Faith and Truth in a Pluralistic, Globalized World

This article appears as a chapter in Regnum Books volume ‘The Lausanne Movement: A Range of Perspectives (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2014)’, and is published here with permission. The author is writing in a personal capacity and the views do not necessarily represent those of The Lausanne Movement. Learn more about the book from Regnum.

Groucho Marx once famously remarked: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.” What was once a joke is today a widespread attitude. As Terry Eagleton, ‘one of the world’s leading literary theorists’,[335] writes in his book After Theory:

No idea is more unpopular with contemporary cultural theory than that of absolute truth. The phrase smacks of dogmatism, authoritarianism, a belief in the timeless and universal.[336]

This stands in stark contrast to the repeated affirmation in the Lausanne documents that the Gospel is God’s good news for the whole world. Again and again the absolute universality, uniqueness and truth are underlined. The Lausanne Covenant affirms there is ‘only one Saviour and only one gospel’,[337] the Manila Manifesto that ‘Jesus Christ is absolutely unique’[338] and the Cape Town Commitment that Jesus is ‘the truth of the universe’.[339]

This emphasis on truth has been a hallmark of the Lausanne Movement from its very beginning. At Lausanne 1974 Francis Schaeffer said: “Christianity is a specific body of truth; it is a system and we must not be ashamed of the word system. There is truth and we must hold that truth.” And he continued: “Christianity is truth, truth that God has told us, and if it is truth, it can answer questions.”[340]

One of the must influential messages from Manila was Os Guinness’ paper The Impact of Modernization, where he wrote: “There are two dangers in living with modernity. The old fear was that modernity was against religion altogether. Actually, modernity is hostile only to religions that believe in transcendence and truth; and therefore it is hostile to the gospel.”[341]

In Cape Town the theme of the first whole day of the conference was Truth.[342] Again, Os Guinness gave a clarion call to stand firm on truth. In his message Why Truth Matters he gave ‘six reasons why truth matters supremely’:[343]

First, only a high view of truth honors the God of Truth.

Second, only a high view of truth reflects how we come to know and trust God.

Third, only a high view of truth empowers our best human enterprises.

Fourth, only a high view of truth can undergird our proclamation and defines of the faith.

Fifth, only a high view of truth is sufficient for resisting evil and hypocrisy.

Sixth, only a high view of truth will help our growth and transformation in Christ.

There has from the beginning, as an integral part of the Lausanne Movement, been a strong emphasis on truth. Through the Lausanne conferences and publications we hear constant challenges to ideas that undermine the truth claims of the Gospel. A word count shows that in the Lausanne Covenant the word ‘truth’ appears eight times, in the Manila Manifesto nine times, and in the Cape Town Commitment 76 times! In an increasingly pluralistic and relativistic culture, Lausanne has called the church to be faithful to the truth.

Now, tensions between a pluralistic culture and the absolute claims of the Gospel are not new; there are many examples in history of similar situations, not least during the first three centuries of the Christian movement. What is new is the globalized world that has resulted in pluralism on a previous unparalleled scale.

I have found it helpful to deal with this tension in three steps, asking for (i) reason, (ii) knowledge and (iii) relationship.

Reason

The easy response to pluralism – the fact of conflicting truth claims around us – is to downplay the whole issue of truth and retort to relativism. Why not say with Mahatma Gandhi: “I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world”? Why not say with Muhammad Ali: “Religions all have different names, but they all contain the same truths  …”?

The answer is that reason and the principles of logic, like the principle of non-contradiction, have closed that door. Contradictory statements cannot both be true, not in the same sense and at the same time. We cannot, therefore, avoid categories of true and false.

Ravi Zacharias tells this illustrative story from his own experience:

My philosopher friend went to great lengths to establish the both/and logic as a superior way by which to establish truth.

“So, Dr Zacharias,” he said, “when you see one Hindu affirming that God is personal and another insisting that God is not personal, just because it is contradictory you should not see it as a problem. The real problem is that you are seeing that contradiction as a Westerner when you should be approaching it as an Easterner. The both/and is the Eastern way of viewing reality.”

After he had belaboured these two ideas of either/or and both/and for some time and carried on his tirade that we ought not to study truth from a Western point of view but rather from an Eastern viewpoint, I finally asked if I could interrupt his unpunctuated train of thought and raise one question. He agreed and put down his pencil.

