Christ and Culture – Week 1 – Post-Truth?
This is the first week of a seven-week class that I’m calling “Christ and Culture.”
That’s not to be confused with Reinhold Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture. It’s become a classic in Christian cultural criticism.
There are some things Niebuhr says that are relevant to my aims for this class. Niebuhr outlines three main attitudes or dispositions that Christians can have toward culture, or “the world.”
Christ against Culture. This is opposition to culture. Loyalty to Christ demands a wholesale rejection of culture. I think it’s pretty obvious that’s the wrong position we should take.
Christ of Culture. This is capitulation to culture. The voice of Christ and the voice of culture become synonymous. Christ disappears because he ultimately conforms to the voice of culture.
Christ above Culture. Jesus is Lord. He is the transformer of culture. The Church seeks to transform what has been corrupted by sin.
Niebuhr first published this in 1951. So, 71 years later, people are still interacting with his concepts, though not without criticism.
Now, a more contemporary assessment of cultural engagement is found in a book by James Davison Hunter, called To Change the World. Published in 2010.
It’s a great book. Hunter does a great job of actually defining what do we mean when we use the word, culture? Basically, culture is a very complicated, network of interconnected systems, ideas, and institutions. And so, how culture changes is also very complicated.
Hunter gives us three paradigms for how Christians have historically engaged in cultural matters. And then he offers us his proposed alternative way.
Three insufficient paradigms of cultural engagement, according to Hunter (and as a side note, Hunter would say, Niebuhr’s model is designed to assess all cultures at all times. Hunter’s is specific to North American Christianity):
Defensive Against. This is the view he links to various forms of political and theological conservatism. Adherents to this view seek to create a “defensive enclave” set against the world. The world is seen as a danger or a threat. The main problem, as they see it, is secularization. If only we could evangelize the world, God would “take back” our culture. The church would regain its standing and position of power in society. We must “win the culture back.” The means of this form of engagement is protests and boycotts. The church is largely known for what it is against, not what it is for.
Relevance To. This paradigm was first associated with theological liberalism… but is also found in evangelicals who have embraced the “seeker” centric church movement. Instead of prioritizing theological orthodoxy (right belief), they are concerned with being connected and relevant to the most pressing issues of the day. The church is chasing after whatever the voice of culture is screaming about on Twitter today… The thought is… the church will stay relevant if we toe the line to cultural orthodoxy. The problem is… they can’t keep up. As Christians have sought this strategy, they’re suddenly flabbergasted when they are still vilified by culture. Relevance becomes obsolescence.
Purity From. This view has separatist or sectarian impulses. They seek to retreat from culture. This is seen in Anabaptist groups (but not limited to), which leads them to withdraw from the world into their own community with minimal engagement with the world. Purity from is a kind of new monasticism. Think of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. It fosters an “us-verses-them” mentality. So, ironically, this view of cultural engagement is actually a form of disengagement.
All three of these paradigms for cultural engagement are insufficient. But that is not to deny that all of them do express legitimate biblical concerns. There’s an element of truth in all of them.
For many in the “defensive against” camp, they have picked the right battle but fought it in the wrong way. Other times, they’ve simply chosen the wrong battle—something that proved ultimately trivial.
At what cost should we seek to be relevant to the world? At the cost of abandoning any theological distinctives?
And the pursuit of purity from sin’s corruption has led to disengagement and total withdrawal from society.
How do we appropriately navigate the tension of being in the world but not of it?
This is where Hunter gives us his proposed alternative way: what he calls “Faithful Presence Within.”
Here’s what Hunter says, “A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. […] the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us.”
That’s very simple. But very profound. Our task is faithfulness. Faithfulness to our tasks in our sphere of influence.
Faithfulness in homemaking, changing diapers… Faithfulness in practicing medicine. Faithfulness in crunching numbers in spreadsheets, etc.
As Christians, we are resident aliens. Sojourners. We have a dual citizenship… We are U.S. citizens, but more importantly, we are citizens of heaven. So, in the meantime, we live like exiles, longing for our heavenly home.
In Jeremiah 29:7, God instructs the exiled community to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile.”
Be faithful in the midst of exile. That’s God’s plan. As counterintuitive as it sounds.
As we read in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.”
This is a call to faithfulness.
Here is the heart of this class over the next 7 weeks. We are going to be discussing matters of culture, and we want to think Christianly about them.
But we will not be “defensive against.” We will not seek to be “relevant to.” Nor will be seek “purity from.” Those are inadequate approaches.
Our desire is first, to think God’s thoughts after him – that’s what theology is. To think Christianly about things… looking at what God has revealed to us in his Word.
