DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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SUNDAY BEFORE LENT

Seeing Is Believing?

2 Peter 1.16, 18 With our own eyes we saw his greatness ... We ourselves heard his voice coming from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.

T
here is a spot in the semi-desert of South Africa where one can put the gears of a car in neutral, and gain speed going uphill.

That should be impossible. Yet it's true - and it's a good example of a visual illusion in which seeing an upward slope is not good evidence of the truth. The witness of the eyes indicates one thing, and then the "impossible" happens.

If we can't always rely on the evidence of our senses, what can we rely on?

Today's reading from 2 Peter says, "We have not relied on stories in making known to you the mighty coming of our Lord Jesus Christ - with our own eyes we saw his greatness". Because we know that first-hand experience is valuable, we are naturally inclined to take this as information about Jesus upon which we can depend. This person, we say, isn't profiting out of made-up fairy tales (2 Peter 2.3). We can rely, surely, on someone who was there - an eyewitness to the life of Jesus.

It may come as a surprise that the claim made here is false. Almost everyone who has studied the evidence agrees that this letter wasn't written until more than 100 years after the death of Jesus. The author could not have been an eyewitness to Jesus. His claim that "We ourselves heard God's voice coming from heaven when we were with Jesus on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1.18) almost certainly isn't true.

It's easy to feel a sense of disillusionment at this discovery. But we are wrong if we accuse the author of 2 Peter of lying. One of the startling realisations of the last century is that it's our perception which is at fault in this case. We are the ones in error if we condemn this claim as a barefaced falsehood.

How can this be? Surely we know when someone's telling a lie? Saying things which are not true is a universal human condition. We can all tell fact from fiction, can't we?

Just as we are deceived by an upward slope which is actually a downward one, so can we be deceived if we think that our sort of truth is the only sort. As many now realise, the so-called untruth in 2 Peter is not what it seems. It arises, not out of dishonesty, but out of a different way of understanding the nature of truthful witness. 

From our point of view, truthful witness should ideally attest to what we loosely call "fact". Put simply, a fact is information which is credible because good evidence gives it solid backing. For example, if I see New York's Twin Towers collapse, and so does everyone else, we can all agree that the event is fact. Seeing is believing.

The author of 2 Peter did not think like this. Indeed, only a tiny minority in his time had much inkling of the way we today think about "fact". For them, truth was conveyed primarily by witnesses from the past. To us it seems utterly strange when a Christian talks of being an eyewitness when he obviously wasn't. 

But from the author of 2 Peter's viewpoint, he knew beyond a shadow of doubt that authority from the past had witnessed to Jesus. Therefore he too could witness as though he had been there. For him, his claim to be an eyewitness was as true as any other "fact" of experience.

Believing, he thought, is not necessarily seeing.

The New Testament is crammed with this kind of witness. What might seem to some a pack of untruths, was for the Gospel authors merely retelling in a creative way what they knew for certain was true. It was true because witnesses in the Old Testament, which was God's Word, said it was true. It was true because the Apostles said it was true. It was true because Paul said it was true. They did not regard evidence as we do. We witness to the facts of our experience in a way very different from the witnesses of New Testament times. 

Where does this leave us? 

Perhaps one of the greatest changes in modern times is that we have become aware that our perceptions are not always accurate. They can sometimes be so distorted as to tell us we're going uphill when in fact we're going downhill. We're surely correct, therefore, to be careful about what we claim to be true or false, knowing we're fallible human beings. Each individual has only a tiny glimpse of the whole truth. Even what we're most certain of today may tomorrow be proved, if not mistaken, then only part of a greater truth.

If our experience is not always to be trusted, if the way we perceive life is open to constant questioning at its very roots, who or what are we to trust? One answer is, paradoxically, to trust experience - provided always that we "torture" it by putting it constantly to the test.

A great discovery of our times is that all truth is provisional. We know that, when all is said and done, we have only our imperfect experience to rely on. 

What we share with the author of 2 Peter, then, is not the "how" of knowing the truth, or any particular truth, but the same experience of a creator God who can be trusted to lead us to truth. That truth will be neither absolute, nor final, nor comprehensive, nor the kind of truth known to the author of 2 Peter. It will always be provisional. But that is enough. Perhaps truth lies in the search and not in the finding.

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