According to John 18:37-38, Jesus told Pilate that the reason he came into the world was to “bear witness unto the truth.” As the story goes, Pilate replied dismissively with the rhetorical question, “What is truth?” Such evasions aside, truth is simply this: the inescapable reality that is established by a certain framework of indisputable facts. Whether Pilate liked it or not–whether you or your preachers like it or not–there is such a thing as truth, and you cannot exempt yourself from its rules.
If the facts are inconsistent with a claim I am making, then that claim is not true. If the claim is not true, then it is false, and so is every other claim that depends on it. It’s really that simple.
If I am trying to sell you a used car, it had better start when you turn the key. My statement that it “runs fine” will be proved false otherwise, and you will have little patience with my excuses. That spectacular failure of my claim to conform with the facts will make you inclined to distrust everything else I try to tell you about the car.
There is no way for me to get around this problem. A protest that your “carnal understanding” cannot comprehend the qualities of the car would make me look just plain crazy. So would the assertion that it is only your “wrongful pride” that keeps you from truly considering the qualities of my non-functioning car. Your money would remain in your purse or back pocket as you move slowly away.
It is a testament to the power of religion in the human psyche that it can exempt itself from the evidentiary standards of even a used car salesman. The same question you would be a fool for not asking–Is it true?–in the one case is considered downright offensive in the other.
When you give the analogy just a little space to play out, you quickly realize how sad the whole spectacle really is: The car does not only fail to start, but by any objective indication seems not to exist at all. The salesman cannot get his story straight about what kind of car it is, claims it is the only car you could ever possibly own, and threatens you with sadistic tortures if you decide not to buy it. And if you walk down the street, you will find hundreds of equally impassioned salespeople selling their own invisible cars, all claiming to have the only one that actually exists.
But This Is Different...
“In matters of faith and salvation, however, we must set our carnal mind and understanding aside.” So claims an article “The Gospel Is Not Earthly Wisdom,” published in the April 2012 issue of the Voice of Zion newspaper of the Laestadian Lutheran Church (LLC). The images you see throughout this posting are scanned excerpts from the article. Its author cites various well-worn Bible passages to make his warnings against “rational understanding.” The old citations are thrown at the reader one after another, wrapped in such familiarity and piety that one can easily disregard the human hand of the article’s author in selecting them. But selected they were–from a sprawling, contradictory hodgepodge of all-too-human ancient thought that has been compiled over many centuries, argued about, imperfectly copied and translated, and finally transformed into an object of veneration as “God’s Word” (§4.3.4).
The Bible texts themselves are seldom read in their full context. Instead, the pious eye hastily glances over the atrocities and outrages, the inconsistencies and failed prophecies, to find familiar passages that will shore up a doctrinal conclusion that was predetermined before the book was ever opened. As with the used car with all its dings and scratches, a sale is most likely if you don’t look too closely at what you’re buying.
To expose the illusion and show the quote-mining subjectivity for what it is, my caption to each scanned excerpt is another passage from the very same book of the Bible that a Laestadian preacher would never find occasion to cite. And this provides only a small example of the selective reading that goes on every Sunday, in every Voice of Zion article, in every discussion about “faith matters.” The Word itself, it turns out, needs quite a bit of earthly wisdom from Laestadian editors to stay on message.
The writers and expounders of scripture protest that what they are selecting and saying is actually what God wants to say. As the article puts it, God “has revealed the mysteries of faith through His Spirit in His kingdom.” It is latter-day Gnosticism, with a privileged few sharing “esoteric knowledge” among themselves.
Within the sacred enclave, curious transformations take place in language. Acknowledging the possibility of error is no longer humility but dangerous pride. Childhood is associated not with its natural curiosity and search for knowledge, but a passivity and resignation more suited to those with one foot in the grave. All is done in the service of “God’s kingdom, the pillar and ground of truth” where, in a bitter irony, the very meaning of truth is cast aside. Instead, as Sam Harris puts it, faith “obscures uncertainty where uncertainty manifestly exists, allowing the unknown, the implausible, and the patently false to achieve primacy over the facts.”
Never mind why the omnipotent God “who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) would provide his spiritual guidance to 0.002% of the world’s population within just one of many groups claiming to have the One True path to salvation (§4.2.2). Never mind how that claim of sectarian exclusivity conflicts with the teachings of Martin Luther, whom the group claims as its most prominent spiritual founder (§5.2). Never mind why the Spirit would allow abusive practices to dominate the group’s operations for over a decade (§4.6.4, §4.10.2).
No, you are not supposed to give any consideration to these and the literally hundreds of other issues with “the simple doctrine of faith.” The salesman is talking, and he doesn’t want to be interrupted by your impertinent complaint that the engine won’t start.
“The truth shall make you free,” Jesus is reported to have said (John 8:32). Yes, it will–if only you let it.
Another article from the April 2012 Voice of Zion describes how the preachers at the LLC’s Winter Services lamented “‘attacks against God’s kingdom,’ questioning the validity of God’s Word in today’s world.”
An Examination of the Pearl, free online version with various sections linked with the “§” hyperlinks above. The section on reason (§4.5.4) is relevant to this posting as a whole.
Gnosticism entry on Wikipedia.
Harris, Sam. 2005. The End of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.
New American Standard Bible. 1995. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.