Seeing Truth after Modernity in the Gospel of John

[This post appeared first on the Missio Alliance blog here.]

This last month I started teaching a class at our church called “Jesus in John.” In surprising ways, I’m finding that the season of Easter and the celebration of the resurrection is especially brought to life by the fourth Gospel. Immersing myself in a study of John again has alerted me to how much I’ve sometimes let the biases of modern scholarship creep into my thinking about Jesus’ teachings and self-understanding. In spite of all the light that historical criticism may shed on what we can confidently say about the biographical details of Jesus’ life, I’m reminded of the extent to which a focus on merely measurable truth can seriously limit our imagination and capacity for perceiving truly human and transcendent truth.

In the passion narrative of John’s Gospel, Pilate infamously asks, “What is truth?” I say he “asks,” but it is hard to know if Pilate is really asking anything. Does Jesus simply refuse to respond, or is John taking us into Pilate’s inner monologue? Pilate is conflicted. He has no measurable reason for believing the claim that Jesus has been given authority that is greater than the Emperor’s. In the end, for Pilate, the truth of power wins out against the weak truth of his own blurry vision of Jesus, who for John is truth made visible, because he reveals the Father (1:18).

Philosophy in the so-called postmodern age is perhaps most notorious for exposing the troubled relationship between truth claims and power plays. This has thankfully opened our eyes to much of Western history’s dark underside. Without fully realizing it, however, I think it has also lured many of us into a place of suppressed cynicism — Christians and non-Christians alike.

One of the most distinguishing markers of the age we live in is the weakened confidence we have to place in truth that is knowable beyond the political and the material. As I try to observe what matters most to people, and even people in church — based on what they are willing to put their time, money and energy toward — it is clearly those things which are likely to ensure material success that take precedent. Obviously, I often succumb to the same thing, but what I notice as a pastor is the absence of trust in the reality of a different kind of life that is available to us. We sing about it, we sort of hope for it, and we maybe even feel a longing for it, but we don’t ultimately believe in it. I know there are many reasons for this, but one that jumps out to me is a loss, or at least a limit, of language that can speak faith well after modernity. This may be where John can help.

There is a deep connection in John between the truth as something in which we place our trust, and as something which we have to let ourselves get put into a position to “see.” Seeing and knowing are interchangeable, and both words have a double-meaning for John’s Jesus. Many of the people who see Jesus and even witness what he does remain fixated on only that which is immediately visible and materially knowable. Nicodemus asks, “how can someone be born when they are old?” (3:4) The woman at the well tells Jesus to “give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty…” (4:15). They do not yet perceive what Jesus is re-presenting to them. The profoundly aesthetic dimension of truth to which Jesus points escapes their notice. They are still thinking and seeing with eyes “from below” — that is, in terms of the material and the political.

John is not belittling the material and the political though. Rather, the evangelist is going to great lengths to show how Jesus validates and re-sacralizes it, “from above” (“The words I say to you, I do not speak by my own authority” (12:49)), by coming into it. He does this by engaging the political not with concern for securing his material well-being, but by witnessing to and imaging God’s alternative, wise (“Logos”) order.

God’s wise order shines light in the darkest places of our corrupted orders, but people still hide from it. They refuse to let it in. It is only when these two orders are placed right next to each other that we begin to see both of them for what they are. This is how truth gets revealed: when the real ugliness of how the world is gets honestly disclosed by the beauty of what it can be. Then, by way of what the radiant form of Christ makes known and visible, those with eyes to see respond by refusing to disbelieve in the world’s redeemability.

Modernity gave us confidence in the truth of what can be measured. This truth is not insignificant. But measurable truth does not offer freedom. Measurable truth does not bring wholeness. Measurable truth cannot restore.

 The highest kind of truth is not measurable. But nor is it merely hoped for, forever deferred and always “to come.” The typical postmodern view of truth might go something like this: we see traces and glimpses of truth, and we taste it in unexpected ways. It touches us, but then it leaves. We never really see it. We can’t point to it and say, “there it is.” Meaning itself, therefore, is undefineable, or at most very malleable. The aim and quest for truth, meaning and redemption is too weak to reach across the distance between us and that which we think we love, desire or are searching for. The best we can manage is authenticity, but authenticity about “we do not really know what.” So we’re left with an irreducible plurality of possible meanings. And that’s it. There’s no approachable meaning outside the constructed one, and again, we’re forced back down to the power plays of the political and the material.

By contrast, we must search for a faith, not that rejects, but that transcends the postmodern impasse. This is the all-important difference between a pre-critical and post-critical posture toward truth, which is similar to the difference between what Paul Riceour called the first and second naïveté, the latter of which is our “wish to be called again,” beyond the rational desert of criticism — not for fear of criticism, but because we believe there is something glorious that still remains after criticism.

If there is a deficiency in our reception of the revealed truth of the gospel, as postmodernity might insist, it is not because fulfillment is lacking, but rather because it comes to us in excess. The good news of the resurrection overwhelms us by its proliferation of meanings, its radiance of beauty, and its surplus portion of goodness.

For postmodern thought, the truth is something totally other that cannot be present or presented, because it has not been seen, and has not come. What we lay hold of as Christians, however, is the promise, the testimony, and even the experience, that truth has indeed been seen, and has indeed come. This does not mean truth is stuck in past or future-tense, but that it can be seen with the eyes of faith, and that it is we who make it visible, illuminating it by the splendor of the One who, though crucified, lives again, and offers to us the resurrection life even now.


-John D. Caputo, “Apostles of the impossible: on God and the gift in Derrida and Marion,” in God, the gift, and postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 199.

-Jean-Luc Marion, Robyn Horner and Vincent Berraud. In Excess: Studies in Saturated Phenomena (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 34.

-Paul Ricoeur. The Symbolism of Evil. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 349.

-N.T. Wright on The Work of the People: “Truth Happens.”