Friday, March 23, 2007

experience the truth (an excerpt from how not to speak of god by peter rollins)

rather than describing the real or reality, the christian idea of 'knowing the truth' can be said to operate in an entirely different realm. for, unlike the former perspectives which refer to the ability to make substantive descriptive claims concerning the real or reality, the judeo-christian view of truth is concerned with having a relationship with the real (god) that results in us transforming reality. the emphasis is thus not on description but on transformation. this perspective completely short-circuits the long-redundant debate as to whether truth is subjective or objective, for here truth is the ungraspable real (objective) that transforms the individual (subjective).
while the christian can make use of these other discourses, the prime notion of truth within christianity is directly connected with liberation and transformation rather than with objective description. for instance, when we read that christ is the truth and that knowing the truth will set us free, we come face to face with truth, not, as the objective affirmation of a proposition (as if that would set anyone free), but rather as that which arises from a life-giving encounter. the truth in christianity is not described but experienced. this is not then the affirmation of some objective description concerning truth but rather describes a relation with the truth. in other words, truth is god and having knowledge of the truth is evidenced, not in a doctrinal system, but in allowing that truth to be incarnated in one's life. hence, this claim of christ is not a way of claiming that some theoretical system will bring new life, but a way of saying that by entering into a relationship with god we will find liberation. to know the truth is thus to be known and transformed by the truth. in the epistle of john we find an extrapolation of this theme when we read that knowledge of god is evidenced in a life of love rather than in the affirmation of a theoretical, dogmatic system:
“dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from god. everyone who loves has been born of god and knows god. whoever does not love does not know god, because god is love ... no-one has ever seen god; but if we love one another, god lives in us and his love is made complete in us ... god is love. whoever lives in love lives in god, and god in him.” 1 john 4:7-16
here john equates the existence of religious knowledge with the act of love. knowledge of god (the truth) as a set of propositions is utterly absent; instead he claims that those who exhibit a genuine love know god, regardless of their religious system, while those who do not love cannot know god, again regardless of their religious system. truth is thus understood as a soteriological event. this word 'soteriolo-gical' is derived from the term soteria, from which we get the word 'salvation'. in precise terms the word refers to a cure, remedy or healing.
while this religious idea of truth as soteriological may initially seem somewhat unrelated to the idea of truth as that which describes, there are times when they can come into conflict with each other. for example, let us imagine that we are hiding some jews in our house in germany during the second world war. early one morning some soldiers come to our door as part of a routine check and ask if we are housing any jews. in response to this question we have three options: (a) we regretfully say 'yes', acknowledging that we are held under a higher moral law which requires that we do not deceive; (b) we say 'no', judging that it is the lesser of two evils, a necessary lie required in order to prevent murder; (c) we say 'no' and feel happy that we told the truth.
in this example most contemporary christians in the west would, i suspect, choose (b) as closest to their own position. however, if we take truth to mean any act which positively transforms reality, rather than describes reality, then there is no problem acknowledging that, while denying there are jews in the house is empirically incorrect, it is true in a religious sense precisely because it protects the innocent (as well as protecting the soldiers from committing a horrific act).
the idea that religious truth transforms reality in such a way that it reflects the kingdom of god renders some bible stories far more intelligible, for throughout the text there are instances in which the people of god seemingly lie (i.e. say something which is empirically false) for the sake of truth. for example, at the beginning of exodus we read of two egyptian midwives who refuse to carry out pharaoh's command that all male infants be put to death. here we read:
the king of egypt said to the hebrew midwives, whose names were shiphrah and puah, 'when you help the hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.' the midwives, however, feared god and did not do what the king of egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. then the king of egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, 'why have you done this? why have you let the boys live?' the midwives answered pharaoh, 'hebrew women are not like egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.' so god was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became more numerous.' exodus 1:15-20
here god does not merely accept the deception of shiphrah and puah but actually blesses it. not only do we find other examples littered throughout the old testament, we even find jesus himself engaged in what would appear to be an act of deception. in john 7 we read that jesus' brothers attempt to persuade him to attend the feast of tabernacles. in response to this request jesus replies:
'the right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right. the world cannot hate you, but it hates me because i testify that what it does is evil. you go to the feast. i am not yet going up to this feast, because for me the right time has not yet come.' having said this, he stayed in galilee. however, after his brothers had left for the feast, he went also, not publicly but in secret." john 7:6-10

more discussion on this issue of truth as experience on sunday at the upper room, or feel free to enter the conversation here online.

peace to you,