Truth. It is something that most people want to believe they have. We want to believe that we are in touch with the way things really are. Some forms of mental illness are known for the way that people seem to be out of touch with reality, particularly those mental illness that have thought disorders such as delusions, paranoia, magical thinking, etc. Speaking from personal experience, it is a very disturbing experience when one feels that one is out of touch with what is true. Whether it comes from an actual mental disorder, gaslighting, etc. the feeling that comes when one’s thinking is unreliable and out of touch with the truth can be a very disturbing experience.
This disturbing experience is only amplified by the cultural belief that we think we naturally have access to the truth, so if we fall short of truth we are somehow ill, foolish, insane, etc. If we lived in a culture that didn’t assume truth was widely and regularly accessible, then such feelings would be less terrifying and more a motivation to take in and learn. In fact, what makes the progress of fields such as science is that being wrong and in error is not generally judged negatively, so far as one does not persist in that error again and again in the face of evidence to the contrary. Cultures of learning assume that truth is something we must discover, but it isn’t something we naturally have access to. Yet, in many cultures, such as religious cultures, the exact opposite is witnessed: people feel like they have access to the truth in virtue of their faith, that they see in a way that the rest of the world does not see. Consequently, the negative feelings that come with the idea that one is in error, that one does not have truth only heightens the disturbing feelings.
In the face of such disturbance at the idea that we don’t really know the truth when we confidently believe that we do, we seek to resolve the dissonance between the belief that we do have access to the truth and the thoughts that we don’t by acting more strongly upon the belief we really do know what is true. This gives birth to the rise of declarations of what the “truth” really is. Declarations of “truth” are often a way that we deal with the dissonance we experience when someone presents a challenge to our beliefs in the “truth.” Such declarations are (a) a way of resolving inner cognitive and emotional tensions by denial of the challenge and (b) often an attempt at influence and authority over those who challenge our sense of “truth.”
This isn’t wrong all the time. For instance, when we have repeatedly witnessed and learned a mistake that people make that often comes with disastrous consequences, it is prudent to deny the mistake the other person is making and seek to try to persuade them to think differently. Yet, within religious circles, our sense of right and wrong is often not determined by what we witnessed again and again, but more so a combination of how we (a) interpret specific texts and (b) the ideas we associate with the religious traditions that we accept and receive. In other words, our sense of truth is often not based upon witnessing what is true, but based upon our own rationalized imaginations about what the truth must be.
When we combine our imaginations with the tendency to declare “truths” to resolve inner tensions, something emerges: we become increasingly blind to the actual truth. We get caught into an insular way of thinking that only receives and accepts any idea and experience that already conforms to our sense of truth, while at the same time rejecting anything that challenges our sense of truth. This is at the heart of dogmatism: a drive to declare truths in the face of any and every challenge to our belief system.
Something more extreme happens with such dogmatism. Whenever we are in such a state and someone presents a small challenge to our belief system, we are immediately inclined to set them as entirely opposed to our belief system. We see something similar in politics, where the dogmatic beliefs in capitalism and democracy that emerged as a result in the Cold War leads to people who present any criticism of the system and suggesting there should be more concerns for equality as being “communist” or “socialist,” even though many of these people actually affirm the whole of the liberal democracy. In a similar way, small challenges to people’s religious belief systems can often be taken as the equivalent to evil, wickedness, entire falsehood, demonic, etc. We see this when Jesus has the power to heal people from demonic possession; Jesus’ power is a challenge to the Pharisee’s sense of what is true and right and the rationalize that Jesus much be an agent of evil by the power of Beelzebub. Jesus’ power confuses everything the Pharisees thought was true, similar to how God confused the languages of humankind when they were building the tower of Babel, and in the face of such confusion that might suggest the Pharisees are blind and in error about God’s will and purposes, they rationalize that Jesus was in cahoots with the kingdom of the devil.
This is how religion readily devolves: into a system that declarative truths that are used to control other people, particularly those whose lives and speech present a challenge to what they took to be true. Declaring truth, in the end, is the primary tool of the blind who don’t realize they are blind, those who think they have truth when they in fact that they are unable to really face the truth. When people rely upon the crutch of declarative truths, it is the blind leading the blind, as the people who accept such declarative truths at face value are those who already hold to the same system of belief.
