In his "View of Delft" the painter Vermeer gives us more than a view of the old Dutch town. He takes us across the river to look at Delft, as well-known in the 17th century as today with its canals, churches, merchant houses and protective walls, a place of prosperous citizens. We are also shown what Vermeer thought of the world around him. We admire the city built up before us with its clear colors, its shades and sunny walls, its church spires and gables after the air has been washed in a recent sudden rain. We are introduced to what Vermeer saw and what he thought about the world around him.
Vermeer and his contemporaries lived in a world that could and was supposed to be seen. The facts, events and situations themselves stood in time and in people's actual lives. They spoke for an objectivity of events and relations, a confidence of place and meaning.
In addition, it is a world that could and should be explained. The historic continuity of the buildings came from the past and would continue into future for generations to come. People create a town, a civic and private life with continuity from the past into the future. The picture preserves this moment of time on canvas, a memorial to the past, a mirror of the present and a promise of the future.
There is a certainty expressed in this and many other pictures of the 17th century about both the real world and the way to understand human existence in it. Only recently both navigation and optics, local skills and foreign trade, inventions of all kinds had confirmed on a deeper and intelligent level the objectivity of the real world. The Bible gave the intellectual and cultural framework, into which events, people, ideas and daily work fit like a picture into a frame.
At the same time Descartes in France, under the influence of the beginning period of the Enlightenment and its dismissal of the Bible, would take these tools to become sure of only himself as one thinking, observing, writing. The Dutch with their more Biblical orientation saw in the discoveries of the real world a confirmation of the truth of creation as the stage of human existence, a continuity of the stage of life mentioned in the Bible.
They stood in the stream of those, believers or not, who assumed that Christianity is true, because it affirms the real world as it is. The Bible was not seen as an authoritarian book, to be believed or rejected as an authority without reason. It had authority, because it explains the real world from the view point of the author of creation. That author spoke to the creature made in his image and explained what he had made, including the tragic consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve in all of history. The Bible was God's word, it did not become God's word for the believer and remained merely a religious text for the non-believer.
Such certainty has been washed away in many circles since then. The doubt of the Enlightenment has taken over. Suggested contradictions between science and the Bible put pressure on its trustworthiness. In the exposure to other religions, the uniqueness of Christianity has been questioned. And, perhaps far more serious than these questions and doubts about the outside world, a desire for certainty has been replaced by an interest in nothing more than personal certitude on the inner screen of man's consciousness. Instead of being sure of something, we are left with a desire to feel sure personally.
This shift in interest or orientation tells us more about the inner life of people than about a world out there. A painting from that perspective would reveal the joy or confusion of the painter's psychological state without any reference to the outside world of visible, common reality. The houses of Delft would no longer matter, the light would be in the gallery, the clouds on the brow of the viewer. It would be a picture of extreme individuality and arrogance and would say little about the world in which we live and how to understand it. Much of modern art is such a statement of individual conditions, not a statement of certainty about the real world. Certainty is little more than arrogant posturing.
A similar loss of the concept of what is true and real has crept, perhaps insidiously, into the church. This is no sudden and dramatic change of direction, though there has been drama at times. Just as a painter will work and rework his canvas, mix his colors and change his arrangements or even his medium, so also have events, a different emphasis and historical and cultural circumstances contributed to a surprising decline in certainty in our culture.
I am alarmed by the degree in which the certainty found in Christianity has been abandoned. It has been replaced by a far smaller view of things. Each person lives in his or her circle of reality, unrelated to the world of history, cause and effect, ideas and consequences. Instead, each person tells and values his story and assumes that it is of general interest. They 'share' their lives, their experiences, their feelings without any restraint, critical evaluation, shame or humility. Their private world, their personal relationship with their spouse or their God are of central importance. They do not know why this is so, except that this is all they know. It is important to them, because little else seems to matter.
Our education no longer tells us something about the sweep of human drama through time and in different places. It no longer invites us to enter a foreign culture through its language and religion. It does not teach us that perspective is a concept that binds mathematics, philosophy and art together in a bundle of perception. There is little thrill and frustration in the discovery of the continuity of human history. More relevant is the feeling each person has about themselves. Their hopes and hobbies are given focus. They are always in center stage. Each person is the sun in his own solar system.
