I’ve been in an interesting place for a while now, trying to come to grips with a God who turns out to not meet my old expectations, and watching a lot of people who call themselves Christian act rather unlike the Jesus I read about in the Gospels. So I’ve been thinking hard about the nature of truth, and the nature of the Bible itself.
I recently heard the following idea from Christin Fort during an interview on episode 27 of the Faith for Normal People podcast. It’s not an exact quote but it’s pretty close to her words. She basically said “Objective truth exists. But I can only perceive objective truth through my subjective lens.”
Okay – that’s actually a pretty useful idea. There are certainly objective truths about God. The question, perhaps, is whether any given single verse or passage in the Bible fully conveys an objective truth by itself. The Bible is a very complex document, or more precisely, a multifaceted collection of rather diverse documents, which often have diverse ways of viewing God and require significant work to reconcile with each other. So the question becomes, is the Bible itself entirely objective?
For example, if God is described in some Bible passages as annihilating those who choose against him, in others as condemning them to eternal torment, and in other passages as being eternally patient with them and eventually bringing all to redemption, I find three different views about the same God in various places in the same Bible. What, then, is the objective truth about God as concerns soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation?
If I am predisposed to think of God as eternally loving and patient, I will find a way to explain away the verses that state that God will destroy those who do not repent. Yet on the other hand, if I am predisposed to thinking of God as harsh and judgmental, I will be inclined to explain away the verses that describe God as being eternally patient. Either way, I will form an opinion that I claim to be objective – but about which others would say is wrong. So my subjective understanding of God changes how I interact with the objective truth, and I cannot escape that fact. So claiming that the Bible is itself “objective truth” is somewhat pointless, because it does not account for the complexities of the humans who are reading the Bible, and all their glorious variety. Because the Bible is so complex, no matter how determined we are to see it as objective, our subjectivity will color our understanding.
So in some sense, perhaps the actual objective truth is that God is more complex than whatever we think we understand about God.
Now, I fully recognize that these kind of thoughts are rather unpopular with conservative Christians, who prefer to depend on what they believe are long-established truths and doctrines about God. I know – I lived in that view for decades. That doesn’t mean that conservative Christians don’t acknowledge these complexities; rather, it means that they have wrestled through (or more likely, that they have trusted that others have wrestled through) these complexities and arrived at what they consider to be a solid, believable, final answer. And they then call THAT “objective truth.”
And in that vein, I’ve heard it said – in fact, I’ve said in my past – that we need to trust the interpretive wisdom of generations of thoughtful Spirit-led Christians, when it comes to making those decisions about objective truth. The complexities are said to be too hard for us to parse out ourselves, but those who have gone before have done that wrestling and we need to not abandon that hard work for some modernist, progressive, or liberal interpretation.
However, one cannot fail to remember that, for the most part, the interpretive wisdom (such as it is) that has selected the proper interpretations was largely the result of white, European-origin, middle-to-upper-class people that are accustomed to being in charge. For example, a surprising amount of current evangelical doctrine comes from high-ranking members of the German state church in the Middle Ages. Such a group of people will certainly tend to interpret things rather differently than, for instance, a marginalized people group that is being oppressed by those same white European people in charge. And to be honest, both of them will likely select different interpretations than members of a martyred church in communist China, or a poor village in the African savanna, or any other people group living in dramatically different circumstances with different concerns and different history.
So which of those varied and equally long-established interpretations is more correct? That’s a much harder question to answer, and it would be deeply arrogant to assert that my traditionalist white European inspired view of doctrine is necessarily correct.
It’s also deeply colonial, in the sense that it assumes the indisputable truth that the held position is the only right one, and the rest of humanity must be brought into alignment with that truth – colonized, as it were – regardless of whatever culture and understandings they may already hold.
So these days, I reject that approach: I’ve simply learned too much recently to continue to believe that my own doctrine is indisputable and is absolutely trustworthy and perfectly complete. I just cannot impose my lofty intellectual position on anyone else, because I’m too keenly aware that it – just like any other dogma or doctrine – is woefully incomplete and lacking.
So perhaps the proper answer is not to pick any one or another interpretation as objectively true, but to recognize that each of the various interpretations of most areas of debate in the Christian faith will contain significant and important truth, even if they appear to conflict with one another. So I have to look askance at any claim that my particular lineage and their interpretive principles are necessarily the right, Holy-Spirit-inspired, inerrant understanding of supposedly objective truth.
This mix of uncertainty and inherent complexity, however, leaves me with a rather uncomfortable choice to make. What do I do, in essence, if I find myself convinced that the Bible is inherently subjective, at least as far as it’s possible for me to grasp it?
I could say “No, I’m going to stick with the objective dogma I inherited, and I still believe it’s all correct, and those who went before me had it right, and I’m going to functionally ignore anything to the contrary. I think that’s the best definition of faith: to believe without proof.” Many people, for generations, have been taking this path: believing that there actually IS no conflict to resolve – if we have enough faith. Well, that way leads to fundamentalism and dogmaticism. I believe it’s deeply harmful by its colonialism and arrogance and unrepentance.
