The Temptations Of Truth, The Universal, And Primitivism
Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful. Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “When Progressive Christians Nuke The Fridge”, United Methodist Insight, September 5, 2014
My recent posts regarding the temptation to close the floor of General Conference in 2016 to all but delegates and others with actual business before the body have reminded me, again, that we contemporaries are no less prone to temptation than those from the distant past. The idols we continue to praise include Truth, which carries in its wake the desire to have in our possession something Universal, and a corollary idol I call the primitivist temptation, i.e., the idea that if we somehow arrive at the best understanding of the original Biblical texts, we shall possess Truth in its most pure form, a Truth that is Universal and which can be communicated with clarity and simplicity to others.
One would think that a good course of a survey class in the Scriptures, or even a common sense glance around our neighborhoods, our states, and our world would disabuse us from these temptations. Alas, they are just too seductive. To be in possession of universal Truth, with the clarity and simplicity of those who originally set it forth all those thousands of years ago, this would make us the controllers of the message, those who, like St. Peter, have the Keys to the Kingdom. One of the great gifts of the past generation of protest theologians is the realization that Truth, Universalism, and Primitivism not only are not possessions of the Western Church, but can become demonic, dehumanizing, and a stumbling block to real participation in the life of the Spirit for those for whom the alleged True and Universal message of Jesus does not speak in any relevant way, in any language that makes any sense.
St. John’s Gospel presents the matter of Truth in two key passages. In the first is the statement from Jesus that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In other words, “Truth” is not a thing. It isn’t a series of words or phrases, a set of concepts that either logically flow one from another or correspond in some way yet to be determined with the world in which we live. Truth, rather, for a Christian appealing to St. John’s tradition, is the person of Jesus Christ. Thus it is that Jesus refuses to answer Pontius Pilate when he asks Jesus, “What is truth?”. It is a person who is not grasped and possessed, but rather grasps and possesses us. We are not purveyors of Truth; we are those to whom the Truth has been revealed. As the late philosopher Richard Rorty asked, “What does the claim that a sentence is true add to that sentence?” His answer was that, like Kant’s query regarding the addition of “being” to an already existing thing, it adds nothing at all. I would add, however, that it adds a personal commitment, an element of power and control that other statements, not being True, do not have. As those who possess, guard, and spread Truth, we live in a special relationship to the Universe that others do not.
Being True and bearers of Truth, it follows that our words and concepts are not subject to the vagaries of time and language and social and cultural context. On the contrary, being True means they transcend such merely human realities. Thus “the Gospel” becomes a Thing that is spread regardless of language, of history, of culture. Resistance to this message isn’t that it is meaningless to those who hear it; resistance is the result of sin, or evil, rather than hearing something that makes absolutely no sense. When I read that someone insists their words are not just true (in the trivial sense) but True, I immediately wonder what, precisely, they’re worried about. Is it possible they are so insecure in their beliefs that, unless those beliefs conform in some manner, fashion, or form, to the reality that is the entire Universe, they fall apart?
The matter of primitivism is more a methodological matter. If we contemporaries, through study of the original languages and social and political settings that produced them can come to understand those original texts really meant, the question of hermeneutics, of understanding and appropriation for we moderns, can be set to one side. We no longer have to bridge the gap of centuries, of languages, of cultures, of the heap of interpretation piled on commentary, but like Martin Heidegger can make one giant leap back and understand and know the Truth and its Universality as it was originally conceived. Thus we need not worry about how women were treated in ancient times, or the status of sexual minorities, or national or ethnic conflicts and prejudices; these become part of the Truth of the text, a Truth to which we adhere, Universalized to our contemporary world of very different views, inheritors of two thousand years of human history and all it has wrought.
To admit that Gospel is for all is not to submit to the idols of Truth and the Universal. It is only to say what it says. Making the Gospel intelligible and comprehensible across thousands of years and the variances of language and culture and history is to be Incarnational in our approach to being the Body of Christ in the world. In Philippians, we read that God surrendered all that is Divine and became human. The testimonies of the Gospels show Jesus living with the lowly, serving the outcast, eating with prostitutes and tax collectors and drunkards, bringing a message of hope and life to those who had no hope, and for whom life was a slog through exclusion and dehumanization. God did not become the Universal person bringing universal Truth to all persons in all times and places. The Second Person of the Trinity existed in this particular person, in this time and place, speaking this language, serving these particular people. When St. Paul writes that Christ came in the fullness of time, he means only this: the specificity of the Incarnation is what makes it the Incarnation of this God for these people, that is, the Jews and Gentiles. We cannot escape this specificity, this contingency with appeals to the idols of Truth and Universality ex post facto. The reality of the Incarnation give the lie to the idols of Truth, Universalism, and Primitivism.
Finally, yesterday I noted that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was doing Christian Ethics for a contemporary world that understood the Universe to be finite, curved, and governed by the contradictory laws of General Relativity and quantum mechanics. One limits the extent of our reach to the Universe. The other limits what we can ever know about the most elementary particles that make up our world. Both strip away any pretext to Truth, Universalism, or Primitivism precisely because they always places us in a position of limitation regarding what we can do, what we can know, and how we can know it. When Bonhoeffer casts aside “good and evil” as the criteria of Christian Ethics, demanding instead the continual renewal of our commitment to the life to which we are called, he is doing ethics for just such a world, a world humbled by its understanding that the very fabric of the Universe limits what we can know, how far that knowledge extends, and how we can communicate that knowledge to others. Acknowledging this reality, that our Universe exists in this way rather than a way that allows us mere humans to have and communicate Universal Truth, arrived at through a method that transcends the limitations of time, space and matter, strengthens our commitment to being bearers of the Gospel in the way Jesus was: As these persons in this time and place, speaking to this particular group of persons, to their needs, in words and images they understand. We become an Incarnational Church not when we surrender to the shiny god of Truth. We become an Incarnational Church when we realize we are, like Jesus, being fully human, surrendering any pretense to power and authority, submitting ourselves to the death Christ died in his baptism, in hopes of rising with Christ.