January 6, 2013

Knowing What’s True

There’s an old story about a man on a quest for truth.  He wanted to know what was true and what was not so that he could dedicate his life to the truth.  His search eventually led him to seek out an obscure guru who was rumored to have spent much of his life pondering the question of truth.  As a result of this he was considered most wise on this particular topic.  When the man finally found the wise, old guru he posed the question to him: “How can I know what’s true and what’s not true?”  The guru thought about his question for a moment and then began telling him a story.  He said, “My son, seeking to know fully what is the truth is like a sextuplet of blind men coming upon an elephant.  The first blind man came upon the trunk of the beast.  He exclaimed to his compatriots: ‘Friends, this creature is like a snake.  It is long and flexible and moves about in any direction at will.’  The second man found himself feeling the side of the creature.  He offered a quick correction: ‘No, my companion, this creature is much more like a wall.  It is large and solid and rough in texture.’  The third blind man found the animal’s tail.  He replied, ‘No, you are both wrong.  This creature is like a rope.  It is sinewy and has a frayed end.’  Still a fourth man found the elephant’s tusk.  He retorted: ‘How can you all not see—pardon the pun—that this creature is sharp and pointed like a spear.  It is hard as bone and could gore a man with ease.’  And yet the fifth man felt only the leg.  He offered yet another correction: ‘This animal clearly resembled a tree.  It is thick and sturdy and round in shape.’  The final blind man could feel only the elephant’s ear.  ‘My friends,’ he offered, ‘I believe this creature is much more like a fan.  It broad and flat and wafer thin.’”  After finishing his story the guru asked his own question of the man: “Which of these six blind men was correct?”  Then, in answer he observed: “All of them were correct.  The simple truth is that all truth seekers come upon merely some part of the it and though they are utterly convinced of its veracity, none of them are able to see the whole picture.  They are each limited by their perspective.”

Well, Happy New Year!  Kind of an odd story to begin the new year, no?  We’ll come back to this story in a few minutes.  For now, though, let’s talk a minute about where we find ourselves this morning.  We are at the beginning of 2013.  This time of year is always kind of exciting to me.  If you’re an optimist like me it is a time ripe with hope and promise.  The potential of what could happen in the next 359 days is nearly limitless.  Because of this, the beginning of the year is a time when a lot of people do some self-examination.  We look at things like our patterns and habits and whether those are really things which will bring us the most success and happiness.  We examine our bodies and our look and sort out if that’s really the image we want to project to the world.  Some folks take a look at the things we believe and decide if those are really the beliefs we want to hold.  If the person doing this self-examination has professed faith in Christ there really are some beliefs worth evaluating.  I mean, think about some of the Christian claims for a minute.  We make claims like there’s one God who created everything we see and don’t see and actively, lovingly sustains it.  Do you realize how unique such a truth claim is in the history of the world?  We make claims like a 2,000 year-old book is authoritative in the lives of modern people.  We make claims like not all dead people stay dead.  These are huge claims; and in a day when bold truth claims really aren’t very popular.  As a result, there are a lot of folks who struggle mightily with accepting the Christian faith in the first place.  Not only that, there are a lot of folks who have professed faith in Christ but who, once they discover some of the things that apparently go along with their profession, struggle mightily with whether or not they made the right choice.  Perhaps you have found yourself in such a position before.  For a whole litany of reasons folks in this place look at the faith and place it in the category of “not socially acceptable” or “not intellectually credible” or “a private affair better left out of the public eye.”  Well, if we really hold to the content of the truth claims we make by virtue of our profession of faith in Christ, we must confess that this is a tragedy.  And so, as we begin this new year, we are going to take a look at some of the most common objections to the Christian faith and see if perhaps there are good reasons for them to be dropped and the faith embraced instead.

