If you’re new to the conversation or following along, please refer to the initial post announcing this series. There you can see the outline of what has been discussed and what’s ahead.

Situating the Conversation about Absolute/Objective Truth

First of all, it will be helpful here to at the beginning to define and distinguish between what is meant by Absolute Truth and Objective Truth. For the purposes of this discussion, there is basically no difference in meaning between the two concepts from within the grammar which I am calling into question. I’ll elaborate that grammar a bit below, and it will be implicit throughout these posts. There will however, be a somewhat different usage of the sense of Truth later in the discussion. At that time, there will be no more use of the adjectives “Absolute” or “Objective.” The way Truth will be used will be significantly changed, as it will exist within a different grammar. What I mean by “grammar” is a way of speaking, but not just speaking, also a way of being and doing. It refers to a deep connection of life in community – a key concept which will be important in the future discussion. What I see myself as being “up to” in this series of posts is presenting a different grammar, one which better suits Christians in their use of the word “truth” as it will be more faithful to our lives as members of the community of the Church.

The grammar which I intend to call into question, I’ve already called into question on different occasions (primarily here – do read that one for more on what I’m up to – and here). This series of posts will be more elaborate in that regard. I intend to deal with many “basic issues” that undergird some of my published arguments so that my readers (and live conversation partners) can in a sense, “catch up” with some of my thinking. In other words, I’m hoping to lead you along the same path I’ve followed, noting the important stops along the way.

The grammar which I intend to call into question is that of contemporary apologetics. This grammar is shared in many ways with theological methods that might be considered foundationalist.

Foundationalism

In order to describe foundationalism, it is appropriate to use an analogy. If one thinks of mathematics as that field of study which can be practiced anywhere in the world, at any time, by any person, the results would always be the same. If one adds 7 and 9, the answer will always be 16. In the same way, foundationalism, whether in philosophy or theology (since it is a methodology and a system of presuppositions, it works the same in both fields), assumes that as any individual seeks to know the world, by following a particular method, that one will come to the same conclusions at all times and places.

Foundationalism is a doctrine of philosophy – a particular philosophy (some other kinds of philosophy don’t subscribe to the doctrinaire methods of foundationalism). Foundationalism emerged as a way of coming to knowledge of the world in which we could be confident, sure, and without doubt. Thus, the kind of knowledge desired within a foundationalist system is considered indubitable or objective. Indubitable or objective knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is meant to be exactly reflective of the world as it is in itself. This is the model of Rene Descartes. Descartes taught that when the human mind is able to perfectly picture the world “out there” then the individual who is picturing the world in this way is said to have and indubitable or objective view of the world. To arrive at such a view, one must divest oneself of all biases, prejudices, and other social influences that might distort one’s image of the world. Such a disengaged and detached view is said to be objective, rather than subjective, because the individual has no subjective connection or investment in his/her view. Through the methods given by science, the very methods that are supposed to work like mathematics which I noted above, any person, at any time or place is supposed to be able to arrive at exactly the same view of the world, an objective view which is indubitable.

Foundationalism is supposed to be able to arrive at such a view because of its foundational presuppositions: namely, the divestment of one’s particular biases, prejudices, and social influences. The methodology for such divestment is provided by the scientific method, which eventually makes all conclusions open for confirmation by other, non-interested parties, so that all knowledge is thus established authoritatively via the authorized method of study and the authorized means of confirmation.

Foundationalism goes on to view language as that means of construing the world through words. We use words to describe what is out there, and thus, our words are said to correspond to reality. This formulation about words and their direct connection to reality out there is called the correspondence theory of truth. Thus, sentences that are true are said to correspond to reality. When such correspondence is present, such sentences are said to be the Absolute Truth or Objective Truth.

In a synthetic sort of way, the foundations of foundationalism consist of both the methods and mathematical doctrinairity of the view, but also the assumption of the existence of Absolute/Objective truth. All that is left is in fact to proclaim accurately what the Absolute/Objective Truth is. In the case of Christianity then, Christians claim that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth. The challenge is, there is not a universal agreement with this conclusion, which is the assumed end of the methods of foundationalism. This problem will be addressed below.

Foundationalism and Christianity

There has been assumed within Christianity at least since Descartes’ influence became widespread, the necessity to argue for Christian claims using the methods employed by foundationalism. As a result, especially in the 20th Century, Christians have come to claim that they possess the Absolute/Objective Truth. In a sense, what they mean is that any person, if they would only be humble and willing enough to divest themselves of their biases, prejudices, and social influences, would come to the conclusion – via the scientific method, much like a practitioner of mathematics – that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth. Christians go on to validate that claim via biblical passages such as John 14.6 where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Further, Christians then claim that constitutive of being a Christian is believing in the existence of Absolute/Objective Truth. Belief in Absolute/Objective Truth has thus become the newest article of faith within the Christian tradition. Before Descartes, this issue of belief was not a concern. If a person who claims to be a Christian claims to not believe in Absolute/Objective Truth, they are considered to not actually be a Christian but in fact a relativist who is confused about what it means to be a Christian. On an altogether different level, such individuals are considered morally “bad” in some sense because of their belief, and thus dangerous.

