This continues on from the previous post (Evidence and equivocality), which finished with a plea for Christians to reach across battle lines to love and listen to each other.
In John’s gospel, two of the last things Jesus did before he died were to lay down a new and final command for his followers that they love one another as he had loved them, and then to pray for them that they would be one; that in their diversity they would be united. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Too often we’ve interpreted this as loving only those who agree with us, and fighting those who don’t. Some of the bitterest and deadliest battles are not between believer and atheist, or between Christian and Muslim (or Jew or Buddhist), but between Christian and Christian – those who support female or gay ordination and those who oppose it; those who accept the science of evolution and those who reject it as unbiblical; those who believe in a literal eternal hell and those who believe all will ultimately be saved, and so on.
However, as I said before, the standard conservative cry is ‘But Truth Matters!’. We simply cannot compromise on biblical truth, they insist. Those who reject God’s Word are rejecting God, and if they do not repent we cannot in conscience acknowledge them as fellow Christians.
An uncomfortable experience
I had an uncomfortable and very relevant experience yesterday afternoon. Walking home from work (so much of what ends up on this blog seems to happen then), I was praying for God’s work in a particular situation, and appealing to Jesus’ once-for-all redemptive act on the cross as the reason why God should act. Suddenly I felt an enormous and deeply troubling conviction that I had to accept the evangelical doctrine of penal substitution, that I had to see Christ’s atoning blood as the central and only reality, the sole truth that matters. The emotion – for it surely wasn’t rational – was for a time almost overwhelming and left me with a painful anxiety.
It wasn’t till I neared home and saw my 5-year-old son pelting up the road to meet me, beaming all over his face and with arms outstretched – a kind of reversed prodigal homecoming – that I was able to let go of my anxiety. Unconditional love trumps and transcends uncompromising truth.
In my more strictly evangelical days I might have ascribed the whole experience to the voice of God, or perhaps (given the anxiety) to an attack of the accuser. Now I’m more inclined to put it down to a kind of psychological hangover or spiritual trapped wind, a powerful momentary flashback to a time when the fear of a literal hell held considerable sway over me.
It was an unpleasant episode, but it did give me a brief insight into the mindset – or emotions – of more fundamentalist and fearful believers. I can fully understand the emotional power that a particular conception of religious truth can have over people, especially when it is associated with the conviction that our own and other people’s souls and eternal destinies depend on accepting this truth. It’s easy to see how a kind of religious panic can grip even large groups of people – look at the profound effect on its hearers of Jonathan Edwards’ terrifying 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, associated with the Great Awakening revival (Love Wins it ain’t). But I just don’t believe that, for the most part, these emotions are healthy or helpful.
So when people shout ‘Truth matters’, I suspect that what often underlies this is not primarily rational or even strictly spiritual, but emotional – the fear of hell perhaps, or the need to be right, or the need to belong, or to shore up a particular sense of identity. Truth does matter, but sometimes our feeling that our version of truth is of utterly critical importance is little more than that – a feeling.
No place for Truth?
When we were in Kenya recently, a fellow team-member was reading a book called No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? by David F. Wells. Intrigued, I looked it up and found that this book had formed the basis for The Cambridge Declaration of 1996, an uncompromising and antagonistic statement of conservative evangelical ‘truth’. The Cambridge Declaration (according to Wikipedia) is ‘a call to repentance for the evangelical church in order to reaffirm the historical Christian [Protestant] truths that are articulated by The Five solas’. It makes penal substitution a cornerstone doctrine, rejects the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic church and is highly critical of charismatic expressions of worship.
The Cambridge Declaration represents, for me, a sad misunderstanding and even an abuse of the concept of Truth. It is ungenerous in its orthodoxy, rigid in its interpretation, obsessed with doctrinal correctness and overly concerned to set up boundary-markers that divide and exclude. This is not, I strongly suggest, what Christian truth is about.
What is truth?
I’m not for one moment saying that truth doesn’t matter; that there’s no such thing as truth, or all truths are equal, that truth is relative and it doesn’t matter what you believe. On the contrary I believe that we should all passionately and diligently be seeking after truth, and living in the light of what truth we currently have.
All I’m saying is that none of us should be so arrogant as to assume that we have a complete handle on the whole Truth. The truth is always bigger and more complex than we know, perhaps than we can know; it can embrace paradox and difference and even uncertainty. At best we only ever have a limited and partial perspective, not the full picture, and the chances are the lenses we’re seeing through are foggy and scratched – we see ‘through a glass darkly’ and will often mistake or misinterpret what we see. (Sorry, I seem to remember that I argued all this before in my piece on agnosticism.)
