August 25, 2004
“No Place for Truth”
Dr. Derek W. H.
Turn with me if you would to the Gospel of John, chapter
eighteen, and especially verse 38. And it’s a verse that’s very familiar to all
of you, this question which Pilate puts ostensibly to Jesus, but perhaps also to
others who are listening amongst the Praetorian Guard and other officers of the
Roman legion within hearing, as Pilate has had this debate with Jesus as to what
kingship and kingdom actually means. And Jesus has just said, “You say that I
am a king. For this purpose I am born, and for this purpose I have come into
the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens
to my voice.” And then Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” Since Pilate asked
that question philosophers and quasi-theologians, and these days almost
everybody is asking the same question: “What is truth?”
We are continuing a short summer series entitled
“What in the World Are You Thinking?” and I’ve been assigned this particular
task of looking at this issue of truth, and a title “No Place for Truth.” The
title, I have to say, is borrowed, stolen from the title of a book, and you’ll
see it in our bookstore. There are several copies there which Doug has ordered
for your perusal, and possibly purchase, by one of our most able theologians of
our time. I regard him as one of the best commentators on where the church is
at the end of the twentieth- early twenty-first century: a book by David Wells,
a big white book titled, No Place for Truth. It’s a gripping and
disturbing analysis of the church in the late twentieth century. It’s not a
“comfort zone” book. It’s not a book to cheer you up if you’re feeling a little
depressed and you want something to cheer you up. It will thoroughly discourage
you. But it’s a book that’s most essential to read.
Our world, yours and mine, is one of fixed
values, fixed points. It’s one in which we have a solid base on which we build
our worldview. Our base, of course, is the Bible, the Scriptures. We’ll be
coming to that next week. We believe things like “the grass withers, the flower
fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” We live in a world like the one
(you and I, that is) that Jesus spoke of when He said, “heaven and earth will
pass away, but My words will never pass away.”
But the world out there is a world described like
Isaiah described in the seventh century BC when he described the world in which
he lived in Jerusalem: “The truth has stumbled in the streets.” And likewise
Jeremiah spoke similarly, also about Jerusalem: “Truth has perished. It has
vanished from their lips.”
One of the more conservative but secular
commentators on the West was the social commentator from the former Soviet
Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote a
very famous book, The Gulag Archipelago. And he’s describing the West,
the world in which you and I have lived all of our lives: “Truth,” he says,
“eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving
the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it.” It’s what Solomon says,
actually, in the book of Proverbs: “Buy the truth,” Solomon says in one of the
Proverbs, “and do not sell it.” Buy the truth and do not sell it.
I. Well, let me ask a question.
Can we know the truth?
Let’s begin by asking this question: can
we know the truth? It’s a very simple question, but actually it’s a very
profound question. It’s one that philosophers and theologians have wrestled
with and continue to wrestle with for centuries; many, of course, giving the
answer that truth (if there is such an entity as truth) cannot possibly be known
by mortal men and women, finite beings like ourselves. It would be interesting
what Aristotle or Plato, or Emanuel Kant, or Ludwig Wittgenstein, or whoever,
that some of our college students may well be studying and asking some of us
some questions about. It would be interesting to examine what they have said
concerning truth–whether there is such a thing as truth, and whether, if there
is such a thing as truth, it can be known.
But I don’t want to go down there, and neither do
you. So let’s go to the movies! Let’s go to the movies, and let’s see
what’s on. And what’s on is The Matrix. The Matrix by the
Wachowski brothers. They’re thoroughly Post-Modern.
Now, what’s the plot? If you haven’t seen the
movie, I’m about to ruin it all for you! But the plot is that artificial
intelligence has created a computer construct, The Matrix. And it’s a construct
of our present world, and through a hardwire directly into the back of your
brain, in reality these humans are being kept in incubators, and the energy
that’s being produced from these humans is being used as the power source for
this artificial intelligence. In other words, what’s The Matrix all
about? It is that you don’t know the answer to what is real. What is real?
