What is Truth?

In a world of ‘fake news’ and social media platforms where anyone and everyone can have a say, express opinion, and pontificate on any subject, how do we discern what is true?  In a world where there are competing powers, conflicting opinions and varying sets of data, what is right and true?  How do I know what is right and whether my opinion or understanding is actually correct?  Too often there seems to be an expectation that ‘what I believe and think’ must correspond to truth, even when others think differently.

There was a story of several groups of people looking up at a mountain.  They were positioned around the mountain and saw from different angles and perspectives and each saw uniquely.  One group saw that the mountain had one strong, high peak and it went vertically upward in a very steep, impossible way.  Another group also saw the one according to an agreed preaching strategy peak but there was a long even slope up to the summit and much easier to navigate.  A third group saw two peaks, one slightly smaller than the other.  They were separate and distinct.  Another group saw two peaks as well, but these were closer together and appeared to be well connected high up.  Everywhere around the mountain there was a different view and perspective.  The first two groups could not see the second peak hidden behind the larger one and so on.

Which group expressed the truth?  All of them and none of them.  They each had a part of the truth and yet other elements of the whole picture eluded them.  The truth was bigger than any of the groups could realise and understand.  I suspect that the truth is always bigger than what I can see, discern or know.  It is also dependent upon my view, my perspective, or the ‘lens’ through which I observe life, the world and people.  I bring many assumptions and preconceived ideas that colour how I see the world.  I bring a paradigm of the world and how it works and how everything fits into the order that I imagine is correct – and I assume that others see in the same way!  I experience people, places and situations in particular ways and interpret them through the lens of my previous experiences and world-view.  Sometimes my truth is closer to reality and often it is far from expressing ‘the whole truth’.  When it comes to people I only ever see or experience so much of who they are – just as I am only experienced in particular ways by others.  People are much more complex, and their stories and humanity is unique and I have to be constantly reminded that I do not know all there is about another human being.

I also do not know the whole truth about the world, it cultures, struggles, crises, or the reason things are the way they are.  I have many opinions, some of which are good, and others are naively ignorant – and many in between.  I am caught in the ever-present struggle to know what is true and see more clearly.  As a minister I am constantly proclaiming a message to congregations and in my current role often caught in situations of conflict or confusion and seeking to work with others to find a clear way forward.  Seeking to discover truth about a particular event, situation or way of seeing the world is always fraught and difficult.  We get caught up in our own belief systems and see the church, the world and other people as we have always seen or experienced them or as we’ve been taught to see and understand them.  It is harder and more confronting to encounter the person behind the image, the reality that lies within the construct we build around people based on colour, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, politics, religious beliefs, socio-economic and career status, education and so on.  We build up quick pictures of people and situations based on quick observations and the acquisition of particular pieces of information and look at them through the lens of that colour, perspective and define them accordingly.

So, what is truth?  Where is it found?  I come to these questions from another direction today.  This question about truth echoes down through the pages of a story of Jesus written by John (John 18:33-37) where Jesus is being questioned by the local Roman authority, Pontius Pilate.  In a quick to and fro about kingship and guilt, Pilate responds to Jesus’ statement that he came to proclaim truth.  ‘What is truth?’ replies Pilate.  He is caught in place between a seemingly harmless, even innocent man and the Jewish authorities who want his blood.  What is truth?  He is concerned about the description of Jesus as a king – King of the Jews.  ‘Are you a king?’, he asks.  Jesus doesn’t respond but asks more questions about whose idea, opinion, is this.  Jesus then speaks about his kingdom not being of this world.  If it were his followers would come in with clubs and spears and fight for his freedom…  Jesus lives and proclaims a different way that does not include the typical violence that characterises the way the world’s powers operate.  It is a way grounded in love, one that embraces each person as unique and created in God’s image.  It is a different lens for viewing people and the world.  It holds to a different set of values that take us in a different direction and should influence how we live before and with other people.  It should change how we see and respond to people through inclusive community, sharing what we have with those who need more than we do, reaching out to the marginalised and outcasts, the lonely and afraid and welcoming them into a community of grace.  It is about justice, peace, love, joy, hope, community…

So, what is truth?  What defines the right way, the best way.  Pilate is caught between his world view grounded in Roman Imperial Theology and Reign, the Jewish Leadership who have particular, vested interests in their own interpretive wisdom and life – and Jesus who proclaims something very different, a world grounded in the reality of another Reign – that of God. What is truth?

