it frees us from responsibility to anything other than our own desires. It's like an eagle that decides it wants the freedom to explore the depths of the ocean like the fish it watches from its perch on the coastline. If there were no universal objective truths about the nature of an eagle, this would not be a problem. But an eagle is only free to be an eagle insofar as it is not a fish or any other creature. If it tries to go against the objective truth that it is an eagle, it will quickly find that it has much less freedom, not more. Just as there are objective truths about the nature of an eagle, there are objective truths about the nature of a human being. We may disagree about what those objective truths are, but if we refuse to admit that objective truth exists, it becomes impossible to have any sort of discussion about the nature of reality.

It is good for people to disagree with you. Count it as a blessing when someone loves you enough to tell you they think you are wrong. Do not be afraid to talk with people who think differently than you. And make sure you are actually having a discussion with them and not a competition. It is a very bad idea to win an argument when you are wrong. Don't try to win; try to uncover the truth. The truth does exist, and the truth will set you free.

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