true? Truth? not true? or just true-ish? (part 1)

Posted: December 11, 2012 in believing, fundamentalism, my personal journey, the "true-ish" series
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Part 1 of 3

I was discussing politics this morning with a conservative Christian in my town, and he accused me of “not believing in Absolute Truth.”  (He’s quite unhappy with me on account of my support of President Obama.)   Actually, he didn’t directly accuse me – he said, “Well, I still believe in Absolute Truth.”   Whatever.  The implication was clear.

Has anyone else had this conversation?   Am I the only one who feels marginalized by these sorts of statements?   This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused imagesof this, and it finally dawned on me this morning exactly why I’m so sick of hearing it.  Everyone believes in Absolute Truth, if by “truth” we mean that some things are either true or they’re not.  But what Christians usually mean when they throw this barb is:  “I know that I’m right, and you are wrong.  And the reason I know I’m right and you are wrong is because God and I both happen to have the same opinion on this particular issue.  And the reason I know that is because my interpretation of a particular Biblical passage is the only correct opinion one can hold. “    

The world was created in six days, because Genesis tells us this.  If I don’t believe that, then I don’t believe in Absolute Truth (the Bible), and everything about me is now suspect.   If I consider science, use my brain, weigh the evidence, discover the poetry of the Old Testament and the Jewish oral traditions of narrative, and came to the conclusion that science is TRUE and poetry is TRUE in a very different sense – that Genesis can both contain truth and be not factually and scientifically accurate – then I’m not a believer in “Absolute Truth” and nothing about me can be trusted.

Here’s the way I see it – and I’d love to hear your take on this so that maybe I’ll discover I’m not alone:  We as human beings have always been drawn to the supernatural and to worship as a way of expressing our awe and our smallness and our lack of understanding and our dependency on forces outside of us.   We want to reach out to something bigger than we are, something mysterious, something awesome.  From early man to ancient Egyptians to Native Americans to European Druids, we seem to have always had this built in desire to connect with something greater than ourselves.  In it’s best form, this urge helps us to focus on something/someone other than ourselves, it brings us together in worshiping communities, it gives us permission to be perplexed and disappointed but not be paralyzed by fear, it motivates us to be our better selves, it allows us to say “I don’t know” in the same breath that we say “it is well with my soul.”

But, like anything that’s overdone, it can easily turn on us.

As a people we have a very low tolerance for mystery and an insatiable need to be in control.   So we start tying up the loose ends.  We create “four spiritual laws” in line with our Western linear thinking in which everything can be categorized and bullet-pointed and logically explained.  And then it gets worse.  We create straight jackets of truth for ourselves and for those around us.  We honor people who get it right and can tell us what to think and how we must behave, and we suspect people who admit that they don’t have all the answers.

The history of the Christian Church illustrates this progression.   From a ragtag group of believers meeting in homes and doing their best to follow in the footsteps of their founder, often confused and struggling with how to interpret Truth, Christianity devolved into Constantine’s “state religion,” which morphed over time into the Catholic Church, which became the epitome of control and suppression.  “Oh, you want to know the Truth?   It’s in the Bible – but don’t worry your pretty heads about that complicated book – leave it to the professionals.  How about this – we’ll read it, and we’ll tell you what it says, what to do, what to believe, and we’ll reward and punish you according to how well you do what we say.”

And then we had a second chance to get it right – the Reformation, in which the Bible was given back to the common man.  So what did we do?  We chose new leaders who would read it, decide what’s important and what’s not, and create lists of what we were supposed to think and believe and rules for us to follow.  The most recent version of this way of thinking, of course, is American fundamentalism, whose motto might be: The bible is all absolutely 100% literally true and binding, except for the parts that aren’t.   (And we, of course, will tell you which parts are, and which parts aren’t…and then reward or punish you according to your acquiescence to these lists.)

