What is Truth? Religion, Relationships, and Reality in Postmodern Spain
by Les Cowan
In the postmodern West, however, it has become increasingly common not only to question what is true, but also what we mean by truth in the first place.
PILATE FAMOUSLY ASKED “What is truth?” in John 18:38. Setting aside whether this was merely a cynical rouse to change the subject, it’s a question with a remarkably postmodern ring. Then, as now, people wanted to know what was true.
In fact, a significant feature of postmodernism has been its interest in what we mean by truth as such. In particular, there is a strong challenge in matters of faith to any notion of objective truth applying to all. In this article, I consider how the way truth is defined and experienced has implications for how we do mission, particularly in postmodern Europe. This involves a look at the traditional tendency towards doctrinal propositions compared with postmodern preferences for more self-referential definitions of truth, integrity, and trust, particularly applied to my field of service in Spain.
Fundamental to the philosophical and scientific flowering we call the Enlightenment was the notion that truth could be discovered by rational means and would be equally valid for all. Writing in 1697, John Locke commented, “I know there is truth opposite to falsehood, and that it may be found if people will and is worth the seeking, and is not only the most valuable, but the pleasantest thing in the world” (Locke 1823, 447).
In the postmodern West, however, it has become increasingly common not only to question what is true, but also what we mean by truth in the first place. So in addition to conspiracy theories questioning everything from the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City to the moon landings, it is increasingly normal that every individual can have a personal sphere of truth different from that of his or her own family, neighbors, or society without necessarily involving an inherent clash.
What you believe is “true for you”; something else is “true for me” with no essential conflict as they occupy separate domains. So peaceful coexistence, mutual acceptance, and tolerance are highly valued, despite differing versions of what we may hold to be true.
In the postmodern West it has become increasingly common not only to
question what is true, but also what we mean by truth in the first place.
Where disagreements arise, these are seen as the result of intolerance, mistrust, and inappropriate claims to universality, rather than one being right and the other wrong. “Fundamentalist” has become a pejorative term denoting anyone so attached to his or her own view of truth as to allow no possibility of alternatives. According to Alister McGrath, this has come about for understandable reasons:
… the excesses, failures, and ultimately the uninhabitability of modernity led to a loss of enthusiasm for its goals and eventually a complete inversion of many of its leading ideas. Far from providing eternal and universal truths of reason, by which humanity might live in peace and stability, modernity found itself implicated as the perhaps unwitting accomplice of Nazism and Stalinism. Certainty, once prized as the goal of true knowledge, now came to be seen as the grounds for coercing belief. Reacting against the simplistic overstatements of the Enlightenment, postmodernity has stressed the limits of human knowledge, and encouraged a toleration of those who diverge from the “one size fits all” philosophy of modernity. The world in which we live is now seen as a place in which nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed and nothing is unquestionably given. (2004, 218)
For example, while teaching English to business executives in Madrid, I was asked, “Can you tell me anything you know for certain?” expressing an assumption that nothing is definite and anything I might suggest would be subject to challenge.
This is in marked contrast to the underlying assumptions many of us carry from a lifetime of Christian exposure. In my own upbringing in a traditional Scottish Baptist church, although we didn’t go in for creeds and articles of faith, it was inherent that certain things were completely, biblically, and universally true, and that anything different was simply wrong. Jesus did rise from the dead “according to the scriptures,” gifts of the Holy Spirit had died out after the apostolic era, and you should wear a collar and tie to church.
This hard line attitude has been a prominent part of evangelical life and given rise to many statements of faith and defining doctrines such as for The Evangelical Alliance1 or The Christian and Missionary Alliance.2
As might be expected, our making of disciples has also tended to be grounded in objective truth. As a teenager on mission in the 1970s, I remember street witnessing, open-air evangelism, and outreach meetings in which the emphasis was undoubtedly to communicate truth (as we saw it) and convince our hearers that they should accept a series of propositions and decide to follow Jesus. Reading Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone (2006) and Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1977) confirmed the view that not only were our doctrines evidentially true, but that this was what would convince the audience. The end may have been allegiance, but the route was evidence and truth.
Even then, however, it didn’t seem very successful. McDowell-type evidence was often simply ignored, and even those who did come to faith often didn’t seem to stick to the script. Instead of “I became convinced that Jesus died for my sins and that I should follow him,” we often heard, “I met some people who seemed to have something different and I began to wonder what it was.”
Well, we thought, praise the Lord anyway. Now, some thirty years later, on mission in Spain, I’m wondering if this approach isn’t itself somewhat faulty, particularly for postmodern people. Ross Rohde speaks about his conversation with a Madrid friend whose point of view he summarizes as follows:
• He does not believe in exclusive truth.
• He does not believe that one religion has all the answers.
• Argument against another religion, no matter what it is, offends him.
• He defines himself as a non-practicing Catholic. However, “Catholic” is still part of his cultural heritage and his religious definition for himself.
