The River and the Land: Part 2
Posted by Abdu Murray on October 26, 2017
Continued from Part 1
Subordinating truth to personal desires is such an easy thing to fall into, given human nature. We are intellectual beings who strive to make sense of our world. At the same time, we are emotional beings, searching for personal meaning. The problem comes when we elevate feelings over facts, believing that personal preferences are what determine meaning in life. When that happens, we not only elevate our preferences over facts, but we elevate them over the preferences of others. Without truth as our arbiter, the victor in the contest of preferences is the one whose rhetorical or political power dominates. I’m reminded of Alexander Pope’s words in Essays on Man:
Go, wiser thou! And in they scale of sense,
Weigh thy opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fanciest such,
Say, here He gives too little, there too much;
Destroy all creatures for they sport or gust.
Yet, cry, If man’s unhappy, God’s unjust;
If man alone engross not Heaven’s high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from His hand the balance and the rod,
Re-judge His justice, be the god of God.
In pride, in reas’ning pride, or error lies;
All quite their sphere, and rush in to the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of Order, sins against the Eternal Cause.
Perhaps that’s why the Bible has always been resisted, with increased ferocity in recent days. Many oppose the Scripture as an outmoded method of control, meant to suppress human behavior. This stems from the failure to see the differences between true freedom and unfettered individual autonomy. They are not the same. The Bible supports the former and opposes the latter.
Unfettered individual autonomy can only lead to chaos. Think of the questions we are now asking ourselves. What does it mean to be male or female? Are those the only two possibilities? Can we perhaps merge our bodies with computers, imporoving ourselves and thereby becoming our own gods? The questions seemed to multiply with every passing day, but they all center on the same theme: What does it mean to be human? Does being human mean having unfettered individual autonomy? No matter how subltly different our new questions are, they are basically asking the same thing. Chesterton presciently observed this phenomenon in Orthodoxy. “Free thought has exhausted its own freedom. It is weary of its own success,” he writes. “We have no more questions to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.” Without answers based on facts, we’re just left with preferences. But if I, in my autonomy, choose to define myself and my reality in a way that impinges on your autonomously determined reality, who is to be our arbiter? Can there even be one in a post-truth culture? And if we have downsized truth as the arbiter, then all that remains to determine the winner is power. When that happens, freedom will die the most ironic of deaths under the hatchet of autonomy.
Interestingly, the contemporary post-truth mindset germinated in a lush garden long ago. God gave Adam and Eve freedom in Eden so that they could enjoy relationship with Him– the very reason they were created. They had but one restriction. They could not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once they did so, they would become aware of evil, and that would lead to their desire to not just know good and evil, but to determine good and evil. It was their desire for unfettered autonomy that Satan played on to tempt Adam and Eve by telling them that they would be like God. That’s when the fruit became desirable. What God had said to them didn’t matter anymore. Desires and feelings were elevated over objective truth. That is the heart of a post-truth mindset.
The gospel tells us that we can be free from the snare a post-truth, unfettered autonomy. True freedom comes when we are able to live our lives in the truest sense of what we are supposed to be. We were created for relationship with the transcendent God, the one in whom reality finds its grounding and humanity finds its purpose. To foster that freedom, there must be boundaries. My children simply would not have the freedom to play outside without the boundaries that protect them from the busy street adjacent to our backyard. Jesus taught that abiding the boundaries that the truth sets out will make us free. “If you abide in my word,” Jesus said, “ you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, ESV). The people’s ignorance of their slavery is fascinating. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (v. 33). Jesus would not leave them so deluded. With characteristic frankness mixed with compassion, he exposes the human heart while offering the remedy. “”Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (vv. 34-36). He said that the truth will set us free and then a moment later said that it is the Son that sets us free indeed. He equated his very personhood with truth. Is that not a poetic response to a post-truth culture that elevates personal preference over truth? In Jesus, Truth became quite personal.
Facts, by themselves, don’t provide meaning to our lives in a way that touches our minds and heart. What do I mean? There are facts that are important for existence, like the fact that water boils at sea level at 100 degrees centigrade. But is that tidbit relevant to us in the sense that it answers the questions that stalk our minds late at night? Did any of us wake up this morning grateful that water boils at 100 degrees and not 101? Facts and reason are not determined by personal preferences or personal needs. But they became relevant when they satisfy the legitimate needs we all have. As Clifford Williams astutely put it in Existential Reasons for Belief in God, “Need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile.” Our search for intelligibility drives us to intellectual understanding. Our desire for fulfillment drives us to emotional connection. In Jesus, we have the truth that leads to understanding and a person who provides connection. He is the truth our minds seek and the person our hearts embrace. He validates facts and emotions without sacrificing either.
Jesus tells us the fact of our sin. The fact of his crucifixion demonstrates his unbounded love for us. Knowledge and emotion come together once again. And the fact of his resurrection provides us with the joy of knowing our fulfillment can be real. A post-truth mindset that elevates emotions over facts gives us only half the picture. And in being half right, it’s all wrong. It offers us the river only, not the land. Jesus is the river and the land, the fount of living water and the rock of our salvation. What is truth, we may ask? The answer is that truth is personal.