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The Plurality of Truth
By John R. Franke
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Do You Believe in Truth?
I still remember the first time I was asked the question: Do you believe in truth?
The person posing the question looked at me earnestly with an expression of grave concern etched on his face. The tone of his voice made it clear that his statement was as much an accusation as it was a question: You don t believe in truth, do you?
I was genuinely surprised and startled. I had never had a question like this posed to m e before. I had always been an advocate of truth, not one of its detractors. I thought to myself: Of course I believe in truth. I believe in God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the com m union of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
On top of all that, I have been involved in the church all of my adult life and thought, somewhat cynically, that I certainly wouldn't be doing that if I didn't believe in truth.
I had committed my life to the task of teaching theology to help prepare women and men to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to participate in the reconciling work of God in the world. Of course I believe in truth! What had I said or done, I wondered, that could possibly lead this person to think that I didn't?
I also wondered about the ideas and motives behind the question itself. After all, without further explanation, "do you believe in truth?" raises a number of interpretative possibilities. For instance, when I and my friends in Emergent Village get asked this question, we tend to say yes, of course we do. This should not be surprising to anyone who has carefully examined our commitments. On the Emergent Village website we self-identify as "lovers of God and God's truth," who therefore "seek wisdom and understanding, which are the true goals of theology, and to engage in respectful, thoughtful, sacred conversation about God, world, and church." So when we get asked, we simply say yes, we believe in truth. In fact, we not only believe in it, but we are passionately committed to seeking it.
Personally I will admit that I am beginning to find the question more than a little annoying, especially from people who are critical of Emergent Village and claim to know something about it on which to base their criticism. Instead of asking, "Do you believe in truth?" since we clearly state that we do, I wish critics might say something like the following: "It's clear that you not only believe in truth but also that you affirm it. We appreciate that because we are also committed to truth. It's just that we don't think your commitment to truth is strong enough and we'd like to talk with you about that and challenge some of your thinking." This would at least provide a basis for a conversation. But when the question "do you believe in truth?" is asked with the clear implication that we don't believe in truth, it's difficult to even get to first base in a conversation.
And anyway, what do people really mean when they ask the question "do you believe in truth?" Are they asking if someone believes in their understanding of truth, truth as they see it? The implication being that they and their community of reference have the truth and therefore anyone who does not agree with them obviously does not believe in truth. Or perhaps, in a variant on this, are they asking if someone believes in an understanding of truth in which one position must be right (most often a position that they already hold) and all others are wrong?
Some are asking a more technical question. They want to know what theory of truth is believed: correspondence, coherence, pragmatism, and so on. Are you a foundationalist, a postfoundationalist, or a nonfoundationalist? And oftentimes if you pick the wrong theory from the perspective of those doing the asking, you find that you are accused of denying truth. What about all of this? What is truth? And if we believe that Christianity is in some sense true, how do we account for its massive irreducible plurality in history? Which of the theories of truth is most appropriate given that self-professed Christians have held to all of the labels mentioned and others besides?
Tradition and Traditions
Since that first time, I have been asked the same question in various forms again and again in a variety of settings such as classrooms, conferences, churches, and casual conversations. What has prompted the question time and again has been the attempt to come to terms with what I believe to be one of the most significant challenges facing Christian theology in the contemporary setting: the sheer, existential reality of Christian plurality. While we often speak glibly of the Christian tradition, even a cursory glance at the history of the church should make us aware that at the end of the day we can speak only of the multiplicity of Christian traditions that make up what we refer to as the Christian tradition. The fact is that Christians disagree with each other on a host of significant theological questions that are accompanied by a dizzying array of answers.
Think of the different traditions that make up Christianity: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Wesleyan, Mennonite, Baptist, and Pentecostal, among others. Considerable plurality marks each of these traditions. Diversity from within has always characterized Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. Protestantism knew plurality in the first generation of the Reformation. The Lutherans divided among the so-called genuine Lutherans who followed Martin Luther and those who followed Philip Melanchthon. The Reformed tradition was shaped by differences between those in Zurich, who took their lead from Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, and the Genevan tradition shaped by John Calvin. Anglicans struggled to articulate a middle way between Catholicism and the reformations of continental Europe. In the midst of these groups that assumed a close and positive relationship between the church and the state, the radical reformation, which affirmed the necessity of separation between church and state, spawned numerous different communities. And this is only to scratch the surface of the differences among these traditions.
These communal differences produced alternative and competing answers to many important questions concerning Christian faith. Think of the debates throughout the history of the church on the work of Christ and the numerous theories that have been offered concerning the atonement. The doctrine of justification has drawn considerable attention, particularly in the disputes between the Catholic tradition and the Protestant churches. The question of the interpretation of Scripture has produced varying approaches to hermeneutics with corresponding significance for belief and practice. Different conceptions of the relationship between the Testaments have produced alternative accounts of the nature of the church and the relationship between law and gospel.
Debates concerning baptism and the Lord's Supper continue unabated among the churches. This history has been particularly tragic with respect to the Eucharist. Different views concerning this practice, which is to be a demonstration of the unity of the church in Jesus Christ, have resulted in separation and hostility. Differing views on the relationship between the church and the state have led to considerably different conceptions of the responsibility of Christians in the world. And differences between those who believe in the possibility of a just war and those who believe that war and the use of violence to achieve a just end are always at odds with the teaching of Jesus have led to markedly different accounts of Christian discipleship. Even the understanding of prayer, that most basic of Christian practices, has been disputed. What happens when we pray? How should we pray? Does prayer change things?
