Is There a “Reality” That Is True? And Can We Know It?

Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – 6

As I wrestle with the ideas of the postmodern thinkers of our day, one of the biggest issues that they bring to the table is the dismissal of “truth.” So far in this series, you can see how some postmodernists see “Reality” as simply a construction of our senses, situatedness, and conceptual languages. This leads some to believe that there is no Reality “out there” at all that we can truly know. Do you see how this is a problem to Christianity? If everyone’s perspective of Reality is merely a social construction, then no one way of describing Reality is true. If there is no one true way of describing this “phantom Reality,” then Christianity’s exclusivist claim to “the Truth” is simply one of many socially constructed ideologies. And if Christianity’s claims are not true, then those who propagate the Christian faith are actually intolerant and may be harmful. How can we Christians go around claiming we have “the Truth” and pass judgment on others as if we know that their perspectives of Reality are “false?”

Now, what I submit as a Christian response to this is something radical for both postmodernists and Christians (and therefore, those postmodernists and Christians who are firmly entrenched in their ways of thinking may not like it, but those who are open to dialogical dispute will hopefully engage it). It is this: Reality and Truth are two different things.

Reality is what is really “out there”—it really exists. There is a Reality that is not merely a conceptual creation, but is an actual creation. In fact, biblical Christians have understood Creation as not merely a “figment of the imagination” (even God’s imagination), but that it is actual, it is out there, and it (very important to note) has a voice. Let me explain.

I really exist. And if you sit in Starbucks with me, and we talk, you will hear my voice. You will hear what I have to say about myself and what I think is important. I will listen to you respond, and I will respond in kind. I am here. I am not just a reality that you have created due to your senses, situatedness, and conceptual languages. I really am here! When we communicate, we come to understand that the other is real.

Now, the Creation really exists. And if you listen to it, you will hear it speak—this, after all, is why Science works. We can learn from the material world and harness its potential in new and exciting ways. But science is not all there is to knowing anything. You cannot come to know me personally through a scientific endeavor (by putting me under a microscope and creating some data sheet on me—"Bob’s 5 foot nine inches tall, married to Linda 12 years, three kids, works for the CCO"). That is not how you get to “know” me. You must listen to my stories in order to know what makes me tick—what has formed me, how I have been changed by my experiences, why I do the things I do.

And you do not come to know the Creation merely through scientific observation. Anyone who has hiked in the mountains or been to the ocean or watched a hummingbird fly from flower to flower or looked up at the vast expanse on a dark starry night knows what I mean when I say that Creation speaks. It is real.

But this is not “Truth.” My perception of this reality is always skewed. My perspective, twisted by my senses, situatedness, and conceptual language, limits my ability to truly hear the voice. I can never say I know Reality truly.

I was a communications major at one point in my college career (don’t ask how long ago!). One thing I remember from those studies is that communication is always hindered because the message gets garbled between the speaker and the listener. And the greatest garbler is the listener’s perspective (There’s nothing new about this—this is a modern scientific observation. Postmodernism simply realizes this as well).

So, if you and I are in Starbucks, and I say something to you about myself (say, that I am a huge football fan), you most likely will misunderstand some part of what I am saying to you (and that misunderstanding is exacerbated if we have different cultural backgrounds, and thus different conceptual languages for Reality! If you were from Europe, you might believe that I love Soccer…and let me assure you that is not the case!). So, we talk back and forth, clarifying, rearticulating, seeking understanding. Why? Because I am real, and I want you to hear my Real Voice.

But in the end, do you know the Truth about me? Have we exhausted all that there is to know about me? Did you understand what I was explaining to you perfectly? No, no and no. You know in part, but you do not know in whole. You do not know the Truth.

That is the difference between Reality and Truth.

I can affirm that there is Reality out there if I hear its voice. I can get closer to understanding that Reality as I enter into dialogue with it. But I must realize that I am never going to know that Reality perfectly. Reality and Truth are two different things; and between now and Eternity, that is the way things are.

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Index of this series: Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity



mark said...

great stuff here..good to talk through a lot of this!

my only concern is your exclusive use of "I" throughout this. Not only does the "I" hear the "other" through skewed interpretation, this always takes place in the dynamic of community. So how do we determine what is closest to the reality out there? Communal interpretation..

But of course there are those who would argue that our rhetoric or claims about reality do in fact lead reality itself. Dr. Brueggemann would always give the example of a dad who always prayed "Father, God" every night for 20 years. Then one night, he prayed "Mother, God." Did that speech act change God? change God for that family? How can we know the difference?

excellent conversation here!



Bob Robinson said...

Great point, Mark, about the importance of communal interpretation. The "I" in my example is used as a rhetorical device, that "I" exist, and "I" can speak and "I" want to be known.

What I'm driving at with the "I" will be revealed in my next post (you're probably guessing who the ultimate "I" is that wants to be known!).

Bob said...

I was reading an article by Dallas Willard about a postmodern philosophy of truth. It was w-a-a-a-a-a-y over my head but I did glean something from it.

He talked about a perceived truth and a Truth that exists above our perception. I can believe there is enough gas in my car. For me that is truth. But, when I run out of gas, my perception of truth runs into reality. Now my truth is shown to be falsehood. The Truth is: I don't have enough gas.

The thing that resonated with me was the idea that there is a Truth out there that will exist (and does exist) whether I believe it or not. It is independent of my believing it.

It is only when our beliefs (what we think to be true) match up to reality that we find Truth.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for the link. I'm going to read that Willard aticle.

My point, though, might be missed: The difference between "Reality" and "Truth."

I like to differentiate the two, for the sake of eliminating equivocation. What you're calling the "Truth that exists above our perception," I'm calling Reality.

You see, "Truth," in the Modern mindset is a set of propositions I can say about Reality that I can confidently believe correspond to that Reality. Postmoderns call into question anybody's ability to articulate "Truth" that corresponds to "Reality." And some go so far as to say there is no Reality.

I'm saying there is a Reality, but I cannot properly conceptualize it with language. Therefore, I have to be chaste about my speaking about "Truth."

Scot McKnight said...

This is fair enough, but whether one is a soft pomo or critical realist, our language does carry the capacity to strike home with Truth so that what we know is true even if not total truth. (But, the issue is not really "true truth" vs "partial truth" but whether all of truth is merely linguistic.)

Good set of posts, Bob.

just tryin' said...

Lesslie Newbigin's book, "The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society" gave me a great framework to consider these questions.

Tim Temple said...

This whole discussion has an atheist assumption built into it. What is true is finally determined by the One who has the last say on the issue. Until that Last Day, you can play with fantasy -- but since you don't know when that Last Day is, you need to stay in congruence with the One who has the last say. Seeking truth becomes an exercise in finding the One with the last say.

In Buddhism, "All is illusion," to mentally disconnect with your suffering. This is just 'stuffing' the issue into the subconscious which will express it in other ways with no moral restraint.

In Hinduism, "since I am part god, I can believe things into existence." They believe they are the creators of "truth." When suffering comes and they can do nothing about it, their faith in themselves also suffers.