Humans and Truth

All humans are able to know what is essentially true, even in what the Bible explains is our “fallen” condition. Theologian Walter Brueggemann put it like this: “[There are] orders, limits, and boundaries within which humanness is possible and beyond these there can only be trouble.” And further, “Life has a certain evocative quality, a certain connectedness about it, a dynamic, an intention, a direction, a presence, a meaning. And we are creatures who are an integral part of that life and we respond instinctively to it even if we rebel at its qualities” (quoted in Truth Is Stranger Than it Used to Be by Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh, p.162). In other words, humans experience the world as having a certain “givenness” or truth about it.

All humans—regardless of their individual and subjective worldview—experience this truth, or “fixity,” though it often lies at a very taken-for-granted level of life. Gravity is fixed. Our biology is given. The way humans need to relate to one another with mutual respect, justice, and kindness is observably universal. Sometimes nature and human nature are cruel, tragic, and overwhelming. All human beings are confronted with these facts about the world, which are all elements of truth built into creation, and we all must learn to respond to them by seeking explanations, meaning, and ways to survive their reality. We were created to know the truth and have it fill our lives with the satisfaction of its solidness. Learning to seek it and love it is inherent to our salvation.

Here, then, is a critically important question: If I understand that I am a creature who in my most fundamental nature has a love/hate relationship with truth (in Romans 7 Paul confesses that the truth he knows he cannot obey and fulfill), what can I do about it? If I now understand that my God and Savior is the author of truth and that being saved from sin is directly related to coming into harmony with truth, if I see my need to be a person who desires the truth of God and His creation, what will get me to be one who does, in fact, desire it?

That is the core of the bad news. We now come to the good news. Our salvation to becoming truthful creatures is grounded in God’s loving and merciful commitment to us. Only the Spirit of Truth is able to overcome the deeply embedded resistance to truth in us all. This gift of being recreated to love truth and not fear it, even while I remain someone with severe tendencies to run from it, is both the evidence of God’s work in my life and a proof of my maturing inner self. Put differently, God is actively committed to transforming, over time, what the Apostle Paul refers to as my “inner man,” my deepest self, into one that increasingly desires to know, understand, and personally embrace the truth.

Even as God performs this miracle deep within me, my new, growing desire for what is true will often be in profound conflict with other sin-based desires within me—for safety, for security, for acceptance by those I admire or who hold power over me. At times, my desire for and recognition of the truth will directly contradict old, evil habits of mind and heart—especially those that show me my own flaws and moral brokenness. This realization is disturbing and unsettling until I remember that the Gospel never promised an “instant fix” of my character. I am “in process.” I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling. The event of the cross should encourage us all, for in it God has promised His mercy and has proved His intention to complete His job of transforming me—even if I have only begun to understand and to learn to love truth’s work in my life.


Kierkegaard’s Observation

In his inimitable way, Søren Kierkegaard, in a collection titled Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, refers to Luke  21:19—“By your perseverance you will win (gain) your souls”—and points out a perplexing paradox regarding the human soul. How is it that humans can possess a soul from birth and at the same time be required “through perseverance” to “gain their souls” in the course of this life? Kierkegaard asks, How can we come “naked” into this world with only one possession, our souls, and yet in some real sense not possess our own souls? He answers that a person owns a soul at birth that will be either gained or lost in reference to the world or to Christ. Kierkegaard makes two profound observations regarding what it means to be a human soul.

First, from the first moment of our life, we are “creatures of the world” in a most profound and fundamental sense. Being of the world in this sense is normal and not to be repudiated. In Kierkegaardian terms, “we are the world” [italics mine] in the sense that our very nature and existence is made of the same created stuff of which the rest of the world is made. The problem comes when we make evil choices. We “creatures of the world” become “worldly creatures” when the active posture of our souls is “in and of the world” and against God.