And second, how to appropriately engage those around us – friends, neighbors, loved ones – in light of what God has revealed to us in Scripture.
In short, our goal is to love God and love people. That’s what this class is about.
So, this is not a place to get rhetorical ammunition to go win arguments. Rather, it’s my ambition that we would all grow in our faith as we think through these issues together.
I’ll be honest when I don’t know something. Which is quite often. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But what we discuss should be enough to serve as a foundation and a launching point to discuss these matters further.
Today, we’re going to discuss the question of truth. I’ll be honest, today’s subject matter is pretty dense. But I promise I’m not trying to be intentionally obscure. So, bear with me.
What is truth? Why does it matter?
Of course, truth is something that is very important for Christians. Certainly not only Christians… But either God raised Jesus from the dead, or we are still in our sins and our faith is futile (1 Cor 15). So, it’s essential for our faith.
Truth is essential for life. Historically, the university has been an institution committed to pursuing truth.
Just Wikipedia a list of university mottos. Many of them mention “truth” or “light.”
Veritas, of Harvard. Johns Hopkins quotes John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.”
Lux et Veritas (light and truth) of Yale.
But in recent years, we’ve heard lots of talk that we live in a so-called “post-truth” era. It was the word of the year in 2016. What does that mean? That there is no such thing as truth?
Not quite… really it means a disregard for truth.
The Cambridge dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.”
This is called “emotivism.” Where moral judgements are just expressions of feeling or preference. We’ll discuss this more later.
Post-truth is not a denial of the existence of truth outright, but rather reveals a certain understanding of truth. It reveals a truth that is understood to be relative. “That’s true for you, but not for me.”
And so, you end up with Oprah saying things like, “she spoke her truth.” Not, she spoke the truth. But she spoke her truth. “Speak your truth.”
What are we to make of that?
Jesus didn’t say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through your truth.” He was speaking about an objective reality. Himself! The source of all things.
I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with the phrase “speak your truth” if you mean speak about your experience. I think it’s very important to listen to other people who have a very different perspective and experience than your own.
But it’s a very different thing if you think that your subjective experience of something trumps the objective reality of a thing. The phrase “speak your truth” becomes problematic if we are making our subjective experience of something supplant objective reality.
So, to quote Pontius Pilate—What is truth?
That question sounds very scary and abstract.
But truth is very basic. Something is true if it actually corresponds to reality.
So, to help us understand, I’m gonna borrow from Dallas Willard in what follows.
Take the statement, “My shirt is blue.” Is that statement true or false? Well, it’s true if in fact my shirt is blue. You can verify this through observation.
Take the statement, “My truck has gas in its gas tank.” That statement is either true or false. It’s either an accurate representation of reality or it’s not. I can verify the truth of this statement by going out to my truck and starting the engine (assuming there’s not any other issues- which no guarantees there).
If I get in my truck and the gas tank is empty… then that’s a false statement. The statement doesn’t correspond to reality.
Not everything can be known through observable means… the scientific method, etc. There are some truths that are not verifiable by empirical processes. But that doesn’t mean something is untrue… Then, we rely on rules of logic.
When we have knowledge about what is true, we are able to deal with reality appropriately. We’re able to make good decisions and proper judgements. You’d better hope your doctor believes and understands truth. You’d better hope she’s able to provide the proper prescription that corresponds to the reality of the illness.
Here’s another analogy. Willard says truth is like the accuracy of the sights on a gun. If it’s accurately aligned, then it’s “true” and it enables you to hit the intended target.
Because truth corresponds to reality, it does not care what you think about it. Truth is not the same thing as belief. You can believe your truck has gas in it, but if the tank is empty, then no amount of “believing” is going to change the reality of the situation. This is why post-truth is problematic… beliefs do not necessarily correspond to reality.
Truth, as I’m describing it—is absolute. As Thomas Sowell says, “reality is not optional.”
Of course, this is no excuse to be a jerk. In saying “the truth doesn’t care about your feelings” does does not give us the right to be arrogant or disrespectful or unkind to others.
But it’s simply to say, you can’t escape reality… and when people try to live apart from reality, the results are miserable.
That’s, in fact, what Adam and Eve did in the garden when she took fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was reaching for a different way of knowing—determining truth, right and wrong, apart from the reality that God created.
For those of us who have felt guilt and remorse over our sins… we know the misery of living “your truth” apart from God’s truth.
–Here’s what I want to do with the time we have left. I want to answer two questions… 1) How do we know the truth? 2) What are ways truth is in trouble today?
How do we know the truth?
This is called Epistemology. The study of knowing. What is knowledge? How do we know what we know?
