Maintaining Scientific and Christian Truths in a Postmodern World
[ A fully referenced pdf version
is available ]
Donald A. Carson
Reproduced from Science & Christian Belief Vol. 14, No 2, October
I should like to begin by thanking the organisers of this conference for
inviting a theologian to participate in a gathering of eminent scientists.
In one sense, of course, that mere fact is a reflection of our times.
The pressures of globalization embrace much more than the obvious truth
that highly diverse cultures mutually influence one another today. They
mean, as well, that at a time when discrete disciplines are becoming more
and more specialised, and in that sense narrower and narrower, there are
many calls for cross-disciplinary explorations, and I suppose that this
conference, in part, is a fruit of such pressures. Ideally, that is a
good thing. We must frankly admit, however, that not a few of the strident
voices that clamour for cross-displinary study, some of them more articulate
than well advised, are crossing disciplines with an exuberant glee that
seeks to domesticate other domains of inquiry with the hegemony of postmodern
epistemology. That sums up at least part of the contemporary clash between
scientists and many philosophers of science. We know how you think, the
latter say to the former, and so our task is to expose your blindspots,
and teach you the proper way to think.
Since both Christian confessionalism and science are facing a similar
onslaught, it is not too surprising that we should be drawn together in
a common defence. For both parties have something in common: we both think
there is such a thing as culture-transcending truth, and that we human
beings have some access to it. For those who are both scientists and Christians,
it is scarcely surprising that some should wonder if it might be profitable
to pool our resources as we engage in this debate.
In this paper my aims are modest. I propose to offer a summary of the
challenge, a survey of responses, and a pair of suggestions.
A. A Summary of the Challenge
I had better begin with a statement about postmodernism. The expression
is clumsy, the range of its reach ridiculously broad, its usage diverse.
But in my view the term is still useful if we recognise that what ties
its diverse usages together is the assumption of a shift in epistemology.
Modernist epistemology taught us that in every discipline, and in thought
itself, there are certain universal foundations on which we can build
with methodological rigour; postmodern epistemology insists that both
the foundations and the methods are culturally contrived, and therefore
the resulting 'knowledge' is necessarily the function of particular cultures.
Not only are there many foundations, postmodernism insists, but we should
delight in the multiplicity of competing and even mutually contradictory
methods. Modernist epistemology thought it could move from the individual
finite thinker - the finite 'I' in Descartes's 'I think, therefore I am'
- via reason to universal and objective truth. Postmodernism insists that
the limitations on any finite knower are so severe that the pursuit of
universal and objective truth is a mere chimera; and reason itself, though
useful, is simply not up to the task. Modernist epistemology held that
uncovering universal truth is both desirable and attainable; postmodern
epistemology is quite certain that universal truth is not attainable,
doubts that it is desirable, and suggests that pursuit of it is not only
an idolatrous waste of time but leads to endless immoral manipulation
of others (cf. Foucault's famous denunciation of 'totalization'). Modernism
tends to emphasize the intellectual contribution of the individual or
of the directed team; postmodernism lays more stress on the social determiners
of ostensible 'knowledge.' For the modernist, truth (in an objective sense)
is crucial, and both belief and ethics should properly be constrainted
by it. 'For the postmodernist, there is a rejection of truth as a coherent
set of ethical precepts and standards for moral behavior. Truth must be
rejected because it is coercive, normative, unambivalent, and implies
universals and absolutes.'
How we reached this point in Western civilisation is not easily or quickly
discovered. Arguably there have been key individuals who, though not properly
labeled postmodern, anticipated some of its features: an Immanuel Kant,
whose philosophical idealism insisted that the human mind imposes an order
onto the data of sense perception not intrinsic to the things being perceived;
a Friedrich Nietzsche, whose nihilism left no place for truth or morality
in any objective sense, but only for the power of the gun; historians
who recognise how easily history is turned into propaganda (Hugh Trevor-Roper,
for instance, once gave a lecture to German historians in which he frightened
his audience by articulating what British historians would now be saying
if Hitler had conquered Britain). More importantly, in the twentieth century
three or four intellectual movements have coalesced. The German tradition
taught us the intrinsic subjectivity of all interpretation, and bequeathed
to us the hermeneutical circle; the French tradition, in one side-shoot
of linguistics, gave us deconstruction, and taught us, among other things,
the power of language and words over the power of science; the American
tradition, with its love of anthropology and sociology, gave us the notion
that each subculture constitutes an interpretative community; and literary
theory across the Western world has moved away from the view that meaning
lies in the author of text, to the autonomous authority of the text itself,
to arrive, finally, at the view that meaning resides primarily in the
reader or knower in interaction with the text.
