In my sophomore year in college I had to take Introduction to Philosophy. I was greatly intimidated by the teacher as well as the subject matter. I hadn’t ever taken philosophy and the extent of what I knew of Plato and Socrates was their names.
On the first day of class the Professor said something that I have not forgotten. He told us that about 50% of what we believe to be true is likely false. We were young, inexperienced students and at this stage in our life we were ignorant to greater truth by about 50%. He told us, since he was older as well as having had more education; he was likely more at the 75% truth percentile. Although I initially thought his comment was nonsensical, I have found and am continuing to find that he has been remarkably accurate.
Perhaps you hear this in the posture that I initially received it, with fervent opposition. We are all convinced that what we believed is 100% true, were we not, we would change out beliefs. However, if you take a deep inventory of your convictions, your presuppositions, and even the things you consider hard fact, how many of them could potentially be subject to upheaval? But what about cold hard fact? What about scientific truth?
It only takes thinking back a few centauries to remember that common perception once held that the earth was flat and you could sail to India from Spain heading directly westward. John Nelson Darby in the late 1800s as well as many other evangelists in history was convinced that the world will end on a specific date at a specific time. The Mayans may or may not be disproved this year. In the 16th century, European explorers were convinced California was an island. Galileo and Copernicus fought against the belief that the earth was the center of the universe. No one believed human beings could fly in airplanes. All but a few were convinced personal computers we thing of fancy and so on and so fourth.
The truth is, the likelihood that we are wrong about a great deal of what we are convinced, is not only possible, it is near certain. What happens is as we grow we continually construct a series of “truths”, some likely, some unlikely, all held at different degrees with passion, yet all held nonetheless. We create a narrative that embodies our reality consisting of these truths. The way you live your life, parent your kids, attend your school, obey your parents, construct your diet, handle money, purchase a house, schedule your day… everything you do stems from a complex intricate web we weave of our best sense of how the world actually works.
This belief in “how the world actually works” leads us to establish a pattern of behavior perhaps best summed up by saying that it is our “response to how the world actually works.” We construct everything we do within this framework. It is as if we establish a narrative – setting, plot, motives, moods – and then live within what our best guess is of the way things actually are. The problem comes when we are in need of correction. When our course has gone astray. When we have missed the mark. When you misread the narrative. If we have constructed this narrative, we likely believe it is right, and if we believe it is right, how can we be expected to change it? And yet, for most of us, a great deal of what we believe is likely wrong.
There is however a true narrative. There is a true story, a true context. The story reflects the dynamic history of a loving God in pursuit of a creation, which cannot quite seem to reciprocate a relationship. Both the beauty and frustration of this story is that it necessitates collaboration. We cannot understand it, cannot live by it, and cannot allow it to define our reality individually. As we try to gain identity by individualizing our perspective and deviating from community we in effect lose our identity. When do we see the great travesties of history? Biblically we could take Moses’ murdering of the Egyptian; Peter’s denial of Christ; David’s adultery with Bathsheba. It is when we deviate from transparency with others, when we abandon accountability, that we find ourselves deviating from actual truth, the actual story. Extreme individualism radically influencing mass communities like a virus overtaking a body organ by organ is not unprecedented throughout the atrocities and the great disagreements of human history. The narrative we allow to embody our reality determines the ethics we live by. Community’s necessity is paramount, they interpret the narrative, they course correct the individual narrative. They don’t override individualism but rather provide a way to aid the individual in establishing the best possible pattern of life in response to how things really work.
Being unfaithful to the real story does not make any new story any more real, it just perpetuates our lostness, our difficulty to find our way back to a true narrative. Just as the letters of the early church we meant to be read aloud corporately; the human experience with God, the human pursuit of God, and the human realization that God has actually been pursuing us all along, should all be done corporately.
But can’t communities go badly? Don’t communities get it wrong? Like leftovers in a fridge, everything must be checked eventually if you are to avoid contaminated food. Look at the American political system. We have two primary parties who many times vehemently disagree with one another. Look at the American religious system. Hundreds and thousands of denominations and non-denominations, some agree, some condemn one another and yet who is right? We have built our own towers of Babel, refusing to descend toward one another in pursuit of a common story. This is not a uniquely American problem however the hyper individualism we are discussing is much more prevalent in Western societies. Kant’s “I think therefore I am,” has led us to see ourselves first, but all to often we are all that we see. We remain perched above the clouds believing we are all the more near to God, when in actuality we couldn’t be farther away.
What know? The key is not rightness; the key is expansion and collaboration. This does not mean concede for the sake of peace, this means open the line of interpretation into broad discussions. One of the most beautiful tings of God is that he is Truth. He is the embodiment of the real story, he set into motion what’s really going on. In believing that I think we can safely abandon fact and embrace faith. Faith, actually, seems to be more concrete anyway. While facts change, mold, and can be notoriously difficult to pin down as constant, faith is fluid, moving, persuasive. It is within a community of faith that we correct our 50% wrongness. We don’t get it perfect ut we are consistently perfecting it. Tweaking, changing, adjusting, and checking how we are living according to the story the community sees and is telling. Facts are believed. Faith is lived. Lived in community.