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.
“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.