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THE NEW SEARCH FOR TRUTH

How have the great minds of the church so totally missed this turn in the road? Today, "truth" is up for grabs—"certainty" has been shattered—and this crisis threatens the very existence of the church.

No theological tradition leads society. While church leaders still fight old battles, their thinking has been discredited. Theologians may hold the tools to "prove" the "truths" of the modern era, but they have yet to discover the tools to verify the Truth of a postmodern era.

Here is a summary of where we’ve been and where we’re going:

Modern theologians trace their traditions to the ancient Greeks where the highest element of man is the mind or the intellect. Unfortunately, the Greek system has nothing resembling a biblical "spirit."

As a result, the faith of early ecstatic visionaries has become known for the doctrinal controls of its formal theology—the dogma of its ideas—the cold, hard facts of its cerebral "truth"—and the "proper" thought of its "reason-mongers."

God has been reduced to an academic discipline, a systematic theology, a predetermined proposition, resulting in an out-of-control elitism—more culture than Truth, more flesh than spirit.

A new test for Truth struggles to emerge. We are rethinking "thinking"—a different "seeing," a different "sensing," a different discernment.

This is a difficult time, a transforming moment. In the language of outer space, we are crawling through a "wormhole" that will soon open on the far side of our "Universe."

Unlike our recent past, a future theology will never be frozen in time, for revelation is always larger than our understanding of it. As a result, our understanding will become a cycle of grace, an ongoing dialogue.

For more, read on:

Virtual Truth

"What is truth?"

This question—plus a little sarcasm—gives stature to the educated elite. After all, being "educated" also requires being "skeptical."

As a result, "truth"—any version you want—is "up for grabs." "Certainty" has been shattered. We face a crisis, in other words, in how we know that we know. No longer do we choose between beliefs. Many now choose whether to believe anything at all!

"Universal Truth" belongs to a virtual world where postmoderns rename it "useful fiction." And "timeless truth" belongs to Cyberspace where digital devotees measure it in mere nanoseconds.

Even God grows "virtual." With wireless, mobile computers, we can know the answers to anything, anywhere, anytime. Of course, God has always been "wireless" and certainly "mobile," but we will soon know His virtual version in an all-knowing, everywhere reality.

A "real-time" reality!

A Post-Christian World?

Among these menacing trends, most religious leaders still fight old battles and still brandish old weapons. They still count on old science and rigid rationality for the certainty so terribly missing today. And, like the ancient Greeks, their reasoning minds still remain the "immortal" element in man.

But, their thinking has been discredited—their reasoning has been refused. When they removed their rational theology from its spiritual Source, nobody really wanted it anymore. The option of remaining in a powerless status quo became unacceptable.

Less cerebral Christians, of course, have simply ignored the modern world. In their hide and seek games, the Age of Reason "never really happened." As a result, they live in a make-believe world that reflects another time, another place.

So the church, in most forms, lags far behind. No theological tradition leads society. No dogma holds the "final" truth. No hierarchy enjoys a privileged position. A Christian "futurist" has become an oxymoron.

Indeed, our world appears almost post-Christian.

Rethinking Thinking

Yet, a new test for Truth struggles to emerge. A new evidence for faith fights to surface. And—though rarely admitted—even postmoderns seek this certainty. They simply haven’t found the language for it yet.

The answer lies both before and beyond the modern period. What we seek is an ancient/future knowing that resurrects premodern insights and reveals postmodern intuitions. It’s a different "seeing" where epiphany replaces proposition. It’s a different "sensing" where participation replaces empiricism. It’s a different discernment where knowledge "of" Truth replaces knowledge "about" Truth—where "how" we know replaces "what" we know.

We are rethinking "thinking," in other words. And, with daring new tests of Truth, we are discovering the total convictions of a radically new orthodoxy.

This new "seeing" is conspicuously spiritual. "It seems as though our entire culture has a thirst for transcendence."1 Three million people a day, for example, use the Internet for spiritual purposes.2 Indeed, the spiritual awareness of the "unchurched" sounds more in tune with the future than any modern theology.

