Introduction to Perspectivalism
'Relativism' is the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context and are not absolute. It is the belief that different things are true, right, etc., for different people or at different times. It can also be defined as a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing or a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge. A form of relativism in epistemology is perspectivalism, the idea that all knowledge is "from a point of view" and therefore suspect.
Two views on Perspectivalism
Commitment to Total Perspectivalism
One view is a total commitment to perspectivalsim. They are the ones who believe that the idea of objective truth is entirely suspect and claim that all knowledge is embedded in a perspective. They will say that there is no ultimate perspective and no "God's-eye" point of view. It implies that all knowledge is locked into a particular person's or specific culture's way of seeing the world, and this emphasis calls us to question whether genuine, objective knowledge of God or anything else is possible at all.
Resist Commitment to Total Perspectivalism
The other view is that we cannot commit to total perspectivalism. They focus on the idea that "truth is ultimately true," at the same time will acknowledge that cultural variability is real. Despite cultural variability, they work with strategies to shift out false ideas, to identify culturally variable ideas, and to hone in on ideas that are in some way objectively true or which is true for all. Perspectives are recognized at different levels, but they will resist commitment to total perspectivalism.
Personal view on Perspectivalism
A total commitment to perspectivalism is incompatible with true Christian theology. The human perspective cannot know everything about God but they gradually and partially contact what is true by using the epistemic capacities and belief-forming abilities God created within. Perspectives do shape human knowing, but there is a reason to reject strong perspectivalism. It is a largely postmodern mentality that revels in a leveling of conflicting viewpoints, but we have to overcome fragmentation and find unity in truth. People living in different cultures will have different perspectives about different things, but a truth about creator God is absolute, and we have to find ways to bring out this truth among various viewpoints. I think it is possible since the same God created everything and revealed himself to everyone.
Knowledge of God and Postmodernism Challenges
God is a divine being who is removed and foreign from our own experiences. Our desire to know if there is a God leads us to the question of who is God or if it is possible to have the knowledge of God. There are many competing claims about gods or God being made by different religions.
The Bible is clear that the only reason we know God is because God spoke first and revealed himself to us. So we can know God, not due to our own search or experiences but because God chose to reveal himself to us. We cannot completely define God, but we can describe based on how God has revealed himself to us. God is not an object to be studied because when we study or analyze an object, we stand over and above the object, and we decide what that object is and what it can and cannot be. In order words, we have authority over our study's object, and it is not true with God. We cannot discover or analyze God, but God speaks to us. God is a free subject, and neither creation nor self-revelation is necessary for God to be God. So everything we can say about God is, at the end, derivative, a reflection back to the source of the self-revelation we try to describe.
Relativism and pluralism have taken root in the current culture, and many unbelievers come from this worldview. They claim that the knowledge is embedded in a person's views or a culture's views. So this knowledge is not a reliable guide to the absolute truth. So they would argue that truth is relative, and it can be different for different people. So the statement that 'truth is relative' is absolute truth, and hence it will be a self-defeating statement by proving that truth is not relative. On the other hand, if the truth is absolute, then we can make the statement that "truth is absolute" and it will be true and not self-defeating. Even postmodernism claims there is no truth and only one truth, which is postmodernism. By stating that, they are accepting that there is absolute truth, and it becomes undeniable. So if there is no absolute truth, then we cannot be sure of anything, and we have to accept pluralist or agnostic view. Absolute truth will be narrow and will exclude what is opposite to itself. Absolute truth is not impacted by the seekers desire and sincerity as it does not change false to true or transform the false as the truth.
Postmodernists reject the idea of "objective truth." It is important to understand the historical origins of postmodernism. Throughout the West's history, philosophers and theologians affirmed the objective character of ethics and religion and did not think that these truths were relative to individuals or cultures. They thought that it was relevant and applicable to all people universally. Plato thought that we could know ideal truths by deductive reasoning, while Aristotle believed that we could understand them by inductive reasoning. They both were realists and thought that every human being has a goal towards which they should aim. During the Middle Ages and Reformation, theologians and philosophers affirmed a belief in universal, objective truth. During the Age of Enlightenment, rationalism, and empiricism gained ground. Rationalism emphasized the adequacy of human reason to comprehend and know the objective and rational truth, while empiricism emphasized that we can only know what we can touch, taste, smell, see or hear.
