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Faith Seeking Truth – my talk to pre-sem students here at Concordia St. Paul

17 Apr

Nathan Rinne, May 1, 2012, AEX (slight revisions since talk was given)

“There is in everyone a quest for truth and also a rebellion against its demands, and a doubting of the truth when it is discovered….there are many partial truths.  Jesus is the truth, the whole truth”

— Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs

“They love the truth when it enlightens them, they hate it when it accuses them”

— St. Augustine

Introduction

It is absolutely great to be here. I have no idea what kind of expectations some of you guys have for tonight. I should reveal however, that when it comes to texts and learning, I have high expectations of you! Several studies have been done that talk about how many higher ed. students have an anxiety of the library – but I trust such is not the case with you. If it is, I hope I can help a bit.

(A warning: I may say some things that make you say “Wha…?” This happened the first time I met Dr. Carter – the first time he saw something I had written – he got the impression, I dare say, that I was a bit of a crazy zealot. : ) Well, maybe I am, but we later had a chance to get to know each other a bit better [he invited me to lunch with him!] – and to ask lots of questions – and I think his view of me changed quite a bit)

I will say up front – initially this talk may not seem to be about libraries so much (I was told I could discuss anything I wanted to, in light of our faith – really? : ) ). Also, it may lack a little balance…Its heavy on the intellectual side of faith. That said, know this: I love talking about how faith is the fundamental knowledge – and that Jesus emphasized being child-like when it comes to living in His presence (not childish) – receiving his external Word of Promise in simple, unassuming, unpretencious, and unreflective faith. I even have a blog to this effect: theology like a child: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/  I’m not on Facebook. I don’t do Twitter. But I do have that blog.

Preliminaries

I want to talk about truth tonight – the search for knowledge. This is the connection between learning and faith, or as Augustine put it: “faith seeking understanding”. In the title of this talk I have put it as “faith seeking truth”.   I will also tie all of this in with libraries, vocation, technology and evangelism – all in under forty-five minutes!

First, some Scriptures that I’d like to bring to our minds in light of this theme tonight.

  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.“—Jesus, in Matthew 22:37
  • “’In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”—The Apostle Paul in Athens, Acts 17:28
  • “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”—Festus, in Acts 26:24
  • “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”—Philippians 4:8,9[1]

When Jesus told us to love God with all our mind, I am sure that first and foremost He was thinking of the oracles of God, which of course, lead to Himself – after all “in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3)”. He is the Truth we should seek! Still, as we see from the passages above, Paul knew more than just the Scriptures and His Lord – for example, he knew, or knew about, prominent pagan poets. Other biblical characters had this “secular” knowledge as well: Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22). Daniel, Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego, as promising young Judean nobles, were chosen by their captives to learn “the literature and language of the Chaldeans”, and “God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom”. (Daniel 1:17)

Getting ready for this talk today was a very valuable exercise – because it helped me come to the realization that when I introduce myself to classes as a library instructor, I should simply use one or two of these verses I bullet-pointed above when I start to speak. Libraries and librarians are naturally associated with knowledge after all, so it will be a natural way of bringing up spiritual matters – hopefully laying groundwork for future conversations, reflection, etc.

For me, libraries have always held some real fascination. All that information – I dare say knowledge – in one place. I loved going to libraries when I was little. And libraries go way back – the earliest libraries we know of were storehouses of religious “knowledge”, and were connected with the religious temples (in Egypt, for example). Later on, all manner of learning were sought by the cruel Assyrian conqueror Ashurbanipal, who, oddly enough, was at once the leader of the world’s superpower and one of the world’s first librarians. When he said “Shh”, you took heed.

ashurbanipalWhat is Truth?

So – why should we seek knowledge… understanding… truth?

From a simple worldly perspective, I can think of a variety of reasons persons might seek truth.

