The Nature of Truth: My Conversation with Gary Continues
Last month, I wrote a post about Brit Hume, defending his freedom to proselytize. An old friend of mine, Gary, sharply disagreed and left a long comment. I continued the conversation, since I believe Gary’s point of view to be prevalent in our society today. Gary and I are continuing our friendly conversation about proselytism and truth below:
Gary: Trevin, you say that the Christian Story is true. But what is the “Christian Story”? Christians disagree about what it means to be Christian, which proves my point. What is true within Christianity is true everywhere else. Each individual or group clings to that which they feel to be true, myself included.
So while I uphold my vision of reality as true for me, I can see that reality is infinitely amenable and may accommodate each perspective on this planet, even those I find heinously off. Perhaps, rather than rejecting other perspectives on the single basis that they are not mine, I could learn from other perspectives, especially from the accumulated wisdom of Earth’s many wisdom traditions.
Trevin: Gary, I am not rejecting other perspectives “on the single basis that they are not mine.” That would indeed be arrogant and patronizing. As a Christian, I seek to discover what is true and to cast aside that which is not true.
You speak of “accumulated wisdom of Earth’s many wisdom traditions.” Doesn’t this idea contradict your previous analogy of individual pilgrims taking their own paths up the same mountain? After all, for wisdom to “accumulate,” it must be spoken or written by someone who sees himself/herself as farther along on the journey and wants to share the lessons they’ve learned. Whether in a soft or hard form, wisdom in this manner is taught, which presupposes that some people have greater knowledge of truth than others.
You say that “reality is infinitely amenable and may accommodate each perspective on this planet.” If you mean to say that our perception of reality is fluid and changing and that humility requires us to recognize our limitations, then I agree. But to say that reality itself is infinitely amenable is saying something else altogether.
It is true that within the Christian family, different groups interpret the Bible differently. But the whole reason this diversity exists is because each group believes there is such a thing as a “right” and a “wrong” interpretation. Of course, we hope that such discussions take place with humility and love, and with a clear understanding of the fallenness of our minds.
But you imply that one cannot have a firm opinion about the rightness or wrongness of someone else’s belief without doing injustice to them. I simply cannot grant that assumption.
Gary: I see why it makes sense to you that proselytism is a positive service to others. You are only directing their eyes to an objective reality to which they are blind. My case is not to reduce faith to the level of transience, to that which satisfies the taste bud or the eye. Faith as I see it is a very, very deep and personal choice that affects every area of our lives, from the mundane to the profound. It is no small decision!
Trevin: I am glad that you recognize the importance of faith. But I worry that in your description of faith as “deep and personal” that you are making it merely personal, and thus sealed off from questions or challenge. This over-personalization and privatization of faith is a distinctly Western phenomenon that has only appeared widespread in our society in more recent years.
Answer me this: Is it possible to believe something false?
Let’s say I adopt a religious faith that teaches the non-existence of oceans on the earth. (No such religion exists, but let’s pretend for now.) Should others challenge that faith? If they did, on what basis would they challenge it? The challengers would say, “Oceans exist whether or not you believe deeply and personally that they don’t. Furthermore, it may be dangerous to continue believing there is no ocean, since you are not living according to reality.”
Christians believe that the news about Christ’s death and resurrection is public truth. Yes, we believe it personally. But Christians also claim that the resurrection is true whether someone believes it or not. In your letter, you seem to be personalizing religious truth to the extent that it is totally relativized.
I believe you are doing a disservice to religion, placing it in a category that makes it largely irrelevant to questions about reality. We don’t treat other areas of life this way. We don’t personalize science this way. Nor do we personalize medicine or physics. Why do you assume that faith necessarily has to do with what we do not know rather than what we can know?
Gary: Regarding the Christian story, we might agree on the actual events that occurred and yet differ in their interpretation.
For example, I believe
- that there did indeed exist an entity known as Jesus the Christ.
- that he did preach about the Kingdom of God, about turning your cheek, loving your enemy, and giving to those in need.
- that he did indeed die on a Roman cross after having willingly rode into Jerusalem, knowing what lie ahead for him.
- that he was resurrected.
- that in the course of his incarnation he became a divine being, a perfect union between the human and the mystery.
- that Jesus represented the fulfillment of human potential.
- that we are all *potentially* Christed beings, heirs to that kingdom which he described.
The life of Jesus as told in the canonical Bible, his death and his resurrection, is replete with meaning that may be contemplated and mined for rich spiritual understanding. And I know that my understanding differs from your own. The point I am trying to drive home is that what we engage in is *interpretation*, not objective knowing.
Trevin: I am glad to hear that you affirm many of the historical circumstances surrounding the first-century life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, we have very different interpretations of those events.
Here’s my question: Can one interpretation be closer to the truth than another? Is there no way to judge between these two interpretations? Are there no useful criteria to adjudicate and decide which interpretation best fits the evidence?
Here are some historical questions that I believe beg to be asked:
- How did the earliest Christians interpret the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Is it closer to your interpretation or to mine?
- What affirmations were made by those who were most significantly, personally invested in believing in Jesus? What did they say about him? What did the martyrs believe about him?
- Did the earliest Christians, those who walked and talked with Jesus and were filled with his love, engage in proselytism? If so, why?
You have the freedom to believe whichever interpretation of Jesus’ life that suits you best. I understand that your beliefs are “deeply personal,” as are mine.
But if we are indeed talking about an actual person who walked along the seashore, preached with a Galilean accent about the kingdom of God, and was later nailed to a Roman cross, then should we not consider how Jesus was understood within his own time and historical context?
I don’t find a first-century interpretation of Jesus’ life that accords with yours. That’s not to say that you can’t be right, merely that historically speaking, it seems a bit of a stretch.
It is also revealing that the interpretation I subscribe to is one that millions of people across two millennia have found to be the most compelling interpretation of the evidence. Again, that’s not to say that I am right and you are wrong (after all, communities can be wrong too!). But surely the testimony of a large community of faith who lives according to one interpretation of Jesus’ life should count for something.
Here’s how I see it. You pick and choose beliefs from whichever religion best accords with your overarching, objective principle: all religions are attempts at grasping the same truth. You have no need to submit to any outside authority, such as the Bible or the teachings of a church. You choose to be your own authority, determining your own truth for yourself.
In our hyper-individualized, autonomous, anti-authoritarian American culture, your beliefs fit right in with the mainstream. But it must be lonely to have no ties to a line of people stretching thousands of years, to have no legitimate spiritual ancestors that you can draw wisdom from, men and women who believed the same thing you do. And thinking about the future, who’s to say that our world won’t change and your beliefs will soon fall out of favor? What will your grandkids and great-grandkids believe?
Cut off from both the past and the future, you are free to believe whatever you like. No one can (or should) stop you.
But my mind is too restless to trust so much in my own ability to pick and choose whatever seems palatable from other religions. I am too suspicious of the idea that all religions are legitimate paths up the same mountain, since most of the people outside the West think that idea absurd. I am too unsettled when I consider the historical questions surrounding the earliest Christians and how they interpreted Jesus. I am too conscious of my own defects to argue against the “accumulated wisdom” of centuries of Christian reflection and adopt a viewpoint that doesn’t accord with anyone else.
I know my limitations and thus am compelled to trust in the testimony of those who walked and talked with Jesus, and those who have followed Christ for centuries. Is that the arrogance of a proselytizer? I don’t think so. I hope it’s the humility of a pilgrim.