Well, it’s Wednesday, and the radical left, the Christian right, and every political permutation in the middle can finally all agree about something.
Unfortunately, it’s the germane observation that no one can agree about anything.
“Post-truth politics” now has its own Wikipedia entry. Some blame the way we’ve taught history for the breakdown—others blame the Twitter-pated rhetoric of President Trump almost exclusively, as though he had successfully mounted a one-man coup d’état against reality itself. Steven Colbert’s satire on “truthiness” in 2005 has proved to be prophetic. Meanwhile, lest we think that only the left is observing a shifting definition of truth, Christians and others on the right can easily see other fruits of our epistemological crisis: gender as a social construct, grown men who self-identify as dogs, racism and bigotry as something in the water rather than actual malice, and marriage as me and my pet box turtle.
Whether it’s the left raging against accusations of “fake news” or the secular right fighting to keep intact basic categories like gender, for once, Christians aren’t the only ones standing up and saying truth really does matter.
But the solutions offered from each side are not the same. One option is to overturn objective truth; everything is relative, after all. Another option is to dig one’s heels in to reason, reviving classical humanism and all its trappings—à la Jordan Peterson. Or, perhaps one could grow an Ayatollah beard and become a sword-wielding theocrat. The potential responses to our societal moment are legion.
But amidst the buffet of options, I’d like to argue that there are really only two responses to modernism. The first, the one we’re perhaps most used to by now, is postmodernism—or, perhaps more accurately, modernism turned in on itself. (More on that in a bit.) The other option is a Reformational epistemology. Indulge me, if you will.
Modernism, which once asserted that virtually everything is knowable and quantifiable, is old hat. With modernism came a hyper-obsession with the systematizing and atomizing of all of life into neatly-explained, measurable, mechanistic concepts. But the postmodernists (rightly) point out that what many call “facts” are often one person’s take on reality, and that person has an agenda. In response to the Enlightenment’s tendency to idolize the human intellect, Foucault, Derrida, and others brought us the idea that histories, facts, and accepted truth claims aren’t merely disembodied units of information but the weapons by which the privileged keep the marginalized under subjection.
In terms of human nature the observation isn’t that far off—the human heart is deceitful above all things, after all (Jeremiah 17:9)—but it does not follow that since humans are corrupt and prone to subjugate others therefore all truth is relative.
This critical approach to epistemology, thoroughly engrained now for a few generations in our educational, governmental, and culture-making institutions, has birthed the present grab-bag of wackiness around us. I feel, therefore I am has replaced Descartes’ maxim. If everything is knowable by the human intellect (modernism), then maybe nothing is at all—or maybe the human intellect can create its own reality (postmodernism).
Where does this radical postmodernism lead? One might be tempted to say that, once foundational institutions like marriage and gender are eluding definition, judgment is imminent. Scripture, however, argues that in such circumstances, judgment is actually immanent: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie… Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts” (Rom. 1:25-26). The societal breakdown is the judgment—albeit not as flashy as the conventional fire and brimstone.
Since much of postmodernism, as I referenced above, is a turning-in of modernism on itself—its penchant for hyper-analysis devouring its very own presupposition that truth is somehow knowable—the only real alternative to the modernist-postmodernist spectrum is a Reformational epistemology. That is, a presuppositional approach to knowledge that posits God, not man’s mind or emotion, as the source of reality.
This is not to imply that this theocentric view didn’t exist before the Reformation, but rather that it comes to us today most richly in the Reformation tradition’s commitment to the glory of God as supreme and a recognition of the nouthetic effects of sin.
Either we can be endlessly tossed by the waves of fake news, self-identifications, and what Doug Wilson has aptly dubbed the “conga line” of letters (LGBTQ+)—all symptoms of a radically inward, individualistic theory of truth—or we can return to the good ol’ days when bumper stickers the likes of “God said it, so I believe it” meant something.
God, after all, as such, has the prerogative to define reality. He is the I Am. The fabric of reality is spun on the loom of his spoken word. Being all-powerful, he is both able and willing to communicate with fallen man intelligibly in his written word. And he has dignified the human mind—in spite of its corruptions—in the incarnation of his Son, the man Jesus Christ, condescending to reveal his nature to imperfect, carbon brains. Our world is not a “post-truth” world so long as the embodiiment of truth is literally ruling the universe as sole sovereign (John 14:6-7).
The Reformation was a clarion call to return to an epistemology grounded in God’s word over and against popes, ecumenical councils, and the Roman magisterium. It aimed to pry truth from the claws of the institutional church and recognize that we as creatures are dependent on God’s final, authoritative self-revelation in Scripture. The Enlightenment, however, seized the revolutionary moment to drive truth out of the realm of God altogether and seat human reason on the throne. This birthed modernity—which stands on the shoulders of the Reformation while disavowing its theistic underpinnings.
Hence, we have two options now that the modernist chickens have come home to roost: swallow the reductio and go fully subjectivist, or return to the roots of sola Scriptura.
So with the psalmist, we ask: what are the righteous to do when the foundations are destroyed (Ps. 11:3)? Simple: realize the Lord is enthroned in his temple, overseeing mankind as judge (Ps. 11:4-5). The next time we hear culture’s watchers bemoan the current crisis of truth, let’s realize we possess the cure. We can perhaps begin to agree that truth matters—but only the gospel can build something lasting atop this common ground.
The options are Christ or chaos.