Although none of these influences can be denied, I suspect that there
is a deeper and often unacknowledged commonality behind all of them, viz.
the intrinsic weakness of modernist epistemology, especially in its late
form. Early modernist epistemology (i.e. from about 1600 on) was pursued
by people who were mostly theists or deists. Descartes himself was a devout
Catholic. Despite their formal reliance on reason and the finite self,
on foundations and methods, most of them were still operating within the
heritage of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Science itself, as many have
pointed out, was founded on theology - in particular, on the idea that
God is a law-giver who has guaranteed order and predictability in the
world he created. But as more and more moderns, not least in the domain
of science, abandoned the Judaeo-Christian tradition and adopted some
form of philosophical naturalism, the God whose omniscience was the reservoir
of all knowledge was lost to view. There was no final arbiter, no anchor,
no stable reference point. Thus late modernist epistemology, by various
routes, became unstable, and sired a bastard we call postmodernism. I
choose the term 'bastard' advisedly: my point is that on this reading,
modernist epistemology is in fact the progenitor of postmodern epistemology,
even if the latter is so unlike his father that he wants to deny family
likeness and commit patricide. The implication of this analogy, of course,
is that thoughtful Christians should not think of themselves as either
modernists or postmoderns in their epistemology. Both systems are far
too unstable, far too anthropocentric - idolatrously so.
In the shift from modernism to postmodernism, the relationships between
science and confessional Christianity have been undergoing some changes
as well. One may usefully distinguish two opposed tendencies in late modernism:
imperialism and (early) perspectivalism. Under imperialism, either science
tried to control religion or religion tried to control science. One finds
the former, for instance, in the hard-edged philosophical naturalism of
Richard Dawkins in this country, or in Peter Singer at Princeton. Sometimes
the stance adopted by science is an ill-defined mysticism that is nonetheless
a materialistic scientism, in which nature becomes god, the corpus of
empirical knowledge its sacred deposit, the scientists priests and priestesses,
and the scientific method almost sacramental religious rites. The same
imperialism shows up when we are told that science deals with fact, while
religion is about 'faith' - where 'faith' has been implicitly defined
to mean something like personal religious preference, with no important
connection and only accidental connection with reality (an understanding
of faith used by no biblical writer). Alternatively, some forms of religious
fundamentalism, unable to read texts in line with their intrinsic genres,
want all biblical passages to function on the same prosaic plane. Biblical
authority can then be used to quash the claimed results of science. Of
course, there are devout Christians, scientists and non-scientists alike,
who wrestle somewhat more creatively with perceived tensions between the
Bible and science. But the tendencies of imperial control, both ways,
are well known. Science and Christianity are competing categories, and
each is trying to control the other.
Under perspectivalism, especially in its earlier form, science and Christianity
look at the same phenomena under incommensurable frameworks. 'The classic
illustration of perspectivalism is the distinction between the technical
understanding of an end zone scoreboard of the electrical engineer who
designed it and the subjective understanding of the die-hard football
fan looking at it to see if there is hope for his or her team to make
a comeback.' Under perspectivalism, the two modes of talking about one
thing do not succeed in engaging each other. Each talks past the other;
each has little if any impact on the other. But because these are seen
as mutually complementary ways of talking about reality, then, at least
ideally, each makes its own contribution to the truth, the total description
of what is.
Thus imperialism and (this older) perspectivalism have this in common:
they still operate under the assumption that there is a truth to be discovered
and cherished. Under the impact of postmodernism, however, the existence
of objective truth began to be questioned. But how could this be so, especially
for something as transparently and as eminently successful as science?
