Colossians Remixed, Truth, and Certainty

I’m done with Fowl and I’m on to Colossians remixed by Bryan Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat right now. I read the first chapter last Saturday and it really blew me away, I’ve been dying to get back to it. Here are a few thoughts it spurred in me.

I was once in my local Christian bookstore looking for a book called “Justice in the Burbs,” and no salesclerk could find it for me. Finally one clerk asked what publisher it was from. I said it was part of the “Emersion” line of Baker Books. You would have thought I had just said “God is dead!” I was book in hand, heading for the checkout when the clerk – an older man – probably sixty-something, grabs my arm and grips it tight and looks up to the ceiling with his eyes closed as if he’s accessing some seldom used database deep in his mind. Finally, after about five or six seconds he says “always look for Truth.”

I said, “What?” This had never happened to me before.

“Always look for absolute truth,” he said.

I threw back an over-exagerated, “Thanks,” sort of like you do when your grandpa tells you he likes your shoes.

As I was walking away and replaying what had just happened in my mind, it occurred to me. What made him pause was that he was trying to remember something someone had told him about why the emerging church is dangerous. I could see it happening. I knew in an instant that he had heard some pastor at a church or a conference somewhere say the problem with those “postmoderns,” including the emerging church, is that they don’t believe in absolute truth.

I’ve stumbled and bumbled around this question a lot over the past few years. I know that much of my generation and the one to follow looks at the bible and Christianity’s exclusivity and thinks the whole project is full of an offensive amount of claims to absolute Truth with a capital “T.”

Colossians remixed says it this way, “This text has been used…throughout Christian history – as a repressive book of absolutes that silenced all questioning. Indeed the bible seems to be a text suffused with certainty. And if there is one thing that William [a character in their intro] and his generation are certain of, it is that there is no certainty. Certainty needs to be abandoned because it claims too much for any human perspective.” p.16

I share this dubious attitude toward the epistemological framework of modernity. Any single arbiter of truth, especially if it is disembodied, is lacking. I once heard David Burrell say at a conference that, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who need certitude, and those who search for truth.” What is truth?

Remixed again: “The modernist pretense to have objectively grasped a total reality invariably results in a totalitarian social practice. Failing to recognize that human knowledge is always constructed in particular historical contexts, ‘total systems’ are invariably achieved ‘only at the cost of violence, by repressing what doesn’t fit and erasing the memory of those who have questioned it.’” p.17

What committed modernists, which a large portion of my generation would be, fail to recognize is that their truth is as rooted in story (the enlightenment story, the lie of rational objectivity) as any other story. Ultimately, the only way one story can achieve dominance over other rival stories is violence. This is why a democratic republic such as America would see fit to violently impose its political system – its story – on a country such as Iraq who has lived life to a different story for a couple thousand years. What is truth? Is it relative? Is it always violent in the end?

Here’s how I would say it: Truth is a person. I’m a Christian so I believe that “Truth,” though not relative in the way most postmodern philosophers meant it, it is surely relational. Truth is found only in relation to Jesus – to God. In the Christian story, we know the words of Jesus well, “I am the way, the Truth, and the life.” Jesus claims to embody truth. Which begs the question, can any other thing make this sort of absolutizing claim to truth? I don’t think so.

So where is Jesus found today? We find Jesus in the church which is “the body of Christ.” Thus no person, place or thing, no book, scripture, or abstraction can be called “truth” in the absolute sense unless it is embodied by the second person of the Trinity. The only thing which can make this claim is the church. We apprehend Truth relationally. We come into relationship with the people of God who as individuals, cannot fully embody Christ, but as a collective people can surely embody Christ (where two or three are gathered), with a way of thinking, feeling and acting that is harmoniously joined with the Truth who is a person…Jesus. The narrative of Scripture – and it is a narrative, not an answer book or a set of facts about the way things are that you must assent to – finds its potency in the life of the very church of Christ who decided together what texts would be in the bible in the first place.

Modernity has tried to hijack truth by making it an abstraction then commodifying it. Ironically, the truth which that clerk emotionally urged me to seek had been gutted, filleted, and was on ice on the shelves of that bookstore…overpriced in my opinion. The zenith of the modern project is this late free market capitalism which pervades American culture and is now reaching its full potential through Globalization. The entire world is a market now. This wedding of Globalization with capitalism is a new religion. Remixed puts it this way:

“We are facing the most powerful, fastest-growing and most successful religion in the history of the world. And what is fantastic about this religion is that it actually doesn’t require any volitional choice of its converts. In a famous essay, Benjamin Barber described the dynamics of globalization as the emerging ‘McWorld’ culture. ‘McWorld is a product of popular culture driven by expansionist commerce…It is about culture as commodity, apparel as ideology.’ In such a commodity culture, various products become ‘icons of a lifestyle,’ and shopping malls become ‘the new churches of a commercial civilization,’ in which everything is ‘constructed around image exports creating a common world taste around common logos, advertising, slogans, starts, songs…and trademarks.’ Icons, churches, image, logos, songs. Do you see the pattern?” p.28-29

