How Do We Know Truth?

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Undoubtedly you have seen the billing for events such as "a conversation about XYZ topic", or the Network's report on "synodical listening sessions", and an "interfaith dialogue." All of these have the potential to be informative and relation building events, as well as events where the intent is to move the thinking of one group of persons towards that of another group. Much of what is going on is a combination of (post)-modern thinking with some pluses and minuses, and an influence of Hegel. That leads us to the question: How do we know truth?

(Post)-modern ideas:

In the idea world of some post-modern thinkers there is a conviction that truths can not be absolute but are arrived at through discussion in community. At first flush this sounds rather good as it would be a community building exercise, that people are talking and listening to each other, and that truth is arrived at by consensus. What is denied in this picture, however, is that there are absolutes that come to us humans from outside of our own thinking and discussing, and they are not negotiable. To the post-modern ear this all smacks of authoritarianism, and quickly it is thrown out the window. Granted, some power-hungry people in the world have taken good absolutes and abused them. But is that a reason for dismissing them? Another thinker almost 200 years ago thought so.

Georg Hegel

The German philosopher Hegel (d. 1831) developed a system for arriving at truth that still has echoes in the conversations, listening sessions, and dialogue of today. Hegel stated that an idea that was common in society could be called the "thesis". Someone else would come along and pose an idea that challenged that one, and it would be called the "anti-thesis." Out of the clash, reaction or interaction — depending on how opposite the ideas were — came a new idea called the "synthesis." This synthesis then became the new thesis and the whole cycle would repeat itself and thus truth was continually evolving. In technical terms this is called the "Hegelian dialectic."

Karl Marx took Hegel's ideas, and along with Lenin, saw them implemented in the development of the "new society" which would continually evolve. History has shown that it had just one small problem, humans caused it to devolve.

Common themes:

In both Hegelian and (post)-modern thinking, truth is arrived at by humans either in discussion or in putting opposing ideas together on the proverbial plate. Likely the ideas — or the spirit of the age, or the Zeitgeist as the Germans call it — are the most influential factors that come into play. One of the problems with this approach, however, is that humanity is the measure of all things, and that there are no absolutes to be reckoned with.

Secondly, the idea that humanity in a certain period of time can determine truth, puts the human being in a god-like position, without even realizing that they are very finite beings. These ideas present a challenge to Christians who actually believe and follow the Word of God as absolutely authoritative for all time, as they see ultimate truth as coming from outside of themselves. This is because the Triune God is the Absolute Ruler of the universe and His absolutes are non-negotiable.

A practical example:

Rev. Kevin DeYoung, formerly of the [Reformed Church of America] RCA is an active thinker and writer and has penned helpful books such as "Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion" and "The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century" on the Heidelberg Catechism, etc. As he watched events unfold in his denomination, he came to the conclusion that it was no longer possible to stay. What caused him to leave?

In his own words, DeYoung said that he was weary of a process which he called "dialogue to death." [Likely he was referring to wording like the RCA 2009 General Synod which affirmed "the value of continued dialogue and discernment on the topic of homosexuality within the church, to state that our dialogical and discerning work is not done"... and which the RCA 2015 Synod referring to "a wearing conflict." [https://www.rca.org/homosexuality] On his own blog DeYoung quipped:

"Instead of making up our minds after thirty years of dialogue, the denomination has called for more conversations and another study committee. There is little doubt how this will end up. Progressives do not stop calling for dialogue until their side is accepted, and eventually mandated"

The particular issue which was the subject of dialogue was the acceptance of homosexual marriage. In many ways what he observed was the playing out of the Hegelian dialectic and (post)-modern dialogue, conversations, and listening. How so?

A number of years back, some RCA persons who were becoming convinced of the legitimacy of homosexual practices, put their "anti-thesis" on the table opposite of those who were convinced of the Biblical statements of the illegitimacy of homosexual practices. 

Out of this beaker of ideas, came the synthesis, which globally was a slight warming to the idea of the acceptance of homosexual practices. Simultaneously certain scholars began to publish their newly found Biblical interpretations and revisions of history to make the case more legitimate. Then lobby groups went to work as they declared that the old position was tyrannical, unjust and bigoted.

A new thesis came out of the synthesis and the goalposts had been moved slightly over. Again the process repeated itself with conversations, testimonies, lobby groups, and the like all providing the anti-thesis. Coupled with that changes in government legislation, easy cohabitation, a sexualized society, all added to the mixture. A new synthesis was born.

And the cycle repeated itself. Until ...?

Observations:

It would appear that the ideas of Hegel for arriving at truth are very much at work in our modern world. Kevin DeYoung's case of getting weary from "death by dialogue" is not the only one. Think of the ideas in our society about euthanasia, religious inclusivism, denial of eternal punishment, and see how they are washing up to the door of the church. The big challenge for today's church, I would submit are threefold.

  1. To uphold the absolute standards of the absolute Word of God as directives from the Absolute Ruler of the universe and to do this with absolute humility.
  2. To always be aware that slippage from orthodoxy is a given , and that continual course corrections must be made by the church, but these are not to be informed by the spirit of the age, but by the Spirit of God. Hebrews 2:1 reminds us: "Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it ..."
  3. To recognize when the Hegelian dialectic is being used even in the context of seemingly innocuous conversations, listening sessions and dialogues.

Questions for reflection:

1. Is the Hegelian dialectic being used in the CRCNA today? How? Where? Why?

2. How are thought processes being moved?

3. Should the CRCNA care?

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