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Answering Pilate: The Concept of Truth in the Postmodern Context

By Stanley J. Grenz

“What is truth?” Pilate asked rhetorically in response to Jesus’ claim that He had come into the world to testify to the truth (John 18:38). Many people, especially those educated prior to the 1970s, might dismiss Pilate’s wistful words as the outmoded machinations of a premodern skeptic. For the answer to his question, they would likely direct the Roman governor to modern scientific advances that in their estimation have assisted in the discovery of many truths about the world that were unknown in the first century. Yet, just when the scientific understanding of truth seemed to have attained undisputed sovereignty, Pilate’s haunting query, “What is truth?” has re-emerged with a vengeance.

Participatory Truth

Contrary to what some commentators suggest, postmoderns have not dismissed truth. On the contrary, like people in every era, they too are on a quest for truth. Nevertheless, postmoderns tend to operate from a conception of truth that differs from the reigning modern view.

The modern era was born when certain philosophers concluded that they had at last determined the definitive answer to Pilate’s question. Truth, they asserted, is a characteristic of true statements, and a statement is true if it declares accurately what is in fact the case. Paralleling this conception of truth is the assumption that the world operates according to universal laws. This assumption emerged full force during the Enlightenment (the 1600s and 1700s). Although the laws of nature function independent of the human mind, Enlightenment thinkers theorized that the laws of nature could be discerned by human reason. Consequently, the truth (or falsity) of any particular statement can be readily determined, at least in theory, by comparing it to the dimension of the world it purports to describe. An assertion is true, therefore, if it corresponds to — that is, if it represents accurately or describes correctly — a specific facet or detail of the world. For example, according to the modern concept of truth, the assertion “snow is white” is true if snow is indeed white. We can determine the truth of the statement by inspecting snow to determine its color.

Most of us operate on similar assumptions. The modern project, however, took the matter a step further. Enlightenment thinkers believed what human reason could supposedly fathom was boundless. They hoped that human scientific discovery would eventually devise the one true and complete description of the real world. In so doing, they hoped to inaugurate a utopian society.

Postmodernism questions the central assumptions of modernism. According to postmoderns, truth is not merely an inherent quality of statements that accurately ascribe properties to the world. Neither is truth limited to what can be verified by reason and the empirical scientific method alone. Instead, postmoderns are convinced that, in addition to reason, there are other ways of knowing — through the emotions and intuition. Postmoderns do not view the world as a realm of impersonal laws, but as historical, relational, personal, and participatory.

Postmoderns, therefore, would answer Pilate’s question by inviting him to participate in the truth. Pilate would never know that Jesus is the Christ unless he participated in what Jesus embodies. To know the truth Pilate must respond personally to the Master’s invitation, “Come and see.” Postmoderns might also urge Pilate to realize that the discovery of truth involves his whole person. It must grab his emotions and stir his intuition, as well as satisfy his reason. In fact, the pathway to knowing involves all these dimensions simultaneously. For this reason, Pilate should have taken his wife’s disconcerting dream seriously. Through her intuition, she may have gained insight that his intellectual cynicism prohibited him from accepting.

Constructed Truth

The modern infatuation with truth as the correspondence of statements with a supposed objective reality led to a particular understanding of how truth is gained. Enlightenment thinkers argued that the pursuit of truth required objective observation — viewing the world from a neutral vantage point above the world.

Postmoderns deny the concept of an Archimedean vantage point — a “view from nowhere” — from which a purely objective view of reality can be gained. Not only is the world participatory, they aver, people structure or construct the world they experience through the concepts they bring to it. Hence, words used to describe the world, including seemingly empirical terms such as snow and white, do not denote or describe existing realities. Rather, language consists of a set of social conventions or agreed-upon human constructs that allow people to experience the world in a particular manner.

Some postmoderns claim that people do not inhabit a single objective world. They believe people live in the particular worlds they create. Consequently, there is no final basis for determining truth, no real world against which we can adjudicate in some final, objective fashion among the different linguistic worlds of various people groups. As a result, many postmoderns allow seemingly conflicting constructions of reality to exist side by side.

The postmodern conception of truth may be illustrated by the following situation. One Sunday morning a lapsed Roman Catholic attended a Pentecostal church at the invitation of a student. Due to illness, the student was not present in the service. Later, the former Catholic told her friend how, at the close of the service, she had been drawn to the front of the sanctuary where the pastor prayed for her. “There at the altar,” she explained, “I fainted.”

Hearing this, the Pentecostal student cried out, “Oh, no. You didn’t faint. You were slain in the Spirit.”

Modernism would attempt to determine what really happened that Sunday morning. The inquiry would focus on what comprised the central issue in question: Did the woman faint or was she slain in the Spirit? Modernism would try to answer the question through an objective, neutral, and detached viewpoint of the incident.

For postmoderns, however, fainting and being slain in the Spirit do not represent a right or wrong description of what happened, but two alternative conceptual frameworks. They are merely aspects of two different community-based worldviews. The woman’s initial understanding of the event in the Pentecostal church service was within a modern, scientific framework. In this linguistic realm — a realm where the scientific method reigns supreme — people faint. But in her conversation with her friend, the woman was introduced to another linguistic realm, the realm inhabited by Pentecostal devotees. In this worldview, people can also be slain in the Spirit.

The point is this: In the modern era, the appeal to the language of empirical science was believed to be the only real world. Scientific knowledge, with its appeal to neutral, objective facts attained by means of dispassionate, disconnected observation was assumed to be the sole claimant to the lofty designation truth. Postmodernism questions the narrowing of the concept of truth to the sphere of empirical science.

