January 25, 2015 by allistairg
Is ‘truth’ intolerant?
In one sense it could be argued that objective truth, by its very nature, is absolutely ‘intolerant’. The sum 2 + 2 = 4 is ‘intolerant’ in the sense that the operation “2 + 2 =” cannot possibly accept any answer other than ‘4’. The answer ‘5’ is as intolerable as the answer ‘1,236’ and is no more intolerable than the answer ‘4.001’; all these three proposed solutions to the operation are, in a sense, equally intolerable. They are intolerable on the basis that they are simply wrong, according to the rules of arithmetic. Just as the human body cannot ‘tolerate’ the ingestion of certain substances, so the arithmetical operation “2 + 2 =” cannot ‘tolerate’ any answer except ‘4’. Any physical application of a calculation that included “2 + 2 ≠ 4” would, more probably than not, have disastrous, or at least, embarrassing, consequences.
Now it may be argued that my use of the word ‘intolerant’ is a category error. Truth can no more be ‘intolerant’ than pink can be hungry or the number 15 could be angry! It is simply an inapplicable adjective to the noun being qualified. And that is true. I am using the word ‘intolerant’ in a metaphorical sense, because essentially the concept of ‘tolerance’ applies to attitudes held by people, rather than to the inherent validity of propositions.
Unfortunately, however, intolerant attitudes are frequently justified with reference to truth, by which I mean “true truth” – Truth with a big ‘T’ – rather than “my little subjective truth”. This is evident not only among many religious people, but also among many vocal atheists. There is a constant appeal to ‘truth’ to justify at best, a subtle exclusion and disdain for those with differing views, and, at worst, a complete scorn and condemnation of those people. Even worse perhaps is a rather patronising form of ‘love’ for those with whom we disagree, in which we pity their ignorance and delusion (or ‘lostness’) and try to convert them to our point of view (but in a way that fails to listen to anything they actually have to say to us, and to respect their own ability to reason).
The unpleasantness of dogmatic, proselytising and bigoted attitudes could lead us to assume that ‘truth’ is too dangerous and too divisive a concept to entertain, except perhaps at the rather less controversial level of practical science and applied and pure mathematics: “as long as we get science and maths right, then all the other religious and metaphysical stuff can be regarded as an airy fairy irrelevance”.
At times I cannot help but sympathise with this attitude!
However, is it really justifiable to appeal to ‘truth’ to promote a view of reality in which the human race is so sharply and clearly divided between those who are “with us” and those who are “against us”? In a limited sense there are inevitably divided views about all manner of topics, and therefore there is validity to this position. But how far can we take this?
The Bible and absolute truth
As a Christian, I am concerned primarily with how this subject relates to the attitudes and actions of both myself and my fellow believers. Does Christianity – or, more specifically, the Bible – promote this view of truth?
Now there is plenty of ammunition in the Bible for those who wish to champion the exclusivity and divisiveness view of truth. One popular verse is a saying of Jesus Himself: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)
This is often quoted to justify the divisive nature of Christianity, and, dare I say, provides an excuse for those who profess faith in Jesus, but who act in the most obnoxious way, such that they attract thoroughly deserved rejection from others. They can then claim to be ‘persecuted’, and this martyr status provides a psychological fillip, which then perpetuates their unfortunate behaviour. (Interestingly this saying of Jesus could be interpreted completely differently. The context is rejection by one’s own family, and it could very well be the case that someone, who makes a stand against bigotry and prejudice, could suffer just this kind of fate!)
The unique Saviour
Another saying of Jesus also seems to dismiss the views of billions of people, and provide comfort for those who take a more exclusionary view of the Christian faith. This concerns His status as the unique Saviour of the world: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) This is confirmed by the Apostle Peter’s words in Acts 4:12 – “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
The message of these verses seems indisputable: to be saved (which ultimately involves going to heaven when you die rather than hell) involves consciously believing in Jesus Christ, and if you fail to do so then you will be damned.
Here we have an example of ‘truth’ (big ‘T’ Truth), by which we can divide the human race into the saved and the damned, the redeemed and the lost, and the factor by which we can make this distinction is “the conscious and active profession of faith in Jesus”. In other words, if you are a Christian, you are saved, and if you are a non-Christian, you are damned.
Superficially this seems to be the message of the Christian gospel.
But is it?
Let us just explore this a little bit further…
Here is an analogy. The only way to get from where I live near London to New York within a day is by air. I could say that if I needed to get to New York by tomorrow then “there is no other method within the transport methods on offer by which I can achieve this other than by air” or “no one gets from London to New York in one day except by air” (to paraphrase the above two Bible verses). I cannot fly myself to New York. All I can do is consent to be flown there. This ‘unique’ method of transportation is not dependent on my efforts.
