On Believing Unpopular Truths

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The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

–Stephen Crane

The process by which we formulate a worldview is an immensely complicated one, and since the psychologist in me isn’t entirely sure how to pronounce Carl Jung’s last name, I’m going to abstain from going too deeply into the matter. But I will say this: our beliefs—even our most sacred and deeply held truths—were probably not arrived at as innocently and independently as we like to imagine. And I’ve noticed something of a dichotomy here. That is, most of us will freely admit in an academic conversation like this one that our environment, our friends and family, and the like, all strongly influence our beliefs. But when two people are engaged in a debate—let’s say they are arguing about gun laws or something—I’ve almost never heard someone say, “Well, I probably just believe what I believe because I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and you believe what you believe because you grew up in downtown Chicago.” And the reason that you don’t hear people say things like that is because it seems to partially invalidate their position. Like, how true can something be if it’s only the result of geographical accident? Now, there’s a logical fallacy there—whether or not something is objectively true should have nothing to do with the subjectivity of the person proclaiming that truth—but that’s not really where I’m going with this. The two things I want you to take away from this first paragraph are simply: 1) our beliefs are in part determined by factors outside of our control and 2) in the “heat of the moment” we don’t like to admit this.

If what we are postulating here is true, there is an important corollary. That is, people are more likely to believe something is true if that belief will be shared, appreciated, and respected, especially by friends and family, but also by the general populace. To employ economic terminology, there is an external “benefit” associated with holding a popular belief (in the form of social validation), and an external “cost” (in the form of rejection and even ridicule) associated with holding an unpopular belief. There aren’t too many Trump bumper stickers in San Francisco, despite the alluring internal rhyme.

When it comes to the Christian faith, there are several categories of beliefs that create friction with our particular cultural moment. These are:

–Beliefs of exclusivity: Is there only one way to get to God? Can other religions be less true?

–Beliefs related to identity: Are we free to fashion our own identity? What about matters of sexuality?

–Beliefs related to daily life: Does Christianity have anything to say about how we live our life? Can it be “wrong” to do something that is not illegal? What about things like pre-marital sex?

–Beliefs related to the afterlife: Does everyone go to heaven? Do only people of one particular faith go to heaven?

In each of these four categories, there are instances where the traditional, orthodox beliefs of the Christian faith are at odds with the prevailing cultural sentiment. There are places where it costs something, in terms of cultural currency, to hold to the tenets of creedal Christianity (the Christian belief system as presented in the three major Christian creeds: Nicene, Apostle’s, and Chalcedonian). Or maybe I could put it this way: if we were on a website that everyone in the country read, and you had the ability to “upvote” or “downvote” various comments, there are certain beliefs within orthodox Christianity that would get more downvotes than upvotes.

Now hear me out, don’t let me lose you here, because honestly I know that that all sounds a little bit whiny, like I’m trying to say: “Poor, poor me, I’m ostracized for my beliefs.” But that’s not what I’m getting at. I actually think that Christianity has historically done best when it has been in the minority and not the majority. The church as a whole has honored God much more in its actions and its words, lived much more authentically Christian lives, when it was not in the position of power and influence but instead in the position of poverty and persecution.

Instead, the question I’m trying to ask is: Given that there are Christian beliefs that are not only unpopular but might actually be seen as offensive, what should we do? Shouldn’t we hedge? Shouldn’t we pragmatically adapt our beliefs (not the major ones, just the ones in those four categories above), so that we don’t offend people? So that we don’t alienate and divide? Especially since, historically, it seems like the Christian faith has been fluid and dynamic. Just look at all the different denominations!

I’ll give one quick example. In the book of Acts, which is a chronicle of the life of the Christian church after Jesus’ death, this guy named Peter miraculously heals a paralyzed man so that can he walk again (ooh, I forgot that miracles can be controversial since they cannot be scientifically demonstrated). After the miracle, lots of people had questions. Namely, how the heck did that happen? Peter replies to the crowd, in part: “Then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”[1]

That’s a pretty controversial thing to say, in, like, twenty different ways. “So, Peter, you’re saying that we crucified Jesus? Salvation is found in no one else?”

I don’t want to get too much into the specifics of Christian soteriology, which is a fancy word for beliefs about salvation (bonus points if you use it in conversation anytime this week). But why not believe something different? Why not be a Christian Universalist and believe that everyone goes to heaven regardless of what they believe?