Or, I could throw up my hands and say “it’s all impossible; if this supposed god can’t even get his instruction manual to be self-consistent, and it’s that subjective, it’s no god I’m willing to believe in and worship. I need objective truth if I’m going to believe any of it.” More and more people these days are taking that way out: it’s impossible, and it disproves God. This way leads to atheism. I believe it’s sadly missing a chance to experience a deeply loving God.
I could, somewhere in the middle, say “It’s too complex to settle; I can’t ever know the truth and I choose to not believe in anything for certain, but I will allow that God may exist nonetheless.” Many these days are taking this way out, calling it all unknowable, leading to agnosticism. As with atheism, I believe it’s missing on the best God has for us. And a particular danger is that it avoids any search for the truth of God and God’s plan for us.
Or I could, also somewhere in the middle, say “It’s too complex to settle; all these subjectively-experienced ideas still speak to some intrinsic objective reality higher than me, which I choose to call God, but I’m content to believe I don’t really have the wisdom to comprehend the complexity, and I’m actually okay with that.” Such an approach gives me a point of focus – the goodness of God – and permission to truly seek God’s best will.
This approach seems quite rare, but I’m meeting more and more people who are taking this path. When I ask why, the answer is often that they’ve experienced God personally in some tangible way; they simply cannot let the intellectual wrestling derail their personal experience and resulting certainty in God’s reality. The only remaining question is what their faith looks like, not whether it persists.
As for me, that really describes my experience: I find that I still believe that God in fact does exist and does love me and is worthy of my worship and adoration, despite my deep uncertainty about doctrine and dogma. I’ve simply seen God work many times in my own life and in those around me, in ways that are indisputable to me, even after I strip away all the dogma and doctrine.
And it doesn’t leave me uncomfortable about my salvation, surprisingly. Since my conclusion is that God is, in fact, real in some true objective way, and also that God loves me and moves in my life, I am not worried about my eternal future – even if I can’t hang my hat on any particular one of the many different understandings of the true meaning of salvation and the Cross, with utter certainty and confidence. At best, I admit that the Bible clearly conveys God’s determination to redeem all God’s creation and humanity, including me, even if I can’t be certain how that will work.
That’s all fine, but it still leaves a number of practical problems on my mental table. For example: how do I resolve the ever-more frequent challenges to my doctrinal understandings? How do I evangelize, or share my faith with someone sufficient to convince them that God is worthy of their own faith? How do I – or can I – pray if I’m not objectively certain of the doctrine underlying my prayer practices and what I expect God will do as a result?
One of the nice comfortable things about believing that the Bible is simply and objectively true is a total confidence in some formulaic “here’s how to get to being right with God” methodology. Know the Four Spiritual Laws, say this or that prayer, believe this or that creed with all your heart, and all that. But let’s be honest – there are nearly as many of those answers as there are Christian denominations and sects. They can’t all be true – and I think, they can’t all be entirely wrong either. We’re right back to subjectivity. So what do I tell a friend about God?
Several friends who are walking a similar journey as me keep reminding me: I’m looking for crystal clear answers, when the actual answer is probably some variant of “just stay connected with God, responsive to the Holy Spirit, and in relationship with people around you; say what the Spirit wants you to say in the moment, and trust God to do the hard work in their hearts.”
I kind of like this answer, partly for this reason: the people God brings to me for connection and relationship, who will naturally be open to hearing what I have to say, are going to be people who are maybe a few steps behind me or ahead of me in a similar place. If I’m honest about it, it’s unreasonable to expect that God would ask me to take someone in a totally different place and yank their head around to a totally new way of looking at God. I think there’s a reason that the Bible uses the motif of planting a seed. A tree doesn’t spring fully-formed from the ground: it starts small, and grows slowly.
We evangelicals were taught, either explicitly, or implicitly, to go knocking on doors that didn’t expect to receive a visitor, and somehow there would be an instant change, and that house would come to salvation in a moment. That MAY happen, but I suspect it’s rather rare, and there are only a few people who have the gift for that kind of ministry. Instead, I think most of us do the slow, hard, sowing and watering, and we only see a bit of growth at a time. If we are privileged to stay in relationship, we may see the harvest someday, but I suspect that most of the time the harvest is incremental. Baby steps. But always closer to God’s objective truth.
There’s lots for me to continue to work through here. Like I said, how do I pray? How do I respond to faith challenges? There are a million questions once I finally become honest enough to admit that my objective truth model is meaningless.
But I think I do trust this one bit of objective truth: God is in it all, and patiently walking with me as I intentionally draw closer to the Kingdom of Heaven day by day, and God is not at all surprised or dismayed by my questions. THAT is the objective thing on which I can rest.