“There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too”
Philip D. Kenneson
My hunch is that some readers are quite suspicious of my title, suspecting that the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing has infiltrated this collection of essays dedicated to defending the gospel. Let me assure you that I am not a relativist. But the reason I am not a relativist many not bring you much comfort; it is because I don’t believe in objective truth, a concept that is the flip side of relativism and that is necessary for the charge of relativism to be coherent. In other words, one can defend objective truth or relativism only by assuming that it is possible for human beings to take up a “view from nowhere”; since I don’t believe in “views from nowhere,” I don’t believe in objective truth or relativism. Moreover, I don’t want you to believe in objective truth or relativism either, because the first concept is corrupting the church and its witness to the world, while tilting at the second is wasting the precious time and energy of a lot of Christians.
The Intellectual Origins of “Objective Truth”
Peter C. Moore did the evangelical community a great service when he helped us “disarm the secular gods.” He left the job unfinished, however. Some secular gods, like their ancient counterparts, rule as divine pairs. Hence when Moore rightly unmasked the secular god of relativism, he left her consort – objectivism – fully enthroned. Therefore, the deep irony is that Moore’s disarmament strategy, like that of many Christians, involves inciting domestic violence; in short, this squabble is strictly a family affair.
What defines this family as a “family” is its common roots in the European Enlightenment, especially in the intellectual heritage of Locke, Descartes and Kant. These three thinkers probably more than anyone else set the philosophical framework from which we are now only beginning to free ourselves. Locke’s “theory of knowledge,” Descartes’ theory of mind as mental process and Kant’s notion of philosophy as the tribunal of pure reason helped to produce many of the dichotomies that now appear self-evident: object/subject; realism/idealism; knowledge/opinion; fact/value; reason/faith; rational/irrational; public/private. This philosophical tradition has taught us to think of knowledge as a kind of picture or mirror of the way the world really is. Such a view of “knowledge,” however creates its own special set of problems – problems rooted in our anxiety that our knowledge might not, in fact, mirror the world as it really is. In order to guarantee that no wholesale slippage takes place between our view of the world and the world as it really is, what we think we need is a theory of knowledge, a method for determining true pictures from false ones. In short, this project of supplying secure foundations for knowledge, what we call epistemology, is the attempt to assure ourselves that our pictures do, in fact, hook up the world. Within such a view of knowledge, truth (or Truth) is not so much a concept as it is an entity “out there” in the world, waiting to be discovered; Truth is merely the word for the way the world really is which we are trying to picture or mirror with our knowledge. When human beings discover this Truth, picture it faithfully in their minds and mirror it accurately in their language, we say that they have genuine knowledge. Moreover, such knowledge is “objectively true” when its status as true does not ultimately depend on the testimony of any person or group of persons. Indeed, the whole point of claiming that something is “objectively true” is to say that any person, unhindered by the clouds of unreason and the prejudices of self-interest, would come to the same conclusion.
The Correspondence Model of Truth Is Not the Only Option
My reason for rehearsing this bit of intellectual history is to remind us that this way of thinking about knowledge, truth and reality, what is often called “the correspondence theory of truth,” is not the only paradigm available. You will remember that the entire epistemological project is funded by what Richard Bernstein calls “Cartesian anxiety,” a product of methodological doubt: intense anxiety naturally follows when one begins with the premise that doubt is more fundamental than truth. But one may legitimately ask: Why not doubt this fundamental posture of doubt? What, for example, happens if one begins with a view of all knowledge as rooted in trust? First, certain questions become central that were previously bracketed, such as: Who should be trusted? Moreover, once we leave behind the Enlightenment view of knowledge and the correspondence theory of truth, we are also free to leave behind the entire epistemological project and the seemingly endless dichotomies generated and sustained by that project.