I said, “Sir, are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and system of logic or nothing else?”

There was pin-drop silence for what seemed an eternity. I repeated my question: “Are you telling me that when I am studying Hinduism I either use the both/and logic or nothing else? Have I got that right?”

He threw his head back and said, “The either/or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

“Indeed, it does emerge,” I said. “And as a matter of fact, even in India we look both ways before we cross the street – it is either the bus or me, not both of us.”

Do you see the mistake he was making? He was using the either/or logic in order to prove the both/and. The more you try to hammer the law of non-contradiction, the more it hammers you.[344]

Looking at the factual claims of the different great religious traditions of the world, their non-compatibility is obvious. Take their claims about ultimate reality:

Buddhism: ultimate reality is emptiness.

Hinduism: ultimate reality is oneness.

Judaism: ultimate reality is a personal God.

Islam: ultimate reality is a personal God, who is an absolute unity in his essence.

Christianity: ultimate reality is a personal God, who is unity and diversity in his essence; he is a triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Emptiness, oneness, a personal God, a personal God in absolute unity or a personal God in unity and diversity … it cannot all be true!

Or take another example, what the three Semitic religions say about Jesus. More precisely, what they say about the – according to Christianity – defining events of Jesus’ life: his death on a cross and his bodily resurrection from the dead. Again, we are faced with contradictory claims:

Islam: Jesus did not die and did not rise again, but was taken directly up to heaven.

Judaism: Jesus died but did not rise.

Christianity: Jesus died and rose again.

These claims cannot all be true, since they are mutually exclusive. We cannot reasonable avoid the question of truth.

Knowledge

Even if we agree that reason forces us to accept the distinction between true and false, we have still not solved the real question that pluralism poses. It is one thing to acknowledge that something must be true; it is another thing to claim to have knowledge about that truth. There is a vital distinction between ontology (what is) and epistemology (what we know). This is the second question we need to deal with, the question of knowledge. Most contemporary suspicion towards truth is anchored here. Even if there is an ultimate truth we cannot, that is the assumption, know that truth. The wisest thing is therefore to ignore the questions altogether or to count every truth claim as an equally good guess.

This has for many become the default position in relation to the ultimate questions of God and meaning. As the American writer Robert A. Heinlein has said:

Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.[345]

Many liberal theologians have bought into this train of thought. K G Hammar, for example, former Archbishop of the Lutheran Church in Sweden, writes about the importance of distinguishing GOD from god. GOD with capital letters stands for who God is in himself, which is beyond human knowledge. And god in small letters stands for our picture of God, how we individually or collectively think about God. The Christian faith therefore ends in mysticism. To quote the title of one of the Archbishop’s many books: “I do not have the truth, I seek it.”[346]

This is one possibility, that we are excluded from knowledge about the ultimate. But it is not the only possibility. Even if we, from our side, cannot break through time and space in order to investigate what is there, God could (if he exists) break into our time and space from his side. And this is precisely what the Judeo-Christian tradition – as well as Islam – is proclaiming. God has revealed himself and made himself known, in many ways.

The Creator’s communication with his creation, according to the Christian faith, is rich and includes at least the following aspects:

  • The glory of the created order, reflecting ‘God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature’, as Paul formulates it in Rom 1:20.
  • Human beings, made in God’s image and therefore reflecting aspects of who he is through our creativity, rationality, morality and love.
  • His chosen people Israel, who received his wonderful promises and witnessed his mighty acts of redemption and judgement.
  • Prophets and Apostles in Old and New Testament times, who spoke his words and wrote them down for coming generations.
  • The Church, which is ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth’[347] and God’s special agent in reaching the world with the good news.
  • Above all, Jesus Christ, who is God’s revelation of himself in his Son.

As John says in the opening chapter of his Gospel: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”[348]

With us as the only source of knowledge, God would be the unseen and unknown, and mysticism the only option. But God has – from his side – made himself known to us, eminently and finally through his Son. Therefore real, even if not exhaustive, knowledge about God is possible.

Relation

If there is a truth and if it is possible to know that truth, what then is the relationship between the truth and us? This is the third question we need to ask. Even with knowledge about the truth, it is still possible to personally be estranged from it – like a son or daughter with knowledge of their father’s existence and identity, but still alienated from him.