Truth is something we just want to know. The creation, or cosmos, can be captivating. Why does it matter whether the sun goes around the earth or vice-versa? It does not make a difference to our day-to-day life, but we just want to know. We are curious and want to know what we can about the mysterious and wonder-filled world around us. As some discover more and more fact, or truths (little t) their sense of awe and wonder might deaden (with the illusion of control). For others, these discoveries may cause them to worship the Creator – or alternatively, the creation. They know there is so much they do not know, and that much will remain mystery.[2]

Truth is valuable in a practical sense. It may be enjoyable for this or that moment to try and escape reality, but all of us know that there are times we are acutely aware of how important it is to know what is true, that which is “really real”. Obvious examples are everywhere: in times of war, for example, accurate military intelligence is critical. In times when we or loved ones face medical issues, we want the best information possible.[3] The process of the scientific method seeks to overcome false understandings of “how things work” by observation and experiment. As such, using this and the discipline of mathematics, we sent people to the moon.

Finally, it is good to seek the truth, even if the truth is not always good.[4] Why do children become so angry when they discover an untruth – a lie? Even as the nobles/elites[5] of our age talk about how one may seek the truth but cannot be sure we know the truth, their actions betray them[6], because they are constantly trying to organize and define and state what is true – and even ultimately True (with a big T)[7] – even as they admit to doubts. Even if some nobles/elites think it may not always be good for the “masses” to know the truth, it is good for them, at least, to do so.

But even if the world strives for a Truth (big T) – which inevitably ties in with how they live their life – we know they don’t have it. This brings us to this Biblical truth found in Romans 1… We actually suppress the truth. And without the power of God to turn us from our sin, we suppress the Truth Himself.[8]

And finally, all truth is God’s truth” as the 2nd century Christian apologist Justin Martyr said.

Along these lines I think about this interesting account, which I culled from the world-famous missionary Brother Andrew (the founder of the ministry “Open Doors”, and author of God’s Smuggler):

“Answer me one question”, [the communist Polish government official] continued. “If I came into one of your buildings and on every desk saw a Bible, would you let me put a statue of Lenin next to it?”

It was one of those situations when you have no time for prayer. Yet in the split second which he looked at me , anxiously waiting for my answer, God revealed something terrific to me: If people have access to the Bible and if they truly base their lives upon it, then let Lenin come.   He will come anyway, or else someone like him. Let temptation come. Let sin come. Let problems come. Let anything come. If my life is grounded firmly on the Word of God, then in Christ I am more than a conqueror.

“Yes” I said, “I would let you do that.”

Immediately his face relaxed into a smile, and he grabbed my hand warmly. “Now”, he said, “we are real friends.” And from that day on we have kept in touch with each other (italics his).[9]

One might wonder about the wisdom of these words (and did God really tell him that?), but I love the point that they ultimately have for us. We have nothing to fear from a robust conversation with the world (they, alternatively….). All real truth and knowledge are of Divine origin. The people of God have always been about learning, and hence, literacy, universities, and libraries have taken hold in areas influenced by Christianity.[10]

So, in sum, truth is valuable, wanted, and the seeking of it is good – even if it is also suppressed.   As Christians, we seek to know for practical reasons, or sometimes just because… but we also seek truth because it is all His.

Evangelism and Truth

I think looking at things in this way does wonders for how one views evangelism.   I Peter 3:15 says “ but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…”  Sometimes it just doesn’t seem “natural” to being up matters of God and Christ in a conversation. But when we start to see more and more connections between all the things in the world – realizing that all truth is God’s truth, and that all subjects not only touch one another but the One in whom is “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” – I submit that the opportunities to do this will all of a sudden become more prevalent (by the way, here we should at least mention the supreme importance of story as this relates to truth: God’s truth comes to us largely in story form, and different kinds of fiction can also be such a wonderful vehicle for learning about the world[11]).

So are all called to be exactly like Paul, for example? Must all be scholars like himself? No. But all, regardless of their vocation, are called to growth in love as regards our heart, soul, strength and mind – which we are focusing on. Who are the folks in your circles? Into which contexts has God thrown you? Those are the arenas in which your intellectual growth – your “loving God with all your mind” – will take place: get to know them, learn more about them, their interests – by talking with them… maybe going deeper by reading a good book or article… (perhaps something on the internet will do, perhaps not).   Paul saw in the writings of the pagan poets something that was good and valuable, and in studying their writings, his love for the people who valued them no doubt grew. Later on, he was able to use them as a connection point to Christ.

