August 25, 2004
“No Place for Truth”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Turn with me if you would to the Gospel of John, chapter eighteen, and especially verse 38. And it’s a verse that’s very familiar to all of you, this question which Pilate puts ostensibly to Jesus, but perhaps also to others who are listening amongst the Praetorian Guard and other officers of the Roman legion within hearing, as Pilate has had this debate with Jesus as to what kingship and kingdom actually means. And Jesus has just said, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I am born, and for this purpose I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” And then Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” Since Pilate asked that question philosophers and quasi-theologians, and these days almost everybody is asking the same question: “What is truth?”
We are continuing a short summer series entitled “What in the World Are You Thinking?” and I’ve been assigned this particular task of looking at this issue of truth, and a title “No Place for Truth.” The title, I have to say, is borrowed, stolen from the title of a book, and you’ll see it in our bookstore. There are several copies there which Doug has ordered for your perusal, and possibly purchase, by one of our most able theologians of our time. I regard him as one of the best commentators on where the church is at the end of the twentieth- early twenty-first century: a book by David Wells, a big white book titled, No Place for Truth. It’s a gripping and disturbing analysis of the church in the late twentieth century. It’s not a “comfort zone” book. It’s not a book to cheer you up if you’re feeling a little depressed and you want something to cheer you up. It will thoroughly discourage you. But it’s a book that’s most essential to read.
Our world, yours and mine, is one of fixed values, fixed points. It’s one in which we have a solid base on which we build our worldview. Our base, of course, is the Bible, the Scriptures. We’ll be coming to that next week. We believe things like “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” We live in a world like the one (you and I, that is) that Jesus spoke of when He said, “heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.”
But the world out there is a world described like Isaiah described in the seventh century BC when he described the world in which he lived in Jerusalem: “The truth has stumbled in the streets.” And likewise Jeremiah spoke similarly, also about Jerusalem: “Truth has perished. It has vanished from their lips.”
One of the more conservative but secular commentators on the West was the social commentator from the former Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote a very famous book, The Gulag Archipelago. And he’s describing the West, the world in which you and I have lived all of our lives: “Truth,” he says, “eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it.” It’s what Solomon says, actually, in the book of Proverbs: “Buy the truth,” Solomon says in one of the Proverbs, “and do not sell it.” Buy the truth and do not sell it.
I. Well, let me ask a question. Can we know the truth?
Let’s begin by asking this question: can we know the truth? It’s a very simple question, but actually it’s a very profound question. It’s one that philosophers and theologians have wrestled with and continue to wrestle with for centuries; many, of course, giving the answer that truth (if there is such an entity as truth) cannot possibly be known by mortal men and women, finite beings like ourselves. It would be interesting what Aristotle or Plato, or Emanuel Kant, or Ludwig Wittgenstein, or whoever, that some of our college students may well be studying and asking some of us some questions about. It would be interesting to examine what they have said concerning truth—whether there is such a thing as truth, and whether, if there is such a thing as truth, it can be known.
But I don’t want to go down there, and neither do you. So let’s go to the movies! Let’s go to the movies, and let’s see what’s on. And what’s on is The Matrix. The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers. They’re thoroughly Post-Modern.
Now, what’s the plot? If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m about to ruin it all for you! But the plot is that artificial intelligence has created a computer construct, The Matrix. And it’s a construct of our present world, and through a hardwire directly into the back of your brain, in reality these humans are being kept in incubators, and the energy that’s being produced from these humans is being used as the power source for this artificial intelligence. In other words, what’s The Matrix all about? It is that you don’t know the answer to what is real. What is real? Because all the while you may think that the world in which you live is the real world, but actually the world in which you live is only make-believe. It’s a dream. What is true is not what you think it is. It’s hard, it’s difficult, it may well be impossible to know the truth. Truth is an illusion.
Now, some of you will tell me that in Parts II and III of The Matrix it’s all different, and I don’t want to know because I haven’t watched them and I don’t intend to watch them. I was just content with using the first one as the illustration of a thoroughly Post-Modern view of the world, a world that we don’t know what is true.
Well, let’s turn on the radio instead. And who’s playing on the radio? Madonna. She is the icon of our time. She personifies our age: a self-created persona undergoing perpetual change. In her world there are no fixed points, there are no boundaries. Everything is fluid, there are no structures of meaning that transcend personal preference. If there is such a thing as truth, nobody has exclusive claim to it. If it exists at all, and that’s very doubtful, it is a chameleon and it takes on different shapes, and different colors, and different hues, depending on the context.
