Over the Precipice—Out of the Relativistic Twilight

The Beginning

This is my third time trying to start this paper. Insha Allah it will work out better than my last attempts. Over the past three days I’ve done little else but read Leslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Sometime last week I read his speech, New Birth into a Living Hope. I hated it. At the bottom of the last page I immediately wrote down my thoughts that were something of a rant. Here is an excerpt:

“To join with an unreasonable community of “Christians” for the sake of a strong front in proselytizing the “pagans” doesn’t sound too appealing to me…he said we must avoid prideful triumphalism, but I just can’t see one without the other…I do have my hope set in Christ, but the authority of scripture? Why? His logic seems to be like a business-marketing plan: the gospel is more effective outside of enlightenment-influenced populations therefore reject reason. For what? Is not reason what sets us apart from the rest of creation? This man has offered me nothing…so far as I can tell.”

I was frustrated.

That night I went to see a friend. We got to talking about philosophy and the world, as it seems we always do. She asked me a very simple question, but one that turned out to have the strength and might of a terrible avalanche plummeting straight toward us. What she asked was,

“What if we’ve been going about this all wrong?”

The past nine months of my life have been the most distinct in my almost twenty-two years of existence, and by distinct I mean difficult, confused, lost, misunderstood, defining, and formative. I feel like I have embraced life more intentionally, more deeply, and more questioningly in the past year than I have in all of my previous years combined. And I’m pretty sure my friend would say the same.

I say this not to make myself look good, but so that the reader may see how devastating such an actuality would be—if for the past nine months, having spent all this time trying hike our way out of a deep thick forest only to find the trek was all for nothing because it only brought us right back to where we started—ground zero. Well that would just be great, wouldn’t it.

Her question would not have bothered me so much if a small part of me hadn’t believed she was right. Maybe we were going about this the wrong way.

What is “this”? The search for truth: What is the character of God? What does he want from me? What does that mean for the world? And once I found these answers, would I be able to love Him?

And how were we going about answering these questions?

Probably in a similar way to how you are going about reading this paper.

By using our heads and our hearts the best way we knew how.

So what is the problem?

Reason has lead to nothingness.

One cannot live very long with only that. It is damp and cold, no light shines in, like an inescapable cellar with nowhere to run to and no walls in sight. It is enough to drive the strongest soul mad.

We can’t live that way, at least not for very long.

But in a way we don’t have any other option. Nietzsche said, in his great work The Antichrist, “The greatest suspicion of a “truth” should arise when feelings of pleasure enter the discussion of the question “What is true?”” And he makes a valid point. He went on to say, “At every step one has to wrestle for truth; one has had to surrender for it almost everything to which the heart, to which our love, our trust in life, cling otherwise. That requires greatness of soul: the service of truth is the hardest service.” And again, I agree.

However, what if Nietzsche’s noble stance for truth is not as pure as he believed it to be? According to Lesslie Newbigin, no coherent thought is possible without taking something as a given starting point. We cannot judge everything at once, for what would we be able to judge it against? Everyone takes a starting point, and here at the beginning is the crumbling of all rational claims to hold absolute truth.

Nietzsche bravely and boldly questioned the world, embracing doubt as more honest than faith, and through his journey he has taught the world many things. We are bettered in our understanding that the modern “rational world” is not what it was once cracked up to be. Philosophers have since shown that the difference between “facts” and “beliefs” has lied on a false impression. There is no difference, for “facts” necessarily take at their starting point an unquestioned belief. There are no value-free “facts” outside the influence of historical tradition. And so primarily we are left with a new idea, that doubt really is not more honest than faith.

The New Beginning

From historical tradition we inherit our plausibility structures, the framework of assessment that leads us to determine what is and is not believable. They are the concepts, or the lenses, through which we see the world.  By this we may all wind up deceived by our makeup, but our best sincerity will reveal that the line between what we “know” and what we “believe” is more invisible than ever before.

Our rationality is defined by three particulars: our community, our historical happenings, and our employed language. With this considered it is revealed that rationality is variable. Around the world peoples are of different communities, historical circumstances, and tongues. At this point certain peoples have embodied the philosophy that there is no absolute truth, that truth is only relative, and any such person to assert their beliefs as absolute is the embodiment of arrogance. But is this not a presupposition to greater “truth”?

Newbigin put it like this,

“The true statement that none of us can grasp the whole truth is made an excuse for disqualifying any claim to have a valid clue for at least the beginnings of understanding. There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to the knowledge which is available to fallible human beings.” (170)

Our traditions are subject to the test of adequacy, which reveals them to be inadequate to grasp the reality that we seek. In this way we are made aware of their finiteness. So what can we say? While tradition is not ultimate it is inescapable; while we can expand our pitri dish of experience and reflection we can never climb outside of it. For this reason any grasp on the fringes of truth can occur only within our encapsulation. And for anything to be truly true it must be equally accessible to all cultures, apart from accidents, apart from reason, greater than experience. I believe it would be fair to say it must be divine.

The stigma against belief, dogma, and values, has dissolved. The axiom of humanism is no longer accepted to be self-evidently true. Honest doubt has been revealed to be no more honest than the faith of a child. And so we come to a new beginning.

