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Truth Telling

I’ve finished reading the “theory” part of Peter Rollins’ book that I brought up in a previous post and I have to say that it was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There are times when Rollins is really insightful, and offers a genuinely illuminative way of looking at or understanding the nature of faith. At other times, I was completely baffled at why he would introduce certain ideas into his scheme. I’ll post about the latter another time…

In the former category, I found Rollins’ argument for a redefinition of ‘truth’ to be compelling. Rather than focusing on the extent to which a proposition objectively describes a state of affairs, Rollins uses the Gospel of John to argue that truth is a “soteriological event.” At first I thought this was just an exercise in bewildering semantics, but Rollins argues that Biblical ‘truth’ is not primarily concerned with a binary description of events but the extent to which something or some act aligns itself with God’s redemptive transforming of reality.

This is very interesting to read alongside Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Bonhoeffer would have no part of constructing elaborate ethical systems based on indubitable principles or absolutes. For him, all that mattered in a given ethical situation was the question “What is the will of Christ in this concrete situation?” Consequently, an act that would have been ethically impermissible at one point (i.e., an assasination attempt on Hitler) became an obligation at another. Bonhoeffer seems to have operated with a definition of ‘truth’ similar to the one Rollins advocates. All our decisions must be guided by what he calls “the prejudice of love.” Rollins uses the example of someone hiding Jews in their home during the second World War. If asked by the S.S. if there were Jews in the house, would the “truthful” response be to, a) avoid lying at all costs; b) say ‘no’ judging it to be the lesser of two evils – a regrettable necessity; or c) say ‘no’ and feel happy that we told the truth? Most of us (myself included) would be inclined to go with b) but Rollins disagrees:

If we take truth to mean any act which positively transforms reality, rather than describes reality, then there is no problem acknowledging that, while denying there are Jews in the house is empirically correct, it is true in a religious sense precisely because it protects the innocent (as well as protecting the soldiers from committing a horrific act).

I’m still working through this idea, but it strikes me as promising. Moving away from binary understandings of truth is not easy for me (as some of you may well know!), but if Christ simply is truth (John 14:6), then perhaps truth ought to be predicated of something only to the extent that it corresponds to his intentions for the world. More often than not, I suspect, there will be a good deal of overlap between “Christ’s truth” and “empirical” truth-telling, but it’s certainly interesting and provocative to consider situations where this may not be the case.

I think there is something more beautiful and real about this understanding of truth, but something more demanding and terrifying as well. We can’t resort to simplistic answers as easily. Every situation has to be evaluated according to “the prejudice of love.” Truth-telling becomes less about acting and speaking about the world as it is than about acting and speaking according to the way it ought to be according to Christ.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. You see Ryan, this is why we’re friends. I read a book, then I get to link to your thoughts on it, which are much more articulate and intelligent than mine.

    I too was intrigued by the concept of truth vs. Truth. I’ll wait for your thoughts on Rollins take on the “God-shaped hole” concept.

    February 17, 2007
  2. jc #

    i would go with d) lie about the jews being in the house and feel happy that i told a lie. after all the value of life supercedes the value of telling the truth. what value would be in telling immoral people where their next victims are? i wouldn’t choose ‘c’ because it seems to evade the reality of not telling the truth. ‘b’ does not sit well with me either. i think it would only be regrettable with someone who did not have a hierarchical set of values which placed the value of life over honesty. i also see a problem with trying to figure out what God’s redemptive purposes are so that i would know how to act. it seems a little gnostic in that people who would be able to figure out what Christ’s intentions were would be able to know Truth.

    and as a side note… i don’t like all of these small cap and capitalized words that have different meanings. is there a way around this? we have catholic and Catholic, tradition and Tradition, and now we have truth and Truth? can anyone explain to me why this is necessary or advantageous? it just seems confusing to me.

