Everyone is a Theologian, Pt. 2: Verifiability vs. Truth

My first post claiming that everyone is a theologian sparked a bit of conversation in various places as it always does when I first introduce the idea.  The basic thrust is that some deeply resonate with the idea of a non-exclusive understanding of theological discourse and some are very uncomfortable/distrustful/etc. of the idea.  Usually, the rejection centers on the question of who can or should be able to determine what is “true.”

“Truth,” as it turns out, is very important to some people, especially when it comes to their theology.  Honestly, I can’t blame them.  This is important stuff we’re dealing with here.  But a progressive, change-oriented worldview has a broader understanding of truth that I think would be helpful to explore.  This understanding is rooted in more than being able to mimic what someone else has said, but in an understanding that we must accomodate multiple claims to truth because there are too many moments when we cannot reasonable chose one over the other.

What follows in an except from my forthcoming book, Open Source Church, in which I explore the idea of truth in relation to theology.  You can find a draft of the entire chapter (and book) in an earlier post*, but the basic set up is this: I am exploring the foundational principles of Wikipedia and applying those principles to the Church.

* scroll to the earliest posts in the “Church” category

* * * * * * * * * * *

Wikipedia has a neutral point of view

The second fundamental principle of Wikipedia establishes that the site advocates for no singular point of view.

Wikipedia has a neutral point of view. We strive for articles that advocate no single point of view. Sometimes this requires representing multiple points of view, presenting each point of view accurately and in context, and not presenting any point of view as “the truth” or “the best view”.  All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy: unreferenced material may be removed, so please provide references. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong here. That means citing verifiable, authoritative sources, especially on controversial topics and when the subject is a living person. When conflict arises over neutrality, discuss details on the talk page, and follow dispute resolution.

This is the pillar which begins to highlight the reason that many people disparage Wikipedia: the project is not concerned with getting to “the truth.”

When I speak about this project I inevitably get asked a host of questions based on a person’s perception that Wikipedia is (or can/will be) full of false information. “What can you say about those times when Wikipedia is wrong?  What good is an encyclopedia if we can’t go there to find the truth about something?”

First, let’s acknowledge the very real fear present in these questions: people want to know that the information they use in their day to day lives is reliable. We want to know that other people are not just “making stuff up.” Most of us are not comfortable in an “anything goes” environment. The reason, of course (at least, at some level), is that our lives depend on accurate information. An extreme example of this need would be the formulas used to calculate how gravity acts in our world and what kind of propulsion is needed in order for a plane to overcome its effects long enough for us to be carried through the air. No one wants to live in a world where someone can make up that kind of information up, do we? No, we want to live in a world where the science behind gravity is well established and consistently reconfirmed and verified.

But here’s where the situation gets a little sticky: What if we’re not talking about something so “certain” as gravity?  What if we’re talking about the city of Kiev in Ukraine?  Were you aware that there was a dispute on Wikipedia about the spelling of that name?  That, although the common English spelling is Kiev, in 1995 the Ukrainian government adopted Kyiv as the preferred spelling?

This may seem like a silly argument to you, but I can assure that it is not to the Ukrainians.  The “truth” of this matter is tied to national identity and ethnic history.  How do you determine where the “truth” lies?  I’m certain that, as with most anything, one could find “experts” and “non-experts” alike who would testify to the validity of the argument they support.  How do we decide?  Wikipedia says we don’t.  Functioning as Wikipedians, we would do well to remember that it is not our job to make that decision, and here is where the second of the Five Pillars comes into play.

Wikipedia is not the vehicle through which to present cutting edge research, or wax on about your new theory on Ukrainian linguistics.  Wikipedia is the place where all available information is brought to bear on the topic and a group of people who care about it (presumably because of some connection to, and knowledge of, the subject) sift through it and make some sense out of it.  Because there is some discrepancy about the topic, editors have to make sure and cite verifiable sources for the edits they make.  I may not like the edit you make, but if you can establish that there is at least a credible basis by which you made it I cannot categorically revert the change. If I feel strongly enough about the change, I can begin a discussion on it in hopes of changing enough minds that I would be allowed to make the edit I want.

In the Wikipedia community, this approach is referred to as “verifiability, not truth.”  Remember, the stated goal of Wikipedia is to ensure access to the sum of all human knowledge, not merely the pieces that a small group of people think are important.  As long as I can validate that what I am contributing is established and credible, then I am free to contribute it.

