Michelangelo’s Prisoners changed me. In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I had the privilege of studying abroad in Italy for three weeks. At the Galleria dell’Accademia museum in Florence, Michelangelo’s David was as exquisite as I expected. But I was not prepared for my profound encounter with his unfinished works. The forms of four human bodies are trapped in raw stone, dynamically striving with all their energy to shake themselves free.1

In beholding them, I glimpsed a parable writ large. These powerful forms seek order out of chaos, truth out of nonsense, identity out of facelessness. Yet they are imprisoned. They are only in process, not completed. They are a picture of what it means to be human. Humans are born into subjectivity, striving for objectivity. We are ever becoming in our journey towards truth and wholeness.

To me, these statues represent where the best of modernism and the best of postmodernism meet. Few Christians study postmodernism. The few who do typically seek to refute it. My own understanding only scratches the surface. But in my study, I have noticed that postmodern thought does emphasize an indispensable principle, subjectivity, that we cannot neglect if our goal is to uncover the objective truth that modernism promises. I believe that Christians need the best of postmodernism to accomplish the goal of modernism: objective truth.

For the sake of this piece, I am using the terms ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ as shorthand for broad epistemological (knowledge-seeking) postures. In simplified terms, modernism refers to the position, popular during the Enlightenment, that pure logic and evidence are sufficient for attaining objective truth. Meanwhile, postmodernism refers to the position that there is no objective truth that humans can access; instead, the best we have is subjective, individual ‘truths’ or perspectives. Neither are fully correct. Yet both offer some key insights we ought to consider. Of course, modernism and postmodernism are huge movements, spanning hundreds of years and encompassing many camps and shades of meaning. But these definitions will suffice for today’s discussion.

Natural Revelation

The foundation for today’s discussion is the biblical principle of natural revelation. While I affirm the unique role of God’s special revelation in Scripture, the Bible itself teaches that God does not exclusively communicate knowledge through Scripture. He tells us in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim his handiwork. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth; their words to the ends of the world.”2 According to this passage, God does not only reveal knowledge through Scripture. He also uses the natural world to reveal knowledge – a world rich in data, color, and the diversity of human experience.

As this Psalm tells us, it is not only in one language or one culture where God reveals truth. Scripture reiterates this principle in Acts 17, where Paul preaches to the pagan Athenians on Mars Hill to affirm and build upon the natural revelation they had received. He even affirms the truth discovered by their pagan poets: “As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are [God’s] offspring’.”3 Similarly, Romans 1 clearly states that God reveals himself to all people: “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made . . . ”4 God created every human being with the Imago Dei (the Image of God), so every human being has access to some amount of knowledge and truth through natural revelation. While natural revelation is evident, for instance, through Western culture, it is also evident through other cultures and people groups. God can reveal truth through natural revelation in every language, in every era, in every culture, to every image bearer, throughout the whole world.

God reserves the right to communicate with us however he pleases, including through natural means. It is his divine prerogative to reveal knowledge this way. And since God reveals certain truths about himself to every culture and language, that would include the modern and postmodern eras. So we must not mistakenly assume that God stopped revealing himself once the modern era began. Natural revelation did not screech to a halt. God continues to reveal himself through the testimony of modern image-bearers, the story of history, the insights and experiences of the global church, and the discoveries of scholarship. Wherever God reveals truth, we should listen.

This may seem too obvious to be stated. Unfortunately, some extreme yet influential figures, such as Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney, are actively teaching that empathy itself is a sin.5 Furthermore, they teach that the observations and insights of whole groups of Christian believers, such as women, are dangerous to the life of the church and should be disregarded out of hand.6 Hence, it is necessary to explicitly present an apologetic for the value of natural revelation wherever – and through whomever – God chooses to reveal it. In a similar vein, many Christians may feel threatened by ‘the culture’, defined as the secular world outside of Christian subculture. Many may struggle to imagine that modernism or postmodernism have anything of value to offer to our faith. So it is worth taking the time to understand how God reveals certain tenets of knowledge even through modernism and postmodernism.