I think such a move has exciting possibilities. Part of my task, therefore, involves not so much arguing against the notion of objective truth as suggesting that the intellectual problems that produced the dichotomy between the “objective” and the “subjective” need not continue to preoccupy us. In short, this old paradigm of knowledge and truth is a dead-end street down which we need not continue to travel. Reminding ourselves that this model of knowledge and truth is merely a model might free some Christians from one understandable reaction to my proposal: that Christians simply cannot abandon the idea of objective truth because to do so would be to deny something central to the gospel. But the fact that most Christians throughout most of history have done well without the concept might encourage these latter Christians to ask why they feel so much is at stake here.
One reason many Christians are hesitant to give up this paradigm is that they are unsure how to make sense of their own lives without it. What is the life of a Christian if not a life dedicated to “objective truth”? Moreover, many Christians fear that if they adopted the model I am proposing there would be no reason to evangelize. If what Christians believe is not objectively true, then on what basis could they possibly commend it to others? This temptation to appeal to objective truth is particularly strong among Christian apologists, who believe they strengthen their claim by insisting that their message is objectively true, presumably because they likewise believe that the alternative is merely saying that it is subjectively true: merely true for them. But here again we are reminded that the secular gods often arrive in pairs. Appeals to objective truth are attempts to bracket human beings all together, while notions of subjective truth place the responsibility for truth firmly on the individual. Both moves are equally dubious.
But someone will likely object: “Surely there are some things which are ‘true’ independently of what human beings believe. Your position makes it sounds as if we make these things ‘true,’ as if we are determining reality. We believe that God exists independently of us.” These are important objections, but what gives them part of their force is the old paradigm. The picture which holds us captive is that something called Truth is “out there” waiting to be discovered or represented in language. Within such a picture, my position does indeed sound as if we are determining the reality. But if I might paraphrase a passage from Richard Rorty,
We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world and God are out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the former are out there, that they are not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that many things are brought into being by causes which do not include human mental states. TO say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world and God are out there, but descriptions of the world and God are not. Only descriptions of the world and God can be true or false.
What I am asking you to do is to try on a different model of truth. Within such a model, truth claims are inseparably bound up with human language and are, therefore, inextricably linked to matters of discernment and judgment, which means that they are irreducibly social or communal affairs. Within this model, it makes no sense to speak of either objective truth- “truth as view from nowhere” – or subjective truth – “truth for me.”
Yet many evangelicals believe they have an enormous stake in the correspondence model of truth, as evidenced by the numerous books attacking relativism and subjectivism in the name of absolute, objective truth. As an example, let me, for a moment, pick on the work of James Sire, if only because I think he has earned the right to be taken seriously. Sire’s most recent offering labels the position I have sketched above – that truth claims are inseparable from human language – “linguistic relativism.” While there is much to like in Sire’s work, I believe he has created a bogeyman out of the “linguistic relativist.” Sire’s agenda is greatly shaped by questions from the previous paradigm, questions of universal systems of justification and rationality, objective truth and transcendent essences. This makes it difficult for him to assess those like Rorty and myself who no longer believe that such an agenda is worth pursuing. Sire believes that such views about the place of language in human affairs lead to a “radical relativism” where “even science has no special status,” and that they leave the Christian faith in the same boat as every other religion, which means that “it can succeed in gaining converts only by making those claims in such a way that it convinces other people to speak the same language. Objective truth has nothing to do with it. Objective truth is inaccessible.” Had Sire said the concept of “objective truth” was incoherent rather than that such truth is inaccessible, I would be willing to accept his description of my position and stand behind it. The problem, of course, is that Sire thinks that my position makes no sense. And of course Sire is right about this. My position is non-sense, that is, unintelligible, as long as one continues to evaluate it in terms of the previous paradigm. But to make such an admission in no way counts against my position, any more than the inability of Newtonian physics to make sense of Einsteinian physics counts against the latter. What is required is a willingness to shift paradigms, a shift that will bring to the foreground an entirely different set of questions.