Conservatives and fundamentalists will protest with ‘sola Scriptura!’, arguing that the Bible is God’s Truth, full stop. But, even if this is so (and I’m not entirely sure it is), the Bible needs interpreting; we can’t just read truth out of it like facts out of an encyclopaedia. And our interpretations are inevitably flawed and partial.
Truth and love
Secondly, though truth does matter it is not all that matters. Sometimes it is not even what matters most. Love matters; relationship matters; people matter. Sometimes these things may matter even more than one particular, partial view of truth.
Indeed, the fully Christian understanding of Truth is fundamentally relational and loving rather than abstract or propositional. “I am the Truth,” Jesus declares; the truth for Christians is found first and foremost in Christ, who is Love incarnate; and that truth is mediated through our relationship with him and with the believing community – Christ’s body. We discover and work out truth in this context of community, within and through these relationships – in love, in other words.
So for the Christian, Truth and Love are inextricably entwined; they are fully united in the person and work of Christ. This means that any truth that is not loving is not genuinely Christian truth. Truth presented and disseminated without love is not Christian truth. I’d argue that you can die for truth – as, in a sense, Jesus did – but never kill for it; when you do, it ceases to be truth in the Christian sense.
We’re all very different people and we’re not all going to agree on a huge range of issues, some highly important, some much less so (even deciding which issues are really important and which aren’t is something we’ll disagree on). But as long as we genuinely seek to follow Christ and call him in any sense Lord or Teacher, we must learn to disagree in mutual love and respect, not with accusation and condemnation, nor with prejudice and name-calling.
Some will say, that’s all very well and nice, but Jesus was far from polite to his religious opponents – he called the Scribes and Pharisees things like hypocrites, brood of vipers, whited sepulchres, children of the devil. This is true. Yet notice that the only people Jesus ever insulted like this were the religious bigots, the ultra-conservatives, the guardians of public morals, the ones who thought they alone were right and righteous and therefore better than everyone else. It was not their religious beliefs or their moral views that Jesus was criticising (arguably, he probably agreed with many of these); rather, it was their self-righteousness, their hypocrisy, their lack of love and compassion. It was the way they held their beliefs that got Jesus riled, not so much the content of those beliefs.
How versus what you believe
I’m aware that I was recently fairly rude and dismissive of belief in the literal Rapture as espoused by Harold Camping and Tim LaHaye. Perhaps I could have been more generous-spirited; it’s easy to get a cheap laugh out of this kind of thing. It’s a tricky one, and highlights the other side of the concern for truth. Getting your beliefs as badly wrong as Mr Camping can have a devastating impact on the lives of real people – as tragically evidenced by the mother who killed herself and her children to escape the coming tribulation.
In this sense, the doctrines you believe and preach and live do matter; of course they do. But they matter not because they can condemn you to (or keep you from) eternal hell after death, but rather because they can condemn you and others to (or keep you from) unnecessary pain and suffering here and now.
The Harold Camping example again shows that how we believe and practise is often more important than exactly what we believe. I’m sure there are many people who believe in the Rapture and who live fantastic lives, caring for people and planet. But when any theology becomes a stick to beat people with or an exclusive ticket out of responsibility, it’s gone badly wrong.
I said in my Love Wins post that there are three ways to believe in an eternal hell – reluctantly and sorrowfully, wishing it were not so; fearfully, haunted and driven mad by the thought of who might be going there; or vindictively, glad that enemies will be suffering there forever. Again, it’s not the belief itself that is at issue (though I don’t personally believe in an eternal hell); it’s how the belief is held and practised, and the effect that has on people’s lives.
That’s my problem with statements like the Cambridge Declaration. The beliefs expressed may or may not be correct (I don’t think they are); but it’s the spirit in which they are expressed which tragically misses the point, replacing generosity with judgementalism, humility with arrogance, and open-heartedness with narrow-mindedness. Christian truth is relational; it can never be separated from love or reduced to abstract doctrinal propositions without damaging, even destroying, it.
but Love Wins
If I believe that God is a giant chicken called Bob, and if that belief leads me to live a life of compassion and care for others, then it’s a better – perhaps even a ‘truer’ – belief than if I have a correct understanding of the Trinity but use that to judge and condemn others. “If I have not love…”
Truth matters; but Love Wins. Unconditional love trumps and transcends uncompromising truth; in fact, it fulfils it.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”