David Hume developed empiricist thought and insisted that morals are just our passions and reason is their slave to serve them. Immanuel Kant tried to answer Hume's empiricism in order to defend rationalism, but he accepted the idea that all knowledge comes by way of the five senses. Kant's view developed the idea that science gives us knowledge and facts while other disciplines like religion can only give us values or personal opinions. Later emphasis in philosophy was shifted from experience to language – a shift that came to be known as "the linguistic turn" – and it marked a turn towards postmodern thought.
Postmodern thought rejected the idea of objective truth since it believed that there is a real-world, but we cannot know it without talking about it. We are on the inside of language, and there is no way to get out of it to know the real world truly or objectively. They also reject that there is a universal truth that holds true for all people at all times. There are many languages, and each word's meaning depends on the social settings and grammatical rules of a particular culture. So there is no way to know reality in its true form, and it depends on how we talk in our respective communities. So from a postmodernist view, since there is no way to know truth objectively, there is no such thing as objective truth.
Those who endorse a classically Protestant understanding of "right reason" would say that although objective truth can be known, it cannot be known objectively. Protestants focus on the fact of human depravity and take the Fall and original sin seriously. They insist that the regenerate alone have the moral ability to see the revealed truth, which is glorious. In regeneration, Holy Spirit works through the word and brings a transformation that helps a person view things differently from how it was seen before. He sees everything in light of the Scripture, and they look through the eyes of faith through Scripture. They alone have the ability to see the revealed truth, and it is objectively glorious. Personal experience and devotion play a role in this, and hence it cannot be without bias. If objective reality is the immediate object of perception, then it can be known objectively. But objective truth is not an object of perception and hence cannot be known objectively.
Another significant issue with postmodern thinking is that the authority to derive meaning lies in each individual's hands. The authority is from within a person and not from outside. This has an impact on how people view religious authority also. Christianity can no longer demand nor expect any privileged status to make its truth claims in such a climate. So Christian faith does not have any special claim in the open but has to stand by competing beliefs. So Christian apologetics has to become more relational and dialogue based in a postmodern society. Christian exclusiveness has often created a problem of our inability to dialogue with people outside our faith in a meaningful way. Without engaging in meaningful conversation, it is not possible to engage a postmodern mind. There was a time when the tool most used by Christians for reaching out to the lost world was just evangelistic preaching. The times have changed, and non-believers will no longer give their attention or, most of the time, do not show interest in attending an evangelistic meeting. In such circumstances, it is important to rely on different tools like a personal relationship, continuous witnessing, being patient with the person, etc. The Holy Spirit's help is still very much needed, but how the postmodern mind works make it essential to continue the dialogue. In some cases, it could be the combination of many people impacting a person in different ways, ultimately leading a person to Christ. So it is crucial to continue and not give up when we do not see an immediate response.
It is also crucial that we have a clear understanding of truth and make sure that the person we witness knows about the knowledgeable truth. Unless the foundation of absolute truth is not solid, we may not be able to drive the person to believe in one true God. Once a person acknowledges the existence of one true God, we can claim Jesus Christ being the son of God who came to save humanity. If we try to talk about Jesus to the postmodern mind that views everything in a relative view without dealing with the concept of truth and God first, it will be difficult to understand why Jesus is unique.
To discuss faith, we can also apply reason and logic in matters of religion. If we apply reason and logic, then pluralism is ruled out because it is illogical and contradictory to believe that diametrically opposing truth claims can both be right. Now all religions and belief systems cannot be true at the same time since they contradict each other. We know that truth cannot be self-contradictory. Many religions are claiming to be the ultimate truth, including Christianity. Christians make the exclusive claim that the God revealed in the Bible is the only true God. Muslims claim that Islam is the only true religion. When we apply the test of logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and existential relevancy, Christianity provides the right answers and stands out among other religions.
Relativism has made it difficult to change a postmodern mind to acknowledge an absolute truth. Perspectivalism is popular in the culture today, but a Christian cannot give a commitment to total perspectivalism. We cannot ignore the influence and the reality of perspectives, but that does not negate the fact about absolute truth. For the Christian, the ultimate expression of truth is found in the Bible, in Jesus who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life..." (John 14:6). Of course, most philosophers and skeptics will dismiss His claim, but he is the mainstay of hope, security, and guidance for the Christian.
Clark, David K., and John S. Feinberg. To Know and Love God: Method for Theology. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2003.
Burge, Gary M. Theology Questions Everyone Asks: Christian Faith in Plain Language. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2014.