Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Truth of the Matter of Truth

Why do some insist that truth (particularly religious truth) is inherently divisive rather than unifying or liberating? Truth espoused by religious communities is regarded as unifying for the believers and divisive concerning nonbelievers. Perhaps, if we understood truth or the production of truth as more dialogically constituted than many presuppose; that is, truth emerges and evolves from dialogue or in dialectical communication. In the New Testament we have two opposing statements about Jesus and peace: “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27; cf. 16:33; Acts 10:36); “Do not think I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51; Matt 10:34 NRSV). The temptation is to harmonize rather than consider each it its context and allow the tension to remain. But the latter option may not support absolute truth on the matter of peace and Jesus.

The way some groups and individuals employ the notion of absolute truth as binding and polarizing is paradoxical in light of the biblical idea of truth as liberating. If as the Gospel of John's (GJ) Jesus says the truth will set us free (John 8:32,36), why are our truths so restricting, exclusionary and divisive. For sure, the polarizing message of GJ depicting unbelieving Jews as outsiders is inescapable. Nevertheless, GJ's Jesus states that he is “the truth, the way, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through” him (John 14:6, NRSV). Jesus embodies or incarnates the truth.  The same Gospel writer admits his or her writing could not nearly contain all that Jesus said and did. In fact, all the scrolls in the world could not contain them (John 21:25). This humble admission implies that we do not have the information about Jesus to construct the totality of the truth that Jesus embodies. And the distance between mortality and immortality, divinity and humanity further obstruct our view. Thus as we continue our attempts to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus, we would do well to temper our claims to possess the truth given our limited access to the truth.

Add to the lacunae and chasms resulting from human and historical limitations of the Gospels and their writers the nature of translation. Given that stories and/or traditions about Jesus first circulated orally before they were written down and given that the orality did not cease with the production of written texts, many versions of what Jesus said and did were transmitted. In addition, translating original ancient foreign language manuscripts of the NT (and OT) into English and other modern languages is a further act of interpretation. With every oral and written transmission of stories and information about Jesus, translation and/or interpretation occurs. And when we read the many translations and/or interpretations of the Bible, we interpret or translate. The book does not literally talk to us, as some illiterate African slaves mistakenly surmised (see Allen Callahan's The Talking Book); we as readers encounter the book deciphering its meaning. Our interpretations, as well as those of the ancients, are filtered through our culture and experiences. The act of reading is subjective (not disregarding textual parameters). We construct (un)truths about Jesus (Christology) and God (theology).

There are circumstances in which we limit the plethora of truths. Those situations involve the construction of creeds and doctrines. A community develops a binding statement (e.g., the Apostles Creed) through a designated authoritative body that speaks for the whole. Under such circumstances the individual members are not encouraged or invited to think about the truthfulness of the creed or doctrine. Any interpretation or reading of the creed or doctrine must take place within the parameters of the absolute truth already espoused. In this sense the creed or doctrine, as well as its original interpreters, are implicitly and functionally treated as infallible. And if any member of the community should want to rethink or revisit the truthfulness of the doctrine or creed, that person would risk being ostracized or deemed heretical.

If Jesus, as Christians believe and as the GJ states, is the Truth, and if this Truth Jesus embodies or incarnated derives from his divinity or from God, then the Truth in all its fullness will never be fully known by humans since God from whom and in whom all the truth derives is inscrutable. The inscrutability of God was first introduced in the Garden of Eden when the first human pair were informed (by the wise talking serpent) that to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (an idiom for knowing everything) would open their eyes and make them like God(Gen. 3:5). They were already like God having been created in God's image. Nevertheless, their eyes were indeed opened and they discovered their nakedness (Gen. 3:7-11). Complete and absolute truth is naturally situated in the diety. Just maybe we should consider being more humble in our claims to possess the Truth and all Truth. And maybe we should allow that more people hold a piece of the spiritual and intellectual puzzle than we might imagine. And maybe we should accept the fallibility of our interpretations which have nothing to do with the inherent infallibility of God.

“Rarely do we find [people] who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I refuse to accept the view that [human]kind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

“Science investigates religion interprets. Science investigates religion interprets.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Wisdom is keeping a sense of fallibility of all our views and opinions.” ~ Gerald Brenan, British writer and Hispanist

“So be it. God created profoundly fallible creatures on this earth, and human history is mostly the story of error and accident.” ~ Dr. Michael Ledeen, Freedom Scholar at Foundation for Defense of Democracies


Anonymous said...

On the subject of truth and science, mathematician and
philosopher Kurt Gödel proved that it is impossible to
create a systematic description of anything that is both
consistent and complete. Either you must leave out something or you must include something that is false.
This has been applied to the study of religions that
each religion has a contribution to make to the apprehension of truth but none has exclusive truth.
The same might be said of religious books and/or traditions. Your column also may invite us to reconsider what does truth mean? How wide or narrow is it's scope? Does it merely happen to occur once to be a truth? Is it even about consensual reality as we know it and thus apprehendable through the intellect? Or is it something we feel in our hearts?

WomanistNTProf said...

Wonderful comments Naomi. Would love to see you reply with a blog post and would welcome a guest appearance by you! Yes, yes, yes.

PamBG said...

I can comment now!

I too would be interested in reading more by Naomi on this subject.

Another comment. I don't see creeds as necessarily having to function as a benchmark for the interrogation of the beliefs of each individual, although that is very much the tradition I grew up in. (Missouri Synod Lutheran, in case that means anything.)

I think that creeds can also function as the church's narrative, but something that each individual may hear or interpret differently. I wrote a post last January entitled "Wrestling with Doctrine" but I think you can substitute the concept of "creeds" for the concept of "doctrine". Although I put my hands up and admit to being an aging heretic!

Link: http://pambg.blogspot.com/2010/01/wrestling-with-doctrine.html

WomanistNTProf said...

PamBG, I appreciate your perspective as a person who has come from a tradition that uses creeds. I found your story and some of conversation on your blog (didn't read it all) provocative and have commented on your blog. Naomi, the vote is in favor of hearing from you in a blog post.