The Nature of Truth

In the Church of the Brethren, we have to talk a lot about how to reconcile our beliefs with those of our brothers and sisters who don’t feel the same way. Members of our denomination (my understanding is that Mennonites face the same questions) cover the political spectrum end to end, with varying stances on all the good “moral questions:” abortion, same-sex marriage, non-resistance, the military, salvation… the list goes on. And so we are faced with the sticky task of recognizing the validity of our brother’s faith while still affirming our own as true and right.

Hokay, so. Here’s the question. Is there one truth in the middle of the theological dartboard that we’re all throwing at, some getting closer than others? Or is there wiggle room? Is it possible that when I say homosexuality is A-OK and my dad has a problem with it, we’re both somehow equally right thanks to the logic-defying power of God? If I’m a Christian and my roommate is a Pagan, are we just on different roads heading in the same general direction?

Gandhi treated God, Truth and Love as interchangable synonyms. He believed that there was some Absolute Truth that, if we are lucky, we can catch a glimpse of once or twice in our life. Otherwise we must hold to our relative truths (e.g. our religious traditions), which are all pointed towards that same Absolute Truth. A very Gandhian, Hindu-related view of this is that Truth is a big mountain we’re all climbing, but we’re all on different sides of it following different trails. Of course our experiences along the way are going to be different, and of course we’re not going to agree about what the path looks like – but in the end we’re still heading for the peak.

So that’s a Hindu take, but what does Christianity have to say on the matter? The Bible does seem to state pretty clearly that Jesus is the way – or, at least, we’re all so used to reading it that way that it’s hard to comprehend a more open theology actually being expressed in the Holy Book (people – including me – argue a more open theology all the time, but I really don’t think it’s printed on those pages). But, at the risk of being a heretic, how credible a source is the Bible? We’re told by our parents and pastors that it’s legit, but – and maybe your experience is different – God never came to me and told me straight up that the Bible is word for word an accurate picture of the way things are. The only thing that makes the Bible my source, as opposed to the Qur’an, the Torah or All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek is the fact that I was raised a Christian.

Now, there is some stuff in the Bible that could suggest a more complicated reading of “Jesus is the only way.” Let me offer a slightly different interpretation of Matthew 25:37-39: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'” Here we have a parable about people who clearly did not think they had properly served Jesus, who find that through their service to others really had. Perhaps they had not been Christians. They had done good work, but not in Jesus’ name. But because all good things belong to God, in showing Godly values they were in fact serving Jesus.

Now, a lot of the above is quite outside common Christian theology, so I certainly wouldn’t express it in my work as a writer for Messenger magazine (COB equivalent of The Mennonite). But here’s an idea that came to me in the middle of the night some weeks ago:

My faith is a relationship that I have with God. It’s part me, and part God. Surely I can’t expect someone else’s relationship with God to be the same as mine, any more than I can expect someone else to have the same relationship with my partner as I do (I’d sure hope not!), or for my relationship with my brother to be the same as my relationship with Maggie who works at the coffee shop downtown. So in the same way that no two relationships are the same, no two faith journeys are. There. Is that a good, moderate way to hint at universalism?

I’ve shared a few of my thoughts on the nature of God and Truth, but I’d love to hear what some of the rest of you think about it. Because really, it’s behind most (or all) of the disagreements we have in the Church: the question of who, if anyone, is right.

Please share, and by all means contradict me fully.

Comments (9)

  1. DanL

    Hey Nicolas,

    That’s definitely something I wrestle with a lot. I studied anthropology and missiology- and I always felt the tension of wondering how one group of people could be more right than another. I mean this world is pretty shitty and beautiful, and well we’re all just trying to make it aren’t we? And for God’s sake, if we say the wrong prayer or are born in the wrong country does that mean we’re going to hell? And all those people who never heard about Jesus- do they go to hell? And babies? And people who rejected Jesus because they’ve seen Christians rape, molest, and kill in his name- are they all going to hell?

    Well I don’t believe in hell. I can’t reconcile hell with a loving God. More so, I think if God sent Jesus to save humanity from brokeness- it would be pretty lame if he didn’t succeed. And to think that the grace of God is outside the reach of anyone- would mean God is not too impressive of a God. As my friend Shane says, ‘if the grace of God is outside the reach of a terrorist, I’d have to rip out half my new testament since Paul was just that.’

    And so no, I personally don’t think anyone is going to hell- not conservatives, not liberals, none that fall between. Not babies, not terrorists, not George Bush (well…jk), not you, not me, not anyone. Not because we are good, but because no matter how hard we try we cannot escape the love and grace of God.

    I do still think that we can attain some truth, and that some people are more right than others. I believe strongly that Christians who kill are wrong, and that Muslims who kill are wrong too, and that the Hindu caste system is shit, and that George Bush is a moron.

    So I guess if there is any difference in our thinking (I’m not sure if there is or not- since I don’t feel very comfortable talking about truth or eternity) it would be that I don’t believe any one is going to hell- not because we are all sort of right- but because we are all so terribly wrong- and are running around the world trying to make some sense of it like chickens with our heads cut off.

    And well, as for Christianity? Well I personally think its good to be Christian- and that if the church could manage to give the world the real Jesus- the Jesus of peace, love, justice, and reconciliation. The Jesus who works for the restoration of the world, and invites us to enter a new story and a new reality. The Jesus who gives hope to the world. Well thats good, and we shouldn’t be shy to give that to the world. The gospel is good news not bad- so if we ever engage in inviting people to “become Christian” I think are first sentence should be- I don’t think youre going to hell. And well if there is no hell why should we be Christian- well because its good to be. It gives me hope.

