Googling for Truth: The Importance of Irenic Theology in our Postmodern World
~ C Michael Patton ~
Googling for truth can be a dangerous task. Who knows what one will find? How do you know who to trust? Before Google, before the Internet, before twenty-four-hour world news, before the introduction of our globalized culture where alternative truth claims are literally at ones fingertips, people could be much more confident that the truth claims to which they adhere were an accurate representation of reality. Why? Because we did not have any other alternatives to confuse the issues. The naiveté that this intellectual isolation provided, while quite comforting, is no longer a luxury that we can afford to entertain and expect to have an audience in the real world. Truth is no longer simply a matter of going to the local parish on the corner and inquiring of the pastor. It is much more complex and confusing. Today, people are Googling for truth, looking for answers, and bewilderment is the most common result. Thousands of alternatives present themselves at your front door at every turn. After a while you just don’t want to answer the door anymore. Is there a method of discovery that produces hope and assurance, without having to retreat back to naive isolationism of the past?
It is no secret that our culture today is undergoing a massive paradigm shift with regards to the way people come to know truth. The atmosphere of the intellectual landscape has changed. Confidence, certainty, and dogmatism have been replaced with doubt, skepticism, and agnosticism. Truth claims are held in high suspicion. Those still working under the old paradigm of truth are thought by this new generation of thinkers to be naive at best and power mongering manipulators at worst. Within the philosophical and theological communities, this new generation goes by many names: Post-fundamentalism, Post-Christian, Post-Liberal, and the most common Post-modernism. While these names may not be sufficient to completely convey the ethos of this generation, they all have one important element in common—they are all “post” something. The culture is moving beyond where it was before.
Suspicion. This is a good, rich, and sad word that is only needed because of humanity’s moral downfall. To be suspicious means that you are in a “state of uncertainty or doubt.” Or better, “Suspicion is the positive tendency to doubt the trustworthiness of appearances and therefore to believe that one has detected possibilities of something unreliable, unfavorable, menacing, or the like.” Synonyms for suspicion are doubt, mistrust, or misgiving. Our culture is in a perpetual state of uncertainty about truth; our culture is suspicious—suspicious of you and suspicious of me. Why? Because Christians claim to have the truth about the most important questions in life. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the truth. We have presented ourselves at the front door, and our message of exclusivity is falling on deaf ears.
While the problem is no secret, the solution is harder to come by. Because of these epistemological difficulties, the focal point for theology is no longer Bibliology as it once was, but Prolegomena. Prolegomena is the theological discipline that focuses on issues that need to be covered before truth claims can be asserted and debated. Prolegomena deals with the “first things” of theology. Methodology, theological systems, epistemology, and sources for truth are all issues of Prolegomena. Because the world does not work with the same assumptions that it used to, we must create common ground before we can reach our culture. This common ground must first and foremost deal with the issue of suspicion. The distrust that people have for you when you approach their door with a Bible opened to your favorite verse is real.
Not only this, but this disarming must have a subjective component to it as well. You and I are not speaking from a megaphone from our isolated island of naivety (at least we shouldn’t be). We are affected by the change as well. I have seen much confusion and suspicion among believers in recent years. People are leaving organized religion in droves, and the denominations are depleting in numbers. I, myself, find it hard to know who to trust.
What I want to propose in this short essay is a method of theological inquiry that should go a long way in disarming both the skeptic out there and the skeptic within. It is called “irenic theology” or the “irenic method” of doing theology. The word “irenic” is taken from the Greek irene which means “peace.” Irenic theology is learning about truth in a peaceful manner, accurately representing the opposing belief even when you disagree strongly. In many ways it is the opposite of a dogmatic methodology which seeks to tell people the “truth” by positioning itself as the only true option.
Requirements of the Irenic Method
Willingness to learn, adapt, and change: The Reformers brought theology out of the dogmatic slumber of the dark ages. They challenged the unfounded traditions and abuses of the past, giving the church a bright light of hope as the Gospel was rediscovered. They also sought to prevent the church from ever revisiting the difficulties proclaiming the principle of Semper Reformanda which means “always reforming.” The Reformers knew that truth must always be tested and ready to be reformed. This understanding presents our search for truth as a journey that will not end until Christ comes for the church (1 Cor. 13:12). We must be willing to reform as well. The irenic method demands that we approach our study ready to alleviate ourselves of any sacred cows that might have crept in without warrant. We must be willing to reform our theology if the evidence makes such a demand. This is easier said than done, but it is necessary nonetheless.