It is perhaps unwelcome to discover how much our own Christian understanding has contributed to this. The focus on personal salvation, on personal relationships and on personal testimonies is important in the Biblical context, because God and Man are personal. Their relationship is between persons. It is the result of choice, devotion, love, obedience and enjoyment. Persons do not relate merely functionally or as energy particles.
However, a focus on personal truth in our modern world is a focus on private truth. Submission to something real is less important than a personal choice to believe and experience something, almost anything. This is a radical departure from the Biblical context. Personal truth without the whole view of the Bible concerning life is nothing more than a religious version of the post-modernist dilemma. It is the denial of any general truth. When truth has to receive a adjective as a qualifier, it is no longer true.
How differently Jesus thought and spoke. In John 17:17 he prays to the Father that he would sanctify the disciples by the truth. "Your word is truth." The Holy Spirit is given to help believers discover and remember the truth. He comforts them from the truth in situations, which seem to not fit into our expectations. That truth is not personal, but it addresses us as persons: in our thoughts, in our heart and in our will.
The very notion that God's word is truth has become foreign to both believers and non-believers. The latter reject for whatever reason the claims of God, the descriptions of reality and the facts set forth as historical in Scripture. They follow a different authority to explain all of life, even if that authority does not speak about the common world of men and women. They believe something which does not see our common reality in the same way. I believe that they have a lot of faith in their explanations, even if they do not relate to the real world.
I am not religious enough to believe in that way. I need to have my confirmations, my proofs and my evidences.
Surprisingly, many Christians do not show much concern about what is true. Mind you, they also have their beliefs. They make their nice doctrinal assertions. They live according to what they believe in a good measure. They hold their positions with faithfulness. But they rarely ask whether what they believe is true.
It is true for them. They will explain with passion and love, why they believe this or that. They will try to give evidence for their belief in personal experiences. The Lord often told them these things directly. They will testify to their belief and their experiences. They will show that "it" works, that the Lord has blessed. By various ways they will try to explain and demonstrate, why they hold what they hold.
They will hand you books, sermons and the example of great men and women. They will refer to historic moments. They appeal to these sources for a justification of their faith, much the way some Roman Catholics will forever refer to the teaching of the church as the authority of their position. They appeal to historic continuity, while most Christians have only their story to tell. All that is very precious, powerful, personal. They are committed. I am convinced they believe it and that it is true to their heart.
But is it true? Jehovah's Witnesses also have their texts, their authorities, their experiences. The tragedy of it all rests in the failure to ask whether it is true in any larger sense.
The failure to be concerned about truth is rooted in three contributions to modern life, which make the interest in truth so much more difficult. The first is the effect of tolerant democracy on our thinking. That should help us become more humble about our own conclusions, to weigh them against the findings of others and to end up with sharper reasons for what we do conclude. Democracy should raise all the necessary questions, not provide us with myriad options.
The second is the privatization of truth. We are told that we all see the world from a very limited perspective of our own village, culture and personal needs. In the end we all must believe something we want to believe. There is no way to be really sure in any objective sense. What things are common we all see from different angles. Our language is the result of external conditions, personal needs and hopes and personal stories. So we all become little Frank Sinatras and "do it our way."
The third reason is that truth no longer matters in the same way that belief in a personal authority does. God is a person, we are told, and truth is relational. While that should not be denied, it must be established at first , whether the person of God is trustworthy. In a world like ours, where there are deception, confusion, lies and strange authorities, one should be more discerning. In addition our world is one marked by death, war and evil. This raises the questions about God's silence or even absence.
In each case, the confidence found in Vermeer and his time about being able to know the real world and the explanation of that world has been watered down, if not abandoned. Where he had certainty, modern man struggles to have certitude only: the confidence that he can feel good about himself and his view of life. He no longer asks the question whether it is true. He is into "relationships" and wonders how his beliefs relate to his way of life: does it give him a feeling of optimism, even pride and a good feeling? Does his belief help him find a fellowship of like believers? In the market of ideas or the shopping mall of churches, is his belief user-friendly both in its obvious ease and uncomplicated propositions and in that it makes the user friendly to others? Does it enable him to understand the world of his own life in such a fashion that he either approves of or objects to everything that happens in an uncomplicated and obvious way?