Martin Luther King jr rubbed up against the powers who expressed a ‘truth’ that he and his people were less human than those with white skin.  He proclaimed a just way of love and equality based in the Reign of God and lost his life because others disagreed with the truth he proclaimed.  What is truth?

We have churches excluding people based upon ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation because their interpretation is particular.  We have others who include all people into all levels of church leadership and life.  What is truth?  What do we base truth on?  How do we discern truth?  Where is God in this story?

We have political leaders around the world who proclaim their own truth and would have us believe it.  They pour resources into their ‘truth-telling’ and hold wealth, power and weapons of death behind their words as threats to those who won’t believe their ‘truth’.  What is the truth?

As I ponder and am confronted by Jesus, whatever world-view or interpretive theology or philosophy I hold, loving others and trying to live justly are non-negotiable truths.

By geoffstevenson

Reversing the Processes of Chaos (and Death!)…

Our elderly Labrador has just returned from the vet after a check-up.  He passed with flying colours.  This is surprising because it was only 2 weeks ago that we feared his time was done.  He went off his food – catastrophic for a Labrador whose stomach has no memory of eating and whose greatest motivation in life is food.  Nebo was not eating.  He wasn’t even drinking enough.  He was becoming more lethargic and so it was off to the vet.  After a thorough going over and some blood tests he was put on a drip to replenish body fluids and diagnosed with pancreatitis.  He was really quite ill but improved enough for the vet to send him home, believing that he was on the improve.  Over the weekend he became worse and by Sunday afternoon had not eaten, hardly drunk and very lethargic again.  We were preparing for the worst.

The inflammation of his pancreas was painful, and he couldn’t hold food down.  His body was not receiving energy (even though he had a bit stored away!) and he wasn’t drinking.  Dehydration and the loss of metabolites were the danger.  Nebo’s system was sliding into the chaos that would result in death.  His body could not generate the energy needed to keep his body functioning – essentially because precious water and minor nutrients were absent.  The natural process for our beloved dog was death.  He would have slipped slowly into a place where his systems close down, the ‘fires’ that drive energy production and give vitality and life were being stilled.  If left much longer he would have slid into what has been described as ‘lukewarm quiescence’ where his body would simply stop and the heat in him would have dissipated into the atmosphere, heating it very slightly until everything simply existed at the same temperature.  This is death.

Thankfully, another visit to the vet and another drip and medication, stabilised Nebo and his body was able to respond.  He came home a day or two later and ahs been his usual loveable self – and demanding more food!

Pondering Nebo’s condition I realise it provides a picture of the universe, of the world around and the systems and ‘bodies’ that exist.  Left to its own devices, the universe will wind down into disordered chaos (much like the top drawer next to my bed, which contains earphones, cables, lanyards, crosses with chains etc and is always a mess, no matter how often I straighten everything out!).  The world moves toward disorder of its own accord.  The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics describes this as entropy, the measure of disorder and claims that the universe is always becoming more disordered, although there are points or order that arise – human life, for example.  Birth reverses the process, although ageing is the succumbing to processes of disorder and we can only resist for so long.

In systems of life, there is the tendency towards greater disorder unless some energy is injected into the system to create points of order and life.  Systems of their own accord spiral downwards into ‘lukewarm quiescence’ where all is at peace and nothing happens.  In order for life and vitality to exist there needs to be change, friction, heat, energy and a drive against the natural laws of the universe that produce pockets of order.  The temptation is for us to work hard to create these pockets of order in a disordered world and them relax and allow things to happen, believing all will be well because we have made the initial effort and created order, life and something beautiful and ordered.  But life needs nurture and continual refuelling, energy driven into the system.  Aside from the biological/physical processes in our bodies, people need love and nurture, social interaction, stimulation, creative outlets and so on.  A baby requires much care – childbirth is but the beginning of a long, long process that costs time, energy, love and patience to nurture and help a child grow.  Systems and groups need constant nurture, constant challenge to resist the processes of the universe that draw us down and lead us into the disorder of everything around.