Now suppose someone suffered from a serious health problem, and he urgently needed some specialist treatment in a New York hospital (no criticism of our health system; it’s just an analogy!). Let us suppose that he was also in a coma. He was then flown from London to New York quite without his knowledge or consent. In this scenario, is the method of transportation any less unique than if he had consciously consented to the journey? Of course not! The uniqueness of this method of travel within this context and time-frame does not depend on any subjective factor on the part of the traveller. Its uniqueness is an objective fact.
Or let us suppose that the traveller was suffering from some condition in which he was overcome by powerful delusions, and he needed treatment in New York. He was in no fit mental state to consent to the journey, but he was taken on the plane nonetheless, and, as a result of his delusions, while in the air he was utterly convinced that he was travelling somewhere by sea. Does the fact of his mental state, which did not correspond to the reality of the journey, compromise the uniqueness of the method of transport of the journey he was taking? Again, of course not!
The point of this analogy is to explain that the status of an objective fact is not dependent on subjective factors.
A biblical analogy
This is further supported by a biblical analogy, which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is presented as the person who ‘saved’ the man who fell among thieves. There is no indication from the parable that the man being rescued consented to his deliverance, and, in fact, he could very well have been lying there unconscious. There is no indication that the injured man had to profess a “correct view of the nature and work of the Samaritan” in order for the latter to help him. In fact, the injured man could very well have hated Samaritans, and yet he was still rescued by a Samaritan. Nothing about the state of the wounded man related to the unique status of the Samaritan as his ‘saviour’.
But the doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour is often presented as it were dependent on the human response. Thus the doctrine has been changed from what is, for Christians, an objective fact, to merely a description of human religious affiliation. Thus the Bible is subtly rewritten to read: “No one comes to the Father except by conscious belief in Me” and “there is no other belief system under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”.
Man as co-saviour
The implications of this are obvious. Jesus saves. The uniqueness of Jesus’ role in salvation is not dependent on the state of the person being saved. In fact, if it did, then Jesus would not be the ‘unique’ Saviour, but He would be the co-saviour with the person being saved, given that the latter has to make a contribution to the process. This is the supreme irony of exclusivist Christianity.
Now some may argue that this smacks of predestination, which rides roughshod over human free will. I certainly believe in the importance of human free will and I also believe in God’s desire to save all people and that Christ died for all without exception. But the exclusivist view actually undermines human free will. Unless we believe in reincarnation, then we have to accept that no one chose to be born into this fallen world. Billions of people are brought into this world, without any reference to their consent, and various systems of thought are imposed on them through the culture in which they grow up. If God does not take the initiative to save these people, because it would violate their consent, then one has to ask why God has allowed their consent to be violated by allowing them to be born into a non-Christian system of thought. By refusing to save these people, is God not actually violating their consent?
But then someone may object by saying that if God simply saved these people by decree, doesn’t that imply universalism, which is clearly unbiblical? My answer to this is: no, it does not imply that, because God may accept a person on the basis of the light He has given them, while that person is free to resist that conviction of the Holy Spirit.
A humbling truth
God, in His sovereignty, is at work throughout the world in different cultures among people with vastly different levels of spiritual accountability (as the Bible says: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” – Luke 12:48 – with the obvious corollary: “to whom little has been given, from him little shall be required”). Therefore we don’t know exactly what God is doing in the lives of the millions of apparent non-Christians around us. Salvation is His work, not ours, and, as Jesus said concerning being “born again”: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). The work of the Holy Spirit cannot easily be subjected to the scrutiny of man, even of the most spiritually minded in the Church. As Jesus said, it is a mystery. The proper response to mystery is, of course, humility.
Therefore there is no contradiction between upholding the objective truth of the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Saviour of mankind, and believing that God’s work in the world is rather more inclusive than we are often led to believe by some teachers and preachers in the more conservative parts of the Christian Church. The doctrine of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour simply tells us that… Jesus saves. How man is supposed to respond to that, and how we are to assess who is ‘saved’ and who is not, is rather more complicated.
Commanding the sun!
As I have mentioned, the supreme irony is that the doctrine of the exclusiveness of a particular kind of response to God as a condition for salvation actually undermines the uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour, in much the same way that if I had to speak to the sky to command the sun to rise every morning, one could not say that the motion of the earth turning on its axis was an operation completely independent of my actions. Just as the rising of the sun has nothing to do with me, so, in a sense, have the actions of God.
The truth of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Saviour of mankind should therefore cause us to respond to others with humility, not intolerance.