Must We Use “Reason” in Order to Know the “Truth?”

Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – 5

Another hallmark of postmodernity is the critique of the Enlightenment reliance on “Reason” or “Rationality” as the objective and neutral arbitrator of the truth.

As Christians, I feel that we must affirm that any attempt to “know reality” is futile through the use of Reason or Rationality. Reason and Rationality are constructions of a Western mindset—and it is presumptuous for us to believe that our ideas can be accurate descriptions of Reality if we strictly adhere to some arbitrary “rules of logic” in order for our ideas to directly correspond with reality.

“But,” some Christians counter, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ You can’t get around that. He is telling us that there is absolute truth—He says, ‘the truth!’”

But (with a hat tip to Doug Paggit), here are some other things Jesus said he is in the Gospel of John:

  • “I am the bread of life”
  • “I am the light of the world.”
  • “I am the gate.”
  • “I am the good shepherd.”
  • “I am the resurrection and the life.”
  • “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
  • “I am the vine.”
So, it seems to me that Jesus is using language to convey to us ideas about who he is as a person. He is not telling us that there is some ontological “bread” or “gate” or “vine” that I must epistemologically know through objective reason. He is instead conveying to us words that lead us toward who he is—not perfectly (for language is incapable of creating a one-to-one correspondence to Reality and must always be interpreted within the constraints of my linguistic context), but metaphorically.

When Jesus says that he is the “truth,” it’s a metaphor for something more complex and more relational—like the metaphors of bread, light, gate, shepherd, resurrection, way, life, and vine. He is “the way, the truth, and the life”—in other words, Jesus is the revealer of how to get to God, the author of life.

Now with that said, what about "objective truth?" Isn’t our modernist desire to believe in “Truth” (as in an objective, rationally arrived at “truth” that is “out there” to be discovered), really idolatry? Where in Jesus’ words do we hear that in order to “know truth,” we must objectively use the rules of reason?

Jesus simply says that he is the truth. And elsewhere Jesus also says that if you are one of his disciples, you “will know the truth, and the truth will set you free?” What kind of "knowledge" was Jesus talking about? Was he saying that the knowledge that comes through Reason will set you free, or something else?

The point is this: Jesus is calling us not into knowledge through a modern epistemology (that seeks a scientific understanding in which we objectively learn "truth" verifiable through the rules of reason and science).

He is calling us into a knowledge that has a postmodern (and premodern) epistemology (that seeks to humbly understand not propositions but a person, and also embraces the problem of really knowing a person because we are limited by our humanity, our language and our perspective). It is premodern in that it is a “knowledge” that resembles the Hebrew word yada—the intimate kind of knowledge between persons. It is postmodern in that it is a knowledge not of propositions legitimated by Reason but a knowledge of a person that speaks and we are to listen. And it is Christian in that we place our faith in the truth of the person of Christ, not in the truth of a philosophy of Reason (one is called “faith;” the other is called “idolatry.”)

Jesus knows our limitations to really know—so he pours on the layers of metaphors as to who he is—different perspectives that give clues to his reality (“bread,” "light," “gate,” "shepherd," "resurrection," “way,” “truth,” “life,” “vine,” etc.)

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

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Anonymous said...

Bofore you call the rules of logic "aribtrary" I recomend researching where they come from. You may find it enlightening.

Bob Robinson said...

Who are you? I don't usually dialogue with Anonymous posters.

Could you elaborate? Where do you think the rules of logic come from? Enlighten me.

bj woodworth said...

Bob I have been told by a number of people that I need to hook up with so I have been checking out your blog secretely for a few weeks and have finally decieded to post. I am a CCO alumni planting a chruch in Pittsburgh called the Open Door.

I am discussing on the I AM sayings in October and November so I found your post well stated and timeley as I am gathering info to let steep and marinate in my heart as I prepare. I have enjoyed your series on postmodernism and am glad ther is another generously orthodox, missional emergent pomo literate thinker in the CCO ranks. I look forward to meeting you sometime!

Eric said...

Have no fear in a dialogue with an anonymous poster. It is part of the essence of pomo. It seems anon is asking you to clarify what you mean by "arbitrary". That seems to be a fair question/request.
Help anon out in compassion and anon may reveal anons-self. Demand from anon answers out of your own need to know and you may castigate one whom God loves deeply.

burttd said...

I think the idea that "anon" may be driving at is that the rules of logic and human thought originate in the mind and character of God.

I think there is truth in this. I also think that because we are fallen, we cannot have the same assurance of the "absoluteness" of our deductions that God would have in His. It is a sad, but true, fact that our use of logic is subordinate to prior desires - ego, presuppositions, ad infinitum. Peruse any argument about theology on the Web, and you'll see the obviousness of this truth...

lyricano said...

and burttd reveals the problem (for a postmodern christianity); (whether Reason is believed to originate with God, Plato, or Nature) the subjectiveness of every perspective leads to ever-shifting and interrelating subjectivities that leave no ground upon which to privelege a particular perspective. Truths are subjective--there is no single Truth. Claiming there is Truth is merely another will to power like every other truth-claim. We may of course prefer our own vantage point, but that is cause to be wary, not to claim universal truth.

Bob Robinson said...

burttd and lyricano both "reveal the problem:"
There is a lot of talk about "this is the truth about 'truth'"--which reveals that while we cannot know truth absolutely, there is a truth toward which we can move.
(There is a "Reality" that we can know in part, but not universally).

Joel Haas said...


It seems that the "enlightening knowledge" you wish to impart to us about the nature of truth is quite hypocritical... (in my humble discernment)

It almost seems as though you are excercising your "will to power" over all those who claim to know "objective truth" ...

It seems that your objective truth about the subjectivity of truth has power over all other views of truth...

It's all very interesting...

Parádoxo said...

Let's see if this gets an answer, seeing as I'm twelve years late, on a defunct blog...
@Bob Robinson:
The Anonymous poster you refused to dialogue with was right that the laws of logic are not arbitrary, although I can't claim to know where he thinks they came from.
The answer I would give for their "origin" is that the laws of logic are statements about the nature of existence itself. That suffices to explain why they are universal--they apply to everything that either does exist or could exist, which of course means everything. As for how we know about them, the Scholastic answer is that the first thing a mind apprehends when it perceives anything is being. One might also answer that all language games must assume these same laws in order to function at all, and therefore even if we do not know that they apply to reality, we find that they are not arbitrary, but grounded in a pragmatic necessity. Having gone through your posts up to this point, there are other criticisms I have, but they are secondary to my concern here, and raising them won't matter if you decide not to answer.