Now, to do this, in the coming weeks we are going to attempt to deal with the apparent problems presented by doctrines like the existence of an eternal hell and whether or not a 2,000 year-old book which has as one of its chief goals the proclamation that some dead guy got up out of his grave can really be trusted.  We’ll even take a glance at the supposed dark past of the church.  But, before we can successfully address issues like these, there is one that comes logically prior.  As I mentioned just a minute ago, if we profess to follow Jesus, we are heirs to a set of truth claims—statements which we aver correspond with reality—which at first hearing with ears properly conditioned by our culture sound, to put it mildly, ridiculous.  Perhaps the chief reason for this is that we live in a culture where bold truth claims are generally frowned upon.  I mentioned the fact that a lot of folks at this time of year go through a process of self-examination, however informal it may be, in which they take a look at their central beliefs and decide afresh whether or not those are worth maintaining.  For many, this process, particularly when it comes to the things we believe, is becoming more and more difficult because our culture eagerly preaches to us that truth isn’t something that can really be known by anyone.  Furthermore, when someone claims to know the truth, they are really just being arrogant or narrow-minded or exclusive or intolerant or something else along these lines.  At the same time, again, as Christians, by virtue of our confession, we make some pretty stunning truth claims.  So how can we stand for the truth of the faith in a world where fewer and fewer people believe truth is something that can be known at all?

Well, all of this culminates in the first objection I want to examine with you as a part of this journey through some Reasons to Believe, which is the title of this series.  Stated a bit more formally, the objection often reads like this: Isn’t it arrogant to claim that Christianity is the one true religion?  Well, is it?  Perhaps for many of you the knee-jerk response to this is a resounding, no!  But, for many of the folks you encounter in your daily routines, particularly the young ones, this is a much weightier objection than some of you might expect.  So, for the rest of our time this morning I want to accomplish two things with you: I want to take a look at this objection to see if it really holds up under closer scrutiny; and, I want to equip you with some answers for the times when you will encounter it in your own lives.

Let’s start all of this with what we do believe as Christ-followers.  When Jesus was giving His followers some parting advice before He went through the ordeal of the cross, He told them that He was going to the Father in order to prepare a place for them.  He told them further that since they knew the way to where He was going, they would be able to join Him.  Thomas, the skeptic of the group, immediately spoke up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus looked him square in the eyes and responded: “I am the way.”  But you know as well as I that He didn’t stop there.  He went on: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  What Jesus said here is truly stunning.  No one in history prior or since has ever dared to make such a claim as this.  Or if they have, we tend to lock them up because they are, as C. S. Lewis rather memorably put it, “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg.”  Think for just a minute about what this is saying.  When people talk about truth, what are they talking about?  Are they not talking about a set of ideas?  As Christians, though, we believe that truth is primarily not a set of ideas, but a person.  When we do encounter truth as a set of ideas—this pulpit is white, there is a tree in my front yard, I am a man—these ideas are, at their core, chiefly concerned with revealing the person of truth to us.  Now, since this person happens to be the Creator of the Universe, He is not limited in the ways by which He communicates the basic facts of His identity.  Indeed, Paul makes as much clear in the introduction to the book of Romans where in 1:19-20 he declares the basic facts about God and His character are revealed in creation in plain sight of all who care to look.  This belief, by the way, is largely responsible for the scientific revolution.  This is all simply what we believe as professed Christ-followers.

The problem, though, is not so much with what we believe (although the content of our belief isn’t terribly popular) as it is with how this belief is received.  You see, we live in a culture which has been deeply influenced by two ideas, one primarily philosophical, the other anthropological.  Now, the terms for these ideas are postmodernism and multiculturalism.  That’s not so important for us right now.  What is important to know is that these two ideas are deeply committed to view of the world in which truth is relative such that it is possible for something to be true for you, but not for me.  In the first part of our last series, Notes on the Right Time, I talked about the fact that when people of vastly different cultures with vastly different beliefs regarding which things are absolute and which are not come together and discover that, one, they seem to have many more things in common than they thought, and two, that the other seems to be getting along just fine in spite of the differences which do exist, they start to think that maybe absolute truth really doesn’t exist—it’s all relative.  Notice, we’re generally too arrogant to think that we had been believing the wrong things to be absolutely true, but that’s another matter.  Well, with postmodernism and multiculturalism, this kind of thing happened on a huge scale and have succeeded in leaving our culture convinced that truth really is relative; that is really is arrogant for someone to claim they know the truth.  If you haven’t noticed, this makes Christianity, at least at the level of orthodox theology, not quite so popular as it used to be.

