Faith and Truth

There is an oft quoted line from Jacques Derrida, “There is nothing outside of the text.” By this he doesn’t mean that there is no real world, but rather, that all we can ever do is interpret. We can never get beyond interpretation to the pure realm of unmediated experience: to see is to interpret. The totality, the Truth, is so infinite, that we can never grasp it without reducing it. Our experience of the world is necessarily mediated by “language” (signs, representations, low resolution reductions), and all of our experience of the world is therefore limited/reduced/distorted by the “language” we come to the world with, we can never escape “language” and therefore, never escape interpretation.

We cannot then, objectively, using our rational capacity, ever apprehend, articulate, or know the Truth. (with a capital T) Our finitude puts the infinite beyond our rational grasp, our mediated experience of reality locks us in the cage of interpretation. We are like the blind men groping at the elephant, we get scraps and pieces, little “truths” or “facts,” but our attempts to put a grand picture together give us nothing more than the distorted shadow. We can see this in the attempts at providing a grand narrative in our own day, the success of science at gazing “objectively” at the world has led many to suppose that science can deliver, not just ‘truths’ but also ‘the Truth,’ a grand world picture and cosmic narrative. The fact that such attempts often present us with an essentially nihilistic universe, should tip us off to the fact that these mechanistic, scientistic pictures, are not getting us to “the Truth.” Ian Mcgillchrist writes:

Science however, purports to be uncovering such a reality. It’s apparently value free descriptions are assumed to deliver the Truth (italicization from the author, capitalization my own) about the object, onto which our feelings and desires are later painted. Yet this highly objective stance, this ‘view from nowhere’ to use Nagel’s phrase, is itself value- laden. It is just one particular way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment for the viewer to the object viewed. For some purposes this can be undeniably useful. But its use in such cases does not make it truer or more real, closer to the nature of things.

So, all our attempts to reach the Truth are fragmentary, approximate, distorted, low-resolution, they are all interpretations. Some interpretations are better than others. At best, what we can do is reach the truth (lowercase t) or ‘facts.’ These ‘facts’ are interpretations a given group agrees upon, low resolution snapshots or direct correspondences between our ideas and our experience at a small scale. For example, we can say that when the blind man says the tail he is holding is, in fact, a tail, this is true. We can say it is ‘true’ even if we know that the blind man probably doesn’t have the correct mental picture of the tail, or that he does not exhaust what a tail is by thus naming. What is really going on is that the blind man is getting at a piece of Reality, and his perception and attempt at description, say more about the blind man’s apprehension of reality, then they tell us about reality.

I would like, once again, to quote Ian Mcgillchrist, this time, at some length as he discusses two ways we use the word, to ‘know:’

We use the word ‘know’ in at least two importantly different senses. In one sense knowledge is essentially an encounter with something or someone, therefor with something ‘other’… We say we know someone in the sense that we have experience of him or her, so that we have a  ‘feel’ for who he or she is, as an individual distinct from others. This kind of knowledge permits a sense of the uniqueness of the other. Its also uniquely ‘my’ knowledge. If another person were to ask ‘what is she like?’, you might begin by trying to describe her… but you’d soon be frustrated by the feeling that those general terms didn’t really help get it across… you’d have to say: ‘Look, you’ll just have to meet her- I’ll introduce you.’ Its also ‘my’ knowledge, not just in the sense that I cant pass it on to you, but in the sense that its got something of me in it. What I know about her comes from that fact that it was I who encountered he. another person might allow other aspect of her to come forward and might know her as someone rather different. But it would also be odd if everyone who knew her found her to be someone altogether different. That would imply that there was no stable underlying entity to know. We would expect a consensus of those who know her to emerge. This is the kind of knowledge we think of first when talking about the living.

This kind of knowledge derives from a coming together of one being or thing as a whole with another. But there is another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that comes from putting things together from bits. It is the knowledge of what we call facts. This is not usually well applied to knowing people. We could have a go – for  example, “born on September 1964′, ‘lives in New York, ‘5ft 4 in tall’, ‘red hair’, ‘freckles’ and so on. Immediately you get  the sense of somebody- who you don’t actually know. Either its a read-out from a police data tables, or its one of those cheesy magazine profiles of celebrities. What more, it sounds as though you’re describing a inanimate object.. or a corpse. This is the only kind of knowledge permitted by science… It concerns knowledge in the public domain – the local train timetable, the date of the Battle of Trafalgar, and so on. Its virtue is certainty – its fixed. It doesn’t change from person to person or from moment to moment. Context is therefor irrelevant. Context is therefor irrelevant. But it doesn’t give a good sense of the whole, just of a partial reconstruction of aspects of the whole.