Second, the human soul is “a contradiction.” God created the human soul to be simultaneously finite and eternal. Kierkegaard points out this tension at the center of our daily human experience: we are finite, limited, earthbound creatures who were created for and presently long for infinite or eternal things. In short, he states that the human soul is “at contradiction with itself.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes affirms and explains the nature of this paradox; he tells us that God created us as mortal, physical creatures with “eternity in our hearts.” God’s plan was to create a being “in His image” and to give this being the profound task of looking to Him to find the answer to this finite-eternal contradiction. We can see in the promise of the fulfilled gospel, made known through Jesus and His teaching, that God planned this painful contradiction from the beginning. God’s gracious salvation is the only solution to our deeply felt need and incompleteness. God will take us from being profoundly incomplete creatures to being those filled with His life and glory. The completion of our incomplete, unfulfilled natures involves the dissolution of the finiteness of the creature into the eternality for which the creature was originally created. In these terms, the God-given task that the writer of Ecclesiastes ponders poetically is the human creature’s “gaining his soul.”

How do we gain our souls in our everyday experience? Luke 21:19 offers an important clue. Jesus told his disciples they would “gain their souls” through hupomone—patience, endurance, perseverance. So we, too, must gain our souls through an enduring, continually proven “believing” in the gospel. Against the attractions and securities the world offers, we must count on the love and mercy of God to supply our needs in the trials of life.

We gain our own souls away from the world through patient, enduring faith in our God and the promise of His gospel. Ultimately, only two persons have active “contact” with our souls. We do, as active owners of our own souls. And God does, as the transcendent Creator and Sustainer of all existence. Our souls belong to us, but they are also God’s. Only the gospel of Jesus promises the transformation of soul that we are here calling “gaining the soul.”

The soul of every human creature has a telos, an end or purpose. The meaning of telos is illustrated by the relationship between an acorn and an oak tree: all the oak tree will ever be is contained in the tiny acorn; thus the telos of the acorn is to become the completed and mature oak tree. Similarly, the soul God gives each person at birth has a telos to become what God created it to become. For the chosen believer, that telos is to become a mature, glorious creature whose nature and character God is well pleased to keep eternally in fellowship with Him. “Gaining one’s soul” is the process by which humans, through perseveringly choosing to live life in light of the truth of the gospel, fulfill the telos for which God created them.


Why Do We Seek for Higher Things?

Something in humans compels us to find significance beyond the ordinary demands and routines of living to survive. And something about the world—its nature and structure and our experience of it—provides clues to something beyond it. Sociologist Peter Berger in his book A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (pp. 52-75) refers to these clues as “signals of transcendence.”

Signals of transcendence are clues or signs that lead seekers to consider the possibility that human nature and the nature of the world are not accidents of chance. Rather, humans and nature are ordered by something greater than themselves from which they derive meaning. These “signals” are not proofs but rather pointers beyond themselves to universals or principles of reality upon which existence itself is ordered and built. Some significant examples come to mind:

The cry for order and meaning. When little children awaken in the night crying from fear, mothers hold them and comfort them with the words, “It will be OK. Everything is all right. You are safe with me.” Implicit in this universal maternal scene is a clue that humans yearn for and require order and meaning. To children, parents embody the safety and comfort that comes from order and meaning. Humans universally cry out for order, meaning, and the safety from threats coming from a world in which that meaning and order are not certain or promised.

The cry for justice. The impact of some evils on the world is so great that these evils are universally repudiated. Even in our day of deeply entrenched moral relativism everyone finds some evils so morally repugnant that we cry out for damnation of the evil and justice for the victims. This universal cry points to a truth that rises above the whims of culture and seasons of history—namely, that there must be an eternal kind of justice that gives foundation to justice for this world.

The cry of joy. Happiness can be thin and short-lived. True joy, like the healthy birth of a much-desired baby, seems to “demand” the perpetuation of its own existence. Something profound about joy captures us. True joy seems so right and good that it deserves to exist forever. The human experience of joy cries out, “Let me be forever!” Joy also seems to point to the “need” for a forever in which it can continue to be true.

