Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On the Politics of Absolute Truth: The Narrated God, Faithful Witness, and the Christian Story

Recently my wife and I had an extended and fruitful conversation with close friends of ours at our church here in Atlanta, concerning the nature and various types of truth related to human life and Christian faith, and consequently how to go about engaging, exploring, believing, and sharing those truths. The conversation left my mind spinning for days, and I had to put thought to word in order to make sense of what I was thinking through. The following is a portion of what I shared with them some time afterward, and it seemed fitting to post it here as well.

For my theologically minded friends, pardon the cribbing of Jenson and Hauerwas -- they were principal influences on my reflection, but I was (and am) not aiming to ransack without due homage!

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1. I think a helpful way to characterize the nature, existence, and character of the biblical God is that he is narrated: that is, he is known through the telling of a story. Not only that, but that story is a narration of his actions.

So first of all, God's existence is not a given or even a static "always-is-no-matter-what"-ness, but is told through the story of his involvement with and among creatures in creation. To me, this implies that the way we talk about God, as well as God's existence, must take the form Scripture models, rather than talking about abstract philosophical concepts and attributes that are largely alien to the Bible. For example, God is "that one who brought up the slaves from Egypt" or "that one who raised up Jesus from the dead" rather than "that one who is omnipotent/omniscient/omnibenevolent."

2. That God is a narrated God seems to correlate perfectly with the Incarnation; the face of the invisible God is a particular human face, not abstract or universal or absolute or whatever, but a male Jew from a particular town in occupied Palestine in the first three decades of the first century. He spoke a certain language, ate and pooped, went through puberty, read and listened and learned new things. He taught and led a new movement and performed miracles, and was arrested and tried and murdered by the occupying authorities, and then he was alive again after dying. And so on.

What I mean to say is that, the narrated character of the biblical God (we could also say "Israel's God") fits in perfectly with the fact and, more importantly, the story of Jesus. Jesus is the human story of God. Again we find ourselves not in a realm of abstract absolutes, but in a decidedly particular context.

(I would add that it also correlates to the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit play and are characters and roles in a drama, the drama of creation, redemption, and consummation -- or past, present, and future -- in one life.)

3. Because of the nature and character of God, and thus the nature and character of the truth about this God, the way in which God and truth are spoken and represented by Christians is supremely important. In other words, the medium is the message. The character of the sort of truth God is necessitates the character of the way we as Christians go about "truthing."

The way I see this relating to the discussion of "absolute" truth is that it may entail that, as Christians, we let go of the need or option to name or describe the truth we profess as "absolute." Instead, what we do is witness to truth, and the way we witness to truth is (in my view) threefold:

a) Tell the story.
b) Live the story.
c) Do Perform the story.

The first is pretty straightforward -- tell people about Jesus, etc. The second means to live, as a community and in our individual lives, as members of the coming kingdom in a world that stands against that kingdom. The third is meant for the context of worship: that we embody the story liturgically, through baptism, through the Lord's Supper, through songs, through prayer, through testimony, etc.

Two more points.

4. What I want to emphasize is that the sort of claims we make for the God revealed in Jesus cannot also be similarly claimed for other gods. For example, if the sort of things Christians claim for God are substantially no different than the claims of Deists, of Muslims, or of random theists, then the "absoluteness" or truth of those claims doesn't really make a difference. Thus the statement "the fact that God exists is absolute truth" doesn't necessarily have meaningful content from a Christian perspective if the terms we are using don't have specifiably distinct content. If "God" means a monad, or the Trinity, or an arbitrary deity, or Allah, the statement doesn't mean much; similarly, "exists" might mean different things; and then of course "absolute" implies a certain type of God and a certain type of existence, both of which might be unfaithful or unrelated to the Christian God.

Thus, we return to the necessity of story and of (peaceful) witness: to the reply, "But which God, and what sort of existence?" we can reply, "Let me tell you the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church." Or we might reply, "Come and see," i.e., come and see the way we treat each other and you will see what sort of God. Or again, we might reply, "Come and pray with us," i.e., come and see the way we worship and by participating you will see what sort of God. And so on.

5. Finally, returning again to the notion of "absoluteness," I think it is important to emphasize that behind every doctrine, practice, and theology is a politics. Not having anything to do with government or democracy, but meaning, not only "what does this perspective say?" but "what does this perspective do?" How does it function when convicted people believe it and live it out?

In my perspective, the "politics of absolute truth" inevitably leads to a distortion of faithful Christian witness. The reason is historical as much as theological: when Christians start speaking "absolutely," people usually start to die. Sometimes the dying is justified explicitly; sometimes it happens as a matter of course. But almost always non-Christians become "the enemy" because, on an indisputable basis, they are "absolutely" wrong. And somehow, and almost by any means, these pagans (whom everyone knows to be wrong) must be brought to the truth. This may take the form of the Inquisition; but it can also take the form of America's invasion of Iraq, where some Christians find the war providential to evangelistic hopes -- when in fact the notion of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children dying by deadly explosions (mostly ordered or launched or dropped by Christian soldiers in the American military) somehow for the sake of the gospel is horrifying and utterly at odds with the gospel of the tortured and crucified God.

And while it may sound outlandish, I truly believe that these sorts of instance -- with Christians behind the choices, Christians enacting those choices, and Christians justifying and applauding those choices -- result from the type of theories, viewpoints, and arguments that stem from a Christianity/evangelism/epistemology understood as "absolute." Instead, I think Scripture offers us resources for a different way of comprehending, articulating, explaining, and living out the Christian story that is both truthful and faithful to the God who is the subject of that story.


  1. lovely post. i have been thinking a lot recently about recognizing tone as an important part of theology both in theory and practice (hopefully not dividing the two too much). anyways, this post resonates a lot with that sort of "tone theology."

    a long way to say very thoughtful and thanks for sharing.

  2. That was a very good post. I've been thinking recently about how it is that over-focus on attributes of God (his omnipotence etc) misses the more fundamental point about him, which is that he is first and foremost a community of persons in loving relationship. This is why Christ was able to be human and still God, because his God-ness resided in his relationship to the Father, not in being all-powerful or whatever other attribute "God" must have in order to be God. (This leads me to think - via Chesterton - that in the crucifixion God made an enormous gamble; firstly, Christ could have disobeyed the Father, effectively ending the Trinitarian relationship they shared, and secondly, following on from that, this means that God literally put his own existence as God on the line for us).
    Getting back to what you were saying though about narrative, I think that this is why Pascal is right, that the Christian God is not the God of the philosophers, because ours is a God who lives in history and in narrative, not a bloodless abstraction. When Jesus said he was the truth he was not saying a mystical piece of nonsense, he literally is the truth; that is, the truth is a person, a man who can be related to (or not), and not a factual statement or proposition. Anyway, those are my thoughts...

  3. I'd like to say thank you as well. As a non-intellectual Christian it is sometimes discouraging to find a place in America's Christian culture that isn't overly philosophical or downright vapid. Your thoughts are encouraging to me because I think they compliment the type of faith that Jesus regarded as worthy, the faith of a child. Who respond best to stories and acts of love.


  4. Thanks to all for the kind comments. I'll actually be expanding on these thoughts a bit more next week, so I look forward to further conversation then.