What is truth?

15813134301_faf9c81d6f_bSnark MeterrealMID.003

Our cultural “believies” and the war against fundamentalism.

Unless you have spent the last two weeks living under a rock you have been stunned by the violence in the name of religion. This is not the first time the news has been bad. And not the first time religion was involved.

In the Christian calendar last Sunday was Christ the King – the one modern day in our liturgical year. Christ the King Sunday was given to us by pope Pius XI at the end of WWI. As hard as it is to imagine, the carnage then was far worse: 18 million died as machine guns, planes, tanks, chemical warfare brought our ability to kill into the modern era.  And an ugly truth: the leaders on both sides claimed to follow Christ.

Pius XI called it, “a failure to remember God.” He thought, “the people need to remember that this world does indeed have a king, but that king is not us. The pope set aside the last Sunday of the Christian year as an acknowledgement of the gracious rule of the King of Peace…and to grieve and groan our failure to walk in the way of peace. It is a day to remember and return – sort of a societal Ash Wednesday.

Christ the King is a powerful idea. But there was another response to the Great War: Rather than deepen religious commitment, some philosophers and politicians sought to eliminate it. The results of the attempt to eliminate religion were staggering. The next 70 years saw the atheistic states of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Amin and the Kmer Rouge kill more people than every religious war in history. Somewhere between 110 and 260 million people died at the hands of those seeking to eradicate religion.

Religion proved far more resilient than they imagined, though. 20% of America was still in church last Sunday. China and Africa are in the midst of the fastest extension of Christianity in history. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are also growing. Social science has acquiesced to a persistent truth: Humans are religious.  Maybe you have noticed that the narrative has changed from “God is dead” to “there are too darn many gods.” But a question remains: What do we do when people behave badly and use religion to justify that behavior? Since eradicating religion didn’t work, today another solution is being tried: To relativize and privatize religion.

You may not know it, but this isn’t the first relevatizing’s first rodeo. Pontius Pilate attempted the same strategy 2000 years ago. (John 18:33-38) Hours before being crucified Jesus was delivered to Pilate’s doorstep by religious leaders begging for his execution. Pilate, of the Roman knight class, was governor – the ancient version of being on a military “remote.” Do well and he would retire to a cushy life. Blow it and he would return home in disgrace. The last thing Pilate wanted was a religious squabble getting out of hand. Going inside he asked Jesus,  “Are you the king of the Jews?” (v.33) Jesus replied,  “My kingdom is not of this world, that’s why my soldiers aren’t fighting.” (v.36) In other words, Jesus wasn’t breaking Roman laws.

Pilate pressed him, “So you are a king?” (v.37) Pilate wants to worm his way out of the sticky political mess outside. Jesus wants to get into the mess that is Pilate’s interior: “I have come to bear witness to the truth.” “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Even on trial, Jesus is inviting Pilate to himself. Pilate shrugs,  and utters the expression forever linked to his name, “What is truth?” (v.38) Then, knowing he is going to condemn an innocent man, Pilate walks out without waiting for an answer.

We all have times when we, like Pilate. don’t want to hear it…times when we want what we want and don’t want others intruding on those wants. Quite the opposite of Christ the King, this is me the king. Comedian Charles CK calls these, “my little believies.” He says, “I have things I believe. I don’t follow them. They just make me feel good about who I am. They are my believies.” “Believies” aren’t new, they’ve been with us since Adam and Eve did what they wanted in the garden. It’s always easier to walk away from truth than to confront where our beliefs lead.

In his book The Reason for God Tim Keller looks at our cultural “believies.” The first “believie”: “There can’t be one true religion.” The claim to exclusivity, we are told, is wrongheaded and dangerous. “After all,” this line of thought goes, “religion is nothing more than a cultural construct – Syrians are Muslim and Americans are Christian because of the culture in which we were raised. The arrogance that arises from the conviction that one has the absolute truth is responsible for the evil in our world.” So, we are told, religion should be condemned and relegated to the purely private sphere of life.

Tim Keller points out, though, that condemning religion is only possible if one holds to some other, some alternate, belief system – and all belief systems require both a “leap of faith” and a perspective of superiority. For the secularist both of these are inherently inconsistent. Keller also argues that privatization is never possible as everyone, no matter what faith or creed, brings a value system into the public discussion.

