Tag Archives: Truth

“Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord” – A Decision for All Times

In the previous post, I addressed the subject of truth and power and lamented the ascendency of the post-modern philosophy that asserts “politics is everything.” Today I want to address the subject of politics and religious truth. We should not be surprised that for states, with their kings, emperors, senators, and governors, “politics is everything.” States view religion and every other aspect of social life as subordinate to their ends of survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. There has never been and their never will be a state that is wholly subordinate to a religion and its end. But there have been many religions whose purpose is to serve the ends of the state. All warrior, ethnic, and state religions either deify the state or make the king the voice of god on earth. Worship of the state gods looks to one end, the welfare of the state as understood by the state. From the state’s perspective, religious truth must be subordinated to political power.

Jesus Christ demanded that people direct their highest loyalty to God and subordinate all other ends to that end. He proclaimed God’s judgment on the powers and authorities that claimed divine status or in any way refused to submit themselves to God. And the “powers” and “rulers of this world” killed him for preaching such political heresy. Some theologians have argued that Jesus was a political revolutionary. This thesis is largely false because Jesus was not attempting to establish a worldly rival to Rome, but it contains an element of truth, that is, that Jesus challenged the religious foundation of any state’s claim to possess divine authority. Hence Christianity was born not as a warrior, ethnic, or state religion, and it is ill suited to serve these purposes. It refuses to serve the interests of any power other than God. It proclaims the same “truth” to any and all, no matter where or under what conditions. A “Christianity” that on principle or merely in fact serves the ends of state is a heresy.

Modern western states differ in many respects from ancient tribal and ethnic states and empires. Because of 2000 years of Christian influence they allow more individual freedom and are more humane in punishment for crimes than ancient nations were. But modern western states, the United States of American included, pursue ends that states have always pursued: survival, wealth, unity, power, and stability. And Christianity can no more allow itself to be subservient to the ends of modern western states that it could to the ends of the Roman Empire. And modern western states are no more at peace with a defiant Christianity than ancient Rome was. Today I see two areas where the interests of the modern western state and the interests of true Christianity are at odds: (1) Christianity’s moral teachings, and (2) Christianity’s claims that Jesus Christ is the only Savior (Acts 4:12) and that he is the “true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).

I have addressed many times on this blog society’s (and increasingly the state’s) demand that the church tone down and compromise its strict moral teachings. The state has concluded that it must tolerate—and even celebrate—behaviors that it once suppressed. Society, so the reasoning goes, has come to a consensus that attempting to suppress these behaviors would cause more social unrest than allowing them to be practiced. Hence when Christians continue to preach against these now accepted behaviors, they are viewed by society and the state as disturbers of the peace and sowers of division. The state wants a compliant religion to cooperate with its goals of unity, peace, and stability. And some denominations have changed their moral teachings so that they fall into line with the state’s ends. But we must ask them a hard question: Are you not as faithless as a church in the Roman Empire would have been had it replaced the Christian confession “Jesus is Lord” with political creed “Caesar is Lord”?

A second way the state wants Christianity to conform to its ends concerns the need to maintain peace among different religious communities. States have always viewed religion as a powerful force that is potentially subversive, and that force has to be dealt with by cooptation, suppression, or neutralization.  Modern western societies find themselves in an increasingly global community in which nation states have become highly interdependent. In relating to states with majority Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and other religious populations, the historically majority Christian states of the west wish to play down religious differences. Hence they have developed a diplomatic language designed to highlight only common interests and values. Sometimes western diplomatic talk implies or explicitly states that all religions have at their core the same truth, that is, such humanistic values as peace, respect for human dignity, reverence for life, and freedom. By whatever name(s) they call God(s) and however they understand God(s) otherwise, God’s only relevant function is to support politically useful humanistic values. States don’t seek the truth about God or God’s will. They never have. They never will. All rhetoric about the wholly positive nature of the religions of other nations is crafted solely to serve the national interests of the state as it relates to those nations.