These people are fond of declaring that the Bible “is either all true or none of it is true” and that we shouldn’t “pick and choose” what we take literally.  But here’s the problem:  NO ONE takes the Bible 100% literally.  No one.  We all pick and choose.  Even Jesus did.  He emphasized the spirit of the law over the letter of the law when it came to working on the Sabbath, stoning sinners, washing hands, and more.  Jesus picked and chose in his very first sermon that he gave – he chose to read only a certain portion of the Isaiah text.  He read the part that reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2).   What’s interesting here is that Jesus intentionally edited out a portion of verse 2, “and the day of vengeance of our Lord.”  Roger Wolsey (of the fabulous blog “Kissing Fish”) suggests that Jesus left this phrase out in order to deemphasize God’s wrath and to denounce violence as a means to an end.  Jesus clearly made choices of what he emphasized in the scriptures based upon his theological agenda.

Series___Trueish_576440066

Even if we start reading right at the beginning, the tension of Biblical interpretation hits us in the face immediately – there are two conflicting accounts of the creation story in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis.  Maybe this discrepancy  – in the very introduction to the Bible – should be a hint to us right up front to go easy on the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” rhetoric.  Maybe it’s a reminder that we should give each other some room to embrace poetry, symbolism, “true-ishness,” mystery, Biblical contradictions (did Judas die from hanging or falling; did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on one donkey or two; were there two demon possessed men in the graveyard or just one?), Biblical inaccuracies (the mustard seed isn’t actually the smallest seed in the world; the earth actually does revolve around the sun and not the other way around), personal meaning and interpretation, changing societal norms and values, and more.

I tend to believe that all readers of the Bible are interpreting, picking and choosing, incorporating personal experiences and opinions, weighing what they’ve been taught by others, and reading through the lens of their own biases.  They are all deciding on what is True for them, what’s not True and what’s only true-ish.   Some make those decisions through study and scholarship, some by listening to their hearts and brains, some by purely believing what they’ve been told.

So what’s the current score?  What does the average modern, conservative, fundamentalist Christian mean by Absolute Truth, when discussing the issues of today?   Let’s map it out:

Homosexuals:  Bad
(Not mentioned by Jesus even once; condemned in the Old Testament right along with mixing dairy with meat and eating pork.)

Mixing dairy with meat and eating pork:  Acceptable  (also delicious)

Divorce:  Acceptable
(Strongly condemned by Jesus)

Woman speaking in church; wearing jewelry; cutting their hair short:  Good
(Paul writes that women shouldn’t speak at church, but should go home and ask their husbands any questions they may have, that they shouldn’t wear jewelry, and that they should leave their hair long.)

Slavery:  Very Bad
(Acceptable in the Bible)

Marriage between races:  Acceptable
(Not acceptable in the Old Testament)

Mormons:   Good
(Mormonism has been a “cult” in the eyes of most fundamentalist Christians almost since Joseph Smith found the magic scrolls.   Apparently, though, God recently changed His mind.  Billy Graham a few months ago declared that Mormonism IS NO LONGER A CULT, coincidently just in time for Christians to cast their ballots for Mitt Romney.) 

Not taking care of the poor:  Acceptable
(There are over 500 verses in the Bible making our mandate to care for the poor crystal clear.) 

Abortion:   Very Badjesus and republican suggestions
(There are maybe five verses about life that can be squeezed to possibly support an anti-abortion stance, and about the same number that could go the other way.)
See:  http://stuffthatmattersblog.com/category/abortion/ 

Greed, amassing riches, loving money:  Overlooked to Good
(All strongly condemned throughout scripture – way more obviously and numerously than abortion.)

I have to stop and imagine – What kind of world would it be if every Christian made it the whole focus of their “religion” to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by loving their neighbor, doing good to those who treat them badly, and taking care of the poor, instead of worrying about whether or not other people buy into their personal
version of “Absolute Truth?”  Please tell me there are other people out there entertaining this crazy dream?