Because all the while you may think that the world in which you live is the real
world, but actually the world in which you live is only make-believe. It’s a
dream. What is true is not what you think it is. It’s hard, it’s difficult, it
may well be impossible to know the truth. Truth is an illusion.
Now, some of you will tell me that in Parts II and
III of The Matrix it’s all different, and I don’t want to know because I
haven’t watched them and I don’t intend to watch them. I was just content with
using the first one as the illustration of a thoroughly Post-Modern view of the
world, a world that we don’t know what is true.
Well, let’s turn on the radio instead. And
who’s playing on the radio? Madonna. She is the icon of our time. She
personifies our age: a self-created persona undergoing perpetual change. In her
world there are no fixed points, there are no boundaries. Everything is fluid,
there are no structures of meaning that transcend personal preference. If there
is such a thing as truth, nobody has exclusive claim to it. If it exists at
all, and that’s very doubtful, it is a chameleon and it takes on different
shapes, and different colors, and different hues, depending on the context.
We’ve been talking about worldviews, and in
particular contemporary worldviews. And we’ve been calling it
“Post-Modernity.” Now, Post-Modernity is actually a very difficult word to
describe, and we’ve been taking some liberties to be sure in this series for the
sake of what this series is intended to be.
But what is Post-Modernity? Let’s just remind
ourselves briefly of what it is. And just like some Christians are better at
criticism than compliment, so Post-Modernity is best described in terms of what
it’s against rather than what it’s for. And what it’s against, of course, is
Modernity. What’s it’s against is the philosophy that existed from basically the
beginning of the seventeenth century until —there’s debate, but let’s say the
1950’s or so–the lifetime of most of us.
We all sang that wonderful hymn 181, and the last
stanza talked about presenting our usefulness to God, and we were all singing it
with great gusto, I noticed, so it’s the lifespan of all of us. That’s what
Post-Modernity is opposed to. This is what we confront: the notion
that all truth, even to some extent, scientific knowledge is biased and socially
constructed. The truths are relative truths, if they exist at all, are
The forefather of some of this has often been said
to be Friederich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who lived in the latter half
of the nineteenth century and spawned this disbelief as to the reality and the
know-ability of truth. Nietzsche said humans have no access to reality, that
everything is just a matter of perspective. In fact, Nietzsche said there is no
such thing as a true world. Now, Nietzsche died in insanity, and there may well
be a lesson in that.
Now, other contemporary academics like, say, the
French philosopher Jacques Derrida, basically watered down Nietzsche’s ideas and
devised a method of sorts which we sometimes call “de-construction.” Basically
it’s like this: that truth is like Play-Doh®; that you can shape it and mold it
and pull it and squash it, depending on the mood that you happen to be in.
You’ve all been in a context, whether you’ve never heard of Drerida or
whoever… you’ve all been in a context where you’ve asserted something that you
think is true, that you think is fact, that it has a solid base and foundation,
and you’ve had the wind taken out of your sails because somebody has said to
you, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This person is living in a world
where there is no such thing as true truth. It’s just Play-Doh ® and you’ve
happened to pull the Play-Doh® in this shape. But they can come along and pull
the Play-Doh ® into another shape.
I remember several years ago–twenty-five, thirty
years ago–I picked up one of Derrida’s books, The Ear of The Other. And
he was trying to deconstruct a passage from Nietzsche. I couldn’t get past the
first chapter. Actually, if truth be told and I show my utter ignorance, I
actually couldn’t get past the first page. It was Post-Modernity. It’s the
entire style of the book, he plays with words, and he plays with sentences, and
he plays with the reader. And he’s trying to say to you, “See, stupid, language
is malleable and can be constructed in a variety of ways.”
II. Now, Post-Modernity has
affected every discipline of life.
