Sunday, August 22, 2010

Unity in Truth

For just as the body is one and has many memberrs, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12)
Can there be unity among Christians? There are always attempts being made to do so. In our day people very much appreciate dialogue, and there is a lot of hunger, especially among young Christians, to see divisions decrease. Yet there are always a significant number of people who say (and reasonably so, at least on the face of it) that "we can have unity as long as we unite around truth." After all, it would be silly to unite solely around the fact that we're willing to call ourselves "Christians." We'd have unity, but we'd have very little to show for it.

And yet, all those passionate seekers of truth, despite the best of intentions, always seem to end up splitting Christianity into smaller and smaller pieces. Why is this? There may be many reasons, but I have come to suspect that it largely boils down to a misunderstanding of what truth is, and how we get it.

Postmodernism has brought with it the now widespread idea that truth is relative to both cultures and individuals. The assumptions we hold are conditioned by our experiences and by the society we live in; therefore there really is no "absolute truth." Christians (at least of a more conservative bent) tend to emphatically reject this assumption, insisting that truth is one, and that it is absolute. This is ironic for a group of people who run around proclaiming so many conflicting "truths." Uniting around the belief that there exists only one capital-T Truth is as vacuous as uniting around a mere label, such as "Christian."

The question is, what do Christians have with which to replace postmodern claims about truth? Can we deal with postmodern critiques without merely dismissing them? It would not be wise to neglect the insight that our assumptions are indeed culturally conditioned, and that a lot of the truths we cling to are largely wrapped up in personal experience. Ignoring these insights does not make them go away. It is not much better to casually admit, "True, our beliefs are largely culturally conditioned, but that doesn't mean there isn't absolute truth out there to be found." We ought to have some positive evidence that there really is Truth to be found, and that we're not wasting our time in search of it because we wish it to be there.

How have we misunderstood truth? In my opinion, postmodern claims about truth are irrefutable, provided we assume truth is something to be grasped individually. This understanding of truth is so fixed in our minds that I suspect it would take ages to pry it out. Yet what I believe to be closer to reality is that truth is grasped corporately. It might even be necessary to say something as radical as truth is not a "thing" to be grasped at all, but it is more like a state in which all the parts of a whole are properly ordered.

What leads me to this idea? Ironically, I would start with how individuals learn. One incredible modern insight is that the mind is, essentially, a corporate entity. The brain is composed of billions of cells, each of which sticks to its own individual tasks. Thus learning, even for a single human being, is a corporate activity. Propositions are not grasped by any one neuron. Human understanding is a product of all the parts of the brain being in proper cooperation with each other.

This proper cooperation is exactly what Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians 12. He describes many different tasks that we are given in the church, yet all of these separate tasks are part of the functioning of the one body of Christ. What if we applied this to our understanding of truth?

We already intuitively sense that our pursuit of knowledge benefits from diversity. We see how beneficial it is to discuss things collectively, so that flaws in our reasoning might be exposed and different voices might give us needed perspective. But all this gives us is a struggle to find the right balance between open-mindedness and strong resolve. This is because we still believe that knowledge is fundamentally something to be grasped individually. Hence the struggle is to find the best strategy for getting truth for oneself: open-mindedness might help bring a person closer to truth, while being resolute in one's opinions might protect it from outside threats.

What if this struggle is fundamentally misguided? Individual neurons in the brain do not individually struggle to understand propositions. That is the task of the brain as a whole. In the same way, I suspect that the Truth we are after is of a higher order than each of us as individuals. None of us can grasp it. I am not saying that none of us are smart enough. I am suggesting that it is necessarily impossible, like individual neurons trying to learn calculus, or individual muscle cells trying to play basketball. The Truth is not within our grasp because we are not supposed to grasp it individually, but collectively. This is why the church is a body, and not merely a set of individuals.

The postmodern complaint that no one can own the truth seems to be correct. But the conclusion that there is no truth relies on the assumption that we are meant to exist solely as individuals, rather than as a connected whole. Yet in the New Testament, the "new humanity" (Eph. 2:15) is a "body," (1 Cor. 12:12) organically connected to one another, as it were. It is not the destiny of human beings to find truth individually, but only as a body.

So if truth is not something that can be grasped individually, what is it? I have to insist that I don't know, because it is beyond my grasp. Instead, I merely insist that I am connected to a body that, in time, will be "guided into all the truth." (John 16:13)

For Catholics (at least of a conservative persuasion), the interpretation of John 16:13 is that the Church has been kept safe from key doctrinal errors, and that the way to have the Truth is to receive the teaching passed down through the Church. This would appear to be close to what I am saying, but it is in fact radically far off. The job of the body is not to receive the truth and break it down into propositions which can be understood by each individual part of the body. How absurd would it be if the brain broke down ideas so that the fingers and toes could understand them! This is not even necessary, nor is it reasonable. Rather, the body as a whole gains wisdom as each member of the body carries out its function properly.

Thus the function of the church as the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15) is not primarily to write down statements of doctrine to which its members ought to assent. Statements of doctrine are wonderfully useful. I by no means intend to disparage words and propositions. That is how, for millennia, human beings have meaningfully communicated with one another on a level that would not be possible otherwise. I am simply saying that words and propositions are not "the truth," and never will be. No, the task of the church, as I have said, is to be well-ordered, to be healthy, and in this way to collectively possess the truth in a way that surpasses all individual understanding.

Here I have to express my skepticism toward the Protestant treatment of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. In my mind there are two very different understandings of that doctrine, one of which I can accept, and another which doesn't work, in my opinion. The former is simply that the church does not have authority over Scripture, but must be continually transformed by it; in this sense the Scriptures are "authoritative." This much I can accept.

But there is a second sense in which Sola Scriptura commonly taken, and in that sense the Bible is God's Truth perfectly expressed to man in written form. Regardless of whether or not the words of the Bible are 100% factually accurate, I find it difficult to accept this doctrine of Sola Scriptura on philosophical grounds. Words and propositions do not add up to Truth, and I think this applies as much to the Bible as to anything else. Not that the Bible is just some other book; I wouldn't even suggest such a thing. I just think we have to make a distinction between capital-T Truth and the words of Scripture. Wouldn't every Protestant admit that understanding the words of Scripture is not the same as knowing God? Theologically speaking, wouldn't we rather say that knowing God is closer to what "having the Truth" is about, rather than knowing certain doctrines?

So then I reject these two notions of Truth espoused (at least sometimes) by both Catholics and Protestants--dogma on the one hand and "Sola Scriptura" on the other hand--which are really the same notion, namely that Truth is meant to be consumed individually. Instead, I propose that Truth is meant to be understood by us corporately, by which I mean that we are connected to one another and rightly ordered as a body. Ideally this means all humans. But it is natural to ask, how do we as the church pursue truth under this model?

For one thing, we each do our individual tasks. Each of us has a particular calling, and we ought to fulfill that calling in faith that by doing so we are contributing to the proper functioning of the body. The eye has to have faith that because it does its job, the legs will be able to carry the body where it needs to go. The ear has to have faith that because it does its job, the mind will understand what's being said. We all have to have faith in our individual tasks, because those tasks are all essential parts of a much greater body; and none of us has the right or that capability of overseeing the entire body.

For another thing, we connect to one another. The famous "love chapter" is the central part of Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 12-14, concerning the body and its proper ordering. Love really is the core of the Christian life. We ought to have faith that our collective understanding of the truth comes out of our mutual love for one another. I don't think it really happens in reverse. One does not need to know "the truth" in order to love others. Neither do I think it really helps us love one another when we have pure doctrine. Rather, love is more fundamental. Truth is something that we can have together, but only if we have love keeping us together. If we don't have love, then neither will we have truth. But this requires a different notion of "truth" than what is commonly accepted.

I think I'll end this here. There's a lot more I could say, but I think I will save it for other topics.

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