Once again, of course, there are antecedents. In the middle of the twentieth
century, Michael Polanyi was demonstrating, pretty convincingly, that
science has intrinsic elements that go way beyond empirical demonstration,
elements that he called 'tacit truths'. By the mid-sixties, Thomas Kuhn's
theories on the advance of science had called into question the now old-fashioned
view that science advances by steady acquisition of knowledge, knowledge
grounded in data that are rigorously tested under controlled conditions
by different scientists so as to vindicate or disqualify some theory or
other. Even if his theory of paradigmatic advance has subsequently been
qualified and circumscribed in various ways, he has succeeded in calling
into question the popular view (and it was never much more than the popular
view) that science builds its edifice of ostensible truth on nothing but
the solid foundation of a growing accumulation of indisputable facts.
In this climate it is not surprising that several books detailing scientific
blunders have been selling briskly. The one by Robert M. Youngson includes
something in the order of sixty major examples, and scores of minor ones.
One loves the quotes. Here is Ernest Rutherford: 'Anyone who expects a
source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine.'
Or Lord Kelvin writing in 1896: 'I have not the smallest molecule of faith
in aerial navigation other than ballooning, or of the expectation of good
results from any of the trials we hear of.' What more must be said about
phlogiston, the Piltdown man, and Isaac Newton's alchemy? Youngson, the
author of the book, nevertheless writes out of a framework of modernist
epistemology; indeed, he seems committed to philosophical naturalism.
If even such as he warn of the blunders of science, it cannot be surprising
that postmoderns take the argument even farther. Thus Harry Collins and
Trevor Pinch not only treat us to the usual assortment of scientific blunders,
but then ask how uncertainties in science are resolved. They deny that
resolution comes primarily by ever clearer evidence. They insist, rather,
that resolution is achieved through social consensus. For Collins and
Pinch belong to a new breed of the movement sometimes labeled 'Sociology
of Scientific Knowledge', or the 'Edinburgh School'. This movement holds
that scientific knowledge is socially constructed and must exercise no
privileged claim to objective truth about the world.
These philosophers of science are often at loggerheads with scientists.
But they are catching the wave of postmodern relativism. On the streets,
the trend is displayed in countless appeals to alternative medicine (very
few of which have been double-blind tested), fortune-telling, astrology,
the use of magnets for healing toothache, the beneficent influence of
crystals, and the rest.
Suddenly, then, on the street, and backed up by the intellectuals of postmodernism,
confessing Christianity and science find themselves in somewhat parallel
positions in society. Many people now think that neither traffic in truth.
They traffic in things that may be true for you, or may be true from one
perspective (hence, a new perspectivalism has dawned in which multiple
perspectives are not mutually complementary of some greater truth, but
equally socially constructed and conveying no objective truth); but they
do not tell you how things are, and so they have no binding authority
on your conscience or on your belief system. You may choose another paradigm;
you may opt for another science, another religion, an alternative medicine.
It's really up to you or to your social group, your interpretative community.
Certainly no on has the right to say that you are mistaken, or that your
religion, or science, is false. To say that is to succumb to intolerance.
In fact, one suspects that part of the reason for such an impassioned
debunking of science among many sociologists and philosophers is allied
to part of the reason for the impassioned debunking of confessional Christianity:
the postmodern mood is profoundly anti-authoritarian. Confessional Christianity
holds itself above the eddying waters of relativism by insisting on the
facts of the central revelation; science holds itself above the same waters
of relativism by insisting that its methods and its results transcend
the relativism of social construction. Both are therefore making authority
claims inimical to a generation brought up to be suspicious of 'totalization'.
One does not want to exaggerate the influence of postmodernism in our
culture. There are plenty of modernists around who engage in intellectual
combat with postmoderns. Some of the roots of postmodernism are withering:
in France, for instance, deconstruction is increasingly viewed as passé.
But that is a bit different from saying that postmodernism is passé.
Critical realism may have a respected place in some intellectual circles,
but postmodernism is still perceived to be the innovator, the leading
edge, of cultural advancement. And even if it dissipates faster than I
think it will, it is leaving in its wake a very large swathe of Western
populations who are suspicious of all truth-claims, including those of
science and of confessional Christianity.
