How do we know what we know? Where are real answers to be found? Many of these questions are part of the emerging experience of contemporary thought, which is often termed: “postmodernism.”
In the postmodern world, people are no longer convinced that knowledge is certain, objective, or good. Behind the idea of the inherent good of all knowledge was a myth of inevitable progress. But after two world wars and countless other human-made atrocities, this myth began to wear thin. “Members of the emerging generation,” writes Stanley Grenz, “are no longer confident that humanity will be able to solve the world’s great problems or even that their economic situation will surpass that of their parents.”1
More importantly, postmodernism no longer sees truth as purely rational. Rather, truth is understood in a more holistic fashion. In other words, postmodernists claim that there are other valid paths to knowledge besides reason.
Finally, contrary to the modernist view of knowledge as objective, postmodern thought sees the world as much more relational and interdependent. “Knowledge cannot be merely objective, say the postmoderns,” writes Grenz, “because the universe is not mechanistic and dualistic but rather historical, relational, and personal. The world is not simply an objective given that is ‘out there,’ waiting to be discovered and known; reality is relative, indeterminate, and participatory.”2
Postmoderism is perceived by some as a threat to Christianity because it tends to view all truth as relative to one’s personal experience. It sees truth as socially constructed. But there is a difference between saying that there is no absolute truth and saying that absolute truth cannot be known absolutely. Some postmodern theorists contend that there is no absolute truth, in knowledge or in essence. Others argue that there may be absolutes in the universe, but humanity’s absolute knowledge of these is always contingent and relative.
When it comes to Christian theology and practice, we encounter major problems with the idea that absolute truth does not exist. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions all hold that there is a God and that God is absolute. There is no problem, however, for Christian theology to say that absolute truth cannot be known absolutely. In recent years some in the Christian community have realized that this kind of humility is precisely the thing we need and indeed required by the teachings of the Bible. Indeed, one key feature of postmodern thought is precisely this humility. Our postmodern context today requires us to be tentative in our truth claims and rock solid in our practice of our faith.
Postmodern philosophy says that the universe is profoundly interactive, that, contrary to Isaac Newton’s thought, the universe is not like a machine. New developments in science suggest that the universe is far less predictable and more beautiful than we had previously imagined. Therefore, says postmodernism, we can know things experientially. Our experience of life and the world carries real knowledge.
The Bible teaches that faith is essential to knowing the truth. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:1-3).3 “In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ ” (Rom. 1:17). “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
For too long, certainty has been overrated. Oddly it is Christians who are the most concerned by the demise of the “myth of certainty.” Of all people, Christians should know that a strictly materialist kind of certainty is not a part of the Christian narrative. The author of Hebrews says faith is being “certain of what we do not see.” Faith is certainty.
Paul says, “ ‘The righteous will live by faith’ ” (Rom. 1:17). Notice also that it is not faith as an abstract principle but something upon which one bases one’s life. One lives by it. That’s a different kind of certainty.
The disciple Thomas is a good example of knowing by faith. Like many who have been raised on empiricism, Thomas was a classic skeptic. When the other disciples said that they had seen the risen Lord, Thomas protested, “ ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it’ ” (John 20:25).
A week later, Thomas got his wish. Jesus appeared in the house with the disciple and this time Thomas didn’t miss out. Though Jesus granted him empirical evidence—seeing and touching the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side—He then invites Thomas to a new kind of knowing by faith: “ ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ ” (vs. 29)
This is not a copout or a blind leap of faith. It is rather the acknowledgement that with the death and resurrection of Jesus the world has fundamentally changed.
Hope also is a way of knowing in a Christian worldview. This is a key theme in Paul’s ministry. Notice this definitive passage: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:22-25).
In John 21 we read of the restoration of Peter after his horrible three-fold denial of Jesus. After several days of what must have been utter despair, Jesus encountered Peter on the Sea of Galilee with these words, “ ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ” (John 21:17). Just as Thomas was invited to a new kind of faith that would meet the new reality of the resurrection, Peter was invited to a new kind of love that could believe the resurrection.
This is what we mean when we refer to “a knowing that involves us in new ways.” You cannot truly know the truth of the resurrection without fully committing yourself to it. The truth of it opens only to those who are captured by God’s love expressed in the event itself. It is not surprising, then, that the same John who records the remarkable post-resurrection story of Jesus and Peter at the lakeside later speaks of knowing through love in his later epistles.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).
Faith, hope, and love—three new ways of knowing that are completely open and accessible to anyone who cares to risk everything on an entirely different narrative about the world. “These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).4