Christians are quite concerned about truth.
For example, Os Guiness argues that Christian truth is opposed to pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism. Yet as I discussed last week, we must be careful to distinguish between pragmatism and being pragmatic; between subjectivism and being subjective; between relativism and being relative.
The issue is that while certain ideologies are destructive their underlying orientations may be helpful (and even necessary). For example, the ‘ism’ in pragmatism specifies an ideology—it means that a pragmatic orientation is not simply accepted but is one’s “guiding principle.” So when someone embraces pragmatism ‘functionality‘ becomes more important to that person than anything, even truthfulness.
Now I agree that truthfulness should be a guiding principle for everyone, Christian or not.1 But we must be very careful not to confuse destructive ideologies with proper, human orientations, especially when such orientations are necessary to assessing the Bible’s truth claims correctly (orientations such as being pragmatic, subjective, and relative). Why necessary?
Here’s why: Christianity concerns not simply intellectual assent but relational content.
In other words, Christianity is not only thinking rightly about God but being rightly disposed to God, and these two things are reciprocal. So to be in right relationship with God I must know some true things about God (i.e., that this God alone is God, that the Bible especially reveals this God, that I communicate with God by prayer, etc.). Yet I can only understand and believe the Bible’s relational claims about God (i.e., that God knows me and loves me) through personal experience.
Further, while right disposition begins with right understanding, their reciprocal relation means that right disposition also creates right belief and understanding! So Christians generally understand that one cannot rightly relate to God if this God is conceived of (and so is pursued) as Allah, the Hindu Gods, etc. Yet they often misunderstand that the Bible’s undeniably personal and relational claims (i.e., that God knows me better than I know myself and loves more deeply than I love myself) can only be validated through personal experience.
And validating these relational truth claims—recognizing their truth value—requires being pragmatic, relativistic, and subjective.
This is so because these truth claims are both intellectual and relational, in keeping with a) my human nature as situated and finite and b) God’s nature, who is love, and so seeks to be in relationship with me. Intellectually, I assess any truth claim from my subjective viewpoint and relative to my finite experience. Yet relationally I am always seeking my own good (I’m pragmatic because it matters to me how things turn out in my own life), and so claims about being known and loved must turn out to be just that!2
Now having personal experience of God does not necessitate that everyone experiences God in dramatic and undeniable ways. But my hunch is that it does mean that within current communities of Christians there will be personal experiences of relating with God that validate the truth claim that “God knows and loves us” in deep—and deeply healing and satisfying—ways.
What do I mean?
By “current communities” I mean that it is not enough to read how God delivered Israel, supported David, or even how Jesus healed and fed many. I believe these accounts. However, my argument is that the Bible’s claims that God is real and good are validated by experiencing God delivering, restoring and healing now, in the lives of real people. Literally.3
By “personal experiences” I do not mean that God will appear to everyone similarly or with the same intensity. Instead, Christianity endorses testimony—understandable accounts from credible people—as a valid way to know and understand God. Through testimony I understand and am mentored in the relational component of Christian faith. In this respect I would say that God engages with humanity personally but not individually.
Considering these questions may help:
a) If you are Christian, what relational experiences of God are important within your Christian community?
b) If you are not Christian, what relational experiences have been important in your life?