Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Propositional Truth vs. Relational Truth

I know that one of the greatest challenges in outreach is how to communicate truth in love. I tend to agree that while relational truth has its place, objective truth is of primary importance. I think that pragmatism has permeated our culture so deeply that we as Christians have "mega-church" mentality stuck in the back of our minds. Here's a recent article from Christianity Today that caught my attention (click the title for the original article).

"Emerging Confusion"
- by Charles Colson with Anne Morse

Distressed about my widely circulated exchanges with an "emerging church" leader, a young theologian confronted me after a conference. He urged me to try to understand them. "You might be surprised by how much you agree on," he said.

Maybe I had been too harsh. After all, the theologian—we'll call him Jim—argued that emerging church leaders are trying to translate the gospel for a postmodern generation. That's a commendable goal, I agreed. Though in their effort to reach postmoderns—who question the existence and knowability of truth—I expressed fear that they are coming dangerously close to teaching that objective truth does not exist.

A lengthy e-mail exchange with Jim followed. In defense of emerging church leaders, he insisted that truth is paradoxical, simultaneously personal and propositional. It is objectively true that Jesus Christ is Lord no matter what anyone thinks, Jim wrote. But, he added, "Propositional truth is not the highest truth. Indeed, the highest truth is personal."

Like all statements that can lead us into error, those have the ring of truth. Of course, truth becomes relational when we come to Jesus, Truth himself. But our doing that isn't what makes it true. He is the truth whether or not we ever experience him. Scripture is never less than revealed propositional truth.

Jim argued that one prominent emerging church leader won't say this for fear that the greater points he's trying to make won't be heard. Okay, I conceded, his motives may be good, but his position can lead people to think that truth depends on experience or comprehension.

Jim continued to plead for my understanding. Emerging church leaders are only seeking to challenge the church to go beyond static orthodoxy. Good, I replied—but what's new? I've been trying to get people out of pews to live their faith in prisons for 30 years.

Fearful that I was being influenced by stereotypes, I asked my associate Anne Morse to visit a leading emerging church. The service was a bit unsettling to a traditionalist, she reported, with no Bibles or hymnals in sight. During the service, congregants were free to engage in activities at various "stations" of the building: praying, journaling, or tithing. The pastor, who lacks formal seminary training, offered not a sermon, but the story of his decision to "follow Jesus."

But style is not really the issue. I've worshiped all over the world, in former prison torture chambers, under jungle overgrowth in Sri Lanka, and in homes of persecuted believers. And I recognize that the emerging church is trying to engage the postmodern mindset as Paul did at Mars Hill, picking up on Athenian cultural artifacts. Once he did that, however, Paul also taught them why they were wrong. He didn't sanctify the altar to the unknown god or say that pagans have things to teach us, as at least one emerging church leader does (when, for example, he says Buddhists have things to teach Christians about meditation).

The e-mails kept coming back to that one stubborn question: What is truth? While I now have increased sympathy for what emerging leaders are trying to accomplish, I still believe some have wrongly diagnosed the church—believing evangelicals are wedded to dry, dusty doctrine, the curse of modernity.

I only wish that were the problem. My experience is that most mainstream evangelicals are so steeped in the experiential gospel that they never think about truth propositionally. (Barna found while 63 percent of Americans do not believe in truth, 53 percent of evangelicals don't either.)

The arguments of some emerging church leaders, I fear, draw us perilously close to the trap set by postmodern deconstructionist Stanley Fish. Defending himself after his sympathetic statements about the 9/11 terrorists boomeranged, Fish claimed that postmodernists don't really deny the existence of truth. He said there is simply no "independent standard of objectivity." So truth can't be proved to others; therefore, it can't be known—a verbal sleight of hand.

For evangelicalism (let alone emerging churches) to buy into that would undermine the very foundation of our faith. Theologian Donald A. Carson puts his finger precisely on the epistemological problem: Of course, truth is relational, Carson writes. But before it can be relational, it has to be understood as objective. Truth is truth. It is, in short, ultimate reality. Fortunately, Jim came to see this.

The emerging church can offer a healthy corrective if it encourages us to more winsomely draw postmodern seekers to Christ wherever we find them—including coffee houses and pubs. And yes, worship styles need to be more inviting, and the strength of relationship and community experienced. But these must not deter us from making a solid apologetic defense of the knowability of truth.

Reprinted from


John Lynch said...

Thanks for stirring the pot, Quentin. It's a good word for us to resist the pull of secularism in defining truth since the world has skewed the subject so badly. But it seems to me that brother Colson has failed to recognize his own perspective's secular roots. I'm not defending Mclaren here (Colson's "Jim" according to CT). I'll admit, I haven't had much patience reading through McClaren's stuff at all. But neither do I have a whole lot of patience with the Enlightenment-based rationalistic banter of this article.

