Bible Lecture North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers)
Text: John 10:1-21
The most basic question before us is whether Jesus is the truth or a truth i.e., just an opinion, just a worldview, just a retreat into some dark corner of personal perspective.
The question of whether we can know truth or only just opinion reaches back to the dawn of classical philosophy and the debate between Protagoras and Plato. Protagoras claimed that truth is simply a matter of where our self-interest lies. There is no truth independent of human opinion. Thus, he coined the phrase “Man is the measure of truth.”
Plato rejoined that this is a contemptible way of handling truth. Humans, at best, merely discover truth; they do not create it. Man is not the measure of truth; truth is the measure of the man.
Scripture clearly sides with Plato here. God’s truth is not cut to human specifications. The prophets regularly warned the Israelites against making themselves the measure of truth, but generally to no avail. We have inherited a fundamental abhorrence for God’s word from our first parents. They had only one command and they thought they could run things better themselves.
Allan Bloom, who used to teach political philosophy at the University of Chicago, says in his excellent book, the Closing of the American Mind, that the one thing a college teacher can take for granted these days is that students will come holding as dogma the view that “There is no absolute truth.”
A majority of Americans generally, according to George Barna, now agree to the proposition “There is no absolute truth.” What’s more, a majority of those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians say the same.
For a Christian to hold such a view is loaded with self-contradiction. For one thing, the statement “There are no absolutes” is an absolute statement and therefore self-contradictory. To be more precise, it should be stated, “There are no absolutes except this one.” But if there is one absolute truth, might there not be others?
Furthermore, the claim that “There are so absolutes” embodies an implicit claim to knowledge. What would someone have to know in order to claim that there are no absolutes? It seems to me, that this would involve the claim to have examined all possible candidates and found them all wanting. Furthermore, this claim implies knowledge of the unknown, i.e., no such truth is to be sought because there is none to be found. Who can know this much? This is an implicit claim to omniscience. Yet, the holders of this view typically present themselves as the humble folk at odds with those who insist that God’s truth does not change. If this view prevails, it turns the Ten Commandments into the Ten Suggestions.
Even though it is easy to refute the view that “Truth is relative” yet it remains popular. Protagoras’ view defines the modern mind. This would be much easier for the Church to deal with it if this were just the world’s view. The trouble is, the Church is in the world and the world is in the Church. The net effect is to undermine at every level, the plausibility of Jesus’ claim of who he is, and his claim on our lives.
Most of the undergraduates I teach were reared in conservative Protestant churches. They are morally upstanding citizens, productive workers and responsible parents. They know the language of the church. I teach a course called the Making of the Modern Mind, which all of the evening students are required to take in the Adult Education department. I always do an exercise with them on religious experience, when we reach that section of our textbook. I first ask them whether they believe that God can be experienced. They always answer, “Yes.”
Then I ask them whether all claims to religious experience are equally valid? They always say “No.” Then I ask them to give me examples that they would all agree are clearly valid and examples that they would all agree are clearly not valid. Generally, they’re able to do that. By this time I have on the board a list of clearly valid claims like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, sometimes Mother Teresa. On the other side, under the clearly not valid category, will be such names as Jim Jones, David Koresh, the man who shot Martin Luther King’s mother, etc. Once the lists are complete, then I ask them, “OK. Now tell me what are the criteria for deciding which goes in which list?” At least 80 percent of the time, this is where the discussion comes to a halt. Sooner or later, someone will say, often with a perplexed look like “this cannot be right” but “Who am I to say?” they ask.
So then I sometimes try to intensify the issue. What if a member of “The Nudist Christian Church of the Blessed Virgin Jesus” sat down next to you on the plane? “I would get up and move,” they say. “What if it were your child, and the group she had joined was Heaven’s Gate?” I ask. Silence.