Further, this new "sensing" is wildly "multiple." Patterns of truth—webs of significance—mosaics of beliefs—are replacing the warped narrowness of past truth. Scientific truth, historical truth, logical truth, felt truth, subconscious truth, and spiritual truth increasingly interact in an exquisite dance. Of course, all this seems meaningless to our single-minded minds, for there are far more patterns than we ever presumed.

And, finally, this new discernment is magically metaphorical. Artists and storytellers are discerning and discovering a new postmodern theology. And without surprise, for we have long known the Inexpressible and Incomprehensible Other in meanings which are felt or intuited aesthetically rather than strictly thought out. Metaphor, in other words, explores what formal theology never could present or contain.

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Yet, even these trends are not enough. What, in fact, makes them authentic? What, with certainty, represents religious experience? What, in truth, certifies truth? We still hold the tools that "prove" the "truths" of the modern era, but we have yet to discover the tools that verify the Truth of a postmodern era. As a result, the rush of history creates a virtual vacuum of any truth.

And that vacuum threatens the very existence of the church.

Once again, we must "test and prove all things."3 The church needs new assurances of authenticity, new guarantees of credibility, new tests of reality. And, if we are headed toward a new experience of truth, we had better develop a new veracity for our experiences.

Quickly.

"Reason-Mongers"

So how did we get here? How did the great minds of the church totally miss this turn in the road? In short, modern theologians simply followed modern thinkers. Their blind trust simply selected their own blindness. And similar sightlessness has proven normal for the denizens of every culture in every century.

But it proves fatal to the faithful.

Even with history’s earlier warnings, modern theology still chose to go with culture. So, it claimed credibility through logical ideas. It provided the certainty of our faith through intelligible reasons. It established "truth" through dispassionate thought. In short, "truth"—in modern theology—became a construct of the "educated" mind. Reason, alone, became the source of all knowledge . . .

. . . including the knowledge of God. And in this narrow analysis, we divided dogma and subdivided dogma. And then, we divided dogma again.

Of course, modern science (not new science) partnered the plan. Science affirmed theology by the "facts." It certified "truth" by tangible senses. And, it verified God by empirical experiment.

Obviously, such narrow conspiracies would leave something out. So modern theology played down the metaphorical, the nonliteral, and the incarnational. It shut down meditative dialogue, reflective revelation, and affective vision. It "dumbed down" the intuition of beauty, the inspiration of creativity, and the imagination of imagery.

In brief, it denied the "pre-semantic surface"4 of our experience—a place where we see beyond both subjectivity and objectivity.

Today, it’s hard to believe that a movement born of ecstatic visionaries would become known for the doctrinal controls of its formal theology—the dogma of its ideas—the cold, hard facts of its cerebral "truth"—or the "proper" thought of its "reason-mongers."5

Overly Ripe Fruit

These comments do not belittle the triumph of the mind. Rational objectivity, after all, birthed modern science and scholarship. And, the ability to read the Bible brought authority to the individual and priesthood to the believer.

But the fruit of excess finally falls. And in that fall, theology became mostly a speculative indulgence—a theoretical conjecture—an abstract reasoning—creating confidence through objective "distance." Indeed, rational objectivity cut itself off from life itself. As a result, theology mimics philosophy in the critical study of truth. It privileges philosophy in the arbitration of knowledge. And it flaunts philosophy in its claims of faith.

In other words, the "Word" became many "words." Sequential alphabets created strings of words—strings of words created sequences of thought—sequences of thought created logic—and logic created theology, breeding books about books, basing ideas on ideas, building doctrines upon doctrines. In the end, a "fortunate" God received the expansion—the extrapolation—of human reason. He "needed our help," after all, so we added, appended, and adorned wherever, whenever, and whatever we could.

With "well-deserved" pride, we developed an irrational belief in the rational.

Soon, our ideas about God flooded the spiritual marketplace. Each group eagerly defended its own label and its own brand. Each ideology became "The Doctrine"TM Each religiosity became the medium, and "the medium became the message."

In truth, worship became a thinly disguised assertion of ourselves.

As a result, God was reduced to an academic discipline, a systematic theology, a predetermined proposition—a servant rather than a master! We learned to color only within the lines of ordained theology. We poured all revelation into a proper funnel, and—like sausages—it came out ready mixed, uniquely seasoned, and appropriately packaged.

