(This is a continuation of a series of posts (here and here) asking questions about the dark passages of the Bible. Forgive me if this is all old news to you theological types- I began writing this as a review of where my own thinking is up to….)
So, we come to that truth word. I am tempted to try to deal with this as a philosophical concept- but for now, lets stick to Jesus-
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
What did Jesus mean?
When you read the full passage, the whole thing gets even more complicated- Jesus is in the middle of one of his regular arguments with the religious hard liners- the Pharisees. Firstly they try to catch him out by bringing him a woman caught in adultery- who by law (Biblical, scriptural law that is) should be stoned to death. (Check out Deuteronomy 22:22 for example.)
Leaving aside the fact that only the woman was brought to be stoned, not the man who was the other half of the coupling, what Jesus did here was to take an absolute unequivocal law- an absolute scriptural truth- and turn it upside down and inside out. The way he did this infuriated the religious folk, and thrills us as we read the story.
Next, Jesus claims to be the Light of the World, and the Pharisees try to challenge him using logic and truth- asking him to bring forth witnesses. Then there is a lot of isicussion about the nature of sin- all of it aimed at the very people who seemed to have got it all together in terms of scripture.
So- what sort of truth is it that will set us free when we get to know it?
The church tradition (Protestant Evangelical, slightly Charismatic, left leaning) that I grew up in would have suggested that the issue was that the Pharisees did not get the real truth- they were caught up in surface deep ‘goodness’- all of which may be the case. But this tradition has made a sport of ‘truth wars’ for generations- ever since the reformation there has been a constant schism followed by splinter followed by subdivision- each grouping claiming that their truth was truer than the last one.
And each one of these schisms has used the Bible (or rather their enlightened interpretation of the Bible) as evidence for their claims to truth. Which is just what the Pharisees did. Is this really the kind of freedom that Jesus had in mind?
Is this the kind of truth that he had in mind?
Because in this passage, and in all others, Jesus seemed to apply the truth with a distinct bias towards the poor and weak. It is one of the reasons that I am still captivated by him. The freedom he seemed to promise was from the tyranny of the law- the application of hard, rigid, unyielding truth- particularly when wielded by the powerful. This kind of truth he always (and I mean ALWAYS) seems to have turned upside down and inside out.
Which kind of brings us back to the issue of how we might read, understand and apply the words of the Bible- particularly those troubling aforementioned passages in the Old Testament.
It is probably worth remembering that what we know as ‘The Bible’ is a relatively modern creation- in terms at least of the canon of scripture that is gathered together in the way we understand it now. There is more about this here if you are interested, or check out this summary of the Biblical Canon from Wikipedia. In the pre modern area, Scriptural truth emerged from debates between learned monks, or was ruled upon by the hierarchy of the Church.
Interestingly enough, I was reading something about the early Ionan writings- from the time of St Columba. One of the books that has survived is the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis– a collection of biblical Christian teaching and law making, written on Iona some time in the late 7th Century. What is striking about this book is that it often quotes contradictory sources- the was no concern to decide what should be the absolute final truth- rather the writer appears to expect people to look at the evidence, and work it out for themselves.
Does that mean that there is no truth, just debate leading to a thousand personal opinions that shift according to influence and fashion?
Well- some might suggest that this is the logical outcome of post-modernity as applied to religion. The pendulum swing may yet need to correct itself lest we deconstruct everything to it’s eventual destruction (if you will forgive the mixed metaphor!)
Interestingly enough- what I believe is happening in the emerging church conversation at the moment is that the deconstruction phase is over- we are starting to build again. People are starting to be more comfortable in stating what they have come to believe (rather than just questioning what they had once believed.) We see this creating some conflict- as in Rob Bell’s new book. Of course, such concrete statements (even id tentatively phrased) become targets for the truth mongers. ‘Oh’ they say ‘I knew all along this man was a heretic/a universalist/un biblical.
I think that is why I started to write this series of blog pieces. I feel it is time to take my own stand on some of these issues- you could say, to find my own bit of truth.
But it needs to be the sort of truth that sets me free.
And if it is to be this, then it needs to be a Jesus kind of truth-
Biased towards the poor and weak
Driven by love and grace, not existing independently of these
Destablising and challenging- not always obvious
Encountered in stories, relationships and mistake making- not just(or even) in written lists of laws
Applied deeply, not just on the surface
Applied first to oneself, but softly to others- apart from those who wield power