Truth in Walsh/Keesmaat, “Colossians Remixed”

Letter to Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat,

on their treatment of truth

in Colossians Remixed (InterVarsity Press, 2004)

This is written as a personal letter to Brian and Sylvia, based on a letter I actually sent to them shortly after their book came out.  In part I take this approach because I know Brian, and have dialogued with him on occasion.  Also, I think it is important for us as scholars to model critical and loving dialogue.  This letter will focus primarily on Part II of  Colossians Remixed, where the authors deal with the topic of truth. 

 Dear Brian and Sylvia:

Brian, I know that you have been wrestling with the epistemological implications of post-modernism for quite some time.  In 1995 you wrote Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be, co-authored with J. Richard Middleton (IVP).  I studied this book carefully and benefited enormously from your treatment of  “biblical faith in a postmodern age,” a phrase you used as the subtitle of this book.  I found myself in essential agreement with your critique of modernism.  You want to affirm the insights of post-modernism while avoiding the relativism that often follows such an affirmation.  Again early in Colossians Remixed you explicitly say that you are not relativists (p.48).  But, it seems to me that you have not quite overcome the relativism that invariably seems to accompany post-modernism.  You use an imaginary critic to raise some possible criticisms of your treatment, but because you are in “control” of the dialogue (a power regime?),  I felt that you silenced your critic too soon.  So I want to push his/her criticisms a little further.

Why do I believe you are still relativists?  At times you explicitly reject absolutes (p.34; cf. p. 200).  You seem to be in agreement with Phillip Kenneson’s article, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing Too” (p. 128).  Further, even though you say that you are not relativists, you really don’t spend a lot of time showing how you are not relativists.  I felt that each time you seemed to be showing why you are not relativists you tended to skirt the central issue involved.  For example, while Chapter 7 is titled, “What is Truth?” you skirted the problem of the status of truth by moving to the topic of incarnating the truth.  I agree that truth needs to be embodied in a person.  But that is not a definition of truth. On page 130 you explicitly reject a definition of truth as correspondence between ideas and reality.  But, why can’t truth be defined as correspondence with reality, and be embodied in a person at the same time?  You seem to fall prey to the either-or fallacy in this passage, as you do elsewhere.  For example, on page 119 you suggest that we should be committed to Jesus Christ, not to rationality.  Why can’t one be committed to both? 

Back to the importance of incarnating the truth.  I agree that Christ was the incarnate word of God (p. 130).  I agree that the Christian community is called to incarnate the truth of Jesus Christ.  But, if you place all the emphasis on Christians incarnating the truth, and if we as human beings are always situated, finite, and fallible, then you are still stuck with relativism.

On page 127 you agree with Richard Rorty when he suggests that there are no external criteria by which final vocabularies can be evaluated.  You then provide some criteria by which to evaluate “any” worldview.  That sounds pretty universal to me.  However, you then go on to make the criteria of such evaluation internal to the worldview itself.  Not only is this inconsistent, but the latter claim commits you to full-blown relativism.  We need criteria that anyone can use to evaluate his/her and other’s worldviews. 

I want to return to your claim in page 130 where you say that “from a biblical perspective, truth is not a correspondence between ideas and facts.  Truth is embodied in a person.”  Where do you get the idea that the Bible does not affirm the correspondence theory of truth?  You need to prove this.  I think a good case can be made that from a biblical perspective, truth is viewed as correspondence between human ideas and objective reality.  Jesus warned his disciples not to be misled by people who would claim that they are the Messiah, or by false prophets (Matt.24).  Error and falsity surely must be measured in terms of what is objectively true.  Jesus also talked about knowing how to interpret the appearance of the sky but not being able to interpret the signs of the times (Matt. 16).   “Get it right,” Jesus is saying.  Indeed, Jesus repeatedly uses the expression, “I tell you the truth” (e.g. John 10:1, 7).  “Speaking the truth” is different from Jesus claiming, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  John is described as testifying to the truth, but Jesus qualifies this by saying that human testimony alone is not sufficient to establish truth (John 5:33).  Paul talks about suppressing the truth by wickedness (Rom. 1:18).  He urges us to think about “whatever is true” (Phil. 4:8).  Again and again Paul is concerned with sound doctrine, urging Christians not to pay attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth (e.g. Titus 1:9, 14).  I find these and many other passages suggesting, at least implicitly, that truth is correspondence between what we say and objective reality.

This is not at all to reject your notion of an embodied, relational epistemology of love (p. 129).  I agree that these are additional descriptions of the meaning of truth as found in the bible.  But, these don’t preclude the notion of truth as correspondence between our ideas and reality, which I believe must in some way be the basis of these other descriptions.  I agree that all too often appeals to the truth of the gospel have served as a means for the church to evade its responsibility to live faithfully before the world (p. 128).  But, this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is possible both to affirm truth with a capital “T” and to embody the truth by living faithfully before the world.  Faithful Christian disciples affirm and practice both.

I would also suggest that you are over-reacting to the notion of absolute truth (pp.34, 157, 162, 200).  I think I know what you are really after – you want to get rid of humans mistaking their claims as absolute.  So do I.  But the psychological fact remains that no-one can escape absolutizing what they say.  As Wm. James puts it, we all absolutize like infallible little popes.  This is part of the human condition. Further, we still need an ideal, or a heuristic principle of Truth with a capital “T”.  To reject the absoluteness of the human grasp of truth is not the same as saying that there are no absolutes.  In the end I also think you contradict yourself.  On page 170, you correctly identify a contradiction in the postmodern imagination.  A statement of postmodernism cannot be made without sounding absolutistic.  With regard to ethics, you clearly advocate one way of life as good and the other as bad.  Two themes running throughout your book are a rejection of oppressive empire and consumerism.  I appreciate the way that you develop these themes and agree with you.  But are you not proposing that oppressive empires and consumerism are wrong, really wrong, and when you do this are you not affirming “absolutes”? 