Whether you’ve studied architecture at
college–and we’ll come to that in a second–or whether you’ve studied history at
college, or whether you studied art or music, or English literature, theology–no
matter what it is that you’ve studied–law at college–all of it to some extent
or another has been affected by this poison of Modernity: But there is no such
thing as truth, all you have is the text, and you can make that text to mean
whatever you want it to mean in that particular context.
I suppose it offends us the most in the area of
history. Books are written now deconstructing history, saying you can never
be sure of what happened in the past. You know, what happened at the Battle of
Bunker Hill? You can never know that now. Did four and a half million Jews
lose their life in the Second World War? Deconstructionists have come and said
you can’t know the answer to that anymore. Did six million Russians lose their
lives on the Russian front in 1943-44-45? Deconstructionists will tell you that
you can never know the answer to that anymore. It’s terribly, terribly
You can see what that does to something like
Christianity, because Christianity is based on fact. It’s based on history.
It’s based on the incarnation of Jesus. It’s based on the fact that He lived on
the sands of Palestine. It’s based on such things as he died on the cross of
Calvary, He rose again from the grave. Can we know the truth? That’s the
issue. And the answer that comes from Post-Modernity that’s been brewing for a
hundred years and has been bubbling over and boiling over the last thirty or
forty years is that, no, we cannot. You can never know the truth. You might
think that you know the truth, but it’s just your truth. It’s just your
Well, so much for all of that. How does all of that
show itself in the world in which you and I live? And let me suggest some
things. And I want us to address the question, asking ourselves how this
worldview affects the world in which you and I live. And it affects it along
several lines of thought.
III. How this worldview affects the world in which you
and I live
First of all, it affects ministers of the gospel.
I’m not talking about ministers of the gospel here at First Presbyterian
Church, you understand, although you do need to make sure that they’re not
affected by these things. But I’m speaking generally now. Ministers of the
gospel, ministers who have been trained in seminaries up and down the land of
the United States of America, and Europe and Canada and elsewhere, have been
thoroughly immersed, washed, in the philosophy of Post-Modernity.
Now some of you are tempted to think that this is
the kind of thing that academics talk about, and that’s why Jim Moore and Mr.
Cannada and others–higher seminary professors like Ligon and myself–write about
and justify our salaries, and that has absolutely nothing to do with you. And
I’m saying to you it has everything to do with you. It has absolutely
everything to do with you. Liberalism, or to be more precise, syncretism has
crept into the church of Jesus Christ. It’s everywhere.
You all saw it in the Washington Cathedral, your
national cathedral, after 9/11. You saw it. It was a moment of immense emotion,
and it was hard to be critical of anything after 9/11. But there it was:
syncretism. Christianity and Islam, and Native American religion, and a bit of
Zen Buddhism thrown in, and a dash of this and a dash of that, and we’re all
together and we’re all brothers in arms, and there is no such thing as true
truth anymore, because there’s a little bit of truth (if there is such a thing
as truth) in everybody and in everything, and in every philosophy.
And so you can have, in the church of Jesus Christ,
you can have people worshipping Sophia.1, 2 And if you want to
know more about that, ask Brister Ware, because he’s our resident expert on
those who worship Sophia. It’s terribly alarming. It’s terribly, terribly
disturbing, because as people will say–and so-called Christians will sometimes
say–well, who can know the truth anyway? People who say things like that are
thoroughly, thoroughly programmed by the philosophy of Post-Modernity. Who
hasn’t encountered those who accuse us here at First Presbyterian Church of
being elitist, discriminatory, and judgmental because we hold certain things to
be true and certain things to be false? People who believe in a system of truth
become those who are judged by those who don’t believe any truth at all. (Isn’t
that interesting, by the way? That they believe everything is true except what
you believe. Now watch for that, because that’s always the Achilles heel of
Listen to CNN, or some other channel, and how
they describe conservative evangelical Christianity. They will always
label it “fundamentalism”, because that’s very useful, because fundamentalism is
a bad word, because you associate fundamentalism with Islam and with
terrorists. So fundamentalist Islamists is a bad thing; and by association,
we’re lumped in with them.
