In a Mirror, Dimly

Perhaps the most beautiful passage in Scripture is the 13th chapter of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians.  It is, ultimately, a beautiful ode to love and the qualities of love.  Perhaps its most famous part, often read in the context of weddings, is verses 4 through 7:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

That part is undoubtedly lovely, but for me the most interesting section comes at the end of chapter 13.  There, it seems to me that Paul is making a case for prioritizing love as a religious principle (or, really, a principle for anything) above any other possible religious principle.  This is because, Paul argues, all of those other principles are one way or the other grounded in some form of knowledge, and our knowledge of the things of God and the world are necessarily partial and constrained.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."  In other words, on this side of heaven, we need to always be circumspect about what we know--or, more accurately, what we think we know--because we are never, ever will be able to understand the full picture.

To me, this is one of those concepts that must be core to our approach to the Christian faith.  Every single declarative sentence that we want to make about our faith--about God, about the Bible, about the church, and about ourselves as members of the church--must be made with the disclaimer that we see through a mirror, dimly, even if unspoken.  Notice Paul doesn't suggest that there are no ultimately correct answers to these topics; as he says, once day we will indeed know fully.  But, until that day comes, we do not have complete and perfectly reliable access to those correct answers, and it is a mistake to pretend that we do.  To use philosophical language, Paul is talking about an epistemological principle (how we know things), not an ontological principle (how things actually are).  And Paul doesn't suggest that there are any work-arounds to our lack of epistemological certainty.

All of this leads us to Rev. Morgan Guyton's excellent and thought-provoking essay on the defenders of absolute truth.  Guyton writes primarily with the U.S. evangelical tradition in mind, but these ideas apply with equal force to other traditions, including Catholicism.  One of the key rhetorical moves that is often made in conservative religious discourse is to accuse progressives or secularists or however the "other" is labelled of being "relativists," or people that deny the existence of some absolute truth.  By contrast, in this framing, the conservative religious voices are the advocates of both the existence of absolute truth and its significance in our life.

How then, Guyton wonders, can people who have spent the last thirty years banging on about absolute truth be OK with someone like Donald Trump, who clearly has only modest concern for the truth of his statements, or anything else for that matter?  Isn't the Trump phenomenon the ultimate example of a world view based on relativism, in the form of a person attempting to influence the world solely through rhetoric and will?  How does one square that circle?

The answer, Guyton asserts and I think he is right, can be found in precisely what the people who claim to be all about "absolute truth" mean by "absolute truth."  When they talk about absolute truth, they don't mean, to use Paul's scheme, the notion that one day we will know fully--the ontological part of absolute truth.  Instead, what they mean by absolute truth is (though they would shy away from admitting it) that Paul is flat-out wrong when he says we see in a mirror, dimly.  Or, at least, it's not the case that they see through a mirror, dimly.  It's not just that there is an absolute truth, but that they, the people speaking, know it and possess it fully and without qualification.  And that truth is to be found and embodied in a particular ideological system or scheme.  That scheme, not facts about the world, nor a transcendent reality like God, is capital-T True and capital-A Absolute.

Once you make that move, once you believe that your system or schema is True, it follows almost necessarily that your relationship to concrete phenomena changes.  If your starting point in looking at any question is that your system is correct, then it necessarily follows that all of the concrete phenomena of the world will, and must, line up with the predictions provided by the system.  To use one of Guyton's examples, if your system provides that human life is explained in reference to a single pair of human progenitors, and your system is capital-T True, then it must be the case that those progenitors existed.

When faced with evidence that, in fact, no such single pair of human progenitors existed, or did not exist in the manner set forth in Genesis, you are faced with basically a binary choice.  Either you must concede that your system is not, in fact, capital-T True, or you must conclude that the purported evidence that is inconsistent with your system is not in fact real.  And if you have a prior commitment to the notion that you hold "absolute truth" defined as ironclad commitment to your system, it is far, far easier to simply decide that the contrary evidence must be false, and that evidence (such as it is) that fits into your schema is true. Plus, and this is where psychology enters the picture, once you have "gotten used" to the idea that the evidence in front of you must be false as a result of your commitment to a pre-existing system, it becomes easier to dismiss more evidence that might come forward in the future.

I've talked before about an idea that I call "Christian Realism."  The basic premise is that, for Christianity to be meaningful, it must speak to the world as it actually is, as opposed to some theoretical Potemkin village version of the world.  Until reading Guyton's article, I didn't make the connection between that idea and Paul's statement in 1st Corinthians.  In order to be able to see the world as it is (the "realism" part of "Christian Realism"), you have to be willing to accept the idea that your previous vision of the world (even if the vision is explicitly Christian in its formulation) is wrong, or at least incomplete.  Because if you don't, as Guyton lays out, you will never get to first base, as you will be psychologically predisposed to filter everything through the lens of your pre-loaded schema of how things should be.      

As crazy as it seems on the surface, a belief in "absolute truth" as embodied in systems makes it more likely, not less, that you will ignore facts and embrace various forms of "fake news," to use the term of the day.  The antidote to fake news is not a more strenuous assertion of some vision of absolute truth, but a willingness to accept our own flawed and limited perspective.  To steal theologian James Alison's title, there is a joy in being wrong; but, perhaps more importantly, there is also a freedom in being wrong.  Accepting that you may be wrong frees you from the need to defend to the death your systems and doctrines from the realities of the outside world that might call those systems and doctrines into question.  The moment that you are not longer afraid of being wrong is the moment when you can relax into the world as it actually is.

In saying that we see in a mirror, dimly, Paul is preaching a Gospel, a Good News, of liberation.  We don't have to be afraid anymore.  We can let go our crippling need to be right all the time.  We can relax into this wonderful world that God has created for us, and allow ourselves to be surprised by its joys.  We can do all of this knowing that, when our time is over, there will be One waiting for us to answer our questions.  But we don't need to do God's job for God while we are on the Earth.


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