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What Is Truth?


Old Testament Reading: Psalm 139:1-6

New Testament Reading: John 18:33-38

Two weeks ago I preached on the achievement of William Tyndale who first translated the New Testament into English and was martyred for his trouble, and that by the Church. At that time I warned that God might just have reserved a prophetic mantle in your size. I said that a prophet is anyone in any circumstance who furthers the cause of the Word of God. And so as not to fall under the suspicion of fundamentalism, I hastened to add, in an aside, the question, "What is the Word of God?" My answer: "The Word of God is simply the Truth."

At this I could see a philosopher in the audience growing restive. Becky Redington turned to Rey, complaining no doubt that I was begging the even larger question, "explaining" one unknown by another (a favorite theologians' trick, by the way). Rey, shaken out of his devout meditation on how he was ever going to put a workable budget together, may have made some satisfactory response, but I felt I had to respond as well.

Becky's question was the question of Pontius Pilate, that most notable Roman of them all, "What is truth?" I think that John's gospel (the only one in which this scene appears) means us to take Pilate's question as purely rhetorical. Pilate's rejoinder to Jesus is sarcastic and dismissive, equivalent to the impatient words of the proconsul Gallio in Acts 18:14 ff: "If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, I should have reason to bear with you, O Jews; but since it is a question about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I refuse to be a judge of these things."

"Truth," whatever it might be, was not one of the things that interested Pontius Pilate very much. But I know it is one of the things that interests Becky a great deal. Becky, by the way, has been trying for some time to interest me in Postmodernism, a wide-ranging movement in literary criticism, philosophy and theology. I was not at first much interested, being satisfied with that old time religion of Bultmann and Tillich. But as of late I have become interested. I am now just beginning to look into some Postmodernist theologians, and I fear a realignment of thought may be in the offing. At any rate, let me preface my answer to Becky's question with something of a

Postmodernist prologue. And I warn you, the prologue is going to be longer than the answer!  

For most of the history of Christian theology, theologians have labored under the burden of having, as they thought, to explain the whole universe, to erect some system of truth that would encompass the whole thing. Philosophers labored beside them up this hill of Sisyphus. 

If you look up any standard theology, you will find a massive and far-flung structure that begins with God in eternity and passes on through the consummation of all things, together with an explanation of why God created, what higher beings there might be besides us, how we know all these extravagant revelations, the precise mechanics of the way of salvation, the nature of the eternal God, and several other issues of like profundity.

As long as you enter into the language-game of the theologian, that frame of reference in which it is simply assumed that reliable knowledge of these things can be had, it all looks pretty plausible. And indeed seminary students may yet be found debating in the lounges the questions of Calvinism and Arminianism. (Though at Drew one might more easily find them discussing the fine points of feminism and whale-saving). 

But for some time now a number of thinkers have questioned whether there may be knowledge of any of these things, even whether there are such things to know. 

Is there even a universe at all? William James asked this question. What he meant was that perhaps there is no one systematic truth or meaning governing reality. Perhaps it would be better in some ways to speak of a "pluriverse," a great field of reality which no one can see with a single synoptic view, of which no one sense may be made. 

A more recent thinker, Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, has shown how progress in scientific research is not, as we usually think, a series of "discoveries," but rather a succession of different "paradigms," that is, different thought-models imposed on the facts, the data, in order to sort out some order among them.  

For a while one paradigm makes sense, but then scientists notice more and more evidence the old paradigm can't make sense of, so they create a new one. And if they are good scientists, they remain open to the possibility that their paradigm will in turn be replaced by a better one. 

One illustration. Astronomers had always puzzled over the phenomenon of the retrograde motion of the planets. Sometimes they seem to double back ever so slightly and loop around. Why? The prevalent paradigm was the universe-picture formulated by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy, who said the planets and the sun all orbited the stationary earth. He was able to account for the retrograde motion by positing that the orbits were not simply circles but rather could be plotted by an elaborate system of circles-within-circles which he called "epicycles." It was all quite laborious and complicated. 

But then Copernicus came along and simplified everything by placing the sun at the center of the whole system. Then it appeared that the orbits of the planets, ours included, were all circular (or nearly so -- as Newton showed later, they were actually eliptical). The apparent doubling back was the result of viewing the orbits of the others from a moving standpoint in tandem with them. Copernicus's simpler paradigm prevailed -- ­precisely because it was simpler­! He hadn't "proven" or "discovered" anything! Even today we can't prove he was right! The numbers work on either model! You can even chart out a flight to the moon based on the assumption that the earth is the unmoving center. We just prefer the heliocentric model because it is neater! Now in this case, no doubt one model is correct and the other is not -- or some as yet unsuspected third one is right! The planets must be set up a certain way. In philosophical and theological realms where there can never be any hope of verification, we must be more careful still! 