    February 17, 2007
  3. jc,

    I don’t think there’s anything appreciably different about your d) than Rollins’ c) other than you want to preserve the naming of the act as a ‘lie’ and he does not. Rollins wants to claim more for the concept of truth than that of accurately describing a state of affairs. In both cases there’s an acknowledgment that difficult situations like the example cited require appeal to a higher value than the everyday ways we use the word ‘truth.’

    Your point about how we would figure out God’s redemptive plan is an interesting one. I don’t deny that it is harder than using some kind of ready-made ethical template for all situations; however I think that the fact that most people intuitively recognize that the situation described above is answerable to a higher principle which demands more than the correct transmission of the facts of the situation suggests that most of us have a pretty good idea to get us started at least.

    re: the capitalized vs non-capitalized words. I believe the word ‘catholic’ originally meant ‘universal’ but over time came to be associated more or less exclusively with the Roman Catholic church. Over time, I think people wanted to recover the original meaning of the word, and deny the big C Catholic church a monopoly on a term found in some of the early church creeds. In this way they could claim some kind of continuity with the early church without aligning themselves with the modern Catholic church. I suspect that the Truth/truth distinction being used by Rollins here is just meant, again, to argue for a higher definition of the word (Truth), one that goes beyond correct factual transmission (truth). I haven’t heard much about the tradition/Tradition distinction but I would guess it has some reference to the Catholic Church where tradition is considered equally authoritative as Scripture.

    February 18, 2007
  4. Gil #

    This idea of truth seems to make sense of a lot more of the overall biblical story, particularly the parts of it where God appears to be indifferent to the morally questionable character of those he is working with. I’m just finishing Ekblad’s ‘Reading the Bible With the Damned’ and he makes the point that we tend to read the Bible from a ‘heroic’ perspective, seeing all those who receive God’s favour as somehow deserving it when in fact many of them are notable for exactly the opposite reason.

    I also wonder if Christians have taken seriously enough that ‘the truth’ has been revealed to us, not as an abstract standard but as a person. If this is really the case then Rollins’ view makes sense because it forces us to revamp a lot of our absolutist language about ‘God’s standards’ and focus our attention on what you call the prejudice of love. There are certainly dangers on this path because many things can be justified at the bar of love.

    February 18, 2007
  5. J #

    Ryan,

    Does Rollins provide any evidence of earlier Christians holding to a similar notion of truth? And does he offer any other guidelines other than a “prejudice of love” to determine how one “tells the truth?” I have John Yoder ringing in my ears here. It seems to me that a community hermeneutic would be in place b/c it wouldn’t be hard to use violence in the name of truth. (I think the Inquisition would be an example of Christian truth telling a la Rollins gone awry…)

    February 18, 2007
  6. Gil, I think you raise a good point – one that Rollins actually discusses in the book. Characters in the Bible are often portrayed as lying (i.e., Abraham and his ‘sister’ Sarah or even Jesus ‘lying’ in John 7:1-10) or engaging in otherwise disreputable behaviour, and often this is presented as serving God’s intentions. Clearly there is more at stake than “empirical truth-telling” – even for God! I guess it’s just the fact that we live in a fallen world that makes this necessary, although Rollins doesn’t specifically address the ‘why’ in this whole scenario – at least not yet.

    J, I think Rollins would simply say that our preoccupation with ’empirical’ truth telling is one of the unfortunate legacies of the interaction between Greek philosophy and early Christianity. He would say that the view of truth he is advocating is a biblical view – one that the first Christians would have had, and was subsequently lost shortly thereafter. In that sense, I guess he’s somewhat of a primitivist. Throughout the book he looks to elements of the mystical tradition, and some figures in the Orthodox tradition who have advocated some radically transcendent conceptions of God and truth. But he doesn’t point to an identifiable tradition within historical Christianity as being worth emulating. In a way he sort of portrays his view as a recovery of a biblical view that has been not been evident for most of Christian history, at least not in any consistent and widespread way.