The cry of love. The same can be said for love as was said for joy. Even in superficial popular versions of romantic love there hides an impulse that love can surmount all boundaries. True unconditional love—like that experienced between parent and child or within “family”—possesses such character that it seems to surmount ugliness, harm, and the limitations of our finite existence.

These “cries” for order, meaning, justice, joy, and love all seem to point to an authentic human need for bigger, lasting versions of them to exist beyond this present world. They seem to say there must be another, truer reality which transcends and outshines this present one—an eternal existence in which order, meaning, justice, joy, and love, rule over all else.

Trying to “see through to” truth in our day of vapid but intimidating relativism takes courage; to speak of one’s search for what is true in a time when it is socially, politically, and philosophically incorrect to do so is not easy. It also takes courage to admit when one’s present understanding of humanness and the world is not working. When one’s understanding of what is true begins to break down, only personal courage will allow an open, honest search for a better and truer understanding of the world and how one is to live with that understanding.

Truth seekers must be not only courageous but also vulnerable. While gathering strength to resist storms of propaganda and ideology, a truth seeker must also remain vulnerable to letting the truth hit home. Seeing through to truth requires openness—a vulnerability and receptivity to letting the truthfulness of Truth have its impact. This vulnerability to truth is a moral commitment of integrity we must make to acknowledge the truth when, for sound reasons, we believe we have heard or seen it.

To be a seeker, then, is to possess an intuitive wisdom that will not allow one to settle for what Nietzsche called “sleepwalking” through life. Seekers are burdened by the need to “see through” ordinary experience in the search for something larger to give meaning beyond “everydayness.” King Solomon, the poet, wisely warned humanity that the Creator has placed “eternity” in our hearts and given us a “grievous task.” That task, at the root of our restless yearnings, is to search reality for what is true and therefore worth giving one’s life to. That which is absolutely true and absolutely good will fulfill absolutely our deepest human yearnings for what is eternally significant.


On Culture

What do television sitcoms, good coffee, suburban houses, fins on a 1957 Cadillac, and the latest Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie have in common? They all contribute to the “stuff” that anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars refer to as “culture.” At Gutenberg, we spend countless hours exploring the facts and meanings of Western history and the cultures it has created. Having some understanding of our own culture—knowing what culture is and how it works—can be both liberating and critically important to our everyday lives as Christians.

I once thought culture was something one “has”—as when one enjoys going to museums to view fine art or wears “tasteful” clothes or hangs out with “cultured” people who can discuss Emily Dickinson’s poetry or who have actually read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is a common but narrow way of thinking about culture. Culture is much broader.

Perhaps you have experienced “culture shock”—that strange, experience of being in a different country, feeling engulfed by a language you can’t speak or understand, being in a totally alien landscape or urban environment, and being generally bewildered that people can possibly live as they do with all their strange habits and customs. Living in a culture radically different from one’s own—experiencing culture shock—aptly illustrates the invisible force culture exerts over our everyday consciousness.

We do not live in a vacuum, but in an environment of visible, man-made things (like machines, clothes, buildings, paintings, and poems) and invisible things (like ideas, beliefs, customs, and languages). This environment is our “culture.” Culture is the things people make, which reflect humanity’s material needs, along with the ideas and the moral dispositions people carry within themselves. Put metaphorically, culture is to people what water is to fish.

Culture is both our friend and helper and our potential nemesis, an invisible dragon that can work to destroy us. It is our friend when we can use its languages to communicate with and to care for one another. It is our friend when it gives us tools to provide for our protection and material needs, like shelter, clothing, and food. Culture is our friend when its tools and concepts help us survive in a threatening world. But because culture is loaded with ideas and beliefs, many of which are morally vicious and destructive, culture can also be our enemy.

If man is an “angel-beast”—a beautiful creature made for good, but with evil at his very core—then the cultures he makes will inevitably carry the effects of his evil. An obvious example is the culture Hitler eventually dominated: people created an atmosphere—a “plausibility”—for believing it was OK to think and to do the unthinkable. Cultural atmospheres of racial and ethnic hatred are birthed by small cadres of individuals whose beliefs gain collective force and thus make violence and human atrocities seem “normal.” The source for such evil is man’s heart, and culture becomes the powerful vehicle for disseminating that evil in the world.