I used to be surprised at these responses, but I cannot afford the luxury of surprise anymore. There is something deeply divided in the Christian heart and mind. We cannot see the difference between what Jesus tells us and what the world tells us. We do not really believe that Jesus is what he says he is – the truth. We believe he is the truth for those who hold him to be the truth – but not for those who reject him – or hold to “other perspectives.” This implies that Jesus’ word does not become truth until we add our ascent. Protagoras prevails purely and simply. This view makes humans the arbiters of truth. Ultimately, it puts humanity in the place of God as our own judge and lawgiver. There is nothing unusual about this tendency. Putting ourselves in God’s place goes all the way back to the beginning. But we have come now to regard it as the right and noble and devout thing to do.
“Who am I to say?” Nobody. It is not up to you to decide right and wrong. But if God says, “Make a distinction between good and evil,” who are you to refuse? God frequently says through the prophets that on the last day when his judgment and wrath begin to fall, it will fall heaviest on the priests and leaders of the people because they called good evil and evil good, thereby blurring the distinction and setting the people up for destruction. False shepherds flatter the people in their sins and speak smooth words to them with an eye to their own gain. Jesus is of one voice with God voice in the prophets. Malachi tells us that on the last day these other shepherds will get the worst judgment because God will look in their mouth and not be able to find his word there.
We teachers and pastors worry far too much about what people think of us. Professors try to outdo one another in impressing the members of the professorial guild. Pastors trim the truth to fit what they calculate the market wants – seeking to “meet spiritual needs” and thus making merchandise of the Word. The Gospel will not permit itself to be discounted or offered at bargain prices in order to move the product. It is content to sit on the shelf until people realize their need for it.
God is not looking for skillful promoters or good salesman. He is looking for faithful servants of his Word, faithful servants of the Gospel, to let his truth be heard. We do not need to hear of “faith experiences”- we need salvation. We do not need to know where we can find the worship with the most emotional wallop; we need to know where we can find God when we are unable to experience him at all. Real faith begins when direct experience becomes impossible to us from our side.
Those of us who preach and those of us who teach need to worry a whole lot more about what God thinks of us, and a whole lot less about what other people think about us, not only the unbelievers but also those who are highly esteemed for their righteousness or piety. We have an audience of One to please, and others only for the sake of that One. We are too much like Martha, busy about secondary things. We need to become more like Mary -attentive to the one thing needful. The time is short. We have no business wasting our breath on secondary utterances. Surely the flock of God has great reason to be disappointed with us. They come week after week expecting to hear a word from God that will apply to their circumstances. Yet what they get is our own words, our own pet theories, our own self- interested schemes for adding buildings and bodies.
Often I have heard stewardship sermons that implied, “If you don’t give your money, God is going to go out of business.” Where a small God that is. What will go out of business is religion, in the sense of our human attempts to climb up to God. Religion is always more or less sick – always in a crisis over money and fresh adherents. Such religion is the great preoccupation of godless men and women. The world can tolerate a great deal of this kind of religion very well and even honor it highly at times. But the Jesus who is the truth, the world cannot tolerate at all. Nothing else so brings Satan to his feet as to preach this truth and to live it.
Too much modern Quakerism, and Protestantism generally, is merely religion not Christian faith. We study ourselves not God, thus turning Theology into Anthropology. We pride ourselves on our membership instead of upon knowing God. We boast of being Christ’s friends and cannot see the extent to which we are his enemies. We claim to be free of all external authority and yet we are utter captives to the Spirit of the age and our own particular environment and circumstances. Never have we been more in need of the true Shepherd to show us the way amid so many conflicting voices.
Sometimes students ask me whether I think Quakers have a future. Young pastors seeking to fulfill their recording requirements especially want to know the answer to this question. It is a matter of stewardship for them. My answer to their question is another question. It depends on whether Quakers are going to be a religious club i.e., “a voluntary association of those with similar ideas about religion” as Rufus Jones wrote in the Five Years Meeting United Discipline, or whether Quakers are the Church.
