By Jesse Medina
With the advent of postmodernism and its wide embrace in our culture, there was a backlash against it by Christians. Postmodernism brought the ultimate death in the notion of any concept of absolute truth and, therefore, God. As is often the case, when the culture swings one way, the Church swings hard to the opposite.
One of the results of this is the conversation about whether there is such a thing as black or white when it comes to things like theology, morality, and sin. I was recently involved in such a conversation myself. Inevitably the conversation came down to these questions question: is there such a thing as black and white? Is there such a thing as absolute truth?
Perhaps you have struggled with these questions yourself. In fact, if you haven’t the question should then be, “What rock have you been hiding under?!?!” Now, whenever you involve Christians in these conversations, you’re sure to get an answer and it is predictable 9 times out of 10.
I agree. I won’t go into all the reasons of why I agree since that’s not my point with this post, but I agree. Chances are if you are Christian then you probably agree too; at least, that’s my experience. But the problem is not in the belief in an absolute, but in one’s confidence that their particular system of beliefs is absolutely true.
Do you see why that’s a problem yet? If not, you soon will.
We Christians have this interest in partnering with God in what he is doing; namely, bringing heaven to earth. This happens both personally, as individuals come into a saving relationship with Christ, and somewhat impersonally, as systems and practices are reformed to be more just, more true, and altogether more Christ-like and thus good. The two are intimately connected, but it is important to note that in order for the latter to be accomplished, the former must first be in place. All of that to say, Christians have a vested interest in helping others into this saving relationship with Christ. Sometimes we call this “getting saved.”
Among other things, getting saved often involves teaching potential saved folk about God theology, doctrine, etc. In short, we tell them the right things to believe. In fact, most Christians put so much weight on this matter that disagreement on a given doctrine or belief is typically enough to be deemed heresy or have your faith called into question.
This, I submit to you, is endlessly troubling. And it is built on the assumption that everything is either black or white.
Now, for our purposes, I want to submit that most of us actually will acknowledge that there are some gray areas. For example, Paul talks about how what may be convicting for you is not convicting for everyone else. Paul was speaking about specific cultural things, but the same applies to us today. For a former alcoholic, having a beer with dinner may be sin. But for many others, it is simply another drink, even given its alcoholic content (the Bible is clear that drunkenness is sin, but that is a slightly separate issue). As such, we call this gray area, it is open to interpretation and individual conviction. Such is the case for many other activities as well: certain forms of media, music, movies; modern medicine; political stances; etc.
But eventually we all come down to a set of foundations. There are some issues, we believe, that are black and white and some doctrines that must be believed by every Christian; otherwise, they are not a Christian. These, we would say, are absolute truths.
I want to affirm this notion, it would certainly make most things easier, but it is problematic for several reasons.
First, even if we agree that there are non-negotiables, there is not consensus on what these foundational beliefs should be. One person or group of people will say that in order to be a Christian, you need to affirm a, b, and c. However, another group of people would add on top of that x, y, and z. Still others include l, m, and n. In other words, depending on who you ask, you will get a different combination of non-negotiables. So where does that land us? Square one. We know that some are in and some are out, but we are not any closer to figuring out who falls where except to measure everyone according to our own foundational beliefs and if they disagree…well, they’re out.
Second, the matter is further complicated by one oft-overlooked fact: even if we agree that there such a thing as absolute truth (in my mind, there must be), none of us have absolute knowledge to know this absolute truth. For all we know, we are right on some things, close on others, and way off on others. This should not cause us to throw our hands in the air and acknowledge our defeat, but it should cause us to believe and judge with humility. You and I are not God. And that’s good news, indeed.
Third, for better or worse, we are human our knowledge is limited and circumstantial. By that I mean we are each only able to understand what our background, education, experiences, etc. allow us to understand. We often make the mistake of assuming that everyone thinks, and is able to understand, like us. But this ignores a great number of issues, not least of which are mental illnesses, physical deformities, tragic experiences, psychological disorders, etc. But even without those issues in place, we can only be accountable for our best. That is to say, all that we can expect from ourselves (and all God can expect from us) is to make the best possible decision given the information we have. And this is highly subjective as it is a matter of conscience. I assume you would be uncomfortable being told to believe that Jesus had a wife named Maria and they had two kids together, Quantavius and Lucy, when, given an examination of the evidence, you find this conclusion to be unconvincing. You have to make that decision. And so do I. But we need to acknowledge that our differences as human beings means that we will come to different conclusions on what is true and what is not.
I’m sure at this point, you think I have degraded into the depths of postmodernism and believe that there is no truth (or at least no knowledge of the truth) and thus every idea, every person, is as good and equal as the next. That is not the case. I do believe in Truth and I think that my beliefs are the closest to that Truth otherwise, I would change my beliefs.
To some, this may actually seem like bad news, but its not. Its good news and it always has been because it means that our salvation is accomplished by Christ alone by the grace of God and not by our doctrines. All we need is to surrender and accept that grace. Sometimes, that will mean changing a belief when he tells us to (this, by the way, is one of the roles of the Holy Spirit interesting that we’ve assumed this role ourselves). Sometimes, it means that we need to recognize our own ability to believe what is most convenient despite the fact that we are actually convinced otherwise. And, at times, it means we live without knowing what to believe on a particular issue.
Most of all, it means that we can stop playing God and rest in the realization that we need his grace as much as the next person, good theology or not, and that at the end of the day, we can trust Him to be just both to us and to others.
Jesse is a twenty-something married guy living in Colorado who is trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ in the twenty-first century. He is finding that there is no one way to be Christian, no single belief system, no single Bible interpretive method. Faith is too messy for that. You can read more of his thoughts at his blog, Balancing Tension.