Sunday, May 28, 2006

Obsolete Truth-- Truth in the Ruins

İ have been pondering something for a while on this trip as İ have visited one archaeological site after another. Here we find facts, hard realities in the ground which of course can be subject to various interpretations. Nevertheless we are dealing with tangible realities which my opinions do not change. When a person ıs well grounded ın history and in its handmaiden archaeology one is used to thinking about immutable truth, truth that is unchanging and unchanged by the passing of time. Such truth is not changed by the vicissitudes or changing tides of human opinion. Such truth can be discovered and explained but it cannot be invented. Like an archaeological find it has a stubborn tangible reality that persists whether İ like it or not, whether İ believe it or not.

But what of those who have grown up in the 'computer age'? They have grown used to several intertwined ideas shaping their thinking about a big concept like truth. One of these is that all things eventually become obsolete and irrelevant. With the constant turnover of technology this is not a surprising idea. One just assumes that the idea applies to truth as well-- such a person may say 'it may be true but it is no longer relevant.' In other words they conjure with a concept of obsolete truth.

The second guiding assumption ıs that 'the new is the true, and the latest is the greatest.' One judges all reality on the basis of the evident fact of technological progress, and thus assumes that all reality is lıke that. Of course we could talk about the myth of progress. I am mindful of the Air Force commander who said during the cold war that we are scientific giants but moral midgets. Teilihard de Chardin had some interesting things to say about this as he attempted to integrate Christian truth with the scientific era and presuppositions.

Suppose then that theological and ethical truth is one thing-- something that does not change and ıs inherently relevant (though we undoubtedly need to display, not prove its relevance), and the technologıcal revolution quite another? Suppose Biblical truth is more like those rocks in the ground that İ keep tripping over on these wonderful archaelogical sites? Suppose they cannot be reduced to nothing by our cries for relevance or our grasp of technological progress? Suppose they are stubborn realities waiting to be dıscovered and examined? İ suspect that if the church could once grasp thıs fact,or truth, it mıght change the way we attempt to communicate the Gospel to a lost world.

I was staring at a grave stele yesterday here ın Manissa ın Turkey. İt had a pıcture of various persons standing up and pledging allegiance to the unchanging virtues of 'theosebeıa' and 'dıkaıa'--- pıety and rıghteousness or justice. I think they were on to something. There are indeed truths that do not become obsolete due to the changing of time and tide and life situation. And long before personal computers T.S. Eliot had it right when he asked--- 'Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, and the knowledge we have lost in mere informatıon?' It is still a crcuial question. Can we really afford to indulge the myth that the more information we have access to, the more we actually know or understand and therefore the wiser we must be? This is a prevalent notion these days, and İ might add, a false one. Discovering truth requires digging not just downloading, it requires pondering not just printing out, and for it to make a difference in one's life it requires embracing not just understanding. The Word does not become flesh in us just because we are ın close proximity to it or have ready access to it.

Think on these things.


Derek Brown said...

Excellent post Dr. Witherington. I found your words to be quite fitting for both the current generation and, more specifically, myself. I am currently rounding up bibliographical data in preperation of my master's thesis, and have recently been plagued with a sore reality you hit on: gathering (or "downloading") in large numbers, but no digging. All the books on a list--or on a shelf--simply won't do; I know I must dig and wrestle with the text in order to hear the Word. I know message is ready to be heard, but am I willing/faithful to listen?

I'm also mindful of Tolkien's take on technology (from a famous poem of his):

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends--
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful couse with changing of a name.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with makers' art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

Ty said...

I have often commented, when asked about your books, that I appreciate your attention to archaeology. When so many in NT studies rely almost solely on rhetoric and literary studies, it is refreshing to read about actual archiology outside archaeological journals.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for these comments and especially for the Tolkien poem whıch I must have read sometime but do not remember.



Mark F said...

I think we are moving into a world much more like the early first century. Those who have spent their life parsing the Word to glean the way back to the early church now have the most important ingredient. A culture more like that era.

We have taken an era where one could apply scientific principle and firmly and convincingly determine the final truth and turned the Bible into a distraction used less to point to Christ and more to be the sword of division.

"I've applied scientific principle to understand the Bible on what 'elect' means and if you cannot agree with that you are a heretic who refuses to see the truth" and so on an so forth.

The earlier era, you could toss someone off a sinking boat to escape the wrath of their god while feeling no compulsion to worship that god. The demonstrated power of Jehovah didn't preclude people sticking with what was working for them.

That is the era we enter. We face a truly pagan world where the god may be named pleasure, sex, knowledge, wealth, or any conventional spiritual false god that has actually received a name.

Terry Hamblin said...

Very true, Dr Witherington, but it must not become a cop-out into Luddite-ism. In Science knowledge is driven by technology. New techniques allow us to ask questions that were unanswerable before. The technology can be used to throw up data; the data are gobbledegook without a planned investigation. Knowledge must be assimilated into concept and concept into hypothesis. In Science all knowledge is contingent.

Francis Schaeffer used to talk about a 'true' truth; a truth that was not contingent upon tomorrow's discoveries. This is something that post-modernism won't allow but one that something that I deem essential to Christian thought. Others talked about the 'eternal verities'.