The Church does not depend upon our clever schemes. It is not we who sustain the Church; it is the Church that sustains us. It was here when we got here and it will be here when we are gone, in spite of our efforts to improve it. God’s word can always easily find new hearers for itself. The question is, will we be among them? Or will we reject him, preferring our own word, our own will, and our own ways?
The Church will endure so long as time endures because it is founded on Christ’s promise to Peter that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” I used to think that Jesus simply meant protection here, and surely that promise is included. But this is an image taken from warfare in the days of fortified cities. This is an aggressive image. The Truth of Christ is battering Satan’s city doors and they will not withstand the blows of God almighty. Peace will be the result, but it will be the peace the follows from the defeat of Satan and the overthrow of his kingdom.
Other shepherds offer other peace. We had a Kenyan student with us the past four years at John Wesley College named Gabriel Gakuna. He is a great man and gave us many object lessons of faith. We have a pond at the College and the maintenance staff had been trying to build a walking path around it. After they reached about halfway around the pond the budget ran out so they had to stop.
Gabriel learned of this, collected a few hand tools and set about to finish the path. The easy part where the ground was flat was already done. He took the part where the ground was sloped and filled with tree roots. After he finished his studies, and his part-time job unloading trucks, he dug the rest of the path. Other students generally assumed he was getting paid for this and marveled when they found out that he was doing it just to give something back to the school. When the path was done, Gabriel got the idea to set up stones with Bible verses on them so that people who used the path would be mindful of God and perhaps pray for Gabriel and his work in Africa.
In the course of Gabriel’s digging, he turned up some old broken drainage tiles. He piled these broken tiles at one point on the path, and wrote on the biggest one, “God will heal your brokenness if you just give him all the peaces.” He was still working on his English spelling. I think he meant a “pieces,” but it works the other way too. We seek peace where it cannot be found. Other shepherds only give us false peace – peace with the world. Jesus tells us that peace with the world makes us God’s enemy. If we want God to heal our brokenness, we must surrender all of our other peaces (sic).
Other shepherds also promise other freedom. There was an AT&T commercial some time ago that showed an expansive landscape, and announced: “We seek a world without limits.” Outback Steakhouse beckons customers with the promise of “No rules. Just good food.” There’s nothing new in this. We have always sought a world without limits. Our first parents had one limit in the garden and that was one limit too many.
The world’s view of freedom is to have no restraints on desire. “Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst”, says Sprite. Our economy proceeds on the assumption that what keeps it going is continuously whipping up new and fresh desires and then convincing us that these are needs.
St. Augustine tried this approach to freedom in the last days of Rome. He sought his fulfillment in money, sex, and power. He obtained all three, and yet found himself empty and a slave to his insatiable desires. Looking back on this time in his Confessions, he saw that though he had no limits, he was a slave to his own disorderly desires that contained within them the seeds of his destruction.
Socrates talks about freedom and types of government in Plato’s Republic. Democracy is not the best type, Socrates says, but one of the best because it allows the maximum of the human freedom. However, no one ever thinks that they have enough freedom. Everyone in a democracy is always pushing for more and more freedom until freedom becomes license. When freedom becomes license the citizens lose their capacity for self-control, they begin to prey on one another like wild beasts. This produces chaos, and people know they cannot live with chaos. At this point the tyrant presents himself as a benefactor and promises to restore order. The people invite the tyrant to rule over them and only when it is too late, do they discover their mistake. Thus, one of the best governments, democracy, prepares the way for one of the worst, tyranny.
We hear lately that crime statistics are down, presumably because the economy is good and because aging baby boomers haven’t the strength for violent crime any more. Can that offer any solid basis for confidence? Is there any reason to believe that a more youthful and hearty generation will be capable of keeping their hands off of each other’s throats if the economy takes the downturn? Why is it that prosperous white kids from the suburbs are shooting up their schools, their classmates and themselves? The Columbine killers hauled their guns and bombs to school in their BMW. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way after Enlightenment.