Last Wednesday, I was in this thing called the Lutheran identity seminar with some other Concordia staff. There we heard from eight students – none who were Lutheran, most who were not Christians. Several lamented the fact that in spite of the diversity on Concordia’s campus, people still tended to spend almost all of their time with groups of people like them (one specifically mentioned ministry students). All of them seemed to long for more persons to simply initiate conversations with them, and to really start getting to know them as persons.

How is that for an invitation? So go get ‘em!

There is no “one-size-fits-all” method for evangelism or apologetics (which I’ll say is like moving rocks out of the way so seeds can be planted). Each encounter is going to be as unique as each person is unique.

Still, that said, I think there is much to be learned in these words from the late historian Tony Judt

It was John [Dunn] who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.

That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum…” (italics mine)[12]

That may be teaching, but I’d say it’s also good conversation, much like when the Christian apologist Greg Koukl encourages us to keep these 3 questions prominent in our conversations with others at all times: “What do you mean by that?”, “What are your reasons for coming to that conclusion?”, and “Have you considered….[alternative viewpoint]”.   The liberalism that Judt mentions above is known as “classical liberalism”, coming out of the Enlightenment and exemplified in men like John Stuart Mill.[13] I actually think that this kind of liberalism would not have been possible without the influence of Christianity – and that it is a great blessing (which may soon pass). Still, that is another talk.

Librarians, Libraries, and Truth

All of this kind of thinking – and thinking about what the Bible has to say about knowledge – meant I felt led to become a librarian, or someone who knew his way around the world of information and knowledge, and could quickly locate the variety of things that had been said on this or that matter. This is a particular interest (perhaps obsession) of mine.   I think the profession becomes all the more interesting when it seems like “everything is on the internet”. Further, as regards the question “How can you determine what are reliable, or authoritative sources?” (I often ask this in classes, and a couple tutorials I have made go pretty deep into this topic – see “How Can I Find and Evaluate Quality Websites for Academic Work?” and “How Do I Decide Which Sources are Good to Cite?” here: http://libraryguides.csp.edu/content.php?pid=229235&sid=1895971[14]), I think librarians in general have much to offer here, but that Christian librarians have the potential to be even more insightful.

So, at this point, what can I say about libraries and how they can be most helpful to you?

1)      First of all, librarians, like journalists, are obsessed with the demise of their institutions, as society produces new technologies and is in turn transformed by them. One can argue that physical libraries, and even writing itself, are forms of technology that were at one time “cutting edge”.   I think libraries (and librarians) will continue to exist in some form.   So we’ll be here for you.

2)      Perhaps the biggest value of the library for you may simply be locating and gaining free access to a known item – i.e. a book or article you already know about that want to read. Especially with interlibrary loan, this is not to be underestimated.

3)      Most academics (and probably pastors to) figure out what they want to or should read from their colleagues (and then 2 above comes into play). Still, libraries are really good for getting into serious research for topics you don’t know much about (Wikipedia is a great place to do presearch). For example, subject browse lists in library catalogs (see pic below) are fantastic places to go to get an overview of the serious works that have been done on a subject. And books, which libraries of course focus on, are still the place to go for the fullest treatments on subjects.

4)      How does all of this relate to education in general? Libraries are meant to support the educational institution of which they are a part. Like the desire to impart a good liberal arts education[15], there generally are good reasons why professors and schools require you to learn the things you do. Hopefully, you all at once are captivated by, see the value of, and feel a duty to learn the things you are focusing on (theology).   In the case that you aren’t, one approach I recommend is asking your professor lots of questions – even challenging them in class. Generally, if you do this respectfully, they usually appreciate this, because it means you are thinking – and trying to apply what you are learning to real life.

