Friday, 6 May 2011

God's truth police

Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has provoked a predictable (and somewhat tiresome) debate among Christians, with accusations of universalism, heresy, and the erosion of truth taking centre stage. (The idea that God might be nice seems to be a shock for many.) As I read the vitriolic comments it appears to me that a central issue remains unaddressed, and it concerns the heart of Christianity — truth.

Joni Mitchell, in a rare moment of optimism back in 1969, sang: ‘We are stardust, we are golden,’ adding the disclaimer (which must have sounded somewhat hollow in the light of Vietnam) — ‘but we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.’ The problem is that there is no father with whom to walk in the cool of the day in the garden of nihilism, instead we find pessimists like Schopenhauer who pat you on the head and say: ‘There, there. Life is but a pimple on a sea of cosmic puss.’ Hardly the stuff that dreams are made of. But I’m not here to critique nihilism: of more concern to me is the presence of an impostor walking in the Christian garden, claiming to be God. (He is not alone: it seems to me that philosophical pessimists and divine impostors seem, with perverse delight, to enjoy each other’s company and are walking with temerity in the garden with most believers seemingly unaware of the irony.)

Who left the door of the garden open?

This question — simple though it sounds — strikes at the core of the problem: it assumes a walled garden, or  (speaking plainly) it assumes truth is bounded, settled, verifiable —  a law that has passed onto the statute book. It is the naive act of encircling a very finite portion of the infinite and calling it ‘truth’ — ‘forgetting (as George MacDonald reminded us) that the more perfect a theory about the infinite, the surer it is to be wrong.’ In the act of reducing truth to mere dogma, I fear that we have excluded God from his own garden, and opened the door to impostors.

How is this possible? Two brief comments: first, concerning the myth that Christianity concerns what you believe as if — on entry to heaven — angels are standing there with clipboards to verify orthodoxy. (‘Did you believe in (a) infant baptism, or (b) adult baptism, or (c) the irrelevancy of baptism?’ Tick.) Is not the question more likely to be ‘are you a friend of Jesus?’ The response ‘I never knew you’ seems likely for many with a contractual approach to faith, who demand their ‘rights’ as Christians and constantly remind God of his promises and, yes, who feel it their duty to be God’s truth police forgetting that humility and servanthood are evidence of a true heart, not doctrinal purity.

Which brings me to my second point. It seems we live in an age when Christians have forgotten that ‘Christian’ means following Jesus (not believing in him — even demons do that), and just as Jesus is never static, so Christianity is a movement not a monument (after all, the first Christians were known as those who followed The Way). Have we forgotten that he is also the Truth? The problem is this: as soon as orthodoxy is defined in terms of circumscribed reductions of truth (however plausible), those who subscribe to this emasculated fragment of infinity feel it their duty to defend it. And W.H. Auden rightly observed: ‘those who believe it can be a duty to die for the truth can come all too easily to believe that it is also a duty to kill for it.’ Thus our peaceful faith is filled with those whose ‘teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords’ (Psalm 57).

Such ‘truth’, instead of being a prism for infinite beauty, becomes a prison, a bounded assertion, a walled garden where only thorns and briars grow, guarded not by edenic angels, but by god’s self-appointed truth police. The problem is, this god has a small ‘g’ and the police have forgotten there is back door.

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