Many Christians study such movements simply to refute them and justify what they already believe. But we would not want an atheist to study Christianity in this way, reading our Scripture, our apologists, and our philosophers only to critique, refute, and dismiss. ‘Do unto others’ applies also to how we study. The goal is to seek truth as objectively as we can, even if that means revising our own views. The endeavor of cultural analysis takes humility and open-mindedness, seeking to allow the data to correct and shape the raw stone of our preexisting biases.

The Role of Imagination

One major (and perhaps surprising) problem with modernity’s project of seeking objective truth is that it historically neglected the role of imagination. When we think of imagination, we may picture dragons, superheroes, and general nerdery. But imagination is in fact crucial not only for the shape of our words, but also for the shape of our thinking. Imagination is a crucial building block for all of thought, language, and communication. C.S. Lewis explains that “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”7 In other words, imagination is the mental faculty that gives content, or meaning, to the words and concepts we reason about. What do we picture when we hear certain words, like ‘father’, ‘church’, ‘career’, ‘welfare’, or ‘woke’? Do those pictures have positive or negative connotations? Are we sure we have the whole picture, and that that picture is accurate? When Lewis tells us that imagination is the organ of meaning, he is pointing out that logic is not enough. We must also carefully consider whether we understand the meanings behind the terms that we use.

But imagination does more than give meaning to the words we use. It also largely defines what data about reality we notice. English professor and cultural critic Karen Swallow Prior offers some crucial insights on this in her book Evangelical Imagination. She explains, “While the objective world in all its entirety exists all around us, our imagination draws only from what we perceive. And we primarily perceive what we attend to.”8 In other words, we think about what we notice. So it is worth interrogating what data we notice, and perhaps even more importantly, what data we do not notice.

We all have the same objective world, in all its entirety, around us. We swim in an ocean of data. And with that data are countless observations and endless interpretations of what that data means – what reality is really like. So how is it that one data set produces liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and environmentalists, traditionalists and postmodernists, Christians and atheists, Hindus and Muslims, libertarians, communists, and fascists? How do we all come to such dramatically different conclusions about the nature of reality?

A big part of the answer is that we imagine the world differently. The fact is that we are born into a tiny portion of the full data set. All of us are born naked and ignorant; no one is born omniscient. To fill in the gaps, each of us uses our imagination to construct a picture of what the rest of reality is like. Throughout our upbringing, we are taught how to imagine the world by parents, teachers, books, and stories, which all themselves come from various persuasions. But each of us only has firsthand knowledge of a small portion of the total dataset.

There is no shame in ignorance per se. We have each had a limited number of years on this earth, with limited life experience and limited time to think about the endlessly varied questions of theology, philosophy, and life. We are finite. Only God is infinite. So our knowledge is finite. We are inevitably ignorant of the totality of the data about reality.

So we must make peace with our ignorance as a necessary condition of being born. We must enter the world not as a know-it-all but as an eager-to-know-more. Admitting that we don’t know something is vastly superior to pretending we know everything. Even the wisest person will always be open to more information, to a deeper understanding.

Paul himself, an author of Scripture, admits to incomplete, imperfect knowledge. He remarks that “we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside . . . now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.”9 How many of us could claim to know as much as Paul about theology? Yet even Paul admits to partial knowledge, imperfection, and seeing darkly.

So we tend to notice data about the world that conforms with how we already imagine the world to be. Another name for this is confirmation bias. In his book When Doctrine Divides the People of God, theologian Rhyne Putman studies how confirmation bias affects biblical interpretation. He defines it as “the way someone unwittingly uses and selects evidence that confirms his or her previously held belief or working hypothesis.”10 What we perceive, and what we pay attention to, is often limited by the imaginary picture of the world we want to confirm. So we each pay attention to different pieces of data, assigning different levels of importance to different pieces. We each notice certain pieces of the human experience, and ignore others. On this, Prior cites author James K.A. Smith in his work Imagining the Kingdom, “Much of our action is not the fruit of conscious deliberation; instead much of what we do grows out of our passional orientation to the world – affected by all the ways we’ve been primed to perceive the world. In short, our action emerges from how we imagine the world.”11 So, Prior explains, “we perceive what we pay attention to.”12 And conversely, we fail to perceive what we don’t pay attention to. In other words, we build our worldview out of what we think about. We think about what we notice. And we notice what we have been primed to notice. This is why it is crucial for us to train ourselves to notice data outside of how we have been primed.