I don't think we can read lightly over Jesus' words when He said, "I am the Truth". That is a profound statement that exposes & discredits every ill-conceived worldly definition of truth.

The propositional-truth idea is exposed when we ask questions like... Is gravity true? Then how does Jesus walk on water? Is prenatal blindness true? Then how does Jesus heal the blind man? Is the finality of physical death true? Then how does Jesus raise the dead? Is "Thou shalt not kill" true? Then how does God command Israel to commit genocide against wicked nations on more than one occasion?

The relational/relativistic truth idea is debunked in asserting that truth is relative to us when Jesus so clearly said that it is solely relative to Him... to the person of God. Nevertheless, it's a powerful realization that truth is, indeed, relative... though only to God's person.

I'm glad Mr. Colson's writes that "truth becomes relational when we come to Jesus, Truth himself; but our doing that isn't what makes it true. He is the truth whether or not we ever experience him." But I think he errs when he says that, "Scripture is never less than revealed propositional truth."

Scripture is the revealed person of Christ... not propositional truth. It's why He calls Himself "the Word". Propositional truth flows from the person of Christ... the person of God. And with that, propositional truth can only be truly experienced relationally, since real belief comes from the heart, not the mind (Rom 10:10).

I praise God for Chuck Colson's ministry throughout the world. God has used him to lead more men & women to saving faith than I probably ever will. But I twinge at the practical danger of his words to those of us who continue the Kingdom work in the present day. Holding propositional truth as ruler of reality harms our approach to Christ & His life in two significant ways: 1) It places God under propositional truth... which is obviously problematic. 2) It suggests that truth can be known apart from God... which Adam & Eve discovered was untrue when they tasted the tree of knowledge. They learned that knowledge apart from God is no knowledge at all.

Eager to hear your thoughts. Peace.

David said...

thanks for the post..
John, well said!!!

I'm struck by the words of Pilate who questioned truth while looking at the one who claimed to be truth.

37"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

38"What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him.

Makeesha said...

John and David - good thoughts all the way around. I confess, I have little love for Colson lately, I am finding him to be an infuriating thorn in the side of emerging church thought. The good thing to that is that he and others like him are forcing our hand a little...something that none of us really like because we're still mucking through this ourselves but something that is probably healthy in the long run (see my purple church post).

I will also admit that I really really like Brian McLaren. We share similar styles of communication - we think through things out loud, rarely claiming any monopoly on "truth". I'm not sure you know that this fellow is McLaren, it also sounds like Tony Jones - a man I also like very much. But either way, I will not hide my respect for these men, even though I doubt we would agree on everything.

more to the point, truth means nothing if it's not personal. to me, that's the bottom line. So how then to we help others make this a personal narrative where truth lives and where they are adding their story?

Makeesha said...

John said: "Scripture is the revealed person of Christ... not propositional truth. It's why He calls Himself "the Word". Propositional truth flows from the person of Christ... the person of God. And with that, propositional truth can only be truly experienced relationally, since real belief comes from the heart, not the mind (Rom 10:10)."

This is very well said John, and I agree.

I think what frustrates me about these conversations is that people like Colson have their drawers in a bunch over the phraseology of "truth" when that's not really the point anyway.

I think that's what frustrates people like McLaren, Jones and others in the emergent church "cluster"...the point is not that we work out all things "truth", the point is that we work out how to communicate JESUS to others...that we work out how to be incarnations of Christ to others.

If I have to present Jesus as a big fluffy space cat with orange eyes to a bunch of aliens on Malboxin Prime in order to manifest the incarnate Christ to them and bring them on a journey to relationship with God, then so be it. I don't know what's so controversial about that.

John Lynch said...

More on this... I hear a LOT about how Postmodernity is primarily about viewpoints on truth. I don't think that's exactly right. I believe Postmodernity is about the INSTITUTION... & how it asserts an authoritative monopoly on all things (including truth).

Go rent the movie, Chocolat. Then rent V for Vendetta. The first is a fantastic (albeit, Godless) picture of the best of supra-institutional Postmodernity. The latter is a disturbing commentary on the worst of anti-institutional Postmodernity. Neither focuses on truth.

Consider the French Revolution (famously considered the beginning of Western Postmodernity). It wasn't about Truth, it was about Institution. Consider modern political trends... not about Truth, again, but corruption in Instutions. The Catholic abuse scandals, the failure of the military machine in VietNam & now again in the Middle East, the loss of Scientific optimism, the career trends of emerging adults... all point to a primary cynicism on Institutional assertions.

The Truth conflict is a reaction to Instutional rejection - & I think it's one that will come around as grass-roots communal stirrings take further root.

Makeesha said...

I think you're onto something there

paul said...

great thoughts, my own musings/exprience with truth/my sexuality is here...