Its impact on science, science funding, the vision of desirable careers,
superstition in the culture - doubtless these are things many of you who
attend this conference know more about than I. The impact on confessional
Christianity is something I have made an academic and professional interest
for about a decade. I shall restrict myself to two observations. (1) In
the domain of evangelism, not least university evangelism, the hardest
thing to get across these days is the notion of sin. To talk about sin
is to say that certain behaviour and attitudes and beliefs are wrong,
and that is the one thing postmodernism does not permit us to do. The
one heresy postmodernism condemns is the belief that there is heresy;
the one immoral act is the articulation of the view that there are immoral
acts. But unless people adopt biblical views on sin, transgression, rebellion,
trespass, guilt, and shame, it is virtually impossible to articulate faithfully
the good news of Jesus Christ. If we cannot agree on what the problem
is, we most certainly cannot agree on what the solution is. (2) Within
the church, not least in home Bible studies and discussion groups and
the like, when some interpretation of screwball proportions is advanced,
leaders are more and more likely to say something soothing such as, 'That's
an interesting insight, Charles. Does anyone else have anything to contribute?'
It has become out of vogue for the leader to ask Charles how or where
he finds his so-called 'insight' in the text, or to get others in the
group to criticise Charles, in the hope of bringing the entire group to
a common view of what the text means. Within my own discipline, one comes
across more and more books with titles such as The Open Text, Reading
Sacred Texts Through American Eyes, The Liberating Exegesis. But the question
sooner or later becomes this: How can Scripture ever reform us if by our
'liberating exegesis' we are invariably able to make it say what is comfortable
to us, if we are always able to domesticate it in line with the predilections
of our own interpretative community?
The challenges we face are deep and complicated.
B. A Survey of Responses
Apart from piecemeal attacks of one sort or another, responses can usefully
be grouped (at the risk of oversimplification) into three camps.
(1) There is a sizable and growing literature that attacks postmodern
epistemology from the standpoint of an unreconstructed, or only slightly
modified, modernism. In the domain of science, one thinks, for instance,
of the blistering and highly amusing book by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt,
Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.
One of the two authors is a physicist, the other a mathematician. Both,
apparently, are philosophical materialists. As a compendium of the worst
absurdities in postmodernism, as seen from the perspective of intelligent
and informed modernism, the book is priceless, and fun to read as well.
But I doubt that it will convince anyone in the postmodern camp. Or again,
the recent book edited by Noretta Koertge, A House Built on Sand: Exposing
Postmodernist Myths About Science, is a book that no one working in the
area should ignore. It will certainly make a lot of scientists feel better.
But frankly, I doubt if most of the contributors have a really good grasp
of what they are criticising. Better put, they score a lot of points out
of the absurdities that abound in the popular and pretentious postmodern
literature, without really responding to the best of it. It's not too
difficult to expose the idiocies of erroneous feminist views of the macho
sperm and the bashful egg (chap. 4), the misreading of the cold fusion
debacle by Collins and Pinch (chap. 8), or the false and romantic view
of alchemists propounded by some feminists (chap. 16). But the fundamental
division between modernists and postmoderns is a conflict of worldview,
where the distinction in worldview is primarily epistemological. And these
questions Koertge and her contributors do not address.
Similarly in the domain of literary criticism or of theology: there is
a growing literature that I do not need to detail here that attacks postmodern
approaches from the vantage point of an unreconstructed conservatism.
Some of these publications provide reams of useful material. But few of
them deal with the fundamental worldview issues, the central problems
of epistemology. For even at the level of brute experience, globalization
has forced us to recognize that there is at least some truth (if I may
use that word) in postmodern claims. Sub-Saharan black African theologians
tend to see far more corporate metaphors in the Pauline corpus than we
individualists do in the West; acupuncture developed in China, not here;
some cultures are more given to narrative, others to abstract analysis.
In fact, at one level thoughtful Christians will want to go farther than
postmoderns: we Christians admit not only to the subjectivity inherent
in interpretation bound up with our finiteness, but subjectivity inherent
in interpretation bound up with our fallenness. The rationalism and emphasis
on autonomy that characterized late modernism has not, after all, always
been a friend of Christians. Marxism was thought by millions to embrace
a scientific approach to history, and Aryan supremacy finds its roots
in scientific discussions of race stemming from the nineteenth century.