More and more frequently in our culture, truth is viewed much as it is presented in the story of the blind men and the elephant I told you a few minutes ago.  I wonder how many folks in this room have considered truth in these terms.  People view truth as something that is only knowable in parts and pieces and that your parts and pieces are just as true as my parts and pieces, we simply have a different perspective on the matter.  It really would have been arrogant for one of those blind men to stand dogmatically on his interpretation of the elephant and condemn his companions for their views which, to the more enlightened, were clearly true as well.  But, and here’s the problem with this understanding of truth which goes totally overlooked by those who hold to it: how did the guru know that the creature was an elephant?  Do you see?  The very assumption here is that somebody knows the whole truth.  And usually, the person putting themselves in such a position is the same person who is condemning Christians for claiming to know it.  Can you hear the argument?  “You’re so arrogant to claim to know the truth!  Each of us only knows a part of the truth and each part is just as true as the others.”  Okay, but how do you know that?  Someone can only register an objection like that if they in fact know the whole truth.  Otherwise, they can’t possibly claim that truth isn’t knowable because in their own ignorance they are not in a position to evaluate your knowledge of the truth.   More to the point: if they don’t know it, how could they possibly know that you don’t know it?  Folks who hold to this objection are guilty of the very sin for which they are condemning Christians.

The whole notion that someone is arrogant for claiming to know the truth, that Christianity is an arrogant religion for claiming itself to be true over and against every other worldview on the market falls apart on this point.  Christians can only be arrogant in our claims to know the truth (and remember: truth is a person) if we don’t actually know the whole truth.  And, someone can only assess us as possessing a limited knowledge of the truth if they in fact know the whole truth.  To charge someone with being arrogant for claiming to know the truth is to claim to know the truth yourself!  They might disagree with our assessment, but coming to a different conclusion doesn’t make someone arrogant.  Furthermore, the notion that Christianity and faith generally is a private thing which should be left out of the public square is equally false in its structure.  The commitment to follow Christ involves filtering everything about how we look at the world through the lens of what Jesus said and did including what subsequent New Testament writers said about this.  This goes with us no matter where we are, whether private or public.  Followers of Christ can’t check their religion at the door, so to speak, any more than I could check my personality at the door.  It’s part of me.  It determines how we see the world; how we act; the public choices we make; the opinions and relevant actions we pursue on policy issues.  The reality is that some view of the world is going to dominate the public square and the policies that come out of it.  When someone says that Christians need to keep their faith out of it what they really mean is that they want whatever their view of the world is to control the narrative.  Well, if we are committed followers of Jesus Christ, why on earth would we want anything other than the Christian worldview to determine the kinds of decisions that come out of the public square?  Friends, don’t fall victim to this deeply false notion.  There is a very great chasm between the state determining that one faith or another is the “right” faith and people of faith working to determine the actions the state takes.  Folks who distort the difference between these two have been duping people of faith into letting a god-less, or secular, view of the world dictate the nature of public actions for far too long.

Okay, so what’ve seen this morning so far is that the objection that followers of Christ are arrogant for claiming to know the truth or to be the exclusive pathway to salvation falls apart.  It simply doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.  Well, how should we handle this, then?  The fact remains that in our claims to know the truth, we stand out like sore thumbs in our culture.  But, hunkering down to wait out the storm until we go be with Jesus isn’t going to work.  Part of our commission is to engage the very culture that aggressively rejects our beliefs and comes to dramatically different conclusions regarding what’s true and what’s not.  So how do we winsomely engage the world around us?  I think there are three parts to the answer here.

First, we need to be utterly convinced of the truth ourselves.  Put another way: we have to know what we believe.  Earlier I said that the Truth was a person.  The clear claim of the Bible is that this person can be known.  The apostle John wrote near the end of his Gospel that his goal in writing was so that we might believe Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.  Near the end of his first letter he reveals that he is writing so that we may know that we have eternal life.  Well, Jesus Himself said that eternal life is knowing Him.  Truth is something, is someone that can be known and known with assurance.  Now, we may not be able to wrap our minds fully around it, around Him, but the reason for this is that He is beyond our comprehension, not that there are lots of other truths and we just don’t know them all.  In our natural state, though, while God has revealed enough of Himself for us to be without excuse in our rebellion against Him, we simply are not going to embrace such knowledge on our own.  Because of our sinful nature we simply aren’t going to do it.  As Paul acknowledges at the beginning of 1 Corinthians, the very notion of Christ is laughably foolish through the filter of this world.  What’s needed as Paul makes gloriously clear in Romans 12 is not simply a change of heart, but a complete transformation of our minds.  Our minds have to be entirely renewed so that we can even grapple with the idea that Jesus is the truth and that He can be known.  Indeed, if you come away with nothing else from this morning remember this: the truth is knowable, but only fully in Christ.  Apart from this we will keep on chasing truth in other places, always coming up short.  The first part of the answer to how we address a culture devoid of truth, then, is that we must be grounded in the truth ourselves: the truth is knowable, but only fully in Christ.

