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Three Goes at Truth

You’re watching Jeopardy. The category is “Pastoral Conversations.” The answer is “A stick that smart men use to beat up people who disagree with them.” (Please make sure your response is in the form of a question.)

If you responded, “What is truth?” you are correct.

Honestly, this isn’t a pastoral question I receive often. A mother of a spooky-smart teenage girl (going to Cal Tech sort of smart) told me that she and her daughter were having conversations about truth—“What is it? Is there really even such a thing? How do we know?” Mom asked me what I thought.

“Boy that’s a tough question. I’m inclined to say truth is just a stick that smart men use to beat up people who disagree with them.” 

Both mom and I were somewhat surprised by my semi-reckless words. Maybe a Foucaultian-slip, so to speak. I’m not sure that I would defend my initial answer in its entirety. It just bubbled out of me.

As a minister of the Christian Gospel shouldn’t I have something more substantial and robust, let alone theological, to say. But we had an interesting, honest, and theologically-rich conversation.

Truth isn’t really a topic that lends itself to an 800 word blog. But that conversation and two other recent encounters with “truth” got me thinking. I’m wondering just how invested Christians should be in the truth game. It doesn’t do much for me. I’m not sure it is really our strong suit, one of our compelling attractions, “Come join us. We’ve got more truth!” In fact I wonder if the more we Christian go down the path after truth, we don’t just become distracted and far from home.

At the local liberal arts college, an outdoor meditation alcove is adorned with the well-known words of the Johannine Jesus, “You shall know the truth and truth shall set you free.” The construction design of the place makes me think it was built in the 1960’s—the decade of hippies and Woodstock. Although, I wonder if the early 60’s weren’t filled with a more innocent air, when truth was a pretty unassailable subject, at least on small, bucolic college campuses. Truth was a noble goal, the source of freedom, not to mention a uniter. Even the most secular and skeptical on campus would support these words of Jesus. I suspect that the truth embossed on the alcove wall was of the garden-variety sort: knowledge, information, facts.

In that context, I hear Jesus’ words as conveying “You shall collect credentials and these credentials will make you autonomous.” Yet the truth of John’s gospel is nothing other than Jesus himself. This freedom-giving truth isn’t even knowing about Jesus. It is Jesus.

Across town there is a fundamentalist church whose outdoor sign has “Thy Word is Truth” superimposed over an image of a Bible. I take this as code for “We’re biblicists here. We know and obey the scriptures at this church.” That these words from Jesus’ farewell discourse in the Gospel of John are not actually speaking about the Bible—at least not directly—seems a pretty blatant contradiction of the church’s claim. Like the college meditation niche across town, truth here seems to be viewed as this fixed and free-standing entity—correctness, right answers—to which Christian have special access.

This sort of truth sounds to me as if we Christians have been given the cosmic library card, or admittance to that giant government warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, filled with countless cartons and crates.

I’m not advocating a smaller, more personal or inward “truth.” Nor is this meant to sound anti-intellectual, anti-education, or a truth “more of the heart than the head,” or “why theology is better than philosophy” or anything like that.

I think John Howard Yoder once said something like, “The claim that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is not only or primarily a personal or consoling claim. It is a political and cosmos-shaping claim.” Likewise, the claim that Jesus is “truth.” But our discussions of truth so quickly get far afield from this. I see Christians expending a lot of energy and making a lot of noise defending “truths” whose connection to the truth of the person Jesus is iffy or invisible. The stuff that is most distinctively and centrally Christian, finally seems pretty extraneous at the end of those long and complicated discussions about “Christian truth.”

Over the last months in Perspectives and here on The Twelve, there has been a nice exchange prompted by John Van Sloten’s The Day Metallica Came Church. Jason Lief, Jamie Smith, Josh Banner, Scott Hoezee, as well as Van Sloten all weighed in. The conversation went in several directions. I found the latest response, by David Stubbs, “The Whole Counsel of God” to have some comments on a “doctrine” of scripture that might be equally relevant to a discussion of truth.

The “Word” of God most fundamentally is the second person of the Trinity, who works in tandem with the Spirit…Our doctrine of scripture should not be isolated “as a quasi-independent topic” but should rather, according to Webster, be treated within the larger discussion of other “affirmations about God’s communicative presence and activity.” When talk about scripture is separated too far from, say, discussions of sacraments, tradition, the book of nature…it is too easily misunderstood.

I hear Stubbs rightly saying that discussions of scripture as a “quasi-independent topic” don’t do justice to scripture, just as cosmic library card/Raiders warehouse understandings of truth aren’t sufficiently tied to the truth Christians know.

Christian discussions of truth that are not quite obviously subordinate to and subsumed within a discussion of the Living Word, Jesus Christ, quickly become artificial and strained. That may make it harder for us to be part of larger, broader discussions of truth, although they seem to have plenty of participants without us.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.

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