Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does Truth Come From Many Sources?

It seems as though there are two attitudes when it comes to gleaning truth from various sources. And for a while now, I have been grappling with the issue as to how to come to terms with these two attitudes. The first attitude is summed up nicely by the following quote from Mahatma Gandhi:
Since my youth upwards it has been a humble but persistent effort on my part to understand the truth of all the religions of the world, and adopt and assimilate in my own thought, word, and deed all that I have found to be best in those religions. The faith that I profess not only permits me to do so, but renders it obligatory for me to take the best from whatsoever source it may come (quoted in Ari L. Goldman, The Search for God at Harvard, p. 82).
Simply put, this view proposes that there is truth to be gained from anyone and anything. No one person or group has the "corner market" on truth. This view, by the way, does not in anyway suppose that the person who has this attitude does not believe in the supreme authority of scripture. One can be a committed Bible-believing Christian and still maintain that there are truths and insights that others outside the Bible can offer. Even Ellen White seems to promote a version of this concept when she writes in Steps to Christ, "Christ is the source of every right impulse. . . . Every desire for truth and purity, every conviction of our own sinfulness, is an evidence that His Spirit is moving upon our hearts" (p. 26).

The second attitude is not necessarily on the opposite end of the spectrum, but it is quite a bit more conservative. This attitude essentially maintains that, although there may be truths that extra-biblical sources put forth, we need to be overly and extremely careful in relying upon them because there is error mixed with every truth. This last week, I listened to a sermon that - for the most part - took this attitude. The speaker said that only the Bible is 100% accurate, and even if a speaker or book we're reading is 99% true while 1% false, we should exercise caution to the nth degree. The speaker stopped short of saying we shouldn't spend our time listening or reading such people, but that seemed to be the underlying attitude.

And so, reflecting on these two attitudes, these are some of the reactions I find myself grappling with.

On the one hand I am open to reading widely and gaining insights from many different sources, but on the other hand I am leery of the pluralistic sentiments that may creep up from taking on such a posture. To be honest, I read quite a few books by authors who may not subscribe to the same theology or worldview I take. I was just given a Book of Mormon that I am going to read, and I think it would be fruitful to read a Koran - as just two examples.

But some people's attitudes border on the pantheistic, it seems. It definitely has an underlying pluralism about it. Too much exposure to "good ideas" in other theologies or worldviews subtly starts to give the reader/listener the idea that the other person's views are every bit as legitimate as his/her own. And while they may have individual components of legitimacy, Christ seems to be pretty exclusive in His claims about truth and salvation.

On the other side of things, I am very open to the idea of the "slippery slope" and "trojan horse" argument. That is, we sometimes may be lulled into thinking that we are accepting views that are beneficial objectively speaking, but they are simply "trojan horses" that Satan is using to introduce aberrant views. One example that the above speaker mentioned was new concepts on prayer. He used "centering prayer" as one example. Such prayer may seem objectively all right (though I even question that), but by allowing it through our doors, we may be unwittingly opening the door for other errant practices and views.

I am very open to this "trojan horse" concept because I believe Satan, in these ends times, is desparetly trying to "dupe" us into unknowingly accept wrong views about God. That has always been his method, ever since the beginning. He doesn't just come right and say, "This is a Satanic practice, do you want to believe or engage in it?" There is no doubt that truth and error is going to be a huge issue in these last days, and Satan will do all he can to mix the two so as to lull us to sleep.

But, at the same time, I then have to ask the question: how much do I have to agree with somebody in order to listen to them? What's the percentage? Ninety percent? Seventy-five? Twenty? Nobody bats a thousand. And, from my specific theological paradigm, there are many other Seventh-day Adventists that I probably disagree with more than some non-Adventists. But does it make it all right to listen to them and not the non-Adventists simply because we're wearing the same label? Or perhaps I should just lock myself into a monastery for the rest of my life and read only my Bible - something the biblical authors, let alone Jesus, never did.

Of course, what further complicates the matter is, aside from my personal practices, how do I, as a minister of the gospel, present my findings from sources that I may not agree with 100% of the time? When I preach a sermon, for example, and I want to quote a certain author, does this unwittingly indicate to the audience that I endorse everything this author maintains - thus causing some of them to let their "guard down" with such authors? Another pastor shared with me last week, for example, that someone came up to him after a sermon and said, "You shouldn't quote Philip Yancey; he condones homosexuality." Now, whether or not Yancey "condones" homosexuality - or simply promotes a higher tolerance towards homosexuals - is another issue altogether. But I think you get the point.

When I stand up and quote Mahatma Gandhi or Pope Benedict or George Knight - or whomever - does this indicate to my audience that this person is "all right" in the pastor's eyes and that I am giving the individual a carte blanche endorsement? I am sure that for many of the "stronger" persons will understand that I am doing no such thing, but some of the "weaker" persons may not pick up on that.

So, with all this being said, I think I have come to this conclusion: no matter who I read or listen to, I need to be very prayerful. I used to think that I simply needed to pray for the Holy Spirit's guidance and wisdom when I read the Bible. Now I understand that I need to pray very seriously for the Holy Spirit's guidance whenever and whomever I read. I can't assume that in my own mind I am able to sort out the good from the bad. Jeremiah tells us that the "heart is deceitful." So there may be times that I might interact with an idea that I think is truthful when, in reality, my heart may simply be deceiving me into thinking that it is truthful.

The other conclusion I have drawn is that I need to make sure that I glean about 90% (if not more) of my knowledge and truth claims from the prime source: the Bible. This is my ruling authority and I cannot judge other books or sermons against the Bible if I do not, first of all, have a good grasp of the Bible. So the balance of my reading and listening time needs to be spent in God's word, not the other way around. Far too often the roles are reversed in my experience. And I am pretty sure that those who take an extreme approach to the first attitude (in the above two scenarios) probably spend about 90% of their time in other sources and 10% in the Bible.

So this is kind of where my thinking is on this subject right now. But it's a work in progress. And I would certainly enjoy hearing other people's perspective (indicating, of course, that I am open to listening to truth from other sources outside the Bible: yours!).


David Hamstra said...

One fact you should consider is the Bible authors' own use of extra-biblical quotations. Perhaps an investigation of how they did this would shed light on the subject.

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks David. I think I kind of hinted at that when I wrote, "Or perhaps I should just lock myself into a monastery for the rest of my life and read only my Bible - something the biblical authors, let alone Jesus, never did." But your suggestion is a very good one.

Thanks for sharing.