Confirmation bias also affects how we interpret the Bible. How can Christians with the same Bible come to such radically different conclusions about what it really means, leading to the development of everything from high Catholicism to Amish theology? Putman quotes the late hermeneutics scholar Grant Osborne, “We rarely read the Bible to discover truth; more often, we wish to harmonize it with our belief system and see its meaning in light of our preconceived theological system.”13 So we pay attention to different pieces of the Biblical text, and we overlook, ignore, or reinterpret others. In other words, our confirmation biases often rule how we read Scripture. Someone raised Pentacostal will be primed to pay attention to certain verses, and someone raised Eastern Orthodox, different verses. Confirmation bias leads us to assign high import to the verses that confirm our theological systems, and to assign low import to the verses that don’t.

Confirmation bias can also lead us to not even notice the data that fails to align with the theological interpretation we have inherited. For instance, I was taught for years that a biblical woman is a Proverbs 31 woman, and therefore that it would be sinful for me to work a job. I read Proverbs 31 many times during those years, yet it was not until I began questioning that theological framework that I even noticed that the Proverbs 31 woman works a job. She practices a trade (v. 13), engages in commerce (v. 18), buys land with her own income (v. 16), and sells goods in the marketplace (v. 24). My imaginative blinders prevented me from reading Scripture on its own terms. So if we desire to grow in knowledge of objective truth and not be limited by the chunk of stone we were born into, we must cultivate the art of paying attention.

Genuine listening helps us to be data-driven rather than system-driven. Being data-driven means that we are committed to analyzing the data of reality with as much objectivity as we can muster, being willing to adjust what we believe when confronted with new data. But being system-driven means that we will subconsciously ignore or downplay data that doesn’t fit our preconceived system – systems such as our theological frameworks, our philosophical presuppositions, our political leanings, our theories of science, or our understanding of history. For instance, a committed atheist may be more likely to ignore or downplay evidence for theism. And a committed theist may be more likely to ignore or downplay evidence for atheism. The temptation for both is to uphold their system of thought over examining the data fairly. But a true love for truth means an openness to considering any observation about reality, even if it challenges our preexisting system.

The Value of Subjectivity

And so the value of subjectivity is revealed. Each of us has a different story. And our stories prime us to notice different things about the world we all share. Each of us brings something to the table. Each of us notices different verses of Scripture, or different news stories, or different social issues. This variety of emphases and perspectives can help us develop a richer, more expansive understanding of the fullness of reality, if we are willing to listen. C.S. Lewis lauds the value of learning from other perspectives in An Experiment in Criticism:

The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others . . . In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.14

Hence, open-mindedness is a crucial quality for seeking the truth about reality. Rightly practiced, it is the art and virtue of humility. It is the art of paying attention. At its best, it is the art of listening attentively to the insights of every person and every era, along with carefully identifying their associated blind spots and errors.

Is it worth learning from everyone? At minimum, every person possesses one crucial piece of data about reality that no one else in the history of the world has access to: namely, what it is like to be themselves. Of the billions of human beings that will ever exist – past, present or future – only one of them can speak with authority on what it is like to be yourself: you. God’s timeless, universal, changeless truth is contextualized in each of our unique lives. Transcendent truth does not change, but the way in which that truth is embodied is unique to each of us. So love asks that we listen well and glean what we can from those we encounter – if nothing else, that we may gain a deeper understanding of what it is like to live life in their shoes.

