Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Facets of Truth

I like truth. I like to know how things work. I like to know what is real and what isn't. I like to know if there's a best solution to a problem and if so, what it is. I like to know when it's best to hold on tight and when it's best to let go. I like to know what will help and what will hurt. And all of this has led me to search for truth and ask many questions.

With this first post, I'll explain why I've chosen to share what's on my mind.

I once saw a bumper sticker that cynically asked, "If Jesus is the answer, what was the question?" The things I just listed are these questions, and there are many more. I've found the answer is Jesus of Nazareth - and it's no cliché to say that he is the truth.

Now, it's one thing to say a man tells the truth, but what does it mean to say that a man is the truth? It's not really possible to overstate this: Jesus is what it's all about. Jesus is the way to God and he embodies truth and life; no one comes to the heavenly Father - the Creator - except through Jesus. Above anyone else, his character is trustworthy and he is faithful. He holds all things in the universe together - in both a natural and supernatural way. And not only that, but through his identity, his words, and his deeds, he demonstrates what human existence is all about.
  • Jesus resolves the ultimate questions of life and he ultimately heals the pains of life (sometimes in this world and sometimes in the next).
  • This world was created through him.
  • He loves us with an unconditional love so deep and enduring that our minds can't possibly fathom it. 
  • He knows this world is broken and he was sent to make things right. 
  • He has great compassion for the outcast, the poor, the fatherless and the needy. 
  • All knowledge and wisdom come from him. 
  • He teaches and exemplifies true perfection, beauty, and holiness. 
  • He humbled himself to point of death on a cross in order to victoriously rise from the dead. And in doing that, he ensured that all who trust in him would have that same eternal life. 
The list could go on. It's all about him.

In light of this, I can confidently echo the words of the apostle Peter, who, when others turned away from Jesus, said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Now, I realize that these are huge claims. They may even seem like absurdity if you don't already believe them. If you're doubtful, this blog isn't here to methodically defend them. (There are other great resources that do that, but here the truth of the Bible is the starting point.) Nonetheless, I expect that in the course of the articles I post, I'll demonstrate some reasons why I'm so confident in these things and I hope you read them. And if you already believe these things, I hope that in the course of these articles, that you might be even more enriched. I pray that I will be as well as I study and pray to write them.

Tension and Paradox
So Jesus is Truth in an ultimate way, but what about the nuts and bolts? At times, truth is very simple. 1+1=2. Simple enough. Truth is knowable. And when it comes to the Bible, this is what the Protestant church calls the doctrine of "the perspicuity of Scripture." "Perspicuity" simply means "clarity." We believe Scripture is clear in its central message - its most important and fundamental teachings. God created everything. Jesus loves us. We are all sinners, and Jesus died and rose again in order to save us from our sins. The Holy Spirit of God indwells us if we believe in Jesus. God is love, and we are called to love him and each other.

Again - simple enough. Yet life is often more complex. Do you let a child fall so she learns independence or do you catch her so she learns trust? You can't do both at the same time. In the same way, portions of Scripture or the practical application of its message can be more complex. The Christian Scriptures contain - and rightly so - some messages that require seemingly opposite truths to be held in tension. For example, justice and mercy are both godly and desirable characteristics, but are apparent opposites. Similarly, the exegesis of specific passages demands tension; it's actually intended (e.g., Prov 26:4-5, John 5:25, Matt 12:3-5, Phil 2:12-13, 1 Pet 2:16). Sometimes these take the form of seasons of emphasis and sometimes they're simultaneous. And the beauty of it is that the Bible not only accounts for the complexities of real life - physical and spiritual - but it gives the only thorough guidance through them because it was provided by the Creator of it all.

Still, how can truths that appear opposite both be true? I believe this concept can best be described by the term "paradox." Some prefer "mystery." (I don't find that "dichotomy" quite fits the bill, however.)

Now, a skeptic, atheist, or agnostic might move to discount these terms as a smoke-screen for mere contradictions that show that Scripture isn't reliable. As I discussed this concept with an agnostic/atheist several years ago, he was bent on saying that the Bible was ill-equipped to deal with the real world because of the Bible's black-and-white morality. But what I tried to show him then - and will try to show now - is that the Bible actually foresees and addresses paradox and even moral dilemma. The simplistic and rigid framework was his, not the Bible's.

On this subject, I really like a discussion by G.K. Chesterton in his classic work, Orthodoxy. I was glad to come across Chesterton's work because he does a good job of describing concepts that I've wrestled with for some time. As Chesterton read agnostic writers, he found it very curious that one would accuse Christianity of being too pessimistic with its focus on the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, yet the next writer would accuse Christianity of being too optimistic and escapist with its vision of an eternal paradise and unconditional grace. Then the thought occurred to him - What if Christianity is just right? What if the pessimist finds it too optimistic and the optimist finds it too pessimistic because biblical Christianity alone is able to hold the truths of this existence in perfect balance? Like Chesterton, I believe this to be the case, and beautifully so. Here he gives a helpful illustration:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.

