Objective Truth: Who Can Know It?

One of the big firestorms in modern theology is the assertion that "objective truth" exists. It is partly reactionary, a response to philosophical arguments against objective truth. But the firestorm is much more "deep seated" than a mere reactionary response; its roots have been with us since the beginnings of time.

I strongly believe in objective truth; despite the modern philosophical arguments against it. The philosophical arguments are self defeating, and nihilist. But I seriously doubt that the firestorm is warranted, practically speaking. I'll try to demonstrate why the furor is unwarranted, and why it takes our eyes off something that is far more important. This brief paper discusses the disconnect between our certainty of objective truth and Christ's teachings about poverty of spirit.

The ministers and laypeople of so many denominations today proclaim that they have THE truth. There is no room for discussion, and no toleration for those who believe differently. If you believe differently, you are in error. Period. Some of this comes from teachings that declare truth to be objective and not subjective. And some of it comes from pride and arrogance.

Christianity teaches that poverty of spirit is achieved through a transformation of our desires until they fit God's will; that is, minimizing our selfishness and pride -- and maximizing the attributes that God desires (one of which is selflessness; freedom from pride). This beatitude has been done great violence by some of modern Christendom's main public voices.

The violence comes from them preaching -- with unwarranted certainty -- all the things they think should be God's priorities (their version of God's will) to the exclusion of almost any emphasis on us all minimizing our pride and egos (poverty of spirit). The "We are one true Church" characteristic is present in every denomination. I have a deep seated suspicion that God is pretty disgusted with these claims. Why? Because they are not a claim that objective truth exists; they are a claim that my denomination exclusively possesses it -- to the exclusion of all others. It is purely ego driven; a thin disguise for our feelings of superiority. We can strut around and sing, "WE are God's chosen people!," in a rush of ego-driven pride.

There is nothing wrong with following our true beliefs; this is what we are called to do. But when we become so certain that we (and our denomination) are the only true repository of God's truths, we have overstepped. This claim that we are the one true Church surely means we have maximized our pride and ego instead of minimizing it. It is this hubris, that we possess all the spiritual insight, that causes us to try to force our idea of "the attributes that God desires in his people" onto all others. This is an utter violation of minimizing our egos; and is also a strong expression of self.

No human sees things as God sees things -- as they truly are. We don't have his capability or perspective. Each person sees truth from his/her own severely limited perspective. Our "voice of God" is far from perfect. We need to be less certain that we are the voice of God. None of us have a "God's-eye-view." We are often overly certain that we know God's will, only to realize later that we were fooled by our own desires, by false teaching, or incomplete understanding. But more importantly, even if we have the right doctrines and a pure heart, we do not have completeness of understanding, nor are we free from our pride.

This cautionary is in no way promoting subjectivism or relativism or the idea that each person creates his/her own truth. Most of us sincerely believe that there is objective truth. But God is the only one who can say with certainty what objective truth is. We humans are too fallible to rightfully claim with any degree of certainty that we know objective truth. Historic and current-day examples amply prove this point.

Looking back into history, we see many Christians burned at the stake for heresy. The problem is, the "heresy" they died for back then is now accepted theology. They were sure they possessed objective truth, and we today are sure we possess it, and we come up with different theology. A logician will tell you that one or the other has to have been wrong; and their is a possiblity that both were wrong. It was not just European churches that burned people at the stake for heresy. We had it in early America too. Just ask the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists if any of their early-American believers were burned by the Puritans or driven out by the Anglicans? The answer is resoundingly affirmative.

(My paper is largely addressing Protestant issues, but I didn't want to receive a bunch of emails telling me that the Catholic church has a lock on objective truth -- through the infallibility of the Pope. I seek no quarrel with that claim. But, the Catholic belief that the Pope can be infallible needs to be tempered by the knowledge of the many apologies that Church has made over its long existence. One can believe that the Pope is able to speak pure objective truth. But it is quite another to believe that as a consequences the Church has made no errors. Far from everything the Pope says is objective truth, else the Church's record would be more spotless. I do not say this pompously. We in Protestantism have no better track record with infallability.)

For a current-day example, if you are theologically competent at all, you can quickly understand just how little we agree on what is THE truth. Just listening for 1 hour to any televangelist who spouts his certainty that he possesses THE truth. You will, in that hour hear several statements he makes that are not THE truth as you know it.

Many of them hold up their Bible and declare it to be the whole Word of God, the only objective truth, the total objective truth. But these claims mask a nasty little secret. We humans can read this book and come to different conclusions! Because we humans are incapable of fully comprehending objective truth when it sneaks up on us and spits right in our eye (figuratively speaking of course). The Bible is a difficult book to understand, and no two people totally agree as to what it says. It is okay for me, you, or a televangelist to devoutly believe the Bible is the source of objective truth. It is quite another matter for any of us to to claim we fully understand it!

That televangelist needs to be less certain that his understanding is THE truth. And, so should you and I do be less certain. If I disagree with him, logic says that one of us must be wrong. Logic, however, does not dictate that it is him that is wrong; it could be him or it could be me, or both of us. Only pride would suppose that it cannot be me. We are called to poverty of spirit regarding our ability to discern objective truth. Only God sees truth entirely as it is; we all see things from our very limited personal perspective and not from God's objective perspective.