• He believes that he can find spirituality by looking for the light within.3
Within this framework, there seems limited scope for the universal truth claims we might see as fundamental to the gospel. Altogether more important is not what is true, but the different but related notion of trust.
This may not be too surprising given how waves of those who claimed to be purveyors of truth have turned out to be both untruthful and untrustworthy. Scientists (ultimate guardians of Enlightenment truth) are blamed for pollution and nuclear weapons. Politicians seem corrupt and incapable and have led Spain into a devastating recession. Perhaps worst of all, the Roman Catholic Church in Spain is widely seen as being implicated in thirty-five years of brutal repression and is currently under investigation for the theft of newborn babies from “unsuitable” mothers and their reallocation to more worthy (practicing Catholic) families. Meanwhile, revelations about ecclesiastical child abuse go on and on.
Set alongside this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which claims to be objectively true, cuts little ice. In the results of the Values and Beliefs youth survey conducted by the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research (2001), the most distrusted social institution was in fact the Church, with 32.8% of respondents saying they had absolutely no confidence in it, even higher than political parties (30.8%) or the army (22.2%) (which is saying something in a country with the political and military history of Spain).
So if truth is something individuals work out for themselves, and trust is crucial but scarce, what approach do we take to communicate a message we undoubtedly believe to be both true and trustworthy, particularly in a postmodern world? Below are some guiding principles.
Being genuinely interested. Since arriving in Spain in 2010, we have tried to make our starting point not modernist truth claims, but more what we believe we see Jesus demonstrating (which turns out to be more in tune with postmodern sensibilities). In fact, it’s quite difficult to find a strong propositional approach in the Gospels. Jesus’ truth is more often explored in oblique ways through stories, riddles, and sayings, demonstrated in healings and miracles, exemplified in love, and all along embodied in a person. So naturally, we begin with the concept of trust. According to Calvin Shenk, “It is easy for us to creedalize or institutionalize the gospel. But we need to learn to communicate relationally before we communicate rationally” (2006, 197).
Believing God is trustworthy. Hence, we try to be trustworthy persons as much as we can. While being entirely open about being followers of Christ with an evangelical point of view, we begin with genuine interest in the culture and the Spanish people. More than accumulating contacts, we want to make friends.
When Paul spoke to the Areopagus in Acts 17, he used a culturally meaningful
framework of philosophy, literature, and the religion of the day.
Meeting the felt needs. We also want to bring something of value with us. The concept of meeting a felt need is well known and rooted in Jesus’ own approach. Like invitados at a fiesta, in place of a bottle of wine or chocolates, we bring our personalities, our history, in some cases, our anglo-saxon organizing skills, and our language. 20 Minutos newspaper recently reported that Spaniards have the worst English in Europe, but those with a good level can command between thirty and fifty percent higher salaries (2013, 16). In times of recession it may be the only way to improve job prospects and company competitiveness.
Speaking truth. This then brings us to the more demanding question, “Ok, so what then?” It’s all very well making friends and sharing English, but nobody is going to find out about Jesus if that’s as far as it goes. So how do we effectively present what the Lord brought us to Spain to share? We take it as given that salvation belongs to God and a living relationship with Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit, not of slick presentation or marketing. As the same time, however, communication means being understood. So when Paul spoke to the Areopagus in Acts 17, he used a culturally meaningful framework of philosophy, literature, and the religion of the day. So just as much as learning Spanish, we must communicate in a meaningful cultural language.
So our starting point is that spiritual life is not about religion. One defining feature of postmodernism is a deep distrust of institutions which manipulate and oppress for their own ends, whatever altruistic motives they claim. Unfortunately for brothers and sisters who love and follow Christ within a Catholic tradition, there is nothing more distrusted in Spain than the Catholic Church. Additionally, in Spain, “Christian” more or less means Catholic (which includes many negative associations).
In the light of this, making a religious presentation of propositional truth our starting point seems inappropriate and counterproductive. As a young Spanish friend told me, “Spanish people have had the Catholic Church up to here…” (indicating just under his chin) “… so why would we be interested in just another religion?” Propositions to accept and adhere to a religion feel controlling and repressive to postmodern people, particularly those who have experienced the more negative side of religion. So how do we positively present what we believe to be true without falling foul of these dynamics?
Thankfully, the message of Jesus is highly non-religious; it’s as if it were made for postmoderns. Jesus is a person, not a proposition. So we do not give out leaflets on the street, sing outside the metro, or lead kid’s clubs in the park taking truth as a starting point. While there may be a time and a place for such approaches, for us they feel non-relational and even somewhat aggressive.
We have preferred to meet with friends, chat in English, and see what comes up. Often, the talk turns to life events and what we each regard as interesting or important. Explaining what has brought us to Spain and about our spiritual outlook fits very naturally into that flow. Avoiding the “missionary” label, we tell the truth that in our 50s we decided on a change of direction, sold our business, studied theology, moved to Spain, and have fallen in love with the language and culture.
