Reflection for Pentecost

After actually getting ahead of myself, with two posts already written for this blog, I then had an idea based on something sung by the choir yesterday for Pentecost Sunday. The anthem was an invocation to the Holy Spirit, beginning with the words ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:’ The anthem includes these words: ‘Such a truth as ends all strife.’ After writing about strife, coercion and struggle for over 18 months, I know that there is a very good case to be made for saying that when ‘truth’ is pursued, it is a major cause of strife. Churches all over the world proclaim the truth of their dogma, their teaching and their traditions. These teachings are then often compared with those of other churches, and it is declared, sometimes aggressively, that the theology and truth held by these other bodies is dangerously in error. Conflict is aroused, even wars are fought over the question as to who, in fact, possesses truth. Such use of violence to promote a version of truth is supposed to show devotion, not only to this truth, but also to the God who is its author. A thinking along such lines is evidently going through the minds of the Isis fighters. ‘We have the truth and others must be compelled to accept it, even if we have to kill them to achieve this.’

When a Christian or anyone else believes that they have the truth and must fight to protect and preserve it, it can be said that they do not have it. What they have may or may not have some approximation to the ‘Truth’ but it certainly can never be identified completely with the real thing. Why do I say this with such confidence? It is because that when we give a moment’s thought as to what God’s truth might look like, we know that it will have a perfection and a compelling quality about it which none of us can really imagine. It is a kind of blasphemy to attempt to associate it with violence or any kind of compulsion. Truth like that will need no defence from others – it will be its own testimony. We can safely assert that the ‘truth as ends all strife’ is not likely to be in the complete possession of anyone. It is a truth that we can move towards and glimpse rather than ever possess. The truth that is the gift of the Holy Spirit will include many other facets- love, forgiveness, compassion and peace, all in abundance. It cannot lack these same qualities that we want to ascribe to God. The logical conclusion that we can make from referring to this kind of truth, is that all the truths we have are, at best, partial incomplete manifestations of this Spirit truth, or, at worse, distortions of it.

As I went on to reflect about the meaning of truth and the way we try to defend and contest for our partial versions of it, I realised that there is another word we use which, like truth, needs no defence. That word is goodness. Both truth and goodness, when they are fully realised, will never take refuge in violence; they will always reach out with loving compassion and understanding to places and people where they are absent. ‘Overcome evil with good’, said Paul. How we actually do that in practice raises many problems. I am not suggesting for a moment that Paul’s injunction is an easy one to follow but at least we can see that he is right, even if we don’t know how to put what he says into practice every time.

Our blog has encountered many situations where a individual or group seeks to impose a version of ‘truth’ on another, using coercion and force. Our Pentecost motet about the Holy Spirit suggests that their understanding of truth is simply wrong because Spirit or divine truth never has to defend or promote itself in this way. This truth that is being referred to is one that we are, at best, moving towards or aiming at. The truth of God himself can never be possessed . If Christians were ever to be able to agree that none of us in fact possesses God’s truth, then ecumenism could begin to be reborn. This would say, in so many words, that each Christian tradition has glimpsed something of God in their time and context. To use another image, Christians within different traditions have all been given different pieces of vast complex jigsaw puzzle. Many of the pieces have been revealed but there are perhaps still more to be found in the future. A general acceptance of this idea of the incompleteness of ‘truth’ would help to take away the antagonism and the hostility that exists among and between Christians, just as it also exists within Islam.

If all Christians were truly to believe in a truth that ‘ends all strife’, then we could start to see a healing of all the centuries old divisions that exist at present. One particular quality that has to be reborn, and which is in short supply at present, is the gift of humility. One Christian would need to say to another. Our traditions are different from one another but you have something to teach me. Learning from another Christian is one way to remove the arrogance and superiority about others that corrupts many Christian bodies. To strip away the centuries of caricatures directed towards other groups and focus on the actual experiences that have brought Christian bodies closer to God, would indeed be a revolution. The sad reality is that many Christian groups are defined, not by their fresh understandings of God, but through a polemical stand that was taken by a founder, decades or centuries before. The word ‘Protestant’ has this double meaning, one good and one bad. The good meaning of ‘protest’ is the proclamation of a new insight or discovery of the Christian gospel. The bad meaning is the targeting of other Christian bodies which are opposed for reasons that have nothing to do with God, but are perhaps social, personal or political.

A Pentecost prayer: Faithful God ….by sending to us your Holy Spirit and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: open our lips by your Spirit, that every tongue may tell of your glory.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

5 thoughts on “Reflection for Pentecost

  1. I do appreciate this piece. And agree as far as it goes. However I do think that it is not maybe only evangelicals who suffer from a rather too narrow definition of truth.

    I think it is from reading Tom Wright with his excellent description of the first century Jewish context of the gospels, that has broadened my understanding of truth. Is not truth, more than our post-enlightenment view (which is mostly limited to propositional “truths” or “facts”). Is it not in the New Testament more? Incorporating a more holistic dimension?

    So when I read John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth and the life…” I hear – “I am the way you can see what the authentic, godly, holy life looks like”

    When we associate the word “truth” in our heads with the word “integrity”, it is both more challenging personally, and more mutually encouraging, rather than the implicit judgemental-ism of the enlightenment (narrow, lightweight) view of truth.

    And to the Pentecost prayer – a loud AMEN!

  2. In defence of my piece, I would say that I was not thinking of evangelicals when I wrote about Christians thinking that they ‘possessed’ the truth. Every Christian denomination is guilty of this kind of truth defining and it goes back earlier than the Enlightenement. The early Church fathers pulled other’s beards (literally) at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in defense of their understandings of truth. Integrity is a good word as it captures the human aspect of truth. Another similar word is ‘wholeness’ When Jesus said said that we should be ‘perfect’ as our heavenly father is perfect, he was meaning something very close to our words, whole and integrated. Neither word, thankfully, can ever be defined in propositional terms. Long live all words that defy any attempt make definitions of them. The dictionary is never a complete guide to truth because human beings (and God) always transcend that kind of defined truth. I have in the past written about ‘shalom’, another word that gracefully slips beyond tight definitions.

  3. It has been an adage of mine for many years that “We do not posses the truth but seek to be posessed by the truth”

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