The Way, The Truth, And The Life

 

 

Even without the recent election, it’s clear that we the people have some sharp disagreements with one another.

This isn’t anything new. There have always been sharp disagreements in every place, among every people, and in every era of history.

That won’t change anytime soon.

What I find particularly interesting about the current state of discord is the approach most often taken towards resolution. Whether it’s in conversations over coffee, a heated debate online, or an op-ed piece in a major newspaper the tact is usually the same: the person making their case almost always either explicitly claims or implicitly implies that their opponent’s disagreement is a matter of simple ignorance that can be solved by that person acquiring more information about the given subject.

We hold this “truth” to be self-evident because we are heirs of the Enlightenment, taught to believe without question that reason and the acquiring of more knowledge are the keys to truth and understanding. They are, as it were, the path to enlightenment through which all discord will be resolved and all ills will cease.

Sometimes that is true. Sometimes scientific, technological, medical, or philosophical breakthroughs do force us to change the way we look and act in the world, but I’m becoming less and less convinced that the simple acquisition of knowledge is really all that is necessary to change hearts and minds.

Rather, I’m becoming more convinced that it is experience or at least experience combined with knowledge which is the necessary agent for transformation.

Think about it this way, when you were a small child your parents told you over and over again not to touch a hot stove lest you burn yourself. They gave you all the information you needed to avoid trouble. But almost all of us needed the painful experience of touching a hot stove in order to fully understand and appreciate the consequences.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I could pour my heart out to you, and gladly would, in a effort to convince you that the avocado popsicle at Las Paletas in Nashville is not only better than it sounds, but a truly wonderful treat for the senses. But even if you’re willing to give me a suspicious benefit of the doubt, you won’t truly appreciate or understand that wonderful frozen treat until you try one for yourself.

I think it is because very need for encounter and experience that Jesus declares himself  rather than knowledge about himself as the way, the truth, and the life.

If you think back on the Gospel stories, then you’ll remember that even the disciples who gained first hand knowledge from Jesus’ teaching didn’t always, and in fact usually didn’t, understand his teachings until they experienced for themselves what Jesus was talking about.

There are, of course, few better examples of this than the apostle Peter. He stood before Jesus and heard Jesus declare that his identity as the Christ, the Son of the living God was the foundational rock upon which the Christian faith would be founded. Yet, not long after acquiring that knowledge, Peter denied not only Jesus, but Jesus’ importance in his life. It wasn’t until the rooster crowed and it dawned (literally) on Peter what he had done, that he came to understand the importance of Jesus’ teaching.

The same thing happened to Peter again in the book of Acts. While sitting on the roof of his house trying to decide what to eat for lunch he had a strange vision of a sheet descending from heaven full of “unclean” animals that he was instructed to eat. Peter refused because he knew this was against the Law of Moses. Yet, Peter had stood next to Jesus when he proclaimed to the Pharisees that it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that defiles them, but what comes out of it. So once again, Peter needed to experience Jesus’ teaching before he fully understood it.

Finally, there is not greater example of the importance of experience in Scripture than the resurrection itself. Even though the disciples had heard Jesus teach about his own resurrection, they hid in fear after the crucifixion, not “knowing” what to expect next. It wasn’t until they encountered the resurrected Christ that they truly understood what he was talking about.

Very rarely, if ever, will we argue someone to the faith or to our way of looking at the world, but an encounter with the risen Christ can change a person’s mind, body, heart, and soul.

This is why incarnating the faith, or living like Jesus, is so important. Since Jesus isn’t walking around on earth like he was on Easter Sunday, the only chance a person has to have a life changing encounter with the risen Christ is through us, through the incarnated Body of Christ.

This is also why I personally believe in Jesus and the truth of the Christian faith, not because I can intellectually prove the existence of God or the veracity of the Bible, but because I have experience the risen Christ in my own life through friends, family, and strangers whose Christlike words and deeds have given me a glimpse of another, deeper, truer reality.

If changing hearts and minds in order to make the world a better and more just place is really our goal, then incarnation is our best hope. It should not be wholly divorced from information, but if we do not embody the truths we claim, then no one will believe us no matter how powerful our rhetoric or truthful our information may be.

That being said, we must accept the fact that ultimately even an encounter with the risen Christ through our incarnating the Truth will not always be enough to change people. Countless people go on mission trips, attend worship services, or have life long Christian friends that give them a glimpse of the kingdom, yet they choose not to accept that reality.

Likewise, ultimately, some people will always simply disagree with us. It is not because they are ignorant or need more information, but because their life experience forces them to disagree even when that experience may be one they share with us. In other words, even as Christians our encounter with the risen Christ may lead some of us to different understandings and interpretations of that experience. The fact that there are tens of thousands of denominations on this planet testifies to this reality.