Objectified truth lost Truth.

And, with all the emphasis on scholarship, scholars lurked close-by. They were the ones that "got it" for God, so they were the ones that "got it all together" for God. They were the ones who figured it out, so they were ones who informed the "poor, uneducated fools in the pews."6

Elitism hurled "truth" from pulpits and lecterns. "People in the know" blended debate and legalism in their books and lectures. Closed systems presented open invitations for arrogant, self-righteous spirits. And "turf" control hid behind it all:

Theology . . . is a kind of contest to define truth or an endless debate about meaning, the goal of which is to manipulate public policy or comfort essentially self-centered people . . . a kind of endless, vacuous, intellectual discussion . . . (and) a means to claim power or justify control.7

Losing More Than We Gain

It justified, instead, an out-of-control elitism. And that’s not the whole story. . . .

To begin, "cultural" theology simply mirrors a mutual agreement about the facts and rules of a particular people in a particular time and place. It reflects culture more than Truth—flesh more than spirit. Not only is it limited by human finitude, it is also plagued by a sin which distorts reason and serves its own demonic ethos.

As a result, doctrines are often colored by culture. So Christianity morphs with many citizen-shades through the centuries. Luther and Constantine, for example, spoke similar, but far different messages. In truth, we never could call forth the Divine through the long progress of mankind or the fleshly prowess of many minds.

Further, today’s cultural theology comes at a moment when culture is drastically changing. So as we look to the future, our thinking is forever out of place. In fact, we can’t even get there from here!

Let’s assume, though, we can separate theology from culture. Let’s assume we can achieve an entirely objective theology—logical and learned. Yet, in these assumptions, even the integrity of scholarship cannot explain all things. Abstract knowledge cannot reveal absolute truth. Pure reason cannot reveal what reason alone cannot grasp.

The weight of doctrine, for example, is not the same as Paul’s "treasures of wisdom."8 A system of ideas is not the same as Paul’s "secrets of God."9 And, the proof of intellect is not the same as Paul’s "demonstration of the [Holy] Spirit and power."10

In other words, knowledge about God is not the same as knowledge of God. Thinking about it is not the same as encountering it. For the report of truth is at least one step removed from the revelation of truth. A moving Spirit, for example, has already moved beyond static dogma. And, an intuitive vision has long left legal reasoning.

So modern theology—at best—reduces the Mystery to our "ideas" about the mystery. It limits Truth to our "proposals" of truth. It binds the Spirit to our "categories" of spirit.

And, in the process, we lose more than we gain.

Still, modern minds have "put all of their eggs in one basket." And, in the "higher" goal of guarding those "eggs," we have stopped seeking Truth. After all, we have found things "more important."

Even if we could avoid the downhill slide of modern theology, one fact still remains. The world has little interest in our doctrines. "Reason," for example, "in and of itself cannot validate or substantiate the claims of faith."11 Further, "The ability to analyze something is no longer its barometer of veracity."12 And, "Five steps to knowing God" or "Nineteen terms we must define when talking about Jesus" simply won’t work anymore.

"Those who know don’t have the words to tell;

Those with the words don’t know too well."13

No Place to Go

Why? Because modern theology omits the ineffable—the transcendent—the richer, more awesome mysteries. It refuses the pre-mind visions of an envisioned Word. It ignores the unimpeded intuitions of an inspired Word.

For cold abstraction cuts off the vital moments of personal encounter. Detachment disregards the vivid intensities of life experience. And dispassion rejects the vibrant passions of private lives.

Modern theology, for example, has no category for felt knowing—ecstatic participation—embodied spirituality—or the qualitative "feel" of revelation. Yesterday’s "How we know what we know" cannot logically include emotions, affections, and feelings. Old propositions and judgments cannot verify proof with mere immediate intimacy.

And no wonder:

Modern theologians trace their traditions to the ancient Greeks where the highest element of man is the mind or the intellect. This may not seem so bad, but the Greek system has nothing resembling the Hebrew "spirit."14 And, "It is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding."15 Further, "Reason without the Holy Spirit . . . is death."16

Or, we can put it another way: When Jesus said, "I am the truth," it was not the truth of Greek philosophers.

