Monday, May 27, 2013

Veritas (J. Barry Vaughn, May 26, 2013)

In 1620 a group of religious radicals set sail from Plymouth, England. Their destination was New England, and they ended up in the part of New England that became Massachusetts, but of course, the land to which they were traveling had no name. In 1620 it was simply the wilderness.

Unlike the Anglicans who had founded Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, the Mayflower Pilgrims had come to stay. The Mayflower's passengers included couples, even families. Children were born during the voyage. In contrast, the Anglicans down south in Virginia were mostly young, single men who had come to America to make a quick profit.

The Pilgrims built homes, schools, and churches, and only 16 years after the Mayflower landed, they built a university. It was known at first as the "College at New Town" but soon New Town became Cambridge, and after a young graduate of Cambridge University died and left his books and a little money to the college, the Pilgrims named their college after its benefactor - John Harvard.

Harvard's motto is a single word  - Veritas or truth. The quest for truth was central to the Pilgrims' enterprise. John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims' church, said, "I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word."  They were convinced that the Church of England was not being faithful to the truth of God revealed in scripture, and so they made an unbelievably risky journey across the Atlantic. And as soon as they settled in New England, they launched a university, an institution in which the quest for truth is its central mission.

In today's gospel, Jesus says to the disciples, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth."

"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth."

Truth is a major theme in John's gospel. In John, Jesus says, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Also in John, Jesus declares himself to be "the way, the truth, and the life."

If you were asked to define the Christian faith, how many of you would say that it is about seeking and finding the truth?

Evangelicals might say that Christianity is about being saved, and that is not a bad answer. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear a son named Jesus, a Hebrew name that means "God saves." Salvation is certainly a central idea in Christianity.

Others might say that the Christian faith is about justice. Justice in the Old Testament sense of the word was certainly an important component of Jesus' mission. The prophets of Israel defined justice as caring for the poor, taking the side of the vulnerable, making sure that the weakest members of the community were cared for. According to Luke's gospel, the first sermon that Jesus preached at the synagogue in Nazareth was on this text from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor..."

The quest for truth can be lonely. It is not a way to win friends and influence people. More often than not it is a way to lose friends and alienate people! Furthermore, there's a certain coldness to the concept of truth.

Now before I go any further, want you to think about why truth is such an important idea. Arguably, the most dangerous conflict in the world today is between Christianity and Islam and that is presented to us as a conflict between competing truth claims. Actually, I think truth doesn't have much to do with it, but that's a topic for another time. Even within Christianity itself there is an intense, sometimes even vicious, conflict between fundamentalists and the rest of us about the nature of truth.

I want to make three points: First, reason is only one aspect of truth. Second, imagination is just as important as reason in knowing the truth. And finally, truth is relational.

First, nearly everyone would agree that reason is a way to the truth. For some, it is the only way to the truth. Thomas Jefferson said, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." Excellent advice.

But today is Trinity Sunday and it is difficult to reconcile reason with belief in the Trinity. Jefferson also said, "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the Trinity."

So back to my original question: Is Christianity a quest for truth? Well, if you ask those outside the church, those who have no use for religion, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or other exponents of the so-called "new atheism," they would hardly say that the Christian faith is about truth. For them religion is at best self-deception and at worst a lie. For them science is truth and religion is just a myth or a crutch.

But the problem is partly with our understanding of truth. If we define truth just in terms of intellect or reason, then I'm not sure I would agree that Christianity is a quest for truth. If we define truth exclusively in terms of reason, then mathematics is the highest form of truth.

But what if truth is not just a matter of the intellect and reason? What if it is also a matter of the imagination?

The opening chapters of the Bible tell us a story about where the world came from, where you and I came from. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... God said, 'Let there be light and there was light'... and the evening and the morning were the first day..." Did God create the world in seven 24 hour periods? Did God grab a handful of clay and fashion Adam, then did God make Eve out of a rib taken from Adam's side?

The story of creation in Genesis is just as true as two plus two equals four, but it is a truth of the imagination, not of reason.

I believe that the imagination is just as important in finding and knowing the truth as reason is. The truths of poets and musicians and painters are just as true as those of physicists and mathematicians. The imagination allows us to hold up a mirror to our lives, to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and to imagine not only what is but what might be.

Today is the last Sunday that the choir will be with us until they return after Labor Day. The music that they provide for our services is not just entertainment. It is not just a background score for the service. It is a kind of truth. Great music changes our perception of reality and gives us a glimpse into truths for which words are inadequate.

There is one more aspect to the Christian understanding of truth. Truth is not just a matter of the intellect. It is not even a matter of the intellect plus imagination. For the Christian, truth is above all a Person. When Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free," he was inviting us into a relationship.

The idea that the truth is a person is not such a far-fetched idea. How do we know love except in a relationship? We do not learn to trust by studying books about it; we learn to trust by being in a relationship with those who are trustworthy.

When the 17th century philosopher Descartes set out to find truth, he said that the only indisputable fact was the fact of his own existence. "I think, therefore I am." But Descartes was wrong. We are social animals, not lonely atoms spinning around in a void. I think because someone prodded me into thinking. I love because someone loved me into loving.  We are the sum total of our relationships. As soon as we are born, our relationships with others start to affect us. 

And our most important relationship is our relationship with the God revealed in Christ.

Truth is three dimensional. Reason is only the horizontal dimension of truth. It answers our "what" and "how" questions. Imagination is the vertical dimension of truth. It answers our "Why" questions. Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? And relationships are the global dimension of truth. The relational dimension of truth gives meaning and substance to reason and imagination, to the what and why of truth.

In other words, truth is trinitarian. Each aspect of truth is independent. We can investigate truth through reason alone, as science does. Or our quest for truth can be purely a matter of the imagination as it is for a writer, musician, or artist. Or we can pursue truth through relationship.

But if we would know truth itself (or should I say Truth Himself?), then it requires a commitment of our reason, our imagination, of our very being. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind..."

Think about what Jesus said to his disciples at the Last Supper? Not believe this, not argue about this, but DO this in remembrance of me.

Don't misunderstand me; I'm not dismissing the importance of doctrine or cognitive truth, but I do believe that the truth of Christianity cannot be captured fully in a set of statements. I believe that the Puritan pastor John Robinson was right when he said that "God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word."

"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth."

Jesus has summoned us to follow him in a quest for truth, a quest that had no beginning and will have no end, a quest in which we will find that the more we know, the more there is to know, because the Truth we are seeking is no more and no less than God himself.