Beyond that, we are entirely open to integrate and share who and what we are. This often raises further questions and then, based on a relationship already in place, we can talk about what it means to meet Jesus rather than follow a religion. From time to time, we are even asked outright what evangelical Christians (which we admit to being for want of a better designation) believe, sometimes in relation to specifics such as a celibate priesthood, infant baptism, first communion, or divorce. Coming this way, these topics do not become propositional battle grounds, but conversations based on trust.
While we are not afraid of truth claims about Jesus, we ground these in trying to be true in our behavior and approach. So far, we have found Spanish people nothing but respectful, polite, and curious.
Wider Implications for Missions in a Postmodern World
So are there wider implications for missions in a postmodern world? In 1975, James Engel pointed out that commitment to Christ is not just a single event (though it may involve a key turning point), but is better understood as a process with discernible stages (1975). Frank Gray later expanded on this by adding a second axis, indicating attitude, as well as understanding (Internet Evangelism Day n.d.).
This has been of great help to our approach and practice; however, postmodern culture has also moved on since then. While grasping key aspects of the truth of the gospel is paramount for Engel (Point 8: Awareness of a Supreme Being; Point 6: Awareness of the Fundamentals of the Gospel), what if postmoderns are as averse to universal truth claims as McGrath and Rohde suggest? Might there be some way we can refine the scale to reflect that?
Our experience in Spain has been that many hearers will not consider the truth and authenticity of the message apart from the truthfulness and authenticity of the messengers. The idea of a personal relationship with a universally accessible God may be about as meaningful as an encounter with the Spirit of the Age or the Spirit of Adventure. But we win a hearing for what is true based on our integrity and authenticity as participants in the truth. Postmodern people can have a personal relationship with us and we have a personal relationship with that accessible God.
In the light of this, we could propose a modest modification to the matrix. So far, the Y-axis goes from “Knows nothing of the Gospel” to “Able to Teach Others” and the X-axis from Antagonistic to Enthusiastic. As the Internet Evangelism Day website comments,
Effective evangelism not only requires people to obtain more knowledge—they must also move from a position of antagonism/indifference to a more positive viewpoint. They are unlikely to wish to find out more until they view Christianity more positively.
But what if hearers will never form a positive view of Christianity given past abuses and corruption? Might we even say that Christianity does not deserve to be positively viewed in light of how some of its representatives have behaved? It is not credible to simply say “Ah yes, but we’re different.” Carl Madearis has made a cogent case that the only essential topic of our faith communication should be Jesus himself, not his followers or institutions taking his name. (Madearis 2011). In this case, the X-axis becomes not the hearer’s attitude to “Christianity” (whatever that might be), but much more acutely, their attitude to you.
So where does this leave us? There seems little doubt that postmodern people have had their fill of institutions seeking trust and approval. The BBC News website documents the startling decline in British political parties from 3,776,000 between Labour and Conservatives in 1951 to 433,000 for all three leading parties in 2011. Indeed, “there are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain’s political parties put together” (BBC 2011).
Many today would say with singer/songwriter Van Morrison that “I have never joined any organisation, nor plan to. I am not affiliated to any guru, don’t subscribe to any method and for those people who don’t know what a guru is, I don’t have a teacher either.” Yet it is easy for our gospel presentation to be interpreted as advocacy of religion. In our experience, at least with younger Spanish people, this is the kiss of death. But we would argue this is not necessarily a rejection of God. It is a reflection of the problem with his marketing department.
So the challenge is to be true, authentic, and believable ambassadors in the postmodern world so that the truth of who Jesus is doesn’t become confused with the project of institutional Christianity, which many might now see as largely a failure. May the Lord of the Harvest enable us to do so.
20 Minutos. 2013. Madrid. February 5.
Internet Evangelism Day. n.d. Accessed September 11, 2013, from www.internetevangelismday.com/gray-matrix.php.
Locke, John. 1823. The Works of John Locke. London: Thomas Tegg.
Madearis, Carl 2011. Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism, Colorado Springs, Colo.: David C. Cook Publishing Company.
McDowell, Josh. 1977. Evidence that Demands a Verdict: historical evidences for the Christian Scriptures. Orlando, Fla.: Campus Crusade International.
McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. London: Rider.
Morrison, Frank. 2006 (1930). Who Moved the Stone? Milton Keynes, U.K.: Authentic Media.
Shenk, Calvin. 2006. Who Do You Say That I Am? Christians Encounter Other Religions, Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press.
Valores Y Creencias De Los Jóvenes: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas. 2001.
Accessed March 12, 2013, from www.cis.es/cis/opencm/ES/1_encuestas/estudios/
Wheeler, Brian. 2011. “Can UK Political Parties Be Saved from Extinction?” BBC News. August 19. Accessed September 2, 2013, from www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12934148.
Les Cowan came to missions late in life after a varied career in social services practice and management, further and higher education, and running his own software development business. His hobbies include all things Spanish, saxophone jazz, sailing, and cooking.
EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 134-135. Copyright © 2014 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.