Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Word in the World: What Is Truth?

It seems unfair to mention Exiles by Michael Frost by jumping straight in with a criticism, but having read the first four chapters I've noticed something that is conspicuous by its absence in the book and in my own theological ravings outworkings - a framework for making sense of the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John. 

Frost writes this about our perception of Jesus:

When we see Jesus as light from light, true God from true God, it dramatically changes our spirituality. Jesus becomes one to be worshipped, examined, reflected upon. The earlier creeds, however, present a lifestyle to be followed.

Frost puts "worship" and "discipleship" at odds with one another, but the two are very much part of the human vocation: we are called to worship the one we are called to be like. I admire the attempt to recapture the humanity of Jesus, but I think Frost goes about it by setting up some false dichotomies. And in so doing, Frost sets up the Fourth Gospel as a conundrum - it being the Gospel that talks of Jesus being the "light" and the Word that "was God" from the beginning. In fact the opening of the Fourth Gospel is extremely philosophical in its approach to Jesus, with its language of "being" and "becoming", its imagery of "true light" and its employment of that dense word logos. Though John's Gospel doesn't continue in this highly stylized way, it does continue to pose a problem to those of us who gravitate towards the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels - namely, how can we see the synoptics and John together, when they look so different?

I think a pathway to an answer lies in Pilate the postmodern sceptic's question: What is truth? The whole of the New Testament is a partial answer to this haunting question, with the key proclamation being that "telling the truth about God" is now commensurate with "telling the truth about Jesus". On the ground, that means -- according to Brueggemann -- that "in Jesus of Nazareth the things of the world are settled on God's terms". This is kingdom of God language. The language of place and persons being "not of this world" and yet in this world, against this world, but ultimately for this world - for it precisely because they are against it. Each Gospel has various accents on this truth, but there can be a "seeing together" that is historically useful, canonically faithful, and spiritually fruitful. We need all the witnesses we can get if we are to speak truthfully about Jesus to the world, and to speak truthfully about Jesus to the church. Why is this such a difficult, urgent task? Brueggemann's sums it up in one short paragraph:

The world...cannot bear the truth of Jesus, for that truth moves beyond our capacities to control and our power to understand. And so the world "gives false witness" about Jesus. In doing so, it gives false representation about the world. Just as exilic Jews preferred not to tell the truth about Yahweh because it is a truth too subversive, so many of us in the church choose to bear false witness about Jesus, because the managed, reassuring truth of the empire is more compelling. The truth evidenced in Jesus is not an idea, not a concept, not a formulation, not a fact. It is rather a way of being in the world in suffering and hope, so radical and so raw that we can scarcely entertain it.

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