“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate says in John’s account of his trial of Jesus. It is a rallying cry of the relativist who speaks of nothing objective. It is a query of the philosophical who seek to understand whether something can be “true” in any measurable sense among the nuances of speech and thought.
And it is, I found at the church conference, a very difficult question for this person of the Book.
Let me state that the conference itself was great. I love going to conference even though it’s exhausting and weird and often frustrating as all get-out. It’s the glory and mess of several hundred people representing several thousand people who are all trying to faithfully (at least, I hope so) follow this God Who gives mystery rather than fact as a general rule. It’s the madness and the joy of listening to the people we are so convinced just Don’t Get It—and then being oh-so-convicted when we hear the folks gently show us a new way. But that’s the thing, Reader—it’s a time, every year, for me to grow. And growth is rough.
Talkative told me at one point that faith must have doubt or it isn’t faith, since faith that is absolutely certain is by nature certainty instead. And one of the speakers at the conference mentioned that Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom everyone loves to have an excuse to quote) said that anyone who doesn’t doubt is a madman. Doubt is a strong and constant tradition in the history of the Christian faith. It’s never fun to encounter, though.
Much was discussed this year at the conference; my denomination is like every other in dealing with the concerns of the “relevance” of the Church in the 21st century and the change of congregations, talking about numbers and money and purpose. And my denomination is like every other in pulling its heart out over the ways we work through things like rascism, homosexuality, sexism, generational gaps, wage gaps, poverty, and so much else in our earnest attempt to live like that weird sandaled prophet who wandered around a long-ago desert telling people there should be a different way.
But where I’m getting…tripped, I guess, because I’m delighted that I’m not getting stuck, is that we have this Book. Good Methodist that I am, I get that the Book isn’t all that we have, but it is the foundation of all that we have, and that’s a big deal. I know how my conservative friends feel when folks say, “Well, no, that Scripture is outdated and useless, we shouldn’t pay attention to it.” Who gets to decide that? Who sets the lines of which verses are “timeless” and which are culturally and chronologically bounded? Some of them might seem obvious, but then how about the ones like “living by the sword”? We no longer use swords. Well, take the spirit of it, it could be said—but then what about the “spirit” of many of the other verses commonly thrown out as “clobber verses” for various taboos?
On the other hand, I will be first to stand up and say that I regularly ignore whole swathes of the Bible. I was asked to sing for the opening worship service of the conference (a very weird and surprisingly moving experience) and I remember thinking about the absurdity of it as I sat on the stage-acting-as-chancel just before I took communion—me, a tattooed, short-haired, twice-pierced daughter of divorced parents on her period. I had about as much Scriptural leeway to be part of that service—and to participate in the sacrament birthed out of the Passover memory—as Lucifer’s pet pig. And notice, please, that this isn’t just throwing out all of those “boring” rulebooks of the Torah; this is also Paul and Jesus Himself weighing in on who and how we should be. I know damn well that I cherry-pick.
So this, Reader, is my quandary—has been my quandary for a long time now, but it’s getting sharpened as I get deeper into this and begin having folks ask me these questions as though I have any idea how to answer them. Where is the balance? How do we understand that we have human and fallible writings (and yes, I’ll out myself in not thinking that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God from start to finish; I’ve worked with translation and language nuances and manuscript transmission far too much to believe that) to guide and instruct us on following an inhuman and infallible God? How am I to say “no, the Bible says this is wrong, we can’t do that” when I am doing and living so much else that the Bible says is wrong?
And yet how can we not say these things? We want so much for Jesus and this faith He sparked to be warm and fuzzy and filled with enough love to make even John happy, but love isn’t fuzzy. Love pushes and remakes and refuses to settle; one of the hardest and most wonderful things Interpreter has ever said to me is that he loves me too much to let me stay the way I am. We are called to demand more of ourselves and each other, stumbling toward perfection even if we have the sneaking suspicion we’ll never make it there in this lifetime.
So what is truth? What is it to say that “God says” anything at all? I don’t think that God has checked out into radio silence for two thousand years, not at all. But I know right well that the Bible can be made to bolster nearly any argument you wish to make if you frame it right, which is both incredibly amazing in the sense of its breadth and incredibly disheartening because, well, I want to know.
Don’t we all, right?