But pluralism is not merely a global phenomenon. Modern western states, mainly through immigration policies designed to promote their economic interests or foreign policy goals, have allowed themselves to become religiously diverse within their nations. These nations want these different religious communities within their borders to get along, not for religious reasons but for political ones. And they employ the same rhetoric at home that they use in international relations, that is, that all religions worship the same God and share the same humanistic values. Proselyting and debating adherents of other religions is discouraged and often condemned as hateful. The underlying assumption of calls to conversion and debate is that one religion might be true and others false, one good and the others bad, one a way to salvation and the others not. This assumption is criticized not so much for being false as for its “arrogance.” Christianity, as the traditional and majority religion in the United States and other western countries, has been for many decades under great pressure to withdraw, or at least suppress, its exclusivist claims. And the same denominations that changed their moral teachings to fall in line with the state’s goals also changed their confessional statements so that they renounce proselytism and the exclusive claims about Jesus Christ found in Scripture. In doing this, have they not allowed themselves to be coopted to serve the state rather than Jesus Christ? The church has always been and always will be faced with a choice between two confessions: “Jesus is Lord” or “Caesar is Lord.”

Ron Highfield

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The First Casualty of War

Truth often eludes even those who seek diligently it. But we live in a society that no longer seeks truth, that can think of no reason to seek it, and that mocks those rare individuals who do seek it. What do people value more than truth? What is truth’s replacement? The opposite of truth is falsehood, but people don’t love falsehood—at least not directly. Perhaps, some people wish something to be true so much that they deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived to enjoy the illusion for a time. But no one likes to be deceived against their will, because being deceived puts you at a disadvantage. It takes away power and freedom from you and gives them to the deceiver. I conclude that people love not falsehood but power, power over themselves and others. And of course power is useful in retaining the goods one has and in acquiring the goods one wants.

The first casualty in war is truth. In a state of all-out war, power is everything, and truth and falsehood are useful only as means to gain power and defeat the enemy. But not all wars are “all-out” contests where any and every means is used to win and winning means the total domination of the enemy. War is any encounter where gaining power over another person is the chief end. Many sectors of contemporary society have become in effect battlefields where different factions seek power over others. And words and pictures are the weapons of choice. The words and pictures are chosen, not because they are true but because they are effective in disempowering the enemy and gaining power for the speaker. Love for truth plays no part. Desire for power is everything.

Prominent among these sectors are politics, education, the press, jurisprudence, social media, and religion. To be more precise and use a postmodern slogan, “Politics is everything.” The power struggles of the political sphere have invaded these other sectors and the political end of domination has replaced the original ends of these other activities. In the minds of its originators this expression (“Politics is everything.”) meant that every encounter, even superficially innocent ones, is really about the power one person or group attempts to gain over another. All truth claims are really masks for power moves. What seems to be different today, as opposed to the 1980s when the slogan “Politics is everything” came into vogue, is that no one tries very hard to mask their desire for power and their disdain for truth. They know “their side” is lying, but they love what they hear anyway. Whether the “other side” lies or tells the truth, they hate what is said because it tends to empower the enemy.

Clearly, God is the missing factor in these war games. Anyone who loves God will love truth. If you don’t love truth, you can’t love God. If you don’t seek truth, you can’t really be seeking God. God is the origin of truth, because God is the origin of everything real. And truth concerns reality. Jesus explained to Pilate that “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” But Pilate replied, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). “What is truth?” is the cynical question asked by everyone for whom power is the chief value and winning is the exclusive goal. Later on in Jesus’ trial, the governor explained that he had power to have Jesus executed or released. But Jesus replied “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:10-11). To all appearances in the moment Jesus, the lover of truth, lost and Pilate, the lover of power, won. But appearance is not the same as reality and the voice of power is never the word of truth.

We live in a society that sees the world through Pilate’s eyes. It doesn’t love the truth. It loves the appearance of winning for the momentary thrill of victory. In the end, however, truth wins and reality stands, because in the end God wins. But do we have the courage to wait until the end?

Lies, Lying, and Liars

Have you read what the Bible says about lies, lying, and liars lately? Pretty strong words! “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:12). Jesus spoke of the devil as “a liar and the father of lies” (Jo 8:44), an obvious reference to the lie the serpent told to Adam and Eve. Paul lists lying among some outrageous sins, saying that the law was not made for good people but “for slave traders and liars and perjurers” (1 Timothy 1:10). As a child who more than a few times lied to get out of trouble, the verse that really scared me is found in the scariest book in the Bible, Revelation:

But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation  21:8).

And there are so many more condemnations of lying. But as the essay progresses, you will see why the Bible presents the Ninth Commandment as the paradigm case of lying:

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor (Ex 20:16).

