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Christianity and Truth

“What is truth?” (John 18:38)

Pilate’s question from the theological gospel of Saint John is perhaps one of the Scriptures’ most relevant for our time. What is truth? It is a despairing question we ask primarily when presented with a variety of possibilities which compete for the title of “truth,” and between which we find ourselves unable to decide with surety. This was certainly Pilate’s dilemma—presented with, on the one hand, the serenity and love of God incarnate, and on the other, the accusations of the Jewish leaders. In our own times, we know well both the internal conflict and the despair which often accompanies it. What is truth? The division of labor, the overwhelming success of the sciences (and the accompanying exponential growth of technology), combined with a variety of other social and economic factors, have put us in a situation where most of our beliefs must simply be accepted dogmatically or at face-value. In a single lifetime it is possible to gain mastery over perhaps two or three domains of human knowledge. Beyond this we must trust others to do the research and study for us, and we glean from these studies as much as we can. If the experts in a given field were all in agreement, this situation may not be quite as stressful as we often find it to be; but alas! At times it seems that there exists an expert for every opinion, and we, the simple consumers of information, are more or less left to choose between them by ourselves.

What is truth? It is a question philosophers have been interested in for millennia, and for which Christianity purports to have the answer: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). Particularly in my homeland, Christians tend to be quite familiar with arguments for what is often called “objective truth” (sometimes indicated with a capital “T”), and it is not uncommon for refutations of what has been named “relativism” to be found in Sunday school classrooms. Particularly in homeschool groups, “worldviews” classes, which present Christian arguments against other ideologies the authors deem dangerous to young believing minds, are all the rage. In an increasingly pluralistic and syncretistic global culture, these Christians do everything they can to equip their children with the information they will need to rationalize their particular faith in light of the modern ideas with which they will inevitably come into contact in the larger world. If that world increasingly attempts to say that there may be many paths up the Holy Mountain, American Christians stand ready and willing to to defend the position that there is but one path, and that path is Christ. All truth claims, we are told, are exclusive.

Much, both good and bad, could be said of this entire endeavor, and perhaps, if the interest is there, it will be said at a later date. What I am presently more interested in is how this ideology has played itself out within the larger context of Christendom as a whole. You see, I grew up with these ideas. I was attracted to philosophy and apologetics from an early age, and I even taught a semester-length Sunday school worldviews class for an evangelical senior-high youth group. I later earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy, and then, after a long period of spiritual searching, my wife and I found ourselves darkening the doors of a local Orthodox parish. In 2015, on Great and Holy Pascha, we were both brought into full communion with the Orthodox Church.

One Mountain, Many Paths

Interestingly, one of the things which became a persistent sticking-point in the conversations I had with the evangelical Christians with whom I had been raised was the idea that there exists only “one holy, catholic, and Apostolic Church.” I would quickly learn that this concept, even bereft of the further claim that this Church is, in fact, the Orthodox Church, was highly offensive to many of these evangelicals. Simply the idea that any one Christian group could be “right” to the exclusion of all the others was consistently denied, and usually derided. Over and again I heard things like “No one is right about everything,” “Only the Bible is infallible,” and “I don’t think any of us will have it figured out this side of eternity.” The fact that these objections were virtually identical with those leveled by atheists (and people following other, more inclusivist religions) against Christianity itself seemed to go largely unappreciated. It would seem that Mount Zion, at least, had many and various well-trodden paths leading to its peak.

But evangelical Christians are not the only ones who have allowed a secular, syncretistic ideology to permeate their ecclesiastical membranes. This ideology seems to have been growing from within the Roman Catholic Church at least since Vatican II, and recent controversial statements and actions of the Ecumenical Patriarch have the Orthodox world in a state of hot dispute. The entire dialogue surrounding the larger “ecumenism” movement reveals a reductionist mentality that could easily leave Christians without much to say which the modern world doesn’t already know: that what we call “truth” is simply a matter of perspective, and that there is no one perspective which fully satisfies the requirements of “objective truth.” These ecumenists would seem to want to put the Body of Christ back together, only to leave the Mind of Christ in a state of confused contradiction. But this is not how the Apostle describes Christian unity (1 Pet. 3:8; Phil. 2:2; 1 Cor. 2:16, 12:12-31). The Christian escape from relativism and perspectivism is precisely the claim that Truth came down to us and revealed himself. If this revelation has been lost or irreparably disfigured, no amount of exegetical work or textual criticism will ever escape the solipsism of postmodern epistemology and denominationalism, even assuming that the Scriptures themselves could somehow still be trusted. But if this Truth has been preserved through the ages, no amount of obfuscation will get around the fact that some Christians conform to it more closely than others. What is truth?

Speaking the Truth in Love (Eph. 4:15)

Now, on a certain level, I understand and even agree with the desire to unite over our similarities rather than divide over our differences. In fact, it was only after I became Orthodox that Church unity even became important to me. The question is: on what level, and at what cost? You see, one thing the “objective truth” evangelicals have right is the observation that truth claims are, in actual fact, exclusive. Word definitions work by illustrating similarities and differences with other words—meaning depends upon both equivalences and distinctions! Logic, too, is based upon the principle of non-contradiction (which is essentially the strongest form of distinction), so rational thought depends upon this ability to make distinctions. Human reason, semantic content, and facticity all depend upon our ability and willingness to make appropriate distinctions. When our distinctions become fuzzy, so does our thinking. 