Non-(anti-)foundationalism

I noted above that even though Christians assert that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth, there is not a universal agreement of this fact. What we see in the world around us instead is a plurality of views. Foundationalism is an effort a reconciling this disparity. It has been an ongoing effort for the last 300 years or so. Some hold out hope that the world will some day arrive at such an agreement. Others however, are trying to find a way to describe the world around us in a way that makes better sense, and is not confined to the grammar of foundationalism which has a problem with plurality and thus would define all those against its system as a relativist. Those who are against foundationalism reject such a label however, because within their grammar, there is no room for the objectivist/relativist distinction. The question that is posed is, “why do we speak that way?” and should we continue with that grammar?

Foundationalism is an effort at gaining certainty, overcoming doubt, and establishing one view as the truth over and above all others. Foundationalism seeks a secure position so that society can be organized well, judgments about moral issues can be clearly and cleanly worked out, and peace can be maintained. This is the project of the Enlightenment and the modernism of the 20th Century. Many philosophers and theologians have called this project a failure and argue that for internal, philosophical reasons, it was bound to fail. This criticism and diagnosis, along with the fact that there is no actual agreement emerging amongst the people of the world about what the truth of reality really is (or that there is any good reason to hope that at some point there will be such agreement), an alternative to foundationalism has emerged.

The alternative to the above view of foundationalism, or better, a critique of it, is non-foundationalism. A better way of speaking about non-foundationalism is in fact, the concept “anti-foundationalism.” (For those more familiarily with the grammar of this view, making the distinction between non- or anti- isn’t so important). Non-foundationalism, does not in fact, deny the existence of foundations. This is why anti-foundationalism is a better term. Anti-foundationalism denies the presuppositions of foundationalism – that is, it denies that it is in fact possible for anyone to have an unbiased, unprejudiced, unsocialized view of the world. It does not however, deny that there are foundations. In fact, one of its primary claims is that there is a myriad of foundations, almost one per person.

Within the anti-foundationalist program, there is a different grammar about truth. There is no need to speak of Absolute/Objective Truth because there is within anti-foundationalism an overcoming of the subject/object divide. Without getting too complicated, anti-foundationalism has no need for objectivist language because of the claim that all knowledge is situated, contextual, communitarian (a product of and local to individual communities, and shared between them), and provisional. This is an intersubjectivity. Individuals are not knowers of the world outside of their community context. Learning about and knowing the world is radically related to one’s place within a particular community (and people are members of numerous communities at once, which informs one about different elements of reality).

But one might object, regardless, there’s still a “reality out there” and whether or not there are myriad ways of knowing the world, or myriad foundations, still only one is right. That may be true, but there is no way of distinguishing which one that is. There is no way of getting at that view. There is no privileged position. We have the view we have. And we’ve most likely inherited it from our community based on where and when we were born, who are parents are, how we’re educated, etc. However, there’s nothing saying that at some point we might not be convinced of a different way of seeing the world. But, howevermuch we might be so convinced, there is still no way of ever having the certainty of being totally right, possessing the Absolute/Objective Truth. There is no possible way of our language hooking up with reality out there in any sort of correspondence with certainty. There is only our take on reality – a take which emerges from within communities and shaped by narratives, like the Christian narrative. Each take does a better or worse job of capturing our experience of life, thus making them more or less persuasive.

To go even further, the concept of an Absolute/Objective truth is a concept that has emerged from within a particular context. As I mentioned above, it has come to us (we have inherited it) from the Enlightenment, a program designed to rescue us from what has been called “Cartesian anxiety”, the radical doubt that emerged from the myriad voices of religious, political, and cultural authority in the 17th century. In a very real way, that way of thinking “has us”. We have been captured by it.

To situate the concept of Absolute/Objective truth in this way also allows us to situate the concept of relativism. Relativism is merely the flip side of objectivism. Yet, if an anti-foundationalist program has no need for objectivism because it admits of the impossibility of objectivism, then there is no need for relativism. In place of objectivism, there is a radical intersubjectivity, rather than simply a radical subjectivity. There is no such thing as a radical subjectivity because our learning and knowing of the world is based in community. It follows then, that to make a critique of an anti-foundationalist program as relativistic (or subjectivistic, which is related to relativism), is to misunderstand anti-foundationalism and the kind of argument it is trying to make. It is still to remain within a foundationalist program seeking after something that doesn’t exist – the privileged position, the ability to critique every other view, the ability to claim to possess Absolute/Objective Truth. This ability for criticism only works within the logic and grammar of foundationalism. It is argued by means of what is assumed to be self-evident logical conclusion. For example, it is said that to deny the existence of absolute truth is to make a statement of absolute truth.  Such a critique is called the self-referential argument. We’ll discuss this bit about logic, self-evidence, and the self-referential argument in a later post. Needless to say, it only works if the foundationalist program is possible and if its assumptions about how language works are legitimate.

There is a great deal more to say, but this post is already quite long. For now, please consider reading these two articles in addition to this post. They are quite illuminating on the topic. Please, if you wish to post critical comments, do not proceed to do so without reading these articles. If you have questions, read these articles before posting as you may find some answers.

“How Firm a Foundation: Can Evangelicals be Non-foundationalists?”, Rodney Clapp. From The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 81-92.*

“There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s A Good Thing, Too”, Philip D. Kenneson. From Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995), 155-170.*

*I take no responsibility for the possible copyright infringement of these articles. I simply found them to be available through a Google search. I own the books in which they are found, but didn’t want to post pdf copies because of my own copyright concerns.

Advertisements