Christianity is continually challenged by scientific discovery; without an anchor we will founder. Yet to hide from the challenge leads to dead orthodoxy.

Rainsborough said...

"Suppose Biblical truth is more like those rocks in the ground that İ keep tripping over on these wonderful archaelogical sites?"

No doubt the authors of the books of the Bible sought the truth. But since they were men, on an Augustinian or Lutheran anthropology, who would suppose that they perfectly found and conveyed the truth? Or that we latter-day seekers would not stumble and fall and miss it as often as we picked it up and saw it for just what it was?

We see through a glass darkly, and will till we have put on our resurrection bodies.

Aaron G said...

Does this mean that the best scientists/archaeologists are most likely to be the best practitioners of Christianity?

Benjamin Sternke said...

Excellent thoughts. It reminded me of a song by another "poet" of sorts. Dave Bazan of Pedro the Lion sings with biting irony in "Letter From A Concerned Follower":

It's weird to think of all the things
That have not been keeping up with the times
It's ten o'clock the sun has just now
Begun to set the western hills on fire

I hear that you don't change
How to you expect to keep up with the trends?
You won't survive the information age
Unless you plan to change the truth
To accommodate the brilliance of men
Yeah, the brilliance of men

Some folks think we're better now
Social evolution's new synthetic will
Will keep us on a straighter path
As better men use brand new math
With no wrong answers

I'm just a little bit worried
Do you have some sort of plan?
Have you been finally defeated
By the cunning of these fully evolved men?

I hear that you don't change
How do you expect to keep up with the trends?
You won't survive the information age
Unless you plan to change the truth
To accommodate the brilliance of men
Yeah, the brilliance of men

Eric Sensei said...

Dr. Witherington,
As for your post, I have nothing to say now but "Amen, let us think on these things."

I would like to thank you for your service of keeping a blog. It was your blog that I discovered first, and that in turn led me to your books (well, just finishing 'Problems with Evangelical Theology') and a dialogue I greatly needed to hear. Your writing has been helpful to my growth, and encouraging to my continued pursuit of our Lord; to know his word and his heart.

I am going to pursue an M.Div next year, and aim to become a Pastor, but I have yet to decide on a seminary. Upon returning from Japan (where I have lived the last two years) I plan to visit schools and make a decision following that time. I would be greatful to hear from you concerning that decision, for example, what seminaries you would recommend and those you might suggest avoiding. But, in addition to your traveling, I know you are a busy fellow and you might not have a chance to respond.

Whatever the case may be, thank you again for keeping us updated on your blog, for directing us in your books, and for encouraging us through your poems.

God bless your teaching and service!


Teaching Pastor said...

Dr. Witherington,

Last week our church held a talk-back on the Da Vinci Code. We had well over a hundred adults show-up for the talk-back. I used your Gospel Code resource and the adults really seemed to respond well to the informal teaching. One of the points that was made was the contrast of scandals. It seems that Brown's book has tapped into our predisposition to assume that any good thing is too good to be trusted (i.e. there must be scandal lurking somewhere). Brown's novel certainly exposes scandal and the herd mentality of our culture is to simply assume it is true. However, I believe we have lost our way in understanding the greater and eternal scandal... the scandal of the cross. If anything is scandalous it is the willingness of the Son of God to die for sinners. We need to reclaim this scandal (as opposed to Brown's more shallow and scandalous plot).

Chong Choe said...

Dr. Witherington,

Indeed, a thought-provoking post—thank you.

“Suppose Biblical truth is more like those rocks in the ground that İ keep tripping over on these wonderful archaelogical sites?....Suppose they are stubborn realities waiting to be dıscovered and examined?”

I think Biblical truth is universal and unchanging (because the ultimate author is God). But, unlike rocks in the ground, Biblical truth requires more than detached or impartial examination. True understanding of biblical truth comes by revelation—by the Spirit enlightening our minds. As I’ve been reading through one of the gospels with an atheist attorney that I work with, I’ve been amazed at how differently he sees certain words and phrases. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known, and yet he can’t see the rocks that are before his very eyes. Because understanding Biblical truth requires spiritual discernment, those without the Spirit will propose all kinds of strange and erroneous interpretations (and even those of us with the Spirit don't get it right all the time--plus I think God is hiding some of the rocks :)

As for scientific progress, I agree with you that sometimes we charge ahead without giving even a moment’s thought to the moral and ethical consequences. As you implied, is this really “progress”?


Elizabeth said...

Technology is amazing, and has brought us mountains of information and data leading to undreamed of discoveries. At the same time, we are awash in a hurricane of information within which lies a world that many have come to believe is highly manipulable:

"Numbers lie."

"The good accountant answers the question, 'How much is 2+2' by answering, 'How much would you like it to be?'"

"We were careful to pull only data that supports our case."

In just one week, I've heard all three of these statements in relationship to research.

The lesson here: It is easy to manipulate information through interpretation. Not so easy to manipulate rocks.

As secular thought goes, sadly, so goes much Christian thought. But do we change our concept of truth by influencing Christian thought? Or by influencing secular thought first?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Eric:

By all means come see us at Asbury when you are looking at seminaries.


Ben W