To answer that question, I want you to join me on a walk to Williams College in Massachusetts, where I got my undergraduate degree. On Williams’ campus there is a beautiful chapel, Thompson Chapel. When you walk in the huge wooden doors of the chapel, you’ll see a staircase on the right, an old stone staircase. About halfway up the staircase, on the right hand side, look up and you’ll see a stained glass window with a medieval looking knight guy. Just below the knight is the inscription “Right makes might.”

Right makes might. I love that. And I like to think that it has two meanings. First, righteousness makes might. There is a secret power in living a virtuous life. We often identify power with things like kingdoms and armies and manipulation. But those things will pass away eventually. Kingdoms rise and fall. Armies win battles and lose. But when you live righteously, you have a different kind of might. Hasn’t this been your experience?

Right also makes might because there is might in believing right or true things. When you believe what is right, you don’t need to struggle to coerce. When you are right, you don’t need to raise your voice to get your point across. You can believe in the power of truth. The truth will always shine through in the end. As one writer of the Bible puts it, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Right makes might because when you believe things that are true, and construct your life around things that are true, you live in harmony with the universe. Trying to live a life believing things that are untrue, or only sorta kinda true, is like trying to swim upstream. You’re fighting against how things just…are. I believe that God has woven great truths deeply into the fabric of the universe. We see glimpses of the supernatural in everyday miracles—things that catch us off-guard by their unexpectedness. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

The greatest example of this is love. The story of God’s love for his children is like blood in the veins of the world. It flows every which way through it. And the more that you live in accordance with that truth, the more evident it becomes. All of a sudden you’re swimming with the current instead of against it. That’s not poetry; that’s my honest-to-goodness personal experience.

Isn’t it true that we are allowed to believe whatever we want until reality sets in? The everyday course of events has a way of breaking in and holding our beliefs up to the light. We are free to believe that so-and-so has changed, that they’re a good person, until they go and break our hearts once again. We are free to believe that all religions essentially believe the same thing until we see two men spilling one another’s blood in the name of their faith. God’s love may be like blood in the veins of the world but it’s also a savage place out there. And sometimes the pathway to truth is lined with knives. Or, worse yet, sometimes the truths themselves are knives.

I do not hold my unpopular beliefs uncaringly. I know that to believe something is true may mean to believe something which is near to you is untrue. And the same thing may be said of your beliefs. But I think that to truly love someone means to share your set of truths with them regardless of their initial reaction. Not with the intent to harm—never. But with the intent of mutual discovery, of uncovering what is woven deep within the fabric of the universe, in the hope of heading downstream, together, and not against the current.

Lesslie Newbigin writes, “While we hold our beliefs as personally committed subjects, we hold them with universal intent, and we express that intent by publishing them and inviting all people to consider and accept them. To be willing to publish them is the test of our real belief. We [as Christians] believe that the truth about the human story has been disclosed in the events which form the substances of the gospel.[2] We believe, therefore, that these events are the real clue to the story of every person, for every human life is part of the whole human story and cannot be understood apart from that story. It follows that the test of our real belief is our readiness to share it with all peoples.”[3]

If, in your search for truth, you’ve never found yourself amongst the weeds and knives, you may want to ask yourself if you’re even searching for truth at all. It’s a dangerous world out there, after all. But I have faith that if we are on the right path, we will find that those truths that looked in that moment as though they would tear our whole world to pieces may not be quite what they appeared. The truth, when all is said and done, is the thing that sets us free.

[1] Acts 4:10-12

[2] A word meaning the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Shorthand for the sum of Christian belief.

[3] Lesslie Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), 126.

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2 comments

  1. Brad Riegg · · Reply

    Excellent, Andy. Thanks for sharing. How about submitting it for publishing in Christianity Today?

    A Bible teacher I knew had a quote on his wall: “The truth will always be true, even if no one believes it. A lie is a lie, even if everyone believes it.”

    Reminds me of the man who faced down the tank in Tiananmen Square and also of Stephen: “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord.”

    It’s remarkable how the truth and love of Jesus are so unsettling to those who reject Him, yet so settling to those who believe Him. He is Truth wrapped in Love.

    Like

    1. Brad, I appreciate your affirming words. I looked into the Christianity Today submittal process–it looks complicated! But it’s definitely something to keep in mind and I appreciate you thinking that it was even worthy of consideration.
      best,
      andy

      Liked by 1 person

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