In the end, modern theology cannot liberate or transform lives. It cannot pull us back from the edge of the pit. Its "revisions of opinion" are not the same as "changed hearts." Its "new beliefs about God" are not the same as "new relationships to God."

Modern theology, after all, is not empowered to replace divine grace. It’s not endowed to disclose God’s Self-disclosure. Indeed, it can neither "validate nor substantiate the claims of faith."17

Finally, the pride of mere ideas and the comfort of narrow ideology parades a pseudo faith. After all, we can learn the facts of faith without having to live a life of faith. We can devote ourselves to the "idea" of faith without having to struggle with the devotion of faith. In short, we can love doctrines without loving truth.

Just consider:

We easily dismiss a "theological" opinion and never feel the risk of dismissing His Opinion. We love arguing "our" truth and never notice the twinge of His Truth. We studiously correct the "grammar" in God’s love letters and never have to worry about falling in love with His Love.

Without care—without considerable care—modern theology becomes a cop-out. We too easily evade the more difficult and the more important choices. Yes, we "get our ticket punched," but then we have no place to go.

The Cycle of Truth

Yet, who can blame those who hold onto the past? Who can criticize those who fear leaving modernity?

It’s frightening when beliefs get torn apart—when absolute truth turns into an "illusion"—and when the chaos of history threatens our world. It’s dreadful when easy answers disappear—when comfortable definitions of faith don’t work anymore—and when faith feels like a vacuum. It’s unsettling to confront a God more mysterious than we ever imagined—when we find no words to describe the "unseen" or the "not yet"—and when we’re asked to follow something as nebulous as "the Spirit."

Let’s be honest. This is a difficult time, a transforming moment. Obviously, God is doing a new thing, and we are on a byway we’ve never been before. Or, in the language of outer space, we are crawling through a "wormhole" that will soon open on the far side of our "Universe."

In the midst of these fears—and admitting the problems of modern theology—one fact remains: We still need a grounded knowing. One way or another, we have to understand where we are and what we believe. Sooner or later, our mind and heart must bridge their separation. Somehow or somewhere, our ecstasies and mysteries must find their cognitive content.

"There is no truth for us," after all, "without understanding . . . If it’s not a truth for us, how can we make sense of its being a truth at all?"18 So truth must be grounded in what we know. It must be anchored in our understanding. We were never intended to chase ephemeral fairy tales. We were never asked to spread irrational fanaticism. We were never told to let the "spirits" run wild.

So if we still need a brain, where has modern theology missed it? Where is the critical difference between the thinking of our spiritual fathers and the thinking of our theological fathers?

It’s this:

Our grounded knowing (our chosen "truth") must never be frozen in time—forever refusing the thaw of a spring rebirth. Yes, knowledge liberates, but it also creates rigidity. It gives us the freedom to learn from others and blend this knowledge in novel ways, but it also comes with hidden snares. It accesses our experience, but it easily imprisons us within our own realities.

So we are both beneficiaries and victims of our knowing.19

And the problem behind this problem . . . ? Revelation is far larger than our understanding of it. We do not stand above revelation. Rather, we stand below it. Indeed, we are always in need of further understanding—and, often, correction. Indeed, "The possibility of error is a necessary element of any belief."20

So we must return to our Source, over and over. "We continually need to make sense of our outer and inner worlds."21 This means the revelation of "truth" becomes an oft repeated cycle—an ongoing interpretive rhythm. And the return, or the "winter" of this cycle, comes when the thin crust of our frozen reality is too weak to support the status quo. It also comes when we are afflicted with a good dose of humility.

It’s then we are "reintroduced" to God.

Gold From Gold

And that "reintroduction" begins here:

Trespassing our reasoned world, a personal disclosure of something "not-us" stirs a remembrance or requests our attention. An intuitive movement quietly announces, "Something is going on." Or a felt impression suggests the "warmth" of a distant "light."

We could call these moments pure intuitive poetry.

But these intimations are only the beginning. Here, for example, indistinct visions come before articulate visions. Simple beauties predate full-fledged glories. And, metaphoric feelings anticipate clarified meanings.

