The Emergent Theological Conversation

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Deception and Truth

Chapter 6

Reflection by Daniel Harrell

For evangelicals, the idea(l) of Truth is paramount. So much so that Truth’s supposed declension in the face of postmodern critiques has incited all sorts of knee jerk defensiveness against the threatened loss of a cornered market (power) and a loss of particular confidence in how-things-are (perspective). In chapter 6, Volf challenges human perceptions of Truth, concurring with postmodern critics who label the human capacity for knowing Truth as inherently limited. However at the same time, Volf sides with evangelical Christianity by asserting that human limitation need not diminish Truth’s reality (or render it relative) inasmuch as Truth finally does exist in the Mind of God. “We know only something of what God knows,” Volf writes, “as much and as little as God has revealed. …The belief in an all-knowing God should inspire the search for truth; the awareness of our human limitations should make us modest about the claims that we have found it, however.”

Any Christian dialogue (or monologue for that matter) that addresses God’s Truth necessitates modesty—a sorely lacking trait. Volf writes how the little knowledge we actually have of Truth gets “skewed because we suppress truth through desire to overcome others and protect ourselves.” What will save us from this hubristic penchant? Volf offers a four-step process whereby Truth-seekers and -speakers incorporate other’s perspectives. Such a move modestly approximates God’s Truth which is The Truth about each and every possible perspective. However our incorporation of others must move past mere acknowledgement to actual embrace. As a mentor of mine used to put it, the goal should be to understand another’s perspective so well as to be tempted by it.

More than an abstract category of facts and verbal pronouncements demanding assent, the Truth for which Volf argues is situated Truth grounded in “the things people do to each other.” More than what we say, the Truth that we do is what corresponds to divine Truth. Truth is essentially relational.

I spent a recent evening over at Harvard University where students from a Christian fellowship had taken Halloween as an opportunity to invite their entire campus (by way of little bags of candy with invitations inside) to a discussion of genuine (true) Christian faith. Walking over to the gathering, I asked one of the hosts whether they had had a chance to meet many of those to whom they had delivered invitations. She responded how they hadn’t actually stopped to talk to anyone, but had only dropped off the bags of candy. Hmm. What would I do if some anonymous Christian dropped unsolicited candy in front of my dorm room door? First thought: “Don’t eat the candy!” Not so surprisingly, only Christians showed up for the discussion.

The relational character of Truth requires real-live relationship to serve as Truth’s conduit. But even if the students had personally invited their classmates to the discussion, there remains another crucial proviso. As Volf obviously and yet profoundly notes: “before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it.” There has to be an interest in Truth for any perspective to form, any conversation to take place, any person to be embraced.

A crucial distinctive of Christian perspectives on Truth is its claim that Truth’s relational nature extends beyond the bounds of human-to-human relationship. As Jesus’ encounter with Pilate in John’s gospel articulates, Truth is not of this world. Our experience of it—our relationship with it—is as witness to it. We do not produce it nor control it. Jesus, as both paragon and paradigm of Truth, embodies Truth in his life as it is to be lived. Yet as Volf is quick to qualify: “The first thing we need to remember as we seek to learn anything from Jesus Christ is that we are not Jesus Christ, we are not the truth and we are not self-effacing witnesses to the truth.” Witness is different than possession; it treats Truth as that which is to be submissively obeyed rather than mastered. Obedience to Truth (and the failure of obedience) fuels the necessary modesty with which we then enter into dialogue with others. Modesty exposes the plank in our own eye to which we must first attend before poking at any one else’s specks.

Naturally this is the hardest sort of truth. It demands both self-assessment and self-suspicion of that assessment. But both are indispensable when it comes to modesty. I think it was N.T. Wright who once said that among the most important words when discussing Truth is the word perhaps. By incorporating such language into our speech and actions, chances are better that somebody may turn up interested in the discussion next time.


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