But of course Sire does not shift paradigms. This helps explain why he believes that those like myself must ask ourselves whether our positions are true or accurate, whether our views hook up to reality the way reality really is. But this anxiety about the way language does or does not hook up with reality is precisely the anxiety I refuse to share. Contrary to Sire’s insistence, Rorty does not have to ask the kind of truth question Sire believes simply must be asked. Nor do I. Nor do other Christians. And my refusal to ask or answer these kinds of question in no way makes me a relativist. Since Sire continues to insist that people like Rorty and I really are relativists even though we say we aren’t, let me paraphrase a few lines of Rorty’s as a response:
“Relativism” is merely a red herring. Realists are, once again, projecting their own habits of thought upon us when they charge us with relativism. For the realist thinks that the whole point of philosophical thought is to detach oneself from any particular community and look down at it from a more universal standpoint. When the realist hears that there are those of us who repudiate the desire for such a standpoint he cannot quite believe it. He thinks that everyone, deep down inside, must want such detachment. So the realist attributes to us a perverse form of his own attempted detachment, and sees us as those who refuse the take the choice between communities seriously, as mere “relativists.” But those of us who are trying on this new paradigm can only be criticized for taking our own communities too seriously. We can only be criticized for ethnocentrism, not for relativism. To be ethnocentric is to divide the human race into the people to whom one must justify one’s beliefs and the others. The first group – one’s ethnos – comprises those who share enough of one’s believes to make fruitful conversation possible. In this sense, everybody is ethnocentric when engaged in actual debate, no matter how much realist rhetoric about objectivity he produces in his study.
In short, because I have neither a theory of truth nor an epistemology, I cannot have a relativistic one of either. My point is that Christians need not continue to answer “the truth question,” and the sooner we see that we needn’t, the sooner we can get on with the business of being Christians, which in no way entails accepting a certain philosophical account of truth, justification and “reality.” I hope Sire will forgive me for harping so long on his position, but it seems that his position is not only what a lot of Evangelicals believe, but also what many think they must believe in order to remain faithful evangelicals.
The Virtues of an Alternative Paradigm of Truth
But I don’t want to stop at saying that Christians are not obligated to accept the old paradigm of truth. I want to argue that contemporary Christians would be better off without such notions, where “better off” entails having a clearer idea of what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be the church. Here are some suggestions for what the Christian life might look like within this alternative paradigm:
First, the church becomes an indispensable touchstone. Even a non-Christian like Rorty understands that if you give up on attaining a view from nowhere, “then the important question will be about what sort of human being you want to become,” which will quite naturally lead you to ask, “With what communities should you identify, of which should you think of yourself as a member?” In other words, once one leaves behind achieving a “view from nowhere,” what comes to the foreground is the community or communities whose convictions and practices are themselves an embodiment of what they take to be good and true. This encourages us to explore further what Christians ought to have understood already on more “theological” grounds: that what it means to be a Christian is inseparable from what it means to be the church.
Within such a model, the church has a word to speak to the world not because it has a message that is objectively true, a message which could be separated from the embodied message that the church always is. Rather, the church has a word to speak to the world because it embodies an alternative politics, an alternative way of ordering human life made possible by Jesus Christ. The central practices and virtues of such a community, practices and virtues which embody – even if imperfectly – the character of the God it serves, are such things as forgiveness, reconciliation, peace-making, patience, truth-telling, trust, vulnerability, faithfulness, constancy, and simplicity of life. This suggests that evangelicals need to pay a good deal more attention to ecclesiological matters than they traditionally have.