In our Gospel reading this week (Mark 13:1-8), there is an implicit warning of how systems, religious or otherwise, can lose their way, their resistance and therefore their life.  Jesus is sitting outside the truly awe-inspiring Temple of Jerusalem.  It was a remarkable structure, massive, expensive and a profound symbolic presence in the midst of Israel’s life.  It stood as the centre for administration, economics, politics and the religious space, the holy space for Judaism.  Pilgrims and visitors travelled across the Roman world to visit the Temple.  It was intended to be a light to all the world, to radiate the presence and way of God in the world.  The Temple culture was intended to be a centre where the processes of the world were challenged and reversed – greed, acquisition, power accumulation and abuse, exclusion, marginalisation.  It was intended to reflect in every way the ways of God and God’s Reign in the world.  It was intended to reverse the flow of money and wealth – from rich back to the poor and desperate.  It was intended to be a place where the disenfranchised and vulnerable found care, love, support and safety.  It was intended to be a place where people encountered the wonder of God’s presence and where inclusive, gracious community could gather and be nurtured and all people find life and hope.

The disciples with Jesus saw a magnificent structure and its symbolic importance and they were blinded by the gold, the massive structure, and its beauty.  When Jesus looked, he saw a system that was dying, the seeds of its own destruction already within and being nurtured.  It had become a place where injustice and evil had become institutionalised and where the leadership, the status quo, were a solid part of the unjust practices.  They denied people life, driving them into debt and then foreclosing on their properties, leaving families desperate.  The rich became richer and the poor more desperate.  They ripped off widows and orphans, the most vulnerable of people.  They marginalised those who were different or vulnerable, the sick, disabled, women, and made everything harder. The Scribes and Priests were beneficiaries of this injustice and maintained the status quo.

When Mark wrote his story of Jesus, around 70 CE, the Temple had been destroyed at the end of the Jewish-Roman War (65-70 CE).  The Temple finally lay in ashes and the system broken open.  The natural decay and processes of disorder had enveloped the Temple system.  The leaders, instead of drawing life, energy, love and justice from God, through prayer, contemplation and spiritual practices, were drawn into the temptations of power, wealth and greed.  These processes of disorder and chaos, all around, threaten to drag us downward into cycles of death – greed, abuse of power, exclusive practices and beliefs, ignoring ‘the other’ (the marginalised and vulnerable, the different…).

Jesus invites us into life, to draw deeply on the life-giving, spirituality rich Living Water or Bread of Life that he offers.  He invites us into the ways that reverse discrimination, hatred, exclusion, greed and accumulation.  He invites us into the life-giving, hope-filled, ways of God grounded in love, grace and justice!

By geoffstevenson

Seeing the Invisible in Our Midst…

There was a bloke, years ago, who wandered the streets of Parramatta and lived in the parks and under bridges, anywhere he could find for the night.  His name was Richard – he was known as Dickie.   Dickie was small with unkempt hair and beard and clothes that were grubby.  He was one of the men who suffered alcoholism and could often be seen in Prince Alfred Park near the band stand holding a flagon.  If you approached and looked at him then you may incur a drunken, slurred string of abuse, suggesting you might not stare and should move along (well that was the gist).  Dickie could also be quieter, and the more vulnerable side was manifest to the few he let in along the way, people he learned to trust and who looked beyond his dirty exterior, searing, cursing and abuse.  When he was sober there was a vulnerability about him, a humanity that touched us and invited us to look beyond the exterior to the humility and sadness of his situation.

For many, though, seeing or hearing Dickie as he sat in the park cursing in a loud voice or meandering down the footpaths, filled them with disgust.  They felt a repugnancy at his appearance and presence in the city.  Homeless alcoholics didn’t belong here.  Surely there was a place somewhere else, hidden and discrete where they could be locked away, unseen and unheard.  When we opened a soup kitchen in Parramatta, some corporates felt it was a wonderful and necessary idea but ought not be in the city but somewhere more discrete to keep ‘those people’ away.

I remember a whole range of wonderful personalities in Parramatta when I worked there, delightful people with eccentricity and vulnerability.  There were people wo lived with mental illness, people who were fearful and confused in stressful places and with lots of people around.  They were people who were creative and intelligent but who lived with the effects of chronic mental illness.  Sometimes all was well, and they functioned well and other times there were voices or depression or confusion and the deep struggles of those who live with mental illness.  For some this had impact on their social interactions and others were simply unable to engage people and left them alone and misunderstood, sometimes feared and excluded.  There were people who were homeless, people who had had very significant careers but for various reasons their lives had collapsed, and they were helpless and lived on the streets.  Often, they turned to alcohol or drugs to cover the loneliness, pain and shame they felt.  There were many other people who existed in isolated lives at home, hidden from a world who seemed to not care.

