A centrally characteristic aspect of postmodern thinking is suspicion of claims of absolute truth. Everything is interpretation, according to Derrida. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. There is nothing outside the text. Context is everything. What’s true for you might not be true for me.
In Rachel Held Evans’ wonderful book Evolving in Monkeytown, she recounts being trained in apologetics at a conservative Bible college. There the students were taught that if someone said to them, “There is no such thing as absolute truth” they were to respond “Are you absolutely sure about that?” Clever. But of course doubt about claims of absolute truth can’t be removed by rhetorical tricks alone.
Postmodern thinking has been influenced of course by recent scientific discoveries, particularly in quantum physics, which call into question much of what modern science taught. At the smallest level, things just don’t always follow the rules. Subatomic particles seem to do impossible things, like disappear then reappear somewhere else. They seem to have “personalities.” They are unpredictable. They defy the rules. It’s beginning to seem like things we consider impossible, are merely highly improbable. Last week some scientists claimed they’ve discovered particles travelling faster than the speed of light. It seems that scientific truth isn’t as absolute as modernists would have us believe.
At a simplistic level, I’d like to think that we can rely on our senses to reveal at least some absolutely true facts. But can we? The Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty seems to establish that, at least with some subatomic particles, the very act of observing them changes them. That is, we can never perceive them exactly as they are, because our act of perceiving them has the effect of changing their appearance.
I wonder if that is to some degree true of everything. If we perceive everything through a lens of bias and experience, then is it possible for any perception or observation to be truly objective? And clearly our perceptions are limited by our ability to perceive. If there are characteristics of things that are not perceptible with the senses we have, then we remain simply unaware of them, and therefore ignorant to the true nature of the thing. What is “true” to one observer, may not be be true to another.
But is the absence of objectivity necessarily the same as an absence of truth?
Jesus, during his trial before Pilate, said that he came to testify to the truth. Pilate, who would have made a good postmodern, responded “What is truth?” When I think of that scene, in my head I hear the Andrew Lloyd Weber lyrics from Jesus Christ Superstar: “But what is truth? Is truth a changing law? We all have truths. Are mine the same as yours?” Good questions, for which we’re still seeking answers.
The whole postmodern conversation has been messing with my head lately. Can it be true that there are no absolute absolute truths?
Religious folks would likely respond by noting that Jesus said, “I am the truth.” OK. Jesus was God incarnate and Jesus is the truth. So to understand and know truth, all you have to do is understand and know God. But if understanding and knowing God is far beyond the mental capabilities of us mere creatures, then what does that say about our ability to understand and know truth?
I am glad that the myth of scientific certainty has been exploded. But theologically and philosophically where does that leave us?
Maybe right back where it all started. Maybe what we need to do is to renew our respect for mystery and wonder. Maybe that’s where worship should be grounded.
Just some rambling thoughts on a chilly morning.