Second, within this new paradigm, beliefs and convictions are not denigrated as second-class knowledge or opinions, but are acknowledged as all we have got and all we have ever had. This means we can stop talking about something being “merely” a belief, a locution which gains its force only when something seemingly more stable is waiting in the wings. Moreover, within this new paradigm beliefs are no longer mental states which may or may not correspond to reality; instead, beliefs and convictions are understood as habits of acting. For example, take my deeply held conviction that our twenty-year-old daughter is trustworthy. On the correspondence model this has to be a belief or conviction, because there is no neutral test to check to see if the proposition “My daughter is trustworthy” hooks up to reality, which is what I would need in order to say, “I know that my daughter is trustworthy.” On such a view, my conviction is actually considered a kind of wishful thinking: “I hope my daughter is trustworthy.” But if we drop the old paradigm and begin to consider believes and convictions as habits of action, an interesting shift takes place. My conviction about my daughter’s trustworthiness becomes a kind of explanation for why I do and don’t do certain things. For example, I don’t check up on her all the time to see if she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing. Notice that on this model it would be incoherent to say that my actions routinely contradict my deeply held beliefs, because such beliefs are themselves nothing other than habits of action. In other words, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that I believe my daughter is trustworthy and yet find myself checking up on her every hour. But notice that under the old model there’s nothing necessarily incoherent about my beliefs not being embodied in my actions. Believing that a certain proposition hooks up with the way the world really is does not require one to act in any certain way.
With regard to the relationship between truth and belief within this new paradigm, truth becomes internal to a web of beliefs; there is no standard of truth independent of a set of beliefs and practices. This means that instead of asking whether one’s language hooks up to reality, one is encouraged to ask: What web of convictions, beliefs and practices must be in place before one can make the judgment that a certain statement is true or false? For example, when someone says, “The statement ‘Jesus is Lord’ is true for Christians but not for others,” this can be heard in two completely different ways. Under the old model, this is heard as a denial of objectivity and public truth and an affirmation of subjectivity and private truth. But under the new paradigm, this sentence translates into something like “’Jesus is Lord’ is consistent with the convictions and actions of Christians, but not with those of others.” In other words, how Christians view and act in the world cannot be separated from their judgments about the world, judgments which are shaped by the church’s narrative and ongoing life. It simply does not make sense to think of reality as it is in itself, apart from human judgment.
Such a shift has enormous consequences for how we think about our beliefs, but they are not the consequences one might expect if one continued to evaluate this new paradigm by the old one. For example, if one were to acknowledge under the old paradigm that a standard of truth is never available independent of a set of beliefs, this would mean that we could never know for certain what is true. But under the new paradigm, such an acknowledgement entails something quite different: that we always know for certain what is true, because we are always in the grip of some belief. And this is the case even though what we certainly know may change if and when our beliefs change. But until they do, we will always find ourselves arguing from the perspective of those convictions and for the perspective of those convictions, telling our interlocutors what it is that we see and trying to alter their perceptions so that, in time, they will come to see it too.
In short, we will be passionately evangelistic, trying to persuade others to our beliefs because if they believe what we believe, they will see what we see; and the facts to which we point in order to support our interpretations will be as obvious to them as they are to us. Indeed, this is the whole of Christian witness, an attempt on the part of one party to alter the beliefs of another so that the evidence cited by the first will be seen as evidence by the second. In the more familiar model of apologetics the procedure is exactly the reverse: evidence available apart from any particular belief is brought in to judge between competing beliefs. This is a model derived from an analogy to the procedures of logical and scientific inquiry, and, basically, it is a model of demonstration in which beliefs or convictions are either confirmed or denied by facts that are independently specified. The model I have been arguing for, on the other hand, is a model of persuasion in which the facts that one cites are available only because certain convictions have already been assumed.
There are many other ways in which this belief would serve the Christian community better. For example, such a model would seem to embody more faithfully the classic posture of “faith seeking understanding.” Such a model also rightly affirms the limitations of human knowledge and the humility that is the corollary of that acknowledgement. Such a humility does not require us to remain silent altogether, but it may encourage us to brush aside certain kinds of questions. For example, once we free ourselves from the strictures of epistemology, we can learn to brush aside questions like “But how do you know what God wants of us?” in the same way we brush aside questions like “How do you know that Jones is worthy of your friendship?” or “How do you know that Yeats is an important poet, Hegel an important philosopher and Galileo an important scientist?” As Rorty reminds us, there is no way to silence doubt on such matters, for “those who press such questions are asking for an epistemic position which nobody is ever likely to have about any matter of moral importance.” In short, the position I am advocating suggests that sometimes one should avoid answering the epistemology question “How do you know?” and respond instead by asking: “Why do you talk that way?” Such a move, I believe, would be a great gain for the Christian community.