These and other people struggled through various forms of impoverishment and alienation.  Broader society felt confronted when they appeared in public or became obvious in some way.  The presence of people who were homeless challenged us.  In a society that is quite wealthy and believes itself compassionate and caring, homeless people confront us with an alternate truth.  We want to blame them.  People who are hidden due to their illness, their situation, their fear or poverty remain invisible and we feel safe and comfortable.  Their very presence challenges the truth we believe about ourselves and we have varied responses as we encounter these people.  For some there is empathy and the response is compassionate.  Others want them removed from streets and locked away, giving various reasons for this incarceration – their safety, the safety of society, protecting our children (from what?) and so on.  Privileged society doesn’t like to see impoverishment or evidence of injustice because it challenges the myth of egalitarianism, compassion and so on.  Dickie was a penetrating face and voice that created discomfort and confusion.  He was in your face and his presence would not allow us to forget that life has deeply rough edges and the cards may not fall well for everyone.  He challenges the misconception that all is well, and all will be well.  He could be any of us, as could the woman living with mental illness who walked with her trolley through the streets abusing anyone who got in her way or she caught staring at her.  She talked to herself and freaked more than a few people out.  She was, of course quite harmless and lived with fear, isolation and comfort.

This week we encounter Jesus teaching in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12:38-44).  He notices the well-to-do and important people who wander through with robes and pride, taking the best positions and seeking glory and respect from others.  They are wealthy, powerful, important and believe that all is good in the world because all is good in their world.  Anyone who struggles must look deep into their own hearts and lives because it must their own doing that they are not ‘blessed by God’.  Jesus notices and comments that these people don’t get it.  They are living off the pain of others because their very wealth is derived from the impoverishment of the poor.  The Temple was intended to provide a redirection of resources from the wealthy who could be generous back to those who had deep need.  It didn’t happen.  The wealthy and powerful abused the poor and drove them into deeper poverty.

As he watched a poor widow walked past the Temple treasury where people were encouraged to place offerings in support of the Temple and to help the poor.  The wealthy made great shows of placing larger amounts into the treasury – usually relatively small amounts from their vast accumulated wealth.  They gave out of their excess.  As Jesus and his disciples watched, the invisible widow wandered past and dropped in two copper coins – all she had.  Jesus commented in what seems like barely controlled rage at the injustice!  This woman had nothing, but out of a faithful, misplaced sense of duty (generous beyond belief!), gave up the very little she had to live on – this is what the Temple and the religious society had come to.  The poor were abused and used, and the wealthy became richer.  This was not God’s way.

The very presence of this invisible woman confronted the system and the injustice that exists.  Dickie’s presence confronted a society who don’t like homelessness or poverty and don’t want to believe it is real or that we are all responsible.  We shift the fault and blame or try to hide the reality.  We don’t like the stories of domestic violence and the struggles of vulnerable people who suffer.  Nor do we like the confronting reality of Indigenous impoverishment and struggle or the lack of compassion and human rights accorded to desperate and vulnerable people in detention centres.  We don’t like the challenge of shrinking polar ice caps or bleaching coral in our own Great Barrier Reef.  We don’t like being confronted by those things that point to our society and world as being less perfect and ‘good’ than we want to perceive.

As Mark wrote his Gospel, the Temple was destroyed, and the system had wrought it’s own end.  Jesus’ words of compassion and inclusive love challenge us to see the vulnerable people before us and to reach out in love and grace, an inclusive community of hope!!

By geoffstevenson

A Hermeneutic of Love

There’s a word we often use in religious circles when dealing with the sacred texts we read and use, speak on and study.  It is ‘hermeneutic’.  Hermeneutics is a field of study in religion, philosophy and into the humanities.  In its most pure form it deals with the interpretation of texts and the ways we read texts, words and develop meaning from them.  We all have a ‘hermeneutic’ through which we read texts, whether religious or otherwise.  The texts we ‘read’ may be the written word or words spoken or experienced and we interpret words, events and experience through the hermeneutic we bring to our lives.

I am aware that particular words, phrases and even subjects have particular effects on me – they push particular buttons and I react in predicatable ways when I hear or read them.  I make sense of the world through the lens I apply to life and the world.  Sometimes I am aware of this lens (or a multiplicity of lenses) and often I am not.  I am not unusual in this because we all react in predictable ways to phrases, words or concepts based on the hermeneutic we bring and the lens through which we view and experience life.