Apart from such considerations, this first set of approaches sounds defensive,
old fashioned, angry, even when it says some true things. In other words,
quite apart from the fact that (I would argue) a thoughtful Christian
epistemology should not buy into either modernism or postmodernism holus-bolus,
there is a simple, pragmatic consideration: If all our appeals are to
yesterday's epistemology, we will be perceived to be yesterday's people.
And I doubt that that will strengthen our cause.
(2) A second set of responses simply gives in to postmodern epistemology.
For these thinkers, modernist epistemology has been successfully debunked;
postmodernism is essentially right. And that has a bearing on how we think
of both science and religion.
Consider, for example, one of the recent books by Stan Grenz. Grenz buys
deeply into postmodern epistemology, so deeply that he has a very hard
time talking about the truth of the gospel at all, or about the truth
of anything else. He thinks the way ahead is to reshape evangelicalism
to reflect postmodernism. I have discussed that book in some detail elsewhere.
For my present purposes, I shall focus briefly on his chapter on science.
I will not detail his entire argument. Suffice it to say that about half
way through this chapter, Grenz summarizes Thomas Kuhn, and then argues
that from a paradigmatic approach to scientific revolution it is but a
small step to the conclusion 'that a paradigm entails a social construction
of reality.' Grenz then marshalls an array of authors to justify this
conclusion, starting with Mulkay's book Science and the Sociology of Knowledge,
concluding that whether scientists admit it or not, they are theologians.
Finally Grenz returns to questions put forward by George Lindbeck: Does
the move to nonfoundationalism (i.e. to postmodernism) entail a final
and total break with metaphysical realism? That comes right to the point.
But what is Grenz's answer? Here it is: 'Formulated in this manner, the
question is both improper and ultimately unhelpful. It might be better
stated, How can a postfoundationalist theological method lead to statements
about a world beyond our formulations?'
But why is the question either improper or 'ultimately unhelpful'? It
is improper only if postmodernism in its strongest sense is true, and
we cannot know anything 'true' about the real world. But in that case,
the question is not unhelpful; it should merely be answered, 'Yes, there
is a final and total break with metaphysical realism.' When Grenz goes
on to say that the question might be better stated another way, he is
indulging in sleight of hand. For the alternative he offers is not the
same question, phrased another way; he has simply refused to answer the
first question and asked an alternative question, viz. 'How can a postfoundationalist
theological method lead to statements about a world beyond our formulations?'
And his answer to that question, influenced by Pannenberg, says, in effect,
that the only kind of realism of which we can speak is 'eschatological
realism', with reference to the universe as it will be. There are several
muddled confusions here, too, but for the moment I shall have to pass
So confessional Christianity and science, in Grenz's view, are both in
the same situation, precisely because postmodern epistemology governs
both. Yet so far as the academic world is concerned, in some ways they
have been forced into this situation from different sides. Before widespread
appeal to postmodern epistemology, science was widely thought to be dealing
with facts and truth (and most scientists still think that today), while
religion was widely thought to be dealing with subjective experiences
of the numinous, with minimal truth content. That's not how confessional
Christians saw things, of course, but it was how science and Christianity
were widely perceived in the university world. But now that both science
and Christianity have been unceremoniously placed into the same postmodern
bracket, both have been relativised. Nevertheless, because they have approached
the bracket from opposite directions, science and Christianity sometimes
evaluate the impact of postmodernism a little differently. Science tends
to view it with deep misgivings because it demands that science give up
its claim to objective truth, to meaningful realism. Conservative Christians,
who hold that the claims of Christianity are no less true, perceive the
same danger, but some are tempted to think that postmodernism offers to
Christianity more opportunity than threat. When the university was controlled
by modernist epistemology, and the so-called truth claims of Christianity
were summarily dismissed as the product of 'faith' (abysmally defined),
Christianity as a system of thought could be marginalised. Now, it is
argued, precisely because every perspective has the right to be heard,
and every stance reflects a worldview and an interpretative community,
Christianity has a place at the table after all, and may be welcomed back
into the cultural discussion. The best brief response to this perception
came from Os Guinness seven years ago:
Christians who have prematurely declared victory over modernity are in
for a cruel disillusionment. . . . It is true that modernism was openly
hostile to religion and that postmodernism is much more sympathetic on
the surface. But it is naive to ignore the price tag. Postmodern openness
allows all religions and beliefs to present and practise their claims.
