Yesterday was my 13th blogiversary at Thinking Christian. The beginning wasn’t much. Over the course of years, though, there have been a couple dozen articles I’ve written that reflected thinking I don’t believe I’d seen elsewhere before I wrote them. I’m going to repost several of them, slightly edited, under the series title “Original Thinking.” The first, today, is the one on which I’ve based my blog’s tagline. It first appeared on August 25, 2009.
The Truth Holds Us
It’s awkward being a Christian these days. We claim to know the truth about God, morality, and a host of other contested things. We believe this truth is unique and applies to all people for all time. We believe that where other so-called truths contradict the one we hold to, those other “truths” are wrong and ours is right. We believe that the truth is so tied together with Jesus Christ that he could claim, “I am the truth.”
For many people, that’s nothing but arrogance in action:
“Who are you to claim you’ve got the one truth for everyone? Some things in mathematics might be true for everyone and for all time, but that’s about all. Scientists know how often the ‘truths’ of one age are later corrected or replaced. To claim you have the truth in morality and religion is arrogant, unaware, and intolerant. It’s just plain wrong.”
A Humble Approach to Truth
If we really thought our truth was true for everyone, we would indeed be arrogant. But the truth is exactly the opposite. When we say, “I know the truth,” we’re not claiming superiority, we’re taking a position of humility, even though that’s not the way it looks.
You see, it’s common today for people to develop what they consider their own personal truths regarding religion and ethics. They build their truths to fit themselves, to make sense for themselves. These “truths” are personal truths.
But Christians don’t see it that way at all. Our truth is not our own; it’s not personal truth. It’s never been ours to create or build for ourselves; it’s a reality to be discovered. It’s truth that holds true whether we like it or not. Christians do not own the truth, we submit to it.
Which Is More Arrogant?
And which is more arrogant: to think we can build our own personal truth, or to submit humbly to one that’s bigger than ourselves?
I’ll illustrate what I’m saying from the life of C.S. Lewis. A firm atheist, he was at Oxford when he decided to study the evidence regarding God. It led him in a direction he did not choose:
“You must picture me alone in [my] room… night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet… That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me… I gave in and admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
There was no arrogance in that. There was giving in and admitting. He submitted to something greater than himself.
We Don’t Hold the Truth, the Truth Holds Us
Contrast that with the idea that we can all develop our own truth. Isn’t that awfully bold? Isn’t it spitting in the face of reality? Isn’t that like saying, “Hey, Reality, step aside! It’s up to me to decide what’s true and what isn’t!”
Who’s being arrogant here?
Christians know that we are constrained by reality. Though we don’t always put it this way, we don’t believe we hold the truth. We believe the truth holds us.
Against the Currents of the Age
It would be so simple to ride with the flow of the age, to relax and let go of issues such as abortion, gay marriage, sexual freedom and so on. We can;t. If we bow before the truth, we must be led by it, even if it leads us into unpopular territory.
“But you must have an open mind!” say some. Another sparkling writer of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton, answered this way: “The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid.”
I have spent hours studying viewpoints contrary to Christianity. I continue to find that God’s word is solid and nourishing, and ultimately makes more sense than the alternatives. The truth holds me. As Martin Luther said (or was reported to say, at least), “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” (“Here I stand, I can do no other.”)
Recognizing What We Know and Don’t Know
Honestly, I wish the truth held me more. Any Christian would be deceitful to pretend he or she practices it fully, even as far as he or she understands it. It would be just as bad to say we grasp it all. Even the simple commands, to love God fully and to love our neighbor as ourselves, have a depth beyond reaching.
Although many aspects of the faith are clear, for instance, the basics: that Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh and supported his claim by his life, death, and resurrection, there are other sides of Christianity that remain mysterious or difficult. Our age has come up with new questions (genetic engineering, genocide, end-of-life decisions, and global environmental issues, for example) that require us to work out anew how God’s word applies. This, too, is reason for humility.
I’m reminded again of Chesterton at this point, though:
“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.”
He’s encouraging believers to be confident of the truth we know.
A Very Good Truth
Now if we’re submitting to the truth, does that mean we’re stuck in some dark corner where there’s no freedom to move? Not at all! C.S. Lewis also wrote of Joy (he always capitalized it) that led him toward Christ and flowed out of his relationship with God.
The truth in Christ is not a cold, abstract principle, but a person of infinite love and grace. The Bible tells us to “speak the truth in love,” and clearly implies that it should generally be accompanied with a smile.
Those who deny there is such a thing as truth may find it hard to see that smile. We’re offering it. It’s not a smile that says, “Whatever you do, whatever you believe, is fine,” for that would be a denial of the truth — Jesus Christ — who is also love. Instead it’s an invitation to encounter reality for what it truly is. For it is what it is, not what anyone makes it up to be. And it is a very good reality we’re inviting you to see, to acknowledge, and to enter into. We’re inviting you to let go of your made-up “truths,” and let this real truth, this good truth, hold you.
Image Credit(s): Daniel Reche.
I appreciate how you use the contrast between postmodern relativism and Christian absolutism to depict Christians as Christ-like for going against the flow, and I see that you acknowledge there are modern challenges that call for some Christian re-thinking. But I must say that this article’s message comes across as hollow, coming from a senior editor of The Stream, a conservative Christian and largely American website.
