Friday, March 25, 2011

Epistemology of the Prophets

Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’
-          John 18:37-38

I recently had a fascinating conversation with a very good friend of mine from college. It was prompted by a text message from my friend: “I want to talk with you about epistemology.” For those of you whose philosophical terminology is rusty, epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with truth and the nature of knowledge, i.e. how we know what we know. Plato talked about it in the famous “Allegory of the Cave” from his The Republic, Descartes meditated on the subject until he concluded cogito ergo sum, and Wittgenstein capitulated that reality is confined within human language. But my friend and I did not discuss any of these distinguished fellows. We discussed Focus on the Family.

We did not discuss specific issues like abortion or gay marriage. We had already talked about those two hot potatoes. What had piqued my friend’s interest was Dr. Dobson’s ultra-conservative group attack on constructivism, which, among other things, explains how subjects previously thought to be objective and unbiased, like experimental science, are largely socially constructed and thus do not necessarily representative objective truth but only the experience of an individual or a group of individuals. Conservative Christians often see this way of thinking as threatening to orthodox Christianity and especially a biblically-based Christianity. After all, if we view the biblical canon as human construction and not divine ontology, then Christianity can no longer hold singular possession of objective truth.

I personally disagree with Focus on the Family on many issues, and this time is certainly no different. Just yesterday I sat in on an Old Testament class at Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary in which the class discussed how history is how we imagine things must have been. No matter how hard we try we cannot separate ourselves from our own reality nor can we separate a text from the reality in which the authors wrote it. Thus I view the book of Genesis not as a literal account of what happened at the dawn of the world but as a glimpse into the understanding the Hebrew people of its own existence.

With this said, I am still very, very in love with Jesus. If I were presented with a check-list based from the Nicene Creed, I might want to qualify some answers, but I would mark my belief in every part of it. I can point to any one of a half-dozen instances where I felt close enough to God to get a big, bear hug from my papi. I would love it if everyone knew God the way that I knew God, or even better, knew God better than I knew God. And though I find a lot inspiration from non-Christians like Mohandas Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh, I still know God best through the Church.

But I know that the traditions of my local congregations are as culturally constructed as they are divinely inspired, and I am not convinced that outwardly rejecting Christianity is a direct one-way ticket to the condemned city of Dis. As I have worked with people of various faiths, or of no particular faith, or even of an antagonistic bent toward organized religion, I have found the Light of the Holy Spirit. I tend not to tell some folks this because I would seriously weird them out. Jesus-language can be a real sticking point for some folks.

What keeps me coming back to the Gospel, the Word of God, is not that it happened, but that it happens. Every day. Every hour. Right now—the Gospel is happening. And a lot of the time, it doesn’t involve a special prayer or mass. As missionaries, my US-2 peers discussed prevenient grace—that the saving and redeeming Spirit of God is already present in a place, and we agreed that it was a damned good thing, too. Oh, sure, folks can reject that Spirit, and all of us do, but that doesn’t keep the Spirit from working with us. And when we finally embrace that Spirit, we see something as awe-inspiring as the rainbow crowned cliffs of Iguazú Falls.

So—epistemology. What is truth? Is it, as logicians say, a property of a certain proposition? I tend not to think so. That doesn’t seem to be what Jesus was talking about with Pontius Pilate. Jesus seemed to be talking about something that even the most powerful government in the world at the time could not understand. It went deeper than that. I think Jesus was not so much referring to epistemology as to ontology, the study of existence. I do believe that there is objective truth, and it is both simpler and more complex than we would often like it to be. This Truth says, “Come to me all who are weary.” It bids us to set aside our ideologies and our ambitions and then look at the world through the eyes of a child.

Can imagine that truth, dear friends? We would no longer take away health care for the needy and pad bonuses already in the tens of millions. We would no longer create “smart” bombs and look for ways to use them. We would no longer tear apart families and build walls to keep them separated. Swords would become plowshares, the ancient streets would become a place safe for kids to play in, and justice would flow like a no longer chemically tainted stream.

I believe in that Truth.

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