Find prequel HERE (in which I come clean about my faith)

Find part 2 HERE

Find part 3 HERE

Find epilogue HERE

Comments
  1. Joleen Denman says:

    Thanks for going out on a limb and posting what you’ve been posting Michael. I’d like to think I’m a good person but I get a feeling that’s now how I’m perceived in many conservative “Christians” eyes which is the reason I’ve never been a religious person. Religion, to me, is another label that makes people feel they have the right to judge you before they know you. Fortunately for me it’s a stereotype I can choose to be a part of or not. Unfortunately for gays/minorities they don’t have that choice…they’ll be judged just for who they are. Anyhow, my point is I really found a lot of inspiration in your posts from today and yesterday to be proud of who I am, a good person, and not feel that I’m undeserving of anyone’s love because I don’t belong to any one religion.

  2. ErinJoy says:

    This is great! Well written and thought out. I relate 100%…but I still think you’re crazy (but that is only because you are my dad). 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    Wow! This is so chalk full of straw men and mischaracterizations, I’m not sure where to begin.

    • Anonymous says:

      Well, help me out here! What are the straw men, to start with? Let me know where I’m mischaracterizing.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t know who posted that, but to help you out, Straw Men are a type of logical fallacy. Basically what using a straw man (aka straw person) fallacy means is that you distort the opponent’s point of view so that the opponent’s point of view is easier to attack. So basically, you’re attacking an incorrect view or a view that doesn’t truly exist.

        To the person that made the original comment: I have to ask, how do you know that this point of view doesn’t exist? My argument is that there is a common misconception in the world. There are not only two sides to every story. There are infinite sides. True there are common elements to some sides, but to say there are only two sides is to dichotomize in one of the worst ways possible–by alienating other views.

        With the comment about mischaracterizing and straw men, I assume (and may be incorrect in doing so) that you are attempting to critically evaluate this blog. Please keep in mind if you are that critical thinking is a tool that one uses in two senses: weak sense, and strong sense critical thinking (please refer to Professor Paul Richard’s distinction between the two, for further study). What I mean by bringing both of these two senses up is to point out that if you are using critical thinking skills to support your own ideas, that’s weak sense critical and in a sense, thinking in such a way can be close-minded, similar to some of the points made in the above blog.

        However, if you are using this to open up your point of view, then that is strong sense critical thinking, and something to be applauded.

        I want to leave anyone reading this with one last remark: understanding fallacies is a tool for a reader (among other critical thinking tools) so that the reader can understand how the writer is thinking and how the writer argues. Knowing this, it is important to understand that fallacies are not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, fallacies are simply (by definition) common place. It just means that the method of expressing logic is commonly used not that these ways of looking at the world or an argument are wrong. Yes there are flaws to using fallacies, but what argument doesn’t have flaws?

        Which brings me to another point: if you are critically evaluating and refuse to accept or consider to accept an argument, then that logic in which you are employing is a fallacy itself called the “searching for a perfect solution” fallacy which is to say that since part of a solution of an argument has a problem, then the argument itself must be rejected.

        I find myself echoing a similar sentiment as the one in the blog, what proof do you have that a “Universal Truth” or “Absolute Truth” exists?

  4. Torger Helgeland says:

    Wow, Mike. Thanks for the synopsis. Yep, pretty thought provoking. Thot: Homosexuality in OT. Isn’t “abomination” a stronger condemnation than the “unclean” things God lists? And if we accuse fundies of saying “If some of Bible’s wrong, it’s all wrong.” isn’t that the same as saying that if some of OT rules seem silly then they all are? Eating meat and dairy together wont’ give you an STD or make you wonder about your sexual identity if your experimenting. I don’t think the OT is so conveniently categorized. I wonder about the weirdness in it as much as the next guy, but there’s thoughtful critique and there’s not so thoughtful looking-for-a-convenient-barb-to-throw ala Christopher Hitchens.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hey Torger – good thoughts. Here, though, are some other OT abominations:
      Leviticus 11:10 “But anything in the seas or the rivers that has not fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is an abomination to you. They shall remain an abomination to you; of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall have in abomination. Everything in the waters that has not fins and scales is an abomination to you.”

