The Constructivism of Our Culture and the Danger of Idolatry in the Church

Constructivism is alive and well in American culture. It seems to be driving so much of the current conversation, from marriage, to the nature of family, to human sexuality, to gender identity (watch this example from today’s college campus). We hear the view championed and affirmed in current cultural mantras like “live your truth” or “create your own reality.” 

So what is constructivism? It’s the view that we do not have epistemic access to the world-as-it-is because we are trapped behind our language. Thus, reality, or our knowledge of reality, is socially constructed. That is, the language of a particular community constructs reality for that community. We do not have access to objective truth, just socially constructed “realities.” However, constructivism is intellectually untenable for at least two reasons. 

First, constructivism presupposes the very thing it denies. When constructivists claim that everything is contextual, or that no meanings can exist without context, or that language only works within a particular context, they mean we are trapped inside of language and cannot get out to the world as-it-is-in-itself. Our language does not correspond to reality “out there,” rather our language constructs our world. 

However, what are we to make of this claim itself? Does this claim actually correspond to an extra-linguistic reality which we have access to? Is this claim itself a fact of reality? To be consistent, the constructivist will have to deny this and assert that his statement is itself merely a construction. But if that is the case, then so what? If I am not a part of the constructivist’s community, then why should I talk this way? I suspect most constructivists actually think they have described reality accurately and thus presuppose the epistemic access to an extra-linguistic world they so readily deny. 

Second, constructivism cannot escape the charge of relativism. The constructivist cannot deny he is a relativist regarding truth. However, on his view, truth is not a matter of correspondence to a real world, but a construction of my linguistic community. Thus, all truth is relative to my context or relevant community. 

This is not the equivalent to the “nihilistic” relativism of drunk college freshmen. Rather, this is a community or group relativism, but here is the problem: this view suffers from the same self-referential incoherence that the nihilistic version is subject to. If all truth is relative to my context, then that truth claim itself is relative to a context. It cannot be an objective claim that corresponds to the world-in-itself.

For the Christian, constructivism is not only intellectually untenable, it is also idolatrous. Constructivism does not allow us access to the real world. On this view, we are trapped behind language. However, if this is the case, what is it that keeps us (and our community) from constructing God? 

Surely this danger is evident when Christian authors like Brian McLaren claim, “At some level of profundity and accuracy, we are bound to be inadequate or incomplete all the time, in almost anything we say or think, considering our human limitations, including language, and God’s infinite greatness” (emphasis mine, page 65). Philosopher Scott Smith describes the logical outworking of this view: “We cannot know God as he is in himself, so we must make God by how we use our language. But that result is plainly idolatrous…” (page 127). Indeed, how can we “honor Him as God” (Romans 1:21) if He is reduced down to a construct of human language by our philosophical commitments? How can we avoid breaking the First Commandment?

And now we see this playing out among Christians who have been taken captive by the constructivism of the culture. Christians refashion God and the Gospel into versions of their own making. For example, popular Christian author and Momastery blogger Glennon Doyle Melton has recently announced she is dating a woman after a failed marriage to husband Craig. It’s a tragic situation for all involved, especially her young kids. In her Facebook announcement, Melton said this: 

And now it is my job as a leader not to concern myself too deeply about what you think and feel about me—about the way I live my life. That is what I want to model now, because that is what I want for YOU: I want you to grow so comfortable in your own being, your own skin, your own knowing—that you become more interested in your own joy and freedom and integrity than in what others think about you. That you remember that you only live once, that this is not a dress rehearsal and so you must BE who you are. I want you to refuse to betray yourself. Not just for you. For ALL OF US. Because what the world needs—in order to grow, in order to relax, in order to find peace, in order to become brave—is to watch one woman at a time live her truth without asking for permission or offering explanation. The most revolutionary thing a woman can do is not explain herself.

As this Christianity Today article points out, Melton is pitching a Gospel of self-fulfillment, and additionally, “Melton hasn’t simply said: I should be happy. She has emphatically said: God should be equally and unequivocally committed to my happiness as I am.” Melton’s social construction moves beyond merely her sexuality (“live her truth”) and has overtaken her views of the Gospel and of God Himself. 

Sadly, Melton has a huge following of Christians, many unequipped to think carefully through not only the logic of her views, but also the massive implications. We must equip our people to see the philosophical ideas operating underneath the culture’s movements and trends so that they will not be taken captive as well (2 Corinthians 10:3–5). 

Brett Kunkle (@brettkunkle) is the founder and president of MAVEN, a movement to equip the next generation to know truth, pursue goodness, and create beauty. He has more than 25 years of experience working with youth and parents. Brett has a master’s degree in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology and co-authored the book A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

Brett Kunkle