Trying to know what is true

There’s a very interesting post at Parchment and Pen today (of course, I think that about just about all the posts there), about our tendency to settle comfortably in a certain theological tradition and resist acknowledging that we might be wrong. Lisa Robinson draws a surprising (to me) parallel to the homeless person who resists accepting a permanent place to live because it requires change from what he has grown comfortable with. Even when change will bring good results, it’s still very uncomfortable to go through, so we stay where we are, put up with it, and even convince ourselves it is better.

I can easily think of examples of people who are so sure their theology is right, and that those who disagree have clearly misinterpreted the Scriptures (or not read them at all). I can just imagine how they would react to Lisa’s assertion that when we say we know something, what we really mean is that it has satisfied our criteria for determining what is true. But what if our criteria are wrong? I found epistemology (how we know what we know) to be a fascinating branch of philosophy, but I only got a brief introduction to it in college, and found books that I found on the subject to be very tough reading.

Lisa makes it clear she is not saying truth is relative, that we cannot know what is true and no absolute truths exist. Rather she is challenging our tendency to extend the claim of “absolute truth” to areas where we need to consider the possibility that our understanding is seriously flawed. After all, when it comes to theology we are finite beings trying to understand an Infinite Being. Some things we can state with confidence (God is good), but with others – such as why God allows evil – we risk oversimplifying the matter for the sake of a definitive explanation.

My first inclination is to congratulate myself that I do not fall into that particular trap. I don’t feel comfortable with the tension of not being sure, with trying to avoid the mistake of going to either this extreme or that one and instead balancing precariously in between – and being labelled a wishy-washy fence-sitter into the bargain. But I prefer to accept that uncomfortable tension to trying to pretend – to myself or to others – that I am convinced of a particular view when I am not, even if it is accepted by many people I know and trust. (I could give examples of various theological questions, but I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion to baptism or free will or some of the other common flashpoints.)

But then I have to ask myself, am I perhaps not doing exactly the same thing in reverse? Am I simply more comfortable saying, “I don’t know” than at having to commit to a particular position? Is it just easier for me to be “homeless” theologically and ecclesiastically (neither Calvinist nor Arminian, neither Baptist nor Presbyterian, not a liberal but not as conservative as most conservatives) than to do the hard work of finding satisfactory answers?

I’d like to say no, I don’t think so. I don’t shy away from theological studies. What I do is read what I can find written from different perspectives, and try to see which view seems to have the best support. Sometimes I’m just not convinced by one over the other(s). But human nature being what it is, it’s also easy to convince myself that because I have done some of that difficult study in the past, I’ve done enough. (After all, doesn’t God want me to focus on loving and serving people rather than burying my nose in a theology book?)

Scripture does make a few things very clear:

Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:8)

Most Christians I know would agree, at least in theory, with the principle of “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” But there’s a distinct lack of agreement on what is essential and what is not. (A previous post at Parchment and Pen, several months ago, explored what doctrines should be considered essential for salvation, essential for sound doctrine but not for salvation, important but not essential to sound doctrine, not all that important, or purely a matter of speculation.)

Perhaps part of my preference for an “I’m not sure” posture on a variety of theological issues is that I simply don’t put as many of them in the “essentials” category.

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