Now we are hearing a new “believie”: “Religion isn’t the problem. Fundamentalism is.” But be honest, we all have fundamental beliefs. In a pluralistic world the issue isn’t how deeply we hold our beliefs, but where those beliefs lead. Rather than pretending differences do not exist between religions, what if we were honest about them and instead evaluated which set of beliefs lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive toward those with whom they differ? Which set of unavoidably exclusive beliefs lead to humble, peace-loving behavior? Using those criteria, I believe Christianity has much to offer a world in crisis…much more than the secularists solution of relative, culture bound, privatized religion.

How could you possibly trust someone holding the philosophy that truth is relative not to cheat you?

After all how could you possibly trust someone holding the philosophy that truth is relative not to cheat you in business? Not to cheat in your marriage? To finish the job of parenting your children? Oh, a relativist might do all of those things. But there is nothing in their belief system to encourage their dependability. Heck, you can’t even count on the relativist not to crucify the innocent son of God.

The problem with our culture’s believies, is that they leave us with bigger problems than they solve. In contrast to our culture’s “spiritual but not religious” view, the Christian world view teaches:

  1. Truth is Objective (Truth is what is.)

Atheist Bertrand Russell talked about proving a teapot orbiting between earth and Mars.” But my ability to argue the point is irrelevant to that object’s actual existence. Either a teapot is spinning out there or it isn’t. Contrary to the oft repeated myth that truth is relative, Truth is what is, regardless of what I would like it to be. 

  1. Truth is Revealed: Truth is difficult to discern. Luckily we were not left on our own at this point. Truth was revealed generally in nature, but specifically in Jesus Christ and God’s word, the scriptures. Truth is what God says it is…not what I or my culture would like it to be.
  2. Truth is Narrow: The only area in which we struggle with the idea that truth is “narrow” is religion. Think about it…

Do you want a chemist with a broad definition of chemistry? Imagine a “broad” chemist bringing you a glass of H2O2: “What is one little extra atom of oxygen among friends?” Unfortunately H2O2 isn’t water. It’s peroxide. Truth is narrow.

Do you want an accountant who has a broad definition of addition? “Who says 2+2 must = 4? Why can’t it equal 3 or 311?” I’m guessing the IRS auditor will not be sympathetic. Why? Because Truth is narrow.

Do you want a pilot with a broad definition of what constitutes a runway?  “That airport is really busy today, but the freeway is long and straight. How about we set this 737 down on the Interstate?” Truth is narrow.

Do you want a spouse with a broad definition of love? “This is great Janice. Our love is awesome. Why don’t we share it…You have four sisters. Let’s all get married!” The answer to all of these is, No way! Truth is narrow. And finally…

  1. Truth is not private, it’s Personal. For a Christian, truth is not a what, truth is a who. Christian faith is based in the who of Jesus Christ. God loved humanity so completely and so relentlessly, that having seen our rebellion from before creation, God had a plan in place to redeem our fallen world. It involved his son Jesus Christ personally coming to earth, demonstrating a life of peace and self-sacrifice…A life of love and intimacy with his Father. And a life in which our rebellion and God’s wrath would be satisfied by Jesus’ self-emptying love – his personal replacement for you and I on the cross. And we know it worked because three days later Jesus walked from the tomb, seen by scads of people, and was bodily assumed into the clouds before his stunned follower’s eyes. People, truth is personal – bound irretrievably and irrevocably to God’s love for you, personally, through his son, Jesus Christ.

What is truth?

Jesus told Pilate, “I came to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus Christ said, “The truth will set you free.” And Jesus said, “I am the truth.” Looking at Jesus, his friend John wrote, “To all who receive him. Even to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” For Jesus, this is personal. It is about you and I becoming family with God.

What do we do with Truth?

The great need for truth in our day is not to win the argument for absolute truth’s existence, but to walk in humility as children of the True One. What part of the truth of Christ’s kingship over your life bugs you? What do you not want to wait around and hear? Where are you passing the buck or fearing another’s agenda in your life? When you see the news do you fear? Or do you see God’s opportunity to share the love and light of Christ? The world cannot afford for you and I to privatize our faith. If you are the follower of a King whose kingdom is not of this world, despair not – light shines brightest in the darkness. The world most needs light when it is dark outside.

