Thursday, July 14, 2005

Emergent and the Role of Truth

Much is being said recently about the Emergent movement and the concept of truth, and I am not quite sure what to make of all of it. What I am gaining a better appreciation for, though, is that their needs to be more clear philosophical thinking brought into the discussion. Many emergent bloggers note that people seem to be speaking past each other on this topic and therefore not understanding each other, and that is certainly true. And while there are plenty of Emergent leaders affirming the importance of truth, there are also several “iffy” things being asserted about truth by plenty of other emergents. By no means would it be proper to claim guilt by association, but it would behoove us all to engage in some directed discussion.

There are, for example, a lot of broad and sweeping statements out there about capital “T” Truth as opposed to our articulation of truth. What that may mean, if we are to be precise, is that many emergents are affirming an absolute, or objective sense of truth, but denying a significant epistemological grasp of Truth. It is common for emergent writers to emphasize our “cultural captivity” and point out that we cannot assert anything without it being a result of our cultural influences. Is this a form of relativism, specifically epistemological relativism? It certainly borders on it, and if it is not (as many emergents state), then there needs to be some clarification on the usefulness and role of Truth if we cannot have an adequate epistemological grasp of it. In other words, if emergents want to hold to a deep role for our cultural captivity and the reality of metaphysical truth all at the same time, a significant relationship between the two needs to be clarified. Otherwise, metaphysical truth becomes irrelevant. I do not believe one can claim we are bound by our cultures in this kind of way and then simply assert the reality of metaphysical truth without clarifying what they mean by both assertions.

And this is exactly what I have worried about in the past. I am concerned that emergent thought is too comfortable with pomo philosophy without fully comprehending its consequences. As an example of its consequences, Richard Rorty, a pomo philosopher, has clearly seen and wholeheartedly adhered to epistemological and cultural relativism and the consequential irrelevance of metaphysical truth. He in fact labels his view “antirepresentationalism”: the point is not that metaphysical truth does not exist, the point is that we cannot and do not reflect it, and therefore it is utterly unpragmatic and thus irrelevant. So what naturally follows is that we cannot judge between right and wrong, and in a Christian context, we cannot judge between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. “Christ died for your sins” is then neither true nor false in an objective sense. In fact, “Christ died” suffers the same fate. Not a position a Christian should be in.

In my next couple of posts I will be responding to some of what I am seeing out there on the blogosphere when it comes to the Emergent movement, truth, and epistemological relativism. I think a good place to begin will be to address the issue of certainty and being “bound” by our cultures (a connection between objective truth and our grasp of it). Hopefully we can all bring a little clarification and direction to the discussion.


Susan said...

Found your blog via Doug Groothuis' new blog. Your statemtent, I am concerned that emergent thought is too comfortable with pomo philosophy without fully comprehending its consequences. is dead on. I look forward to reading more. I also appreciated your link to the Peterson article in CT.
-Susan Arnold

The Dawn Treader said...


Spot on. I came to the same conclusion back (epistemological relativism) during the McLaren - Colson letter exchange a year ago.

The irony is, how does an emergent know there is metaphysical truth if we are truly trapped behind our cultural biases? They are asserting we cannot know true truth. My question is, if that is true, then how do you know true truth even exists?

In pragmatic terms, the end result is the same as saying there is no truth.

Of course, epistemological relativism is just has self-refuting as metaphysical relativism, for how can you know that you cannot know true truth ... in other words, is it true truth that one cannot know true truth ... if it is, how is it that we know it?

It is a tangled mess. The e.c. folks, imo, are trying really hard to make Christianity less offensive. It feels highly offensive in our culture to tell someone else, "you are wrong." The thing is, truth, by its nature, is exclusive.

What the e.c. folks are bringing to the surface is that our manner in presenting true truth may need to be more winsome and humble.

- Jeff

jpu said...

i ran smack into this with Scot Mcknight in my post Dallas Willard on truth despite post modernism and caught him contradicting himself.

Phil Steiger said...

Sue-Thanks for your thoughts, and it was good to run into your blog as well. Good luck with the degree at Denver. I graduated from the M.A. Phil of Religion program in 2000, and I consider it one of the best experiences I have had.

Jeff-It is good to hear from you again! I have found it to be an odd kind of catch-22 with these issues and Emergent. They make assertions with heavy-duty philosophical and theological consequences and then when they are "called to account" for what they have said, they retreat behind the veil of humility. That approach tends to make them look virtuous and kind to their supporters, and it always makes their detractors look like evil and narrow-minded trolls.

Well, someone has to be the troll...

jpu-I saw that entry on your blog and I am looking forward to reading through it all. I am a big fan of Willard.

C Grace said...

Linked here from Tom Gilson's site over at the Thinking Christian. It seems to me that a lot of what the EC is saying is good and corrects some faults modern evangelicals have tended to fall into. But their ideas on language and culture, as far as I can understand them, seem dangerous. I am looking foward to your next posts on this.