This is the preeminent modern narrative; a narrative which rivals the narrative of the story of God. It has its own overarching stories, its own metanarrative, its own foundational beliefs and assumptions – its own version of truth. Christianity has allowed truth to become disembodied. It has allowed truth to become an abstraction…the four spiritual laws, the Romans road to salvation or some other distilled document from a denominational something-or-other. But in doing this, they never figured out what to do with the body. So the body was given over to the state. Now we teach our children, as Christians mind you, what it means to be a “good citizen” of our country; a “productive member of society.” We teach them to “pledge allegiance to the flag.” But we are aliens in this country. We give our allegiance to God and the people of God who are the body of Christ. More than anything, we’ve given ourselves over to an individualistic consumerism which is narrated not by scripture but by the narrative of capitalism. We are the nomadic people of God who have no citizenship anywhere but heaven. But we have wrongly put our faith in the stories of capitalism, democracy and America. I think remixed is right: “Globalization isn’t just an aggressive stage in the history of capitalism. It is a religious movement of previously unheard of proportions.” p.30

Truth is a person. Truth is now embodied in little communities of faith where Jesus is alive to this day. We find truth not in abstractions but in relationship with Christ through the people of God and the scripture which defines us now as much as we defined it when our ancestors wrote it down. We will never nail the truth down, never really catch up to it because it is alive and dynamic and pulling us toward the future of God. We will always be searching for it, always chasing it, always both fully living it and barely seeing it on the horizon, just out of reach. We will never find the truth because the truth has found us. Our “I love you” to God is never an “I love you,” it is always an “I love you, too,” Because God’s “I love you” always comes first. We can only ever answer back. Truth is a person. Truth is alive and relational, and relative, and eternal and we will only ever find it among the people of God – who are a family – submitted to the story of God as it is found in the scripture, over and against all other stories; even capitalism, even America, even democracy, even freedom.

About Tim Suttle

Find out more about Tim at TimSuttle.com

Tim Suttle is the senior pastor of RedemptionChurchkc.com. He is the author of several books including his most recent - Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture (Zondervan 2014), Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), & An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, and other magazines and journals.

Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. The band's most recent album is "Straight Back to Kansas." He helped to plant three thriving churches over the past 13 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • the_reluctant_pontificator

    The story about the guy at the book store cracks me up. I can understand the lack of tolerance for those who are merely promoting an agenda of requiring conformance to a philosophy. When they do this, they ignore a very fundamental tenet. God is relational. The men and women who promote their positions without any grace and gentleness live lives that do not bear the fruit of the Spirit because they do not have a relationship. They do something that does not honor God.

    I’ve heard you make the “truth is a person” comment before and I really struggle with it. I think it is a useful comment when pushing back against people who promote their theological positions that are solely promoting and grow a homogenous school of thought but fail to embrace the relational aspect that must be the foundation. The heart must lead and the head follows. I can’t accept it when the “truth is a person” concept is used to reject the idea that there are absolute truths/facts/concepts or whatever term you choose to use. Rejecting this foundational tenet is setting one’s self adrift at sea to wander and follows a way which seems right to a man. There are things that are and there are things that are not and we should be about the business of making sure we know them and teaching them to others. It is true that we are broken and sinful. It is true that Christ died and rose again. It is true that God loves us. You can go to the creeds and other foundational concepts and those things are true. They are not relative. They were accurate before they were written, they are accurate now and they will be in the future. They do not change. There are immutable things. There are things that God is and there things he is not. Maybe we are playing with vocabulary here because I won’t dispute that he is the way, the truth and the life; but there are absolute facts about him.

    How does one reject the concept that “there is sin?” Either there is or there is not.

    It is frustrating to listen to the emergent crowd talk about the arrogance of people who say, “the bible says this and the bible says that” and then respond “who are they to say that, how arrogant of them.” They demand grace while they are not willing to give to others. When did it become arrogant to take a position and attempt to persuade others of its accuracy? Calling people arrogant for doing this is infantile.

    I grow weary of this crowd thinking they are charting new territory. Here’s another true truth. There is nothing new under the sun.

    It is clear that you have read a great number of sophisticated books written by intelligent and passionate men, but how much reading are you doing from guys on the other side of the aisle? Men who are graceful (not those who are trying force conformity to their positions) yet clearly on the other side. Have you given any thought to taking a class from some respected men from Covenant like Jerram Barrs or similar people?

