It is no secret that our culture today has been/is undergoing a massive paradigm shift with regards to the way people come to know truth. The atmosphere of the intellectual landscape has changed. For many, confidence, certainty, and dogmatism have been replaced with doubt, skepticism, and agnosticism. All truth claims are held in high suspicion. Those still working under the old paradigm of absolute truth and absolute knowledge are thought by this new generation of thinkers to be naive at best and power mongering manipulators at worst.
Within the philosophical and theological communities, this new generation goes by many names: Post-fundamentalism, Post-Christian, Post-Evangelical, Post-Liberal, “emerging”, and the most common postmodern. While these names may not be sufficient to completely convey the ethos of this generation, they all have one important element in common—they are all post something. They are all emerging out of something. The culture is moving beyond where it was before. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.
How do you know who to trust?
Before Google, before the internet, before twenty-four-hour world news, before community run encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, before Facebook, before blogs became the premier source for truth, before the introduction of our globalized culture where alternative truth claims are literally at ones fingertips, people could be much more confident that the truth claims to which they adhere were an accurate representation of reality. Why? Because we did not have so many alternatives to confuse the issues. The naivety that this intellectual isolation provided, while quite comforting, is no longer a luxury that we can afford to entertain and expect to have an audience in the real world with the Great Commission. Truth is no longer simply a matter of going to the local parish on the corner and inquiring of the pastor. It is much more complex and confusing. Today, people are looking for answers, and bewilderment is the most common result. Doubt, depression, and disillusionment are often the result as people pan-handle for truth. Thousands of alternatives present themselves at your front door at every turn. After a while you just don’t want to answer the door anymore. The question “What is truth?” or, better, “Where is truth?” is the great ambient question that saturates the thinking of our culture whether we know it or not.
People are suspicious
Suspicion. This is a good, rich, and sad word that is only needed because of humanity’s moral downfall. To be suspicious means that you are in a “state of uncertainty or doubt.” Or better, “Suspicion is the positive tendency to doubt the trustworthiness of appearances and therefore to believe that one has detected possibilities of something unreliable, unfavorable, menacing, or the like.” Synonyms for suspicion are doubt, mistrust, or misgiving. Our culture is in a perpetual state of uncertainty about truth; our culture is suspicious—suspicious of you and suspicious of me. Heck, I am even suspicious of you! Why? Because Christians claim to have the truth about the most important questions in life. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the truth. We have presented ourselves at the front door, and our message of exclusivity is, more often than not, falling on deaf ears.
While the problem is no secret, the solution is harder to come by. It would be easy to say “sin” is the problem. While this would be the answer that fits within the Christian worldview, it is a bit simplistic. Yes, sin is the problem. Its my problem as a knower of truth and my problem as a seeker or truth. I can’t know perfectly and neither can you. I can’t seek perfectly and I often don’t where to go. Because of these epistemological (“how we know”) difficulties, the focal point for theology is no longer Bibliology as it once was, but prolegomena. Prolegomena is the theological discipline that focuses on issues that need to be covered before truth claims can be asserted and debated. Prolegomena deals with the “first things” of theology. Methodology, theological systems, epistemology, and sources for truth are all issues of prolegomena. Because the world does not work with the same assumptions that it used to, I believe we must create common ground before we can reach our culture. This common ground must first and foremost deal with the issue of suspicion. The distrust that people have for you when you approach their door with a Bible opened to your favorite verse is real and needs to be answered. Trust needs to be gained.
Not only this, but this disarming of suspicion must have a subjective component to it as well. You and I are not speaking from a megaphone from our isolated island of naivety (at least we shouldn’t be). We are affected by the change as well. I have seen just as much confusion, suspicion, doubt, and discouragement among believers in recent years as I have among unbelievers. People are leaving organized religion in droves, and the denominations are depleting in numbers. As I said before, I myself find it hard to know who to trust.
What I want to propose is a method of theological inquiry that goes a long way in disarming both the skeptic out there and the skeptic within. It is called “irenic theology” or the “irenic method” of doing theology. The word “irenic” is taken from the Greek irene which means “peace.” Irenic theology is learning about truth in a peaceful manner, accurately representing the opposing belief even when you disagree strongly. In many ways it is the opposite of a dogmatic methodology which seeks to tell people the truth by positioning itself as the only true option.
Requirements of the Irenic Method
Willingness to learn, adapt, and change: The Reformers brought theology out of the dogmatic slumber of the dark ages. They challenged the unfounded traditions and abuses of the past, giving the church a bright light of hope as the Gospel was rediscovered. They also sought to prevent the church from ever revisiting the difficulties proclaiming the principle of Semper Reformanda which means “always reforming.” The Reformers knew that truth must always be tested and ready to be reformed. This understanding presents our search for truth as a journey that will not end until Christ comes for the church (1 Cor. 13:12). We will always see in a mirror dimly. The greatest reform or each of us, in both mind and body, will come when Christ comes. Today, we must be willing continue to carry this banner and reform as well. The irenic method demands that we approach our study ready to alleviate ourselves of any sacred cows that might have crept in without warrant. We must be willing to reform our theology if the evidence makes such a demand. This is easier said than done, but it is necessary nonetheless.