Willingness to take a risk: When you present all views accurately, the best arguments from all positions are presented so that people have the chance to make up their own minds, knowing both the strengths and weaknesses of all relevant positions. In short, learning and teaching theology in an irenic way gives people the chance not to believe so that they might truly believe. There is risk involved in irenic theology, especially for teachers. Those being taught may or may not identify with or be convinced of your particular persuasions. But it does not fair well before the Lord for us to sweep the other options under the rug in fear of the possibility of desertion. People will find out the other options in a Googling generation. Once they do, you will have lost their trust and will not have an audience with them any longer. They will see you as manipulative, naïve, or, at best, misinformed and incompetent. Irenic theology demands that the risk be taken.
A broad knowledge base: No longer can people study in isolation, seeking to confirm their prejudice with what they read or whom they listen to. We must be willing to challenge ourselves and expand our thinking. If you, as a Protestant are going to present the Roman Catholic view on Transubstantiation, irenic theology demands that you allow for no straw men arguments. In other words, you should know enough to present their case so well that if the strongest apologist for their position were to be in your audience, he or she would give you a thumbs up, affirming the accuracy of your information and appreciating your peaceful tone. There is an old folk tale that has been spread more times than I can count about counterfeits currency. Some would say that just as those who investigate counterfeits only study real currency in order to identify counterfeits, so should Christians only study the truth in order to identify untruth. This is a very modernistic illustration which is not only untrue, but will hardly serve as a justified model for discovery in a postmodern world. The first fallacy is that the illustration is simply untrue. Counterfeit investigators do study every type of counterfeit that is known. Second, this illustration arrogantly assumes that they are already in possession of the truth against which to measure the false. It necessarily requires that you do not examine the options. Therefore, it seeks to keep you in isolation. This is fine and good if you actually do have the truth, but who is to say that you do? Any number of rival truth claims can use this illustration to keep there people in naive ignorance. For many who follow this methodology, they are in for a rude awakening. We must be willing to study broadly and consider deeply the alternatives if we expect to have and produce intellectual honesty. Without it, how do we expect to stand before God with integrity?
Benefits of Irenic Method
Your beliefs will be more real: No longer will you believe something simply out of a subjective emotional conviction that can be shared by all people of all world religions, but because of an honest wrestling with the issues. God gave us our minds and He expects us to use them. He has no favor for the naive (read the Proverbs). His desire is for us to see the truth and be convinced of it.
You will have degrees of conviction: Without an irenic method, all beliefs carry the same degree of conviction. They are black and white. You either believe them or you don’t. There is no in-between. While the irenic method will give you greater conviction on many things, it will also demand less assurance with other things. You will see that often, because of the strengths of the arguments for alternative truth claims (such as in eschatology), the evidence demands that we be very timid about setting them up as tests for orthodoxy or holding to some things too strongly. If God’s revelation is clear, then we speak with the same clarity. If God’s revelation is not so clear, we represent it as such. Being Christian does not mean that we know it all or have a secret decoder ring when it comes to difficult issues. We have to look to the evidence and take a stand, even if that stand says “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.”
You will have a hierarchy of beliefs: As Roger Olson puts it, “Beliefs matter, but not all beliefs matter equally.” The irenic method demands that we see that some beliefs are more important than others. In other words, all doctrines are not worth dying for on a hill. Once we begin to see this, we will have gained an audience because Christians will all be speaking the same language. While disagreements may still exist, people will see that there is a center of peaceful unity upon which we all agree. The list on Google suddenly gets much smaller. The person and work of Christ is the center of our theology and must be spoken of by all Christians with unity and conviction.
You will have disarmed all skeptics: No longer will you or others see our faith and other Christians in the likeness of a used car salesman, but as those who truly care about the truth. People will see that we have entrusted them with the ability and confidence to make their own decisions. All talk of knowledge being manipulative will necessarily cease for it will find no basis in reality.
Our world is confused. They feel betrayed and manipulated, but this does not mean that they are not seeking for answers. Don’t underestimate people’s ability to spot a fake. Ask yourself continually if you are a fake. Don’t be afraid to learn. Christ has not given us such a faith that demands blind adherence. Pursue truth will all your being. Trust that God is not afraid of questions and doubt. He is pretty big. I think He can handle honest doubt better than naïve commitment. Pursue theology irenically.