    One last thing, I can’t get on the bandwagon pooh-poohing capitalism. Economic freedom goes hand-in-hand with academic and religious freedom. Those who speak against capitalism are doing a poor job of failing to distinguish capitalism from an economic system that promotes base greed and it is disingenuous to fail to make that distinction.

    Sorry to barf all of this out there. Thinking about all this stuff has got me fired up and I hope my comments were respectful.

  • the_reluctant_pontificator

    The story about the guy at the book store cracks me up. I can understand the lack of tolerance for those who are merely promoting an agenda of requiring conformance to a philosophy. When they do this, they ignore a very fundamental tenet. God is relational. The men and women who promote their positions without any grace and gentleness live lives that do not bear the fruit of the Spirit because they do not have a relationship. They do something that does not honor God.

    I’ve heard you make the “truth is a person” comment before and I really struggle with it. I think it is a useful comment when pushing back against people who promote their theological positions that are solely promoting and grow a homogenous school of thought but fail to embrace the relational aspect that must be the foundation. The heart must lead and the head follows. I can’t accept it when the “truth is a person” concept is used to reject the idea that there are absolute truths/facts/concepts or whatever term you choose to use. Rejecting this foundational tenet is setting one’s self adrift at sea to wander and follows a way which seems right to a man. There are things that are and there are things that are not and we should be about the business of making sure we know them and teaching them to others. It is true that we are broken and sinful. It is true that Christ died and rose again. It is true that God loves us. You can go to the creeds and other foundational concepts and those things are true. They are not relative. They were accurate before they were written, they are accurate now and they will be in the future. They do not change. There are immutable things. There are things that God is and there things he is not. Maybe we are playing with vocabulary here because I won’t dispute that he is the way, the truth and the life; but there are absolute facts about him.

    How does one reject the concept that “there is sin?” Either there is or there is not.

    It is frustrating to listen to the emergent crowd talk about the arrogance of people who say, “the bible says this and the bible says that” and then respond “who are they to say that, how arrogant of them.” They demand grace while they are not willing to give to others. When did it become arrogant to take a position and attempt to persuade others of its accuracy? Calling people arrogant for doing this is infantile.

    I grow weary of this crowd thinking they are charting new territory. Here’s another true truth. There is nothing new under the sun.

    It is clear that you have read a great number of sophisticated books written by intelligent and passionate men, but how much reading are you doing from guys on the other side of the aisle? Men who are graceful (not those who are trying force conformity to their positions) yet clearly on the other side. Have you given any thought to taking a class from some respected men from Covenant like Jerram Barrs or similar people?

    One last thing, I can’t get on the bandwagon pooh-poohing capitalism. Economic freedom goes hand-in-hand with academic and religious freedom. Those who speak against capitalism are doing a poor job of failing to distinguish capitalism from an economic system that promotes base greed and it is disingenuous to fail to make that distinction.

    Sorry to barf all of this out there. Thinking about all this stuff has got me fired up and I hope my comments were respectful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10974397437648079481 Tim Suttle

    Reluctant,

    You are always respectful. Thanks for your comments. I’m going to fire back a quick response because I’m in class tonight. I’ll try and think about it more and give a more thoughtful reply.

    I guess I’d ask a question this way…if truth is not a person, then what is it?

    The arrogance charge is interesting. Arrogance is usually applied to those who wish to set up reason up as a neutral arbiter – the sole arbiter – of what truth is. Reason considers itself to be able to consider truth claims from a posture of neutrality when it cannot actually do. There is no neutral observer. All knowledge and truth is rooted in a certain context and as such it is subjective in nature. That’s where the arrogant charge comes from in general.

    More later…but think about that question: if truth is not a person then what is it and who decides?

  • the_reluctant_pontificator

    Two distinctions need to be made before I can respond to your question. First category is historical events. Jesus’ death and resurrection, Stephen was stoned, Paul was knocked off his horse, John the Baptist was beheaded and had scales on his eyes. The second category is instructional matters, the concepts and teachings of Christ, the OT and Christ’s disciples and the meaning of these teachings. I assume we are safe to exclude the first category because they are factual and objective in their nature. Either the events did occur or they did not. The second category is where the discussion lies.

    My response to your question that we have the Bible, the Word of God (and the Word was . . ) and there lies my answer. I am not rejecting that the truth is a person, I am rejecting that there are no absolutes. There are absolute truths or whatever term that you choose to apply, but there are some things that are and saying the opposite would be incorrect. Just because the truth is alive, it does not mean that there are certain aspects of it which are not consistent. Let’s start with something basic. God is holy. The truth is holy. It was, is and shall be. On the next level, let’s look at the law of love. Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Either the text says you love God above all other things or it does not. Either the text, the Word, the living God says we must be selfless or he does not. To break this commandment is to sin. Either it is sin or it is not. These things are not subjective, there are rights answers to these questions and there wrong answers. While only God is in the position to judge the motives of our hearts, it does not change the fact that loving something above him, is sin.