The "wisdom of the heart," in other words, precedes the intelligence of the mind. Inspiration begins its long journey toward insight. And, we encounter the things that we will later create.

And—wonderful as they are—they are not enough.

Soon we feel impelled to make sense of our senses. We feel required to give form to our intuitive visions. We feel thrust to make the numinous known—to put our skills at the service of His Otherness.

Having panned for gold, in other words, we give form to the gold.

This is a meditative work, a reflective labor. We select the medium through which we give inspired form to our vision and through which we share that vision. In the words of Scripture, we give "substance," "evidence," and "proof" to things unknown.22

It is the "Word made flesh."

Yet, we still haven’t arrived. We still don’t really understand what’s happened. At this moment our newly found "truth" remains an aesthetic experience—an alluring beauty. Indeed, truth must first be aesthetic if it is to be conceptual. So we move with artistic volition, constructive imagination, and poetic creativity.

Coming Home

Sooner or later, though, we need to see what we’ve done—to understand what we’ve created. Till now, we’ve been as visitors in a foreign country. And, like typical tourists, we were only temporary.

So, we bring back our souvenirs. We pass judgment on the merits of our journey. We appraise the authenticity of what we’ve brought home. We evaluate the quality of its "truth," and we critically interpret its meaning.

These are the roles for ordinary honesty and great scholarship. And, what a relief it is to return to the secure comfort of our grounded knowing!

But, we can’t stay here long. Our "critical judgment" is always partial, incomplete, and subject to revision. Our "informed interpretation" is always colored by our individual belief, judgment, and circumstance.

So, again, we begin our journey, remembering that the understanding of truth is a cycle, an ongoing dialogue. Or, in the wisdom of Saint Augustine, truth is our "faith seeking understanding."23 And others echo, "You must understand in order to believe, but you must believe in order to understand."24

Knowledge and love-in-action go hand in hand.

Will we ever get it right? No. But, we can count on grace as a reliable witness. We may take many journeys, but the Spirit who speaks with one voice will always keep us in the presence of His illumined Truth.

"What is knowledge without love? It puffs up.

What is love without knowledge? It goes astray."25

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt

ENDNOTES

1. Steve Beard, "The Spiritual Side of Rock," Relevant Magazine, http://bit.ly/bz1nHZ

2. Andrew Careaga, "The Church-Internet (dis)connection" http://www.next-wave.org/jun02/disconnection.htm

3. I Thessalonians 5:21, AMP.

4. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 216.

5. Carl Jung, quoted in Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process (New York: Mentor Books, 1955) p. 215.

6. Chad Hall, "All this Postmodernism Stuff: What’s it Mean, What’s it Matter?" http://www.next-wave.org/jan02/matter.htm

7. Tom Bandy, in an email. Formerly with Easum, Bandy, and Associates

http://www.easumbandy.com/

8. Colossians 2:3, AMP.

9. I Corinthians 2:1, AMP

10. I Corinthians 2:4, AMP.

11. Donald Bloesch, quoted in Elmer M. Colyer, "A Theology of Word and Spirit: Donald Bloesch’s Theological Method" http://www2.luthersem.edu/ctrf/jctr/Vol01/Colyer.htm

12. Len Wilson and Jason Moore, in an online seminar with Easum, Bandy, and Associates.

13. Bruce Cockburn, from "Cry of a Tiny Babe" http://www.next-wave.org/apr03/truth.htm

14. Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) p. 47.

15. Job 32:8, NRSV.

16. Romans 8:6, AMP.

17. Bloesch.

18. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999) p. 106.

19. Guy Claxton, Hare Brain Tortoise Mind (London, Fourth Estate, 1997) p. 46; also: www.cleanlanguage.co.uk

20. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958) p 315.

21. Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability (New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 84, 85.

22. Hebrews 11:1.

23. St. Augustine, quoted in Elmer M. Colyer, "A Theology of Word and Spirit: Donald Bloesch’s Theological Method" http://bit.ly/d2uo0b

24. Hahn, p. 426.

25. Bernard of Clairvaux, In Cantica, Sm. 69, n.2 http://www.next-wave.org/apr03/truth.htm




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