The way many Canadians understand and talk about truth has changed. Some Christian thinkers believe the church needs to change how we understand and talk about truth as well, if we are to engage our fellow Canadians in meaningful conversations about God and faith. This shift would need to begin with the church acknowl-edging and accepting that we can’t know the Truth with absolute certainty.
Many Christians seem uncomfortable with this, insisting our call to bear witness to truth means proclaiming “we know with absolute certainty that what we believe is the absolute truth.”
I must confess that I’m puzzled by this. As Christians, do we not believe:
- “We walk by faith, not by sight”
(II Corinthians 5:7, New American Standard Bible [NASB]).
- “We see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror. . . . All that I know now is partial and incomplete”
(I Corinthians 13:12, New Living Testament [NLT]).
- “We know in part and we prophesy in part” (I Corinthians 13:9, NASB).
- “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know” (I Corinthians 8:2, NASB). Or, as the NLT puts it, “Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.”
How did we become so caught up with knowing the absolute truth with absolute certainty?
Of course, we can, and ought to have, good reasons for believing what we believe, but why do we often confuse this with trying to use logic, science, history or archeology to prove to others that what we believe is the absolute truth?
In his book The End of Apologetics, Myron Penner, Ph.D., critiques the modern Christian understanding of truth and explores new ways of understanding truth in the postmodern context. He posits that Christian truth is not so much a “thing” to be known and proved, but rather a way of being, understanding and living. Being a Christian is not about knowing the truth, but becoming the truth.
As Christians, we are called to “live in truth,” to borrow a phrase from Vaclav Havel, a writer and the last president of Czechoslovakia, more than objectively and intellectually grasp the truth. For example, when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” Jesus is saying the truth is being, it is lived. Jesus points to his very being, rather than to an idea or concept, implying that truth must be incarnate, it must be embodied. It is not a doctrine, it is a state of being or a way of life.
Penner writes, “One of the serious problems for modern apologetics is that it treats Christianity as if it were an objective “something” [a set of propositions or doctrines, for example] that can be explained, proven and cognitively mastered. [Philosopher Soren] Kierkegaard’s favourite response is to point out that being a Christian is far less a matter of knowing the truth than that of becoming the truth—that is, of being truly, rather than thinking truly—so that the truth is expressed in a fully integrated life before God. Christianity, then, is much more a way or an invitation to live [walk, grow] in the truth than it is a doctrine or set of beliefs [a position] whose truth we can grasp and cognitively master, as the modern apologetic paradigm seems to imply.”
Penner believes that the attempts of modern apologetics to prove the intellectual superiority of Christian belief, “as if we are Christians by dint of our genius,” is detrimental to our call to be a faithful witness to God’s truth in our 21st-century context. People today are not looking for theoretical answers to intellectual challenges. People need personal responses to personal and spiritual problems. Christ does not come to us as the answer to an intellectual puzzle, but as a real presence of hope, joy, meaning, healing, peace, love, renewal and grace in the midst of our existential struggles.
So when we talk about Christianity in the postmodern shift, instead of asking, “Is it true and can we prove it?” it is probably more helpful to ask:
- Is our faith intelligible? Does it make sense in our 21st-century context?
- Is it meaningful? Does it bring a sense of significance, direction and purpose to our lives?
- Does it work? Does it nurture our spiritual growth or help us experience God’s presence?
- Are we becoming truth? Are we living and embodying the way, the truth and life of Christ?
This is Pt. 3 of of “The pursuit of truth” series. To be continued . . . .
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.