This knowledge has its uses. Its great strength is that its findings are repeatable. Its qualities are the inverse of those previously outlined, and they are associated with the left hemisphere: an affinity with the  non-living; with ‘pieces’ of information; general, impersonal, fixed, certain and disengaged. 

If we can never grasp, articulate, or understand the Truth, what then, does it mean to be in the Truth? To be in the Truth means to be in proper relationship with the Truth. To be in Communion with the Truth, is to be in the Truth. What is the Truth? God is Truth. Kierkegaard writes:

Christ is the truth, in the sense that to be the truth is the only true explanation of it; the only true way of acquiring it. Truth is not a sum of statements, not a definition, not a system of concepts, but a life.

God is the Monarchical Vision, he sees all, he knows all. His knowledge is not the knowledge of the objective spectator, perched up, far away, like the indifferent God of the Deist. No. God is the Truth because God is in ultimate relation with the world. The world exists in him and through him, he is what moves and sustains the world. God knows all, not just because He sees all, but because all is tied up with Him, all participates in Him. His knowledge is not finite, but infinite and total, God is the Truth because apart from Him, there is no Truth.

As we just explained, we cannot ascend to the Monarchical Vision, we cannot know the infinite from our finitude, we cannot know the Truth from our place on the earth: all our knowing is just scraps and fragments. Our attempts to build the Monarchical Vision, the totalizing system, the Truth, always fail. We cannot build a tower to the Heavens, we cannot climb up and take the place of God, whenever we do, we fall back into fragmentation and our language is confused.

The Truth must come down to us. The infinite must become finite, for us to enter into relation with the Truth. Thus, the Logos became flesh and dwelt amongst us. The infinite God became a particular man. From there in first century Galilee, at that insignificant time and place, at that tiny speck in cosmic time, the infinite, eternal, Truth burst forward. From a tiny seed which went into the earth and died, a new World was born. At the finite point, the infinite is opened up to us.

The infinite Truth, God, who lies incomprehensibly beyond our grasp, thus reveals himself in the finitude of Christ. Thus, in the words of NT Wright, when we gaze at Christ, we see for the first time what God is really like. Jesus then, is “the image of the invisible God,” the “word made flesh.” It becomes possible then, for us to be in the Truth, when we hold fast to Christ. To be in the Truth is to be in relationship with God, through his Son. To be in the Truth can never be a mere propositional acknowledgement, a assenting to doctrines, much rather, it is a transformative movement, inch by inch, into communion with God. To be in the Truth, changes you, to be more like Christ, to be more fully in the Truth, to be more fully human. The word for this is faith.

As Kierekgaard writes:

Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fest in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for and existing individual… But the above definition of truth is an equivalent expression for faith. Without risk there is no faith.

Faith, as I outlined in my last post is the holding fast of the Truth incarnate while stripping away of layers and lenses and venturing out over the 70,000 fathoms. It is the double movement of holding fast, and seeking to transform yourself to see and be more like the Jesus you hold on to. Thus, we see the Truth through a glass darkly, but our vision becomes ever clearer as we are transformed.

It should become clear at this point that to do, and to know are inseparable. To know Christ, is to follow him. We cannot know Christ if we do not follow him, and we cannot follow Christ if we do not know him. Thus, to be in the Truth, to have faith, is to have our very being transformed so that we see and act differently. It is only by actively struggling along the path that Christ calls us to, that we can come to know Christ and truly follow him. Stanley Hauerwas makes this same point:

The forms of the Gospels as stories of a life are meant not only to display that life, but to train us to situate our lives in relation to that life. For it was assumed by the churches that gave us the Gospels that we cannot know who Jesus is and what he stands for without learning to be his followers. Hence the ironic form of Mark, which begins by announcing to the reader that this is the “good news about Jesus, the anointed one, the son of God,” but in depicting the disciples shows how difficult it is to understand the significance of that news. You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only be learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of a messiah this Jesus is.

The old dichotomy between faith and works breaks down completely at this point. True faith, is active, transformative, and adventurous. To have faith is to follow Christ when he says “come and follow me,” and as we follow him, as we go to continuous death and resurrection, we find that we know Christ more and that we are more like Christ. It is this movement which is faith and also requires faith. Because we have faith we follow Jesus and as we follow Jesus we receive faith.

Who dares to say he believes in God?