Third, under this new paradigm we will be forced to find a different authorization for our witness. In the recent past, Christian apologists have often sought authorization for their projects by insisting that what they were saying was objectively true. But once we give up the notion of objective truth, we are free to admit that our reliance on this prop in the past was a form of denial: a denial of our calling as the church. Too often appeals to the objective truth of the gospel have served as a means for the church to evade its responsibility to live faithfully before the world. In short, Christians insisted that the gospel was objectively true regardless of how we lived. The paradigm I am advocating frankly admits that all truth claims require for their widespread acceptance the testimony of trusted and thereby authorized witnesses. This is as true for the truth claims of science as it is for those of the church. We trust scientists, among other reasons, because they have certain credentials, because we believe that they regularly subscribe to a method that minimizes the effects of their own idiosyncrasies and because they have been remarkably successful in predicting and controlling nonhuman reality. Whether reasons such as these are good reasons to trust the scientific enterprise is a matter for another book; for now we need only acknowledge that they provide the basis for authorizing the scientific project. But when it comes to the Christian faith, the question of what authorizes the church to speak a word to the world becomes more difficult to answer.
Once we give up on the the notion of objective truth, it comes clear that what is needed is a reason for non-Christians to give us a hearing. This is a question of the moral authority of the church’s embodied life, a life that gives our truth claims intelligibility and credibility. Our efforts to argue people in to the kingdom by insisting that what we are saying is objectively true reduce the Christian faith to a form of Gnosticism, and ironically, a modernist form of Gnosticism at that. If we could unequivocally prove to people that the proposition “God exists” is objectively true, the inhabitants of our culture would yawn and return to their pagan slumbers. What our world is waiting for, and what the church seems reluctant to offer, is not more incessant talk about objective truth, but an embodied witness that clearly demonstrates why anyone should care about any of this in the first place. The fact that most of our non-Christian neighbors cannot pick us out from the rest of their non-Christian neighbors – or if they can, what makes us pick-outable are matters relatively incidental to the gospel – suggests that they are right in refusing to accept what we say we believe but which our lives make a lie.
The Apologetics Challenges Facing the Church
I realize there are plenty of Christians who think it makes good sense to say that the proposition “Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe” is objectively true, that is, our temptation is to insist that this is simply true whether we or anyone else believe it or not. But succumbing to such a temptation is deadly for the church. There is no place to stand and judge this statement as true per se. There is no view from nowhere. But neither should we say that such a statement is just one opinion among others, for such a view would also require a view from nowhere. What we forget is that the truth claim “Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe” is a sentence in twentieth-century English whose meaning, like any sentence, is not automatically perspicuous. What does it mean to say that the following sentence is “objectively true”: “Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jew, is the promised Messiah of God who came to earth to inaugurate a kingdom over which he continues to rule, even though one must have eyes to see it”? TO make such a claim intelligible, let alone true, one must have a concrete historical community who by their words and deeds narrate this story in a way that gives some substance to it. We know who Jesus is only on the basis of human witnesses to the history of God’s dealings with God’s people, which is mediated to us, not objectively, but through the communities of human beings animated by the Holy Spirit. We cannot know what “lordship” entails apart from communities of faith who daily strive to embody the claims of this Lord on their lives. Do we really know what the coming kingdom looks like apart from communities who are themselves imperfect historical embodiments of this in-breaking kingdom? Do we really know in what sense Joshua the Anointed One rules, apart from the communities of faith who at times are given the eyes to see this ruling and participate in it? Insisting that “Jesus is Lord of the universe” is objectively true is like saying that Sultan Said is Sultan of Oman regardless of whether he has any loyal subjects who acknowledge his sultanate, he just is Sultan. Can one really be Sultan or Lord apart from those who acknowledge one’s claim to Lordship? Isn’t that part of the grammar of “Lord”?
