This is an expanded version of a message I gave at a Lenten luncheon earlier this year.
I have noticed something when I talk to people of younger generations? Well, it started with younger people? And then moved on to include even people my own age? I’m 47 years old? But notice I am telling you I am 47 years old? But it sounds like I am asking you if I am 47 years old? It’s a way of communicating where our inflection always sounds like we are asking a question? It’s a way of conversing where it always seems like I am looking for your approval? Or reassurance from you? Like I have no passion? Or conviction? Whatever?
I don’t know if Pontious Pilate spoke that way, but I think he thought that way. When Pilate asks, Jesus, “What is truth,” I don’t think he is seeking a philosophical debate. He isn’t starting a discussion about the meaning of existence. Pilate was not a secret Christian. History tells us he was a mean S.O.B.. He once crucified 2000 people in a one day. Pilate’s “what is truth” is the imperial equivalent of “whatever”, “who knows?”, “yeah, what are you gonna’ do?”
Having experienced, just as we do, the intersection of multiple cultures and competing truth claims, Pilate was a jaded ruler who had seen it all. Even his conclusion of “I find no case against this man” reveals his view that Jesus is no one special. “Sure, you’re the messiah Jesus. That guy over there, he’s the Messiah. The guy sitting in a drawn circle on the ground and praying, he says he’s he Messiah too. Yeah, you’re the Messiah. Whatever works for you. Whatever.”
We have all encountered this viewpoint in our own time. Simply put, it is the relativist point of view that claims “You believe what you want. I’ll believe what I want. As long as it works for you.” Ironically, although it denies the existence of truth claims, it conveniently ignores the fact that it itself is a making a truth claim. As we will see, questioning truth can be a Christ-like thing to do, however, we come up against the pesky fact that Jesus talked a lot about truth – especially in the Gospel of John.
The “whatever works for you” viewpoint while sounding appealing at first, does not work out well in real life. You wouldn’t want to be with a group of relativists if you were on the Titanic. Imagine that as you gather on the deck of the sinking ocean liner someone were to announce, “OK what I hear this group saying is ‘every man for himself’ and what I hear you saying is ‘women and children first.’ Let’s all break up into small groups to discuss.”
In satirizing such a view, I myself am guilty of the other extreme – absolutism. Absolutists staunchly claim truth is absolute, knowable and wow by some wacky coincidence they just happen to know it. I have never met someone who believes there is only one true religion and it is the religion of someone else., In Jesus’ day the absolutists were the religious leaders. They claimed to have it all figured out and a book that proved it. “We know what a Messiah is, Jesus, and you ain’t it. It says so right here.”
While Jesus talked a lot about truth, he also reserved some of his harshest criticism for absolutists. He called them hypocrites, vipers and legalists. So how do we stay true to what Jesus said about truth?
Before you dismiss this all as an abstract philosophical debate, know that this tension is felt in every area of our lives. This tension between absolutism and relativism comes up a lot today.
During the Senate hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor, we heard politicians debate these very issues. Some claimed a judge’s duty was to be a passionate advocate for these who have no voice. Others favored a detached impartial jurist who only looks at so-called “facts”. All the while, never mentioning that prizing objectivity is in itself a form of subjectivity. Or as postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty once observed, “Objectivity is merely the agreement of everyone in the room.”
I think that is particularly true when it comes to journalism. There was a time when we claimed journalism was objective. No longer. Objectivity, if it ever existed at all, makes for bad ratings. Do any of us still think our news comes from objective sources? Lest you think I am talking about Fox News or talk radio, do any of seriously believe CNN or the New York Times are objective? Or are they just more skilled at hiding their subjectivity behind this rubric of Western Enlightenment that we call objectivity? Even moving past political viewpoints, much news is generated by public relations departments, spin doctors and news conferences. Our news stories are usually told from a distinctively American or Western point of view. Our so-called objective news is usually filtered through the lens those who have power, money and the technology to have cable news networks.
In response, some would suggest we turn to science for objectivity. However, here too we find subjectivity. For the past century, physics has spoken of things like relativity, light being both a particle and a wave, and the strange world of quantum mechanics. Physicists tell us that the very act of observing the natural world changes it, so that the idea of a neutral objective observer is just a myth.
Meanwhile, within the Christian subculture, there is currently a great debate about truth. Some go so far as to call it a war. Many Christians claim there is such a thing as absolute truth and we Christians, or at least the brand of Christianity of the one making the claim, are its sole possessors. Any other view, they say, is to start down the slippery postmodern slope to moral relativism. Question absolute truth and before you know it we will be marrying animals, they claim. However, accusing others of saying anything goes is often a convenient way of avoiding difficult questions about the nature of truth. Additionally, across the world and among diverse religious traditions, we see a rise in fundamentalism and its often deadly results.
As followers of Jesus, how do we navigate this maze of relativism and absolutism? I think that for many people, including followers of Jesus, neither the absolutists not the relativists provide satisfactory answers to us. Reality seems to be more complex than that.
I believe God knows this too. When we read the stories in our Bible we can see it. God tried letting us discover truth on our own and it degenerated into relativism and ended in a Flood. God tried carving truth in stone and it led to a Golden Calf, legalism and a list of demands no human could possibly meet. So God gave us truth in a person.
