A Plausible Solution: how Christians might converse about truth in their pluralistic societies
What is true? Is there such a thing as truth? Is truth objective or subjective? Questions like these are more debated than ever. This is partly due to the collapse of the great narratives of the 20th century such as liberalism, Marxism, and even Christianity as the main framework and worldview of society, with pluralistic societies taking their place. This is true in Denmark where I live, and probably in all of Western civilization.
The pluralistic society is characterized by multiple truths and worldviews where one dominant understanding is no longer possible or acceptable. Even traditionally homogenous Scandinavian societies are becoming increasingly pluralistic with the rise of new religions and new ideologies competing for our attention. The question of truth is more important than ever.
In Christianity truth is not just facts or a practice, but it is a person to whom we can relate.
I suggest both a theological and practical approach to universal Christian truth claims. At this point it seems naïve in a Nordic context to hope that our societies will turn back to a Christian worldview. My contribution is a synthesis of three different approaches that I believe are complementary, true, and helpful in our time.
1. Luther’s two kingdoms
First, we turn to Luther’s concept of the two kingdoms which is based on Romans 13:1–7 and Mark 12:17. These scriptures teach that the kingdom of God is different from worldly governments, and that Christians should be subject to these governments so long as they don’t force you to disobey God. The two-kingdom teaching has narrowly been understood as a theology on how the Church should relate to worldly government and vice versa. However, reformation scholar William J. Wright suggests that the two-kingdom teaching is part of Luther’s understanding of the world, his dualist worldview. Everything can be understood according to the spiritual kingdom or the worldly kingdom. This is also true when it comes to our understanding of truth: there is a worldly truth that is true in the kingdom of the world, and a spiritual truth which is true in the spiritual kingdom.
I believe this to be both biblical and helpful. We can claim universal truth from a spiritual point of view, even though there are competing ‘worldly’ truths in society. This means that there is a way of understanding and interpreting truth that is only accessible through faith and by the Holy Spirit. This corresponds with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 2:6–16, where Paul explains that there are spiritual truths that are spiritually discerned through the Holy Spirit and only accessible if you have the mind of Christ. This understanding allows us to claim universal truth in a pluralistic society, even though it is impossible to understand these truths apart from God.
As this first approach to truth is a bit mystical and not open to dialogue (as it isn’t entirely accessible to non-believers), I suggest a complementing second approach from Lesslie Newbigin.
2. Newbigin’s plausibility structures
Plausibility structure theory is a way of understanding, interpreting, and explaining the world. Plausibility structures are complex as they consist of culture, philosophy, history, language, and so on. They are the lens through which we see the world, with each person seeing and interpreting the world through different plausibility structures. This means that no hermeneutic or worldview is neutral. Plausibility structures cannot be fully understood from the outside, and their biases can only be exposed if they are confronted by people with different plausibility structures.
Lesslie Newbigin experienced this when he returned to the UK from India after 40 years as a missionary. He was surprised to realize—for the first time—the biases and idols within his own culture. The plausibility structures of his own culture were exposed to him precisely because he was taken out of that context, confronted with another culture’s plausibility structures, then returned to his original country and culture. He was given new perspective to see what had previously been present, yet invisible to him.
Christianity is an example of a plausibility structure, as is secular humanism, and in a pluralist society we should expect a multitude of plausibility structures. However, if plausibility structures only can be understood from within, with their own logic and presuppositions, how is dialogue possible? Newbigin suggests that we can ‘inhabit’ and understand multiple plausibility structures at the same time. For example, although Christianity is my main plausibility structure, I also understand what it means to be Danish as I inhabit the language, the culture, and the history of my country.
This corresponds with Jesus’ teaching in John 17:14–16, where he says that we are in the world, but not of the world, indicating that in this world we live in a place at a certain time in history, within a culture with its own language, and within the plausibility structures of our contemporaries. At the same time, we are not of this world; we have a new way of understanding the world in light of Christ and him crucified. We are between worlds, inhabiting both cultures—both plausibility structures—at the same time.
And we may do all this while seeking to live whole lives within the fellowship and authority of our local churches, knowing that Christ—Truth himself—is our destination and guide (John 14:6).
To simultaneously inhabit different plausibility structures allows us to understand the world around us, translating the Christian understanding of the world to others, while at the same time exposing, confronting, and challenging other people’s underlying ideologies, assumptions, and cultures. This requires mutual understanding and patience where no ideology is trying to suppress the other.
To a large degree both the two-kingdoms’ understanding and the use of plausibility structures represent an individualized and intellectual approach to truth. Therefore, we turn finally to Stanley Hauerwas to round out our perspective and grant us an embodied aspect to our approach.
3. Hauerwas’ embodied church
For Hauerwas truth is not only something we understand intellectually, but something we live and practice in the church. Further, the purpose of truth is not just new understanding, but transformed lives and transformed churches. Truth is only understood correctly in the context of the church as the Christian truth is meant for the church. The church is an interpretive fellowship, a hermeneutic fellowship. The church governs truth, preserves truth, and shows truth to the world by being the church (1 Tim 3:15).
The Christian church is also the only fellowship that is centered around Scripture as the source of truth, and ultimately centered around Christ who is truth incarnate. In Christianity truth is not just facts or a practice, but it is a person to whom we can relate. Jesus is not just pointing us to the truth; he defines truth and is the standard of truth.
I do believe that these three approaches map out a road in our pluralistic societies, allowing us opportunity to engage others while holding fast to biblical truth. We can enter into dialogue with the world, knowing that not everything we say and believe may be clear to unbelievers, as we are citizens of two kingdoms. We can be lovingly curious regarding our friends and colleagues, seeking to understand the structures undergirding their ideologies, yet remaining humble as they question the source of our own certainty and hope. And we may do all this while seeking to live whole lives within the fellowship and authority of our local churches, knowing that Christ—Truth himself—is our destination and guide (John 14:6).