Postmoderns, therefore, might respond to Pilate by suggesting that his cultural training as a Roman had disposed him to view religious commitment in the cynical manner that characterized his response to Jesus. But Jesus offered him a new framework, a new way to see himself, and a new set of categories that comprised a glorious new world in which he could have lived. Jesus’ invitation to Pilate was, “Change worlds.”

Narrative Truth

The incident involving the woman who visited the Pentecostal church evidences another aspect of the postmodern view of truth. Truth is connected to narratives.

As I noted above, the modern understanding of truth is based on the belief that the world operates according to universal laws that can be discerned by human reason. Consequently, modernism searches for the unchanging laws that govern one’s changing life. Moderns generally view stories as mere illustrations of abiding principles. Once we discover the universal, applicable principle a particular narrative illustrates, we can discard the story. Postmodernism, in contrast, sees an integral connection between story and truth. Truth is a lived narrative. The goal of storytelling is not merely to extract the truth it supposedly illustrates, but to inhabit the story.

The request of James and John for prominent places in their Lord’s coming kingdom illustrates this (Mark 10:32–45). In explaining this text, the modern preacher usually seeks to dissect the biblical story to find the timeless principle the narrative illustrates. The modern thinker attempts to answer questions. For example, what universal, transcultural truth was Jesus seeking to convey to His disciples? Or, what lesson does Matthew want his readers to learn from the story? These questions treat the text as an indicator of a deeper truth rather than an embodiment of truth itself.

A postmodern preacher, in contrast, seeks to draw his hearers into the narrative. For him, the truth does not lie in the principles the story supposedly indicates, but in the story itself. Truth emerges as hearers are drawn into the narrative, as they become James and John, and as they hear the Lord admonish them as well.

The narrative character of truth may also be seen in the sacraments or ordinances of the church. Debates regarding the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which have agitated theologians since the 16th century, find their place here. Yet, from a postmodern perspective, the power of these celebrations does not lie in the attempts to describe if or how being baptized or communing at the Lord’s Table mediates divine grace. Rather, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are enacted narratives. The goal of these community rites is for Christians to participate in the biblical events anew in this symbolic manner. Participation emboldens Christians to live that story daily as well. In this manner, grace is enacted in Christian lives.

The postmodern, therefore, might respond to Pilate by telling him “the old, old story of Jesus and His love.” In doing so, the apologist becomes an evangelist. Telling the narrative invites the cynical Roman governor to forsake the narrative inculcated in him by his pagan, imperial overlord and gives him opportunity to participate in the glorious narrative of God at work in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

Pragmatic Truth

The idea that the world is constructed through the social conventions people bring to it leads to a decisively communal understanding of truth. Postmoderns declare that the specific truths people accept and even their understanding of truth is a function of the social group or the community in which they participate. Truth fits within a specific community; truth consists in the ground rules that facilitate the well-being of a community.

The communal nature of truth results in a new kind of relativism. This new relativism is precipitated by life in social groups — or tribes — that have their own language, beliefs, and values. The older individualistic relativism elevated personal choice as the “be all” and “end all.” Its maxims were: “Each to his own,” and “Everyone has a right to his own opinion.” Postmoderns, in contrast, tend to espouse a communal relativism that is expressed in maxims such as, “What is right for us, may not be right for you,” and “What is wrong in our context, may be okay or even preferable in your context.”

The postmodern situation is encapsulated in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Ethics.” An accident has denied Lt. Worf the use of his legs. In Klingon society, this means he is the same as dead. In keeping with his own cultural mores, Worf plans to end his life. He asks his good friend, William Riker, to assist him in the death ritual. Loath to participate in such a despicable act, Riker goes to the ship’s captain Jean-Luc Picard for advice. Rather than invoking any individualistic or objectivistic concept of absolutes and universal right and wrong, Picard suggests to Riker that from his cultural perspective assisting Worf might appear to be condoning an act of suicide; but the same act, when viewed through the cultural perspective of Klingon society, is perfectly permissible, and even necessary. He then concludes his remarks by counseling Riker to make his decision based on Worf’s need and the fact Worf is looking to him as a trusted friend.

Here again, the pragmatic understanding of truth emerges. For the postmodern, Pilate’s question can only be answered within a particular social context. Viewed from this perspective, truth is not confined by indubitable facts that ascribe qualities to the world . Instead, truth is active. Truth is what accomplishes a goal. Truth is what works. Truth comes to expression in the relationships shared by members of the group.

The postmodern understanding of truth provides a great opportunity and a great challenge to Christians. Postmoderns are less impressed with well-reasoned arguments that supposedly prove the rightness of the church’s claims to truth than with the life of a truth-embodying community. Consequently, when viewed from a postmodern perspective, the final answer to Pilate’s question lies in the fellowship of the disciples who live in the light of the crucified and resurrected Jesus by the power of the outpoured Holy Spirit. Postmoderns are converted to community before they are converted to Christ. But then, this should not be a surprise. Jesus declared, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). And love for one another between people who love God and are loved by God is the ultimate description of the kind of truth that, when known, sets us free (John 8:32).

Revised from “Participating in What Frees: The Concept of Truth in the Postmodern Context,” originally published in Review and Expositor 100/4 (Fall 2003): 687-93. Used with permission.

Neil B. Wiseman

The late Stanley J. Grenz was Pioneer McDonald professor of theology at Carey Theological College, Vancouver b.c. and professor of theological studies, Mars Hill Graduate School, Seattle, Washington.

 

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