    February 18, 2007
  7. J #

    OK. So what does he offer in the way of preventing Christians from “telling truth” that becomes coercive and oppressive? Rollins seems to be offering a kind of truth telling that is too easily susceptible to the human “will to power.”

    February 18, 2007
  8. jc #

    i don’t know about this new idea of Truth. i have understood truth to be defined as “the recognition of reality. i certainly don’t think this is an advancement of the concept. it sounds more like a concept that is developed to help others evade reality and engage in wishful thinking. how is it better to consider yourself telling the ‘Truth'[which is actually a lie] to the nazi’s who knocked on your door looking for jews? Rollin’s has hijacked a word and changed its definition to mean something totally different. it only serves to muddy the waters. i would agree with J about how it might be used to justify something like the spanish inquisition. there are others ways to justify the lying in this case and still adhere to empirical understanding of truth. you could also subscribe to this empirical understanding of truth and still describe the way things ought to be.

    February 18, 2007
  9. jc,

    Rollins may have ‘hijacked’ the word ‘truth,’ but I’m not sure he’s looking to mean something totally different with it. Totally different would be arguing that ‘truth’ henceforth would most often connote the communication of empirical falsehoods, and he’s certainly not claiming that. As I’ve said several times already, he seems to simply be looking to ‘get more in’ to the word due to, I think, his commitment to interpret the word through the person of Jesus – a figure who claimed to ‘be’ the truth, which is a very odd claim indeed. Of course anyone is free to dismiss a person claiming to ‘be’ the truth, but if one is committed to the Christian tradition, it is a statement which has implications that are certainly worth pondering.

    February 18, 2007
  10. J, I honestly don’t think Rollins directly addresses the issue you raise. He seems to just assume that acting according to the ‘prejudice of love’ will look roughly how he thinks it should look. This is a genuine problem. I guess the answer would be to stick as close as possible to scripture, and how it’s historically been interpreted, and try to learn from past mistakes, but as you well know this hardly represents a guarantee.

    At the same time, it’s not like relying exclusively on ’empirical’ truth-telling avoids the issue of coerciveness, violence, and human will to power. I’m at least inclined to give someone who is genuinely attempting to interpret the word ‘truth’ through the lens of Christ a chance. His theory isn’t always airtight, but there may be something there…

    February 18, 2007
  11. J #

    Ryan,

    I agree that relying exclusively on “empirical” truth-telling falls short. I’m actually sympathetic to Rollins’ notion of Truth. I’m just identifying what seems to be a problem for both definitions: they seem to be highly individualistic, and seem to lack the necessary “scaffolding” that would at least make subjective power grabs more difficult to pursue.

    John Yoder suggests that the Jesus of Scripture is one measure to include in our assessment of Truth/truth. The Anabaptists would suggest that a community hermeneutic is also necessary. The Catholics of course would also include Tradition. If Rollins doesn’t mention any of these, or if he doesn’t mention other aspects, then I’m suspicious…

    February 18, 2007
  12. I think you’re right J, a failure to address the issue of subjectivism/individualism represents good grounds for suspicion. I did some more snooping around and here’s the most I could find:

    [T]he central interpretive tool that Jesus employed when interpreting the scriptures was the prejudice of love: he exhibited this prejudice when interpreting them in relation to his concrete interaction with those who were poor, weak and marginalized. He thus remained faithful to the text by reading it with the poor, weak and marginalized in mind. Failure to engage in this loving prejudice towards the poor can result in readings from power, readings in which we legitimate our own desires over and above the needs of those around us.

    This doesn’t explicitly address the importance of a community hermeneutic, but it seems, on the surface, like a way of reading that at least keeps the focus squarely on the practice of Jesus. At the very least, it seems like it would be difficult to use this view to do the kind of damage others have done with the Bible…

    February 19, 2007
  13. J #

    Thanks Ryan!

    February 19, 2007

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