At the end of the day, or perhaps I should say at the end of our debating (if that end ever comes), the mark of our character and fidelity to Christ will not be continued argument or arrogant put downs of others’ ignorance. Rather, our Christian identity will be found in our continual incarnation of the kingdom of God.

That is to say, the truth of the gospel we proclaim will only ever be found in living a resurrected life which itself proclaims that the way to the truth is through life in Jesus.

 

Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt

 

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

    Good word Zack! The most important word in the book of Acts, IMHO, is “witnesses.” They saw, experienced, touched… That’s what we have to reach for today as well and that’s why Kingdom of God/incarnation theology is so critical.

  • Karen

    Thought-provoking post. Thanks. Definitely, it seems to me personal experience of the living Christ is key to what the Bible means by “knowledge” of God.

    I do have to disagree with you, though, where you wrote: “In other words, even as Christians our encounter with the risen Christ may lead some of us to different understandings and interpretations of that experience. The fact that there are tens of thousands of denominations on this planet testifies to this reality.”

    Strictly speaking, I think it is a serious error to say that “our encounter with the risen Christ may lead us to different understandings . . .”. As I see it, denominational divides are never the result of our experiences of Christ. Rather, the genuine experience of Christ (Who is “the same, yesterday, today and forever”) is always that which draws Christians from very different backgrounds and perspectives closer together. What pushes us apart is our reliance (often not conscious or intentional) on the varying competing traditions of interpretation that we have inherited for evaluating our experience and also the natural human preference and trust we tend to have for those who taught us or through whom we may have experienced something of Christ’s love and the teaching of the gospel. These inherited traditions are often in turn based on discursive argument and human logic about Scripture, and likely more often than not birthed in a highly polemical historical context that provided ample fuel for fear and prejudice to color that tradition of interpretation. If, indeed, we find our “experience of Christ,” and not just our interpretation of that experience, divides us from another Christian’s “experience of Christ”–one or both of us is having a false experience of Christ (probably not as uncommon as one might like to think!).

  • http://twitter.com/upsidedwnworld Rebecca Trotter

    I so agree with you – experience is vital. This is also why I’ve been advocating for Christians to take up the practice of the traditional acts of mercy. Not only are there needs which we can help meet, but performing these acts (rather than say, sending a check) puts us into close, intimate contact with people in need. Much of what is wrong with the church from a social justice and political standpoint comes from the fact that we have become so privileged that many Christians have never had any actual contact with people in need. They have lots of opinions about them, but they are based on pretty much nothing and worth a great deal less than nothing as a result. Again, actual experience is key.
    (Here’s a post I did not long ago on just this issue:
    http://theupsidedownworld.com/2012/10/05/most-christians-opinions-arent-worth-two-dead-flies-but-that-can-change/ )

  • Kent

    You hooked me with the opening – we do have our disagreements. If the only hope to bridge this gap is our living like Christ I fear that Christianity is doomed. We are such a fickle and fallen bunch who can live up to that?

    Isn’t our hope in the gospel – that Jesus lived and died and rose again doing what we cannot do and accomplishing something we can never accomplish – reconciling people to God? What about encountering Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament?

    Let’s point people to Jesus not the personal experiences of less than competent or compelling witnesses.

    • Karen

      Kent, good point and great questions. I suspect it is hard to encounter Jesus “in Word and Sacrament” unless He is really there, though. In my own experience, receiving Christ in the Orthodox Eucharist is a completely different reality than “remembering” Christ’s sacrificial death in the “Lord’s Supper” as it was presented in my former anabaptist-descended Christian tradition. To be honest, the latter experience was literally only a “communion” with my own mental conceptualization of Christ’s death (and to say the least, that was an experience lacking in real spiritual transformative power, though it could provoke a passing feeling of guilt and/or gratitude). Also, there was at one time everywhere Christians existed a single orthodox/Orthodox Christian communion of bishops charged with “rightly dividing” the Word of truth. Now we have lots of competing Christian traditions offering not just different, but often competing, interpretations and applications of Scripture. The varied teachings about the real nature of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper from one Christian tradition to another is a case in point. I think that makes it considerably more dicey for a modern Christian to encounter Christ in the Word as well–at least as it is preached on Sunday morning (and taught on blogs!).

      • Kent

        Especially beware of blogs… good points. I think Paul said we work it out with fear and trembling. I believe it is done best in a community that is committed to the authority of scripture and the authority of Christ.

        • Karen

          Agreed. I don’t believe that practically the authority of Christ, that of the Scripture (rightly interpreted) and that of the Church (community) which is Christ’s Body can be separated.