On the other hand, the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches truth in a very different manner. Certainly, there are some spoken claims about what is true by the early Church, most prominently about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as evidence of God’s power and love. However, more fundamentally, the testimony of the early Church was more contingent upon demonstration, that mere declaration, of the truth. When the Pharisees criticize Jesus for being of the devil, Jesus’ response is that of a demonstrative logic: if His power is from the Spirit/finger of God, then that is a demonstration of God’s kingdom. When Paul describes his original arrival to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2.1-5, he does not say that the Corinthians believed only because of Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified, but that there was a demonstration of power and the Spirit. When 1 John testifies to the Word of Life, they do not appeal to a set of ideas or texts to validate their testimony, but is grounded in what they heard, saw, and touched in the person of Jesus. The Lordship of Jesus Christ is not considered to be based upon some Biblical texts that demand He is the Son of God, but rather His death and resurrection is the demonstration of His authority, which also serves as a fulfillment of God’s word and promises throughout Israel’s Scriptures. Truth for the early Church was primarily conveying through demonstration, not declaration.
Yes, sometimes we Christians we proclaim and declare truth. Yet, to the extent that we are being led by the Spirit, our proclamation will come with a demonstration of the message we declare. For instance, the sermon of a friend whose words spoke deeply to my pain to the point I suspected she knew something of a situation was effective not simply because of her words and the Scripture she quoted, but it was also joined with me see a person whose face demonstrated compassion by the brief looks at pain and sadness in her face. Her sermon was not just a declaration, but a demonstration. Perhaps it was not an unambiguous demonstration of God’s power, but it was a demonstration of her life that is consistent with God’s loving character, much as Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love another.” (John 13.35)
Demonstrations are not the often ultimately manipulative ideas we get by “winning people by loving them.” Rather, a demonstration is evidence of the truth, a witness to the truth of God’s love and power, which when beheld allows us to learn and comprehend. Whether the demonstration is ‘merely’ of our own character consistent with God’s character, or demonstration of the “supernatural” power of God that goes beyond our capacity, people come to believe and know the truth through what they witness, not by some power play through social status, risks of social judgment through disagreement, and implicit and explicit threats.
People who rely upon the crutch of declarative claims about the ‘truth’ do not resolve the inner dissonance by accepting the possibility of one’s ignorance and seeking to learn, but they deny anything that would challenge them and blind themselves to the truth. Hence, dogmatic Christians are often incapable of demonstrating the truth of the Gospel because their own lives and hearts are not coming into conformity of the truth, but rather seeking to resolve their own inner need to be right, to be superior, to be important. Dogmatic Christians are the blind leading the blind. On the other hand, faithful Christians who seek to learn through God who teaches us, both directly and through other people, will learn from the evidence, will learn from demonstrations. There may be times where the reject falsehood. They may come to be points where they declare a truth when they see people living in clear and abiding error and sin, but it is not their primary mode of teaching and proclamation. They instead seek to help people to see and discover the truth of God’s love and power, which can often require patience and time in addition to seeking to live one’s life consistent with the character and speech of God who we know in Jesus Christ. They want people to come to see God’s will and purposes in the world and for their lives, not simply just accept some idea about God that are considered to be the “truth.”
Christians who seek to demonstrate appeal to the Scriptures in a way different than those who declare “truth.” For those who declare, the Bible is a text of power and authority that one appeals to support one’s ideas about what is true, right, good, etc. If one find an idea that is legitimate by the Bible, so the thinking goes that people should accept that idea as true, often without regard for careful reading and study of the correspondence and differences between the Scripture and the idea. On the other hand, those who seek to rely upon demonstration find Scripture to be a source of “analogies” that we can use to help people to make sense of God’s work in the present, where the same God of the SCriptures is the same God who is working today. The Scriptures are used to help people to begin to identify and recognize God’s love and power at work in their lives and the world, not simply as texts that simply prove what ideas are “true” or “false.” Scripture itself serves as a testimony that helps us to witness the demonstrations of the power of God in the world, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ being the most high-definition, high clarity picture of what God’s redemptive power looks like.
So, let us be Christians who seek less to declare and more to demonstrate, but to get there, that means we have to recognize we can not so confidently know and declared truth and must rely more upon God’s teaching and guidance of us over time.