(An adaptation of a sermon. To watch that sermon click the graphic. Sermon starts 17 minutes in.)

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4 thoughts on “What is truth?

  1. Truth is hard to know. Missing an objective reality by a mile or an inch should make a difference but it is fundamentally dependent on what terms we can agree upon: What do you mean by a teapot, what consists of such an orbit?
    If we stumble on such definitions, we may, as in geometry, end up with different, contradictory but correct, constructs by which we attempt to describe the physical or more importantly the metaphysical universe around us.
    What Euclid attempts in a theoretically flat-planed Universe barely survives his own first sixteen ‘proofs’ as Lobachevsky shows in a universe that is curved.
    We don’t ‘do’ philosophy let alone theology anymore and the loss of a way of thinking limits our social contract to those few clauses that are totally able to be agreed upon and that leaves scant little of real value beyond the denotive, blue is blue, God is Good, God Exists, God does not exist. Tautologies prove nothing. A circle is round. So what?
    Assertions as truth, worked well enough for the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”), two and a half centuries ago but just because we say it is so doesn’t make it true, nor does it make our courts more just, nor men more fair, nor our union more perfect.
    The same holds for arguments about the nature of God in His creation and our relationship with each other through our relationship with Him. Christ is King because we know and assert we need a king, a supreme existence whose love is never defeated (Romans 8:35-38). It is true because we need it t be true or else we risk a brief lifetime of riding a cold rock in orbit and we are the teapot, devoid of all connotative value. I choose the narrative of my existence and then bet eternity on it.

    • Hi Ron. Hope you are well!

      Because we are betting this life and the next on our narrative, a lot is at stake. Truth may be difficult, but difficult and impossible are different. When we choose a narrative it seems to me that the three obvious questions are: 1) Does that narrative correspond to reality as you find it? (Is it true?) Does it provide meaning for you? (Does it answer your existential needs?) And does it have a positive effect on the world when embraced? (What is the fruit of that narrative in pluralistic societies?) In all three regards we can evaluate those narratives….and should, since so much is indeed at stake.

  2. Matt,

    Greetings! Hope you are well. If this post is not appropriate in this forum, please move or remove it – I promise no hard feelings!

    Its been some months since I commented on your 5-4 blog entry. I still pray for you, and hope you will pray for me.

    I must confess that I don’t visit all that often, and surely I’ve missed a lot of what you’ve written in the past several months. I did see the above not long after it was posted, and I almost commented when I first read it. Great essay, BTW, and I agree wholeheartedly! But each time I started to comment I could hear the words of my dear Mother echoing in my mind. “If you can’t say something nice. . . . . . ” 😉

    However, events of the past weeks have prompted me to write.

    As great as the above was to read, I could not help but wonder if you got any push back from within your denomination or even if you might have been disciplined for publishing this, as it seems to be so very much at odds with the current doctrine of the Episcopal Church USA – particularly in the areas of Marriage and Family, and Human Sexuality.

    I think I might have said previously that I hope your convictions to Biblical teachings don’t get you in trouble with your denomination. If I failed to say it before, then I’m saying it now.

    Again, forgive me if I’m being presumptuous – but my spiritual life has been so profoundly affected in the past couple years by the writings of various former Protestants who came home to Mother Church – I can only commend to you that the door is open. As they say in the Motel 6 commercials, we’ll leave the light on for you! 🙂

    Peace to you, Matt, and may GOD continue to Bless you!

    • Hi Thomas.
      I appreciate your concern for my well-being.
      The Episcopal Church is a pretty diverse group-which you do not get from the media or elements of the blogosphere. There are places where those who feel that theological innovation is above our pay grade are vilified and others where we are held in high esteem. (Both of which have their attendant dangers, as I am sure you are aware.) I am currently in a place to which I am convinced God has called me and one that values my contribution.

      I too read and appreciate the experience of many who have “swum the Tiber.” I swam the other way and have made it half way back. I am convinced that, at its best, the evangelical catholicism of the Episcopal church is a great gift to the Body of our Lord. At its worst it is a grotesque smudge. Will we become the “better angels of our nature” (to quote Lincoln), or go the other way? Time will tell.

      May the light of the radiance of the glory of God in the face of Christ be your in this time after the Epiphany.


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