As someone who has done campus ministry over the last several years, I can say without hesitation that the university has been telling students there is no thing as absolute truth for quite some time. That is why Stephen McAndrew’s book “ Is There Absolute Truth? “Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True? is a very relevant book. The good news is that this is a short book (86 pages). I say that because we are in a day when people want to get a quick answer from the internet. Therefore, this is a book that can be handed out to college students or a friend with the confidence that they can find the time to get through it.
I must confess that I have read some other materials that dive into this topic. But what I like about McAndrew’s book is that he provides the philosophical background as to what led to relativism and the current post-modern view of truth. He starts out by providing an overview of Plato and how his views led to what we call The Correspondence Theory of Truth. This is the view of truth that must of us live by on a daily basis. It is also the view that has played a large role in Orthodox Christianity. In this view of truth, we have objective meanings that can be discovered.
McAndrew goes on to discuss the history of the empiricists (i.e, David Hume). For the empiricists, we do not directly perceive the external objects in themselves, but only receive sense data that we turn into representations of external objects in our minds. Hence, we cannot be sure external objects exists independently of our minds.
McAndrews then proceeds to talk about logical positivism and its strict adherence to empirical verifiability. By the way, sadly, there is still a lot of logical positivism in the New Atheist rhetoric (i.e., Richard Dawkins). The author does a fine job of discussing the impact of Ludwig Wittgenstein, another twentieth century philosopher. Although Wittgenstein did adhere to a correspondence theory of truth (which is a good thing), he did not think we could know those truths because they were beyond the limits of human understanding (pg, 21). If we trace the history of relativistic thought, it is clear that the impact of Wittgenstein can’t be underestimated. Remember that ideas have consequences!
This book is incredibly relative to where we are at as a culture. So what if truth is created by each individual or created by each society? What if there really is no absolute truth that transcends cultures? And if there is an unchanging absolute truth, what is the source of it? If truth is determined by the individual or culture, then who can blame the individual or other culture if they do something wrong? My experience shows me that people only pay lip service to relativism. Once you take them through the logic of such a position (as McAndrew does here) most people realize relativism is unlivable. It seems that we are really back to the difference between ontology and epistemology.
Knowing (epistemology) must be distinguished from being (ontology), the latter being the more fundamental. As McAndrews points out, epistemologically, all humans have been made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27, 9:3; James 3:9) and are thus intrinsically valuable (endowed with dignity, rights, duties, and the basic capacity to recognize right and wrong). Ontologically, however, a naturalistic metaphysic (that is, the actual ground or basis that makes this knowledge possible) is inadequate: After all, how would an impersonal, physical, valueless processes produce valuable, rights-bearing persons? As McAndrews points out, Christian theism provide a much more reasonable context to explain the origin of human rights. After all, all people are both valuable and sacred in the eyes of God. This is an unchanging truth that is not based on one’s subjective opinion.
Something that I have noticed (as McAndrews mentions) is that we live in a sound bite culture. This creates a real challenge for the Christian apologist. After all, how many people actually take the time to question the foundation for their beliefs? This is why when I do an apologetics presentation, the very first thing I tackle is the issue of objective truth. If an individual does not believe in objective truth, there is no point in going any further with defending the Christian worldview. And it seems that every time I take those fifteen minutes to show the individual the utter impossibility of rejection objective truth, they begin to see that their relativism makes very little sense.
Overall, this is a very good primer for college students and ministry leaders. It has been my experience that many Christians have also succumbed to much of post-modern thinking. So my advice is to use this material for both the non-Christian and the Christian. As I said, it is a short read and can be used for small study groups as well. This is an excellent book for the times we live in.