    All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Either the passage says we are all sinners or it does not. This is a great of example of what I would call absolute truth. Either we are fallen or we are not. There is no need to involve questions of how we are fallen and when, but it is a fact that we are fallen.

    What I don’t understand about your question is how the fact that the Truth and the Word are a person can prevent certain things from being immutable or absolute. I’m not talking about discussions about the origin of original sin, only the fact that we are fallen. Either these things are or they are not. I don’t see how the Truth being a person changes the immutability of certain things.

    Here’s another thought. Has God written the objectivity/truth on our hearts? Is it inherent with our being made in his image? What about C.S. Lewis’ argument for natural law from Mere Christianity? There are fundamental concepts that are consistent to all men barring mental illness.

    On the arrogant comment, I’m not sure I follow you. The emersion guys are calling the John Piper’s of the world arrogant. If I follow you, proclaiming arrogance works against those applying the label.

    I can’t help thinking about the endgame of where adopting the “everything is subjective” mentality places us. If there are no absolutes, then I can never have confidence that God has forgiven me. My only confidence comes from the Word and if that is not an immutable, absolute truth then I am a lost man.

    I’m bummed I won’t be able to devote more time to this since I’ll be back to work tomorrow and I can’t read and respond at work during lunch.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10974397437648079481 Tim Suttle

    Yeah, reluctant. I hear you pushing me on absolute truths. I thought about is some…here’s my best shot. BTW thanks for engaging with me. It’s fun. It helps me to clarify what I’m thinking which, I hope you know, is very much in progress.

    I hear the suspicion in your comments that perhaps I am advocating the idea that there are no absolutes. I’m not saying that. I’m really just saying that I think God is the absolute truth to which all concepts we hold as true are completely subject – they are in a sense, relative to God. God relativizes all truth claims that human persons make. (that doesn’t make me a relativist in the philosophical/post modern sense). I know that for some people this is their greatest fear – it certainly was the greatest fear of that clerk in the bookstore and many critics of all things postmodern. But I really do want to affirm that I believe God is absolute and infinite.

    One thought I’d try to get you to entertain is the idea that all truth is mediated somehow. This includes the bible. Every abstraction that we call truth (i.e., we are fallen) leads to a deeper truth, which leads to a deeper one spiraling in toward the God who is. At the end of the day, at the center of the spiral, there exists that Truth to which all truth is subject. In the end there is the God who is…the personal, triune oneness of God. It seems like that make a relational approach to truth really important.

    Here is an example. You say the bible is truth – certainly so. But I read the bible very differently than Benny Hinn. Whose reading is truth, his, mine? Or is the God who stands behind it the absolute and thus not hindered by our limitations?

    I think it’s important to remember that the bible came from somewhere. It did not magically appear, but was mediated by writers, editors, redactors, councils, translators, and publishers – most of whom or all of whom are part of the church (hopefully) which is animated by the Holy Spirit and pervaded by the presence of the God who is the truth. But, when Paul wrote his letters, they weren’t scripture yet. It was the church, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, and the way the church received the letters & the way they became a part of the life of the church itself which made Paul’s letters, in a strict sense, Scripture. Paul’s writing is tied to God, the church’s reception was inspired by God, the interpretation of the scripture is inspired by God all of the mediation of truth happens in relationship with God.

    I also think it’s important to remember that the bible is language and thus it is always interpreted. All interpretation happens within communities. The bible was mediated to us by the church (paragraph above). Scripture came to you and you were taught how to read it by a community. The truth was mediated to you by parents, teachers, Sunday school teachers, etc. And this truth was not merely facts about God – but it was, at least in a sense, God. The purpose toward which this interpretive dance points, is not merely facts about God (stuff we usually call ‘truths’) but very God, or God’s self. It is personal before anything else. It is, at its essence, personal.

    Last think I think it is important to remember is the provisional nature of all of our truth claims. Many of the things you and I hold as “truth” at any one particular time we will learn later, as greater or deeper truths are revealed to us – through the Holy Spirit, through the church – they are not true after all. You gave the example of “either we are fallen or we are not There is no need to involve questions of how we are fallen and when, but it is a fact that we are fallen.” But it was a question like that which led to the reformation. I just think it’s important to stay open to new and fresh works of the Holy Spirit and to not fear questions. Even questions that make us uncomfortable. Even the question, “what is truth.”

  • Anonymous

    “Those who speak against capitalism are doing a poor job of failing to distinguish capitalism from an economic system that promotes base greed and it is disingenuous to fail to make that distinction.”

    Check out this article for some more clarity on the relationship z capitalism and greed:

    http://www.theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=55


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X