Monday, April 27, 2009

Objective truth . . . and subjective truth

I read this morning an insightful article from Tony Woodlief in the April 25th World magazine:
In surveys aimed at discerning Christian worldview (e.g., whether respondents believe that absolute truth exists, that Christ was sinless, etc.), Barna Research Group finds the portion with consistent biblical beliefs holding steady the past dozen years, around 10 percent. Similar surveys reveal disturbing ignorance of dogma among professing Christians.

While the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christian, in other words, a good many of us don't seem capable of explaining what that means. Little wonder the comically vicious Bill Maher had such a field day filming a mockumentary wherein he accosted Christians about their faith. Not knowing what we believe makes it awfully hard to answer why we believe it. It shouldn't surprise us if Christians who can't articulate what they believe have children and grandchildren who don't even bother to try. And this is exactly what we are seeing, as large numbers of young people stop attending church altogether upon leaving home.

The way many churches respond to declining public interest exacerbates the problem. The Christian church grew when its leaders stressed biblical study and fervent prayer, each of which was considered, in the early church, a means of knowing God. The modern feel-good church, meanwhile, de-emphasizes both in favor of "messages" that are "relevant to my life." (Don't tell me what Job said about the imponderable glory of God, tell me how to have fulfilling personal relationships.) That kind of offering can only be as stimulating as its deliverer, which explains why telegenic showmen find their congregations swelling, and so many other churches are shrinking. Eliminate the theologies of Word and prayer, and all you have left is a competition to see who can provide the best circus.

What we are in danger of--in our country, in our churches, in ourselves--is practical atheism. This is not a considered embrace of godlessness. It is instead the slow slide into lives where God is irrelevant.

--Emphases added. JAH

May I summarize it this way: "We need objective truth!"

[By the way: There's more good stuff on this subject at the original article.]


Well, this article reminded me, somehow, of the "sermon" I endured yesterday . . . and an article to which my sister called my attention yesterday morning as well.

First the "sermon."

We had a guest preacher. Except . . . he didn't really preach. Instead, representing the denominational Bible college, he subjected us to an extended advertisement (lousy advertisement) for his college . . . structured loosely--very loosely!--around Philippians 3:7-11.

As a person who has been involved in marketing, and as an editor, it struck me: Not once did he address his audience. Never did he speak to us (i.e., during his speech, never did he use the word "you" in reference to members of his audience; he occasionally did use the word "you" to refer to "people in general" . . . as in [not something he actually said, but for illustrative purposes], "If you look out your window, you can see whether it's raining"). Instead, he reported to an undifferentiated audience about things he has seen back at the college.

I mention this by way of partial response to Woodlief's comment about "The modern feel-good church . . . de-emphasizes [biblical study and fervent prayer] in favor of 'messages' that are 'relevant to my life.'"

I think we need biblical study and fervent prayer. We need objective truth. (I'm sure the representative of the denominational college was conveying to us objectively true information.)

But, if Christians are going to take the time to listen to sermons, it would be helpful if the pastor-preacher-teachers would consider how to address their audiences directly, offering thoughtful, practical and illustrative applications of what a Scripture might mean for individual members of the audience: "You, fathers: when you ______, you need to [realize, remember, seek God . . . ] . . . And you, mothers: based on the passage at hand, when you _____, is it not clear that ______? . . . And you, grandpa and grandma: when _______, does God not call upon you to ______? . . . And you, children . . . And you, young adults . . ." Etc. Etc.

In marketing, we are told to make the use of a product "so real" to the mind of the reader/hearer that the prospective buyer can "see, taste, touch, smell, hear" it in his or her mind. "'Dimensionalize' the benefits," says one marketing "guru" I follow. Help the prospect imagine deeply what it is like to own whatever-it-is you're selling.

So there is a subjective element of the truth, too, that needs to be addressed: the truth as it relates to the members of one's audience.

But there is another form of subjective truth, too, that needs to be addressed.

As long as preacher-teacher-pastors have to get up in front of audiences that are unable to observe them day-in and day-out, 24-7, throughout the year (as parents are instructed to allow and encourage their children to observe them--Deuteronomy 6:6-9; 11:18-20), I believe it makes sense that they should at least tell their congregations the detailed stories of how they apply the Scriptures practically in their lives.

I believe they should follow St. Paul's example when, as he said to the Thessalonians, he loved them "so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us" (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

. . . And while I'm on that subject, let me draw your attention to--what for me is--a compelling article by John Piper: The Pastor as Scholar. (Thank you, Ruth, for bringing this to my attention!)

Piper says,
F. F. Bruce, representing the British of a generation ago (and perhaps not too different today), said at the end of his autobiography, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past (1980, p. 306),
While some readers have observed that in these chapters I have said little about my domestic life, others have wondered why I have been so reticent about my religious experience. The reason is probably the same in both instances: I do not care to speak much—especially in public—about the things that mean most to me. Others do not share this inhibition, and have enriched their fellows by relating the inner story of the Lord’s dealings with them—one thinks of Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. But it calls for quite exceptional qualities to be able to do this kind of thing without self-consciousness or self-deception.
. . . My first reaction when I read this was to say, “No wonder I have found his commentaries so dry—helpful in significant ways, but personally and theologically anemic.” My second reaction was to say (this was in 1980, the year I left academia and entered the pastorate): “Good grief! You say, ‘I do not care to speak much—especially in public—about the things that mean most to me.’ I say, ‘The only thing I care to speak about—especially in public—are the things that mean most to me!’”

Now both his and my statements are probably overstatements. But seriously: This is one of the differences between me and many scholars that drove me out of the guild. I am regularly bursting to say something about the most precious things in the universe, and not in any disinterested, dispassionate, composed, detached, unemotional, so-called scholarly way, but rather with total interest, warm passion, (if necessary) discomposure, utter attachment, fullness of emotion, and, I hope always, truth.

I am with Jonathan Edwards all the way when he says,
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.1
And, of course, my assumption is--for Edwards and for myself--that in our aim to raise the affections of our hearers, we have experienced authentically raised affections ourselves about what is true and in proportion to the nature of the truth.

So I have zero empathy with F. F. Bruce and others when they say (sometimes in the name of personality, and others in the name of scholarly objectivity), “I do not care to speak much--especially in public--about the things that mean most to me.” I think it hurts the cause of the gospel if such scholars insist that a theological lecture or a critical scholarly commentary is not the place for that.

1 Jonathan Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4, The Great Awakening, edited C. C. Goen (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1972), 387. Return to text.
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