What kind of truth?

by Philip Sudworth.

“You don’t have to switch off your brain to be a Christian.”  I’ve heard this defensive comment many times in recent years.  It’s quite right.  However, we do have to use our brains appropriately. When we total a bill or solve a crossword, we think differently from when we appreciate music or respond to feelings of love.  Although we use both analytical and expressive thinking all the time, the balance varies according to the situation. It’s important to use the correct brain process for the task.  In a school, I asked a girl how she’d arrived at 11+7=27.  She cheerfully replied, “Because I like 27, it’s a nice number.”  It would be equally inappropriate for a man to confess his love to his girlfriend in scientific terms.

Each form of thinking has its own type of knowledge and truth.  One relies on verifiable facts, logical proofs and rational argument, while the other deals with experiences, intuitive insights and inner knowledge. “You shall know the truth,” promised Jesus, “And the truth shall set you free.”  What kind of truth is this? – Factual statements about God that can be set down in a logical scheme, or the knowledge of God’s love and  creative power that you feel from the very centre of your being? Within Christianity, there’s a wide range in the balance between these two types of thinking.

When Jesus told his disciples to think of God as Father, he wasn’t teaching them data about the essential being of God.  He was encouraging them to develop a relationship with God based on filial trust rather than on servant-like compliance with rules in expectation of reward or slave-like fear of punishment for disobedience. The early Christians saw themselves as “Followers of the Way”, as exponents of “the truthas it is in Jesus.”  Such a faith is experienced and its truth lived out.  How we explain it is the outer layer, which we should expect to refine, renew and expand over time to allow the core faith to grow. If we become preoccupied with defending and preserving the explanations, the outer layer, we can constrict the development of the core. It can also be difficult for new generations to penetrate through to the essential nature of faith. Once Christianity became a state religion, those in power sought to codify it in order to control it. Orthodox beliefs and loyalty to them became central.  Faith came to be seen as accepting the truth about Jesus, as taught by the church.

Our modern culture values reasoning more highly than intuitive thought.  This results in church leaders wanting to treat religious experiences objectively and to justify Christianity intellectually.  It leads to some confusing of the different kinds of truth.  One can’t prove what are matters of faith and personal experience. Some very intelligent people over recent centuries have tried unsuccessfully to prove the existence of God. Yet billions of people have ‘known’ God from personal experience.  Currently, there are popular, but sometimes disingenuous, attempts in some outreach courses to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus, attempts which come close to a docetic diminishment of his humanity. The bible’s power to change people’s lives is an experiential truth.  Its power is felt in the words themselves.  Arguing that the bible says, “All scripture is God-breathed,” so the bible must all be true is circular logic. It can lead to literalism and a focus on the wording of individual texts rather than on the spirit of the message as a whole.

We can never grasp the essence of a religion through intellectual investigation alone.  We need to understand it also as a way of life, a vision, a relationship and a commitment through intuitive brain processes. That is why depictions of other religions in terms of beliefs, rituals and festivals and metanarratives often feel so hollow. They describe the outer framework and miss out the essence of the faith which motivates and inspires the adherents. It leads to a misunderstanding of other faiths that mirrors Richard Dawkins’ mischaracterisation of Christianity.

Awareness of the need to distinguish between rational and experiential thinking has grown within the church over recent decades.  However, outsiders are still too often presented with traditional Christian doctrines as statements of fact to be believed literally or rejected. We have to be more open about different types of thinking, and to acknowledge our frequent use of poetic language and images. We can leave factual details about the physical universe and its development to science.  Religious truth is about relationships, meaning, hope, and fullness of life. It demands a response in the way we live.

4 thoughts on “What kind of truth?”

  1. I ask myself, is the purpose of theology and religion the justification of orthodox belief or to express our experience of God? (Barth or Schleiermacher). Or are we to engage in the mental gymnastics we would need to do both? I feel the church should be about expressing the amazing totally inclusive and non-judgmental love of God, within which we live, move and have our being every day of our lives. How is this served by reciting creeds, saying formal prayers, seeking righteousness and piety, going on about salvation, redemption from personal sin and eliciting “presence”? Liked Neo-Pelagian’s comment “The living ethical world is Spirit in its truth”. 1 Corinthians 13 expresses the same thought. It all comes down to ethics, because all that matters in life is to love and be loved.

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