      “And these you shall have in abomination among the birds, they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the kite, the falcon according to its kind, every raven according to its kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk according to its kind, the owl, the cormorant, the ibis, the water hen, the pelican, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron according to its kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.”

    • Anonymous says:

      Just one more: Deuteronomy 22:5 “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.” So no pants suits, ladies. 🙂

  5. kirk Thompson says:

    Obviously inspired and wonderfully written . You have eloquently stated MY personal feelings on Christian fundamentalism and biblical inerrancy…..and possibly helped me regain what was lost (my faith).

  6. Steven says:

    On a more serious note, well done. It’s tough to talk about this sort of stuff, especially when there’s been a general cultural consensus that people who do talk about these issues are rabble-rousers and full of shit. You’re not.
    I’m in Dallas, the very buckle of the money-obsessed, “conservative” Bible Belters.

    The good news: there are millions of people, both inside and outside of the closed set that is American Evangelicalism, who would read this and nod along. We can nit-pick specific interpretations of specific verses, but most people “get” that our struggle is to find context and understand God’s plan through the meta-narrative that is Scripture.
    You’re not alone, but you might be lonely. I am too, for that matter. In my experience, many of my friends who think this way about Christianity have removed themselves from faith communities because they felt isolated, and many within faith communities don’t have the testicular fortitude to tell rich assholes to suck it. Money makes the Christian machine work, so we have to just wait for them all to die or something I guess.

    Anyways, cheers brother. “To believe is human, to doubt divine.”

    @steven_harrell

    • nash says:

      What a great comment. I’m still laughing at the “testicular fortitude” sentence. I can relate so much to what you said about loneliness. I’m tired of being judged and marginalized for seeing things differently than the conservative friends I’ve hung out with all my life. I’ve even lost friends…had one just yesterday write “I used to consider us friends” – this was in response to this particular article, actually, which he said was “full of hate.” But I am feeling less lonely as time goes on…I’m grateful to people like you. Consider signing up for my blog, where the article is, so we can keep in touch….

  7. Steve says:

    Excellent article.
    Believe or don’t Believe, it’s irrelevant to this article. What is relevant is that people should read this with an open mind and heart. A persons perception is that persons reality. To recognize this allows us to evaluate our own prejudices and bias’ as personal, not fact. Logic, thought, and a true loving heart will guide each person to the our “absolute” truth.

  8. Great article. I honestly wish more liberal Christians would speak up about their theology. There is a sense out there that we are few and far between, but really, we are not. It’s just the conservative fundagelicals get all the air time because, frankly, they’re more entertaining to listen to. It was nice to see an Episcopal bishop on the Daily Show the other day. He spoke in favor of gay marriage in an erudite, informed, reasonable way. He also brought Jon some dreidels. Good times.

    • nash says:

      I’m finally beginning to discover that we’re NOT as few and far between as I had thought. It’s so refreshing, and a lot less lonely.

      • I’m a Lutheran pastor, so I guess I get to see more of this liberal theology than many others, because we do tend to be a more liberal church, especially with regards to our Biblical scholarship and interpretations. You will, of course, find disagreement at times (some are pro-gay marriage, others are against it for example), but our denomination (the ELCA) is pretty good about fostering conversation around these issues instead of mandating a belief system that we are all supposed to subscribe to. Anyway. I’m enjoying your blog very much! I may cross-link some of it to mine (scotchandtheology.wordpress.com), as long as your okay with that. Thanks! And Advent Blessings to you and yours!

        • Michael Nash says:

          Thanks – and please do. I’ll do the same. ANd it’s good to know there are voices (and churches) of reason out there.