Between Pilate’s relativist “whatever” and the religious absolutists’s “these are the rules” is Jesus. Jesus is truth in the form of a person and that implies truth as a relationship. Jesus said he was the way the truth and the light – not his religion, or a particular set of beliefs was the way the truth and the light. Jesus does not tell Pilate everyone who believes the truth listens to his voice. Believing does not precede listening. Instead Jesus makes the astounding claim that those who listen to his voice already belong to his truth. We can belong before we believe.
Can we really say that is a true description of many churches? For 2000 years, we humans have tired to either set Jesus in stone or make him relevant to the point of being irrelevant. How can that be? For answers, we must turn to the great theologian of relationality – George Costanza and his famous quote, “It’s not you. It’s me.” Although Christians often tend to look at those outside the church and say, “Ah look at those horrible people. They’re all relativists”, the fault may well lie in our tendency to either preach about nothing or revert to fundamentalism.
The bottom line is that people are drowning in a cultural sea of relativism and when they come to our churches, are often turned off by a cold current of absolutism. Or they encounter churches with no sense of truth, where we are more than willing to introduce them to our programs, our pastor, our band, our video screen – even our new carpet. But do we introduce them to Christ? Some churches present them with arguments, propositional truths and dogma to prove to them that Jesus is the truth. Others present a palatable version of Christianity Lite. But that’s not how Jesus did it. Jesus introduced his followers to a relationship with him.
Did Jesus say that we would know the truth and that truth needed to be proved and protected? No, he said, again in Johns’ Gospel, we would know the truth and the truth would set us free. In that same Gospel he also said that one day we would worship God in spirit and in truth. This is the same spirit that he describes in John 3, not as a fixed solid object or a foundation, but as something ephemeral and mysterious like the wind that blows wherever it will.
God’s truth in Jesus is so wide and incomprehensible that it took four Gospels and Paul’s writings to even begin to capture it. The truth of Jesus is so multifaceted, it takes all our churches, traditions, denominations and even some forces outside the church to just begin to point at it. It would be much simpler if God did it another way. If it was all like the bumper sticker that says, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” But I believe in a God that is too big to be contained to a bumper sticker. It’s not that I don’t believe in truth. I just believe we need to have some humility about our ability to discern it and hold it. As another one of the influences on my preaching, Dennis Miller, used to say at the end of his rants, “That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.” That’s a phrase we rarely hear in churches.
Many Christians would criticize that view. Usually they are macho preachers who first of all would dismiss me because I mentioned science earlier and didn’t use a sports metaphor. Secondly they would respond, “If you think truth is so flexible, boy I wouldn’t want to fly on an airplane designed by you!”
To which I respond, “Yes and I wouldn’t want to listen to piece of music written by you!”
There are different kinds of truth. Music contains truth, but it is a different kind of truth than that of aeronautical engineering. Likewise, a century ago, when physicists began discovering the subatomic quantum world, they quickly realized that many of the truths of Newton’s equations no longer worked at this small scale. Those truths worked at a certain scale of reality, the everyday reality we all experience. However, they didn’t work on the scale of the very small.
In the same way, I believe that all these truth battles are really questions of scale or context. The rules that work to decide the truth of a criminal case are very different than the rules that work to create theological truth. Yet Western Christians have commonly argued theology as if it were a court case. What if theological truth has more in common with the subatomic quantum world than the world of Newtonian physics? What if theological truth has more in common with art, or music, than with logic? With a plethora of Christian voices making the Case for Christ or showing Evidence That Demands a Verdict, perhaps it’s time to consider Improvising on Christ, or Christ's Uncertainty Principle.
Just as physicists encountered the bizarre world of the very small, Einstein discovered that the truths of Newton’s equations no longer worked at the scale of the very fast. Specifically, when objects approach the speed of light the measurement of things once thought to be absolute, such as time, become relative. Einstein called it the Theory of Relativity and we know it best in the famous equation E=mc2. In his theory, Einstein did not say everything is relative and there are no rules to physics anymore. In fact, the reason the Theory of Relativity is true is precisely because there is an absolute within that equation. The absolute is the “c” which is short for constant. The constant is the speed of light. It is an absolute that never changes. No matter how relative the observer’s frame of reference, the speed of light, that “c” is constant.
The Bible tells us that Christ is the light of the world. Christ is our “c”. Although our frames of reference are always changing, he is our constant. Not a constant that we can stand on or possess, but a constant who always appears in new ways and transforms things we thought were absolute. Not a constant of the status quo, but a constant of revolution and transformation. Think of the things we take as unchangeable absolutes in our lives, past hurts, addictions, and hopelessness, and how the constant “c” of Christ can change them. We may do well to replace E==mc2 to c=wtf2 or the constant of Christ equals the way, the truth and the life squared. Life squared, the exponentially abundant life Jesus promised us.
At the end of John’s Gospel, the Risen Christ meets Mary in the garden and tells her literally, “Don’t handle me!” Jack Nicholson was right. We can’t handle the truth.
Truth is not something we humans can contain or control. We can only hold it in humility and submit to it. As true followers of Jesus, we need to move from thinking of the Truth of Jesus Christ as an absolute that we possess, to thinking of the Truth of Jesus Christ as a relationship that possesses us.