As a high school student, I was naively but endearingly passionate for God the way new Christians often are. I organized See You at the Pole gatherings. I tried to share the gospel with at least one person every day. I had a lot of room to grow, for sure, but I was confident my growth would proceed in linear fashion. I would daily add to my knowledge of truth, and my faith would increase the way a tree adds layers, getting stouter and stronger each year.
I went to a Christian liberal arts college to add to my storehouse of truth. But instead of adding, I started questioning a lot of things I thought were true. I wondered if we can really even know the truth, and if the ways we apprehend it—our minds, our reason—are inherently flawed. I was headed toward a full-blown postmodern existential crisis. From an outsider’s perspective, the leaves on my tree of faith were withering and falling.
Around this time, something shifted in me. Through a combination of reading, wise teachers, and workings of the Spirit, I came to realize that truth is not an object—a thing to possess, collect, and dissect. It’s a person—the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus says it Himself in John’s Gospel, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus—the wandering rabbi from Nazareth who laughed, cried, and washed His friends’ feet—is the fullest expression of God’s truth we have. All other truths—doctrines, statements, facts—are human attempts to encapsulate bits of the mystery of truth contained in the person of Christ. We come to God not through knowing the right things—though this surely helps—but through knowing Jesus.
I went to a Christian college to add to my storehouse of truth, but I started questioning a lot of things.
Seeing truth primarily as the dynamic, living person of Jesus, and only secondarily as abstract ideas, has changed a lot about how I relate to it. And it’s changed how I engage others with questions.
Venturing into the Unknown
Truth is not something I can master, as if it were a set of fill-in-the-blanks on a test. If truth is a person, then I can approach it only through what Martin Buber calls an “I-Thou” relationship: a holistic, two-way connection where we admit we will never thoroughly know the other side. I will never fully know the depths of my husband, a finite human being, much less Jesus Christ, through whom the world was made.
In an “I-Thou” relationship, we allow what we know to transform us. When we do this, we take a position of humility, allowing that we might be wrong and our lives radically altered. This is a hard posture to maintain, because we all prefer the stability of always being right.
Today, we live in what many call a “post-truth climate.” We choose to filter out what might challenge our views, rather than accept ideas that call our beliefs into question. Because of this, in many Christian communities, we are impatient to hammer out a neat system of beliefs. As a consequence, we often see those living with ambiguity—or holding seemingly contradictory beliefs in tension—as deserters of truth, rather than honest seekers.
When we see truth as living and active, we realize it cannot be pinned down, as if it were a dead butterfly.
When we see truth as living and active, we realize it cannot be pinned down, as if it were a dead butterfly. Rather, we encounter it, and it constantly changes us. This requires us to leave behind the fear that keeps us trapped in the safe zones of what we already know and abandon ourselves to the wild places where the Spirit is at work. To paraphrase the wise Mr. Beaver from C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, “‘Course Truth isn’t safe, but he is good.”
Venturing into the unknown with Jesus is much like taking a swim in the ocean. The waves are choppy, the vastness overwhelming, and drowning is a real possibility. A wise friend of mine once assured me of this: If you stay close to shore, trying to stand up on your own, it seems unmanageable, because you are constantly buffeted by the tide. But out past the breakers, the sea calms, and you are held up by quiet depths.
Beyond Proof and Certainty
Much of modern-day apologetics seeks to prove the Christian faith through establishing “irrefutable arguments and unshakeable evidence for the truth,” as Roger Lundin writes in The Culture of Interpretation. I find this unhelpful because it only underscores the fact that there are some things we cannot prove beyond a doubt.
Does the fact that we cannot prove something make it untrue? I can’t absolutely prove that my husband loves me and will never cheat on me. I don’t know the future. There is no objective “love test” that he can take. Yet, I know what has passed between us, and I have based my life on the trustworthiness—the truth—of his vows of faithfulness to me.
Evidence and reason do have their place in establishing the credibility of Christianity, but if we make these the only basis for faith, trying to achieve absolute certainty, we reduce God to the boxes of our human understanding. We presume to stand above Christ and see all of Him, instead of admitting that now we “know in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
How, then, are we to share the gospel? Lundin puts it well: “To be a Christian is to bear witness to what you have discovered and what has been revealed to you, and to bear witness is not to prove the truth indubitably but to proclaim it confidently.” We tell of the love we have known in Christ, and we recount His faithfulness in our lives. We humbly admit we don’t know everything and trust that whatever new truth we encounter will lead us closer to Christ, who is Truth Himself.
As for my existential crisis, there is still less and less I can say I know “for sure” as each year passes. Yet the things that I do know—of Jesus and His character—I understand more deeply and fully, not as ideas to defend, but as a person I love. The leaves of my faith tree may have fallen. But what remains—bare branches against a cloudless blue sky—I see all the more clearly and hold all the more closely.