But it demands the relinquishing of any claims to unique, absolute, and
transcendent truth. For the Christian the cost is too high.
(3) The third set of responses belongs to the category of critical realism.
'We are critical realists', writes one author, 'which means that we believe
that there is a real world out there where it is possible to know and
know truly (hence, "realism"), but we also believe that our
theories and hypotheses about that world, and our religious presuppositions
and beliefs about reality, color and shape our capacity to know the world
(hence, "critical realism").'
But this critical realism has many faces. It is an expression that covers
a wide range of approaches. They have this in common: they all claim that
we can know something about the real world, but that our claims are modest,
owing not least to our finiteness, our capacity for distortion. Some philosophical
materialists are abandoning the rawest form of modernism for this more
nuanced stance. Other self-defined critical realists use the expression
to allow for miracles and acts of divine self-disclosure, for ways of
knowing in a God-centred universe. And I confess that this is the stance
with which I resonate.
And that brings me to my concrete suggestions.
C. A Pair of Suggestions
The topic assigned me requires that we consider how to maintain scientific
and Christian truths in a postmodern world. In this last section it might
have been useful to launch into a survey of all the helpful suggestions
that have been put forward, for in fact there have been many. They include,
for instance, learning how to demonstrate the inadequacies of both modernist
and postmodern epistemology, which demonstration opens up a space for
something more mature and more plausible; considering how the existence
of an omniscient, self-revealing God necessarily changes one's approach
to epistemology; focusing on world-view formation; working through what
can be known of God in a finite and fallen world; demonstrating with myriads
of examples how much can be communicated from one person to another, or
from one culture to another, even though the task is not always easy;
and much more. But here I want to focus on two points.
(1) It is a great help to acknowledge that no truth which human beings
may articulate can ever be articulated in a culture-transcending way -
but that does not mean that the truth thus articulated does not transcend
culture. This point is extraordinarily important, and often overlooked.
If we articulate a truth in English, since all language is a cultural
artifact our articulation of the the truth is culturally constrained.
But that does not mean that the same truth cannot be articulated in another
culture, often in another way.
The point is perhaps most easily explained by appealing to an example.
More than twenty years ago, Charles Kraft published a book with the title,
Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural
Perspective. In that book Kraft argues for an approach to the Bible that
would shift how we use it in missionary work. The Bible, he says, is really
a book of case studies. It is therefore imperative that we apply the appropriate
case study to a particular culture. If a missionary is called to a culture
that practises polygamy, for instance, surely it is better to begin with
David or some other Old Testament figure who enjoyed more than one wife
and who was blessed by God, rather than to turn to the monogamy of the
New Testament. Each culture should have the 'case study' applied to it
that seems to fit best. If then we ask if there are certain things in
the Bible that transcend all cultures, that are demanded of people in
any culture if they are to become Christians, things that are certainly
not endemic to that culture apart from the coming of Christianity, Kraft
replies that there are not many, but there are a few. He thinks that they
include a handful of crucial confessional statements such as 'Jesus is
Lord' and 'Jesus died and rose again the third day.' These are truly trans-cultural
and non-negotiable elements to Christianity.
Quite apart from Kraft's doubtful understanding of the Bible as a book
of case studies, and quite apart from the tricky question of how he knows
that certain statements in the Bible are trans-cultural and not others,
his conclusions are both too open and too closed, too liberal and too
conservative. They are too open, too liberal, in the way that his approach
will allow most cultures to get "off the hook" in too many areas.
Wherever the Bible seems to say something a bit constraining or rebuking,
we smartly turn to another part of the Bible and thus escape the sanctions.
It is a very comforting method. Such an approach, however, will have little
or no power in reformation. But his conclusions are also too closed, too
conservative. He holds that certain statements, such as 'Jesus is Lord'
or 'Jesus died and rose again the third day' manage to transcend culture.
