How do we know what is real? And, if we grant that what we see and experience is real, how do we know that we’re perceiving it accurately? Some would say that those are quaint and irrelevant questions, because reality is personal and subjective. (Is that a true statement? How would we know?)
Tracie, a talented photographer and blogger, nicely illustrated the difference between what we might call objective reality and a personal perception of reality. Tracie’s post features her evocative photo of a deserted beach after a storm. She described how she had edited out some footprints because she wanted to communicate a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Therefore, her photograph is not an exact representation of the physical reality, but it is a more accurate expression of her experience of the reality. (Please visit Tracie’s blog directly to fully appreciate her photography and her words.)
So, what is reality?
From the days of the Enlightenment until very recently the prevailing view of reality has been that our physical universe is real and that it is empirically discoverable through scientific inquiry. That era has been labeled, among other things: modernism.
Scientific and technological advances have indeed been impressive over the last century, but disease, poverty and wars still plague the earth. Disappointment with modernism’s failures and excesses (like materialism, consumerism and globalism) have given rise to a philosophy called postmodernism. Both a rejection and extension of modernism, postmodernism proposes that reality is individual, socially constructed, and different for every person and culture. Reality is created, not discovered; explored, not explained.
Is reality self-existent and empirically observable, or is it socially and culturally constructed? Both? Neither? Who cares?
As a Christian, I believe that objective truth and reality exist independent of human understanding and are found in God. He has expressed himself, ultimate reality, throughout his creation and through his Word. Physical laws of nature are true and they are in force within creation. God also put moral statues in place, and they are just as true as physical laws. Reality exists.
Tracie’s stirring photograph is an honest expression of her experience of the beach on that day. The beach, with its footprints on the day she took the photo and as it stands today, is also objectively real in itself.
Christians tend to get nervous around the idea of personal perceptions of reality. We feel the need to defend the notion that objective truth and reality have been revealed by God.
There are foundational Christian truths revealed in Scripture that all believers accept as absolutely true. (If they didn’t they would not be Christians.) But sincere and genuine believers disagree over many theological “truths” like baptism (infant or adult), predestination (Calvinism) or free will (Arminianism), the role of women in the church, and many more.
Cultural expressions of Christianity also vary widely, for Christian reality can be lived out in any and every culture under the sun.
The essential, and non-negotiable, reality of Christianity is that it is a relationship with a real Savior, who lived a real life in human history, died a real death and rose from the grave in victory over sin and death.
And yet each individual’s relationship with Jesus Christ is a unique and personal experience.
What do you think? How do you recognize reality? Do you think reality is universally understood or personally experienced or both? Is there a risk that technology entices us to create our own “reality” rather than knowing and experiencing true reality? Or does this all just give you a headache?
“These are shadows of things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Colossians 2:17