Friday, 23 October 2009

Life Starts Here: TRUTH (...and where to find it)

After a long absence, here's a talk I gave recently at Reading University during Freshers week...

When I knew I had to speak on this subject, I wasn’t sure where to start, but I started thinking about why the truth is so important. It’s actually a fairly tricky question. Why is truth important? Do we need to even bother thinking about what’s true and what isn’t? So I texted the question answering service AQA. Has anyone used it before? Basically you can type in any question, from “what are the symptoms of swine flu?” to “can a boy swim fast than a shark?” So I texted with the question, “why is truth important?” They replied and said, “truth is important because society cannot function properly without it. All relationships rely on trust, and they cannot survive without it.”

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, but that really got me thinking…

Our society is based on the idea that truth is important, isn’t it? At nearly every level, truth is really important. We all value trust in our relationships, don’t we? Truth is the basis of trust – we trust people because we know the truth about them, and we trust them to tell us the truth.

Our legal system is based on truth too, isn’t it? I got stopped and searched for drugs recently (which is a long story). I didn’t have any (!), but I was quite pleased that the policeman searching me was interested in the truth! Imagine if he’d ignored the truth and just decided I’d broken the law.

Without the assumption that truth is a good thing, communication wouldn’t just be difficult, it’d be pointless. And knowing the truth helps us to make the right decisions, whether it’s the truth about the mobile phone you’re thinking of buying, or the truth about the person you’re thinking of marrying. In small things or in big things, truth is important.

But what makes something true? Some of you might be philosophy students, and I guess you spend all day thinking about questions like this. I’m not, I trained as a scientist, so I decided to do some serious research… Wikipedia, obviously.
(Maybe slightly ironic that I should consult Wikipedia on the subject of ‘truth’…)

For a statement or an idea to be true, it has to be correspond to the way things really are. It has to fit with the real world. As you’d imagine, there’s a lot more to it, but I guess that makes sense, doesn’t it? So 2+2=4 because if I’ve got 2 things and I add 2 more things I really do have 4 things. You could say it’s true that I’m going bald by looking at the top of my head and you’d see there’s a lot of empty space. But truth isn’t just an abstract thing for the lecture theatre or library. You have to be able to live truth out. There’s a difference between thinking about whether something is true and actually experiencing it to be true. That will happen in the lab, but it happens in every aspect of life too. There’s a difference between knowing what happens if you leave a fork in the microwave and actually doing it…

Universities are all about this kind of truth, aren’t they. Surely the whole point of Universities is to seek answers and to find out truth about the world, whether it’s the truth about literary criticism or yoghurt? You’re here to study (sorry to break that to you) - hopefully you want to find something out about the subject you’re signed up for. Maybe some of you will even become experts in your subjects and make huge breakthroughs in the search for truth. (Some of you, maybe not…)

But University is also about real life, isn’t it? “Life Starts Here.” That will involve some mundane aspects of life. Eventually your clean clothes will run out, and you’ll need to find a washing machine. Eventually your loan cheque will run out (if it’s even arrived yet), and you’ll need to be creative as you stretch your budget. But it’s more than that. While you’re at University, you’ve got a great chance to ask big questions and make big decisions about real life. What’s life all about? Who are you? What’s important? Where are you headed? And University is possibly the best place and the best time in your life to start to answer those questions. So while you’re at University, make sure you find out the truth about life.

As you do that, I want to suggest to you one truth that you need to consider, because if it’s true then it’s the most important truth in the Universe, and it makes a difference to every one of us. This talk has been put on by the Christian Union, and they didn’t just invite me to ramble on about how lovely truth is for half an hour. As a Christian, I believe that the truth really isn’t just abstract ideas and hypotheses. I believe that the truth about real life is centred on a person, and because of that it is important for each one of us personally. The truth is based on the person of Jesus Christ. And he wasn’t shy about that – so much so that he actually claimed to be the truth.

I want to read you a couple of sentences from the Bible, from an account of Jesus’ life written by his friend John. You can go and have a look at it yourself if you want to – the section of the Bible is imaginatively called “John,” and this is from chapter 14.

“Jesus told him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14v6)

Just take a second to let that sink in – that’s pretty shocking to our politically correct ears, isn’t it? He’s claiming to be “the truth.” He’s claiming to be “the way” and “the life” too. But that’s not a way, a truth, and a life. He’s claiming to be the only way, the only truth and the only life. He follows it up with something even less PC (if that’s possible): “No-one can come to the Father except through me.”

That’s pretty exclusive, isn’t it? But let’s dig into what he’s actually claiming…?

Let’s start with His claim to be the truth, as that’s what we’re focussing on. It’s an arrogant-sounding claim, but what does he mean? Is he claiming to be able to have a new and interesting take on life? Is he claiming to be able to give us some special insight?

Well, yes he is, but it’s more than that. He’s claiming to be the truth about God. His follow-up statement about getting to the Father tells us what he’s getting at. But he’s not just claiming to know the truth or to be able to explain it, but to actually be the truth about God. And the reason he can claim that is because he’s God himself.