The Bible encourages the pursuit of truth prior to any belief or obedience. Not only does God encourage, rather than punish, those who argue with him to find out more about God. There is no punishment or rejection of Job, Moses, Jeremiah, Habbakuk or Jesus. They argue with God in different situations of hardship and doubt, of exposure to a broken world and puzzling historic events.
God wants to be found as the living God; he also wants to be found out to be good, reliable, faithful and compassionate. It is important to know that the world in its present historic reality is precisely not a reflection of God. He does not pull the strings. He does not want to be identified with all that takes place. He does not want to be discovered in and through history. The knowledge of God comes through his word, i.e. what he has said and proposed about Man in the context of reality. We are to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, not from anecdotes, events and personal stories.
In contrast to almost all the religions of the world, Judaism and Christianity put Man on a pedestal in the area of knowing what is true. Man alone, male and female, is made in the image of God. Man alone is able to receive and understand God's word. Jesus, quoting Ps 82: 6, even calls humans gods, because they are able to receive God's word and apply it to life's difficult choices. (Jn 10:34,35). God himself wants us to reason with him. The thoughts of God, said to be higher than our thoughts (Is 55:8), are communicated, explained and fitting. They are not 'other' or higher in their magnificent incomprehensibility. They are surprisingly wonderful in their content of a promised Messiah, the fulfillment of the covenant to David. Where we thought that all hope should be abandoned, God had a way to redeem us without cost to ourselves.
Practical consequences follow this focus: the proposition that God is truthful, that his universe is lawful and that his commands are fitting. Unquestioning obedience is not rewarded. In fact, it would be foolish to be obedient to someone who would not allow himself to be found out as different from the normality of a fallen world history. Instead, there are reasons for the things God commands. He is to be believed, because of the good reasons he gives and not because it is good to obey without questions, without reason.
The Bible often equates sin with foolishness. To not believe what God has said is to believe something foolish about any area of life. It is foolish, because there are no reasons, wisdom or justification. The facts stack up differently. The real world is the one God describes. Sin is having an illusion about reality.
It is foolish to believe that there are any number of Gods. All but Jehovah are made up in the projection of hope or despair in the mind of Man. They are an attempt to explain why things happen. Most religions in fact are not any further along than the pre-Socratic Greeks in their view that thunder is the effect of Zeus throwing his hammer across the sky. They try to establish a link between events in nature and some bigger explanation. They try to avoid loose ends and blame gods for everything. They try to establish a unity among all particulars of life.
However there are no other gods, whose existence would explain the real world, including the manishness of Man. Buddhism and other Eastern religions deny the world. Reality is an illusion. Islam calls all of history good. African tribal deities threaten Man with severe punishment, if he questions the normality of suffering. Materialism has never been able to explain the personalness of human beings. There are no other explanations outside of the Bible for the form of the universe and the particular difference of Man. It is foolish to believe something, when it does not correspond to the real world.
In the same manner, it is foolish to make a graven image of God. For God does not dwell in houses or pictures, if he is eternal and exists forever. This does not make him timeless, but it expresses his greatness and sheds light on the reminder that God is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, not in a location.
Likewise, it is foolish to not see that everything exists only because someone made it. We are not told "You shall not steal" to measure our obedience to a standard. We are not told to abstain from stealing, because our example and Lord, Jesus, never stole. We are given that and other commands, because of what is true in the nature of the universe. It is the creation of God. It belongs to him. In the same way, everything is owned by someone, who made it, whether the bicycle leaning on a post, the book in the library, the savings in the bank. Stealing is to pretend that I can have things without working for them. It is a lie about the nature of reality.
Our Yes should be yes, our No no for the simple reason that we live in a universe of definitions, fixed dimensions and underlying rationality. The God of the Bible spoke and it was. He looked at it and declared it good. With sin entered confusion, pretense and a double standard. Consequently it is essential that we distinguish between what is true and false, right and wrong, imagined and real. Most importantly, our language, that precious and central means of figuring out the nature of reality, should accurately describe what is and what should be.
There should be a relationship between word and meaning, between shadow and substance, between symbol and reality. For these reasons, we should say what we mean and mean what we say, or be silent. We should not overlook pain and injustice. We should not give false praise or false descriptions. We should not make an impression, when the reality lacks substance. We should not sell as good, desirable and lasting anything that is fake. For when a person's word is broken, all reason for trust, communication and society is but a cloud of dust.
