Monday, October 17, 2022

What is Truth?

 What is Truth?

The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins

October 17, 2022

 Pontius Pilate’s famous question for Jesus is often taken as a parody of his actual ignorance.  At the very least, it was dripping with cynicism.

 But what if it was a good question?  And what if it is a good question for us to ask ourselves?

 Every age of history can be seen as a struggle for the truth. Ours is no different. The battle lines are being sharply drawn, and those of us who consider ourselves progressive Christians may have a much more important role to play than we have gotten used to over the past 50 years as our numbers and influence has dwindled.

 In my first congregation’s little chapel (seating about 30 people), the east wall was dominated by an over-sized round window, probably five feet across. In the middle was a sword superimposed over a Bible with the citation:  Ephesians 6:17. “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  This verse is part of the “put on the whole armor of God” passage (6:10-17), which includes “fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”  The author wants us to be ready for spiritual battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

 It's a passage that sounds tailor-made for those who espouse conservative and nationalistic views.  But it begs several questions:  Who are the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil?  How does the word of God function like a sword?  And, yes, What is truth?

 A friend from church and I sat through a “Rally for Truth” recently in the village square just down the street (aptly named “Liberty Street”) from our church.  We went because we weren’t certain exactly what was going on. We feared that Christian Nationalism would be front and center.  It wasn’t, at least not explicitly, but the “talk” which was part of the program did have the topic of “Truth.”

 The speaker used a blizzard of analogies, peppered with biblical references (mostly from John’s Gospel), to prove that the world was run by Absolute Truth, and we had a decision to make, whether to follow and adhere to that Truth or not.  He said one thing that particularly struck me:  “We have a choice about where to get our Truth from.  Does it come from the mind of man or the word of God?”

 My friend and I looked at each other and said “What?”  The distinction did not track for us.  I’ll come to why that’s the case in a moment, but first it must be said that the speaker was expressing both an old Truth for a significant part of Protestantism, and a very contemporary way of interpreting our contemporary world and understanding the state of politics in (at least) the United States.

 At a recent meeting of the National Conservatism Conference, there was a great deal of talk about the nature of the current divisions in US politics, and a lot of that talk was explicitly religious.  Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri declared, “Without the Bible there is no America.”  It was a statement that could be reasonably debated.  But he went on to accuse the “left,” especially in its social agenda, of having as their “real target . . . the inheritance of the Bible.”  “What they particularly dislike about America is our dependence on biblical teaching and tradition.”

 Of course, this statement is a politician’s setting up of a “they” scarecrow, a caricature of their opponents, obviously wrong and easily knocked down.  The problem is in its description of themselves.  Just who is this “our?”  And what is this “biblical teaching and tradition” upon which they depend?  And what does it mean for those of us in Christian traditions that have a very different understanding of and belief in “biblical teaching and tradition?”

 Another speaker answered that question.  We who have a different Christian perspective have become captives of “woke” religion.  Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “argued the divide in the country was one between Christian theology and a ‘woke religion that is raising itself up as the official state ideology,’ adding that ‘insofar as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims.’”

 Now it is clear from the context of this quote that “woke religion” does not directly refer to progressive Christianity, but to a general “left,” a “new age secularism” that is increasingly speaking in religious (i.e., absolutist) language.  Said one speaker, “Progressivism has taken on increasingly religious overtones.”  One shouldn’t entertain any doubt, however, that these folks consider progressive religious traditions in the same way.

 So, back to Pilate’s question and the notion that Truth is both absolute and comes either from the “mind of man” or “from God.”

 Of course, the reason my friend and I reacted to that distinction the way we did was that we are both traditional Episcopalians, schooled in an understanding that revelation (aka, “the Truth”) is given, yes, through the Bible, but also through the tradition of Christian experience through the ages, and the God-given ability for men and women to reason.  This means we can never use a word about the Bible that the speaker on the village square did that day: “inerrant.”

 And it may be even more simple and fundamental than that.  I don’t much like using the term “fundamentalism” as a negative, for we all have our fundamentals that shape the rest of our faith and action.  I agree with John Booty, that for Episcopalians/Anglicans our fundamental is wholeness. And as a way of understanding what he means, he quotes Richard Hooker, perhaps the greatest of early Anglican theologians:

 God hath created nothing simply for it selfe: but ech thing in all things of everie thing ech part in other hath such interest that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto anie thing created can saie, I need thee not. (Sermon on Pride)

 Hooker’s insight was that we participate in God and God in us, we participate in one another, we participate in the creation and the creation in us.  God’s most basic desire is for relationship, and not just for God’s own self, but for the community of humankind and the community of creation. In short, love.

 If wholeness is our fundamental than what is truth?  Whatever brings us into and keeps us in relationship with God is true.  Whatever brings us into relationship with one another and keeps us in it is true. Whatever brings us into and keeps us in relationship with the creation is true.

 My friend and I and the speaker at that rally in the square could agree that Jesus is the Truth, and being in relationship with him is the ultimate spiritual goal of the Christian.  But I fear we would soon part company.  For us, when Jesus says he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), he does not mean three separate things.  The way, truth, and life are the same thing.  Which means the truth is something you do. You do the truth as you follow the way and live the life that Jesus asks of us.  The truth can only be rightly understood as a verb. That is the only thing that can keep it from being just another absolutist idol that we use in our human project to divide us from them.

 So we do the truth when we love our neighbors as ourselves.  We do the truth when we strive to honor and uphold the inherent dignity of every human person (full stop, no exceptions). We do the truth when we work tirelessly for justice and peace in our world.  Those are our values. Call them biblical, call them Christian, call them “moral,” if you want but we may never call them anything that ends up with a world divided instead of whole.

 Some will say this is the easy path.  To which I can only say as someone who strives to practice it, “Are you kidding me?”  It is the hardest thing in the world.  Division is always easier than wholeness. Always.

 The “sword of the Spirit” is not an altogether helpful metaphor because it is easily seen as a metaphor of division.  That is what swords do when they are swung. They divide things.  And this seems to be the intent of a similar use of the image in the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12):  “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  But what is being divided/judged?  “The thoughts and intentions of the heart” sound to me like primarily relational matters.  The word of God helps me discern the rightness or wrongness, the helpfulness or unhelpfulness, of my own thoughts and intentions.  Yes, first mine before I take a crack at yours.  Take the log out of your own eye, you’ll remember Jesus saying, before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye (Matt. 7:3, Luke 8:21).

 I do not believe that we can know anything approaching absolute truth this side of death.  It may be our goal, but it is something we only glimpse, as that same Letter to the Hebrews says was true of all our ancestors in the faith.  “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (11:13).  This lines up with Paul’s statement:  “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, only then will we see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).  We “know only in part,” he says.

 I like the adjective “ultimate” better than “absolute” for truth because it carries a future orientation.  And in that future orientation, I also like the word “true” better than “truth.”  “What is true?” seems to me a question for the journey.  “What is truth?” is a question for the destination.  “What is true?” is a question we can experience, disagree about, struggle to answer, with both the word of God and our God-given brains (including our God-given emotions) as partners in the conversation.  “What is truth?” is something we will finally rest in together in the future that belongs to God.

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