Truth matters… but what is truth?

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.

Some of the bitterest battles are between Christian and Christian

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.

Unconditional love trumps uncompromising truth

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?

The truth is always bigger and more complex than we know

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.

Truth and Love are united in the person of Christ

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.

Disagreeing respectfully

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.

What we believe matters, but how we believe and practice often matters more

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.

Love Wins

Truth matters –
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.”

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Emerging, Faith, Fundamentalism, Love of God, Post-modernism, Theology, Truth and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Truth matters… but what is truth?

  1. Julian Staniforth says:

    I skim read and think you may have said this, but the thought that occurred, based on the passage “I am the way, the truth……” is that Truth like Love is the person of Jesus Christ through whom we see the fullness of God.

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  2. Harvey Edser says:

    Hi Julian, lovely to hear from you! How’s everything going?

    Yes, I totally agree and I do make a similar point:

    “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.

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  3. PS I have a bad habit of adding to my posts after publishing, as new thoughts occur to me or as I realise that what I said needs qualifying.

    I’ve just added a new section ‘How versus what you believe’ plus a few other minor edits. Enjoy. 🙂

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  4. Terry says:

    Harvey, if you fancy a good read, you could try Roger Olson’s Reformed and Always Reforming (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reformed-Always-Reforming-Postconservative-Evangelical/dp/0801031699/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1307003946&sr=8-3). Don’t feel trapped by all the Reformed conservatives out there!

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    • Thanks Terry. I’m not so bothered by the Reformed Cons now, for myself at least – most of the time I’m happy knowing they’re wrong (or right but in the wrong way). 🙂 But I do think they do a lot of damage to a lot of people, so I like to fulminate against them from time to time. In a humble spirit of generosity and respect, you understand.

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  5. Drew says:

    Hello, I’m pretty new to your blog and have found it very helpful. I just wanted to post a quote that really has helped me in how I talk about Truth. It’s by James Freeman Clarke.

    “To speak the truth, or what seems to be truth to us, is not a very hard thing, provided we do not care what harm we do by it, or whom we hurt by it. This kind of “truth-telling” has been always common. Such truth-tellers call themselves plain, blunt men, who say what they think, and do not care who objects to it. A man who has a good deal of self-reliance and not much sympathy, can get a reputation for courage by this way of speaking the truth. But the difficulty about it is, that truth thus spoken does not convince or convert men; it only offends them. It is apt to seem unjust; and injustice is not truth. Some persons think that unless truth is thus hard and disagreeable it cannot be pure. Civility toward error seems to them treason to the truth. Truth to their mind is a whip with which to lash men, a club with which to knock them down.”

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    • Hi Drew, thanks so much for your kind comments, and welcome to the blog! I’d be very interested to hear more of your story.

      That’s a great quote and I agree with every word of it. Sounds like I need to find out more about James Freeman Clarke… 🙂

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  6. David Holland says:

    In the spirit of Mr. Clarke via Drew, the purpose of the Truth is part of the nature of the Truth. What this means to me is that the goal of the Truth must be to build up, encourage, correct, in short to make better (heal, maybe even redeem).

    Consider for a moment that the wrath of God is a real thing. The bible clearly identifies this attribute of God. If God’s wrath is a real thing (as I believe it must be) then finding a way to convey the possibility of such is an essential part of telling the “truth” about God. If I want to convey that knowledge to someone who doesn’t understand my language, yelling at them louder doesn’t help. If I really care about the Truth, I need to look to God and do my best to find a way to convey that message in a way that is comprehensible to my audience (maybe it isn’t the one to start with). Finding a way to convey the possibility of God’s love isn’t so much different.

    If I get it right they may stone me as they did Stephen, but how fruitless would it be to be stoned simply because you were obnoxious 🙂

    As you said in your Creed – Spiritual warfare it not something to be undertaken lightly.

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    • Thanks David – interesting stuff. 🙂

      About the wrath of God, I wouldn’t see wrath as a divine attribute exactly. We can say that God is love, and light, and life (albeit in metaphorical senses); we can’t really say God is wrath. Divine anger is, in my view, merely a function or a result of divine love; the God who is Love must be angry when what he loves is harmed or destroyed or enslaved.

      Like you say though, wrath may not be the one to start with!

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      • David Holland says:

        Interesting.
        But if we can talk about the love of God and we can talk about the wrath of God I’m not certain the distinction isn’t arbitrary.

        I have been mulling over, “created in His image”. As I think about it there is a reduction in the nature of God when I see Him like myself (even a much larger and grander me). The key, I think is to see myself like Him. Before you take up stones (metaphorically of course), I believe this relationship must exist and that having this mind in us is part of understanding who we are and who we are to become.
        When you say His wrath is an extension of His love I think I understand why you might feel that way. Love wants the best not the expedient. Still judgement has its place as part of His office and wrath lives there. If you refuse to let my love heal you, if you cut yourself off, if your foolishness drives such a grievous result will I be angry? Are we created in His image?

        Love still wins – but there can be losers, we don’t get participation ribbons 😉

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        • I think this is probably going to be one of those things we disagree on with (hopefully) mutual respect. 🙂

          I see God’s wrath as an extension of his love because I believe that in his essential nature He is Love, not wrath. Love is the fundamental, permanent and necessary expression of God’s very being. Wrath by contrast is a temporary and contingent characteristic, an expression of deep opposition to that which causes harm, which violates against love (i.e. against God’s very nature). God is love. God isn’t wrath; he sometimes gets angry for a short time because he is love. (Others would qualify that he is Holy Love; I accept this but see it as almost tautologous.)

          I don’t know whether we can cut ourselves off permanently from God’s love. My hope is that ultimately God will get what God wants, which is the redemption and restoration of all. But only God knows whether that is possible.

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  7. RAY RAY says:

    I have sought and found what I fervently believe is the true truth, but I cannot embrace an unconditional love of anything or any kind. I fear and believe this level of love lays one open to all matter of infestation. That makes me a non-Christian. But, I’m glad we can agree to disagree.

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    • It may just be that we understand different things by the term ‘unconditional love’. I just mean the kind of love a young child has for his mum and dad, or that a dad has for his kids. I get angry and frustrated with my kids, but nothing that I can think of is going to stop me loving them. I believe that’s the kind of love God has for each of us. It does lay God open to all manner of pains and problems – including crucifixion if the Christian story is to be believed – but that’s the nature of love.

      I don’t mean love that sets no boundaries or appropriate limits; I can’t and won’t give my kids everything they want, nor let them do anything they like to me. But I do mean love that goes on loving and seeking their best no matter what.

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