I am surprised by the degree in which Christians emphasize obedience as a virtue. In response to the search for freedom and the anarchists of the past generations, Christians have often taught that obedience is a virtue. How distorted is this view! How optimistic and naive is this perspective! If anything, the Bible talks about the need to distinguish between truth and lies, between good and bad kings, faithful and unfaithful teachers and fair and unfair judges. In the world after the Fall, no-one is to be trusted, until trust is established. Professing to be a Christian does not establish a basis for trust, but a basis for a greater obligation to be truthful.
Being a Christian teacherdoes not mean we are always better teachers. Christian music can be lousy. Political participation by Christians is often too narrow with a single focus. It lacks wisdom in a world of limited possibilities and less than perfect human beings. Christians can only be trusted in so far as their belief and commitment obliges them to become more truthful.
The problem, today as in any generation, is that we trust too easily our chosen authorities of church or state, academic or the nice person next door. First the basis for such trust has to be established and proven. The child in the play ground needs to know that not everyone is a friend and that even friends do wrong. I should not take candies from strangers, drugs from friends and peers, ideas from a dynamic personality or information from text books. I must always reserve judgment, wait for more information, hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Love covers a multitude of sins, but it does not excuse them. It forgives them, when forgiveness is requested. Faith believes all things, but does not excuse me from the need for an open mind, critical investigation and a certain amount of cynicism and moral courage. Paul, whom we quote when we say these things, did not believe that Peter's return to legalism in Antioch was to be accepted. He reprimanded him and others strongly in the church.
The public demonstrations of Christianity in America is startling to a foreigner. We admire it in many ways. Yet, we are also amazed about the lack of Christian weight in the general culture. Perhaps the reasons for the distance between the number of people in Bible studies, church members and Christian publications on one hand and their undistinguished effect in the public life of the nation can be found in the habit of strong adherence to personal opinions in a democratic context of our modern times. The former ( having an opinion, anecdote and personal story) does not weigh in with any importance. The latter (the democratic setting) allows all opinions to exist side by side, without any need to weigh them against each other. The modern setting starts with the assumption that there is no truth. Therefore there is also no need to be factual, reasonable and knowledgeable.
Instead we listen to self-appointed athorities, which place millstones around our neck. We continue a tradition of merchants selling snake oil. We listen to tall stories. A culture that struggled so hard for personal freedom finds itself more and more exposed to false authorities in groups or in untested personal opinions without much awareness of the need for greater critical distance..
The frivolous relativism of a pluralistic society is met with a call for order and obedience. Parents and teachers assume the responsibility to teach it. A form is imposed to demonstrate more power than wisdom. Children are taught to transfer acquired patterns of obedience from parents to God at a later stage. Seminars on obedience and punishment for disobedience draw crowds of anxious parents. But rarely is wisdom considered. Growing up in a fallen world, relationships between children and less than perfect parents demand more than obedience as an unexamined virtue. The whole response to confusion is not a quest for authority, but a hunger for an authority structure, for rules and regulations.
Much like the government, rules and regulations now control our life and give it shape. We no longer ask the question about truth, wisdom and possibilities in a world of cause and effect. We know little about what it means to be a human being and therefore invent a mold in the hope that whatever is squeezed into it will come out as a human being. In fact, however, what the mold has released is a person incapable of responsible choices, either stupidly obedient or frivolously irresponsible, unstable and crude.
When the emphasis is on personal stories, personal faith and private fellowships, the quest for truth, which invigorated the church and society in the Christian past, will die. We will still be very active, have support groups and feel good about ourselves with the certitude that we are on the right track. But we will not have the certainty exhibited in Vermeer or our Founding Fathers. For we will have abandoned the quest for and real truth.
Just like the answer to the educational crisis in this country will not be found in better pay for teachers, more computers and an E-mail address for every class room, so the confusion in our larger society will not be found in voluntary associations and interest groups. They may serve a good purpose, if the far more basic question about the truth of Man in the real world has received an encompassing, not a personal answer. But much in our education, church teaching and private habits works against the very notion that we live in an objective, real and historic world.
We like out foolish ways. Each person can set up an unquestioned authority in his own world. But the foundation under the concept and the word TRUTH has been washed away in pursuit of personal truth.
Udo W. Middelmann, Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation