In the 19th century leading up to and during the Civil War, Mark Knoll argues that there was a theological crisis (in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”) that fueled much of the heat of the debate before and the bloodshed during the conflict. The war that pitted American against American and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides was driven in large part by theological and philosophical certainty on both sides. This certainty was inspired by an overconfidence in the Enlightenment notion of reason. It was believed that the truth was easily discerned by people of goodwill. As a result it was easy to dismiss those with opposing views as willfully distorting the truth. Those, including some black preachers, with more subtle, nuanced, and substantial arguments against slavery as it was practiced in America that depended on the wider biblical and historical context were muted by the overwhelming cacophony of simplistic arguments undergirded by biblical prooftexts ripped from their context. The simplistic arguments governed by this overconfidence in reason made demonization and polarization all the easier on both sides. (I highly recommend Mark Knoll’s book.)
Once again we find ourselves deeply divided and extremely polarized in America to the point that some have suggested there is a cold Civil War that’s getting warmer and warmer all the time. Now, however, it’s not so much that there is an overconfidence in the ability to know the truth, but an overconfidence that truth is merely subjective or so unknowable that anyone’s guess is as good as another’s.
The atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche insisted that life is not about the will to truth as much as it is about the will to power. According to this way of thinking truth claims are simply cloaks for some to ascend to power over others. Therefore relativism has reigned supreme for many decades now, and not only among the cultural intelligentsia.
The meme to the right has made many rounds on social media. The idea is that both people are right in their claim to what the number is because they are just looking at the same thing from different perspectives. In this abstract hypothetical illustration that claim may very well be true, but if the intended implication is that all of life is like this we would rightly be wary. In the real world there’s not much that exists apart from some context. And context always narrows the range of possible legitimate interpretations of words and actions.
Take the number in the illustration above and imagine it on a championship team photograph for your favorite college basketball team as part of a heading that says “2016 NCAA Men’s College Basketball National Champions.” To say it is nine instead of six now would be a much more dubious proposition. One could argue that the 6 is a typo that was meant to be 9, but even then one would also have to believe someone like Marty McFly brought the picture back from the future in Doc Brown’s time traveling machine. There would be a lot of other immediate contextual clues and more remote historical evidence (i.e. print and online news reports) that would more than justify the claim that the number is really six instead of nine. The accumulation of evidence would narrow the range of meaning evermore as the contextual evidence mounted. Historians rely on this and logical deduction to determine the motivations of actions or the meaning of words expressed by figures in history. Detectives also rely on contextual evidence and logical deduction to solve crimes.
Relativism leaves us at the mercy of subjectivism; subjectivism leaves us at the mercy of the will to power. Unfortunately, history has demonstrated that those bent on the will to power have not proven themselves all that merciful. The will to power is not concerned with truth, only claims to truth. Facts become putty in the hands of people more concerned about controlling narratives to influence perception,which they insist is reality. Whoever can be the cleverest to persuade enough people wins. But relativism, it seems, has not robbed many of those who adhere to it of certainty. Unlike the early 19th century, however, the certainty is not rooted so much in reason. Now for many the certainty seems to be rooted in desire and the beliefs inspired by it. Many are certain about what they want, and they bend reason and facts to suit their desires.
I think Nietzsche really was on to something. I believe in absolute truth, although I don’t believe in the human ability to know it easily, and certainly not exhaustively. I don’t believe we can know much of anything with certainty in any absolute exhaustive or complete sense. There is always much more than we can know about any given thing. We know in part and what we do see we see through a glass dimly and obscurely, as the apostle Paul noted (1 Cor.13:12) . We can’t know anything certainly, but because of that we will all come to believe certain things about what we do know with conviction. Faith in something is inevitable for all of us. We are are wise, however, we should be open to modifying or changing our beliefs in the light of more evidence. If we are absolute ideologues, however, we will not. In that case we will cherry-pick the evidence that supports our existing beliefs and ignore or suppress evidence that doesn’t.
Nietzsche, the son of a pastor, came to believe something. According Damon Linker, Nietzsche “presents us with the peculiar spectacle of a philosopher who began his intellectual life, not from a position of openness to an elusive truth not yet grasped, but rather from an unshakable conviction that he had already found it, and that all of human experience and history had to be reconceived in its light” ( https://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/08/nietzsches-truth). What was this truth that the man who claimed that all claims to truth are just cloaks for the will to power? According to Linker, Nietzsche biographer, Rudiger Safranski, reveals a man who “devoted his formidable intellect to making sense of the world in terms of its intrinsic meaninglessness.” Apparently his presupposition was that life is meaningless from which the conclusion that we can make it mean anything we want is easily derived, want meaning desire being key.
Living only according to the fulfillment of our own desires is what the Bible describes as “having no hope and without God in the world” (this state described in Eph 2:12 corresponds with the state of being described in Eph 2:1-3). This seems to be exactly the state that Nietzsche found himself in, which led him to conclude that is all there is. It is all there is for sinful man apart from God, but in His mercy God in Christ offers us more (Eph 2:4…). Considering that his earliest philosophical work was “On the Origin of Evil” at the age of 12, perhaps Nietzsche starred into the abyss too long at too young an age. Narcissism and nihilism, both of which are characteristics of evil, definitely found welcome in his soul, which is probably what left his mind debilitated by insanity at age 45.
Humanity in sin is a slave to corrupted human desires such as greed, sloth, and lust. For these corrupted human desires truth, another name for the higher desire and will of God the Creator, and reality come to be seen as subservient to desire. Living with our own corrupted desire exalted above truth, however, as Ephesians 2 indicates, leaves us at the mercy of the spiritual forces of evil, which, again, have always proven to be merciless. But when our desire is exalted above all, we will attempt to bend reality, the truth, to serve our desires. In other words, we will lie, which involves distorting the truth and/or suppressing it.