Up to this point we have dealt primarily with reason as means to seek truth, but we have not yet touched on revelation. It is crucial here to remember that reason is not something set against the unreasonable, but is one tradition or rational argument against another. Newbigin put the difference like this,

“The difference is not between the use of reason and its abandonment; it is the difference between two ways of understanding the world, one in which the self is sovereign, and the other in which I understand myself only in a relation of mutuality with other selves.” (63)

It is the difference between “I discovered” and “God has revealed.”

We are talking about two separate plausibility structures. The difference between the two is that the latter employs cause, effect, and purpose in unraveling the mystery before it, while the former neglects the element of purpose so as to avoid judgment of “good” or “bad.” The problem with this is that not even the most basic machine can be explained without the concept of purpose. If reason is tracing a set of “facts” to their ultimate conclusion, revelation is the providing of clues for the purpose of guiding the seeker in toward the goal.

The question is then this: Is the divine active in history, and does he lead us today?

The rational plausibility structure of Nietzsche would most adamantly say no.

But the plausibility structure of Newbigin, and myself, would say yes.

These two structures cannot dispute between each other and expect to be able to declare a victor, for neither shares a higher criterion to which both may appeal.

Could it be possible that this is what Paul meant when he said the message of the gospel was foolishness of the world?

The message of Christ resists being proven by external certainties. It is not set in “self-evident” truths, but in God making himself known to man in our circumstances. The truth is not something we posses as members of this plausibility structure, but rather we point to the Way the Truth and the Life for guidance in our common pursuit. Newbigin elaborated on this well when he wrote,

“The content of the gospel is Jesus Christ in the fullness of his ministry, death and resurrection… Jesus is who he is, and though our perceptions of him will be shaped by our own situation and the mental formation we have received from our culture our need is to see him as he truly is. This is why we have to listen to the witness of the whole church of all places and ages.” (153)

The “truth” is Jesus—not a doctrine, worldview, or religious experience, nor any variety of abstract nouns. At times we will get him wrong, we will make mistakes, but his grace is sufficient for us.

The Middle

So if the character of the divine is wrapped up in Christ, what does he want from us and what does that mean for the world? It is probable that the wrest of our lives will be wrapped up in these questions.

The funny thing is I always thought that I was questioning God and he wasn’t responding. It may be that all the while he has been questioning and testing me. Will I believe? Will I trust? Will I follow?

One of the biggest obstacles has been the idea of election: why would God choose the Israelites and not everyone else too? It seems now that he chooses people not so that they enjoy divine preference, but so that we experience more of what it means to be of God through relationships in community. The elect are not put on a pedestal of favoritism, but a path of responsibility. Their responsibility is to share the good news with the rest of his creation. In this way we see that our lives are not those of autonomous individuals but partakers in a loving community. Many times throughout the Church’s history the idea of election has been used to establish claims on God’s grace that exclude others, but this was never meant to be. In the end God may extend the same grace to others in ways beyond our own experience and understanding, but God alone has the right to decide.

Instead of focusing on the final judgment of others we ought to treat all people according to how Christ treated those he encountered, for the Church is distinct in that it exists for non-members. We are chosen not for ourselves but as witnesses to the saving work that is the good news of our risen savior for the sake of the world. He is our hope—not merely the desire for what may or may not be, but “an anchor of the soul entering in beyond the curtain which hides the future from us, something utterly reliable.” (101) And this hope is a glimmering horizon. It is the reason for our action which takes shape in the embodiment of the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The day of Christ’s return has been turned into an age as an act of God’s mercy to patiently leave time for repentance. We bear witness to that hidden reign and live our lives as patient revolutionaries working for the kingdom here and now, remembering that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers of this present age.

The true understanding of reality has come into the world. He is the absolute. And while claimed absolutes throughout history have been oppressive He is different. For “in Jesus the absolute truth has been made present amid the relativities of human cultures, and that the form that this truth took was not that of dominance and imperial power but that of one who was without power, or—rather—whose power was manifest in weakness and suffering.” (163) Our role is not to the embarkment of a moral crusade, but to be givers of grace and dignity, and to live as a community of believers on a journey of restoration lead by our living hope.

The Aforementioned

The study of philosophy has brought me to unexpected places. Starting from Gilgamesh, working rigorously through time to Nietzsche, and now stepping out into Newbigin, the last seemed to render futile all that came before it. All the prior struggles, all the grappling, all of this great trek trying to escape the forest—worthless. To answer the question: “How do you know?” has plagued and pillaged society, even into the courtyard of the church. Fruitlessness, futility, an endless reoccurring cycle, don’t tell me I’ve come all this way to wind up back at the beginning—at ground zero—with the same blind unreasonable faith. And then it hit me.

I am not the same.

Things have changed for me thanks to many people, some far away, some close at hand, some whose legacy I have only come to know through books. I am changed, and will continue to be changed, because Christ is not done making all things new. And I am changed because this study has been, at least for one member, the healing of society—and I stand again with Dante gazing above the hill as the sun continues to rise and illuminate the forest that we tread.

Simply stunning.

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