But strictly speaking, of course, they do not; no statement uttered by
a human being can. For a start, such statements are inevitably spoken
in one language or another - and if in this language, it is not in that
language, and thus the statement is culturally constrained.
The significance of this point is clearly seen if we imagine an ill-informed
missionary from the West somehow learning to speak fluent Thai, and flying
to Bangkok and boldly declaring, in Thai, to those leaving a Buddhist
temple, 'Jesus is Lord.' What will these people think he is saying? Apart
from the strangeness of the scene, they will hear him to be affirming,
among other things, that Jesus is inferior to Gautama the Buddha. That,
of course, is not what he thinks he has been saying. But within their
worldview, when a person reaches the highest level of exaltation, as Gautama
did, nothing can be predicated of him: he is neither good nor bad, hot
nor cold, lord nor un-lord, etc. So if someone says, 'Jesus is Lord',
one has predicated someting of Jesus, and clearly Jesus has not advanced
as far as the Buddha.
If that is all there is to be said, postmodernists might well rub their
hands in glee and smirk, 'Carson is finally catching on. Human beings
cannot escape the constraints of culture. Even the utterances we most
highly cherish cannot escape being culture-bound.' True. But something
more must be said. That same missionary, if he or she takes time to learn
the culture as well as the language, and to communicate the Bible's story-line
and unpack its theological assumptions and asseverations instead of mere
clauses, can in time make clear to Thais, in their own language, what
we mean when we confess 'Jesus is Lord' in English - indeed, in substantial
measure what Paul meant when he wrote 'Jesus is Lord' in Greek (Rom. 10:9).
In short, no truth which human beings may articulate can ever be articulated
in a culture-transcending way - but that does not mean that the truth
thus articulated does not transcend culture. Kraft's attempt to secure
a handful of transcultural Christian confessions fails, not because there
are no transcultural truths, but because whatever transcultural truth
there is cannot be communicated in a culture-transcending way. To put
the matter this way means that simply because all utterances are conveyed
within some cultural matrix or other does not mean that knowledge of culture-transcending
truth is impossible. And that is so for both science and religion - or
for any other domain, for that matter.
(2) The overwhelming majority of postmodern writers have assumed the truth
of an indefensible but usually unacknowledged antithesis. If you allow
that antithesis to stand unchallenged, a competent postmodern will almost
always win the debate. If you destroy that antithesis, the postmodern
does not have much left on which to stand.
What is that controlling but often unacknowledged antithesis? It is this:
Either we can know something absolutely and omnisciently, or we must give
up claims to knowledge of objective truth. The reason why that antithesis
is so dangerous, of course, is that you can always show that finite human
beings know nothing absolutely and omnisciently: there is always more
to know, either in the thing itself or in its relations with everything
else. So if the antithesis is left to stand, and the first of the two
alternatives is ruled out owing to human finiteness, only one alternative
remains: we are left to wallow in the mire of relativism.
It is far better, I think, to argue that finite and fallen human beings
may know some true things partially, even if nothing exhaustively. Then
the antithesis is destroyed.
Certainly that is much closer to common experience of knowledge acquisition.
Students begin to study some new discipline, whether quantum mechanics
or koine Greek, and initially their progress is very slow. Every new idea
takes a while to absorb. Paradigms or equations must be memorized and
understood; then they must be utilized in examples and problems. But after
years of study, all those elementary steps are just that, elementary.
Far more complex structures or arguments may be absorbed or evaluated
at much greater speeds. None of this assumes an absolute mastery of the
discipline, an omniscient grasp of the discipline. In fact, higher levels
of learning within the discipline will disclose how many things are still
disputed. But the progress in knowledge acquisition does suggest that
some things may be known truly even if nothing is known exhaustively.
Various models have been deployed to make this point clear. Imagine a
common graph. On the positive x-axis are measured years, in a strictly
linear fashion. On the positive y-axis is measured the distance of some
human's understanding of something or other from a perfect and exhaustive
understanding of that thing - or, otherwise put, from the reality itself.