When we think biblically about knowledge, we should not think of something abstract. As if knowledge is just an object.
Biblically, knowledge is better described as knowing (as a verb). Because knowledge is personal.
What does that mean?
Well, we believe in the eternal Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God is a personal being. Therefore, we can know him. So, we don’t just collect “data” about him. But he reveals himself to us and we can interact with him in personal relationship. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” No one comes to the Father apart from relationship with him.
Interestingly, in Genesis, man is the first creature that God addresses, that he speaks to directly and personally. Humans are unique in creation. Gen 1:28 “And God blessed them. And God said to them.”
This idea of personal knowing is communicated in the old biblical language of “knowing” one’s spouse. If you have knowledge of your wife, you don’t just collect information about her… But with your whole being, you have intimate knowledge of her.
Francis Schaefer has written a book about God called He is There and He is Not Silent.
God is a personal being who speaks to us. The primary way he’s done that is through his Word. The Bible.
Christians call this Special Revelation.
General Revelation refers to God’s communication of himself so that we may know him in some sense, whether that’s through perceiving his works in creation or some internal moral sense of his existence.
Romans 1:18-20 – 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,[a] in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Romans 2:14-15 – 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness […]”
But General Revelation is insufficient for salvation. Through General Revelation, we can come to some knowledge of God’s attributes—his existence, his justice, the moral law— however, we don’t have any knowledge about salvation in Christ apart from Special Revelation.
Special Revelation has different modes in Scripture. It includes God’s mighty acts—especially where his presence is made known – in the burning bush, in the exodus, etc.
It also includes dreams and visions, or times when God directly speaks to the patriarchs. Christ’s Incarnation is where God revealed himself in human nature. All are modes of Special Revelation.
And the primary means of knowing Christ today is his Special Revelation through Scripture, which is God’s written revelation of himself.
A Christian way of knowing comes to us through the Bible. God speaks to us through his Word.
And here I think it’s important to say that I believe (we believe) God’s word is inerrant. That just means it’s totally true and trustworthy.
Inerrancy is not a modern construct imposed onto the text. Figures throughout Church history have affirmed it… and in fact, it’s the view Jesus held. The way Jesus quoted from Scripture, dealt with Scripture reveals he had this high view of Scripture.
Let me read the from the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, regarding the Scriptures.
“The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”
So that last line there says the Bible reveals to us not just what truth is, but who truth is.
John 14:6, as I’ve quoted many times already, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The New Testament word for truth is “aletheia.” It’s a word that means, faithful and trustworthy. Jesus is saying, he is one whom you can put your trust in. He’s reliable.
Let’s move on to our second question, What are ways the truth is in trouble today?
Perhaps the most pressing way truth is in trouble is that theological knowledge (religious knowledge) is not considered to be knowledge.
Did you know that the Latin word for knowledge is scientia? So this means knowledge is science.
Is Theology a science? The question makes us chuckle today.
Yes! Historically, the answer has been “theology is queen of the sciences.” (Aquinas)
But of course, today, by science, we mean the “natural sciences” of physics and biology and geography.
Basically, we only consider something to be knowledge if it utilizes the scientific method.
Listen to this quote from the late British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton… he’s responding to the “new atheist” people like Richard Dawkins:
“Wait a minute: science is not the only way to pursue knowledge. There is moral knowledge too, which is the province of practical reason; there is emotional knowledge, which is the province of art, literature, and music. And just possibly there is transcendental knowledge, which is the province of religion. Why privilege science, just because it sets out to explain the world? Why not give weight to the disciplines that interpret the world and so help us to be at home in it?” (Scruton, On Human Nature, 12).
It’s a very insightful quote revealing our contemporary biases favoring the “natural” sciences. Those sciences can explain the what but they cannot explain the why.
If we want to know why we exist… why is there something rather than nothing? If we’re searching for meaning and purpose, we can’t look to the natural sciences of cosmology. We must look to special revelation.
Dallas Willard has written a very difficult book addressing these questions called The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. Scruton’s quote is a great summary of what Willard’s book is about. Essentially, he’s asking the question, how did religion as a source of knowledge become discredited?
By disappearance of moral knowledge, Willard doesn’t mean that it has actually disappeared—that’s impossible. Rather, he just means that it’s something that’s become discredited.
What do we do about this problem? How might we ever “reclaim” or recover moral knowledge?
Well—Willard never finished his book… he died before he finished it. But we have some ideas about what his proposed solution would have been.
One way to move forward is to start thinking about what a good person is. How do we learn about who a good person is?
Well, we’re not going to learn about it in the universities… at least not right now.