    Is it just opium for the masses, a crutch for weakminded people? Well maybe, but I could use some opium considering the current state of the world. As Stanely Haurewas says, “I’m a Christian because its the best damn story around.”

    A bit of a rant I suppose. Sorry for the length.

  2. stevekimes

    As far as I am concerned, personally, Jesus is the truth and all else is a shadow of the truth. The community that I am a part of accepts Jesus as the truth, but we still disagree about much. First of all, what truth IS Jesus– that’s a disagreement that Denny Weaver, NT Wright, Pat Robertson and I have (not that they know or care what I think). Then there is the interpretation of what we agree is Jesus– should we interpret it by which method. That’s what the Catholic Church, the Seventh Day Adventests and I disagree on. Then there is all the stuff that is NOT Jesus– nose piercings, marriage ceremonies, proper worship music, etc. Of course, people disagree on that, but it has little or nothing to do with Truth. Mix all of this up, add two thousand years as well as a healthy mix of worldly philosophies and you’ve got the varieties of modern Christianities. In other words, an endless array of variety.

    I think its a good idea to discover truth in this, but, unfortunatly, we can’t agree on the means in which Jesus is discovered. So we do the best we can with the most reasonable way to approch it.

    This is why a basic approach to peace in disagreement is so important. We will never acheive any kind of unity unless we have an agreement to disagree on some things, even if they are important.

    The most significant question for me is not, “What is truth”, but, “What truth forms a coherent community?” Can we have a coherent community if we have one person who says that brown is black and another that says that red is black? Can we have a coherent community between those that welcome a marginalized group while another rejects a marginalized group? I don’t think so. And if we can’t have a coherent group, even if we believe in the same Lord, how do we relate to each other?

    So many questions….

    STeve K

  3. DanL

    Steve K,

    Can you elaborate a bit more on the idea that the more important question is “What truth forms a coherent community?”

    I guess my discomfort with that, if I understand you correctly, is that the community is not more important than the ideas and foundations of that community. Community for communities sake does not affirm the ideas that bring that community together. The KKK is a strong community- but they are wrong, racist, oppressive bigots. The Catholic workers are a strong community- and its built on the ideas of love and servive.

    I’m reminded of Bonhoffer who says “those who love community destroy community, those who love people build community.”

    Then again maybe thats not what you are saying…

  4. amys

    good thoughts. thanks.

  5. Hootsbuddy

    I think every thinking person has asked the same questions. Universalism is something like theological candy (or junk food). It’s irresistable.

    Years ago I realized I had serious doubts abour popular notions of the nature of God. More specifically, I cannot really imagine that decisions we make in the first microseconds of our existence (this mortal journey…the start of an existence believed to be eternal) will mark us as forever destined for either Heaven or Hell.

    The danger is not whether or not we are correct, but whether we allow beliefs to excuse us from bad behavior, or worse, loss of doubt which leads to ignorance and selfishness. When we stop asking questions we also stop growing and learning.

    I like what Messianic Jews sometimes say about Jesus: We can wait for Him together, and when He gets here we will ask Him if He’s been here before.

  6. nicolas (Post author)

    Yeah… there’s something along that concept in Islamic tradition (I actually think it’s in the Qur’an). The idea that when God brings us together in the end he’ll tell us the answers to all the questions we’ve been arguing about.

    Brethren singer Joseph Helfrich was giving a concert at Manchester College a couple years ago, and he said something that will always stick with me: “When we reach the end, and we finally go before God, we will see all the things we claimed He is that He isn’t, and all the things He is that we never imagined.”

    I take it as an encouraging thought.

  7. Katie

    What seems more important to me than “Is there more than one truth?” is the more practical “what do we do when we disagree on truth?” To use your example and one that is close to my heart, if you and your father disagree on whether homosexuality is A-OK or not, it probably doesn’t effect either of you personally very much if neither of you are gay unless one of you can’t love or be in relationship with the other for having a different belief. Just having beliefs doesn’t matter much until they affect how we behave. It becomes important when you encounter people who are lgbt.

    How do we deal with a situation where one person/group’s truth requires the imposition of that truth on others? Especially when that person/group has the power and privilege to actually impose that on others? It’s no longer two people climbing the same mountain by different paths. It is one person going around to the other side of the mountain to kick the other person off the mountain because he/she doesn’t want the other person on “their” mountain, especially if they can’t even take the “right” path up the mountain.

    I personally can relate more with the idea of truth of the Messianic Jews Hootsbuddy referred to. I’d prefer we all choose our path up the mountain (some of us may even take pretty similar paths and sometimes paths cross and overlap) and agree not to kick each other off the mountain as we all climb it together (or apart). When we get to the top, we can compare notes to see if some paths worked better than others.

  8. stevekimes

    Response to DanL:

    Actually, I am saying that a community is formed BECAUSE of the ideas in it, and some ideas are not compatable, while others are. As you said, the KKK is a coherent, and wrong, community, but it cannot exist with the Jewish Defamation League, because the ideas within each are not compatable. These are obvious examples. But what about a part of a community which believes that Jesus says war is always wrong, and another part of the same community that believes that war can be justified in some cases. Can such a community continue to exist? What about a church that has two or more very different ways of understanding how the Bible is significant? Both of these senarios is the Mennonite church right now. Can it truly be a community like this?

    Steve K

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