Falsehood and Lies

Why is the Bible so hard on liars? Let’s think for a while about the nature of the lie and the act of lying. A lie is a falsehood asserted knowingly and with the intention of deceit. But not all falsehoods are lies. Some are simply mistakes. A simple falsehood is a statement that does not correspond to the facts it mentions. The statement, “Highfield’s car is worth over $100,000.00,” is a falsehood. A falsehood, whether intentionally or unintentionally told, misstates what is real and unreal. In many cases, the practical consequences of believing a falsehood are insignificant. It makes little day-to-day difference whether I believe our solar system contains seven or nine or ten planets. However, believing and acting on a falsehood can have grave consequences. If I belief falsely that my car’s brakes are in working order, I may find myself in danger on a mountain road.

Knowledge is Power

Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge in itself is power.” If you have knowledge you have power, and in so far as you are ignorant or misinformed you are vulnerable. If you have a certain skill or have access to the latest technology, you have more economic and physical power than those who do not. If you are able to persuade millions of people that you know how to cure all social ills, you will command the power of millions of bodies and minds. If you know someone’s dark secrets, you have them at your mercy. If you have secrets, you will do your best to hide them. Knowledge is power! Ignorance is weakness! And falsehood is ruin!

Lies, Lies, and More Lies

People don’t lie gratuitously. Lying is always a means to an end; it is an act designed to gain power. Under the impression of imparting knowledge (power) to someone else, it offers falsehood (weakness) instead. In doing this, the liar exercises power over others or keeps others from exerting power over them. We do, feel, and think many things that we would be ashamed for others to know. When someone asks us about one of our secrets or is in a position to discover them, we feel the impulse to lie to cover ourselves. In this case, our aim in lying is to protect ourselves from others. We tend to judge this type of lie less harshly that the next one. Let’s call it “defensive lying”. Nevertheless, even this type of lie does harm to us and others. Instead of avoiding our shameful acts or confessing them we compound them by lying. Perhaps if we practiced the discipline of confession we would develop greater self-control and find ourselves less self-deceived in moments of temptation. Confession is the practice of telling the truth to God.

Some lies are designed, not to protect ourselves from others, but to gain power over them. These liars are on offense. They intend to seduce, manipulate, and deceive others into acting in a way that benefits the liar and harms the victim. A dishonest car dealer, a seducer, and a swindler intend to cheat us through deceit. A false witness intends to bring us to ruin through abuse of the legal system. Crooked politicians hope to gain political power by making false promises, lying about their opponents, and covering up the ugly truth about themselves. Quite reasonably, we tend to judge these liars more harshly than the previous class. They lie for the purpose of inflicting harm—to reputation, to liberty, property, and even life. And the Bible is even harder on false prophets who lie in God’s name to the spiritual detriment of others!

A More Excellent Way

I am not going to enter into the tortured case logic of lying: Can you lie to an intruder to protect life and property? Is refusing to answer a question a kind of lie? Is allowing someone to remain ignorant when we could enlighten them a lie? Is it okay to lie to spare someone’s feelings? May you lie when it “harms no one”? Clearly, from a certain point of view the seriousness of a lie can be determined by the seriousness of the harm it causes. But human judgments about the seriousness of the harm a lie causes to others are fallible and limited in scope. We often fail to take into account spiritual harm or the lost opportunity for love and unity.

In the Bible, there are two sides to the issue of lying, a negative one and a positive one. The negative one is obvious but the positive one is subtle. Of course, Christians should not be liars. But more than that, we should love truth and be willing to confess our weakness, sins, and faults. We should try to live our lives so that we have nothing to hide. If we trust in God’s power, we will be less concerned about gaining advantage over others and we will feel less vulnerable to others. If we love God, we will love others and will want to do them good. Speaking truth is an act of love. Lying always offends against love.

“Is Christianity True?” Understanding the Question

This post begins year two of ifaqtheology. As I said last week, I plan to give this year to the theme of Christianity’s truth. I will take my time. I need to clear away some bad arguments, confused language, and rash and uninformed claims, some made by unbelievers and some by believers. In my view, most apologetic efforts in recent history have done as much damage as good and created as much doubt as confidence in the Christian faith. Bad arguments in favor of a good cause are worse than silence. Some arguments for Christianity overstate their case and understate the force of objections. Some try to prove too many things.

