The other day I was in the checkout line of a grocery store when 3 kids came up with a handful of items. They looked at me, with a cartful of groceries, standing behind another woman with a full cart. Then they glanced at a nearby line with about 5 people, each holding a few things. They came and stood behind me. Immediately I understood what they were thinking. At their age, they did not have the ability to distinguish quantities and volumes, so they relied on the fact that our line had two people and the other had five, assuming naturally the shorter line would go faster. I turned and suggested they might have better luck in the fast lane, even if it was longer. They moved and sure enough had checked out long before I finished paying for my groceries. I thought about how "perceptions" are sometimes very different things from "truth" or "reality" .
I used to work in a psychiatric hospital in Colorado. How well I remember the time a patient was admitted who vigorously asserted he was Jesus Christ. After a few doses of Haldol, he backed down to being "the fourth member of the Trinity". A bit more Haldol, and he insisted only that he was '"one of the Beatles". By the end of the week, he knew who he was and what he was about. With treatment he was able soon after to return to his family and go on with his life after his brief psychotic episode.
Truth. What is it? Does it exist? Can it be known? In our contemporary culture, those who insist that truth does exist objectively and can be known are often ridiculed as being unsophisicated at best, hopelessly arrogant and close-minded at worst. Is this the case? The underlying assumption is that "real" truth does not exist, therefore those who say it does are wrong. "Truth" is only a matter of one's personal perceptions and experiences. If this were actually the case, why did we give Haldol to the patient above? What if he was right? Who were we to say that he was indeed NOT Jesus Christ, or one of the Beatles? Why did we not simply bow down and worship him? or beg him to play a song? Is not "truth" merely that which anyone claims it to be in his or her own personal experience? Through our experience with ministry to cults, we have encountered many wounded people who believed the truth claims of charismatic leaders, false "truths" that led them down a path of bad choices and pain. Recently we read of the Heaven's Gate episode; once again, people with emotional needs and desires and no way to accurately test truth, to gauge their perceptions against reality.
Well, when sticky questions get asked, the next line is to say, "I just know what makes me happy, what works for me". Now that is an interesting foundation upon which to establish truth. It is akin to the hippies in the 60's who said their drug highs helped expand their minds and give love more freely. Did they in fact become more loving people? Did they indeed have deeper insights and more profound contributions to make to society? How in fact does one evaluate what it means that something "works" for you? When Hitler decided to exterminate the Jews because it "worked for him" to cleanse Germany of "racial filth", did the world shrug its collective shoulders and say "Hey, who are we to judge him? Maybe he is right. Go Hitler!!!" Uh- oh, we hit another one of those pesky sticklers. So let us modify our stance. How about "what makes me personally happy, and works for me, and does not hurt anyone else, THAT is what is true." Whew. That narrows the field a great deal. If I decide to kill myself that ought to fit the criteria . . . well no, even if I have no close family I do know that suicides often spark other suicides . . . Well, hey, let's redefine what it means to "hurt" someone else. . . is it physical pain? emotional pain? spiritual pain? . . . wait, I cannot be responsible for other people's pain. If they are hurt by my choices, that is THEIR problem! I ought to be able to just do what I want, when I want and to heck with it. Actually, I do not care about truth at all. And I especially don't owe any answers to you either!! You are just trying to force your way on me."
Is this not the way conversations about truth go nowadays? Unless of course you get two people who agree to "respect" each other by not questioning or probing too deeply into their views. After all, "truth cannot be put into words, it is a feeling, an experience, a mystical thing. It is not rational." This sounds deep, but reminds me of a time when a friend of ours was at the Auraria campus in Denver. A guy had a booth where he was expounding on the benefits of anarchy. "Everyone should do what they want. There should be no laws. People should just do what is right for them." So our friend went over and picked up the cannister of money that people had donated to this man's cause and started to walk off with it. The guy yelled after him, "Hey, stop! You are stealing my money!" Our friend responded, "If it's right for me, what is the big deal?!" People snickered and began to walk away. While everyone has the right to espouse what they want, the question of its having any value whatsoever hinges on its ability to function in the real world. And whether or not it will function over the long haul depends on it being true, that is, corresponding to the reality that God made.