And by the way, what do we think we’re accomplishing by sending in armies of counselors after such events? Any kid with half a brain wants to know “Why?” The way the separation of church and state has been interpreted, the question cannot be given a coherent answer because to answer it requires reference to a religious or philosophical foundation for morality. The courts will not allow this. So, what can the counselor say? “I understand that you feel that way Johnny. We all ask that question at times. Tell me more about how you feel.” This is just psychobabble. The question of meaning remains unanswered because it is unanswerable from the standpoint of secular reason.
The Enlightenment and the new Protestantism taught that children are naturally good and that society is the source of evil. Our public schools have built on this assumption, so that all we have done for the last several generations is to give information, on the highly questionable assumption that children will know what to do with it. If we are having a problem with teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, we give condoms at an earlier and earlier age. My children reported to me that at one of the houses where they stayed during a Serenity choir trip several years ago, the host tried to be helpful by leaving a large bowl of condoms out for them to take whatever they wanted. The kids asked, “What was he thinking?” I cannot say he was thinking at all.
As Wolfhart Pannenberg has said, Western society will not endure the entire emancipation of the individual. The freedom that the True Shepherd brings is a freedom from our disorderly desires by restoring their limits so that our desires may again be directed to the service of God and serving life rather than death.
If Jesus is not the truth for all people, then we have no reason to believe in the God he addresses as father, unless we are Jews. The whole story becomes just a cleverly devised fable and certainly not worth any effort or discomfort on our part. We can let go of scripture, and embrace our own traditions and cultivate the extra-biblical virtue of “openness” until we are able to regard whatever stupid, obscene, or indecent thing anyone does, as divine worship. The Israelites had this ability in Jeremiah’s day. They sent their young women off to be temple prostitutes before marriage, expecting that this interlude would make them more fertile. Hosea shows us in the example of Gomer that Israel preferred this aspect of Baal worship to the worship of Yahweh. I cannot find that the ancient Israelites were any more prone to error than we are.
We can let go of God’s word and instead focus on politics. There are quite a few major seminaries now where a student can freely live like a sodomite, but if he refers to God as Father he will be disciplined. Jesus himself would be thrown out of such a school because he refers to God as Father frequently. What an irony, yet there is no greater honor than to be unwelcome where Christ is unwelcome.
Those who seek to follow the True Shepherd will often have to go outside the gate to find him. We know that following will mean crosses. He has made that very clear to us. We know that our success will usually be hidden, rather than evident. We know that the fruit is certain because of his promise, but not because we can see it either in those we serve or ourselves. The True shepherd brings a different kind of success. The other shepherds promise a visible, measurable success. The True Shepherd brings a success measured by degree of opposition.
The True Shepherd says that the sheep know his voice. Churches with congregational polity have often taken this to mean that a vote of the congregation decides whether the shepherd is true or not. Americans generally are much inclined to regard Truth as susceptible to a majority vote. Often when I ask philosophy students a question of truth or falsity, they respond with some kind of a poll i.e., “Some say yes, some say no.” When I say “I did not ask you for the result of a poll, I asked you is it true,” they usually have nothing to say.
Numbers tell us almost nothing about where the truth lies. Jesus’ own people preferred Barabbas who robbed them, to Jesus who served them. Human nature has not changed. We cannot look to the crowd to find a way to Truth.
There was a cartoon several years ago that showed a flock of sheep disappearing over a hilltop. The shepherd was running along behind them with the caption, “There go my sheep, I must follow them, I am their leader.” One of the most disastrous effects of the so-called “Enabling ministry” model which has flourished in seminaries during the past thirty years are so, is that it has shifted the attention of Christian leaders from being truth-tellers to being crowd-pleasers. Which way will it be with us? Which side are we on? There is no middle ground here. Either Jesus is who he said he was, or he was deluded and deluding. I’m betting that he was who he said he was.