Willard didn’t say this outright…because he wasn’t writing for a Christian audience—but we learn who a good person is through God’s word and his people. The church is the community in which this happens.
Let me mention a few other challenges to truth we face today.
Nihilism… this is the philosophy of Nietzsche. If life is meaningless and of no value, there really is no such thing as truth. There is only “will to power.” It doesn’t take much to see how this leads to an impoverished existence.
If all that there is is matter- and matter is ultimately meaningless – then we’re stripped of anything that might cause us to be filled with wonder or delight.
There is no meaning—only power. For Nietzsche that meant, living for personal satisfaction and arriving at one’s own conception of the “good life.”
“You do you.” We see how this idea has become commonplace today… We can be whomever we want to be. Self-creation.
When we see people living this way, I think the proper response is, “how’s that working out?”
It might appear to “work” for while… But I’ve talked to people who lived this way… and they would say that things are fine and that they’re happy… but I couldn’t help but notice that they’re filled with a gnawing sense of emptiness. They’re still searching for meaning.
And unfortunately, their naturalistic solutions are not going to satisfy them because we are made for relationship with God. And as Augustine says, “our hearts are restless til they rest in thee.”
Relativism is another challenge to truth.
I won’t go into too much detail with this one… I’ll just address it at the popular level you likely encounter it. When people say things like “well, that may be true for you, but not for me.”
Relativism doesn’t deny a certain kind of relative truth. Wichita is a big city. Well, that’s true, relative to Cisco, TX – where my grandmother lives. But it’s not true relative to Chicago or Dallas.
Relativism denies an objective standard. An objective measure of reality.
The problem is that relativism is not a coherent philosophical system. No one actually lives out relativism consistently.
The literature professor who says there’s no objective meaning to the text… and can make Jane Austen say whatever she wants her to say… is not a relativist when reading directions on a prescription pill bottle.
You’d better believe the text has objective meaning. No one is a relativist when signing a legal contract… Elizabeth recently reviewed a contract for her job. Both parties are going to expect certain things based on the text of the contract.
When people are relativists, really, they are only relativists in the realm of morality and ethics. Or religion. Because it’s convenient for their own autonomy.
Aren’t all religions just different roads to the same God?
I like Rebecca McLaughlin’s response to this question. She says… Jesus didn’t give us that option. He didn’t present himself to us as a possible path to God—he presented himself to us as God himself.
And to think that all religions are the same discredits what these religions actually teach and believe about their own tradition.
Relativism is an incoherent way to live.
The last challenge to truth I want to talk about today is Emotivism.
This, I think, is so prevalent in society today.
Emotivism essentially is the view that moral judgements are neither true nor false but simply expressions of our emotions and personal preference. It’s like Relativism’s twin brother. It’s a very subjective view of truth.
Here’s a definition by Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:
“Emotivism is the doctrine that all evaluative judgements and more specifically all moral judgements are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” (MacIntyre, After Virtue 3rd ed., 11-12).
“Murder is wrong” actually means “I personally disapprove of murder.”
That might sound absurd with something there is still common moral objection to. But this language is seen in our sexual discourse in society.
There’s nothing objectively wrong with same-sex marriage, they say. It just reflects personal sexual preference.
“It just feels right.”
If there is no common overarching framework for morality (The Bible, in our case), then any moral statement just becomes a statement of opinion and preference. Then there’s no basis upon which to disagree beyond preference.
And if someone disagrees with you, they can’t really tell you why your view is wrong… so then they resort to ad-hominem attacks and label you as a bigot… or diagnose you with some sort of social phobia. (homophobic, xenophobic, transphobic, etc.)
How do we respond to this?
Well, certainly not on social media. That’s a disastrous idea.
I think these emotional responses are best dealt with in the context of relationship. Intellectual concerns are legitimate—and of course, the question of ultimate truth is fundamental… However, in my experience, I think many people are wrestling with emotional concerns more than primarily intellectual concerns.
Listen to 2 Peter 1:3 and be encouraged. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.”
God has created us for such a time as this. God has promised us his presence. He will be with us to the end of the age.
So yes, culture’s a mess. Why would it not be, if we assume human sinfulness?
But I think that as we live faithfully in Christian community, we abide in Christ, and we are characterized by love and truth—then I think the truth becomes attractive. People are drawn to it. That’s what being salt and light means. We are to bring out the flavor… Bring out the richness of life in Christ. We are to be people of the truth. We are to live in the truth.
I think as we are faithful to do that in our sphere of influence, I think that’s where we’re going to see enduring change and transformation.
So, I think that’s enough to stop here… And we have some time for a few questions.