While we may want to say, and even be right in saying, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob can carry the soul of a faithful Muslim who acted justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with his god (Micah 6:8) through those pearly gates, what we cannot say is that Islam is the same as Christianity. God may well ultimately populate his kingdom with both Calvinists and Catholics alike, that’s his business as the only lover of mankind, but this doesn’t make Calvinism and Catholicism equivalent vis a vis “the truth.” On the level of brotherly affection and civility, all these should unite over their similarities, but on the level of dogma and ecclesiology, their differences are both substantial and important. We must be very careful that in our attempts to show grace and mercy to one another, we do not become disingenuous; for while our speech is supposed to be seasoned with love, it is also supposed to be true.

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Micah Carlson

Micah Carlson

Micah is a writer and a student. He holds a BA in Rhetoric and Writing Studies and a BA in Philosophy from Western Michigan University. He enjoys Linux, reading, practising martial arts, firearms training, playing chess, and of course, spending time with his wife.

  • Benjamin Winter

    Micah, I agree with much of what you say here, but felt the need to challenge a few things.

    “If that world increasingly attempts to say that there may be many paths up the Holy Mountain, American Christians stand ready and willing to defend the position that there is but one path, and that path is Christ.” To me, it’s all about how broadly one conceives the path of Christ as being. Roman Catholics are quite clear that Christ, as logos, is accessible to all people – and that the virtuous pagans (i.e. those, in any time and place, who did not hear the story of Christ due to historical circumstances) can be saved. If Christ is truly the way, the truth, and the life — and if God desires all to be saved, and come to knowledge of the truth — then it makes sense that Christ is not only the narrow gate but also the one who knocks, deeply, at the gates of each and every soul (seeking a humbled and contrite heart).

    All that said (and you may agree with most of it), I do want to push back harder against your theory that “A secular, syncretistic ideology … [has been] growing from within the Roman Catholic Church at least since Vatican II,” followed by the conclusion that this syncretistic ideology leads to the belief that “what we call “truth” is simply a matter of perspective.” I think the Catholic Church strikes the right balance. We claim that the One, Holy, and Apostolic Church *subsists* within the Catholic Church (see hyperlink below), but do not thereby bar membership in the Body of Christ from those not united with Rome. The fact is that the mystical body of Christ is not separated and cannot be separated. We must balance this objective fact with the subjective experience of it, namely, the experience of the pilgrim church across space and time (a communion of saints). For instance, reunitatis redintegratio (a text to which you link) speaks of Christians who grew up as baptized believers in Christ yet — by no fault of their own — also as members of communities that have split from the Catholic Church. We cannot deny the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives nor can we conclusively say that they are *not* members of the mystical Body of Christ. There is something true in the statement, which Augustine famously put forward, that here we live in a city that is “per mixtum,” and only on Judgment Day will the books of conscience become fully open for all to see. While salvation is more than an individual relationship of conscience to God, it often stultifying and harmful to take the Donatist turn, and to conceive of the faithful as a community based more on exclusion than on inclusion (hence, my thankfulness for our current Pope). When this happens, the fact that “Truth has been preserved through the ages” loses its instantiated, *human* preservation in the vicissitudes of history, in the broken but beautiful lives of heroes of faith.

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html

    • Micah Carlson

      Thank you, Ben.

      As I said in closing, though perhaps not strong enough, I believe that salvation is a mystery of God, and that He alone is judge. So if being on the “right” path is the same as being “saved,” then I don’t believe we can judge whether or not any particular person is on the “right” path. I would contend that we do know, because the Way has been established for us in the Incarnation and survives today as the Church. Christ, the Way, is the head of the Church, and its members are members of His Body. Who will ultimately be saved is not a fact we have access to, and is known only to God, but how to walk the journey to salvation we do have access to, because God became man and has shown us. We cannot change or weaken our claims about the latter simply because of our awareness of the former.

      As far as my claims about a secular ideology beginning to grow in the Roman Catholic Church, do you disagree that Vatican II displays a change in the Roman Catholic Church’s ecclesiology (as it had been previously stated, for instance, in the Papal Bulls of Pope Eugene IV and Boniface VII; links below), or just disapprove of my characterization of this change as representing a secular, syncretistic ideology?

      http://catholicism.org/unam-sanctam.html

      http://catholicism.org/cantate-domino.html

      • Benjamin Winter

        Hi again, Micah — thank you for this comment and for your charity in responding to mine! I agree with your first paragraph. As to the second, there are two things I would say:

        1) It is indeed the latter characterization that I am more concerned about. I certainly believe that the Roman Church’s ecclesiology has changed over time — for better *and* for worse — but I still trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit behind-the-scenes, as the Church survives even some of the worst contingencies of history and corruptions of man.

        2) The papal bulls you cite are on a *lower level of authority* than Conciliar Documents. Papal Bulls, while authoritative, are not the end-all of Catholic teaching. In fact, they fall under the category of “non-universal” ( https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B2N1A0Lsscjdbm1WVHBwb3RHV2M ).

        I think that this chart (see linked image) is very helpful in dispelling misunderstandings on issues of Ecclesiology in the Roman Church. As you can see, “universal” teaching must be the Pope AND the Bishops (with the exception of the “infallibility” of “extraordinary magisterium,” a practice that has only been used twice for the 2 Marian Dogmas. The Bulls you cite fall under “encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, etc.” and have undergone serious reinterpretation (or, even, have been pushed aside) by the living teaching authority of the Church today. Does that help?

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