Postmodernism (2 of 4): Can We Really Know Truth?

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As we experience the changing climate of our cultural epistemology (how we know what we know), we may be struck with several different reactions. Perhaps we’re disappointed and wish things wouldn’t change. We may feel like our culture is deteriorating and that we must preserve what was in order to preserve truth, faith, and everything else we value.

But we may also feel like this change is what’s needed in our context in order to make the pursuit of truth come alive again. We may find that the old (modernism), rather than the new (postmodernism), is holding us back, as individuals and churches, from experiencing life to the fullest. We may also find ourselves somewhere in-between, feeling the tension of the old and new ways of thinking about truth. We might see value in both camps and find ourselves wandering back and forth in our own minds. 

Either way, the first step isn’t to put a value on postmodernism, but to understand this reality and its implications on our culture. This has been the task of many philosophers over the last few decades - to unpack and describe what postmodernism actually is. Their role is to describe what’s happening, not prescribe what should be. We will look at three philosophers in the next two blog posts: Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. 

When it comes to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), we must understand that he used the analogy of “text” to talk about the world and the way we experience it. He is most well know for his statement that “there is nothing outside the text.” In other words, there is nothing in life other than “text,” and “text” always requires interpretation.

Think of life as a book. You go to the library and pick up a self-help book by someone you’ve never heard of before. As you read it, you may think you’re reading what the author had in mind, but really, all you have is the text. Your own brain interprets that text based on the information you’ve been given and your own personal life experience. You haven’t actually read the author in an objective way. All you’re left with is your interpretation of what the author wrote. 

Now imagine that you actually read this book in a book club with ten other people. As you come together you realize that each person has a different take on what they thought the author meant. As much as you try to get into the mind of the author, you can never truly know their intent. You may have a really good interpretation, but in the end, it’s still only an interpretation.

This is a key difference between modernism and postmodernism. Whereas modernism has said that there’s objective truth that we can all universally know, postmodernism says, “yes, objective truth does exists, but we all access it through interpretation.” In fact, there has never been a time when humanity hasn’t interpreted. It’s simply the reality of our experience.

Modernism has long claimed that we can wade through the “text” and rationalize our way to objective truth. We, as finite humans, have the capacity to know the kind of truth that in absolute and universal. But postmodernism, through Derrida, critiques modernism, asking it to at least acknowledge that the truth claims of modernism are still only interpretations, and as such, require faith. We are asked to let go of “a very modern notion of knowledge, one that claims something is true only insofar as it is objective—insofar as it can be universally known by all people, at all times, in all places.” 

We are now experiencing the clash between two different ways of knowing. Modernism has been asked to give up its claims of truth as objective and instead see its understandings as an interpretation of reality, however good that interpretation may be. This demand has been seen as a threat to Christianity and the Church, making those who grew up in modernism quite uncomfortable.

Let’s take the Bible as an example. When it comes to difficult topics, we often turn to scripture for guidance. As we read specific passages and understand the larger context, we start to piece together a belief of what God wants for this world and for us, what we are called to do, and how we can respond to God’s work in the world. But do you truly believe the Bible?

So often when it comes to difficult topics and debates, modernism says things like “I just read the Bible,” or “I just do what the Bible says.” We may even claim that those who take the Bible seriously would naturally see things the way we do. We can know, believe, and do what the Bible says. We look at other people and churches who think differently than us and conclude that they don’t really believe the Bible.

Postmodernism is tired of these claims. More and more young people are not satisfied with the “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” argument. Although the Bible may offer us objective truth, and even though we might be able to truly understand what was intended, the best we ever have is an interpretation. No one can read the Bible plainly without a lens or bias. Postmodernism shifts the statement from “this is what the Bible says,” to “this is what I interpret the Bible to say.”

So, is there a God? Was this world created with dignity and purpose? Can we believe what the Bible says about Jesus? Modernism and postmodernism may very well have the same answer, but a very different way of getting at it. It’s no longer about truth and untruth, but good or bad interpretations of truth. Whereas modernism would claim we can rationalize our way to objective truth, postmodernism says that no matter our answer, it ultimately requires faith.

You might already see the large potential for Christianity in our postmodern age. But you may also read this and fear that the erosion of rationalism as objective and universal will lead to relativism where we can never claim anything as really true. But then again, that may have already been self-evident to you. And we haven’t even gotten to Lyotard or Foucault! Their analysis of the postmodern shift is the topic of next week’s blog.


This is the second of a 4-part series of blog posts on the topic of postmodernism (based on an assignment I wrote for my hermeneutics class). Click here for part 1. Feel free to contact me if you would like to read my full review paper or bibliography.