Day: July 4, 2009

Sermon: Post-Modernism: Why is Truth no longer true?

Here is the sermon I preaching tomorrow.  It’s the 5th in a series of 8 sermons around the theme, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.  The first four were Secularism, Pluralism, Nominalism, and Materialism. I hope your Sunday is great!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces
Post-Modernism: Why is Truth No Longer True?

John 18:28-40
28Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

30“If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”

31Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. 32This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

33Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38“What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

40They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.

Pilate Asks An Age-old Question?

In this story of the last hours of Jesus’ life, John tells us the Jewish religious leaders led by Caiaphas have brought Jesus to Pilate, the governor appointed by Rome to govern the occupied land of Judea.  If you remember Paul Bremmer, appointed by President Bush to be the governor of Iraq during the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, then you get the picture of the position that Pilate is in.

Pilate, as he states, is not a Jew.  Actually, Pilate doesn’t state it so much as he cynically asks the question of Jesus, “Am I a Jew?”  In other words, Pilate was saying, “I really don’t care at all about the internal squabbles of you people.”  But he has to care because the religious leaders have no authority to kill Jesus, which is what they want to do.  They want to kill him for blasphemy which, of course, is not against Roman law.

Pilate examines Jesus, and in this back-and-forth with Jesus finds himself dealing not just with a minor political drama, but with something much deeper.  Jesus claims to be a king, but not a king like any Pilate has ever seen.  Of course, Pilate’s king is Caesar and Caesar’s kingdom is definitely of this world.

But then Jesus goes on to say,

“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Then Pilate asks, “What is truth?”  Of course, my guess is that Pilate isn’t asking that question to find an answer.  He’s asking in a world-weary sort of way, as if saying “Who knows what’s true and what’s not true anymore?”

And, that is the question we’re dealing with today — what is truth?  Or to state it in terms of this series of sermons, “Why is truth no longer true?”

A Quick Trip Through the Age of Enlightenment

Of course, we know that Jesus was telling Pilate the truth.  But I could show you a dozen websites and blogs on the internet written by people who do not believe any or all of the following:

  1. that Jesus was an actual person and lived in the first century;
  2. that Jesus was the Son of God;
  3. that Jesus is the Savior of the world;
  4. that Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose again after three days in the grave.

Of course, the list could go on to include internet sites that do not believe in God at all, much less Jesus.  All of these writers claim they have the truth, too.  So, whose truth do we believe now — the truth of the Christians or the truth of the non-Christians?

Obviously, there can only be one truth.  The late senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is reported to have told another senator with whom he was having a healthy debate —

“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts”.

How, then, can two reasonable people believe that two contradictory statements are each true?  One word: post-modernism.

If you have never heard the term post-modernism, you’re not alone.  Post-modernism is a label that philosophers and social scientists have given to the age in which we live.  Let me explain.

The age of modernity, or the modern age, is generally thought to have begun with the Enlightenment.  The Age of Enlightenment usually dates from the 1700s.  Here’s a quick rundown: Prior to the Enlightenment, the medieval period was a time when kings ruled the world, or at least their own kingdoms; and the church had an explanation for everything.  The Church took great exception to anything that contradicted their dogma.

When Galileo, who lived about 100 years before the advent of the Enlightenment, suggested that the sun was the center of the universe, and that the earth revolved around the sun, the church became highly indignant.

According to Wikipedia, the church cited Psalm 104:5 which says,  “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Ecclesiastes 1:5 states “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” Proving, of course, that the earth certainly did not move, and the sun rose and set.

Galileo was a churchman as well, but he took a less literal, and more literary, reading of those Biblical passages than others.  He insisted that his scientific discovery concluded that the sun was the center of the universe, and that the earth did indeed move.  To make a long story really short, the controversy dragged on for decades, and it wasn’t until 1835 that the Roman Catholic Church finally removed Galileo’s books from the official index of prohibited books.  Of course, Copernicus had proposed the same theory about 100 years before Galileo, but he died just as the Church was about to ban his book.