So, in the course of this year I will be critiquing certain types of apologetics as well as unfolding my own argument. I will attempt never to misrepresent our situation with respect to what we can know and what we cannot. I want to state fairly the case against belief as well as the case for belief. I want to be clear about the kind of evidence I am presenting: a claim to historical fact, a logical truth, a metaphysical truth, a practical truth, speculation, opinion, trust in the reliability of others, religious experience, and others. I want to be clear about what I am asking the reader to do in response: open their minds to alternative views, accept a conclusion as possible, preferable, probable, or true. At minimum, I want to clarify the choices we must make and what is at stake in each.

I do not plan on attempting to prove God exists or Christianity is true. Proof is a strong word that applies only to a limited number of activities, mostly in logic and mathematics. And even proofs in these areas begin with unproven axioms or assumptions. The “proved” conclusions in logic or mathematics are true only if the axioms or assumptions are really true. Logic and mathematics use clear and simple language and don’t challenge us morally, existentially or spiritually. Philosophical and theological approaches to religious questions deal with highly complex data and must use language that is far from clear and simple. And they deal with the most important, challenging and emotion-laden questions human beings ask.

What is at stake in the question, “Is Christianity true?” Already we have moved into uncertain terrain! Exactly what is this question asking? (1) Am I asking about our ability to show that Christianity is true? (2) Or, about our subjective certainty that it is true? (3) Or, am I asking about the difference for the meaning of human existence between the objective truth and objective falsehood of the claims of Christianity? Each of these interpretations is worth pursuing. In (1) perhaps you are a believer but you have limited ability to give reasons for that belief. Your inability may limit your capacity to engage with unbelievers on a rational level, but it need not dampen your faith or restrict your living of the Christian life.

In (2) your certainty is in question. How certain are you of the truth of Christianity? Your level of certainty may affect your joy and your willingness to live thoroughly as a Christian. But the question of certainty is not the same as the question of truth. Certainty is a subjective measure. People have been completely certain of things that turned out to be false. (3) This question gets at the central issue I want to address. The claims of Christianity are either true or false. If they are false, every hope, moral rule, comfort and belief that depends exclusively on their truth is also false. Likewise, if the claims of Christianity are true, every hope, way of life and belief that depends on them is also true. If you think that nothing of existential or moral consequence depends on the truth of Christianity, then you won’t be very interested in the question. It does not matter either way. But that view itself is contestable, and refuting it is a very important part of my argument.

But the question, “Is Christianity true?” cannot be limited to the particular claims Christianity makes about Jesus of Nazareth. It is true that if Jesus Christ is not the Son of God and Lord, and did not rise from the dead, Christianity is false. But Christianity also makes claims about God and the world. If there is no God, Christianity cannot be true. If there are millions of Gods, Christianity cannot be true. If God is not good, Christianity is false. If materialism is true, Christianity cannot be true. If the divine is completely unknowable, Christianity cannot be true. Hence in addressing the question about the truth of Christianity I plan on dealing with the most comprehensive issues involved in this question: Do we have reasons to think anything really exists other than matter? Does it make sense to believe in God? Where do we begin in moving from belief in God to full Christian faith?

Next week we will begin to clarify some concepts needed to think about the truth of Christianity. I find that many people have no clear understanding of such concepts as reality, truth, falsehood, fact, knowledge, opinion, fancy, subjective, objective, mythical, historical, and many others. We will think first about the qualifiers real and true.

One-Year Anniversary

This week marks the end of the first year of ifaqtheology. This blog is dedicated to “thoughtfulness in religion.” My hope at the beginning of August 2013 was that there were some people out there who would appreciate a more thoughtful approach to religious and theological questions than is generally available. I have tried to avoid oversimplifications, appeal to emotion, dramatic titles and controversy. Instead, I have taken an analytic approach designed to clarify and get to the foundational issues that must be decided. I hope that these essays have been helpful to those who read them.

I am in the process of compiling and editing the past year’s essays. 53 in all! And I am adding “questions for discussion” to each essay. In the near future I will make an announcement about how I will make these available.