Suppose, then, that we asked a five-year-old lad, from a Christian home,
why he believed that God loved him. Assuming he is bright and well taught
by his parents, he may well reply by quoting the words of John 3:16. Of
course, he would have no knowledge of the Greek text; he would know nothing
of debates over the meaning of 'world' or of the relative claims of 'only
begotten' or 'one and only'; he would know nothing of debates over the
various Greek verbs for 'to love'; he would not have thought through how
this text is to be linked to another text in the same chapter, a bare
twenty verses on, that speaks of God's wrath; and so on. Still, his appeal
to John 3:16 does answer the question; he has in some measure answered
the question correctly. He does not think that John 3:16 describes the
virgin birth, or reflects on the sex life of sea turtles. His choice of
John 3:16 shows that he understands it well enough as an appropriate answer
to the question that was put to him. We might say, then, that the lad's
answer is positioned fairly high up in the top right-hand quadrant of
the graph, and only five units removed from the y-axis. Doubtless his
knowledge of John 3:16 still leaves a great deal to be desired. By the
time he has graduated with a degree in the classics and another in theology,
however, his position on the graph is perhaps twenty-five units from the
y-axis (he is 25 years of age), and much closer to the x-axis. After completing
a doctoral dissertation on the Fourth Gospel's understanding of the love
of God against Jewish background, the graph of his increase in knowledge
is still heading in the same general direction. In fact, the graph is
tracing out an asymptotic approach to the x-axis. Even fifty billion years
into eternity (if we may speak of eternity in the categories of time),
the graph that represents the proximity of his knowledge to the actual
reality never touches the x-axis, because omniscience is an incommunicable
attribute of God. It is simply not available to finite beings. But to
argue that finite beings therefore cannot truly know anything is decidedly
unhelpful. That conclusion is true only if one initially assumes that
the only meaningful way of speaking of 'knowledge' and 'objective truth'
occurs when the knowledge belongs to Omniscience, when the truth is what
God alone knows it to be. Certainly in some discussions that is a useful
point to make. But to run from that truism to the commonly assumed antithesis
adopted by postmodernists is a leap too far: Either we can know something
absolutely and omnisciently, or we must give up claims to knowledge of
objective truth. For finite human beings (the 'we' in the antithesis)
can know some things truly, even if partially. To appeal to the standards
of omniscience to eliminate the possibility of true but partial knowledge
among finite and fallen beings made in his image is to erect a false standard.
To argue that either we can know something absolutely and omnisciently,
or we must accept the status of all human knowledge as lost in a sea of
relativism, is a counsel of despair grounded in an indefensible antithesis.
I have not discussed all the wrong turns that our biblical scholar might
take in the pursuit of his understanding of John 3:16, any more than I
have discussed the wide variety of miss-steps and accidents that sometimes
go into scientific advance. Such phenomena will embarrass us only if we
pretend that all advance in knowledge must be in a straight line of improvement
- and that is precisely what no one should claim who wants to discuss
the acquisition of (true) knowledge by finite and fallen beings. Both
experience and genuine postmodern insight remind us that knowledge acquisition
is not always linear and logical: we sometimes make huge intuitive leaps,
or discount evidence because we do not like the person who has provided
it, or tilt conclusions toward our expectations. But in any case, my point
in this section is simpler: finite beings usefully speak of knowing some
things truly, even if they are the first to acknowledge that we cannot
know anything exhaustively. To deny this on the ground that we do not
enjoy omniscience is to turn the merest truism (viz., we are not omniscient)
into a tautology (we cannot enjoy omniscient knowledge). But it does not
reliably address the question as to how human beings may know some things
We need to be modest, I think, in our expectations about how well our
arguments will succeed with the public at large. So much is shaped by
our mass media, most of whose spokespersons are as abysmally ill-read
in science as in theology. Moreover, one of the effects of globalization
and rapid communication is what the sociologists call instant reflexivity.
Fickle moods can be changed almost instantly as some reflexive response
to a new stimulus is called forth in a torrent of trendiness. It is very
difficult for either good science or good theology to prosper and act
wisely under such conditions.
But we must try. We must try with confidence in the God whose word holds
sway, and who demands an accounting of all of us, measured much more in
terms of faithfulness and poverty of spirit than in terms of success and