What difference does the search for Christian Unity make to our convictions about ‘truth’ – truth in the world and (crucially) the truth about the world in relation to God?
People of faith often complain that “we (meaning ‘they!’) no longer believe in truth any more”, and that “we are adrift on a sea of relativism. “Anything goes”, so we believe we are being told.
Actually that is not how the world seems to me. The quest for meaning in spirituality, reliability in science, integrity in politics and honesty in relationships has possibly never been more talked about (even if actions often betray the fine sentiments involved). Meaning, reliability, integrity and honesty – are they not all key features of truth? Are they not at the heart of our readings? Indeed they are.
What has changed over the years is not the search for truth, but our understanding of where it is to be found. The cast-iron certainties of religious doctrine have been replaced, for most people, by the fallible (but, some would argue, much more productive) verities of scientific discovery, economic prosperity and human fulfilment. The problem, of course, is that these are all matters of dispute – what are the rights and wrongs of genetic engineering? Who really benefits from globalisation? Which spiritual path brings greatest fulfiment?
There is definitely a problem here. The truths which once bound western societies together and (in theory, at least) provided answers to such questions have now all but gone, and what we have in their place sometimes seems indistiguishable from an unmoderated rush for power, wealth and self(ish) satisfaction.
But before we run back to the knock-down certainties and securities of ‘old-time religion’ (something more and more people outside the churches are less and less interested in anyway), we might do well to re-consider precisely what kind of truth is embodied for us in Jesus Christ?
Here we are in for a shock. The supreme truth of God comes to us not in some abstract, top-down form: an unfalsifiable proposition, an inerrant text, a moral fix-it, or an unquestionable hierarchy. Rather, if we are to believe the extraordinary Christian story, it ‘dwells among us’ (to use St John’s evocative pharse) in the vulnerable flesh of an insignificant Palestinian Jew caught up in the uncertainties of history as experienced by fallible human beings located on the powerless magins of empire. The only thing it indisputably guarantees, apparently, is igniminious death.
Vulnerability, marginality, uncertainty, fallibility, ignimony. When we declare Christ to be ‘the truth’ we are saying that *these* are the materials which God chooses to use in showing us what really matters in (and about) the world.
In the truth of Christ human beings are ‘mysteries to be loved’ not objects to be manipulated. Forgiveness, not naked power, is what makes fulfilment possible. Relationship, not possession or ownership, is the basis of an economy of love. The ability to absorb suffering (the Cross) not the willingness to inflict it is what lies at the heart of the universe.
Now all this ‘takes some believing’, as they say! The ways of the world run so counter to it that only a community that constantly tells, celebrates and lives this story can continue to be sustained by it. It can only be fuelled by prayer because it requires us to ‘live beyond our means’. It can only be fulfilled by God’s continual gift of new life (resurrection) because nothing else in the world could possibly secure it. It can only be sustained on the basis of grace and redemption, because the possibilities of things going terrifyingly wrong are founded on the very freedom and contingency that makes love and life possible in the first place.
In other words, the truth of the world as revealed by God in Christ makes perfect (if counter-intuitive) sense. But it also requires immense faith and hope beyond (though not against) reason.
This is where, surprisingly enough, the church comes in. The unity of the Body of Christ is either founded on this kind of truth, or it is a lie. What people are saying to us, if they are interested at all, is ‘don’t tell us, show us!’ A church which proclaims the possibility of human communion but practices division, which talks love but acts manipulatively, which speaks of divine vulnerability but tries to lord-it over those who are different… this church does not dwell in the truth of Jesus Christ, though it may indeed shout his name to the hilltops.
The challenge of the church in an uncertain and divided well is no less than to be ‘God’s experimental plot in human history’ (John Driver) — or, at least, one of them. And the church, let us remember, is us. We are a missionary people because we are united only as we struggle for something infinitely larger than our own tribe and our own truth – the elusive, God-founded unity of humankind in the world, the oikumene. Let this be the vision and truth that sustains us in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.