Sunday, May 12, 2013

Metatheology, Part I: A Second Trinity

This year has been a huge one for the relationship between my intellect and my faith. Last Fall, through a process of increasingly deep and intense questioning I dismantled some wrong and harmful expectations I had of the Bible that had been eating at my faith. This Spring I've been picking up the pieces of my view of God and reassembling them into something new, a process that has coincided roughly coincided with the recent renaissance of this blog where I've been doing a post every two or three days, if not more often.

I consider these recent posts some of my best work ever (on a blog that's always learning and growing, the most recent work is always the best ever). These posts have been on some pretty important subjects to modern Christianity: the doctrine of the Fall, the relationship of science and scripture, the tension between Old and New Testaments, and Hell, among other things. But lately I've been kicking around some even bigger questions that are not just important outworkings of theology but are foundational to the very pursuit of theology. Seeing as how I'm about to begin a Master of Arts in theology in the Fall, now seems like a great time to ask them. The first is this:

What is Truth?

As far as questions go, "what is truth?" is one of the most basic. Your answer to this question affects how you will answer any other question, and indeed how you handle the very answer to the question itself. Everyone already has some kind of an answer to this question, because an answer is necessary in order to believe anything at all. This answer may range from straightforward to the postmodern "there is no single 'truth'", the statement of which actually presupposes a different nature of truth than the one it gives.

For years and years, I would have answered, "that which agrees with reality". I can't precisely remember where I picked this definition up, but it seemed perfectly reasonable so I stuck with it. I think many Christians, especially those of a more intellectual disposition like mine, would give a similar answer. Others might recognize that "truth" should not be some external standard that God merely conforms to, but that our view of truth should be based on our view of God, so whatever God says (as revealed in the Bible) is the very standard of truth by which we are to judge everything else.

It so happens that this very question crops up in the Bible. In John 18:38, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor overseeing Jesus' trial at the hands of the Jews, asks it of Jesus after questioning Him. This is it: Jesus' chance to clear up the governor's surprisingly postmodern confusion and make this man of power and influence into His devoted follower! But he doesn't tell Pilate, "Truth is that which agrees with reality", or even "truth is the words of God as revealed in the scriptures". His actual response is much more challenging:

He says nothing.

Now, this could have been because Pilate was asking a rhetorical question that Jesus didn't feel like answering, or because he left the room too quickly for an answer, but for me, Jesus' silence here is deafening. I have a working theory for why He remained silent at this question: He was about to demonstrate the answer to Pilate and to the whole world in an answer infinitely more satisfying than a mere definition. Truth is not simply the body of all correct statements or even all the words of God: truth has a center, and that center is the capital-W Word of God who became a man, lived among us, and was crucified and resurrected for us.

Note: If you read the title and are concerned I've embraced heresy, this is what I was referring to by "second trinity", so scroll to here

This is another observation from my read through John in Greek. In John, Jesus (and the narrator) makes three powerful statements:
  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1) Later this Word is revealed to be Jesus. (1:14)
  • Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) In context, Thomas just asked Jesus, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Answer: "the way" Jesus is going is not a separate piece of information they have to find; Jesus Himself is the way they must follow.
  • [Jesus prayed,] "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17)
Jesus is the Word is truth is Jesus. It's hard to understand from a modernist perspective on truth like I used to hold. The resemblance to the doctrine of the Trinity is so strong here that I couldn't resist making a similar diagram to show it. (And if you combine the two, you get that this trinity also applies to God the Father and the Spirit)
The objection next question is, "What does this mean?" What does it mean that the ultimate revelation of God's Word and truth is a person--and that this person is also God? I think this is a great example of a Christian "mystery"--not at all meaning that drawing conclusions from it is impossible, but that they are inexhaustible; we can never fully understand it any more than we can drink an ocean. For starters (and this is a big tie-in to the other big questions), it means that truth is a lot more than correct statements about theology, the world, or anything else, no matter who makes them.

This makes much sense of the quote frequently misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words." The closest real quote to it this is: one another, as the Lord says: "This is My commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you." And let them show their love by the works they do for each other, according as the Apostle says: "let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth."
1 John 3:18, which Francis cites, is another crucial look at what truth is: John specifically contrasts "word or talk" with "deed and truth". So "truth" can be demonstrated in a show of love in imitation of Christ (as in 3:16) just as much as it can be in speaking the truth, if not more so. Of course words and talk are not devoid of truth--if they were, why would John be writing a letter?--but if all they represent is the transmission of correct information, I think John would say they are devoid of truth.

The Christians I know have a general sense of the need for truth-as-words to be pervaded by love, as in Ephesians 4:15, which gives us the language of "speaking the truth in love" and how we need both. But John does one better by pointing out that true actions can speak louder than true words, and if correct words are spoken without love, they are no truth at all and we would be better off saying nothing (see also 1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

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