Tuesday, June 24, 2008

True Beliefs

(I just posted this at the blog of Kilns College, an exciting new venture with which I'm involved. I thought my readership here would appreciate it as well.)

The leadership of Kilns College is beginning to kick around what to include in a "Statement of Faith," which is a necessary sort of thing for a Christian college to have. Normally, such a statement would include our beliefs about God, Scripture, the human condition, salvation, and perhaps one or two other items.
But today, it seems, one cannot simply lay out what it is one believes to be the truth about such things. No, in our postmodern culture, one may first have to at least claim--if not actually go through the process of substantiating the claim--that there is such a thing as objective truth in the first place.

So, lest we put a good deal of effort into a corporate statement of faith only to have it viewed as a subjective exercise not meant to intersect with any absolute reality, I thought it best to establish up front that we at Kilns College hold to an objectivist view of truth. That is, with the vast majority of thinkers throughout the history of Western civilization, we hold that some statements (ideas or beliefs) are true and that others are false, that some correspond to reality and others do not.

As an example, we are likely to make a statement such as, "Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, died by Roman crucifixion and was bodily raised on the third day." By making this claim, we are not merely saying that this particular belief works for us or has more meaning for us than it does for other people. Rather, we would be claiming that this is a fundamental truth about Jesus Christ that matches reality at all times and for all people, regardless of whether or not they believe (agree with) it.

In this case, the truth value of the statement resides in Jesus--the object of the statement--and not in the claimant or anyone else considering the truth value (these latter would both be subjects). We reject a subjectivist understanding of truth and affirm an objectivist understanding.

The subjectivist, relativist understanding of truth espoused by postmodernists is ultimately self-referentially absurd. But rather than demonstrate that the way I normally would, let me come at it a different way, one appropriate to a school of higher education.

Just as relative morality makes nonsense of the concept of moral reform or moral improvement, a subjectivist view of truth makes unintelligible the concept of learning. If there is no truth--no accurate understanding of the way things are--then gathering more knowledge is pointless. You may continually change your understanding or the way you view things, but if there is no right understanding to which you have gotten closer, you might just as well be doing almost anything else.

Until a very short time ago, virtually everyone believed in objective truth, goodness, and beauty, and the goal of a liberal arts education was to raise up gentlemen and ladies by helping them align their thoughts, will, and emotions with that tuth, goodness, and beauty.

We at Kilns College still believe these things, and I hope that our statement of beliefs (when finished) will reflect this.


Anonymous said...

Should be interesting to see what you all come up with. So can someone go to Kilns college if they disagree with some of the beliefs of those who are in charge?

My other question is are all postmoderns subjectivists? and are all subjectivists moral relativists? Or is it more nuanced than that. I am not sure that it is so black and white as you make it out to be, Rick. I get the impression that you assume all postmoderns are also completely absurd and should change to think more rationally... dare I say, more western modernly. It leaves a lot of folks out.

Sorry you missed Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Mark Scandrette last night at the Church Basement Roadshow. It was pretty amazing.

Rick Gerhardt said...


Yes, I was sorry to miss it, too. I had to work, and I know that both Mike and Ken are out of town. I believe some of the Antioch summer interns were there.

As far as I can tell, it is a subjective view of truth and of morality that defines or distinguishes postmodernism. That is, if one does not take a subjective view of these things, then one is not truly postmodern in his epistemology.

But you err if you think that I desire for you to think as a modern. Here's the deal, in simplified form...

Modernism espouses rationalism and materialism, and denies revelation and anything immaterial (God, angels, mind, soul, spirit, etc.). For the modernist, one can only believe what can be experienced with the senses, and one can only come to know anything through his own reasoning.

Premodernists disagree(d) with these assessments. They (we) consider the world to consist of both material and immaterial things, that there is a Spirit transcendent to the universe (and yet immanent), and that revelation from that Spirit is a valid path to knowledge (along with human reason and sense experience).

But whereas the premodernist disagrees with the epistemology of modernism, the postmodernist does not disagree. Rather, he is dissatisfied with the conclusions to which modernism leads. He finds modernism inadequate (as it fails to provide meaning and purpose to life).

In general, postmodernists do not reject the materialism of modernity; but finding the conclusions unsatisfactory, they are radically skeptical of even the objectivity of truth (not merely of the modernist's arrogant claims about how truth is obtained). We premodernists reject modernist epistemology without denying that objective truth exists.

I know that my portrayal of postmodernism does not fit you. Nonetheless, it is a (generally) accurate assessment of the defining characteristics of postmodernism. I suggest that you are not as thoroughly postmodern as you believe you are, since you do not fully embrace postmodernism's characteristic subjectivity and relativism.

What do you say?

Anonymous said...

Your assessments and definitions are good. I think we are not really that far apart... things are just not as black and white for me. It seems to me that the postmodernism you define is primarily the early postmodern philosophical side... but I sort of get this sense that there are more nuances and developments within postmodernism.

I guess I see it really as "post"- modernism (ie that which comes after modernism, in that sense dare i say that even you are "post"-modern). Granted there is some pre-modern as well, along with a desire to get even further back to some of the thinking before the dualism of Augustine and the gnostics (greek philosophy) got into the Western version of Christianity.

I do believe that we cannot get away from our lenses, that we cannot get away from a cultural bias. We can change the bias that we come from but we cannot get away from it. God is bigger than our experience of "him." But we still know what we experience, or are told by someone who has experienced it.

I do not believe in moral relativism because I don't see Jesus as a moral relativist... and I follow Jesus. At the same time though, I don't see Jesus as legalistic as some make him out to be.

I just know that that things are not as cut and dry as I have often been told. Not all moderns, post-moderns, pre-moderns, etc are wrapped up in simple classifications and I know that if fit more in the classifications of those who have come after modernism than any other places...

Another question, how familiar are you with Celtic-Christianity? Pre-modern thinking or post-modern. Subjective and culturally savy or still living in the more dualistic mindset of the West? I am as much Celtic in thinking as I am emergent... and I wonder if you are familiar.