Personal Truth Is Always in Process of Being Ascertained

In regard to my last blog I hasten to point out that Forging Ploughshares is made up of those who identify as Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Eastern leaning, Mennonite, unaffiliated, and simply Christian.  The malaise of late modernity that has caused some to consciously turn to authoritarianism (among so-called Trad Catholics or ultramontanists arguing for extreme forms of papal infallibility, the Cult of Trump Evangelicalism – i.e. there is nothing Trump could do to lose the support of Jerry Falwell Jr. and his ilk, or those who blindly entrust themselves to various episcopal forms) cannot simply be identified with Catholics, Episcopalians, or evangelicals (as if to equate these with authoritarianism) but with those (of many stripes) willing to give up on the efficacy of ordinary human agency.  The issue of authority looms large in the contemporary turn from rationalist foundationalism and autonomous individualism to various forms of relativism. The role of apostolic authority, biblical authority, church authority, and episcopal authority, is being shaped, in some quarters, by the notion that the individual is incapable of ascertaining the truth and authoritarianism is the answer. This hyper-conservative backlash to modernity, sometimes mistakenly perceived as orthodoxy, is simply the end point of the modern (late modernity).

 If modernity declared the individual, in and of himself (free of culture, tradition and authority) as adequate for attaining absolute truth, postmodernism or late modernity has declared the individual (though he be nurtured in the richest of intellectual and theological traditions) as incapable of ascertaining truth.  The turn to forms of authoritarianism, certainly not typical of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Evangelicalism, finds expression in all of the above. Young radical Catholic conservatives who would refuse the liturgical changes of Vatican II (which Pope Francis has declared irreversible) typify a more widespread millennial response to, what may seem to be the only alternative, a vacuous nihilism. Mindless evangelicalism, stunningly represented in that most mystical of the late modern religions – the Cult of Trump, does not represent evangelicalism but typifies, I am arguing, a response found across the theological spectrum (though It may be easiest to quantify among hyper-conservative Roman Catholics, which in no way amounts to a restoration of Orthodoxy but a sort of hyper-orthodoxy).     

The alternative to the turn to authoritarianism must, of necessity, entail revisiting the issue of what constitutes an individual and his capacities for truth. The role of authority (apostolic authority, biblical authority, and ecclesiastical authority) must be understood in light of anthropology. If a person consists of an innately immortal soul, a small piece of divinity, with interior access to the divine and bearing within the capacity for transcendence, then the autonomous individual need not rely on tradition or revelation as Truth is immediately accessible. This modern Gnosis might be expressed in a pure intellectualism or in the pursuit of an ecstatic experientialism but the goal is the same: attainment of the divine from within one’s own resources.  On the other hand, if a person is incapable of transcending a particular culture, a particular time, or a particular circumstance, then one is left with complete relativism and the need for a dictatorial divine intervention. These two extremes seem to mark the move of modernity but maybe this is always our choice in the absence of the New Testament possibility of participation in the divine enabled through the incarnation.

Paul succinctly sums up the possibilities by describing gnosis as either a noun or verb. Platonic, static, knowing of an object (the noun form) is suited to both objectivity (knowing it all or knowing “something” in Paul’s account) and total relativism (an impossibility of attaining the forms or knowing “nothing” according to Paul) and both extremes are represented by what, in I Co 8, Paul calls gnosis. The static knowers of Corinth have concluded that an idol is nothing and that God is known in contrast to this nothing. One knows God, the absolute something, over and against the nothing. Paul dismisses this static gnosis: if you know something (as opposed to nothing), if you have arrived at a buttoned-down knowledge, then you do not know as you ought (8:2).  Paul poses an alternative knowing, not the Greek noun form (attainment of an object), but the Hebraic verb form of knowing a person. In the Hebrew Scriptures to “know” is inclusive of sexual intimacy, the realm of love, and the knowing of persons (personal knowledge).

Martin Buber marks the same contrasting forms as I-it (knowledge as objective – mastery of an object) and I-thou (reciprocal, personal, self/other multidimensional) knowing. What will come to be called hermeneutical understanding (Gadamer, Ricoeur) or personal knowledge (Polanyi) might be identified with Paul’s reversal of knowledge: “whoever loves God is known by God” (8:3). The starting point for this knowing is not “I” but the fact that one is known and knows himself (“themselves” in the original plural pair) through seeing the self through the eyes of God. This self-involved knowledge begins, not with nothing and something, but with an outward moving love.

Paul references the shema but incorporates Christ as the means of access into the divine reality: “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (8:6, ESV). Dynamic knowing is premised upon knowing all things, including ourselves, as deriving from and sustained by the person of Christ. Ultimate reality is personal, which pertains to Paul’s original point in regard to idols. Yes, the so-called gods are nothing but the contrast with this nothing is a completely different order of knowing – not simply knowing something. Knowing God is not to know a fact about God or the fact of God – existence as over against non-existence.  Christ as part of the shema means that knowing the oneness of God is a historical, personal process, not just in the original event of the incarnation but in the unfolding of all of our lives in a particular historical circumstance. We do not control, own, or possess this truth but participate in it.

In Corinth the catchphrase “all of us possess knowledge,” betrays the sensibility of being able to estimate who counts as all of us or who is in and who is out as if truth is delimited to those in the know. This self-selected group is imposing their values onto other Christians by viewing themselves as “all of us” or all that are strong and knowing. I presume that any Church body which presumes to say “all of us and no more” falls under Paul’s critique. Truth cannot be institutionalized, passed on through birth, or fused with citizenship. This bottled up truth, by definition, cannot be equated with the infinite unfolding depth of personal truth.

In Christ the universal intersects with the contingencies of the personal and this knowledge cannot be codified or summed up as it is continuing to unfold within our lives. As Kevin Vanhoozer has described it, Christian knowing is not a pilgrimage (directionless wandering), nor is it a crusade (conquering mastery) but it is a missionary journey in which the truth of Christ unfolds for us as we go. A self-selected group, be it Christian Church, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, etc. cannot presume to encompass, codify, or sum up universal truth (and in their orthodox origins do not presume to do so).

Truth does not have a lineage that can be traced such that we simply stand in relationship to it in a geographical, physical, relationship as if it is an object to be received or an idol to be mindlessly obeyed. Where we obey without ascertaining for ourselves the truth that is imparted, we depersonalize what we would receive and relinquish what it means to be human. Every good bureaucrat, every good soldier, every unthinking citizen, presumes authority simply calls for obedience. If this means that one disclaims responsibility for their actions or for what they know and do not know this is to give up on being human.[1] Sin, after-all, is a refusal to know as you ought (a failed notion of authority) and is thus a willful refusal of the fullness of humanness. Personal truth passes through persons not only in its origin but in its end. Persons ascertain the truth in the fullness of what it means to be a person.


[1]In Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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