Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What is truth?

Standing bound before Pontius Pilate, Jesus exclaimed, “For this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice”. We can almost hear a bored sarcasm in the voice of Pilate as he uttered his now infamous reply, “What is truth?”

Pilate likely never heard the term “relativism” but he has become for all time the very poster boy of it. “What is truth?” “Who’s to say what truth is?” “Your truth may be different from my truth.” “Truth is relative.” These are among the many catch-phrases we often hear, manifesting the idea that truth is whatever you want it to be, whatever pleases you. According to this ill-thought-out philosophy it is entirely up to the individual to determine his own truth, based on his own preferences and level of understanding.

Recently on a Christian internet forum that I visit, one of the participants posed the question of whether or not Christians feel that they are affected by this philosophy of relativism in the formation of their beliefs. There were over 120 replies to this post, but not one person answered yes. Most did not seem to understand the question; others claimed that liberal churches that have gotten away from adherence to the bible were certainly affected by this. Most posters seemed to agree that if you just study the bible, you will have the truth and will not succumb to this error.

Not one poster seemed to make the connection that the multiplicity of competing and often conflicting denominations within contemporary Christendom, the vast majority of which claim to follow the bible, could be an indication that the spirit of relativism is alive and well in the Christian world. The following is a post that I added to that discussion:

I know there are many Christians who assume that churches which do have a heavy emphasis on bible teaching in their services will be less likely to succumb to relativism in their beliefs. The problem with this is that it simply doesn’t ring true in real life. Even if a particular church’s entire “worship service” consisted of nothing more than one long bible study, the opinions and interpretations given during this homily still emanate from the man at the pulpit who may or may not be correct in his beliefs and teachings.

If Joe Parishioner sitting in the congregation is reading along in his bible and decides that he doesn’t agree with every point that Pastor Pulpit is making because he leans toward interpreting these passages differently, then he may decide to talk with the pastor about these things after the service. Joe presents his position with all his “proof-texts” to support it, Pulpit in turn presents his and, each man being unable to persuade the other to his point of view, they quickly reach an impasse on the matter. So, being good Christians they shake hands and “agree to disagree” and whamo-bamo-bob’s-your-uncle, biblical truth has become relative to the individual who interprets it.

This of course is a “best case” scenario. Pastor Pulpit may decide that Joe’s interpretations are indeed so completely different from his own that he may suggest that Joe find some other church to worship with. Now multiply this times 20 million Christians with 20 million bibles in hand and you wind up with contemporary Christendom awash in a sea of relativism.

This biblical relativism is a funny thing. Christians may be willing to admit that it exists, but it always seems to apply to the “other guy” and never to themselves. The other guy hasn’t read the scriptures enough, he doesn’t study the Greek and Hebrew meanings of the words thoroughly, he’s not allowing the bible to “interpret itself” but is proof-texting rather than taking the whole of scripture into account. There is always some deficiency in how the other guy is approaching the interpretation of scripture which serves to explain why he is wrong and not me.

No one ever seems to consider that maybe it is the insistence on private and personal interpretation of scripture that is at fault here.

When individuals feel free to read and interpret the bible for themselves, error, division and relativism are the natural result. Is this not the heart of the matter that [the original poster] was getting at in his question about Christian relativism? It isn’t just the Christians who are indifferent to the scriptures or seldom read them that lead to this problem. Just as often, maybe more so, it is those who read the bible but insist on their “right” to interpret it for themselves and formulate beliefs and doctrines on the basis of their own understanding.

That was the heart of my post. Obviously we Orthodox support the reading of the bible. Our churches publish a daily calendar of scripture readings specifically to encourage people to read the bible at home. But we do not encourage people to formulate their own doctrines based on how they read the bible. This approach is sectarian and divisive, and renders biblical truth relative to the person who interprets it. The connection between an insistence on the individual believer's "right" to private interpretation of scripture, a cornerstone of Protestantism, and the rampant division and denominationalism inherent in Protestantism should be obvious to all. Yet the cornerstone is accepted as a given, is never scrutinized as being faulty, and the resulting collapse of the structure is instead blamed on others who simply aren’t reading their bible enough or interpreting it the right way.

But what is the right way? If the bible is true—and I believe with all my heart that it is true—then in 2000 years of Christianity can there not be found a mainstream of historic Christian orthodoxy of belief by which to interpret and understand our bibles? Why are so many people led to follow blatantly faulty Protestant models rather than the ancient and more traditional mainstream of Christian Orthodoxy?

I think these are good questions, worth considering. What are your thoughts?


At 2/22/2006 7:13 PM , Blogger RW said...

Fr. Michael,
I read with interest your post. I have several friends/ coworkers that go to various types of Protestant churches (communities) and they say they are going to a bible study and I say who is leading it? And they say "joe smith" and I say, "and what qualifies Joe Smith, what format is it taking"... I find this very disturbing this casual way that the Scriptures are entrusted to be "taught" by people who have no historic context for the faith.

I try and lead the discussion to what the Scriptures are and to get the individuals to reflect on what they are being taught.

And to do this in a way of humility. This is probably where I fail.

Thanks for your post. I will send my husband here to read; relativity and truth are BIG for him.

At 2/22/2006 8:46 PM , Blogger fixer30 said...

To Ere, is human to forgive is divine..

( I just had to add that..)

One of the basic premises that you are missing Fr. Eremitike is that people actually do have the access to the there own consciences. When you speak of "joe Parishoner" are you not indicting your own system?


(with all respect)

At 2/23/2006 7:30 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

My name is actually Fr. Michael.

I think you also misunderstood the heart of my posting, which was not a condemnation of individual parishioners reading the bible, but of people forming their own set of personal doctrines quite apart from the mainstream of Christian Orthodoxy. The bible was never intended to become a tool of of division and sectarianism in Christendom.


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