The list of contested questions and proposed answers goes on and on. In addition, most of the standard accounts of Christian history have been focused on the concerns of the Western church, with little emphasis on the history of Christianity as a world movement. Expanding the focus of Christian history leads to a widening of diversity and plurality both in the past and the present. Faithful Christians in different contexts and settings ask questions that have not been formed by the experience of the Western church. They consider the Bible, theology, and the church with philosophical and worldview assumptions that are different from those of Greco-Roman, Franco-Germanic, and Anglo-American settings. Indeed, many of the conversations and controversies that have shaped the Western church are of little significance in other parts of the world. The plurality and diversity of the church is an inescapable reality.
What are we to make of this plurality in light of the witness of Scripture to the one faith that was delivered once for all to the saints? How do we account for it theologically? What do we think of other Christian communities that live and practice the faith in ways different from ours? How do we relate the concern for the unity of the church with the concern for truth? Must we really choose between a pragmatic unity that seems to give up on truth and an approach to truth that appears to mandate a divisive and sectarian understanding of the church?
Questions like these are significant for all the traditions of the church as they bear witness to the one faith. Thinking about them might also assist the church in addressing the pressing concerns raised by religious pluralism. Indeed, we may wonder whether we can effectively address the reality of religious pluralism from a Christian perspective if we have not adequately thought through the realities of pluralism in the church.
Plurality and Christian Faith
Part of this challenge involves addressing the reality of Christian plurality in light of some beliefs that have been commonly held by Christians over the centuries. Of particular importance is the belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that the teachings and promises it contains are trustworthy: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Connected with this is the belief that God will provide guidance for the church as it goes on its way through the world. God is the one who gives wisdom to those who ask: "If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you" (James 1:5). In addition, the Holy Spirit is the one who guides the disciples of Jesus into the truth: "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you" (John 16:13-14).
But if the Bible is the Word of God, given so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work, and if God gives wisdom liberally to those who ask, and if the Holy Spirit is at work guiding the church into all truth, how are we to account for and make sense of the plurality of the church? Why is it that Christians from across time and around the world, seeking guidance and understanding concerning the mysteries of life and the hope of the gospel, have come away from their study carrels and their prayer meetings with such different conclusions on nearly every aspect of the one faith?
These differences are not simply matters that might be regarded as more or less incidental to Christian faith but rather concern ideas that are at the very core of that faith. What is God like? How can we know God? Who is Jesus Christ and how are we to understand his life and mission? What is the gospel? What is the kingdom of God? What is salvation? What is the Bible and how are we to interpret and understand it? What is the church? What is the ultimate destiny of human beings? The list goes on and on. The fact is that on matters as central to the faith as these, Christians simply do not agree on the answers. Nearly every aspect of the Christian faith has been and is contested by the very adherents of that faith.
Several possible answers are readily available to account for the existential reality of Christian plurality. Perhaps the Bible is not really inspired by God. Maybe it is simply a collection of documents that contains mutually exclusive perspectives that render the biblical canon insufficient for the purpose of guiding and equipping the Christian community for common witness in the world. Certainly many scholars have argued along these lines. Perhaps God is not as generous in dispensing wisdom as is suggested in Scripture or maybe the promise that the Spirit would guide the church into truth is idealistic and represents wishful thinking. Another possibility is that a certain segment of the church has grasped the truth and the rest of the church needs to repent of its errors and follow along. But which group? The Roman Catholics? The Eastern Orthodox? One of the traditions of Protestantism, perhaps? It would not be difficult to find adherents among each of these communities of Christian faith who would be well prepared and quite pleased to make such an argument on behalf of their particular tradition.
I believe that none of these answers is sufficient. I believe that Scripture is inspired and given to the church as a means of grace in guiding belief and practice. I believe that God does not skimp on the promise to provide wisdom and that the Holy Spirit is in fact guiding the whole church, in all of its diverse manifestations, into the fullness of truth that is the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. Of course, these convictions about Scripture, God, and the Holy Spirit are matters of faith and not subject to demonstrable proof. Yet they form some of the central working assumptions that impinge on my thinking, assumptions that are well established in Scripture and among Christian communities, both past and present. In other words, in seeking to account for the diversity of the church, I want to do so with an outlook that presumes these core convictions to be true, rather than jettison a confidence in Scripture, the generosity of God in the provision of wisdom, or the promised guidance of the Spirit.
In order to do this, I suggest a simple thesis: the expression of biblical and orthodox Christian faith is inherently and irreducibly pluralist. The diversity of the Christian faith is not, as some approaches to church and theology might seem to suggest, a problem that needs to be overcome. Instead, this diversity is part of the divine design and intention for the church as the image of God and the body of Christ in the world. Christian plurality is a good thing, not something that needs to be struggled against and overturned.
This claim does not mean that everything that goes on in the church is therefore allowable and appropriate as a manifestation of diversity—far from it. We must bear witness to the faith, commend sound doctrine, and oppose false teaching. Some claims and assertions about Christian belief and practice are wrong, such as those that support discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender. These need to be resisted and refuted. False teaching must be identified and challenged. The Bible is clear about this. Leaders are called to "encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (Titus 1:9). On the other hand, not all disputes are profitable for the church:
But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn divisive people once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned. (Titus 3:9-11)
What I am suggesting is not that anything goes but rather that Christian witness that is pleasing to the Lord will be characterized by irreducible plurality. It will be a manifold witness.
However, it is precisely in forwarding this thesis that I have been accused of abandoning the concept of truth. After all, the reasoning goes, isn't this simply a Christian form of the pluralistic relativism that inhabits our culture and compromises the very idea of truth—or at least the belief that we can know it with any degree of confidence?
Excerpted from Manifold Witness by John R. Franke. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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