Speaking Justice to a Postmodern Era


I was sitting in a Starbucks with a friend, an agnostic, talking about faith and truth and I told him I could recommend some books on Christianity. “What would you like? An apologetics book on rational reasons for Christianity?”

“Nah, I’m not so interested in that,” he said.

In “worldview-terms,” my friend’s a “postmodernist,” someone who is suspicious of all grand meta-narratives about the world. Even though the two are conceptually distinct, on the popular level, postmodernism can often shade into “relativism,” believing that Truth, with a capital “T,” is relative to the person and that there is no one binding truth.

The standard apologetics training that I’ve received dictates that the proper response to relativism is to demonstrate how it is self-contradictory. The classic move is to “relativize the relativizer,” showing how the statement about truth’s relativity can be turned on itself and exposed as just another relative, truth-claim. If all truths are relative, so is the truth that all truths are relative. The hope is that the relativist would exclaim, “Wow, I’ve been leading an inconsistent worldview all along! Please show me the way.”

The problem with this response is that it assumes people today actually care about having an airtight, logically consistent worldview. It’s always been true that people’s identities and desires often trump worldview consistency, but it’s especially true today, when postmodernism has heightened the stakes of identity claims and eroded our faith in grand intellectual meta-narratives.

If it is not truth, then what do postmoderns value and how do we form an apologetics that begins by paying proper respect to those values? I want to expand on Peter Blair’s post yesterday on “The New Apologetic” by looking out how we should respond to a post-modern world.

When I think of my former classmates at Columbia University who subscribe to relativist views, they certainly do so out of a desire to be their own master, a desire that can be traced to the Garden of Eden. But they also do so out of a sense of injustice, because they associate capital T “Truth” with historical injustice. In the 19th century, it was True that Africans and Asians were somehow less human. In the early 20th century, it was True that women were not to be trusted with voting rights. It is no wonder then that the postmodern tends to suspects an Oz-like wizard behind the flashy projections of “Truth.” The standard apologetics’ explanation for relativism is often traced back to thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, but the real question is why his argument that the powerful define truth begins to seem more and more plausible.

As my friend, Laura, put it: “For me, a key element of the postmodern turn is the marginalized claiming the center.  There is certainly a radical quest for validation, for new voices, for an end to oppression, and yes, for the power to bring these things about by renaming (or displacing) truth and the apparatuses that define it.  But that is not nihilism.  And it isn’t just Nietzsche.  And it won’t go away or be sufficiently met by the Gospel unless we address the heart issues in this culture, not just the philosophical inconsistencies.”

The Gospel is a meta-narrative whose truth is not to be denied, but rather substantiated and backed up, not just by sophisticated arguments for truth and morality, but also by standing for the widow, the fatherless and the orphan, or whoever is weak and powerless amongst us. If not, it will simply be dismissed as just another self-serving Truth.

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About Sarah Ngu

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) graduated in 2012 from Columbia University with a degree in American Studies. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy, and now works in New York, where she is part of the thought leadership team at LRN, a company that advises organizations on values within leadership and culture.

  • Jason Sharbaugh

    Although it ended well, it is like being a mosquito at a nudist colony after reading even some of what Ngu writes. There is so much to dive into in response that it is hard to know where to start. The problem is with the sin of pride and self-serving utility. It is NOT with notions of Truth. Moreover, one can make any claim that wish and state that “historically this has been the case”. That is historical and intellectual cherry-picking or “proof-texting. Relativism, like everything else, can be used in a self-serving manner against others. However, relativism can do nothing to stave off such evil – it is all relative. It is by its very nature self-serving. At least it is so functionally if not always intentionally. Ngu even gives such evidence of its contradictory and self-serving manner by saying that relativists may not even care about logically consistent worldviews. How convenient that is. Also, how intolerant, narrow-minded, and intellectual base it is also. It even makes fundamentalism look pretty solid. I mean evolutionary biology and a whole host of scientific disciplines only make sense if someone cared to think that the text of Genesis was not literal.. Taken altogether, this is the need for Truth. That Truth requires learning and the humility that comes with being educable. Ultimately, truth IS humility and humility IS Truth. This is revealed in the Cross. Both the humility of truth and its quite personal nature – Truth is a person. It is someone whom one can LOVE.

  • John Bonnett

    I agree that an appeal to the contradictory nature of relativism is rarely a powerful counter to its appeal. A more powerful rejoinder is to confront the proponent with its consequent: namely, that if it is true than we have no basis to claim that the Holocaust was a bad thing or even that it happened at all. In many ways the Holocaust is the ultimate counter to the so-called explanations we have for why humans do the things they do, why history unfolds in the way it does, and why humans think in the way they do. Historians have no idea why Nazism took hold of Germany. One social scientific theory after another has been applied and has failed to explain how and why that evil took hold of that country. The danger of relativism is perhaps best illustrated by the case of Hayden White, the author of Metahistory. White argued that “history” as a field of disciplined inquiry was indistinguishable from fiction, in large measure because any given historical reconstruction rests on the historian using his or her own individual judgment to determine how historical evidence should be assembled to create a narrative. Given that process, the truth claims of history cannot be put on a par with that of science, which he claimed was less dependent on the individual judgment of the scientist. History, therefore, is little more than a genre of literature. Eventually, White had to partially backtrack from that extreme position, in part because he recognized the validity of criticisms that his framework undercut any basis for asserting the historical reality of the Holocaust. We play a dangerous game when we play in the sandbox of relativism and postmodernism. I marvel that so many Christians choose to do so.