In Matt 11:27 Jesus makes the most provocative statement imaginable concerning knowledge about God:

All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Michael Green writes this in his commentary:

Jesus is quietly claiming to be the locus of all revelation. Whatever revelation there may be, dispersed in human intellect and values, in virtuous action, in nature and in the history of humankind, the centre of all God’s self-disclosure is Jesus of Nazareth. He fulfils all the hopes of the Old Testament, and is the heart of all revelation. In a dark world lit by candles and lamps, he comes as a searchlight.[349]

The claims are amazing and consist of five distinct aspects. (i) All true understanding of God depends on the Son – Jesus – revealing him for us. (ii) The Son is sent from the Father as his unique representative. (iii) Only the Father fully understands the Son. As Michael Green writes: “It takes God to know God. Only the Father knows the Son.”[350] (iv) And the reverse, only the Son fully understands the Father. (v) The Son, therefore, is the only one who can truly reveal the Father to us.

These five elements go to make up the most astounding claim that has ever been heard on human lips, that the way to know the Father is through Jesus.[351]

So far we have been discussing reason, knowledge and relation to God in a general way. I would like to move on to a New Testament test case, looking into Acts 17.

Paul in Athens

The first generations of Christians, living in the Roman Empire, were challenged by a far-reaching pluralism, and still they were very successful in communicating the Gospel. Through Luke’s writing in the book of Acts, we have a window into the work of both Peter and Paul amongst the Gentiles. Of special interest here is Acts 17 and the elaborate presentation of Paul’s ministry to the Athenians.

Confronted and stirred by the religious and philosophical diversity in Athens, Paul did not attack them in anger and condemnation, nor did he isolate himself in contempt and fear. Instead he reasoned with people, day by day in the marketplace, discussing, debating and preaching the good news about Jesus. This opened the door to a public presentation at a meeting at the Aeropagos.[352]

Tom Wright has helpfully compared Paul’s approach in his speech to that of a really good chess player, who

plays more than one opponent at the same time. Sometimes grand masters will put on a display where they play several different people all at once, walking from one chessboard to the next and making the next move, leaving a string of opponents, with only one game each to concentrate on, baffled and eventually defeated.[353]

In a similar way Paul played simultaneously against polytheistic believers as well as against Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.[354] And he used the three concepts of reason, knowledge and relation.

Paul and Reason

Paul took as his starting point the Athenians’ religious beliefs and critiqued their reasoning. Their city was filled with altars and temples and they worshipped many gods. The act of worship indicates by itself that what is worshipped is greater than those who worship. Yet, the whole religious scene in Athens – temples built by humans, images in gold, silver or stone made by human design and skill, and served by human hands – did not make sense. What was worshipped was lower than the worshipper. Reason tells us that if there is a God he must be higher than us and cannot be contained in buildings or stand in need of our services. He is our source and origin; in Athens it was the reverse.

Paul and Knowledge

Paul affirmed his audience and some of their knowledge. He mentioned one of their altars and he quoted two of their poets, Epimenides and Aratus. They were not all wrong, but had real insights. Paul could reason with them, without referring to Scripture or any other religious authority, because they all lived in the same created order and shared the same human existence. Therefore Paul took seriously their ability to reflect upon God and upon their place in his world.

At the same time Paul questioned his audience. They worshipped what they did not know and they were ignorant. Even when Paul spoke about humans seeking and perhaps finding God, his language was ambivalent with purpose. John Stott writes:

God’s purpose in this has been so that the human beings he has made in his own image might seek him, and perhaps reach out for him, or ‘feel after him’ (RSV), a verb which ‘denotes the groping and fumbling of a blind man’, and find him. Yet this hope is unfulfilled because of human sin, as the rest of Scripture makes clear. Sin alienates people from God even as, sensing the unnaturalness of their alienation, they grope for him. It would be absurd, however, to blame God for this alienation, or to regard him as distant, unknowable, uninterested. For he is not far from each one of us. It is we who are far from him. If it were not for sin which separates us from him, he would be readily accessible to us.[355]

Paul and Relation

This leads Paul to a bold – a really bold – challenge. Ultimately, everyone has a problem in relation to God, regardless of our amount of knowledge and how accurate our knowledge is. But God has not abandon us; instead he ‘commands all people everywhere to repent’.[356] The reason for this is that God has decided to put the world right again; to judge it and thereby restore it. And it will all happen through one man.

