I’m rereading Niebuhr (isn’t everyone?), which means that I’m also rereading bits and pieces of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. What strikes me is the ease and thoroughness with which Niebuhr is able to understand the limitations of their arguments based on the limitations of their time and place, but he has tremendous difficulty transcending the limitations of his own time and place. I can see that quite clearly because the language in which he wrote was the language of my youth. The same is true for each of us. We are the product of our culture, time and language, and, at best, we can only dimly glance at shadows of what lies ahead. The language and culture of a future decade or century will be different from ours. Words and ideas that will be in common use and commonly understood as the norm are unknown to us and we cannot be held accountable to those future generations for not knowing them. I think that is why Niebuhr was so disciplined about knowing truth tentatively and provisionally.
The problem is that we don’t like knowing truth tentatively and provisionally. If truth is truth, we want to know it absolutely. Some time ago I wrote about my ongoing correspondence with Brad the atheist. Brad had figured out that religion, and Christianity in particular, could not live up to its promise of having immutable absolute truth. But that is exactly what he wanted so he turned to science to find it. Sadly, he is stuck in a Newtonian universe and science has moved far beyond that and well into truth that is tentative and provisional. In the end, there is very little difference between Brad’s faith in science and the faiths of religious fundamentalists.
Nevertheless, we self proclaimed sophisticated and thinking Christians consistently make three mistakes. The first is to expect some former generation to have unveiled absolute truths from which we dare not deviate for fear of, of what? Are Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin gods, or at least demigods? Some people seem to think so. How are they different from those who constantly hold up America’s founding fathers and original intent as the absolute standard for interpreting the law of the land? The second is to disregard the wisdom of tradition by dismissing it as the blathering of a gang of dead old male Europeans who were never as great as they thought they were and have nothing to say to us. In other words, we too easily hold them accountable for not being 21st century Americans. The third is to assume that in our culture, with our language and in our time we are able, at last, to posit eternal and absolute truth to guide all future generations. Oh the depth, breadth and brilliance of our wisdom! I wonder if we have anything to say that will still bear weight after five hundred or a thousand years?
What truly amazes me is how the wisdom of Holy Scripture, sharing all the limitations of its own times, cultures and languages, is able to speak with such clarity to us in the places where we are and the cultures we live in through every known language and in every place on earth. To me that is far more powerful evidence of the divine inspiration in, with and under these words than the superficial and brittle claims of historical and literal inerrancy that some adhere to.