Monday, June 28, 2004

What is Truth?

As mentioned previously, this certain bishop said that the great thing about the postmodern era is that people "realize there are multiple realities." He then proceeded to talk about "living into the questions" and ambiguity as a Christian value in itself. However, this idea that every truth must be balanced by an equal and opposite "truth" in order to find God's truth is logically silly, and indicative of a worldview shaped more by Foucault than Jesus.

I believe it was the former who taught the last couple of generations that any claim to an absolute truth is actually an attempt by the powerful to solidify their control over those with little or no influence. In other words, power is knowledge, instead of the other way around. Therefore in a purely pomo worldview, to claim an absolute truth is to assume the role of an oppressor.

Jesus, however, said that the truth would make us free. He said that he is the truth. I think it must be both relational and propositional. And I think the truth can only be and do what the truth is and does if it is those things over and against other "truths." That is, lies. In other words, can we have a truth if nothing is a lie?

Frankly, I live my life among men and women who know their sexuality only as a curse, not a blessing, and their close relationships as power struggles and sources of pain instead of wholeness. Why? Because we believe all kinds of lies about God, ourselves and the world. If there is not an overriding truth that will reveal others "truths" to be the lies they really are, nobody's going to be healed.

Is there a word from God that is definitive? That can be trusted? That will enable us to cling to him when all of the lies scream at us so much louder than the truth?

I'm betting that there is, in the apostolic tradition. The faith once delivered to the saints. That the original communities' experience with Jesus can really be normative for us. How can we translate it faithfully instead of merely copying customs and mindlessly repeating ancient creeds? How can we own it and live it? I hope to find out.

But I'm not afraid. I don't have to try to "live the questions." The questions come out of the life I live anyway. It's the answers, and ultimately the Answer who is Christ that I am working to live into.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

I have two points to make. But that will take a while.

As God's word says in John 18:38--what is truth? Of course that's Pilate talking to Jesus on the day before the crucifixion, and Jesus has just said the sort of opaque things that confuse people in John ("I came into the word to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me," etc). So Pilate wonders, what is true? What is meaningful?

If I continue my bad habit of reading the Bible like a piece of literature, all of John 18 seems to me an exploration of the idea of meaning. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus in the garden and ask for him, he replies by saying "I am he." I am not a Greek scholar, but my interlinear Bible shows that in the Greek the direct object "he" is implied--Jesus in fact says, "I am." Hearing this, the guards fall down. Why? I have heard it suggested that when Jesus said, "I am," the guards (who would be Hebrews and thus speaking Aramaic with Jesus) might have mistook him for speaking the name of YHWH. "I AM," indeed. Jesus's answer is mistaken for blasphemy, which is a further mistake because Jesus of all people can speak the name of God unashamedly. What is truth? "I AM," or "I am"? Is there a deeper meaning?

In verse 14 the author(s) mentions in passing that Caiaphas had suggested one man should die for the good of the people (full story in John 11:50-53). But if there's a villain in the story, it's him! How can he have a vision from God that Jesus's death will reunite and save the entire nation of Israel? How could God reveal such a truth to (what the story portrays as) such an evil man? What purpose could there be?

Peter says three times that he is not Jesus's disciple. Is he telling the truth, or not? He had just tried to stop Jesus from being arrested by cutting off one of the guard's ears, even though Jesus had wanted to go. He was not following Jesus. Is he a disciple at this point, or is he not? The very last episode recorded in John is a scene between Jesus and Peter that mirrors the denial. In my Bible the passage has the heading "Jesus reinstates Peter." Perhaps Peter is telling the truth here, and instead of denying Christ he's just admitting publicly a decision he's made internally.

Meanwhile, Jesus is being questioned by the priests about his teachings. He responds that they and many others were present when he taught in the temple; surely they do not need him to go over it again. Someone hits him. Jesus asks, "If I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?"

After Pilate sneers at Jesus (interesting for a man responsible for executing laws to scoff at the idea of truth), the crowd calls for the release of Barabbus, instead of Jesus. Jesus has been charged with rebelling against Rome by claiming to be King of the Jews. Ironically, this is the very crime--rebellion--of which Barabbus is ACTUALLY guilty.

So what is truth? The only answer Jesus gives is a few pages earlier. His disciples ask him how they can go where he is going. Jesus answers, "I am the way, the truth and the life." An apostolic faith, by which I think you mean a faith like those who originally lived and worked with Jesus, is a faith that wants to travel with him when he leaves. The WAY comes first, and not the truth. Traveling with Jesus, not knowing the truth. All we need to know:

"If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well."

The Foucaultian belief that language and truth are things intentionally or unintentionally limited by authorities and institutions is very powerful, but I'd suggest another equally postmodern way to counter it. And this is not something that relies on notions of Truths "out there" somewhere that we must "discover."

The pragmatic criterion of meaning, put forth by Pierce, simply claims that truth is the explanation that currently works best. All meaning is made up of expectations: we expect the universe to behave a certain way, and we call this certain way "the law of nature" or "the way things are" or "truth." Something happens that defies our expectations, we experiment and revise what we think is true. Truth is merely a shorthand way to say, "Our best explanations for how our lives work, at least our best explanations at this present time." A pragmatist, like a good scientist, knows that nothing is really certain.

Couple Pierce's criterion of meaning with what Jesus says about himself, and suddenly you have a humility that transcends worrying about who is right and who is wrong. To claim to have a rock-hard lock on the truth is foolish, but it is just as foolish to profess the opposite, that there are many true truths. But what else is there besides the authoritarian "My truth, and no one else's," and the wet-eyed New Age "We're all right in the end"? Jesus. He's so odd, and the stories about him are so odd, and what he's done in men and women's lives over the centuries is so odd, that he confounds our expectations about how the world works, how people work. Perhaps our ideas of truth need revision. Perhaps our questions don't really matter. What is truth?

Besides, Jesus is ALSO the way and the life. So two out of three wouldn't be too bad.