I would be remiss not to mention that empathy can, of course, be taken to an extreme. Our stories are, properly speaking, a mixture of facts and interpretations. And we don’t always distinguish between these two. While the facts of our lives are unchanging, our interpretation of those facts may be misguided. For example, it is a fact that I have personally been harmed by Christians. But that fact could have multiple false interpretations, including that God hates me, that he approves of the harm I experienced, or that I would be right to reject Jesus. So we can gift someone with loving, empathetic presence without uncritically accepting any and every interpretation of the facts of their story. (Note well that even if someone’s interpretation is incorrect, we should not presume to correct them unless we have the explicit invitation to share our own view.)

Even if someone is wildly misguided, we can still gain knowledge of what it is like to live in their shoes. Lewis again ponders the value of learning from other perspectives, calling it an act of love: “In love we escape from our self into one another.” He continues, “We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs . . . even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved . . . And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.” This is “in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders or merriment those spectacles reveal.”15 Listening and learning, we imaginatively enter into each other’s lived realities and continually seek to understand more data regarding reality and the human experience, even as we carefully distinguish between truth and error. To do so is an act of love.

Imagination allows us to empathetically listen to the truth our neighbor possesses: at minimum, what it is like to be themselves, and above and beyond that, their observations of culture and life that may ultimately need to inform our own views. We must listen to our physical and our intellectual neighbors with an ear towards any data we have not yet rightly considered. We must look for common ground, for things we may have missed. We must look for the things we have never before noticed.

Our individual stories and our collective memory inform our identities, our views of history, and our views of modernity. For instance, is the modern era good? It depends on your place in it, and the shape of your memory. If someone is descended from Mayflower pilgrims, she may view history and her place in it differently than a person descended from the enslaved, whose very surname and a portion of her genetics originate from a white, professedly Christian enslaver and rapist of her great- great- great-grandmother.

Our experiences also shape the data we notice. Someone raised conservative will be primed to notice data of a certain type, and someone raised liberal, data of a different type. A white pastor who has only had positive interactions with law enforcement may view certain public policy discussions differently than a black pastor who has had overwhelmingly negative interactions with law enforcement. A comfortably middle-class homeschooled suburban teenager may view government welfare differently than an impoverished urban teenager who has only survived childhood because of food stamps and free lunches through public school. A person who has experienced narcissistic abuse may be more likely to notice manipulative or abusive dynamics at church than a person who has never had personal experience with such dynamics.

What I’m Not Saying

When we point out the differences in perspective between, say, a rich person and a poor person, a white person and a black person, or an abused person and a non-abused person, I am not arguing that the person who is conventionally considered less ‘privileged’ is automatically correct – or incorrect – about the topic at hand. This essay is not an affirmation of intersectionality, as if the person who has suffered the most in any given argument automatically ‘wins’. However, this is an affirmation that various subjective life experiences provide unique data about objective reality that others may be ignorant of.

For example, as a woman, my experience of walking alone in the dark may be more negative than my husband’s. My particularity and my subjectivity do hint at objective data about the dangers women experience, of which he lacks firsthand knowledge. But my ‘victim status’ as female or my lack of ‘male privilege’ does not mean I should automatically win every argument with my husband! My personhood transcends my victim status, putting us on equal footing as equal image bearers, equally capable of sin and virtue. Yet my subjective particularity does offer unique and immediate access to objective truths – immediate access that he lacks. As another example, we will fail to recognize objective realities of abuse within the church if we fail to prioritize listening to the people it most often affects, people whose experience at church differs from our own. There are aspects of objective reality that we will miss if we fail to listen to people with different experiences from our own.

Similarly, as a white, middle-class woman, I myself lack first-hand access to many aspects of objective reality. Like every person, I am contextualized in one context and not another. I have not experienced life as a racial minority, or life under the poverty line. So there are aspects of objective reality that I will fail to understand if I do not take the time to listen to the subjective experiences of others unlike myself.

Again, this is not an affirmation of Marxism, critical race theory, or some other totalizing ideology only interested in deconstruction and reductionism. We are not defined only by our social categories, as if my entire identity could be reduced to my race, gender, or class. But it would be a mistake to think that these markers play no role in how we see the world – that is, the data we notice in the same objective world we share. Our socioethnic markers can be like blinders, guiding what data we notice and what data we either ignore or are ignorant of. So if we desire objective truth about reality, we must be willing to examine the subjective blocks of stone we originate from, the shape of the stone that underlies our perspective.