The whole of what John has to say about Jesus starts with that premise. Right at the beginning, John starts with the assertion that “the Word,” which is John’s nickname for Jesus, came from God, but also that he’s God himself. Jesus is God-made-human. And so when we look at Jesus we’re looking at the God of the whole Universe. Through the descriptions of Jesus in the Bible we can see what God is like, because we can see what Jesus is like.

If that’s true, then Jesus really can claim to be the truth, in a way which no-one else ever could. Lot’s of people claim to know something important about the truth, but anyone else is just offering there own personal take on what’s true. Jesus can claim to be the truth about God, because he personally reveals God to us. And that has all kinds of other knock-on effects for how we think about the world.

But Jesus makes two other claims, which are linked to his claim to be the truth. He claims to be the way. When he says that, he’s claiming to be the way to God. He’s specific about that. He isn’t just pointing the way. He isn’t just suggesting a philosophy to help people understand God better – he is the way to God.

But why do we even need a way to God? You might think, well, I’m doing OK without him thank you very much, so I don’t really need a way to get to God. But the Bible says that the consequences of being separated from God are severe.

We need a way to God because we’ve ruined things with him. We’ve rejected God, and we’re separated from him. Christians believe that God created the universe and everything in it, so he’s the only one in the Universe who deserves to be honoured and worshipped. But we’ve turned our backs on him. It’s the ultimate offence.

Imagine you meet the Queen, and instead of bowing as you should, you spit on her. There’d be outrage! You’d definitely make the papers. But she’s only the Queen. God is infinitely more important, and so the crime is infinitely worse. And it’s that ultimate crime which stands between us and God. It’s just not how the universe is supposed to run, and it’s damaged the whole of creation – we only have to look around at our damaged world to see the fracture lines. But it has serious consequences for each of us too – in committing the ultimate crime of rejecting God, we deserve the ultimate punishment. We deserve death.

That’s pretty bleak, so far. But Jesus did something surprising to change all that – he died. Just a few pages later, he’s killed. He’s abused and beaten, and then nailed to a wooden cross where he suffocates to death. But in dying, he paid for the offense we caused and opened up the way to God. The barrier that had separated us from God was removed, and the way is open.

Jesus can claim to be the way, because it’s through him, and through what he’s done, that we can get to God. And it’s why he can add the claim that “No-one comes to the Father, except through me.” If his claim is true, then this is arrogant – it’s a simple statement of fact. We’ve got no chance of coming to God unless our offence is dealt with by Jesus.

And Jesus claimed to be the life. He’s an expert on life and death, because he’s been there. We’ve already heard that he died. But so what? Lots of people have. Why should we believe that his death was any more special than anyone else’s?

In a few pages, Jesus is killed, by Roman experts in execution – he was properly dead for three days. But a couple of pages after that, he comes back to life. Death isn’t the end of the story. If it was, we could just go home and forget all about it. But the resurrection of Jesus forces us to take his claims seriously. It also has really important consequences for us. Death wasn’t the end for him, and so it doesn’t have to be the end for us either. Life Starts Here.

This is something else Jesus said about himself, from a little bit earlier on in the same book:

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3v16)

When Jesus talks about life and death, we should listen to him, because he’s been there. And linked into his claim to be the life is the offer of life to anyone who will believe in him.

If these claims Jesus makes about himself are true, then they change everything, and we can’t ignore them. If there’s even a possibility that he’s right, then you need to consider it - it’s too important to ignore. I believe it’s true – that’s why I spend my time telling people about him. The Christian Union believes it’s true – that’s why they put on events like this, to help you to explore the claims of Jesus for yourself. But this is more than just finding out that something is factually accurate. This is about what real life is all about. If Jesus’ claims about himself are true, then they change everything. And they affect you, personally.

In one way, the decision quite simple. Jesus won’t just fit nice and comfortably with other suggestions about how we can be close to God. He won’t just sit on the shelf as an option alongside a load of others. His claims are either true or not. And if they are true, then you can’t ignore them. I haven’t told you nearly enough for you to make the decision, but there are loads of ways to find out more about the claims of Jesus. One great one is to sign up to the Glad You Asked course the CU is running – it’s a great opportunity to think about some of these big questions, and also some of the questions Jesus asks of us (which is only fair).

One of the best ways to find out more is the take one of these Free booklets. It’s another account of Jesus’ life from the Bible, this time written by a guy called Mark. Take one of these, read it and really engage with the evidence for who Jesus is and the claims that he made about himself. If you have questions about it, or things you want to say about it, then talk to the Christian Union – they should be delighted to talk to you.

This is something you need to get to the bottom of, and as I said earlier, University is probably the best place in the world, and the best time in your life to do it. Life really does start here, and it’s a great place to find truth. But I’d also say that this is an even better place to find the truth, and Life Starts Here.