This also means that seemingly competing pieces of information might appear side by side in Wikipedia. As we explored in chapter 1, the open source worldview that informs this kind of structure holds that we each inhabit different contextual realities. Yours and mine will most certainly be different, but because we both have a valid basis on which to make our claims, we will need to learn to how to live with the tension. As of this writing, the English version of Wikipedia notes that the city in Ukraine is “Kiev or Kjiv.” Both claims are present, because both can be verified.

To say that applying this line of thought to the Church gives some people fits is an understatement.  If you think that messing with someone’s understanding of gravity or the spelling of Kiev/Kyiv makes them feel a little nervous and crazy, wait until you suggest that their theology might be treated in the same way.

Again, let’s acknowledge the fear present in this thought: our faith is a very real thing that is literally a matter of life and death for many people.  At some level, if our faith were not important, we would not waste our time on this question.  Just as with Wikipedia, we aren’t interested in an “anything goes” kind of environment.  We want to know that the thing we are giving our life to is trustworthy and reliable.  We want to know that when we come to know “the truth that will set us free” that we can count on that being the case.  Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and author of Salvation on the Small Screen, likes to communicate that desire this way: we want to know that what we’re involved in “is more than five minutes old.”

Let’s give ourselves some credit and say that, at our best, we are not arrogant people who think we can do this thing called the Christian life any old way we want. Especially those of us in confessional forms of the faith, it would be the height of arrogance to assume that we can say anything without being in conversation with what has come before us or is currently around us.

The problem that we find ourselves in, however, is that there is much less agreement about certain aspects of our collective faith than there is about gravity.  Besides the statement that “Jesus Christ is Lord” I’m honestly not aware of a piece of Christian thought that doesn’t more resemble the Kiev/Kjiv discussion.

What an open source church asserts is that there is not really a legitimate chance that we are going to be able to truly know the “truth” and we shouldn’t try.  Given the revealed nature of most versions of the Christian faith, I think we might feel comfortable enough to say that “the truth” has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, but our previous discussion of context also makes plain to us that your experience (and subsequent explanation) of it might radically differ from mine.

So where does that leave us?  What kind of church do we have at that point?  If we view the church as similar to Wikipedia what does it mean to assert that the Church has a “neutral point of view”?  I think it means two things:

1) When it comes the church, what we’re doing is passing on something equivalent to the “verifiable” information the Wikipedia is interested in. The church is not a vehicle for “experimentation” when it comes to theology or practice. This suggestion might be off putting to some, but this is not to say that other practices cannot be explored nor that theological exploration is not done.

The Open Source Church will never say “We have the Truth,” but it will say, “Here is what we have found to be reliable in many times and in many places.” It’s not “Believe this or you go to Hell,” but “If you want the Abundant Life, here’s what we have found to be helpful.”  Of course, the fun occurs when you and I begin discussing what exactly has been reliable over the ages. More often than not, we will find that we do not list the same things, which leads to the second point…

2) There will be space in the Open Source Church for different understandings to exist side by side. A classic example is the various understandings of atonement – of how and why Jesus’s death and resurrection is the basis of our salvation. Some would say that God was paying the Devil a ransom, while others would say that Jesus was taking the punishment that we should have had to endure for violating God’s laws. Still others say that Jesus’s death set us free from being bound to ourselves.

Which one is the “Truth”? From an open source viewpoint, they all are, and they all will exist side by side in the church. We, of course, must demonstrate how these understandings and other practices are reliably conforming us to the image of Christ.  However, once that bar is past, it’s just like Wikipedia’s discussion about “Kiev/Kjiv.”

One thought on “Everyone is a Theologian, Pt. 2: Verifiability vs. Truth”

  1. This is always interesting – Wikipedia is playing a language game here. In the snippet you cut, they make many clear statements about truth, apart from verifiability. I can count about 7 semi-distinct truth-claims that are made in that paragraph alone – it’s just that they are not like the truth claims a modernist-type would make. Well, except for one, which is about the importance of authority – a deeply modernist idea.

    Now, you and I swim in this language game, but I am gaining appreciation for how another kind of thinking might feel like they were drowning in people saying “We are not after truth” in one breath and then “these things are truth” in the next.

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