5)      Lastly, if you were really hoping to simply receive all kinds of links to great online sources tonight, you can get those by going to the Religion and Theology Subject Guide (http://libraryguides.csp.edu/content.php?pid=119740&sid=1186733) and clicking on the “Supplementary Web Resources” tab. Alternatively, I did a presentation for my church entitled “Using the Internet to Enhance Bible Study” and it is located here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1I-Ki6mNhLi19w_xLXyHy6es1ngWIWRFETY2eS_XCI8Q/edit?pli=1

lcsh browse

Conclusion

How to close? Why not with Luther?:

A student who does not want his labor wasted must so read and reread some good writer that the author is changed, as it were, into his flesh and blood. For a great variety of reading confuses and does not teach. It makes the student like a man who dwells everywhere and, therefore, nowhere in particular. Just as we do not daily enjoy the society of every one of our friends but only that of a chosen few, so it should also be in our studying.[16]

So have I failed today? And should I not have become a librarian? I would “tweak” Luther a bit here, and say that in general, he is right: valuable authors ought to predominate our study: they should be read and re-read. The Bible.[17] Small Catechism. Large Catechism. The rest of our Lutheran Confessions (have you read the Smalcald Articles?). Luther. We should read these again and again – and if we feel compelled to test them, we will see that there is truth there. And this truth – this teaching – is indeed life, for the Word of Christ is Spirit and life. Still, I note that Luther certainly did advocate something similar to what I have been saying here today.   For example, he said that Christians should know the Koran so that we can be aware of its errors and be able to speak to those who hold to its errors. He also reportedly said: “How dare you not know what can be known!” (quoted on p. 88, of Benne, Quality With Soul). I think all of this has to do with the opportunities we are given – with the people that God throws in your path, “interrupting” your life.

Just remember though “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Ecc. 1:18). But we are to imitate Christ, the Man of Sorrows – who also knew great joy.

Go in peace and know the Lord – and the world He came and died for!

+Nathan Rinne

 

[1] Also see I Cor. 10:31-11:1: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

[2] There is stuff we don’t know, stuff we know we don’t know, stuff we don’t know we know, stuff we know but don’t know how to express, and stuff we don’t know we don’t know…

[3] Of course, in the past, many pagans – and even believers – looked for answers in things like the stars as well. How could there not be some message there? (from Whoever or whatever was responsible for the cosmos).

[4]Although the definition of true here being used is “being in accordance with the actual state or conditions; conforming to reality or fact; not false” and “being or reflecting the essential or genuine character of something” respectively, “true” can also mean good things like being genuine, authentic, sincere, caring, firm in allegiance, loyal, steadfast as well. For example, we speak of true feelings, having a true interest in another’s welfare, or being a true friend. Here, in this sense, it seems to me that “real” could serve as a synonym of true. See http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/true

[5] What really, is an “elite”? One definition might be “The best or most skilled members of a group”, and in this sense, all of us might be “elites” in one regard or another, i.e. the “football team’s elite”, etc. Usually, though, it means “a group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status”. Note the intellectual status (here, there is the social aspect of this to: many also pursue knowledge and spar with it simply for the pleasure it brings, as my pastor pointed out to me : ) ) As regards truth, how does this tie in with the world of intellectuals? First of all, all unbelievers seek truth (for practical reasons, out of curiosity and wonder, sense of duty, as we note) and may also want a Truth (big T), but also want to be in control. With intellectuals I submit that this is simply ratcheted up a lot higher. If Truth seems to be pointing to Christ – if Truth means Christ – then many will simply redefine the rules in the middle of the game. When they come dangerously close to the truth, truth no longer becomes the goal – victory (over this God who would “rule” them) does. Not saying God does not break through sometimes with the power of His Word (C.S. Lewis)! See also footnote 7.

[6] The former Pope, John Paul II, in his encyclical Faith and Reason, said: “Yet, for all that they may evade it, the truth still influences life. Life in fact can never be grounded upon doubt, uncertainty or deceit; such an existence would be threatened constantly by fear and anxiety. One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth.”

[7] This note added after initial presentation: I had to question myself about this again: How many persons are really looking to organize, define, and state what is True?  Don’t some say that the only truth is that there is no all-encompassing Truth (with a big T)?  Is not this alone True? I think the point here is that even persons who want to say things like this also ultimately find themselves saying that we can have enough real knowledge about the cosmos we live in to believe that some ways of living are preferable and more responsible than other ways of living.  If they refuse to even admit this, it seems to me they are simply not being honest with themselves.