And affirming the value of individual perspectives does not entail the wholesale affirmation of postmodern relativism. We can affirm the value of individual perspectives without following postmodernism in denying that no objective reality exists and that our individual relative ‘truths’ are the only reality. In other words, individual perspectives offer us valuable data as we seek the truest understanding of objective reality, but they do not commit us to denying any form of objective reality.

Every one of us is beset by biases and prejudices. Sound reasoning is not merely a matter of syllogisms and logic. It also requires the careful consideration of the role of one’s own subjective perspective in one’s reasoning. Postmodernism highlights this crucial component of the reasoning process. While postmodern thought as a whole goes too far, inflating the role of subjectivity to the point that the objective is erased, we cannot thereby deny how great a role subjectivity does play in our reasoning processes. Our subjective stories and our relative viewpoints can and do highlight valuable data about the objective world.

Conclusion

The stunning real-world application is that our Amish neighbor, our Catholic neighbor, our Boomer neighbor, our pop-culture Generation Z neighbor, our urban neighbor, our rural neighbor, our Buddhist neighbor, our hyperconservative Christian fundamentalist neighbor, our deconstructing neighbor, our atheist neighbor, and our postmodern feminist neighbor may each have noticed valuable data about reality that we have ourselves missed. Amongst them all is a dizzying array of contradictory beliefs: truths dancing amidst falsehoods, like a diamond-studded coal mine. And each of us tend to have a predisposition towards which sorts of people we think possess more diamonds than coal. We may be correct. But even if someone possesses only one diamond in an entire vault of coal, that diamond is still precious, still valuable. All truth is precious. All truth is God’s.

Used wrongly, our imaginations restrict our ability to access objective truth by limiting our ability to consider all the relevant data. But used rightly, our imaginations allow us to enter into a greater fullness of truth. We need subjectivity to achieve objectivity. We need postmodernism to achieve the goals of modernism. The diamonds of truth are worth mining for, no matter how dark the coal mine. And it is the work of Christ’s presence to hospitably and empathetically make space for our neighbors’ stories. It is truly a joy to embrace the Imago Dei in each of our neighbors and enemies, seeking natural revelation in unlikely places.

Let us, then, engage our world with humble curiosity and keen interest. We ought to always seek God’s truth in every era, every field of thought, and in every human being. We must examine the data fairly, take our own biases and blinders into account, and let the data we discover continually flesh out our understanding of the fullness of reality. Let us value one another’s stories and seek truth collaboratively, valuing the law of love above all. The journey of knowledge is lifelong. Like Michaelangelo’s prisoners, may we be always becoming, until – praise be! – perfection comes, and the partial disappears.

Notes:

1 Michaelangelo, “Michelangelo’s Prisoners (or Slaves),” AccademiaGallery.Org. Last modified November 2, 2023, accessed April 13, 2024, https://accademiagallery.org/michelangelos-prisoners-or-slaves/.

2 Psalm 19:1-2 (NET), emphasis added.

3 Acts 17:28b (NET).

4 Romans 1:19b-20a (NET).

5 Joseph Rigney, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy,” Desiring God, May 31, 2019, accessed April 13, 2024, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-enticing-sin-of-empathy. See also the YouTube conversation titled “The Sin of Empathy | Doug Wilson and Joe Rigney,” published by YouTube channel Canon Press, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i9a3Rfd7yI&ab_channel=CanonPress.

6 Joseph Rigney, “Empathy, Feminism, and the Church,” American Reformer, January 26, 2024, accessed April 13, 2024, https://americanreformer.org/2024/01/empathy-feminism-and-the-church/.

7 C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 265.

8 Karen Swallow Prior, The Evangelical Imagination (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2023), 12.

9 1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12 (NET).

10 Rhyne Putman, When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 156.

11 James K. A. Smith, in Prior, 13.

12 Prior, 13.

13 Putman, 154.

14 C.S. Lewis, Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 140-141.

15 Ibid., 139.