These lenses and hermeneutics can be very powerful and cause us to see in ways that actually deny factuality or the evidence before our eyes.  I suppose that I am constantly amazed when I encounter the deep Climate Change skeptics who deny anything associated with a changing climate based on human impact on the Earth’s ecology.  The science of Climate Change and human involvement is conclusive, as far as the hundreds of scientists engaged in this field are concerned, yet some politicians continue to deny its reality based on 1-2 quite peripheral non-climate scientists who oppose it – it is political and ideological not scientific.  Corporate leaders involved in particular industries with high vested interests in the status quo of energy production naturally deny the reality that their industries contribute to climate change or that there is no such thing.  These are hermeneutics, lenses, that inform (and distort?) the way hear, see or experience the ‘texts’ of our lives.

There are many hermeneutics that influence the way we see and hear the texts of life and the world.  The variety of lenses that help define our response to reality include gender, ethnicity, class, wealth and money, power, health and disability, poverty, experiences of inclusion or exclusion, abuse, and many of the experiences we have through our living.  In addtion there are various ideologies – religious, political, philosophical and other – that impact how we read, hear and experience the various texts we encounter.  When we hear stories in the news, for example, we will all respond in different ways.  Some will be filled with compassion and want to help everyone and others will be more circumspect about what is possible.  Some will not be moved at all by particular situations and people.

Last week I attended a very moving closing ceremony in Parklea Prison (or Correctional Centre, as it is officially called).  It was the closing ceremony or worship of the Kairos Prison Ministry after their 4-day course with 25 prisoners who had signed up.  The team shared God’s love with these men and gave them an experience of grace and love.  They spoke about their lives and offered forgiveness for the guilt and shame they experience at what they have done – recognising that they are serving their time for the crimes committed.  When some people hear stories about people going into prisons and sharing God’s love with prisoners they feel disgust and shake their heads with disbelief at why anyone would waste time and love on such people.   Others are moved and some are interested and curious but uncertain.  There are many responses to such a story from why bother to why do you do this to this is really good.  There are many hermeneutics when we hear stories and our responses are often predetermined by the experiences or ideologies that have formed us and the lenses through which we see, hear and experience.

Personally I find that the life, teaching and stories of Jesus continue to challenge and confront the hermeneutic of my life.  He psuhes some buttons and always invites me into a deeper way of engaging, thinking and being.  Jesus’ wisdom and deep humanity invite me into deeper self-reflection to understand how the hermeneutic I bring distorts how I see or limits the way I angage another human being.  Too often I see the things people say or do, things that push my buttons or frustrate me and distract me from seeing and experiencing the person who is deeper than their attitudes, appearance or actions.  I suppose in similar manner, people see or hear me and react to things about me rather than see into the person beyond the words, actions or ideologies.  It is interesting for me to tell people that I am a Uniting Church Minister and experience the reaction.  Some go quiet and can’t wait to get away.  Others are shocked but curious.  Some are interested and others excited.  People from other denominations have a suspicion that, probably correctly, assumes I am more progressive or liberal or what ever term they want to use.  They become wary and their belief system becomes a barrier – I am probably the same in an opoosite way.  I am wary of the very conservative or fundamentalist.

This week Jesus’ words (Mark 12:28-34) ring through the centuries and challenge me in a very deep way.  In his world the particular hermeneutics were predominantly derived from religious laws and traditions or political power and ideology.  He steered a way through ideology and power to embrace people as he encountered them, whoever they were.  His teaching and life invited people into a new way that was grounded in love – not an insipid love but the tough, inclusive gracious way of God.  When people held to their hermeneutics of legalistic interpetations of Scripture, Jesus challenged them with stories and actions of love.  Is it right to obey a law that denies a hungry person food or to withhold healing from a person on the Sabbath?  Is it right to uphold legalistic principles that deny life to people and keep them trapped in poverty?  Is it life-giving to apply literalistic readings of Scriptures when they become exclusive and abusive?  How do we respond to megalomaniacs who are in control of nations and empires and rule in violence and hatred?

Jesus’ way was one of love that looked into the hearts of people and saw the deep humanity that existed there, often contorted or twisted out of shape by life or the powers that dominated them or the ideologies forced upon them.  The cultural expectations denied hope and life to many people and pushed everyone into moulds that failed them.  Jesus offered freedom and life because he said we exist in God who holds everything together and gives life, even if we do not realise it and awaken to its rich wonder and joy.

In this story Jesus and a religious leader discuss that which is fundamental and they agree that loving God with everything we are and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves is the fundamental, foundational reality upon which all is built and grows.  The loving of neighbour is the clear expression of how we love God and this is the hermeneutic Jesus wants us to apply to all of life.  Love God; Love neighbour – as self!

By geoffstevenson