Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Test of Truth

As I said last time, I grew up in a small sub-set of Christian tradition that passionately believed in absolute truth. This was good in the sense that I was grounded in the sureties of certain core dogmas, with the authority of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Christ’s death for sin and a literal resurrection being among those most fervently embraced.

Yet there were other “truths” presented as absolute, and they were on a far different level: it is a sin for women to cut their hair; it is a sin to wear gold or jewels; it is a sin to drink alcoholic beverages. You get the idea. The “list” was extended beyond interpretations of particular Bible verses — “avoiding the appearance of evil” was a carte blanche for all kinds of rules: no movies or television; no pants on women; no card games.... Again, you get the idea.

I went to a small Bible college that seriously embraced (and enforced) this “holiness” ethos. The rules were presented as seriously as dogma (and got far more attention). Somehow the Lord brought me to see that there was a big difference between the rules of a social sub-set and the basic beliefs of Christian Faith. One of my early mentors was the writings of Francis Schaeffer, who was in the early stages of his Evangelical popularity. One thing Schaeffer warned against was the destructive effect of relative propositions when presented as absolutes.

I began to think more about Christianity and ecclesiology. It was obvious that not all Christians throughout time had believed and practiced the Faith the exact way my little sectarian facet did at that time. A seed was planted in my mind, even at such a “small” institution as my college, to subject ideas to the test of truth: if it’s not true throughout time and space, it is not absolutely true and needs to be offered — if valuable at all — with the caveat of relative value.

A few years later found me, at the ripe age of 23, beginning to pastor my first church. I wanted to be passionate for Truth, but I also wanted to be sure what I was proclaiming was indeed true. That intensity stayed with me for more than thirty years while, in retrospect, my understanding of Truth (and authority) “morphed” over that time.

One of the things that drew me to Catholicism was the Church’s identity as “catholic” — universal. There is so much in Christianity-at-large that claims to be “true,” but it is not universal. There are polarities of exclusiveness and near absence of boundaries. Dogma is disputed as well as issues of personal morals and social ethics. Where is one to find “the truth” in all of this?

The standard Evangelical answer is “Scripture,” and that is what I believed for decades. Yet look at the battles among those who claim Scripture as sole authority. Scripture is not the authority; a particular group’s interpretation of Scripture is, at best, the authority. Who can offer an authoritative interpretation of Scripture? Who can authoritatively say exactly what Scripture is (why “these” writings and not “those”)? The Protestant answer is “a fallible collection of infallible documents.” This basis for Scripture is hardy different than that of faith in the Koran or the Book of Mormon.

I trust Scripture today no less than ever in my life, but rather more. I do so because I believe there is a Church that speaks authoritatively — in concert with Scripture — so that there is good reason to believe in Truth. Both the Church and the Scriptures were born out of Apostolic Rule, those who were able to say: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us.... (1Jn 1:1ff).

I still believe today the substance of what I preached as an Evangelical pastor for more than thirty years. I also have to say that now I believe even more, and that is my desire: to be “more Christian,” increasingly changed from glory into glory. That means having a Faith big enough to grow into.... “further up and further in,” as C. S. Lewis put it in his closing Narnia tale, The Last Battle.

Truth transcends the little portion of time and space that we occupy at any given moment. Truth is so big it is universal. Truth needs a universal Church to embody it.... a catholic Church.... The Catholic Church.

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