Friday, May 25, 2007

Truth

Does truth exist? Is it absolute? If God is who Christians of nearly every stripe believe he is, then the answer to both questions is yes.

It's after we've established that general conclusion that the problems begin. Our modern assumptions steer us toward the belief that truth is something that we can contain; truth, like everything else, can be labeled, dissected and neatly tucked away in little boxes in the corners of our finite minds. "All truth is God's truth," after all. If one were to engage in a drinking game involving the number of times that an evangelical speaker appealed to "the Truth," chances are you'd have a good buzz going within the first ten minutes of your average sermon or radio program.

But is it really that simple? If we truly serve an infinite, all-powerful God, can we ever reach a point where even the best of us can honestly say that we fully understand him? At this point many evangelicals will backtrack just enough to acknowledge that we are limited in our ability to know God (and, by extension, his truth), while simultaneously asserting that a believer can nonetheless know everything that's important for us to know about God and his truth.

Setting aside the implication that anything pertaining to God could be unimportant, where did we get the notion that truth is that simple? Ask any number of Christians to define "truth," and as soon as you move beyond the abstract you end up with as many answers as you have answerers.

And there's a big difference between God telling me what I need to know to live my life, and God telling me what I'd need to know to effectively run everyone else's lives. It's understandable why we want to have all of the answers; it can be frightening living in a world where so many things are beyond our control - and yet isn't giving up our right to be in control central to the Christian life? Why, then, are we constantly trying to come up with capital-A Answers that would enable us to control everything (and everyone) around us?

We're so desperate to maintain control that we try to turn the Bible into an instruction manual that will give us a black-and-white answer to every problem we encounter in our lives (and in everybody else's lives). Yet the world wasn't created in black and white; it contains an almost endless assortment of colors, hues and patterns - and even more colors that aren't visible to the naked eye. The only way the Bible can truly remain relevant thousands of years after its writing is if it's not a mere instruction manual. If the Holy Spirit is not free to speak through the pages of Scripture in a way uniquely tailored to each individual reader, then the Bible is just another finite, two-dimensional work.

Nature itself teaches us just how complex the world we live in really is. A single living cell is as complex as a city. Even subatomic particles, once thought to be the smallest building blocks of matter, are made up of smaller things. Yes, there are fundamental physical laws that enable all of these myriad details to work together, but even those laws aren't nearly as simple as we once thought. Add on top of that the myriad ways that those laws interplay as we move from protons and electrons to atoms to protein molecules to living organisms, and the human mind can scarcely comprehend it all.

Human relationships are certainly no simpler. Each of us brings along a unique combination of experiences, memories, opinions, vocabulary, cultural preferences, blind spots, relationships and relational baggage, in addition to the endless ways that biological and environmental factors can shape us, and all of those details complicate our relationships with one another.

Even if one managed to come up with a complete set of basic truths, those truths interplay in countless different ways in our lives, and inevitably they end up in conflict with each other from time to time. Who among us is truly wise enough to declare which truth is more important in any given circumstance? Given that our own perspectives are so finite, and further limited by our own experiences and prejudices, who but an all-knowing God could be capable of sorting it all out without making things even worse? Not that it stops us from continually trying to meddle in matters that aren't nearly as simple as they appear to us.

And who's to say we know anywhere near as much as we think we do? The Medieval church had an elaborate, biblically-based cosmology worked out to explain everything about our relationships with each other and with the physical world, the cosmos and the spiritual realm. It was all very logical and very scriptural, but it had one fatal flaw: it was based on the assumption that the Earth was the center of the universe.

When scientific observation proved that the Earth revolved around the sun, it didn't just shake up a few theologians in their ivory towers - it demolished an entire worldview, which many thousands of highly intelligent thinkers had based all of their assumptions on. The ramifications shook the theological realm to its core, and the church permanently lost a portion of its influence as the Western world advanced into the Renaissance era.

So how do we know that the same can't happen again? For that matter, how can we be certain that it isn't currently happening again? How can we be so positive that we have it all figured out, just because our scientific knowledge and our exegetical methods are more sophisticated than ever? What does it really say about us when we insist that we can't possibly be wrong about the "important" stuff?

That's not to say that the Medieval church was wrong about everything, but it was nonetheless completely wrong about something very significant, and the ramifications of that error played out over the course of centuries.

So why are we so afraid of exercising a little humility in our dealings with others (both outside of and within the church)? Do we really think that Christ's message can't be effectively conveyed if we admit that we don't have all of the answers to everything? Paul didn't seem to think so:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power. (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

Granted, it would be absurd for a person to go through life claiming to know nothing at all, but there's a major difference between that extreme and humbly acknowledging that what we don't know is far more than what we do know - and that we could be wrong about much of what we think falls into the latter category.

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to serve as our guide through life. With that assistance, I can proceed through my daily life with just enough confidence to carry on. Where another person's life is concerned I may be able to provide helpful advice or some other form of assistance, but for me to claim to know what's best for them (either because of my own experience or because "the Bible [allegedly] says so") would be to usurp the Holy Spirit's role in their life.

If taking over a task that God has reserved for himself isn't a sin of pride, it's hard to imagine what could be. I suppose by my own standards I could be wrong about that, but I wouldn't want to place a wager on it.

2 comments:

Justin Ray said...

Absolutism and literalism, I'm afraid, have largely destroyed the foundation of Christianity. Turning to the Bible for black and white answers is putting the Bible above God. Life is hugely and beautifully complex! Of course we can't make definitely rules and guidelines based on the writings to a world 2,000 years outdated!

The paradox of simultaneously claiming that God is mysterious, divine, and "other" while also claiming that the Bible is a step-by-step guide in understanding fascinates me. I prefer to think of God as an imminent part of my life, someone I can access through my thoughts and feelings--someone who isn't other at all. I can know God, feel God, and my thoughts in prayer can even merge with God.

Laws, regulations, and the Bible have their paces, but I love the line from Kingdom of Heaven: "The kingdom of heaven is here and here"--pointing to the heart and the head. If you haven't seen the film, I would say you ought to by reading this post--it is one of my favorite recent ones.

Sorry for the ramblings, and thanks for the post.

Eugene said...

Justin,

Thanks for stopping by and rambling. I did see Kingdom of Heaven, and vaguely remember that line. Maybe that's why I enjoyed the movie more than most reviewers seemed to.