It does absolutely no good for us to sit here and insist that the proposition “Jesus is Lord of the Universe” is objectively true while at the same time we live our lives in such a way that his lordship remains completely invisible. If Christians feel compelled to claim that Jesus is Lord of the universe, then that lordship must be visible somewhere; it can never be objectively true, nor should we desire it to be, for such a desire not only requires us to bow down to the modernist god of objectivity, but more importantly, it involves us denying our very reason for being. God called the church into being to bear witness by its embodied life together that God has come to earth and dwelt among us, a mission that should not have left things the way they were.
Stanley Hauerwas has argued for some time that the church, rather than bemoaning the collapse of Christendom, might see in such a collapse a providential opportunity to regain a sense of its own calling, its own identity. In short, there might be reasons for Christians to celebrate the current situation in which the nation-state refuses to prop up the church. But Constantinianism dies hard, and it is difficult for those in the West to believe that they can be Christians without the nation-state’s blessing and cooperation. But we can. In a parallel way, I have been arguing that the church’s existence as a people set apart to witness by their corporate life to the God they confess and worship is not inextricably tied to a certain philosophical conception of truth (the correspondence theory of truth). Rather than tightly clutching this concept and insisting that the gospel can only be proclaimed faithfully within such a philosophical framework, we might take the time to explore the opportunities that present themselves once this prop is gone. I have suggested that one of these important opportunities is the way giving up on the notion of objective truth will force the church to take responsibility for its judgments about the way it sees, understand and acts in the world. This means that what will give our testimony authority will not be that what we say is “objectively true” such that any reasonable person would be required to take us seriously. Rather, what will lend our testimony authority is that by the grace of God we live in such a way that our lives are incomprehensible apart from this God. As Cardinal Suhard has elegantly argued: “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
That is the challenge which the contemporary American church faces and the one at which we are failing miserably. I suspect that far too many of us are a long way from being living mysteries. I suspect, for example, that my neighbors have no trouble at all making sense of my life quite apart from any conception of God whatsoever. For those concerned about “how the church can make the truth of the gospel compelling in a pluralistic culture that embraces relativism,” I suggest as a starting point that the church take inventory of itself and being to examine the myriad ways it has itself become an obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel.
One of the favorite passages of contemporary Christian apologists is 1 Peter 3:15, which urges that Christians “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (NIV). To their credit, evangelicals, perhaps more than anyone, are poised to give answers; the problem is that no one is asking. Unless we are content to answer questions no one is posing, it seems to me the most urgent apologetic task of the church today is to live in the world in such a way that the world is driven to ask us about the hope we have. Until that happens, I fear all the theories in the world about apologetics are in vain, and the truth we say we bear witness to will be heard as falsehood.
My hunch is that when the church begins to embody its testimony to the world, when it begins to embody the character of this particular God known in Jesus Christ, when our neighbors see the Spirit alive in our common life and when our neighbors begin to ask us about the hope we have, only then will the church have something to say. What we will need to say probably can’t be known ahead of time.
I would like to end where I began, by quoting Wittgenstein. Though I doubt he had the Christian apologetic encounter in mind when he wrote, I find his warning sobering: “The truth can be spoke only by someone who is already at home in it; not by someone who still lives in falsehood and reaches out from falsehood towards truth on just one occasion.”
“There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too” by Philip Kenneson is taken from Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World ed. by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Olkhom: Intervarsity Press, 1995.
This text has been reproduced as faithfully as possible, though footnotes/citations have not yet been added. The whole article is available here because it's an important one that many people need to read - and as incentive to buy the book from which this is taken. You should assume any & all typos are not Kenneson's.