Here one wonders if the various creeds and belief-systems can ever be any more than paradigms imposed on a vast and confusing ocean of stray facts. Are our religious worldviews revealed to us from some point outside the whole works? Or do we not rather project them onto the data? 

Let me suggest an analogy. Have you ever done one of those word-search puzzles? It appears to be a page filled with random letters. If you are lucky you can detect certain sequences of letters forming words, though you may have to read them in reverse order or upside down. Usually the words are "planted" in the puzzle, with only the letters around them being random camouflage. But imagine a puzzle in which the whole thing was a field of random letters. It would be a real challenge to detect some order among that chaos. I suggest that the universe, the pluriverse, may be like such a puzzle, and that all our religious revelations are sudden, dramatic apprehensions of small patches of order among the general chaos.  The occasional words we find, those bearers of precious meaning, become for us the words of God. They do what God is pictured as having done at the dawn of time: bringing order out of chaos. 

By the way, I wonder if something very like this was not already implied in the practices of the medieval Kabbalistic Jews, who sought some deeper, mystical meaning in the text of scripture precisely by reading the text as a word-search puzzle! They would look for places where if you read the letters backwards they would form coherent new sentences -- "backward masking" in the Torah! They would count up the number value of the individual words and then substitute for them other words with the same number values. They would treat individual words as if they were acronyms for a whole sentence. Perhaps they were doing with the Hebrew text what all of us are doing with the word-search puzzle of the universe. 

If this is so, then what status have our religious truths? They could not be considered road maps of a divine landscape as C.S. Lewis once described them. They could not be any more regarded as descriptions of God or the universe.

They would come to be seen as what they have in fact been for generations of Christians: torches lighting the way before us, flares illuminating a few steps along the dark walk between birth and death. Signs of meaning in a meaningless void, and thus an oasis for the thirsty, a rest upon the way.

I began with a Johannine question: Pilate's "What is truth?" Now let me offer a Johannine answer. I believe that there are sufficient signals in this gospel (perhaps the one of the four most concerned with truth per se) that the truth is ­not­ a speculative system of eternal ideas, nor a road map or blueprint of the secrets of the universe. Let us review four Johannine texts. First, in the prologue of the gospel we read that the incarnate Christ was "full of grace and truth" (1:14). This is an Old Testament formula. "Grace" is the Greek charis, here translating the Hebrew hesed, meaning God's "lovingkindness," the love he shows to thousands of generations of those who love him. "Truth" is the Greek aletheia, translating the Hebrew emet, meaning God's steadfast covenant faithfulness, his remembering his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For God to be true means not so much that as a concept he conforms closely to reality, but rather that as a person he holds fast to his word of promise. The incarnate word, John says, was full of that covenant faithfulness.

Our second text is John 14:6, in which the Johannine Christ utters the revelation, "I am the truth." The whole thing is "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He is a truth that is a way. I preached a whole sermon on this text a couple of years ago and will not repeat it. I will just say that for Jesus Christ to be the truth in this passage means the same thing as his being the light of the world in chapter 8.

He is the truth in the sense that whoever follows him will not walk in darkness. In the howling wilderness of chaos, a way has been marked out for us by the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. In that meaningless field of letters, suddenly a light emblazons a word full of meaning, a word of life, a word made flesh.

Third, in 1 John, written by the same writer or at least by the same school of thought, we read "I am writing you a new commandment which is true in him and in you because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (2:8). Again, the truth is an alleviation of darkness, a coming into light. And it is no abstract system of doctrines, but rather a subjectivity that is true in the eye of the beholder, the believer. "It is true in him and in you," not somewhere out there in the realm of forms, in suprasensible objectivity.

And what kind of truth is it?  Again, it is not theory and concept, but rather a walking in the light of life. This is what we read in a fourth passage from John, John 3:20-21, "Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light."

Note the opposition: doing evil versus doing the truth. The truth is less an idea than an action. One does it. For to do the truth is to do good. It is all eminently practical. It is scarcely theoretical.

Jesus does not reveal some theoretical worldview as did Aristotle or Aquinas or Leibnitz or Whitehead. We are free to learn from these thinkers and to venture our own paradigms, but if we recognize that provisional paradigms, tentative thought-models, are all our theologies can ever be, we need not feel threatened, because the truth that Jesus brings and that he is, is a truth that is done, a truth that is true in him and in you.

And all this, Becky, reinforces what Spinoza said, a sentiment I have framed in my office. It reads like this: "Faith allows the greatest latitude in philosophic speculation, allowing us without blame to think what we like about anything, and only condemning, as heretics and schismatics, those who teach opinions which tend to produce obstinacy, hatred, strife, and anger."  That, I suggest, is a viable Postmodern credo.




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