People who buy into Eastern mysticism and reincarnation, for example, and then insist on individuality having meaning are insulting the Eastern mystics. They do not know what they are talking about. The goal of Eastern spirituality is to destroy the individual by merging it with the One. It, along with another recent fad, post-modernism, affirms that utlimately there is no absolute truth and hence no rationality. However, if spirituality is irrational, and follows no logic, then it can and does self-contradict, and it can and does change spontaneously. What was "true" yesterday, today is cornflakes.
Denying that truth can be known is, therefore, to abandon oneself to the irrational. Before doing this one ought to consider the fact that irrationality is what keeps the Haldol manufacturers in business. Christianity, on the other hand does not invite us to abandon our rational minds. It teaches us that the universe is the creation of a rational God, who put a rational order in it that can be known. It gives us a rational revelation of absolute truth in the Bible. It is true that there is much that we do not understand, but simply because everything cannot be explained does not mean that it is irrational. Much of Christianity is "mystical" if by that we mean we do not understand it yet. But that there is indeed an explanation and an order behind it, yes, we affirm that. This is NOT irrational. It is admitting God is bigger than we are.
You know, being a missionary is the height of arrogance when set against this worldview of truth being an individual private matter. It's an embarrassment. After all, to leave your country and go somewhere else to tell people your version of truth and try to convince them? It is just not done anymore. It is uncool. So you can imagine we have given a lot of thought to this question. And that is a valid criticism if true truth does not exist, if it is just a matter of individual taste, if this world will one day disappear and that is all there is or ever was. The apostle Paul himself admitted that if Jesus was not the Christ, and did not in fact rise from the dead, and there is no life beyond this one, then we Christians who have "hoped in Christ in this life only, are of all men most to be pitied" (I Co.15:19). But what if Jesus IS "the Way, the Truth and the Life?" What did Paul mean when he said this: ". . . if anyone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written (in Job 5:13); "He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness", and again (from Ps.94:11): "The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless." So then let no one boast in men (manmade philosophies)...but you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God" (I Cor.3:18-23).
If God IS real, and HAS revealed Himself in the person of Jesus and through His word in the Bible, then truth is God's interpretation of reality. I, as a mere mortal, may not and indeed do not, have accurate knowledge of all Truth. But what I do have is a personal relationship with the One who does. My growth is predicated on learning God's thoughts, God's values and ethics, God's priorities. Rather than the arrogance with which the Christian is often charged, it is a position of profound humility to say before the Creator "Your ways are higher than my ways, Your thoughts higher than my thoughts. Teach me Your way and I will walk in it, no matter the cost to my personal opinions or happiness." Does not real arrogance characterize the person who imagines that he or she, a mere finite human, knows more about truth than the Creator God who is revealed in the Bible, and when faced with the claims of Jesus, says to Him: "well, that is just Your opinion?" Jesus reinforced the need for humble submission to Himself when He said "No one can be My disciple if he does not give up all his own possessions" (Luke 14:33). As we read the gospels in context, we realize He was not talking about our selling all our material things. He was talking about our rights to ourselves, including our right to interpret reality and truth in conformity with our opinions and desires. Amazingly, He also promises that he who gives up his rights to this life will find life after all (Mt.10:32-39). The very happiness and fulfillment being zealously guarded by those who refuse to bow to Jesus as Lord will be lost, while the one who releases those rights will find more happiness and fulfillment than they could have ever imagined. God is funny like that.
It is because God IS real and because He created the world to correspond to an objective reality, that the kids in the grocery store could benefit by my more accurate interpretation than their youthful perception. It is why the man who was God for a day was better off being medicated with Haldol, so he could go back and live with his wife and children. It is why Hitler was WRONG to kill the Jews, and why it is WRONG to molest children and why it is WRONG to pretend that a rock is God and to worship it. Because God is, there is right and wrong, there is goodness and truth, there is meaning and value in every life, having been made in His own image. . . and each life will give an account to Him with what they have done with His truth. Because He IS real, we are here.