Texts: Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Romans 5: 5b; John 16: 12-15
Picture first that court martial scene in A Few Good Men as Tom Cruise relentlessly demands the truth from the infuriated Jack Nicholson, who finally barks back that famous line, "You can't handle the truth!"
Although stated with an entirely different tone to make an entirely different point, Jesus said essentially the same thing to his followers just before his arrest and trial.
Picture now the last supper scene in John's Gospel as the disciples question where Jesus is going and how they'll be able to follow him (John 14). Jesus gently, perhaps wistfully, responds: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 15:12). In other words: "You can't handle the truth; you can't take in the 'whole truth and nothing but the truth'."
Then he adds, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 15:13).
I wonder how often there is more truth available to me--were I prepared to handle it. But receiving truth in limited doses is, I suppose, a blessing. How comforting to know that Jesus felt compassion for his followers who weren't ready to hear the fullness of his truth. How hopeful to hear a promise that more was/is yet to come from the Spirit of Truth that animated Jesus's life and that guides us today with a Still Speaking Voice. I'm not expected to have figured out everything. I can be at peace when I have received all that my little mind and heart and spirit can bear--and no more. Yet I can be expectant that there is more. We can believe, as one of our UCC forebears said in 1620: “There is yet more light and truth to break forth” (John Robinson).
In my personal life, there have been times when I protected myself from difficult questions for fear my worldview would change too much, for fear I would have to delve deeper in my own emotional life than I was prepared to go, for fear I would leave my old self behind and never find my way back to that me, for fear I might discover a God bigger than I could handle. At other times I have simply been so weighted with my own needs that I've missed transformative experiences with others that could have deepened my spirit. I was too distracted by my hurts, preoccupations, or prejudices to listen deeply to someone else's truth. I've not always welcomed new truth.
In a more cosmic sense, I believe Truth has many more things to say to humanity, but we are not able to bear them now. Just to consider that the universe is literally expanding, that it includes black holes and dying suns and subatomic particles and perhaps parallel universes, wormholes through space, and intelligent life on other planets--is more than most of us can handle. If the theory of evolution challenged us theologically 150 years ago, what are the theological implications for quantum physics? We can't bear the thought quite yet--not because such a universe appalls but because it is astonishingly unfathomable.
Culturally, too, there are limits on truth. Human cultures have taught not only what is true but also how to know truth. However—and we often forget this—the truth we know is always partial and culturally-mediated. As culture changes, so do our understandings of what is true and how we know what is true. It’s not simply that we accumulate new facts but that we put on new lenses that change how we see things.
I’m oversimplifying, but I ask you to consider that in pre-literate cultures, truth--or Wisdom--was apprehended through stories or sayings handed down or through dreams divined. The book of Proverbs, from which we read earlier, is an example of a type of trusted ancient wisdom or godly truth that was based on sage sayings. A wise person was one who could deliver the perfect aphorism or parable for the right situation. Sayings and stories and dreams—spoken by an authoritative figure like a shaman, elder, priest, or prophet—transmitted the truth.*
When cultures shifted from oral to written communication, the printed word became the ultimate arbiter of Truth. Religious and political leaders eventually began grounding their declarations of truth in printed words. Laws were written down. Our democratic system evolved when printed words allowed even the average person to pin down complex ideas long enough to follow a logical argument--and later to hold someone accountable for his or her argument. Wisdom written down allowed laws that were more than rulers' whims to gain power and stability. And Wisdom printed by a printing press allowed for laws and philosophies behind them to develop and be distributed to more and more people. Truth in print, of course, has given us the false impression that what is printed is Truth. So once again we see the limits of Truth within our culture's primary conveyance of truth.
Some culture watchers argue that the current vehicle for truth is the image. A picture’s worth a thousand words, you know. And now they say, “If you don’t have a picture of it, it didn’t happen.” Events that matter are those that are televisible. Our phones are cameras. Courtroom evidence is a video. We click on icons or touch pictures to operate our computers. Some hear sermons on television where the preacher’s image and personality fill up the whole screen. Some go to church to see video clips on a big screen so that even religion is picture-based. Pictures offer a truth that is more emotionally charged but maybe less rationally developed. Each new medium for delivering Truth expands and contracts what we can know.
As the general culture has reconsidered how it receives Truth, so has Christianity. The first authority for Christian Truth in a largely oral culture was found in the sayings of Jesus, passed on by word of mouth to followers who eventually incorporated them into the pages of Gospel accounts. Later, authoritative figures who stood on top of those sayings became the arbiters of God's truth, and others stood on top of them, until the Church's truth eventually was determined by a powerful hierarchy.
