Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One True Way?

While perusing the blog of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington the other day, I found this entry about a survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust regarding statistics on religion in America. To judge from Witherington's blog entry title, one of his main concerns about the study's findings is that so many people who profess not only to be Christians, but "evangelicals," are not in agreement about Jesus being "the only way of salvation." I'm not sure I differ from Witherington in my theology on the matter, but that part wasn't really what caught my attention.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I tend to get a bit annoyed when people, especially Christians, get too confident in believing that they know God's will absolutely. I believe that people should exercise humility, recognizing that we are finite human beings, and prone to errors in judgment. While I do not believe that all interpretations are equal (in fact, I find the accusation of such more than a little offensive), I do believe that interpretations are not the same as actual truth, and that the difference must be acknowledged more than it usually is.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the part of the study that bothered me the most was the following (copied from Witherington's account of the survey).
...more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions.
That word, "true," is the key for me. I do not believe that there is more than one "true" way to interpret the teachings of Christianity. I do believe that there is more than one "valid" way to interpret such teachings.

Perhaps it's hard to see the difference between the two terms, so I'll attempt an explanation. I believe that there can be only one "truth" (Watch someone try to come in and say things like, yes, two plus two is four and my place of residence is in Monrovia, CA. Already, before getting any deeper, I've acknowledged more than one true thing that can exist simultaneously. Have a gold star. That's not what I'm talking about by "truth."). Either God (granting that God exists) has a plan for my life or God doesn't. Either God intends for women to be able to serve in ministerial roles, or such roles are intended by God to be limited to men alone. I could go on. These are teachings that different Christian traditions have different teachings on, and I generally argue for greater tolerance among Christians when dealing with those of us who believe differently. However, I don't believe that it's possible for both interpretations to be "true." I do believe that both are "valid" interpretations of the revelation we have been given (please note that I'm not suggesting that they're necessarily "equally valid"). But those of us who have made the interpretation in one direction are wrong, while those of us who have made another may be right (indeed, it's possible--even probable--that we're all wrong, excepting for these logical either/or dualisms!).

The big issue I have with those who proclaim too much confidence in knowing the truth is that it states too strongly that other believers with just as much access to God and to God's teachings are still nonetheless proclaiming "untruths." I simply don't believe that we have sufficient knowledge to know who's right and who isn't with that degree of confidence. Who are you, a mere fellow human, to tell me that I'm not hearing God, and am not interpreting God's word faithfully?

But to say that there is more than one "true" interpretation? I just can't go there. Some interpretations are right while others are wrong. We just don't always know which are which.

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