We’ve been talking about worldviews, and in particular contemporary worldviews. And we’ve been calling it “Post-Modernity.” Now, Post-Modernity is actually a very difficult word to describe, and we’ve been taking some liberties to be sure in this series for the sake of what this series is intended to be.
But what is Post-Modernity? Let’s just remind ourselves briefly of what it is. And just like some Christians are better at criticism than compliment, so Post-Modernity is best described in terms of what it’s against rather than what it’s for. And what it’s against, of course, is Modernity. What’s it’s against is the philosophy that existed from basically the beginning of the seventeenth century until –there’s debate, but let’s say the 1950’s or so—the lifetime of most of us.
We all sang that wonderful hymn 181, and the last stanza talked about presenting our usefulness to God, and we were all singing it with great gusto, I noticed, so it’s the lifespan of all of us. That’s what Post-Modernity is opposed to. This is what we confront: the notion that all truth, even to some extent, scientific knowledge is biased and socially constructed. The truths are relative truths, if they exist at all, are culturally bound.
The forefather of some of this has often been said to be Friederich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who lived in the latter half of the nineteenth century and spawned this disbelief as to the reality and the know-ability of truth. Nietzsche said humans have no access to reality, that everything is just a matter of perspective. In fact, Nietzsche said there is no such thing as a true world. Now, Nietzsche died in insanity, and there may well be a lesson in that.
Now, other contemporary academics like, say, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, basically watered down Nietzsche’s ideas and devised a method of sorts which we sometimes call “de-construction.” Basically it’s like this: that truth is like Play-Doh®; that you can shape it and mold it and pull it and squash it, depending on the mood that you happen to be in. You’ve all been in a context, whether you’ve never heard of Drerida or whoever... you’ve all been in a context where you’ve asserted something that you think is true, that you think is fact, that it has a solid base and foundation, and you’ve had the wind taken out of your sails because somebody has said to you, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This person is living in a world where there is no such thing as true truth. It’s just Play-Doh ® and you’ve happened to pull the Play-Doh® in this shape. But they can come along and pull the Play-Doh ® into another shape.
I remember several years ago—twenty-five, thirty years ago—I picked up one of Derrida’s books, The Ear of The Other. And he was trying to deconstruct a passage from Nietzsche. I couldn’t get past the first chapter. Actually, if truth be told and I show my utter ignorance, I actually couldn’t get past the first page. It was Post-Modernity. It’s the entire style of the book, he plays with words, and he plays with sentences, and he plays with the reader. And he’s trying to say to you, “See, stupid, language is malleable and can be constructed in a variety of ways.”
II. Now, Post-Modernity has affected every discipline of life.
Whether you’ve studied architecture at college—and we’ll come to that in a second—or whether you’ve studied history at college, or whether you studied art or music, or English literature, theology—no matter what it is that you’ve studied—law at college—all of it to some extent or another has been affected by this poison of Modernity: But there is no such thing as truth, all you have is the text, and you can make that text to mean whatever you want it to mean in that particular context.
I suppose it offends us the most in the area of history. Books are written now deconstructing history, saying you can never be sure of what happened in the past. You know, what happened at the Battle of Bunker Hill? You can never know that now. Did four and a half million Jews lose their life in the Second World War? Deconstructionists have come and said you can’t know the answer to that anymore. Did six million Russians lose their lives on the Russian front in 1943-44-45? Deconstructionists will tell you that you can never know the answer to that anymore. It’s terribly, terribly offensive.
You can see what that does to something like Christianity, because Christianity is based on fact. It’s based on history. It’s based on the incarnation of Jesus. It’s based on the fact that He lived on the sands of Palestine. It’s based on such things as he died on the cross of Calvary, He rose again from the grave. Can we know the truth? That’s the issue. And the answer that comes from Post-Modernity that’s been brewing for a hundred years and has been bubbling over and boiling over the last thirty or forty years is that, no, we cannot. You can never know the truth. You might think that you know the truth, but it’s just your truth. It’s just your interpretation.
Well, so much for all of that. How does all of that show itself in the world in which you and I live? And let me suggest some things. And I want us to address the question, asking ourselves how this worldview affects the world in which you and I live. And it affects it along several lines of thought.
First of all, it affects ministers of the gospel. I’m not talking about ministers of the gospel here at First Presbyterian Church, you understand, although you do need to make sure that they’re not affected by these things. But I’m speaking generally now. Ministers of the gospel, ministers who have been trained in seminaries up and down the land of the United States of America, and Europe and Canada and elsewhere, have been thoroughly immersed, washed, in the philosophy of Post-Modernity.
Now some of you are tempted to think that this is the kind of thing that academics talk about, and that’s why Jim Moore and Mr. Cannada and others—higher seminary professors like Ligon and myself—write about and justify our salaries, and that has absolutely nothing to do with you. And I’m saying to you it has everything to do with you. It has absolutely everything to do with you. Liberalism, or to be more precise, syncretism has crept into the church of Jesus Christ. It’s everywhere.
You all saw it in the Washington Cathedral, your national cathedral, after 9/11. You saw it. It was a moment of immense emotion, and it was hard to be critical of anything after 9/11. But there it was: syncretism. Christianity and Islam, and Native American religion, and a bit of Zen Buddhism thrown in, and a dash of this and a dash of that, and we’re all together and we’re all brothers in arms, and there is no such thing as true truth anymore, because there’s a little bit of truth (if there is such a thing as truth) in everybody and in everything, and in every philosophy.
And so you can have, in the church of Jesus Christ, you can have people worshipping Sophia.1, 2 And if you want to know more about that, ask Brister Ware, because he’s our resident expert on those who worship Sophia. It’s terribly alarming. It’s terribly, terribly disturbing, because as people will say—and so-called Christians will sometimes say—well, who can know the truth anyway? People who say things like that are thoroughly, thoroughly programmed by the philosophy of Post-Modernity. Who hasn’t encountered those who accuse us here at First Presbyterian Church of being elitist, discriminatory, and judgmental because we hold certain things to be true and certain things to be false? People who believe in a system of truth become those who are judged by those who don’t believe any truth at all. (Isn’t that interesting, by the way? That they believe everything is true except what you believe. Now watch for that, because that’s always the Achilles heel of Post-Modernity.)
Listen to CNN, or some other channel, and how they describe conservative evangelical Christianity. They will always label it “fundamentalism”, because that’s very useful, because fundamentalism is a bad word, because you associate fundamentalism with Islam and with terrorists. So fundamentalist Islamists is a bad thing; and by association, we’re lumped in with them.
You see it in the church. You see it in ministers of the church, and you see it in the syncretism that creeps slowly but surely into the church and distorts what’s true and what’s false. And the words of Jesus, “I am the way and the truth and the life, and no man comes unto the Father but by Me,” becomes offensive.
You see it in lifestyles. The buzz-term now is “sexual preference.” It’s such an offensive word to me, “sexual preference,” because all of a sudden sexuality is removed from the arena of ethics and morals and is purely a matter of choice. So you can’t judge anybody’s “sexual preference.” It’s a matter of taste. I like Bruckner and you like Bananarama. I like coffee and you like cocaine. (I’m not speaking about anybody in here!)
When there’s no truth as such, you can’t make pronouncements about homosexuality. You can’t do that. You can’t make pronouncements about women in office in the church. It’s a direct result of the loss of confidence in what is true and what is false, and where truth can be found.
So meet Michael Foucault. He’s French, he was born in 1913, raised by his grandparents. His parents died whilst he was a teenager—his father in the First World War or just a little after it. He becomes, after a considerable length of time, he becomes the successor to Paul Tillich, who was the professor of theology at Chicago University. And he died in 1984 of AIDS. He was a practicing homosexual all of his life. And Foucault, who’s in some quarters not too far from here—if you remove that window and just go across the road a little, he’d be regarded as one of the leading philosophers of the twentieth century, a man of considerable ability—wrote some of the most intense books imaginable on the human will. And Foucault says he rejects that there’s any such thing as external truth or human nature with a sense of “ought,” a category of “ought.” Ethics, morals, is just how things happen to work in a given system. You can’t judge someone else’s behavior as to whether it’s right or wrong.
Now the interesting thing about Foucault is that he’s always condemning certain things. And he was always condemning asylums. That was one of his concerns, because people were locked away in asylums, especially in his youth, for being homosexual. So he was concerned about that issue of society. There’s no such thing as a moral base, there’s no such thing as truth, there’s no such thing as absolute certainty, but he had absolutes to the extent that he was willing to judge others for not having the same absolutes. He was borrowing capital, do you see, that he could never repay.
But let’s come nearer home. And you’ll see that in the church. Now I’m talking about the church that you and I live. I received an e-mail yesterday from a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America, in another state and in another presbytery, in which he made the pronouncement that adultery is rife in this presbytery, and that nobody is doing anything about it. Now there may be a thousand reasons for that, but I guarantee that one of the reasons that that is so, is because people—Christians—yes, conservative Christians, Bible-so-called-believing-Christians—little by little, drip, drip, drip, are losing confidence in the truth: in what’s right, in what’s morally right and what’s ethically sound, and what Jesus in fact condemns.
Jim Packer says that the flow of Post-Modernism in Western culture is a kind of Niagara Falls beating on top of your head telling you “what I feel is all that counts, because what I feel is all there is.”
Now I think you see it in the cultural pessimism that exists in our society. You see it in some dark movies, and I speak from borrowed capital here. I don’t watch dark, pessimistic movies. Don’t misunderstand me. But I think you see it, and especially in the realm of art and you see it, I think, in the realm of architecture. I was reading just a few days ago a wonderful book, and I do recommend this one by Ravi Zacharias: Can Man Live Without God? It’s a wonderful, wonderful read. It’s a lazy read, it won’t put you off at all. This is a very contemporary—most of you know Ravi Zacharias, one of the best speakers on apologetic themes, perhaps, of our time. And he mentions a visit that he made to Ohio State University campus, and his tour guide began singing the praises of the Wexner Center for Performing Arts, which Newsweek called “the first deconstructionist building.” You can go to the internet and you can see these pictures, very natty design...you can just click and these pictures will appear one after another of the inside of the Wexner Center for Performing Arts at Ohio State University campus. And in this building there are staircases that lead nowhere, into empty space; there are pillars that hang suspended from the ceiling. The architectural theme seems to be a series of geometrical non sequiturs. And Zacharias writes, and it’s quite funny. The architect, we are duly informed, designed this building to reflect life itself: senseless and incoherent, and the capriciousness of the rules that reflect life itself. “And when the rationale was explained to me,” Zacharias says, “I had just one question. Did the architect do the same with the foundation? And the answer of course is absolutely not!” It’s just another example of the parasitic nature of modern, contemporary thought.
Well, let me come nearer home again. Where might we see a loss of confidence in truth here in First Presbyterian Church? And I have to hold my breath now, as I traverse down this little road, because I think I would be less than honest to my Savior if I didn’t try and bring this right home, and see if a little bit of this Post-Modernity in the world hasn’t actually affected us.
What happens when you lost confidence in the truth? I think one of the things that happens in the church is that the church loses confidence in doctrine. In doctrine. What are people reading today? What are you reading today? I am not talking about the best-seller that sells ten million copies, that’s perhaps more full of cappuccino froth than anything else; I’m talking about substantial books that teach you the solid foundations of the faith. Have you read one such book in the last twelve years? Now, I have to tell you that your forefathers did. In the age of your forefathers in the nineteenth century and in the eighteenth century in New England, books of great substance on the value of Christian doctrine sold by the truckload.
I think it’s one of the more disturbing aspects of the time in which you and I live that we are frightened of books that contain a little meat and a little substance, but some of you have been saying to me in the last few weeks “you can’t live on lettuce alone.” It’s what Brad, I assume, was saying to you about the value of J. Greshem Machen, and Greshem Machen’s wonderful book, Christianity and Liberalism. That’s why he wrote the book! Those who are afraid of doctrine, Greshem Machen says in that book, have to throw away the Apostle Paul. And if you throw away the Apostle Paul, you throw away the very heart of the gospel message itself.
Now, what’s the key to church growth? And what’s the key to church life? And I think if you asked, Paul would say it begins with truth and doctrine. And I think if you asked Jesus he would say it begins on the solid foundation of truth and doctrine.
But I will close with this little illustration. I was coming back from London last Friday on the plane, sitting next to a young, smart twenty-three-year-old merchant navy navigator, who is one of those dressed in white on those cruise liners that some of you take to the Bahamas and off to Australia or wherever it is you go. And I said to him, because my late brother-in-law was also a navigator on board one of those ships, and we began a conversation and I said to him, “I’m sure you’re surrounded by all the latest gadgetry in computers and global positioning satellite things to tell you where this ship is at any one time.” And he said, “Yes, of course. But,” he said, “I don’t trust them.” A twenty-three-year-old! And a child of our time and our age, and he says, “No, I still go out every night and look for the stars, just to confirm where I am.”
And I thought, well, isn’t that an illustration about Post-Modernity. Because at the end of the day, we don’t trust these things, and we trust the fixed points, and the fixed point that we trust in is the word of God, and that word which is enfleshed in Jesus Christ, and that word which was written down and inscripturated between the covers of Genesis and Revelation. And more of that next week.
Please stand with me. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank You for this time we have together these Wednesday evenings as we do something a little different. Looking at these worldviews, Father, we are concerned at the age in which we live, but we are also concerned about our own hearts. So keep us, keep us ever close to Yourself, but make us, we pray, each one, students of Your word, who love Your truth, and who uphold it every day of our lives. We ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template. Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker.