Friday, April 06, 2007

That’s Impossible!

"Self-evident truths" are a reflection of society rather than a reflection of reality.

This is the argument of Peter Berger.

Every society constructs a plausibility structure through which it processes "reality." It is impossible to process experiences or information except from within a plausibility structure. There is no objective reference point from which to understand "truth."

This is not to say that there is no such thing as objective truth. But it is to say that there is no neutral authority to which we can appeal to determine what that truth is. All evaluations of "truthiness" and "realness" can only be made from the context of a community.

My first exposure to this concept of plausibility structures was in the writing of Tim Keller. He focused on the negative aspects of this phenomenon and referred to the "implausibility structure" and "defeater beliefs."

Recently, I have learned more about this from reading Lesslie Newbigin's book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. He explains the key conclusion of Berger's model:

All use of reasoning depends on and is embodied in a tradition.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 53.

This has many implications for followers of Jesus Christ. It explains why so many efforts to present the truth of the Gospel fall flat. If a person's "implausibility structure" (to use Keller's term) considers something impossible, no amount of evidence will persuade that person to change his or her mind. This is what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 2:14:

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

This doesn't mean that "the man without the Spirit" cannot understand the words that are used to communicate the truth about Jesus Christ. It means that "they are foolishness to him" because they are outside his plausibility structure.

The gospel gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision of things from those that shape all human cultures apart from the gospel. The Church, therefore, as the bearer of the gospel, inhabits a plausibility structure which is at variance with, and which calls in question, those that govern all human cultures without exception.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 9.

This has several implications for evangelism, apologetics, biblical interpretation, theology and preaching. I'll explore some of these topics in subsequent posts.

So what do you think? Is Berger's model a good fit? Does it explain things that other ways of looking at the world can't adequately address? What are some of the implications of this perspective?

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"


daniel the smith said...

Isn't this just a restatement of postmodernism where "plausibility structure" is "metanarrative"? Or is there some difference I'm missing?

(Not that that's a bad thing. "Postmodernism" is wildly misunderstood in Christian circles, so maybe starting over with new terms isn't such a bad idea...)

Anyway, I do think this or something like it is a good way to understand things.

Pastor Rod said...


It is probably related to the postmodern idea of metanarrative. But my sense is that it is something slightly different.

The plausibility structure eliminates some data as impossible or irrelevant. It also perceives certain things as self-evidently true.

Newbigin's point is not that there is no universal truth. He believes that Christianity is true for all people everywhere. But there is no neutral authority to which we can appeal to "prove" this truth. It can only be perceived from within the plausibility structure.

When people see Christians behaving in a manner that cannot be explained by their plausibility structure, then they become curious about the content of this alternative view of the world.

But the only way to understand the story of Christianity is from its own plausibility structure, even if that position is taken temporarily.

This does sound a lot like post-modernism. But Newbigin's use of the concept feels rather different. I wish I could explain it better.


Steve Sensenig said...

I find this fascinating. Like I said to you on my blog, this is definitely something worth thinking about.

I'll be honest in saying that I'm having a bit of trouble getting my brain around it, but it feels like it makes sense!! :)

I look forward to reading more.

Amy Diaz - IWU said...

Unless I'm reading this incorrectly, I believe Berger's argument doesn't make sense if you break it down by definition. Self-evident would mean "obvious-fact", which would mean it is obvious in reality not only within society. A truth, which is a fact, can't be a reflection only within a society because it would be considered a belief not truth. Berger's model of pluralism is "right on" with society today. Choices are made every day, which gives people more dependence on themselves rather than a society. People searching for truth, certainty, and realism will look for it with their own ideals in mind. However, truth and reality in some theories can't be independent of each other. This makes the job of evangelists and preachers even harder. Now one has to be very creative in the way they teach the gospel to meet people's understanding of it. Their thoughts and beliefs are not based on society's views alone. The uncertainty of what truth really is makes people yearn for more reality and thought combined.

Pastor Rod said...


It is tempting for Christians to dismiss Berger's observations as just another expression of relativism. But his observations go much deeper than that.

His point is that what some people consider self-evident truth is more a reflection of their culture than it is a reflection of reality.

This view does not require that there is no ultimate truth. But what it does say is that different plausibility structures have different ideas of what that truth is.

But there is something even more profound here.
* There is no "objective plausibility structure."
* An individual cannot process reality except from within a plausibility structure.


amy diaz - iwu said...

I do agree that Berger's observation is profound. How can anything be considered truth if it is only true to that person or culture. That is were the use of the word truth may not be warranted. Thoughts and views that are within a plausability structure are considered by its members only to be truth because they know nothing else. If they had the desire to look for answers outside of their plausability structure because of uncertainty, which is what some people do, then they would discover that the only "universal truth" is the Word of God.

jeff franczak said...

Is our struggle to correctly understand the fullness of reality essentially due to: (1) We are limited creatures trying to comprehend truths that far exceed our abilities (cf. Psalm 119:96); (2) Our ability to perceive, think, and reason is distorted by sin (however, Isaiah 1:18).

Is the following analogy helpful?: there is no cultural bearing on a person born blind being unable to perceive the reality of vision; likewise, the root of our “blind spots” with respect to truth are essentially a result of our limited and sinful condition.

The only possibility of being able to “see” what we cannot, is to be healed of our blindness. Christianity claims that the only one who can heal this blindness is God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, who uses God’s revealed Word to accomplish this work (Titus 3:5, Romans 10:17). Based on my own personal experience, and observing and listening to the testimony of others, it appears that after a person puts their faith in Jesus, an ongoing and gradual process of the removal of blindness continues for a lifetime (1 Cor. 13:8-12).

If we accept that the Bible is the source of objective and ultimate truth, then we should expect that no matter what our cultural and philosophical framework/worldview is when we begin, it will be informed and changed as we seek God and truth in His Word. The “working out” of our framework will be driven by the renewing of our minds (Psalm 119:99-102, Romans 12:2).

In summary, can we say?
1) The solution to our need transcends whatever framework (plausibility structure) we begin with.
2) A Christian’s initial framework (whatever it is) will be radically changed and then necessarily continue to change throughout the process of sanctification.

senovia said...

.Argument of Peter Berger
I think that everyone lives in some kind of plausibility structure from the way we are brought up in church to the way we are raised at home and in the community. Until you venture outside of your comfort zone you will always think inside your plausibility structure. Yes, I believe Berger’s model is good fit. If someone does not believe in what you say, it does not mean that he or she does not understand. It just means that they choose not except what you say.

Elsa Martinez said...

I personally think that it depends on your upbringing of you Christian views. Everyone has their own plausibility structure, but not everyone is open to other people opinions. It really comes down to going back to the basic in reading and teaching God's word. We all have our own opinions,but it goes back to the basic in teaching and reaching other souls for the Lord.

Linda Johnson ASB 735 said...

I think that everything that we believe in is taught to us or we have learned through our plausibility structure. Evidences are matched against what we already consider to be possible. I believe that structures can prevent us from forming new beliefs that are not consistent with evidence such as things we cannot touch, hear, feel, or see. But this can also stop us from personal growth with the Lord. That we all should try to look outside the box, to be open minded to new ideas and opinions. Yes I believe Berger’s model is a good fit

Pastor Rod said...

Elsa & Linda,

The reason that reading the Bible is so important is that encounter with God's Word reshapes our plausibility structures. It changes our idea of what it possible and likely to happen.