By Barry Casey — These are perplexing times. You and I might be perplexed about different things, but I’m fairly sure that both of us— at least some of the time—are lost in the maze. On the other hand, should you find yourself absolutely certain about any number of things such as reality, the existence and the nature of God, the mystery of evil, and the resurrection of Christ, your spiritual life might appear to be blissfully tranquil. But a word of caution: Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” still reverberates like a gong struck in the night.
We are living in a time of alternative facts, an oxymoron which has achieved a certain likeness to truth, mostly because many people have accepted it at face value. This means that people have assigned value to facts, some having more value than others and some having no value at all because the facts clash with their personal worldview.
This is the tail wagging the dog or the effect producing the cause or any other analogy that puts the cart before the horse. When we try to apply the facts, we are simply trying to arrive at an accurate description of a set of affairs. The accuracy is based on certain natural laws or the logic of syllogisms or on distinguishing the meaningful from the meaningless or good from evil.
When we try to determine what is true about the Jesus story, we find ourselves in puzzles from the start. Are the Gospels subject to the methods of verification we are used to in historical accounts? Are they biographies? Or are they the subjective narratives of four individuals who differ, sometimes widely, on the details of Jesus’ life?
Most readers of this essay will have some notions about taking the context of a text into account when reading and studying it. That would be the minimum benefit of an historical and critical approach to the Bible. Biblical scholarship about language, about textual and literary typologies, about sociological, archeological, and ultimately, theological ways to read the Bible have added immensely to our knowledge of Scripture. They help us to realize that our context, the way we read the Scriptures, is part of the long history of Scripture study in the life of the Church.
Recently, I was talking with a friend about where we situate the Bible in our lives and what affects us as we read it. We thought of the visual metaphor of transparent domes within which we ‘live and move and have our being.’ These domes intersect and overlap one another, so that we are able to distinguish one from another while still moving freely within all of them. For us, they are sociology, psychology, physics, neuroscience, art, literature, music, religion, ethics, philosophy, and theology. They all contain valuable resources for life and each of them is part of our search for meaning. Every one of them has an opening to the sky as a means of continuous refreshing of knowledge and understanding.
Our description might be the shared experience of many Christians today, as we understand every facet of life to be open to the search for truth. But we also agreed that the most important dome was at the center of this complex, that it tied all of them together, and that its opening to the sky was both the widest and the freshest. It is the dome of our experience with God through Jesus as channeled by the Spirit.
To bend this metaphor (perhaps to the breaking point), let us say that we are beings whose life force relies on exposure to light and, while every dome is open to the sky, the best place to be for the light is under the dome of the God experience. We are free to wander between all the domes, but we wish to be closest to the experience of God in our lives.
Like all metaphors, this one falls apart when pushed too far. But it expresses right now how I understand the interplay between God-in-Christ and myself with regard to “truth.” For me, truth is that which both fully represents what it means to be a human being and that which opens us to the transcendent—that which goes beyond the human. This includes both Job’s experience and 1 Corinthians 13; the grim reality of the Holocaust and the sublimity of Rilke’s poetry, Bach’s sacred cantatas, and Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor.
I will venture to say there is nothing under the sun that is not in some way revelatory of ‘the light that lightens everyone who comes into the world.’ But as anyone knows who has read the Gospels, this is the paradoxical way of life. Jesus’ yoke is easy, but the way is hard. He himself is the Truth, but he is often hidden. The Truth will set us free, but we must see it first—and we’re all naked and blind and lame.
Most of all, this takes humility. Thomas Merton said, “Humility contains in itself the answer to all the great problems of the life of the soul.” Humility should also remind us that when we come up against the limits of reason in trying to understand the mysteries of God and God’s action in this world, we can at least admit that we have understood only a cupful of the showers of truth we receive from God.
There’s a certain liberation in realizing that faith acts in order to understand. That in entering the maze of life with the Spirit of Jesus, we are entering into the life of Christ here and now. In fact, we are entering a new reality. As The Unvarnished Gospel puts it from the Gospel of John: “But whoever accepts his testimony has signed his name to the reality of God.”
— Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]