Jordan Peterson recently asked, “Who dares to say he believes in God?” I’m not entirely sure how he answered his own question, but I think the question Peterson asks is a profound one. Our modern age has very much been caught up in the question of “Does God exist,” that is an important and interesting question, but Peterson’s existentialist reframing of that question gets us to what the essential question has really always been. Who dares to say he believes in God? Who can dare to say he has faith? Who can dare to say he lives in the Truth? Who can dare to say he believes in God?

Only God can believe in God.

Jesus said once, “No one is good but the Father (God).” This is true. All of us fall short, we live in lies, and we are separated from God by layers of idolatry. And it was also Christ who said “I am the way, the Truth and the Life.” This is a person claiming, contra Peterson, to believe in God. A person who is so aligned with the Truth that he IS the Truth. The life of Christ is the life of Truth, a life in which the nature of Jesus is in perfect conformity with the nature and the will of God. Jesus lives the Way and by living the Way, is lead ultimately to death on a cross. In his death, he confronts and defeats Death. He is ultimately vindicated by the Father and he now Lives. His life of Truth frees us from the fear of Death and demonstrates to us the Way to the gift of Life. Thus, the Author of Hebrews writes:

Since therefore the children partook of flesh and blood he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the evil one. And deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

So, to return to Peterson’s question: Who dares to say he believes in God? Nietzsche was right, there only ever was one Christian, there only ever was one person who believed in God, and this person was Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man. How can there then be a believer? A person who lives in the Truth? A Christian? Kierkegaard asks and answers this same question:

How, then, does the learner become a believer or a follower? When the understanding is discharged and he receives the condition. When does he receive it? In the moment… He receives the condition in the moment and receives it from that teacher himself.

To become a believer, a follower of the way, a participant in the Life, and the Truth, is to receive the condition from the Teacher. The condition is the seed of Faith that is planted in your dying, decaying, old self, the self which as it dies, provides fertilizer for the seed of Faith. Faith is the pure and undefiled Gift which grows in fleshy humans. With the condition given, a follower of the Way, a participant in the Truth, a new Life, is born. To have Faith then, is allow your old self, your idols, your old paradigms, your old habits and addictions to die, while continuously holding fast to the Gift of the Kingdom of God within you, which grows from a mustard seed into a large tree which bears much fruit. To be in the Truth changes you to be more in the Truth. To be a follower of the Way shows you the Way. To inherit the Life brings greater Life, through Death.

Can I answer Peterson’s question? Do I believe In God?

Every day I try, and by the Grace of God, every day I believe in God more.

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One thought on “Faith and Truth

  1. This is a great post Julian. The conundrum of faith and works, like the chicken and the egg, is circular……like everything else. These are the deep truths, revealed by the Spirit of God, which transform us. They move us from the linear to the circular. They teach us that nothing is what it seems and that we need to be enveloped by God in order to be BEINGS. God called himself I Am, ( sein, to be…..being) It is the ineffable. It is Christ conquering sin and death by becoming sin and dying. It is the vision of the garden, man and God walking together in the cool of the evening. It is the promise of the new heaven and the new earth. This is not a story of utopia for a suffering mankind it is a story of circular completion. Christ gives us a glimpse of the God-man creature. The promise of completion, complete union with God. This is why marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, two becoming one! You are right to note the utter impossibility of our understanding all of this in this finite state. The illustration of the blind man holding on to the tail is perfect!

    All of this leads me to answer your question of joy and melancholy. I will answer it with a question. In light of this wisdom, how can one not be joyous? Even in a melancholic state. Like a runner in a race, our bodies tire, our muscles scream at us, we fight the temptation to lie down and give up…..because we see the finish line and we know the glory that awaits us. With this truth held in our hearts we marvel at the awesomeness of God, His plan for our lives and His ultimate goal to be in relationship with us forever. How He must love us and this brings us joy!

    This is a poem I wrote about the vast, unending, perfection and beauty of God and His plan for us, not that I know it but rather that I can’t.

    The little hand’s ticking, not subdued by my time.
    The little bird sits in the cedar’s design.
    The wind ruffles feathers as the little bird climbs,
    And I’m having no trouble with finding the rhyme.

    How I envy the cedar’s wisdom sublime.
    If the little bird’s folly and nonsense were mine!
    The Creator’s intentions, His ancient design,
    For a world with no sorrow, no tears and no dying.

    Yes! the stature of cedars lead my eyes to the heights
    My deep calls to the Deep, with infinite sighs,
    As my thoughts travel circles in a cloudless sky,
    I endlessly curse my finite mind.

    Shari

    Liked by 2 people

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