Far from letting a greater truth take hold of him or her instead of making stuff up, the conservative American Christian typically embraces an empty version of Protestantism that expects mainly lip service to an ancient creed so that this “Christian” can get on with the more important business of living as a Republican. Far from holding steadfast to absolute truth, this “Christian” has embraced Donald Trump’s presidency, making a political calculation that Trump will appoint conservative judges even though Trump himself is manifestly antithetical to basic moral values and is a total disgrace from anything like a Christian perspective.
I don’t see The Stream holding Trump accountable in Christian terms. Just take the tax bill that favours the top one percent with permanent tax cuts (even after the American superrich have practically turned the US into a plutocracy, as shown by the Princeton study below), that repeals the part of Obama’s healthcare reform that had a chance of giving better healthcare to the poor, and that will create a deficit that Republicans will fix by calling for spending cuts on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that will further harm average Americans. Do you really think Jesus would approve of this tax bill or of the social Darwinism that’s at the heart of Republican libertarianism?
“Woe to you hypocrites,” Jesus said to the Pharisees. If he were alive today, the Jesus of the New Testament would obviously be saying the same thing to the evangelical Christians who support Donald Trump and to Republican “Christians” in general.
Even putting politics aside, it still rings hollow for any Christian today to claim to hold onto an absolute, objective truth, because the Jesus of the New Testament was sold out long ago, beginning in the fourth century, by the founders of Catholicism who had to find some way to square Jesus’s radicalism with the business of running the Roman Empire. Paul’s faith-over-works doctrine provided the key, and so in assembling Christian scriptures they favoured the documents that asked as little as possible from Christians, excluding the more demanding, Gnostic or heavily Jewish works from the canon.
So after two thousand years of Christian compromising with empires, what does it mean for a Christian today to speak of laying hold to immutable truth? Why should an outsider respect that claim? Where’s the merit in a “Truth” that calls only for faith in some ancient act of sacrifice and that’s evidently so hollow that this faith permits the “Christian” to publicly idolize Donald Trump? Donald Trump!
Free-flowing ad hominems, and virtual stream-of-consciousness dismissive scorn of this type isn’t welcome here.
You’re quite wrong about The Stream, me, and our views on Trump. But this isn’t the place to argue that. It’s off topic. If you want to editorialize on such things, find your own website.
I’ve just restored the comment guidelines link that was apparently removed in some automatic update or something. You’ll find it under the combox now. I understand you didn’t know about it before, but please read it now. Pay attention especially to numbers 2, 3, and 7. Thank you.
Some notes on Benjamin Cain’s post at 12:16 pm today:
The first paragraph nods toward the topic of the blog post, then says it “comes across as hollow” given my role with The Stream. How so?
In paragraph 2 we read a series of complaints, mainly “an empty version of Protestantism” that covers over the real thing, which is to “get on with … living as a
Well, that’s one person’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Let’s mark that one “Duly Noted.”
Continuing, Cain criticizes “the conservative American Christian” for “embrac[ing] Donald Trump’s presidency.” Apparently this shadowy, stereotyped Christian has set aside absolute truth for a “political calculation” in favor of conservative judges, in spite of Trump’s antithetical moral values.
That’s one person’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted.
Next he takes The Stream to task for not holding Trump accountable.
That’s one person’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted. Easily rebutted, except it’s just a statement, made without argument and way off the OP’s topic, and on this website, we don’t bother rebutting those. We leave them as “Duly Noted.”
Cain goes on to say he doesn’t see The Stream holding Trump accountable. He goes on with language that typically leads toward a supporting statement: “Just take the tax bill…” Then he completely forgets he was ever even talking about The Stream.
So his opinion about The Stream is one person’s view. Just a bare, unsupported statement. Duly Noted.
He goes on from there to argue a view that Jesus would disapprove of a tax bill that doesn’t serve the poor via governmental redistribution of wealth. We’re hypocrites! Now, I don’t recall Jesus ever saying the government should serve the poor in that way. Cain demonstrates no awareness of how many Christians, especially but not exclusively at The Stream, voted not so much for Trump but against the far greater danger to our country and our faith, Hillary Clinton. but I don’t want to get off topic, so let’s simply assess his argument. But wait! There isn’t one!
It’s one man’s opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted.
Then, not content with ripping apart Christians in our day, he claims the founders of Catholicism “sold out, beginning in the fourth century,” and “assembl[ed] Christian scriptures … that asked as little as possible from Christians.”
That’s his opinion. No argument. Just a statement. Duly Noted.
He closes by saying this all means we have no commitment to immutable truth. He grapples with no argument we might put forward. He ignores all the actual works done by Christians for the poor. He ignores all the actual reasons we believe and work as we do. He ignores the reality that one can believe in absolute truth yet live it imperfectly.
But wait! He’s not done yet! He still has time to distort Christian doctrine! Our truth “calls only for faith in some ancient act of sacrifice”! As if Christians don’t actually accomplish any good in the world.
But he says this without any argument. It’s his opinion. A bare, unsupported statement. Duly Noted.
Here’s what we do on this website with bare statements lacking any supporting argument. We note them. Duly. Then we move on from them as quickly as possible, for these kinds of comments are completely lacking in intellectual rigor or even intellectual interest.
We’re moving on. Benjamin, if you have more to say on these matters, you have your own website. No free-flowing editorializing here. We want discussions, not soliloquies. Discussions interact with prior input, and they add to it with thoughts supported by information and argument.
You’ve got a Ph.D. in philosophy, you tell us. You really ought to know how it works.