I can hear you, Brian and Sylvia, objecting to my critique by saying that I am still suffering from a modernist hangover, or that I am still a foundationalist, or that I suffer from Cartesian anxiety (p.117).  My reply to this is that I am not at all a Cartesian foundationalist.  I am not looking for an absolutely certain starting point.  I admit that we cannot reach absolute Truth.  I acknowledge my own uncertainty and doubt.  I agree entirely with your critique of foundationalism and modernism.  But I think you are over-reacting.  Your critique does not entail that we need to dismiss modernism entirely.  Here is where I believe that you again succumb to the either-or fallacy.  I believe the insights of modernism and postmodernism can be reconciled, and indeed, need to be reconciled.  So how can this be done?

It seems to me that you need to distinguish more sharply between the human search for truth, and Truth as an ideal.  Here I include a section of my book In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges  (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, pp. 212-214).

            Emphasis on the particularity of human reason is not without its own pitfalls, however.  It does away with the notion of truth and the search for a common truth.  What postmodernists reacting to the Enlightenment fail to realize is that without the notion of truth, they have in fact undermined their own critique of the Enlightenment.    Why listen to postmodernists if they are merely one voice among many other relative voices?  Postmodernists further invariably contradict themselves!  They seem unable to avoid talking about their post-modern viewpoint as better than that of old-fashioned modernism.  Better in terms of what?  It seems difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense. 

            It is here where I see the need to arrive at a more thorough reconciliation of the epistemological insights of modernism and postmodernism.  Yes, there are limitations inherent in our search for truth and we need to be honest about these limitations.  However, I in no way want to do away with the notion that human beings must, and invariably do, attempt to transcend these limitations in their search for universal truth.  Without balancing the emphasis on limitations with an equal emphasis on the need to try to transcend these limitations, we end up with epistemological relativism.  While the human search for truth may be relative, we still need a notion of Truth with a capital “T” (see Figure #1:  Ladder of Truth – as found on p. 214 of my In Defense of Religious Schools and Colleges, and on p. 69 of my The Ethics of Evangelism)                                

        Here it might be helpful to return to [Thomas] Nagel [1986].  Although we cannot get a view from nowhere, according to Nagel, there is within each of us an impulse to transcend our particular personal point of view.  This occurs because we recognize that it is merely a point of view, a perspective, and not simply an account of the way things really are.  “The recognition that this is so,” he writes, “creates pressure on the imagination to recast our picture of the world so that it is no longer the view from here” (1986, 70).  In other words, each of us is aware of the possibility that our particular perspective might be wrong, and so we aspire to “the view from nowhere,” to a view uncontaminated by any perspectival factors.

            This aspiration which drove the Enlightenment is admirable, but what we cannot do is transcend our particularity in any absolute manner, and it is here where we need to listen to what the postmodernists have to say.  For Nagel, this quest for self-transcendence is bound up with a realist account of human knowledge, that is, an account in which “the universe and most of what goes on in it are completely independent of our thoughts” (92).  Without this approach of “critical realism” (i.e. a critical search for truth about objective reality) we remain stuck in the quagmire of relativism or scepticism.

William James captures the heart of my diagram when he says that the absolutely true is “that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge” (1968, p. 170).  I concede that we as human beings are stuck with temporary truths.  But, we still need a goal of absolute truth. 

Where does this absolute truth reside?  In God.  Why the need for Truth with a capital “T”?  Why the need for James’ notion of “the absolutely true” as an ideal vanishing point?  Here are some suggestions:

            a.  Epistemological need:  This is the only way we can do justice to the realization that our particular perspective might be wrong, and that we aspire to “the view from nowhere,” a view uncontaminated by any perspectival factors.

            b.  Logical need:  Why do we argue with one another?  We do so to correct error.  And how do we recognize error?  We can only do so in relation to some ideal that is not in error.

            c.  Psychological need:  We cannot avoid treating our temporary truths as though they were, for the time being, absolute truths.  We treat our convictions as functional absolutes.  At the same time, we feel the need for an ideal of absolute truth.

            d.  Proselytizing need:  We are by nature proselytizing animals.  In writing your book, you were trying to persuade the reader that your point of view was in fact true.  Indeed, you end the book with a plea to readers never to give up their tenacity for truth (p. 233). 

            e.  Theological need:  Contrary to what you say on p.130, I believe the bible teaches that truth is somehow correspondence between ideas and the way things really are.  The omniscient God is an absolute reference point.  God speaks.  God spoke creation into being.  He calls us to adjust our lives to the way in which he created all things. 

Can I prove the existence of this Truth with a capital “T”?  No.  Here I think you will agree with me.  Ultimately this is an item of faith, but not blind faith.  I have just given several reasons why we need the notion.   And even post-modernists acknowledge this need in their “weaker” moments.

Enough for now.  As you can see, I have read your book carefully.  And again, I want to say that I found your work very inspiring.  The above criticisms are offered in love and in our common pursuit of a more complete truth.

Blessings on you both,

Elmer       

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