Outside the University, Outside the Church: Finding the Truth of God

Of Jeff That Was Saul: A Reading on Sexuality
November 28, 2006
I remember Jordan
December 5, 2006

In February of 2005, the eminent theologian Stanely Hauerwas addressed a packed house at the University of California, San Deigo. His aim? To clearly enunciate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s position on truth and its relation to politics. My recent discovery of this address was unfortunately late; the well-propagated theories of Bonhoeffer (in academic circles) are innately related to my own Christological and eschatological theories. By reading Hauerwas’s address, I can begin to define my own thoughts and theologies. As Ferdinand de Saussure would affirm, the easiest way (and perhaps the only) to define my own ideas is to compare them to others’. To that end, this articulation (short of an essay, but not quite a discussion) will define Bonhoeffer’s Truth hypothesis and compare it to my own.

Not unlike Christian tradition, Bonhoeffer espouses the theology of a single Truth. That is to say, Christ was a living example of and guide to the Truth that God created from the beginning. This Truth is to be discovered in the gospels – not as literal enunciations, but as manifested in the struggles related and events recorded. We must understand, says Bonhoeffer, that Truth is not a peaceable attainment; it comes through suffering, trial, argument, failure, and mistakes. These unsavory effects should not deter us from searching for the Truth, however. The gospels themselves make clear that these tribulations are often necessary to bring us to the Truth that is in God.

In a more specific vein, Bonhoeffer discusses American society and its relation to the Truth as a Christian society. Since the country’s inception, he relates, we have taken to securing peace above Truth; our motivation for coming to the new country was, in fact, to escape religious persecution. The foundational element to society, then, became the institution of peace at all costs to allow for the freedom of worship; religious intoleration would not be accepted. Because of this grounding concept, however, America has become prone to over-tolerance. Acceptance of a multiplicity of ideas, theologies, faiths, and beliefs has become the goal; little is done to weigh such beliefs against the unfaltering, unchanging Truth of God. In this society, Bonhoeffer describes, we value community and fairness above Truth. Whenever possible, we value the perspectives and ideas of others, even if they do not seem logical or spiritually sound. This has caused the search for Truth to stall; peace as a universally amicable and friendly attainment is the most important end for Americans. In the American mindset, peace does not even broach turbulence or trouble – it is, in fact, their absence.

In contrast to America’s development as a tolerant, quasi-Christian society, Bonhoeffer claims that a mentality of vigorous discussion/argumentation will bring us closer to the Truth that God created and desires us to near. Though some will be hurt by this search, bearing the hard end of debate and possible dismissal (in ideas, not personhood), the ultimate attainment will be worth the journey. For Bonhoeffer, the end is very much worth the means. Though a Christian faith-structure would not allow him to tolerate certain acts to the end of finding the Truth, he also would not find such acts to bring us any closer to Truth (such as murder, violence, etc.). True, “peace” in the American vocabulary would be upset by pursuit of the Truth according to Bonhoeffer’s method, but it would be restored and made the stronger by our discovery of God’s Truth.

My troubles with Bonhoeffer are manifold. First, while I find the Truth to be equally as important as he, I cannot begin to believe that we will reach a point where all will understand it. If the ideas of Truth offered by some are dismissed in argumentation, who is to decide that the ideas that remain are, in fact, God’s Truth? Is any human being, or group of us, given such a privilege or responsibility? Certainly not. And, if consensus on the Truth cannot be reached, won’t argumentation and division continue? There is the distinct possibility, it seems to me, that Bonhoeffer’s approach would backfire; it would lead to animosity instead of unification. Additionally (and to buttress my point on argumentation), I wonder what Bonhoeffer would think of the dangers of interpretation that inevitably come from “reading” the Truth of the gospels. We have already seen problems with interpretation and schisms resulting because of it – from sectarianism to war.

My personal view of Truth desires the same end as Bonhoeffer – a unified understanding of Truth. It seems illogical to me, however, that unification could and should occur through argumentation instead of a meeting of ideas. The argue-narrow-clean approach that Bonhoeffer advocates insists that we as humans are too liberal in our consideration of others’ spirituality. If there are some who deviate from what might be considered “normal,” they are still a part of God’s creation. Created in His image, we are that we are, and therefore, we cannot pick and choose what is Truth. Everything in creation is Truth, and to understand it all, it must all be put together. Instead of picking out the more fitting tenets of God’s Truth, then, we aught to assemble all perspectives. For this reason, perhaps, the ultimate Truth will never be attained by human beings. Nonetheless (and as Bonhoeffer would advocate in his approach), it allows us to near it and to near God.

Furthermore, I would offer the possibility that Bonhoeffer’s Truth is not so different than my own. Are we talking about two different Truths? No. In fact, I believe that there is a single Truth – but that this Truth is only comprehensible when discovered through the eyes of creation as a whole. That is not to say that individuals carry with them individual truths in competition, but rather that their spiritualities and ideas contribute to THE Truth. The question is, how can we possibly bring humanity into such relationship to bring about even a fraction of that understanding?

While the theologies offered by academicians continue to intrigue me – and offer a truly insightful vision on the person of Christ, the essence of the divine, and our role as humans in creation – I find that I cannot partake of the discussion the academy furthers. While at graduate school, I discovered there was a good deal of emphasis put on ideas and spirituality, while little was focused on experience. Ingrained in my own understanding of human spirituality is a need to understand through the experience of living. Because the academy did not offer that, I chose to leave. Added problems included the institutional structure of discussion and the lack of free articulation.

In addition to the academy, I considered the possibility of ministry. This, I thought, would put together theology and experience in daily life, allowing experience to inform theology and theology to shape experience. I ran into a brick wall, however, when choked by doctrine, dogma, tradition, and hierarchical protocol. My upbringing in the Catholic Church bears the mark of this exact problem. Again, articulation and change is profoundly difficult because of what the Church as an entity dictates.

As the Church (and I mean this of all organized religions that dictate procedure, process, theology, and teaching for its ministers) and the academy did not afford me the freedom to discuss new and difficult ideas, I decided that my discussion of God must occur outside both. While this makes joining the serious discussion of divinity and its implications for humanity immensely difficult, it appears to be the only venue to honestly relate my spirituality, my ideas, and my theology. Academia certainly would not welcome my current visions as they are nebulous enough to be academically ineffective. To explicate and offer sufficient support for my theories would be near impossible; their very over-arching, all-encompassing nature ensures that most academicians would dismiss my theory without much consideration. How, after all, can a theory be espoused which inspires questions that have no answers? It can and it should. Fear of a lack of answers should not be a driving force of any discussion on the Divine.

Despite these road blocks, I feel my articulation of the Truth necessary. While Bonhoeffer’s Truth is very much my own, his suggested means of securing it seems inimical to the Truth itself – division and argumentation. Who are we to decide which “truth” is heard and which fits into the veritable Truth of God? It is sensical both theologically and spirituality to seek the universal Truth in the universal creation: by joining the experiences of all persons, understanding each in relation to each other and knowing that THE Truth can only be fully understood when creation is fully inter-related and in permanent, unhindered conversation.

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