The second part is that we must be prepared to engage the bad arguments of the world.  If you talk to people around you who have not accepted the truth of the Gospel about truth, you will very likely encounter some version of, “Well, I think that if people just believe something really sincerely, they’ll be okay.”  In other words, truth is relative.  As long as you grab hold of some portion of it and live a good life (whatever that means), that’s good enough.   Or perhaps you’ll run up against the wall of, “Well, I think belief is a private thing and so I’d rather keep it to myself than force anyone else to behave in a manner I think is right.”  As we have seen this morning, both of these notions, popular as they may be, are utter nonsense.  Unfortunately, these ideas are often hurled at believers rather angrily as if volume will make up for logical inconsistency.  It is further unfortunate that this tack often succeeds.  Friends, we must neither be cowed by forceful arguments nor duped by sweet-sounding ones.  The notion that truth is relative and therefore not capable of being fully known is deeply false.  The truth is knowable, but only fully in Christ.  We can and should be able to make this observation.  Is it hard?  Certainly.  But is it right?  Yes.  When we encounter versions of the blind men and the elephant story, let us gently observe that the notion being proffered assumes both that the truth can be known and that someone knows it.  Then we can explain why we think we do.  The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ.  When we encounter the notion that faith is a private affair, let us lovingly point out that a commitment to Christ is an intensely public one and that we would prefer to see Christ-honoring policies pursued by people with a mind to honor Him than we would individuals with no such compunction legislating behavior out of sorts with such a commitment.  We advocate for this because we are convinced it is in accord with the truth and why live any other way?  Fortunately we live in a country that both allows for this to happen with any viewpoint and celebrates it.   But it first takes a belief that the truth can be known.  The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ.

The third part relates to how we present the truth.  We are bearers of the kingdom and knowers of the truth.  This is part of our identity in Christ.  But, as I said earlier, we inhabit a culture in which the ideas of Christ are less and less popular.  The truth claims we make—including the fact that we make them at all—are not welcomed in more and more places in our nation.  How do we reconcile these two disparate facts?  By yelling and screaming and condemning the people who don’t agree with us?  By being really obnoxious in our advocacy for the truth?  By hiding ourselves in a Christian bunker and hoping to be generally overlooked and left alone by an increasingly hostile world?  No, no, and no!  We engage.  We engage with the love and humility of Christ.  We remember that we once walked in darkness.  We remember that exposing a blind man to the light for the first time will be intensely disorienting and he will in all likelihood want to close his eyes again and keep them closed.  We remember that people around us have been conditioned very thoroughly to consider the kinds of things we claim to be not only wrong, but offensively so.  And we remember that we serve the God who created them the same as us and wants to see them become fully consonant with their created end.  And so we love. We limit our freedoms as Paul advocated in 1 Corinthians.  We woo them to the truth.  We live lives of such impeachable righteousness that even if they don’t buy all of our claims, they want to come and live like us because they want what we have.  We do good.  We do so much good that our community sees us as utterly indispensable  and if we suggest that a certain way of life is better than another they adjust themselves because if we doing that kind of good living that way then they want to live that way too.  And we tell the truth.  The truth is that it can be known.  Deep down, by the way, people long for such a foundation.  They may not like it and their sinful nature is going to fight against it, but they were created for it and so they want it.  The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ.  Only fully in Christ.  So we show them what the truth looks like.  The truth is a beautiful thing.  And when they come to know it, to know Him, they’ll share in that beauty.

So in the end, this notion that we are arrogant in our truth claims is no objection at all.  In fact, when our truth claims are understood, everybody wants to be a part of them anyway.  In the interim, though, we must know what we believe, we must be prepared to stand against bad argument, and we must demonstrate the love of Christ at every turn.  The truth can be known, but only fully in Christ.  Let’s show how.