Who has not changed their understanding of God's will as they matured? (If you have not then your evaluation of your beliefs has been pretty minimal.) But we were certain we knew it back then -- just as we are certain we know it now. And we will be certain we know it when we change our views a decade from now. I suggest that it is precisely this tendency to be certain of that which is uncertain that caused Jesus to write this beatitude. He calls for humility of spirit; a repression of our cocksure egos. Sadly, this beatitude is almost utterly ignored by the dominant mouthpieces of modern Christendom -- our televangelists. Is it too strong a statement to say that they are teaching doctrine opposite to that which Jesus taught? I think not.

Despite the uncertainty of the process, or perhaps because of it, poverty of spirit should make us seek to transform our desires to fit God's will; this need I will not deny. But this seeking is not enough. In addition to seeking there must be humility. Poverty of spirit should keep us very humble about our potential fallibilities and the uncertainties of this process. Paul told us to work out our "own" salvation with fear and trembling; not to work out our "neighbors" salvation with great hubris.

We all have seen others who have been certain they knew God's will, and we have been equally certain that they did not. It is, of course, our pride that make us so certain that our understanding trumps theirs. If we have poverty of spirit, we will be more tolerant of other viewpoints, as perhaps being something we should seriously and prayerfully investigate. And if we ultimately reject that viewpoint, we should reject it internally, not in prideful public declamation.

Poverty of spirit means we will never try to force our ideas on others; nor proclaim that we are the holders of THE truth. The hubris that drives men to insist that they know God's will only proves that they don't. God's will is for them to allow God to empty them of their pride and self certainty. In other words, they don't truly "know" God's will or it would show.

This cautionary is in no way promoting the idea that our religious beliefs should not be discussed and debated. We must continue to seek objective truth. But in that process much humility is necessary. How quickly we declaim the spirituality of others. Jesus was far more inclusive in his acceptance of any "who names the name of Christ." It is far better to err on the side of including in Christ's fold those who are not than it is to exclude those who are. Do you doubt this? Jesus ordered us not to try and separate the tares from the wheat. He has reserved that task for himself at the time of harvest. It is his crop; not ours. And what if we make a mistake? The very broad category of those "who name the name of Christ" is quite inclusive. What God hath cleansed, let no man call unclean. Calling another denomination a "cult" is a an indirect way of labeling them unclean. Are we truly sure they have not been cleansed?

I want to repeat that true Christianity demands that we work out our "own" salvation with fear and trembling. There is no room for demanding that others conform to our concepts of Godliness. We are not commissioned to work out the salvation of "others." We are commissioned to bring them the good news. The rest is God's work.

Both Jesus and the Holy Spirit offer truth gently. If we refuse it, they don't force it down our throats. The behavior of the Holy Spirit in presenting truth is always gently. There is no force. You have free will, and the Creator does not violate the free will He has given to you. So where do we get the idea that we have the right to cram our religious ideas forcefully down other's throats when God himself will not? How can we possibly understand this to be the will of Jesus? The answer lies in the Old Testament.

Clearly, in the Old Testament, a person could be killed for rejecting or violating the law of God. But this was under the old covenant. Under that covenant, the Israelites were literally born into a covenant of blessing and cursing; it was not a personal decision; they were born into a coercive theocracy. The new covenant is much different. It is individualistic. There is no salvation by birth now. There is no national salvation now. You must personally choose to accept or reject. Free will -- freedom to choose -- is the hallmark of the new covenant. How few grasp this huge, huge difference!

It is not poverty of spirit that causes us to force others to conform to our understandings. It is just plain old pride. We go back to selected aspects of the old covenant to justify our coercive desires. We don't want all the down sides of that old covenant, but we sure do want the coercion! Because it feeds our pride -- "If you will just do it my way, we'll usher in heaven on earth." Yah, sure.

In this major area, Paul's teachings appear to be contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Religion by force is throughout the Pauline epistles. It is my opinion that Paul was so thoroughly steeped in Old Testament theology (and his own pride) that he could not fully adapt to the new theology of Jesus.

Paul was willing to accept that salvation came to individuals by personal decision, instead of to nations by birthright. He recognized and accepted the personal nature of the decision process regarding salvation. But, he could not bring himself to believe that your working through the process of salvation remained between you and God. He wanted the church to insert itself into the process just as strongly as it did in Judaism.

Paul most assuredly was as demanding of "acceptable standards" enforced by the church as were the Scribes and Pharisees who received such scathing denunciation from Jesus. They were so certain that they understood the "plain truth" of the law. And Jesus told them that they had no understanding at all.

How do we suppose Jesus would respond to the hard-line televangelists of today? I suspect he'd be just as scathing to them: choking over gnats and swallowing camels; neglecting the core aspects of true religion and majoring on outward appearances; loving public prayers and hating ones enemies; money changing in the temples; etc.

But good old Paul, he most assuredly got one thing exactly right. He said, "Follow me as I follow Christ." Right on. Follow any minister who shows through his life and actions that he is truly following Christ. And the moment you see that his life and actions are projecting unChristlike attributes, quit following him. If we'd all do this, the listening audiences of the errant televangelists would drop like a stone in a well, and they'd soon be off the air.

-- mof, 1/21/2010

P.S. -- I am not saying that all televangelists are teaching error. Just the ones who claim inerrant understanding and are preaching intolerance instead of humility.

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