[8] This is why when John Paul the II writes in his encyclical Faith and Reason, “As appears from this brief sketch of the history of the relationship between faith and philosophy, one can distinguish different stances of philosophy with regard to Christian faith. First, there is a philosophy completely independent of the Gospel’s Revelation: this is the stance adopted by philosophy as it took shape in history before the birth of the Redeemer and later in regions as yet untouched by the Gospel. We see here philosophy’s valid aspiration to be an autonomous enterprise, obeying its own rules and employing the powers of reason alone”, I cannot ultimately endorse what he says.   I would submit that no one seeks THE answer that/who ends up on the bloody cross for the rebirth of the world.  They may be curious regarding ideas about Him or that resemble Him, but until He takes a hold of them, they have no desire to take hold of Him. As a whole, I think that human reason apart from such faith may readily acknowledge (if they don’t suppress the truth in “atheism”) “creators” or idols (strictly speaking, not “the Creator”) *to its own ends* (even “Intelligent Design”), but not *Jesus Christ to His ends*.   Further, all of our “what” language is intricately connected with “hows” and “whys” – purpose.

[9] Brother Andrew, The Calling (Nashville, Tennessee: Moorings, 1996) 179-180.

[10] I think that a Christian university that tries to offer shelter from “secular” learning (as opposed to interacting with it, both in curricula and as regards a willingness to address questions as they come up) is shirking its responsibility, and might actually contribute to its loss of Christian identity, at least insofar as it means being a true Christian *university*.

[11] See these interesting blog posts: http://incarnatusest.blogspot.com/2011/04/fairy-tales-and-victory-over-evil.html , http://brandywinebooks.net/?post_id=4836. Also, the Christian scholar Robert Benne writes about the importance of story for Christian universities: “…the Christian account given by the religious tradition should constitute the organizing principle for the identity and mission of the college.  The Christian story as a comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central account of reality must be held strongly and confidently enough to shape the life of the college in all its facets.” (Benne, 97)

[12] He goes on to say: “…No doubt such tolerant intellectual breadth was not confined to King’s. But listening to friends and contemporaries describe their experiences elsewhere, I sometimes wonder. Lecturers in other establishments often sounded disengaged and busy, or else professionally self-absorbed in the manner of American academic departments at their least impressive.

…. Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing.” http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/2012/04/27/how-boomers-ruined-education-judt

[13] Here is a sampling of Mill: “The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this.” Obviously, there is much value in this approach when it comes to some topics, with others certainly less so. In any case, one certainly cannot eliminate this approach entirely, as there will always be some people one feels are worth talking to, yet have different viewpoints about this or that important topic.

[14] I also have written extensive conference papers on Wikipedia and Google Books. See here: http://eprints.rclis.org/simple-search?query=rinne&submit=Go

[15] Here I am bowled over from this Luther quote: “How dare you not know what can be known!” (quoted on p. 88, of Benne, Quality With Soul) I think this goes along with the idea that to those who have given much, much is expected…   In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, it actually says that academic activities are to be used, whether they have been fashioned by the heathen or others, “and in their use they are to be instruments of love” (Apology XVI, 2,3). In the modern era, T.S. Elliot talked about “thinking Christianly”, that is bringing faith to bear on all aspects of learning.  I believe that education is about enjoying God and His gifts, and serving our neighbor for His Name’s sake with our knowledge of Him and His creation, and is about being human in the fullest sense of the word. Of course, we often should make a valuable distinction between the things we know by divine revelation and “natural revelation” (where there is much “common ground” that all persons share – for we share a world out there).

[16] Found here: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/biographies/martin-luther-lessons-from-his-life-and-labor

[17] Recent quote from my pastor to me: “As Luther demonstrates, the Word of God contains allows a lifetime of investigation and discovery, of wonder and peace, if only we allow ourselves to do so. Every moment we spend away from it, we do not spend within it.”

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