How often do we make the error of the rationalist? The error of the rationalist who demands perfect symmetry is that he makes an assumption about everything based on limited information. (For a related example, consider the blind men and the elephant analogy if you've never heard it.) In a similar way, the error of the skeptic or anyone who fails to appreciate paradox and tension in the Bible is that he assumes that life is void of paradox and tension. But when the facts are considered, the opposite is true. Existence contains paradox and the very presence of paradox and tension in the Bible offers evidence that it's the perfect guide to such an existence.

I've given some brief examples, but I suppose I haven't amply demonstrated paradox in the world. Say you want to cross the room to walk through a door. To travel any distance, you first have to travel half the distance, right? This makes sense; it's a true statement. Now that you're halfway there, you're at a new starting point. In order to reach the door, you have to walk half of that distance first. And so it continues. But if you think about it, there's a problem: If you were to keep crossing only half of the remaining distance to the door, you would never actually reach the door, let alone go through it. It might get really really short, but you'd always have half the distance remaining between you and the door.

Yet there's another truth: We all know that at some point we actually do reach the door and walk through it. We know this because we do it every day. This tells us that somehow this final distance is crossed regardless of what our previous logic seemed to prohibit.

So here we have two truths that we know to be true independently that also seem to contradict. Which is true? Both. Truth is in the balance. I wouldn't let this keep you up at night. My main point is simply that such paradoxes exist in many forms and that insisting on one truth over the other in a situation like this doesn't grasp the whole truth about the matter. (Not all important truths are bound up in actual paradoxes, of course. Some are, and others just require some level of tension and balance.)

We often want everything to fit a system that we have decided is the right one even though it's not. We may have created a table in Excel that holds most of the data, but there's some data that has no place in the grid. We may have written a beautiful song that makes most of the notes harmonize, but there are a few left that are dissonant. We may have deduced a thorough theological system, but there are a few verses that just don't fit. That's okay. As I write this, I think of another biblical example that's fitting - John 13:1-10. The right response just isn't where Peter's mental system thinks it should be. I think this is a beautiful picture of why we desperately need humility and God's grace. We can't get it perfect on our own. This is also why God created godly relationships; we need others to balance us out and show us things we're blind to so we can grow.

It bears asking: With all there is to say, why am I devoting my first post to issues of tension? Because tensions like this show up all over the place and it's better to be aware of them than to get confused or discouraged by them - or worse. Some of the greatest wars are fought over a matter of emphasis; I believe exploring tension might avoid the unnecessary ones.

I also want to take a second to clarify. To advocate balance can easily be misunderstood to be advocating apathy and complacency - being lukewarm or unstable in whatever we do. Or worse, it could be misunderstood to be advocating universalism, total subjectivity, or harmonizing all claims to truth. It must be said that these are actually the opposite of what I'm proposing.

Far from apathy, I'm advocating a fiery zeal for the whole truth. The whole truth is God's truth and the ultimate measure of God's truth is Scripture - at least until we're fully with God. And in my humble opinion, a zeal for God's truth over time results in a zeal for balance with wisdom.

To put it a different way, it's not sufficient that we mix yellow and red to make orange, call it "apple," and then equate apples to oranges. Nor is it sufficient that we zealously rally behind the cause of "Apples are red!" to the exclusion of the "Apples are yellow!" crowd, who also happen to be right. Instead, I'm proposing that we hold apples of all colors in our hands and passionately proclaim that they're all real apples and that oranges and rollerskates are not.

There's one final question here that needs to be asked before moving on. If there really are issues and situations where truth is not perfectly clear - even according to Scripture - then how do we know what's true in those cases? How do we know whether to answer a fool according to his folly or not (Prov 26:4-5)? Scripture itself tells us this, too. We prayerfully rely on godly wisdom and godly discernment, and the counsel of others who demonstrate those attributes. These are developed in us through the Holy Spirit of God, honest prayer, study of Scripture, serving others, and growth in spiritual maturity - things that God encourages us to make integral parts of our lives.

To speak of imperfection as we have is fitting, because even as I begin this blog, I know that what I say won't be perfect even though my goal is the best. I'm happy to request and accept God's grace and yours in this inadequacy as we pursue Truth and allow him to pursue us.

2 comments:

  1. 3 things:
    1) Welcome to the blogosphere. May God help you, haha.
    2) Thanke yewe four speling "perspicuity" corecttly.
    3) You said:
    I wouldn't let this keep you up at night.

    I wish you'd made that a PREFACE instead of an afterthought. I'll never get that sleepless night back.

    PS: My word verification is: cleduss

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Rhology, welcome to the website. :) Yeah - the irony of the word "perspicuity" is that it's not that perspicuous.

    ReplyDelete