  9. Jim H says:

    Long story, with a point:
    I was big on literal truth for many years. In my 20’s I was married. Over the years, conflict sometimes developed because my wife didn’t always tell the truth and I had a tendency to correct her. I had an epiphany after a surprise birthday party for her at our home.
    When telling a friend about the party later, she said, “When I got home, it was such a surprise! There were 50 people there to celebrate my birthday.”
    I corrected her. “Well, there were really only 15 guests.” She said, “Well it FELT like 50.”

    I realized that saying 15 would not have conveyed the EMOTIONAL truth. It was too small a number to make it clear how she felt. I learned a lot from that. I now recognize several ‘kinds’ of truth. Factual, Emotional, Artistic and perhaps others I haven’t named (yet).

  10. Joni says:

    Oh man! I can see your journey reflected so well in my own life. What a horrifying and foundation-shattering realization to come to, especially if you’re in ministry, especially if you are supposed to be “Full of faith!” In my search for “absolute truth”, I have found nothing but more questions… but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would love for you to guest post, if you’re interested, on my blog hatch*. I have some answers, I have (a lot) more questions, but what I do have in spades is others who are asking the same questions and seeking on this journey like me. My religious blog is http://www.jonikmartin.com and hatch* can be found at hatchwords.wordpress.com. Would love to have your thoughts on writing a guest post!

  11. I understood and agreed with your entire post. I’m personally beginning to question my Christian devotion because it feels as though I’m alone in believing in Jesus’ teachings over the Old Testament and a wrathful God is what makes a Christian “Christ-like.” I have more in common with my atheist friends than I do those who call themselves Christians, and it’s very confusing. I thought it was God’s job to judge, not mine. But it’s around me everywhere–today in the gym locker room with Fox News on the TV, an old guy was telling someone they were going to hell because they supported Obama. And he was SERIOUS! But any time I’ve tried to challenge people like this, I get the same I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG (and going to hell) response you’re talking about. Politics has become the same, with religion and morality being the cornerstone of every argument. My father was a diaconal minister in the United Methodist Church and I was raised in the church. He and I were vastly different in our views and could never see eye to eye. Mike, if you can figure out how to have a respectful and profitable discussion with a holier-than-thou Christian, I hope you’ll share it. Because I feel like a coward when I don’t speak up.

    • nash says:

      Honest response – thanks so much. I can totally relate. How to have a “respectful and profitable discussion with a holier-than-thou Christian”.’..yes, that’s the trick, isn’t it. With many of them, once you disagree, you’re evil. Of course, there are LOTS and LOTS of wonderful, grace-filled conservative Christians out there, too, with whom you CAN discuss opposing views.

  12. Salersa says:

    You have articulated exactly what I have felt for a long time. Thank you for finding the words for me.

  13. nash says:

    Hey all – part 2 is now at http://www.stuffthatmattersblog.com. I called it….wait for it….wait for it….”part 2.”

  14. joseph says:

    you are so right

  15. […] still “letting go” of my old sense of propriety and my years of Biblical moralism.)   (My “truth” articles helped me a lot with this, by the […]

  16. […] Part 1 (true?  Truth?  not true?   just true-ish?)    CLICK HERE […]

  17. nash says:

    Reblogged this on stuff that matters and commented:

    I’ve been asked by several readers to repost this one. (This is part 1 of a 3-part series, with an additional prequel and an epilogue – see links at the end of the article.)

  18. […] out the follow up articles: Part 1 (true? Truth? not true? just true-ish?) CLICK HERE Part 2 CLICK HERE Part 3 CLICK HERE Epilogue CLICK […]

  19. Chelle says:

    I feel like you are inside my head right now. I was raised southern baptist and my family is still heavily conservative, literalist, Christian. I, however, have chosen to be Episcopalian. And in the last 6 months or so my entire theology has changed. My family is now determined that I, along with my husband and 2 small children must be going to hell for our beliefs. I just finished reading The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg and he talks about these two different ways of believing and how we can try to bridge the gap. You should give it a read.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I would like to share this post. It’s well written and insightful. But, not with the image that it comes up with. Can you change that?

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