During the Enlightenment, Galileo’s findings were confirmed, and reason ruled the day.  Religion and its superstitious explanations were dismissed as not “enlightened” or reasonable thinking.

The Church, which had since the third century, been the official keeper of Truth, now was relegated to only being the keeper of faith.  Of course, faith could not be proven, and so was considered “unenlightened” thinking.

The Enlightenment embraced the emerging disciplines in the sciences, and sought to explain the world in terms of reasonable, provable theorems, not wildly speculative and absurd religious arguments.

The Age of Enlightenment, with its scientific research and empirical evidence, promised to unlock the secrets of the universe under the careful and reasonable study of men like Rene Descartes, who said, “I think, therefore I am.”  Thinking, not believing, became the most desired of all qualities in this brave new world of exploration and discovery.

The Enlightenment produced the scientific method.  I remember studying the basic steps in the scientific method in elementary school —

  1. Define the question.
  2. Suggest a hypothesis.
  3. Perform an experiment.
  4. Observe the results.
  5. Confirm or refine your hypothesis.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 again.

The scientific method is something we take for granted now.  We assume that when doctors prescribe a treatment for a disease or illness, that the drug or therapy has been thoroughly tested.  Prior to the scientific method, doctors just guessed about what would work.  Leeches were thought to draw out the “bad blood” from a person’s body.  The familiar barber pole with its red and white stripes was an sign that the barber could “bleed” you — cut you and drain off the “bad humour” from your body.

Fortunately, we now know better, but prior to the scientific method, hunches or superstition played the lead role in just about every decision of life.

So, the Enlightenment has been a good thing, but it also has its unintended consequences.

The Enlightenment Doesn’t Live Up to Its Potential

I remember when I was in about the third or fourth grade, I brought home my report card at the end of one six week period.  I had a couple of A’s, some B’s, and maybe a C or two.  But, the back of the report card was the really scary part.  Because on the back your teacher could make comments and your were given a Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory mark for how you acted.

This was generally called “citizenship” and included things like “Talks to his neighbor” and “Applies himself.”  I remember on this particular report card, the teacher commented, “Chuck isn’t working up to his potential.”  That was about the worst thing a teacher could say, especially to my mother who had been a teacher.  I remember being encouraged to “do my best” and to “work up to my potential” from then on.

I tell that story to say that the Enlightenment did not live up to its potential.  The Enlightenment promised, not literally but implicitly, to solve all the problems of humankind, to reveal the secrets of life, and to improve the quality of all our lives.  But somewhere along the way, the Enlightenment failed to deliver.

Instead of being lifted up by the all the new discoveries of science, humankind seemed to turn even the most extraordinary discoveries into less than noble uses.

As the Industrial Revolution dawned, and the demand for manufactured goods increased, mill owners figured out that children could be employed cheaply.  So, child labor became an issue.  In England, children were employed in mills for a pittance, and made to work 12-18 hours a day.  Working conditions were deplorable, and worker safety and welfare was of no concern.  So the Enlightenment brought mass-produced goods, but at the cost of social disruption, the explotation of children, and the creation of an underclass of millworkers.

Slavery was another example of the use of new technologies, turned to evil purposes.  A 20th century example was the development of atomic energy.  Even the scientists who worked for the US government to harness the power of the atom, creating the atom bomb, immediately realized the potential abuses of that discovery and petitioned the government not to use it for sinister purposes.  The result was Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two cities to be hit by an atomic bomb, and leaving the United States the only country ever to use it.

The Post-Modern Age Emerges

All of that brings us to what some social scientists are calling the Post-Modern Era.  Post-modernism is a reaction against the Enlightenment and the modernity it created.  In other words, Post-modernism questions whether the Enlightenment was really so enlightening after all.

