"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt IV): Franke, "Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth"

John R. Franke, Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009)

This book is a story about a young Malaysian boy who, escaping from a life of poverty and forced thievery, goes on a global quest to find the meaning of life while facing sorrow, death, love, and mystery along the way toward eventually finding himself while rising to prominence as a wealthy world leader and humanitarian.

I lied. It’s a non-fiction book about philosophy, theology, and diversity. But just as interesting!? J

Franke (pronounced Frank-ee) actually came to my seminary class a couple years ago and spoke on some of the book's themes before it was published. He encourages epistemological humility—i.e., don’t be so sure you’re right—and explores the concept of “interdependent particularity” (134)—i.e., we are parts of a whole, pieces of a puzzle, candles in a candelabra, insert your analogy here…

I found the following topics particularly important:

1) Context (35). The tradition of the Church is one in which faith has been expressed in a variety of historical and cultural situations; figuring out how to “do what’s right” requires more than just looking at how another faith community from another era or culture did it, but discerning how to live out God’s truth now in your own context.

I think means, as an example, that we don’t simply base our ethics on “what the Bible says” but discern as a community today why those Biblical laws or practices were important in their given historical and social context and explore together what practices and actions are good and right today in our situation.

And maybe some of those practices will look the same. I don’t think “thou shalt not steal” has really lost its relevance; that “principle” seems to have stood the test of time. Though maybe we are stealing in ways we aren’t willing to really label as “bad”; any wireless internet moochers out there? I was once one myself… J

2) Perichoresis (57-59). This is a very old word that tries to express the relationality of God. The Trinity is hard for me to grasp. I think it’s even harder for my Muslim friends to grasp; I’ve heard them cite this as a major disagreement with Christianity, as they can’t fathom God as being in any way “many.” While I’m usually just comfortable saying “it’s a mystery,” I’m always eager to find better ways to think about the Trinity.

Perichoresis captures it better than anything I’ve found. It conjures up an image for me of a dance, of distinct entities moving together harmoniously; they are different and unique, but so united by their love for one another that each depends on the other for its life and existence. You can't have one without the others.

I think this is why the Trinity has been historically understood as a powerful metaphor for human community—a network of distinct persons, yet somehow one single entity, united by love. Franke, like many others, suggests that it is in capturing this social, relational dimension of God that we can understand how God can be Love (59).

Only because God is plurality—not a single, monolithic being—can God be love and be thus fully “complete” on God’s own. But I know this is hard to grasp and to hold in tension—God’s oneness and God’s “many-ness.” I think I tend to think of God more often as an old dude with a long beard rather than a community of persons, because the former is easier for me to imagine, regardless of whether or not it’s more truthful.

3) Deconstruction and Plurality (70, 104). When Franke says plurality, he means we all see things a little differently, and that’s a good thing; but we need one another to better see things as they really are. I’m going to understand love, or beauty, or God, or pain, or ecstasy more deeply if I can at least partially grasp how you experience these things.

I think part of the work of deconstruction is to realize that different environmental factors inform how we think and act, so that there is a need for us to sort of see beyond our situations and know that we don’t “possess” ultimate truth as much as we can point toward it.

Perhaps the gospel writers are good examples of this. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all had different motivations and different audiences to which they wrote their own story of Jesus; but most would say that each of the four accounts of Jesus’ sayings is essential and necessary. There’s no single authoritative account of Jesus’ life, but all four contribute something to our understanding. That’s not a bad thing; I think it’s just how life works, for people like us who aren’t God.

I think the main idea here is that our personal beliefs about God should not be free from scrutiny, since we’re human and prone to error and misjudgment. We should be comfortable always checking our understanding of God, being open to having our faith revised, lest we get too comfortable or overconfident. I don’t think this has to be scary, as if we should despair that we can’t know anything.

What I think it means is that we can, for example, claim that Jesus is our Lord, while being ever ready to revise our understanding of who Jesus really is and what Lordship really means; we can believe in the power and rightness of love but be open to finding new ways to express that love; we can believe God has overcome evil but be ready to learn more about the nature of evil, how it affects us, how it can be dealt with or overcome in our lives, and how to suffer yet persist in a world in which evil exists, even if we hope that a world will one day come where it does not.

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