While those who are playing the game of the will to power often say that all beliefs are equally valid, they obviously care a great deal that people believe some things but not other things. Hence, the use of propaganda and clever tactics of persuasion, which often involves distortion and suppression of evidence that would make the case for the truth or the closest possible approximation of it.
From the the biblical perspective sinners don’t live for the truth; sinners live for the fulfillment of their own desires. As a result truth becomes either useful, malleable, or dispensable depending on the combination of the circumstances and what is most conducive to personal expediency. When one’s own desires rule, the attempt will be made to make truth bow. Wherever sinful desires reign truth will suffer suppression. But the truth is the only thing that can set us free from slavish desire and the prince of the power of the air who uses those so enslaved for his own narcissistic and nihilistic purposes.
The will to power is the devil’s game, and it is often waged with clever sounding slogans designed to persuade enough people that those wielding the slogans can fulfill their desires for comfort, security, and pleasure usually without the troublesome specter of personal responsibility and accountability. Often these sinister slogans come in the form of prooftexts from the Bible.
Referencing specific verses or passages from the Bible is not wrong, after all Jesus himself did exactly that in fending off the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). It’s not wrong as long as we don’t do it like the devil himself did to tempt Jesus by quoting a part of Scripture without regard to the overall context and tenor of the Bible as a whole (i.e. Matt 4:5-7). We should always endeavor to use any particular biblical text in a way that is in harmony with the overall context of the message of the Bible as a whole. The same is true for the writings and speeches of other people too, by the way. The same goes for scientific (hard and soft sciences) studies as well. More context can only help to clarify by narrowing the range of legitimate interpretations.
Someone who is not interested in context is not interested in the truth. The most pressing debates among us can never be settled by who can mount the most prooftexts for their cause. Recently, for example, some who usually aren’t so concerned about what the Bible says about some things, like sex, were suddenly concerned that people care about what the Bible says about the way we treat immigrants and refugees.
In order to make the case for a liberal immigration policy and against a particular conservative view, many provided a slew of prooftexts from the Bible. The gist of what many of them were arguing seemed to strongly imply that it is an easy, open and shut case, that all immigrants should be welcomed without question and hesitation. Some even argued that safety shouldn’t be a significant concern because it is not a priority for Jesus, who obviously didn’t consider safety when he risked arrest and crucifixion. When some of them were challenged by arguments that put the liberal prooftexts back into the light of the original context, they just dismissed it as an attempt to make excuses for disobeying the clear commands of Scripture with regard for the care of immigrants and refugees.
But many of those same people are not so strict when it comes to the clear commands of Scripture with regards to sexual ethics, commands that, as I have shown before, are even considered to be clear by some of the most prominent liberal scholars. Some, who on the one hand want to argue that 2000 plus year old texts have no relevance for sexual ethics in 21st century America, on the other want to argue that it’s just a simple matter of biblical obedience with regard to the current immigration debate in the United States in 2017. I think we should be very welcoming and lavish in our generosity toward immigrants and certainly refugees, but we can do that without throwing caution to the wind. The issue is complicated. I don’t know exactly what should be done. It seems pretty obvious that there is a higher calculus at work than just helping people in need. There’s obviously political power at stake on both sides. Nevertheless, from a biblical point of view the issue is also definitely more complicated than some want to acknowledge.
Just take one of the prooftexts for example.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:33-34 ESV)
This is a beautiful and wonderful text, one that is certainly echoed by Jesus in the second half of Matthew 25. But, look, this text itself evokes a much broader context of the story line it’s found in. This text must be understood within the story of Israel coming out of Egypt and wandering in the wilderness before they enter into the promised land of Canaan. The stranger here being evoked is not necessarily someone who would have migrated from another country, but was in many cases a person of one of the Canaanite tribes who inhabited the land before Israel arrived to take possession of the land. For the Israelites this meant driving out the Canaanites who refused to accept Israelite control of the land and to live according to the laws of Israel’s God, Yahweh.
“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Lev 18:24-28 ESV
The strangers or foreigners to be loved as the Israelites loved themselves were those who agreed to live peaceably among them, and were often of the Canaanites who originally inhabited the land, like Rahab (Josh 2 & 6), the Gibeonites (Josh 9; 2 Samuel 21), and Uriah the Hittite. Yes they were to love the stranger/foreigner who was committed to living peaceably with them, but there were also general restrictions for certain nations that had proven hostile to Israel when they came out of Egypt, like Moab. Moab tried to have them cursed and eventually seduced Israel into sexual immorality, which is what God warns against in Leviticus 18 above, and idolatry (Numbers 22-25). Of course the Moabite Ruth, who accepted the God of Israel as her own, is a significant exception to the general restriction. There’s much more that could be said, but if you think Leviticus 19:33-34 and other texts like it make an open and shut case for a particular view on the current immigration and refugee debate in the United States … Well, I don’t know what to say.
We cannot prooftext our way into the kingdom of God. We can’t prooftext and cherry-pick our way to the truth. Soundbites and slogans won’t suffice. We can’t prooftext and cherry-pick our way to peace and prosperity either. If all we have is personalized individual truths designed to fulfill personalized individual desires, all we will have is never ending conflict and misery. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions; I suppose it’s also replete with slogans and prooftexts for road signs along the way. Getting to the truth requires much more than prooftexts, it requires context and a lot of patience and work, hard work. And that is the truth, the hard truth.