Eternal Truths Need Unpacking, Not Defending

I don't know whether God consists of three people with one divine essence, as Christianity claims. I do know that I love to think about it.

Perhaps that's a good way to handle our "eternal truths" going forward.

Many observers have written about the change occurring in the Christian Church. Because the world is radically different today, they say, the Church must act radically different from the way it has acted for decades, if not centuries. That change may include profound shifts in the way we deal with the historic cornerstones of our faith (like priestly celibacy in Roman Catholicism or biblical inerrancy among many evangelicals).

I don't think this dynamic is unique to Christianity. Writing about the Qur'an for the Islamic Research Foundation International, progressive Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer noted:

New issues and questions are emerging which cannot be answered with medieval understanding of the text. Breathtaking discoveries and changes have taken place in the last two centuries and these revolutionary changes cannot be ignored if the Qur'an has to play any role for Muslims in modern society.

For many believers, the notion of rethinking eternal truths is not only unsettling, but wrong. After all, these are the same truths that our religious institutions have enshrined in creeds and traditions and defended for centuries (often through unsavory means). If we rethink them, we run the risk of throwing them out completely.

But there's a third way to approach these eternal truths. Instead of defending them as factual accuracies, or dispensing with them entirely, perhaps we should unpack them as sources of wisdom.

For example, consider the Trinity: the Christian belief that God, although one essence, lives in three persons -- the Father, the Son (identified with Jesus of Nazareth), and the Holy Spirit. The Church spent centuries articulating and rearticulating what exactly that might mean. It has also spent centuries using belief in the Trinity as a litmus test for the soul's eternal destination. One of the Church's foundational creeds even states that "except a man believe faithfully [in the Trinity], he cannot be saved."

But what happens if we unpack the Trinity? We start to explore the boundlessly rich metaphor it gives us. I read in it, for instance, that interrelationship and community are at the heart of the universe -- indeed, they are inseparable from God's deepest desire. If that's the case, it follows that we're called to live in relationship and community as well. Whether the Trinity is factually true or not, it provides a noble and soulful direction for our lives.

This is not unique to Christianity either. In the Hindu concept of Brahman, I find a magnificent metaphor for the utterness of the mystery behind the universe. It inspires a profound sense of "I don't know" that fosters humility, a useful virtue in short supply these days. Similarly, whatever I think of specific statutes, the Law of Moses presents a compelling case for the value of rules and boundaries to shape our lives -- to be (in the words of my colleague Corey Jamison) a foundational template for who we are and how we live. As someone who chafes against boundaries by nature, I need that reminder.

This approach could do a great deal of good in our multicultural, interconnected, skeptical world. If unpacking the treasures of faith (and of other wisdom sources, such as poetry and drama) becomes our imperative, it follows that we are all in the process of uncovering eternal truth rather than knowing it. In other words, we begin each inquiry with "I don't know." When I don't know, I become curious about what you know. That, in turn, leads me to approach you not with defensiveness or the need to assert Truth, but with respect, honor, and dialogue.

In unpacking "eternal truths," perhaps we do them more honor than we ever could by defending them. And with the world as hostile and violent as it is, an approach that promotes dialogue and mutual respect is surely worth pursuing.