May 25, 2006
Is Emergent the New Christian Left 2: Tony Jones takes on Chuck Colson and "true truth"
In part 2 of his post, Tony Jones addresses emerging church critic extraordinaire Chuck Colson. Colson sees the Emergent conversation as a threat to traditional Christian understandings of the "truth." Jones responds by discussing the interdependence of truth and community - the essence of the Emergent Village conversation.
I thank the many commenters for thoughtful and, generally, gracious comments, and I want to respond in a bit of a roundabout manner. If you can bear with me, I think I can speak to the concerns of many.
Yesterday I received my latest copy of Christianity Today. I look forward with some ambivalence to the even-numbered months' editions because they contain both the columns of my friend, Andy Crouch, and of despiser-of-all-things-emergent, Chuck Colson (and his amaneuensis and, it seems, proxy church observer, Anne Morse). Colson has had a burr under his saddle about the emerging church for some time - for instance, in his last column he equated the emerging church with namby-pamby praise music (as he was bemoaning how many Christian radio stations are dropping his daily commentaries).
What Colson's writing has in fact betrayed over the last couple of years is that he knows very little about the emerging church. In this month's column ("Emerging Confusion: Jesus is the Truth Whether We Experience Him or Not"), he recounts a recent conversation with a "young theologian" named "Jim" (whose name has been changed to protect the innocent). "Jim" asked Chuck to take it easy on the emergents; they're just trying to translate the gospel for postmodern folks, "Jim" pleaded. That's a noble motive, Chuck replied, but if they undermine truth, then all is lost.
In his penultimate paragraph, Colson refers to D.A. Carson, fellow critic of Emergent, who argues that objective truth precedes relational truth. Colson then weighs in with this philosophical doozy: "Truth is truth." (Why don't you read that again.)
You see, by saying that "truth is truth," Colson is essentially saying...well, nothing. That's called a "self-referential argument," or a "circular reference" and it's non-sensical; it doesn't say anything, and it doesn't mean anything. I can't tell you how many times I've been speaking and heard similar statements. I'll spend a couple hours doing my best to lay out a rather intricate understanding of truth and interpretation, only to be told by an audience member that some things are "really, really true," "true with a capital 'T'" or my personal favorite, "true truth."
But if I can try to surmise Colson's meaning from the subtitle of the essay, he means to indicate that we in the emerging church have placed too much weight on "relational" or "experiential" theories of truth. The gospel is true, Colson seems to be saying, regardless of your human experience of that truth.
But philosophically, the obvious follow-up question is, Why? What makes the gospel true, especially if those of us in the world have no experience of its truthfulness? Is it true because Chuck Colson says so? Because Augustine said so? Because Paul said so? Is it true because, as Karl Barth might say, God's revelatory action that breaks into our space-time continuum? But isn't even that subject to our interpretation of the event?
In the essay, Colson also warns us in the emerging church about being in league with Stanley Fish, postmodernist extraordinaire and, to Colson's thinking, the epitome of yucky liberalism. Colson quotes Fish as saying that there are no "independent standards of objectivity." Truth cannot be proven to another human being, and thus, Colson concludes, Fish is arguing that truth cannot be known.
But, in fact, Fish says nothing of the kind. What Fish says is that objectivity is unattainable. In his excellent book, Is There a Text in this Class?, Fish argues that truth comes to be known in and among and on the basis of "the authority of interpretive communities." We are subjective human beings, trapped in our own skins and inevitably influenced by the communities in which we find ourselves. And isn't this what the church is, or at least should be: an authoritative community of interpretation? Indeed, isn't this just what Colson did when he converted to Christianity in prison many years ago: placed himself under the authority of the church of Jesus Christ?
What I was trying to get at in my blog post earlier this week is that Emergent Village endeavors to be a catalyst of conversation, community, and, ultimately, interpretation. We want the church to reclaim its place as the authoritative community of interpretation of scripture, culture, and human existence. We want Christians to be engaged politically and culturally, and we want to provoke robust and respectful dialogue around issues that matter. Many of us think that the polemical nature of the church today precludes just this kind of necessary conversation. So, we're going ahead and doing it, with or without the imprimatur of evangelical elites like Colson and Carson.
If that's a compelling vision for you, then jump on board, we're glad to have you. If, however, you'd like to first see our doctrinal statement on penal substitution or read a position paper on homosexuality, then Emergent Village isn't for you.