I don’t know that God exists, nor that Jesus died, was buried, and then rose again. I don’t know that the Bible is the Word of God. Yet, I call myself a Christian.
I sincerely believe all of the above, but I don’t know that it’s true.
One might assume that I’m going through a phase of existential angst and serious doubt about my faith, but I’d disagree. To me it’s just part of living out my Christian life.
Because I believe I can be a faithful Christian, and yet not claim to know the truth.
The philosophically inclined person will immediately want me to define my words. Fine, I will. By truth I mean something that, whether humanly knowable or not, transcends time, culture, and humanity itself. In short something objective. By know I mean an objective assurance based on empirical proof of the/a truth.
The reason why I’m writing this is not because I’m guilty of having postmodern thoughts (gasp!), but rather out of a concern that certain trends in evangelical Christian circles may be alienating people of the postmodern West from an already ‘unattractive’ Gospel.
These trends are a result of what I would categorise as neomodernist Christian epistemology.
Modernism was, essentially, an ideology which held that:
a) The human mind can know all truth
b) All truth is empirical (naturalism)
I label some Christians as neomodernists based on premise A, not B since the latter does not allow one to believe in any concepts that are not provable by science; the metaphysical—like God, the soul, spirit, morality—is left out altogether.
So forget about B, focus on A.
Some Christians exhibit certain traits similar to the hubris of the modernists when it comes to explaining the Gospel; there can be a thorough lack of humility when it comes to engaging with abstract questions, and also a reluctance to say ‘I don’t know’ when asked any faith related question.
‘There are answers, and I know what they are’, seems to be the prevailing view amongst neomodernists when answering questions about Christian epistemology.
Their view is based on two assumptions:
1) There is such a thing as truth
2) And I know, without doubt, what it is.
Let’s just assume, so as to not get bogged down in postmodernism, that the 1st premise is true. The 2nd is what should interest us.
Assuming that there is truth, how can any human mind claim to ‘know’ it in an absolutely sure sense?
Yes, I grant you that they may believe it to be true, have faith that it’s true, think it’s true, be extremely confident it’s true, but there’s no way, based on the metaphysical nature of certain truth claims, that one can claim to know, without doubt, that God exists for example.
I’ll give the neomodernist the benefit of the doubt in this, and assume that when they say ‘I know Jesus loves me’ they actually mean ‘I have a strong belief that Jesus loves me’.
The first conclusion claims certainty, the second is a faith position.
In the face of ever increasing awareness of postmodern philosophy which tries to put all beliefs on equal standing, making absolute claims about something which simply cannot be proven in any empirical way will only distance the church from those it is trying to reach.
It is not a compromising of one’s faith to be more humble and realistic about the restrictions of the human mind.
Rather than saying ‘the Bible is true’ and hoping we’ve done enough to convince people, we can carefully choose our words to avoid objective statements and thus turn Christianity into an object of ridicule.
It’s perfectly acceptable—and I think expected—for a Christian to believe that the Bible is true, and that God exists. However going around and telling people ‘it’s true, it just is, I know it’, is not the same as saying ‘I believe it’s true and here are my reasons’.
In a world looking for any small thing to help discredit the Christian faith, claiming to ‘know the truth’ won’t help spread the Gospel.
Just as an aside, I have made an assumption that the neomodernist is using absolutist language on purpose. But it should be noted that they might be using that language either because they’re lazy and choosing their words carelessly, or maybe they’re unaware of the implications of making certainty claims.
But regardless of why certain language is chosen over other kinds, the fact that it is said at all will be what is judged.
To a postmodern audience ‘I know it’s true’, is worlds away from ‘I believe it’s true’.
The former is a conversation stopper, the latter a conversation starter.