Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
“In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.” ― George Orwell, 1984
“What is truth?” --Pontius Pilate in John 18:38
As the country’s political crisis intensifies, the battle is not only in congressional hearing rooms but on our televisions, news magazines and computer feeds. Amid the blizzard of claims and counter claims, one charge is wielded as a seeming high card: “That’s just fake news!” Conversation stops, there is no deposit of agreed facts to argue from, what’s the point? Does the one who can pay for the loudest ads win?
While it is easy to blame one partisan side or another for this development, it is a reflection of trends for which we carry some responsibility. We have sown the wind of skepticism and reaped the whirlwind of a world that rejects the reality of any truth. In justified reaction to religious backgrounds that were dogmatic, very sure that they had the capital-T Truth to the exclusion and persecution of other points of view, we have often come close to denying that there is any truth at all. We see that truth is often an exercise of power, that “The one with the gold makes the rules,” and that religious truth claims are often used as an absolute sanction against women, glbtq+ people, racial and ethnic minorities, and freethinkers. We also know that God is not containable in human words or experience, that God extends beyond our imagination and concepts, and seems to have a keen allergy to being put in a box.
So our usual response has been to be extremely tentative about saying anything specific about God. We are more comfortable talking about social ethics, subjective experience, and the things that make for comfortable community. God fades into the background as a vague symbol, the church becomes “a helpful social institution filled with nice people,”, and the main purpose of religion is to feel OK about ourselves and our tribe (Kendra Dean, Almost Christian). Theological knowledge is seen as essentially unknowable, that arguments for or against particular doctrines are hopelessly infected with political bias, and we are better working out our thoughts in the privacy of our own minds. We are not atheists nor agnostics; we pray “To Whom It May Concern” for healing even while we have qualms about the idea of G*d intervening in human affairs. It is safer to focus on social ethics as something external, this-worldly and practical, but there we are even more vulnerable to charges of making our own political opinions into something divine. Do we really aspire to no more than to be “The Democratic party at prayer?” (Which is a gloss on an old saying regarding a sister denomination being “The Republican Party at prayer.” The issue of political tribes driving religious sorting is a topic for another time but is part of the decline of the church as a social institution where people learn live with and love the civic Other.)
I suggest that we work at reclaiming the idea of Truth, starting with our willingness to articulate theological truth. While we cannot comprehend all of God, we can know some things truly. Theology can be hard and the church has a unique vocabulary – but the same can be said for calculus, gardening, tax accounting, psychology, auto mechanics, fly-fishing and myriad other disciplines we pursue. While we cannot entirely escape self-interested motivations, the generally shared Christian ethics of love of neighbor, self-sacrificial love, that all persons are made in God’s image, and knowing that we ourselves are not God can go a long way towards taming our lust for political power. We need not have theological certainty, we live our whole lives in spheres of probability and working hypotheses. We dress appropriately for 60% chance of snow, we agree to a medical procedure with an 80% chance of success, and we invest for the future based on our best extrapolations from prior year’s earnings. We fall in love and vow “’Til death do us part,” not knowing the twists, disappointments and tragedies of life to come; we raise children in hope and fear and trust that our best will be good enough and that they will surmount our inevitable mistakes.
In the religious sphere, we baptize babies trusting that God will be faithful to the church now as God has for twenty centuries, youth confirm their journey of faith not knowing how much wonder and weirdness lies beyond the circle of knowledge they already have, we walk the labyrinth of discipleship sometimes faithful and sometimes failing, and we lay our saints to rest trusting their soul to a God who is Love. We dig into the Bible and tradition and human experience knowing that smarter, more spiritual, and more dedicated people than we have been blessed and stumped by these same texts; we stand on the shoulders of giants (and sometimes need to kick them in the shins). Start with what you know you know, then push along the edges of that sphere of knowledge. Envision blowing up a balloon; as the sphere increases, there’s more inside which you know. But paradoxically, there is even more surface engaging the rest of the universe – as you know more, you realize that the area you don’t know is even greater!
This is what we mean by “living the questions.” The famous Rainer Maria Rilke quote we like so much isn’t an invitation to live forever in the questions, but to see them as part of a larger process. “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves,” he writes. “Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them, And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer” (From Letter 4, Letters to a Young Poet). The questions are a necessary part of the journey, and one that many adults at Plymouth engage with gusto, but they are a tool for living towards working hypotheses, useful probabilities, and a considered faith. “The point is to live everything” not to be agnostic. Faith has not much to do with what we know or not, but how we trust the goodness of God and that we are increasingly aligned with God’s project in this universe.
“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad” (George Orwell, 1984). This is how we rehabilitate the idea of Truth – not letting it be hijacked by those who think they have it in all completeness, but also not surrendering it to those who would replace it with the propaganda of the day. We claim the core things we do know and proclaim them loudly in a world that claims might makes right, defiles the image of God in different people, and denies that love is stronger than hate. We repudiate charges of “fake news” that are based on power, but reason from data that is open to discussion and debate. Maybe that will help us deepen our relationship with the One who Pilate didn’t recognize when he scoffed, “What is truth?” -- the One on whose lips the church heard, “I am the Truth.”
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Mark recently celebrated his tenth anniversary as Plymouth’s Director of Christian Formation for Adults. He also serves as chair of the Platte Valley Associations’ Committee on Ministry.