Paul moves from the universal and the inclusive – ‘all men … every nation of men … the whole earth’[357] – to one unique individual, ‘the man he has appointed’.[358] Everyone is created by God, everyone has lost their way and now everyone everywhere must repent and turn to the one. Why? The destiny of all depends on this one individual exclusively. It is through one man – with a unique role as judge of the world – that the door to the future is opened. Only through him can a right relationship with God be restored.

This emphasis on the one – Jesus Christ – comes across, not only in Acts 17, but virtually on every page of the New Testament. Jesus is presented as:

The only way: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’[359]

The only name: ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’[360]

The only foundation: ‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.’[361]

The only mediator: ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.’[362]

Since the importance of Jesus is so crucial, it is no surprise that God has given public ‘proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead’. Paul’s proclamation in Athens of Jesus unique role is backed up by the Resurrection as a real historical event. It is proof of the truth proclaimed.

Conclusion

The Cape Town Commitment formulates the challenge we have before us very well:

We urge church leaders, pastors and evangelists to preach and teach the fullness of the biblical gospel as Paul did, in all its cosmic scope and truth. We must present the gospel not merely as offering individual salvation, or a better solution to needs than other gods can provide, but as God’s plan for the whole universe in Christ. People sometimes come to Christ to meet a personal need, but they stay with Christ when they find him to be the truth.[363]

And further on:

We long to see greater commitment to the hard work of robust apologetics.

This must be at two levels.

1. We need to identify, equip and pray for those who can engage at the highest intellectual and public level in arguing for and defending biblical truth in the public arena.

2. We urge Church leaders and pastors to equip all believers with the courage and the tools to relate the truth with prophetic relevance to everyday public conversation, and so to engage every aspect of the culture we live in.[364]

Or as Paul says in Col 4:4-6:

Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

[335] Paul Vallely, “Terry Eagleton: Class warrior”, in The Independent (13th Oct 2007). The article is online at: www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/ terry-eagleton-class-warrior-396770.html.

[336] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Basic Books, 2003), 103.

[337] The Lausanne Covenant, Article 3: www.lausanne.org/en/documents/lausanne-covenant.html.

[338]Manila Manifesto, Affirmation 5: www.lausanne.org/en/documents/manila-manifesto.html.

[339]Cape Town Commitment, Part II, Section IIA: Bearing witness to the truth of Christ in a pluralistic, globalized world: www.lausanne.org/en/documents/ ctcommitment.html.

[340] Francis Schaeffer, Form and Freedom in the Church, Plenary Paper Lausanne 1974: www.lausanne.org/docs/lau1docs/0368.pdf.

[341] Os Guinness, The Impact of Modernization. www.lausanne.org/docs/lau2docs/ 283.pdf.

[342] Including my own presentation Dogma and Diversity – Can Evangelical Truth Effectively Face Up to Secularity in a Pluralistic World?http://conversation. lausanne.org/en/resources/detail/11356#.UtoeRnnnOgQ.

[343] Os Guinness, Why Truth Matters. http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/resources/ detail/11392#.Utm7aXnnOgQ.

[344] Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1994), 129.

[345] Robert A. Heinlein, Job: A Comedy of Justice (Del Rey, 1985), 283.

[346] K. G. Hammar & Ami Lönnroth, Jag har inte sanningen, jag söker den (Ordfront, 2004).

[347] 1 Tim 3:15.

[348] John 1:18.

[349] Green, Michael; The Message of MatthewThe Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, UK: IVP, 2001), 140.

[350] Ibid.

[351] Ibid., 141.

[352] Acts 17:16-34.

[353] Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 (London: SPCK, 2008), 86.

[354] See Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary – Realities, Strategies and Methods (IVP 2008), 168-183, and Lars Dahle, ‘Acts 17:16–34. An Apologetic Model Then and Now? [Diss. Summary]’ Tyndale Bulletin 53:2 (2002), 313-316.

[355] John Stott, The Message of Acts – The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, UK: IVP, 1990), 286.

[356] Acts 17:30.

[357] Acts 17:25-26.

[358] Acts 17:31.

[359] John 14:6.

[360] Acts 4:12.

[361] 1 Cor 3:11.

[362] 1 Tim 2:5-6.

[363]Cape Town Commitment, Part II, Section IIA: Bearing witness to the truth of Christ in a pluralistic, globalized world.

[364] Ibid.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email