As you might guess, post-modernism questions the achievements and stories of the modern world.  Post-modern thought especially questions claims of absolute truth.  And so any religion or any belief system that claims to have the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is immediately called into question.

Let me give you an example:  Suppose you’re having a conversation with someone who thinks in a post-modern way.  In the course of the conversation, you might casually mention that you’re a Christian — that you believe that God created the world, that mankind has failed to live up to God’s intention, and that God sent Jesus to live, die, and rise again, so that all humankind might know God, love God, and serve God.

If you are talking to a post-modernist, their reply might be something like, “Well, I’m glad that’s true for you, but for me it’s just not true.”  In other words, you can have a belief that you are convinced is true, but your true claims aren’t universal.  They don’t apply to me.

That is the age of post-modernism.  Pilate, the governor of Judea, was ahead of his time — he was a post-modernist before it even existed.

You can imagine the problems this causes.  Let me give you a story that illustrates my point on this 4th of July weekend —

NPR reported that last year on July 1, 2008, Rene Marie, a well-known jazz singer, was asked to sing the National Anthem at Denver’s State of the City address.  The tune she sang was the tune to “The Star-Spangled Banner” but the words were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1899, and titled, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as The Black National Anthem.

Of course, her performance created quite a stir.  Politcians denounced her.  Barack Obama said, “If she was asked to sing the national anthem, she should have sung that,” Obama said. “‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is a beautiful song, but we only have one national anthem.”

But, Rene Marie responded to those who criticized her singing lyrics that were not The Star-Spangled Banner.  Marie received over 1600 emails protesting her choice, some saying that the National Anthem was “sacred.”  Her response was,

“I’ve had so many e-mails,” Marie says, “some of the e-mails saying that ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is sacred. Oh, really. Maybe it’s sacred to you. That’s fine, that’s cool. But it’s not sacred to me. The guy, the dude who wrote it, he’s a slave owner.”

So, here’s an example of two sets of facts — there is only one National Anthem, but apparently Rene Marie believed she was free to choose her own version of The National Anthem that meant something to her.

What Is Truth?

But if two people can’t agree on facts, how will we ever know what is true?  After all, Senator Moynihan was right — you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

Jesus gives us an interesting answer in another passage, also from John’s Gospel.  In John 14:6,

6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Truth isn’t contained in dogma or doctrine, as important as those statements of faith and belief might be to us.  Truth is found in a person, the only person whose life was the embodiment of truth — Jesus.

Jesus did not say, “I’ll teach you the truth.”  Or, “This doctrine is true.” Or, “My theology is true.”

Jesus said, “I am the truth.”

Truth is found in a person, a relationship, not in doctrines or systems.  Doctrines are opinions — they are important opinions, but opinions nevertheless.  Doctrines are the attempts of theologians to make sense of the Bible and apply it to real life.  But, in the end doctrines are opinions.  We’re all entitled to our own, which is why there are so many denominations.

But truth is found in the person of Jesus Christ.  It is found in relationship with Christ.  That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Pilate.  That’s what Jesus did tell the Jewish leaders of his day.  But they held to their version of the truth, because it kept them in power, it kept them in control.

Truth is found in the person of Christ, lived out before humanity, as God’s expression of all that is true and faithful in this world which he created.

Scholars today encourage Christians simply to tell the story of Jesus, and how we have found ourselves in that story.  We do not need to engage in endless debates, trying to prove our faith.  We do not need to call others names, act with hostility, or react with anger when they challenge our beliefs.  We simply have to tell the story, and live out the Truth that we learn in Christ each day.

This table set before us today is a symbol of the Truth of God’s love.  It is real, genuine, redemptive, powerful.  Love that is so true and pure that Jesus gave his life to demonstrate it, to express it for us, and to guarantee it for all creation.

We may disagree on whether or not the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ literally or symbolically, because that is a dogma, a doctrine, an opinion.  But, we cannot disagree on the truth of love, for here is its expression presented before us.