In the abstract, culture is neutral. It is simply the extension of man’s need to survive physically and to cope mentally, psychologically, and spiritually with his identity and meaning. The “stuff” of culture, however, is not neutral. Because man’s moral disposition pervades his ideas, art, and machines, these creations are inevitably colored by the intention of man’s heart. Thus a tool like bow and arrow that man uses to provide food, he also uses to do evil. Thus a beautiful poem or painting can also be saturated with the artist’s rebellion against God and his quest for power or self-aggrandizement.

Culture can work against man in two ways. First, because of its collective nature, culture can create momentum for ideas and beliefs, evil as well as good. When ideas and beliefs gain “cultural momentum,” they grow exponentially in influence and power. For example, homosexuality has become “normal” as it has gained increasingly powerful political favor; homosexual practices that until the 1970s were considered abnormal by American psychological professions are now considered normal. Culturally empowered ideas, even when false and destructive, are easy to believe simply because so many people believe them; they seem “normal.” So, for example, it is easier to believe Mormon doctrines in Salt lake City than in San Francisco or New York City.

Second, culture “acts back” on its human creators in ways difficult to detect. Humans create ideas and machines that take on a life of their own and, in turn, alter human life. We are aware of certain aspects of these cultural creations and unaware of others; for example, we understand generally how different our lives would be without automobiles, and yet we may take for granted the belief that doing things faster is always better. When culture’s powerful ideas, beliefs, and effects remain more or less hidden from us, we take them for granted or assume they are “real” in such a way that we never even think about their origin or how they are affecting us.

Learning what human culture is—about its creation, maintenance, and its powers—can be critical for understanding the nature and character of our present world and how to place oneself in it.


Art as a Spiritual Ambassador

Jake was having a hard time. Life had begun to force his foundational ideas into question. He had been raised in a “good Christian family” and had imbibed Bible-based teaching all his life. All this felt safe and secure to Jake until certain conversations, events, readings, and observations of others’ lives and beliefs raised questions and proposed new perspectives he had never considered. He found himself reconsidering his concept of “truth.”

While Jake’s experience was grounded in his Christian religious environment, Mary’s was not. She grew up in a secular, intellectual family whose interests and commitments precluded any kind of spiritual or transcendent reality. Mary’s sense of personal identity and meaning for life had been nurtured in an environment of ethical and philosophical relativism. Like Jake, however, Mary’s experiences in life were leading her to a place where she began to doubt some fundamental “truths” she had grown up with. She recognized that at a practical level of living she had never embraced and tried to live the full implications of the dogma of relativism. Mary realized that she actually believed that “big truths” might be found and that to live her life pursuing them was vital.

These two young lives existed in profoundly different environments and spiritual/philosophical circumstances. Yet Jake and Mary, one Christian and the other profoundly not, found themselves sharing a common “intellectual space” where the pursuit of what is true became an ethical and human necessity—in spite of the fact that each of their respective home worlds was indifferent, if not hostile, to their questions and pursuit of a wider horizon for truth. Jake and Mary had entered what I refer to as the “Critical Zone”—a mental, intellectual, and, ultimately, spiritual space. This conceptual space shared by both religious and non-religious people exists between the church and the world. The persons who inhabit this Critical Zone are those within whose souls and minds has arisen a set of intellectual, psychological, and spiritual conditions—conditions prompted by a lack of authentic intellectual freedom and permission to ask questions in either religious or secular cultures.

The Critical Zone I am conceiving is what I believe Kierkegaard had in mind when he described the inwardness of the person seeking the “Good in truth”:

For in a spiritual sense, place is not something external, to which a slave might come against his will when the overseer uses his scourge. And the path is not something that does not matter whether one rides forwards or backwards. But the place and the path are within a man and just as the place is the blessed state of the striving soul, so the path is the striving soul’s continual transformation. [Emphasis mine.] (Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, p. 84; Harper & Row Edition, 1956.)


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