Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Wrestling with reality

I know liberals who are discouraged by the anti-intellectual culture among Evangelical Christians in the United States and the lack of genuine and rigorous scholarship even among Christian institutions that purport to offer students the truth but instead of teaching, spend much of their energy "protecting" the truth by shielding students from divergent thinking, indoctrinating them, or disparaging alternative thought.

On the other hand, I know scores of conservatives who make a very legitimate point when they joke that the problem with having an "open mind" is that too often it falls out. They observe our contemporary culture and society in general and fear that we've lost our moral compass and have become hedonists, narcissists, and callused toward God and His law. It seems like their solution is to become authoritarian and absolutist in their demand that others' beliefs and behaviors conform to a monolithic pattern.

Psychologists might see this dichotomy as behaviorists and existentialists. Political scientists might contrast libertarian and totalitarian. From my point of view, Luther sought to reform a church which had become too steeped in legalism and hierarchy but ironically, John Calvin wasn't satisfied with Luther's theology so he came up with a religiosity which again imposed a staunch legalism and again fostered exclucivity. And so the wrestling match between objective and subjective, between intrinsic and extrinsic, between John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, between Hegel and Kierkegaard, and between "Left" and "Right" continues.

I believe that the challenge is to strike a balance. "It is good to grasp the one not let go of the other. man who fears God will avoid all extremes (Ecclesiastes7:18)."

My liberal friends might rely heavily on the historical-critical method and view the Bible more as literature than Divinely inspired Word. Whereas my conservative friends might go beyond a literal interpretation to a literalistic one. Liberals may discount much of Scripture as mystical but conservatives discount much of science and everyday reality as incongruent with their religion.

I believe that the truth is somewhere in between. Here's how someone who made his living talking about what cartoons can tell us about God put it-

If “Truth is subjectivity,” as Kierkegaard could put it, how can we ever agree on “the Truth” without some kind of universally recognized objective standard for knowing the truth? Look at science, for instance. Science has universally recognized criteria for determining truth, and look at the “truths” it comes up with! We can hardly keep up with them. And yet scientists will be the first to tell us that although their method is ideal for determining means, science can’t really remain science and come up with meaning. Science has plenty of “know how,” but it becomes religion as soon as it claims to have the “know why.” The purview of science is with the provable penultimates, “truths,” not with the unprovable Ultimate, “the Truth.” For how could one “prove the Ultimate”- since by definition there can be no higher standard of judgment than “the Ultimate” itself? And yet we would all like to see this happen. This would relieve us from the dreadful responsibility of coming up with our own answers for what “the Truth” is. We would no longer need to have something called “faith.” Hey, presto! Our faith would then be “knowledge.” Truth would be nailed down; it would be objectively secure.

And so in the realm of the Spirit we constantly look for some objective authority, something other than the Spirit itself, that will do this for us- that will prevent us from having to find our own answers. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,’ says Paul (Phil 2:12). But who wants to do this!? Who wants to fear and tremble? It’s much easier to let someone else work it out for you. And so then we set up all sorts of authorities for precisely this purpose. “If this impressive church says it’s true, then it’s true!” “If this flawless authority or this high priest of psychiatry tells me it’s true, it’s true!” … The truth, the Spirit, is not anything I want a direct, passionate, personal relationship with. I’ll just trust in one of these outside authorities to tell me what’s true and what’s the right thing to do. Just let it give me some idea of the minimum expected of me.

~Rev. Robert L. Short, Short Meditations on the Bible and Peanuts, c. 1990
(Short is a Presbyterian minister and the author of The Gospel According to Peanuts, the Parables of Peanuts, the Gospel According to Dogs, and the Gospel According to Dr. Seuss. He holds graduate degrees in theology and literature from S.M.U., North Texas University, and the University of Chicago Divinity School)

Truth isn't a what, it's a who. Truth is not a thing that you can defend or control, it's a person. Jesus called Himself "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." He told the Samaritan woman at the well that the day is coming when God's followers will worship God in Spirit and in Truth. No political, social, cultural, or even religious or theological position is the "Truth." God Himself is Truth. In the excerpt above, Short implies that the Holy Spirit is our source of truth.

The truth is not about some wedge issue, doctrine or dogma, argument or debate, the Truth is that God loves you and wants a personal relationship with and thanks to the sacrifice of His Son on the cross for our sins, we can actually have that relationship. Knowing the Truth can truly set you free. Free to mess up, free to learn and experience, even free to disagree. And that's the truth!

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