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7 March 2007

What is truth?

Truth, the case for liberalism and how fundamentalists suffer from a permanent intellectual adolesce

By Mike West

When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, ‘What is truth?’, he put his finger on a big issue. Many of us have been brought up with the belief that a thing can only be true if it can be proved scientifically. Even though post-modern philosophers have questioned assertions of this kind and even scientists struggle with what we mean by scientific truth, it has remained doggedly part of the way that we understand our world.

Now I am a liberal. This doesn’t mean that I am wishy-washy, uncommitted or morally weak. It means that I don’t adhere to aggressive fundamentalist creeds, whether they be religious or scientific. It’s not just the ultimate paucity of the thinking that supports all forms of fundamentalism, the need for certainty and the need to be right at all costs, it’s the way in which fundamentalists treat people who disagree with them.

In the past fundamentalist crusaders have tended to slice pieces off each other or burn each other at the stake. More recently fundamentalists of all persuasions have taken to blowing themselves and each other up, so I suppose we can only be grateful when attempted assassinations are of a literary kind.

However, the result is the same and manifests itself in a lack of respect for the other person. I am one of those Christians who believes that all human life is holy ground and that to engage with another person is to recognise that they are made in God’s image and worthy of respect, and I know that this belief lies at the heart of all the great world religions.

You see, I tend to agree with educationalists like James Fowler who equate fundamentalist thinking with a stage of human development we call adolescence. It’s a stage of thinking that cannot cope with complexity and with the creativity associated with uncertainty. For me truth is a slippery guest that needs to be tested by our experience of life and by our best aspirations.

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I am a Christian because I believe that truth is manifest most clearly in Jesus Christ who is the human face of God and through whom we can know something of the One who creates and redeems the universe. I am grateful to the scriptures for helping us to glimpse the reality that Jesus makes known and I am grateful to his disciples for getting it all wrong time and time again.

I am a Christian because I believe that the picture of a God who gives human beings freedom but takes human suffering and pain into himself through the crucifixion of Jesus when it all goes pear shaped, makes more sense of the universe than anything else I have encountered. It certainly helps me to make sense of my own life and experience.

And I am a Christian who, like the disciples who knew the earthly Jesus, fails to understand what God is trying to do in my life, in the church and in our world on a regular basis.

The Christian faith is however a creed that I try to live by even though it constantly challenges me and draws me into perplexity.

I am not renowned for my humility, but I am constantly disciplined by the truth I seek and fail to see.

And that’s why I am grateful for the story that the Church tells through its worship and through its Creeds.

This story tells me that God creates and sustains the world. It tells me that human beings are deeply flawed and capable of great acts of wickedness.

It tells me that Jesus Christ is the human face of God, truly God and truly man who, through his life and death and resurrection, has given us the potential for new and eternal life. It tells me that God is present with us through his Spirit who leads us into truth.

It tells me that God will one day bring the whole creation to fulfillment in him.

It tells me more than I can understand and more than I can believe at any one time, but it gives me a framework in which I can explore.

As a deeply flawed human being I don’t presume to tell other people how to lead their lives, but I do think we should all be encouraged to seek out truth for our own lives and that we should give each other the space to make that journey. Christianity isn’t about certainty, its about faith, faith enough to go on the journey through life with other likeminded people.

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