You see it in the church. You see it in
ministers of the church, and you see it in the syncretism that creeps slowly but
surely into the church and distorts what’s true and what’s false. And the words
of Jesus, “I am the way and the truth and the life, and no man comes unto the
Father but by Me,” becomes offensive.
You see it in lifestyles. The buzz-term now
is “sexual preference.” It’s such an offensive word to me, “sexual preference,”
because all of a sudden sexuality is removed from the arena of ethics and morals
and is purely a matter of choice. So you can’t judge anybody’s “sexual
preference.” It’s a matter of taste. I like Bruckner and you like Bananarama.
I like coffee and you like cocaine. (I’m not speaking about anybody in here!)
When there’s no truth as such, you can’t make
pronouncements about homosexuality. You can’t do that. You can’t make
pronouncements about women in office in the church. It’s a direct result of the
loss of confidence in what is true and what is false, and where truth can be
So meet Michael Foucault. He’s French, he was born
in 1913, raised by his grandparents. His parents died whilst he was a
teenager–his father in the First World War or just a little after it. He
becomes, after a considerable length of time, he becomes the successor to Paul
Tillich, who was the professor of theology at Chicago University. And he died
in 1984 of AIDS. He was a practicing homosexual all of his life. And Foucault,
who’s in some quarters not too far from here–if you remove that window and just
go across the road a little, he’d be regarded as one of the leading philosophers
of the twentieth century, a man of considerable ability–wrote some of the most
intense books imaginable on the human will. And Foucault says he rejects that
there’s any such thing as external truth or human nature with a sense of
“ought,” a category of “ought.” Ethics, morals, is just how things happen to
work in a given system. You can’t judge someone else’s behavior as to whether
it’s right or wrong.
Now the interesting thing about Foucault is that
he’s always condemning certain things. And he was always condemning asylums.
That was one of his concerns, because people were locked away in asylums,
especially in his youth, for being homosexual. So he was concerned about that
issue of society. There’s no such thing as a moral base, there’s no such thing
as truth, there’s no such thing as absolute certainty, but he had absolutes to
the extent that he was willing to judge others for not having the same
absolutes. He was borrowing capital, do you see, that he could never repay.
But let’s come nearer home. And you’ll see that in
the church. Now I’m talking about the church that you and I live. I
received an e-mail yesterday from a minister in the Presbyterian Church of
America, in another state and in another presbytery, in which he made the
pronouncement that adultery is rife in this presbytery, and that nobody is doing
anything about it. Now there may be a thousand reasons for that, but I
guarantee that one of the reasons that that is so, is because
people–Christians–yes, conservative Christians,
Bible-so-called-believing-Christians–little by little, drip, drip, drip, are
losing confidence in the truth: in what’s right, in what’s morally right and
what’s ethically sound, and what Jesus in fact condemns.
Jim Packer says that the flow of Post-Modernism in
Western culture is a kind of Niagara Falls beating on top of your head telling
you “what I feel is all that counts, because what I feel is all there is.”
Now I think you see it in the cultural pessimism
that exists in our society. You see it in some dark movies, and I speak from
borrowed capital here. I don’t watch dark, pessimistic movies. Don’t
misunderstand me. But I think you see it, and especially in the realm of art
and you see it, I think, in the realm of architecture. I was reading just a few
days ago a wonderful book, and I do recommend this one by Ravi Zacharias: Can
Man Live Without God? It’s a wonderful, wonderful read. It’s a lazy read,
it won’t put you off at all. This is a very contemporary–most of you know Ravi
Zacharias, one of the best speakers on apologetic themes, perhaps, of our time.
