The Interpretive Nature of Truth
A few years ago, my mentor from university, Dr. H, passed away. It was a serious shock to the system. He seemed, the whole time I knew him, to be an unyielding force. I sensed that he was uneasy at times, and that there was an occasional tempest blowing through his soul, but he had ballast. And a booming voice. His lectures were often like revivalist sermons - intense, emotional, and always calling for justice. He was the sole African American professor on my college campus, and he didn't shy away from asking us all why. He challenged our conceptions of Jesus, urging us to see just how radical a prophet he was. And Dr. H, in his own way, had a prophetic voice. A polemic voice.
And he died. I had just returned to school a few months earlier to study sociology, and he was a sociologist. I felt like he had dropped the torch, and I made a promise - to him, to my fellow students, to the future students who wouldn't have the gift of knowing him - to pick up the torch. To shine a light on the things that were hard to see, or uncomfortable to feel and know. To walk compassionately beside students in the emotional side of learning. And to be bold for justice myself.
A few months later, the world of evangelical higher education was swept away in the debate about homosexuality and Christianity, and my alma mater was carried along with it. The community was up in arms, and a lot of former friends and colleagues were pitted against one another. I felt this huge gap in the whole conversation where he was no longer lecturing, teaching, reading, writing, and walking with students. And so I started reading, and writing, and attempting to walk alongside others as an ally. Because I believed, and still believe, in a God who is bold for justice and free with grace. But all I saw - and let's be clear, I saw all of this through my own particular lens of experience, meaning that there are other realities - was judgment, fear, hatred, accusations, and discrimination. People seemed so rigid in their pre-conceived notions about what it means to be gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer, and non binary. As if God made it 100% clear what we should believe about all of this. And the thing is, how can we be 100% clear about anything - even God?
When I went to Dr. H's memorial service to give the student eulogy, his sister stood up at the very beginning and told us that she wanted all of us to know that she believed that her brother was in Heaven. You see, my dear professor took his own life. And the Christian church has strict rules and beliefs about suicide. To many, it is an instant condemnation. An unforgivable curse of sin. And, in her invocation, she begged us to see otherwise. Even now, I ache thinking about it because, seriously, how ridiculous is it that we have to plead with others to value the lives of those we love, to care for them without reservation or requirement? How absurd it is that, in speaking to a body of Christians, she felt it was necessary to convince them that Jesus loved people unconditionally? Isn't that the whole message?
After these few months of reckoning, truth seemed like a slippery mess of a thing I couldn't hold onto anymore. I listened to one of my favorite UNITED songs on repeat, and wept all the time. Tearing through the veil of darkness, breaking every chain, you set us free. Fighting for the furthest heart you gave your own life for all to see. You carry us, you cover us. Your love is relentless. Did these words mean one thing to some, and a completely different thing to others? I couldn't wrap my head around it. I believed, and still believe, that God traveled to the gravest depths to rescue Dr. H from his fear and insecurities and mental illness, and then enveloped him in the purest Love that we simply cannot comprehend in this life. Every chain was broken, every veil torn off. Only truth remaining. And I came to believe that God does this for all people, no matter what. Because God is Love, and that is all that we can ever be sure about.
I was told growing up that the Bible was infallible, and could not be wrong. And after all of this, that belief was forever and irretrievably damaged. Because meaning is always an interpretation. We can never know the fullness of truth - right? It is just not possible. If you are a Christian, you have to believe this because the Bible says that God's ways are not our ways, that time runs differently for God, and that we cannot comprehend God fully. But beyond religion, logically it just makes sense that meaning and truth are interpretive constructions worked out through the process of living life. We have an experience, we gain new insight, we adopt a new belief. We have another experience, and we refine that belief. Another experience, more refinement. And sometimes, an experience drastically changes the direction of our belief, or a huge set of beliefs. This is just the nature of life. We crave order and a sense of our cosmic location in the world, and we create this order through interpretations of meaning.
Ok. Take a deep breath. That was a lot.
I wrote about this in my last post on Good Friday, and really, these thoughts represent the bulk of my spiritual meditations these days. I just cannot reconcile how a faith tradition that claims to be built on grace and love can continue to marginalize people. And if meaning is a construct, then the codes "saved" and "damned" are constructs, too... so then why is salvation necessary? This last question is the real hang up for me. Because there seems to be something mysterious and beyond comprehension about what is sacred, profane, good, evil... frankly, even our need to code things into the categories of sacred and profane make me think that there is something intuitively real about all of it. And yet... I am left doubting.
Faith is a long and arduous journey, but one that I am committed to. Lately, I am realizing that my love of learning, of community, my desire for justice... all are feeble but desperate attempts to know God. That is all there is. I'm reminded of a quote from Liz Gilbert, and I'll sign off with this: the only thing I am sure of these days is that loving God has to include loving others in the most unyielding, unrestrictive way you can imagine. Because that is what God does for us. What else matters, in the end?