Mark Greene finds that truth matters more today than is sometimes claimed.
“When truth dies, very bad things happen” sings Robbie Williams, and he may well know, after all, he’s had some tough times. But we’ll come back to him.
You may have heard those who have been telling us over the last fifteen years or so that people aren’t interested in truth anymore, particularly not any truth that claims to be absolutely true. People just want something that works.
Well, maybe, but talk to anyone who has read The Da Vinci Code and dismisses the historical reliability of the Gospels and you’ll see how important historical truth is to people when they suppose the facts support their position. Talk to any of those people who opposed the war against Iraq and ask them whether truth matters. Facts change actions.
You may have heard those who say that questions about the reliability of the Bible are irrelevant to young people, and not so young people.
Well, talk to my nine year old daughter who asked me last month why our religion is true and the others aren’t. Talk to my eleven year old son who asked me, “Dad, why isn’t the Koran more accurate than the Bible? After all it was written 600 years later.” A third of the kids in his class are Muslims and he needs to know that his Scriptures have been reliably transmitted and he needs to know that there is a world of difference between a set of documents recording events witnessed by hundreds of people over hundreds of years and a set of dictations that Muhammad heard alone in a cave with no witnesses and which so obviously confuse and inaccurately reflect Jewish and Christian stories.
You may have heard those who say that questions about creation and science are irrelevant to the propagation of the Gospel.
Well, talk to my thirteen year old son who said to me on the way to school, “My friend, the son of the vicar thinks the world is 6400 years old. My Jewish friend thinks the world is just over 5700 years old. And my geography teacher thinks the world is 6.4 billion years old. Can you give me the answer by dinner time?” It matters because if we can’t work out an answer together he’ll go through school thinking that science is the enemy of faith. And more than that, he’ll have nothing to say to his school friend who is interested in these questions but also once prayed that God would stop his parents from getting divorced. A good prayer. But they got divorced.
Of course, there is more to the Biblical concept of truth than empirical fact. Truth in the Hebrew mind is a dynamic idea, you ‘do’ truth. Truth never sits there inertly. It fizzes. It radiates. It hums. It’s a catalyst changing those who come into contact with it. It’s a magnet – attracting some, repelling others. And there is more to truth than can be grasped by the mind. Gospel truth is revealed. And you can have just lost an argument about the historicity of the resurrection to a five year old and still absolutely know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Most people don’t reject the Gospel because it’s incredible. They reject it because it’s terribly inconvenient. Indeed, as Paul points out in Romans 1, the first move people make on the slickery road down to debauchery is to suppress the truth about God and exchange it for a lie. Paul argues that God’s invisible qualities have been plain to human beings since the creation of the world. So why don’t we see them? Because we choose not to. ‘Twas ever thus. When Adam and Eve rebel against God, they allow themselves to do so by suppressing the truth about a good God who had their best interests at heart – despite the evidence of their eyes, despite all that he has provided for them – delicious food, good water, an extraordinarily beautiful environment, purposeful work, human relationship and daily fellowship with Him – despite all that they still believe that God is withholding a better life from them.
And what are the consequences of suppressing the truth? “Very bad things happen.” Thinking becomes futile, hearts are darkened, idolatry abounds, sexual promiscuity becomes rampant, practising homosexuality grows more common, so does bestiality. This at least is what Paul notes when writing to the Romans. If he were writing to 21st century Britons he might not only use the same list but add a whole host of other sins. Suppressing the truth about God doesn’t just affect our sexual behaviour it affects our behaviour.
This human propensity to suppress the truth about God expresses itself in a variety of ways and for a variety of motives. Aldous Huxley, for example, the author of the chillingly accurate Brave New World, wrote this:
“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning – consequently assumed it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.”
The Gospel does not bestow the freedom to do what you like, it bestows, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the freedom to do what is right.
The tendency to suppress the truth and admit it has contemporary exponents too. Nick Hornby, for example. Once upon a time Nick Hornby was the king of lad fiction whose recipe for happiness seemed to have two major ingredients:
Men needed to learn to commit to one woman
Arsenal needed to win the Premiership
Misery, at least as it relates to Arsenal, is, I am delighted to report, likely to abound for years. Subsequently, Hornby wrote How to be Good, a nihilistic novel which concluded that “there was nothing out there at all.” Then he wrote a collection of essays called 31 Songs. In one of the essays, he writes:
“I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs that bring me up short, make me a double-take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects achieved are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory… All I can say is that I can hear things that aren’t there, see and feel things I can’t normally see and feel, and start to realize that, yes, there is such a things as an immortal soul, or at the very least, a unifying human consciousness, that our lives are short but have meaning. Beyond that, I’m not sure it changes very much, really. I’m not going to listen to stuff like this too often, though, just in case.”
Notice that wonderfully honest and revealing ‘of course’ at the beginning of the quotation and that similarly honest determination not to “listen to stuff like this too often, though, just in case”. God has revealed himself to Hornby through creation. It’s plain to him but, for whatever cocktail of reasons, Hornby chooses to suppress that truth.
Robbie Williams, by contrast is abundantly clear about some of his motivations for suppressing the truth:
“I got a ton of selfish genes and lazy bones
Beneath this skin
Oh Lord, make me pure. But not yet.”
(From Make me Pure on Intensive Care)
Williams wants to do things his way but he’s hanging on to the hope that God will not lose patience:
“I stopped praying
So I hope this sing will do
I wrote it all for you
I’m not perfect but you don’t mind that, do you?
I know you’re there to pull me through, aren’t you?
(Make me Pure)
He has seen the light in the hallway but doesn’t want to make for the door. But how long, he wonders, will God keep it open? Overall, Williams’ album reveals that his earlier, somewhat incoherent flirtations with big ideas about life, death, heaven, hell and angels were not the mumblings of a cynical hack mining religion for its sense of gravitas. Rather, they seem to have been the harbingers of a genuine, if unresolved, yearning for God. Indeed, the album is a moving confession that reveals a heart honest enough to know that it loves what chains it.
Other contemporary writers are less honest. Polly Toynbee reviewing Narnia wrote this about Christianity in The Guardian:
“Aslan is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine way is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth…”
The opposite, however, is true. It is precisely people of faith who do take responsibility for what happens on earth. As Roy Hattersley, card-carrying atheist that he is, put it in The Guardian: “We have to accept that most believers are better human beings.” By which he meant that believers are far more likely to look after the sick, care for the poor, and extend help to people whose lifestyles and values they object to than atheists. And he has the data to prove it. So does Polly Toynbee but she chooses to suppress it.
Don’t believe everything they tell you when they tell you people aren’t interested in truth.
Truth matters to people. Because people have been created with the capacity to reason. In fact, truth matters so much that we sometimes choose to suppress it because it’s desperately inconvenient, because it curbs behaviour, demands generosity, and courage, propels us towards relationships with people we don’t like, exposes us to the stench of the poor and the enslaved, asks us to stand up for the oppressed, and prods us into recognising what we’re really like. Thank God that He doesn’t give us the whole picture at once. Still, it’s worth pondering what truths about God we suppress in order to maintain our sovereignty. Will we, I wonder, be as honest with ourselves as Robbie Williams? After all, although it is the truth that sets us free, (John 14), on the road to freedom, there is no bypass round repentance. Of course, there is more to Jesus than truth. He is also the way and the life, but he is certainly never less than truth and true.
Isn’t that just wonderful?