And he mentions a visit that he made to Ohio State University campus, and his
tour guide began singing the praises of the Wexner Center for Performing Arts,
which Newsweek called “the first deconstructionist building.” You can go
to the internet and you can see these pictures, very natty design…you can just
click and these pictures will appear one after another of the inside of the
Wexner Center for Performing Arts at Ohio State University campus. And in this
building there are staircases that lead nowhere, into empty space; there are
pillars that hang suspended from the ceiling. The architectural theme seems to
be a series of geometrical non sequiturs. And Zacharias writes, and it’s quite
funny. The architect, we are duly informed, designed this building to reflect
life itself: senseless and incoherent, and the capriciousness of the rules that
reflect life itself. “And when the rationale was explained to me,” Zacharias
says, “I had just one question. Did the architect do the same with the
foundation? And the answer of course is absolutely not!” It’s just another
example of the parasitic nature of modern, contemporary thought.
Well, let me come nearer home again. Where might we
see a loss of confidence in truth here in First Presbyterian Church? And I have
to hold my breath now, as I traverse down this little road, because I think I
would be less than honest to my Savior if I didn’t try and bring this right
home, and see if a little bit of this Post-Modernity in the world hasn’t
actually affected us.
What happens when you lost confidence in the truth?
I think one of the things that happens in the church is that the church loses
confidence in doctrine. In doctrine. What are people reading today? What are
you reading today? I am not talking about the best-seller that sells ten
million copies, that’s perhaps more full of cappuccino froth than anything else;
I’m talking about substantial books that teach you the solid foundations of the
faith. Have you read one such book in the last twelve years? Now, I have to
tell you that your forefathers did. In the age of your forefathers in the
nineteenth century and in the eighteenth century in New England, books of great
substance on the value of Christian doctrine sold by the truckload.
I think it’s one of the more disturbing aspects of
the time in which you and I live that we are frightened of books that contain a
little meat and a little substance, but some of you have been saying to me in
the last few weeks “you can’t live on lettuce alone.” It’s what Brad, I assume,
was saying to you about the value of J. Greshem Machen, and Greshem Machen’s
wonderful book, Christianity and Liberalism. That’s why he wrote the
book! Those who are afraid of doctrine, Greshem Machen says in that book, have
to throw away the Apostle Paul. And if you throw away the Apostle Paul, you
throw away the very heart of the gospel message itself.
Now, what’s the key to church growth? And what’s
the key to church life? And I think if you asked, Paul would say it begins with
truth and doctrine. And I think if you asked Jesus he would say it begins on
the solid foundation of truth and doctrine.
But I will close with this little illustration. I
was coming back from London last Friday on the plane, sitting next to a young,
smart twenty-three-year-old merchant navy navigator, who is one of those dressed
in white on those cruise liners that some of you take to the Bahamas and off to
Australia or wherever it is you go. And I said to him, because my late
brother-in-law was also a navigator on board one of those ships, and we began a
conversation and I said to him, “I’m sure you’re surrounded by all the latest
gadgetry in computers and global positioning satellite things to tell you where
this ship is at any one time.” And he said, “Yes, of course. But,” he said, “I
don’t trust them.” A twenty-three-year-old! And a child of our time and our
age, and he says, “No, I still go out every night and look for the stars, just
to confirm where I am.”
And I thought, well, isn’t that an illustration
about Post-Modernity. Because at the end of the day, we don’t trust these
things, and we trust the fixed points, and the fixed point that we trust in is
the word of God, and that word which is enfleshed in Jesus Christ, and that word
which was written down and inscripturated between the covers of Genesis and
Revelation. And more of that next week.
Please stand with me. Let’s pray together.
Father, we thank You for this time we have together
these Wednesday evenings as we do something a little different. Looking at
these worldviews, Father, we are concerned at the age in which we live, but we
are also concerned about our own hearts. So keep us, keep us ever close to
Yourself, but make us, we pray, each one, students of Your word, who love Your
truth, and who uphold it every day of our lives. We ask it for Jesus’ sake.
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