19 Dec Truth @ Stake
Recently at a grand event, a world leader announced, “The truth is on our side and truth is strength!”. Understandably, many found that statement bizarre.
How is it that common people support and get behind this propaganda and even justify such comments? Well, one reason for such a blatant following could be ‘perspective’. It is not only what people see that matters, but also, how people see what they see. So, someone who considers a certain culture as oppressive would view their actions through that prejudiced lens. In the yester-decades, a typical understanding of India in the West was: a land of snake charmers and magicians. Thanks to Hollywood, someone from the Middle East may view West as a culture of loose morals. There are reasons how people develop these assumptions, which could be partly true or fully false. These assumptions significantly weigh in on how we interpret things around us. As much as wearing a pair of pink glasses makes everything around us appear pink, our worldview colors what we see.
Here is a helpful illustration; years ago, a prominent bank had a series of culture-specific advertisements. In one visual, they show a picture of a baby and a laptop. The words that describe the baby and the laptop are ‘play’ and ‘work’ respectively. The pictures are repeated and the descriptions are reversed. The baby is described as ‘work’ and the laptop, as ‘play’. After all, if the baby is your own child, you would also know the hard work associated with bringing up a baby. Needless to add, if you used your laptop for watching movies or playing games, you would describe it as ‘play’. Now the tagline for this portrayal goes this way: ‘A different point of view is simply the view from a place where you are not’. Considering that we are finite humans forced to have ‘a’ perspective, and not entitled to an objective view of the world, how could anyone or a culture claim absolute truth? Does that not amount to bigotry and arrogance?
Is there Absolute truth?
So, if perspectives influence one’s understanding of truth, is there absolute truth? Well, there is a clue embedded in the bank’s advertisement. The above-mentioned bank was called, ‘The World’s local bank’. So, these ads portray cultural diversity in the world. But a closer examination shows they are not as ‘broad-minded’ as they appear at first glance. A truly open-minded bank’s ad should have read: ‘Folks, there are diverse banking needs in this world, feel free to explore any from the following list and offer a catalogue of Nationalized and private banks. On the contrary, this bank was projecting itself as the ‘World’s local bank’. As one can notice, as much as some people project themselves as broad-minded, there are no true pluralists.
So, it does make sense to present Christ as true for all. Here is another compelling argument from an unexpected source, the late Stephen Hawking, an avowed atheist, who relentlessly sought the ‘Theory of everything’. He eventually came around and admitted in a speech that we are unlike angels who would have an objective view of the universe. And because we are part of the universe that is being described, our theories are ‘self-referencing’ and likely to be ‘incomplete or inconsistent’. He was spot on. It is unjustified for finite humans with a limited perspective to claim absolute truth. In the Christian worldview though, the Infinite One has spoken. “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (Hebrews 1: 1). Since the Infinite One has disclosed Himself, ordinary mortals could get a handle on Truth.
Sharing the gospel
The methods of engagement are understandably diverse in different periods in history. The Modern era saw a justification of the use of rationality as a supreme principle. But today, it is mostly accepted that rationalities are not ‘absolute’ and they also come to us through a mediation of tradition [including, Science]. The postmodern world in a reaction to modernism fought tooth and nail against absolute truth claims. Though Postmodernism brought in helpful perspectives, it was an over-ambitious initiative. In promoting relativism, its own posture was relativized. As hard as one tries, ‘every time we shut the door on reality, it jumps in through the window’ as a wise man quipped. The Oxford word of the year for 2016 was ‘post-truth’ which was defined as: ‘ . . . relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts’. Well, moods and fads do change and the Church in every generation seeks out to incarnate the message of the gospel.
The ABC of what Apologetics is not!
An evangelism that is sensitive to the hearer and their concerns and objections is crucial. A key verse on apologetics comes from Peter, “But in your hearts set Christ apart as Lord. Always be ready to give a defense (apologia) to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance that is within you, yet with gentleness and respect”. (1 Peter 3: 15) A look at the literary context opens up many helpful aspects in sharing the gospel.
Not just ANSWERS, but questions:
What do we defend? We share with people about our hope in Christ (1 Peter 3: 15), which makes the apologetic grounded, authentic, and modest. The Bible is open to investigation and we walk alongside a seeker in helping them figure out the truths of Scripture and to make an informed decision about Christ. But, as we explain the gospel, clarify the concepts, and respond to their objections – this communication should be two-way. This also means that in the exchange of ideas, we not only provide answers to people’s questions, but we also question the assumptions and validity in the questioner’s worldview. Christian apologetics is not just about giving answers, but also raising critical questions.
Not just BELIEF, but behavior:
Further, Peter’s instruction in this verse chronologically begins with a lifestyle that carries ‘hope’ which facilitates the possibility of a question from the onlooker in that community. To which Peter says, ‘be ready with an apologetic’. A witnessing lifestyle leads the way for the verbal apologetic.
Not just CEREBRAL, but spiritual:
Peter motivates believers to be sober-minded, to put away malice and deceit, to stay focused in the midst of trials etc. Further, ‘Set apart Christ as Lord’ writes Peter. Now, clearly there is a spiritual component that one cannot miss.
An Invitation to ‘see’ Christ for who He is
The Christian worldview incorporates all of life. This view helps broaden the base to engage with a godless world. We invite people to look at the world through the ‘Christian’ lens as it were to discover the beauty, the goodness and the truth of the gospel. This provides one with more points of contact for engagement, creativity in expressing the beauty of Christ, and a life of Biblical values.
Content & Communication: Jesus’ style:
(a) Jesus creatively used various literary devices to get His message across. Interestingly, when Jesus talked about the kingdom, He illustrated it for them – ‘The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like a farmer . . . ’ and does not use abstract statements.
(b) His use of Socratic method to deal with questions proved to be an effective way to engage with the real issues. Someone observed that 9 out of 10 times, Jesus responded to a question with another question.
(c) A parable was not just meant to illustrate truth in a simpler way, but rather to invite the listener to a deeper truth, it separates the genuine seeker from a casual onlooker. The seeker is invited to engage deeper to discover the real meaning. Quoting Isaiah, Jesus reiterated: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding . . .” (Mark 4: 11, 12).
(d) Jesus’ reaching out to people was revolutionary to say the least. He broke many human-made barriers to relate with the so-called dregs and outcasts of society. For example, the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus asked her for a drink. The disciples who were away exhibit astonishment that He was speaking to her – while Jesus comfortably transcended a gender barrier, a racial barrier, and the fact that she was an immoral woman. No wonder, John records in his gospel, that Jesus was full of grace and truth.
Presenting Christ in a pluralistic world
In a world of diverse cultures, traditions, and beliefs, a Christian, just like a brand ambassador for the bank holds out the ‘World’s local Saviour’. We respect different points of view. This further calls for crucial identifiers, social markers etc. as we make Christ known. For example, a mission that reaches out to ‘pagans’, ‘unbelievers’ while not meant to be offensive might unintentionally build walls between communities, rather than bridges. A people that are made in the image of God warrant dignity and in the words of Peter – ‘do this with gentleness and respect’.
To reach out to diverse communities, a helpful picture emerges in the concept of perichoresis (in the Trinity) where diverse members are not seen as ‘one and the many’, but rather as ‘relationality’ and ‘particularity’ (Colin Gunton). There is a solidarity with the rest of creation that we share and there is more dynamism in the perichoretic model. While the Church upholds salvation in the exclusive claims of Jesus, she is inclusive in her reach to all the peoples in the world.
Neil Vimalkumar is Speaker & Ministry Director with Life Focus Society. He and his wife Henrietta are blessed with two young children and they make their home in Chennai