When once again culture shifted, it was neither Jesus’s sayings nor papal authority that determined Truth for many Christians. It was, in the slogan of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura—or "only scripture." The Bible, now available in print to the many, became the chief repository of Godly truth and wisdom. “No one can tell me what to believe,” Protestants protested. “I’ll read it for myself.” But how was the Bible to be interpreted? Making Christian scripture the ultimate authority for Truth had its own limits. So by the 18th Century John Wesley argued that spiritual discernment happens best when we consult scripture, tradition, reason, and our own lived experience.
What would you say is the primary way we today determine spiritual truth? At some level our image-based culture, as I suggested earlier, drives how we deliver and receive religious truth today. But another contemporary arbiter of Truth is found in our general culture and increasingly in religious life: community. In popular culture today, the World Wide Web is our icon for a vast and interrelated network of information that holds our wisdom. The Arab Spring last year demonstrates the power of these vast but loosely organized connections. At Open Table, our emphasis on group discernment—which trusts the members of our faith community to find truth together collaboratively—reflects our own preference for an ancient/modern method for discerning what is true. Two heads are better than one. There’s a theological presupposition that the Spirit of Truth works in community and that we, the Body of Christ, are all interrelated in some fundamental way, that there is unity across our many differences. We are committed to hearing even, or especially, the voices on the margins, because Truth lies there, too. Are there limits to this communal way of knowing? Of course.
But on this Trinity Sunday, I suggest that a communal approach to Truth is very Trinitarian. The Trinity is a picture of the Sacred as a diverse yet united community that seamlessly, eternally communes: Parent, Son, Spirit picture a mysteriously united and yet distinct pattern for Truth.
If the Trinity is True, then it's true more as a picture of loving community than as a doctrine to be developed through entirely rational argumentation.
If the Trinity is Truth, then our generation may see that truth best as relationship. All that needs to be known and treasured and enacted is ultimately found in some pattern of relationship: as one atomic particle bonds with another, as one planet pulls its moon into a regular orbit, as one human paradoxically retains her distinct identity while being shaped by others in the community.
If the Trinity imparts truth, then truth comes also through ongoing revelations. All that needed to be understood about God had not been shared by the time Jesus said farewell to his followers. Truth continues to unfold—as we see through science and religion. God’s “truth is marching on.” But Truth is a messy and boisterous process. Recall the words of Lady Wisdom we read earlier as she strides forth:
“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.”
Lady Wisdom, long associated with the Holy Spirit, does not stay home. She’s assertively active.
Jesus shared his truth but believed there would be other vehicles for sacred truth so that his Spirit would continue to prick consciences and nudge loving actions and teach creative ways of nonviolence and connect us to one another and inspire us to work for justice. The way Truth would get told would be through humanity's messy engagement in life. To sit across from Jesus in the passive mode of listener had its limits. We understand truth in the context of our daily interactions.
In the fictional world of A Few Good Men, we observe several understandings of Truth. Truth is known in Jack Nicholson’s world--that is, the world of his character, Colonel Jessup--through slogans and unwritten rules like the Code Red and authority figures in a military chain of command. But truth requires that authority be questioned, whatever the authority du jour.
Truth is known also in the world of the JAG corps in which Tom Cruise’s character operates. The US Constitution, formal military codes, even letters and a flight schedule are used as evidence and thus attest to power of the written word to tell us what is true. Yet these written truths require interpretation.
Ultimately, the audience plays its role as the ultimate determiner of truth. The film, you see, ends ambiguously. The Marines on trial are found not guilty of criminal charges but are dishonorably discharged. So it’s a hollow victory for the defendants and for their attorney. Meaning it’s up to the viewers—having heard the stories, having reviewed the law, having witnessed a powerful authority speak his truth, having seen logic and reason brought to bear on a complex case—it’s up to a jury-like audience, which represents the communal way that Truth today gets determined, to decide if Truth won out.
How much easier it would be to line up behind one confident authority who’ll happily decide truth for us.
How much richer it is to be in relationship with the Spirit of Truth.
Trinity of Truth, keep us humbly mindful that we can know only in part, but keep us seeking truth nevertheless. May we see love as the brightest light for truth. Amen
*My discussion of epistemological shifts was influenced by writings of Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren and others but is mainly informed by Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. (New York: Penguin Press, 1985).