Willingness to take a risk: When you present all views accurately, the best arguments from all positions are presented so that people have the chance to make up their own minds, knowing both the strengths and weaknesses of all relevant positions. In short, learning and teaching theology in an irenic way gives people the chance not to believe so that they might truly believe. There is risk involved in irenic theology, especially for teachers. Those being taught may or may not identify with or be convinced of your particular persuasions. But it does not fare well before the Lord for us to sweep the other options under the rug in fear of the possibility of desertion. People will find out the other options in a Googling generation. Once they do, you will have lost their trust and will not have an audience with them any longer. They will see you as manipulative, naive, or, at best, misinformed and incompetent. Irenic theology demands that the risk be taken.
A broad knowledge base: No longer can people study in isolation, seeking to confirm their prejudice with what they read or whom they listen to. We must be willing to challenge ourselves and expand our thinking. If you are a Calvinist (as am I), you must be able and willing to represent the Arminian position (or any alternatives) accurately. Irenic theology demands that you allow for no straw men arguments or any hint of belligerence. In other words, you should know enough to present their case so well and respectfully that if the strongest apologist for their position were to be in your audience, he or she would give you a thumbs up, affirming the accuracy of your information and appreciating your peaceful tone.
There is an old folk tale that has been spread more times than I can count about counterfeits currency. Some would say that just as those who investigate counterfeits only study real currency in order to identify counterfeits, so should Christians only study the truth in order to identify untruth. This is a very modernistic illustration which is not only untrue, but will hardly serve as a justified model for discovery in a suspicious world. The first fallacy is that the illustration is simply untrue. Counterfeit investigators do study every type of counterfeit that is known. Second, this illustration arrogantly assumes that they are already in possession of the truth against which to measure the false. It necessarily requires that you do not examine the options. Therefore, it seeks to keep you in isolation. This is fine and good if you actually do have the truth, but who is to say that you do? Here is the key: Any number of rival truth claims can use this illustration to keep their people in naive ignorance. Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, or any other religion can use this illustration to keep their own at bay. It will not deepen beliefs but it will confirm prejudice. For many who follow this methodology, they are in for a rude awakening. We must be willing to study broadly and consider deeply the alternatives if we expect to have and produce intellectual honesty. Without it, how do we expect to stand before God with integrity?
Benefits of Irenic Method
Your beliefs will be more real: No longer will you believe something simply out of a subjective emotional conviction that can be shared by all people of all world religions, but because of an honest wrestling with the issues. God gave us our minds and He expects us to use them. He has no favor for the naive (read the Proverbs). His desire is for us to see the truth and be convinced of it.
You will have degrees of conviction: Without an irenic method, all beliefs carry the same degree of conviction. They are black and white. You either believe them or you don’t. There is no in-between. While the irenic method will give you greater conviction on many things, it will also demand less assurance with other things. And this is par for the course of human inquiry and understanding. None of us can have perfect conviction to the degree God does.
In Christianity, there are many non-essential doctrines about which sincere believers disagree. Often, due to the strengths of the arguments for alternative positions, the evidence demands that we be very timid about setting them up as tests for orthodoxy or holding to some things too strongly. If God’s revelation is clear, then we speak with the same clarity. If God’s revelation is not so clear, we represent it as such. Being Christian does not mean that we know it all or have a secret decoder ring when it comes to difficult issues. We have to look to the evidence and take a stand, even if that stand says “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.”
You will have a hierarchy of beliefs: As Roger Olson put it in Mosaic of Christian Belief: “Beliefs matter, but not all beliefs matter equally.” The irenic method demands that we see that some beliefs are more important than others. In other words, all doctrines are not worth dying for on a hill. Once we begin to see this, we will have gained an audience because Christians will all be speaking the same language. While disagreements will definitely still exist, people will see that there is a center of peaceful unity upon which we all agree. The list on Google for “What is a Christian” suddenly gets much, much smaller. The person and work of Christ is the center of our theology and must be spoken of by all Christians with unity and conviction.
You will have disarmed all skeptics: No longer will people see us in the likeness of a used car salesman or a determined lawyer, but as those who truly care about the truth. People will see that we have entrusted them with the ability and confidence to make their own decisions. All talk of knowledge being manipulative will necessarily cease for it will find no basis in reality.
Our world is confused. They feel betrayed and manipulated. There is information overload and people don’t know where to turn. But this does not mean that many are not seeking for answers. We have the only thing that matters: Jesus Christ. Though we believe that the power of the Spirit is the only reason people turn to Him, this does not mean we are for throw tact, understanding, and empathy out the door. God will use these things to bring people to him.
In conclusion: Don’t underestimate people’s ability to spot a fake. Ask yourself continually if you are a fake. Don’t be afraid to learn. Christ has not given us such a faith that demands blind adherence. Pursue truth will all your being. Trust that God is not afraid of questions and doubt. He is pretty big. I think He handles honest doubt better than naive commitment.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]