The Coming Year

I plan to dedicate the coming year to the question, “Is Christianity True.” As I look back on the past year, it is apparent that the question, “Is Christianity Good” dominated my thoughts. This year I want to shift to the issue of truth. The two questions are related, because how could something false be good or something good be untrue? But I am convinced that our culture lacks the conceptual tools even to understand the question, “Is Christianity True.” Hence I believe I have to begin by talking about the concepts of reason, truth, reality, knowledge, faith, opinion, fancy, ideology, fact, and others. I also believe we live in an age that has lost the conceptual categories to conceive of anything as real that is not physical. I want to consider the question of God’s existence, the questions of different religions and theism, pantheism, deism, and other forms of belief. I will address the issue of place of the Bible in faith and the authenticity and truth of New Testament Christianity, that is, the original faith. Toward the end we must address the questions of alternative forms of Christianity and how Christians should view non Christian religions. We may even have occasion to reflect on how Christianity should be embodied in the world today.

I hope to write a weekly installment in this series. However, I may not be able to do this because I am also writing one book and editing another…as well as teaching three classes in my role of Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Thank you for your faithfulness and patience. As always, I appreciate your comments and feedback.


Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part 2)

 In Part 1, we reflected on our restless search for something that can make us supremely happy. We concluded that since our capacity for good things is virtually infinite only an infinite and eternal Good can satisfy our longing and bring unsurpassable happiness to us. Today I want to reflect with you on the concept of happiness and how happiness is related to the life of faith to which we are called by the gospel.

Let’s begin with another thought from Augustine: “For if I put the question to anyone whether he prefers to find joy in the truth or in falsehood, he does not hesitate to say that he prefers the truth, just as he does not hesitate to say that he wants to be happy. The happy life is joy based on truth” (10.23; trans. Chadwick, p. 199). In these densely packed sentences Augustine connects happiness with truth. Because it runs against the modern subjective understanding of happiness (E.g., “Ignorance is bliss!” “Happiness is just a state of mind.”), this connection alone could occupy our minds for weeks! I see four possible combinations here. One can find happiness in truth or in falsehood. Or one can find unhappiness in truth or in falsehood:

1. Happiness/Truth

2. Happiness/Falsehood

3. Unhappiness/Truth

4. Unhappiness/Falsehood.

No one wants to be unhappy, so the last two (3 and 4) are undesirable for that reason alone. Hence Augustine’s discussion focuses on the first two possibilities. But a happiness based on falsehood will sooner or later be revealed as a false happiness. For the light of truth will ultimately dispel falsehood and the happiness based on it. Only happiness based on truth will last. To grasp what Augustine says we need to think about two aspects of happiness, the one subjective and the other objective.

In ordinary usage happiness refers to a positive mental state. Happiness keeps company with such words as pleasant, comfortable, content, peaceful, joy, cheerful, blessedness, felicity and delight. We are inclined to think of happiness as a subjective state of mind in which the dominant feeling is a sense of well being. We don’t usually include in its definition the external conditions and goods that promote happiness; nevertheless it does not follow that the existence and quality happiness are unrelated to objective reality.

Ancient Stoic philosophers classified the passions of the soul into four categories: desire, fear, delight and distress. Desire relates to an object as a possible good whereas fear relates to an object as a possible source of harm. Delight experiences an object as good. But distress experiences an object as harmful. (The Stoics considered all four of these states as negative and strove to achieve a state of mind beyond passion, but we will ignore this fact.) As we can see, the Stoics understood the four basic emotional states as involving rational judgments about an object’s goodness or badness.

I believe the Stoics are correct that the passions exist in relation to an object, or more precisely, a mental representation of an object; a passion’s relation to its object is not completely irrational or totally mechanical. And because their existence and qualities rely on rational judgments, passions can be well founded or misguided. It is easy to see that we may judge something to be good when it is bad or bad when it is good. We may find something delightful in the moment but harmful in the end or distressful in the moment but helpful in the end. Happiness, considered as a subjective state, can be well founded or misguided, true or false.

Now let’s return to Augustine’s definition of happiness: “The happy life is joy based on truth.” Augustine wants us to seek true happiness, happiness of the highest quality and of the longest duration. This quality of happiness can be found only in union with God, the perfect and eternal source of all finite goods. In this life, we do not yet experience irrevocable and imperturbable union with God. While God possesses us in perfect knowledge and presence, we possess God only in faith and hope. In so far as it can be experienced in this life, true happiness is joy based on the apprehension of faith and the anticipation of hope.

But how does this work in the conditions of life? To be continued…