Review of “Through the River” by John Elford
You’ve been there before. You’re in a study group and someone is sharing something near and dear to her heart. Out of the blue, someone asks, “You really believe that God is like that?” and the debate is on. What began as a simple Bible study has now plunged into the metaphysical realm.
The authors of Through the River contend that many of the disagreements we have in the church can be traced back to different understandings of the truth. Using the analogy of settlements along the river, Jon and Mindy Hirst present three different ways of understanding the truth or, what they call, truth lenses. Their work is rooted in the epistemological work of Paul Hiebert, a leading missiological anthropologist until his death in 2007.
On one side of the river, we find the Rock Dwellers or the positivists. These independent folk have acquired, through reason and logic, a set of firmly held beliefs. Objective reality is ultimately knowable through the empirical methods of math and science. Agreement and the quest for that one right answer are at the heart of the Rock Dwellers’ world.
Islanders or instrumentalists still believe in a real world that can be described in a multitude of ways. In contrast to positivists, they rarely argue with each other since they have given up on the quest for a single universal truth in favor of embracing the unique experiences of individuals. Many different answers to one question can co-exist on the islands because tolerance is valued over conformity.
Across the river, we find the Valley Dwellers or the critical realists, a harmonization of the best of the positivist and instrumentalist worlds. The watchword in the valley is “the truth you know and the truth you are learning” (76). In their quest for knowledge, Valley Dwellers bring together the objective knowledge gained through study and the subjective knowledge of experience. Critical realism values both tolerance and the quest for furthering knowledge in community.
The advantage of using the river analogy is that it genuinely helps illumine the three different positions and how they interact with each other. The main problem I see with the image is that while the middle position in the analogy is occupied by the Island Dwellers, actually the middle position between the extremes is really the Valley Dwellers. The Valley Dwellers are a way of having your cake and eating it, too, of holding on to the quest for foundational truth beyond pure subjectivity but also a way to stay in dialogue with those who disagree with us.
Without saying as much, the argument of the book tends to favor the third truth lens, critical realism. This becomes clear not only in the progression one makes in the story from the rock dwellings through the islands to the valley, but also in the various examples, where critical realism seems to offer the best way to handle truth matters and move beyond confrontations and stalemates in Christian dialogue.
Since the proof is in the pudding, how well does this schematic of three truth lenses work in the real world? The Hirsts' treatment of the church's mission and witness exemplifies how well the truth lens schema works in practice.
Rock dwellers define the gospel “largely in terms of knowledge” (174). So evangelistic witness primarily takes the form of presenting arguments to convert someone’s soul. Witness may involve “mercy ministries” but tends to focus on sharing the truth of the gospel.
The view from the islands is quite different. Outreach entails “delivering love through dialogue” (174). The goal of missionaries is to listen and understand other religious beliefs since all belief systems are valid. The focus of instrumentalist missions is on felt needs like humanitarian aid (176).
Not surprisingly, the Valley Dwellers combines the best of both worlds: ministering to felt needs and helping others understand what faith in God might mean in their context. In mission, critical realist missionaries may also discover new understandings of their own faith (181). This position is able to harmonize the age-old conflict between those who favor “saving souls” and those who favor “serving soup.” It's not either/or; it's both.
The analysis of different approaches is nice, but breaks no new ground. How about taking the truth lenses to the next level and consider something really controversial, like the church’s position on homosexuality? Do they help illumine the arguments and divisions we’ve witnessed over the last 40 years in the mainline denominations?
It seems that the positivists would argue that there is only one correct view in scripture on homosexuality. That view might be summed up by the teaching of my own denomination (UMC): “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings.” They reach this position by looking specifically at the scriptures that condemn homosexuality Using logic and reason, positivists would conclude that a lifestyle of practicing homosexuality cannot be reconciled with Christian practice. Positivist churches would have little difficulty adopting policies that deny avowed homosexuals membership and leadership in their churches.
Instrumentalists or relativists have given up the notion that there can be one view of homosexuality even within the Christian community. Their position would be influenced by differing cultural backgrounds and views of Biblical authority. It seems that a relativist church would practice wide toleration toward those in the GLBT community. Membership and leadership in the church seems also to follow from the instrumentalist emphasis on tolerance of different values. Discussions of sexuality would likely be not only rich and rewarding but ultimately frustrating and confusing. Forming churches or communities of faith among those with an instrumentalist bent would be a vexing project indeed. There is such diversity that the differences could well lead either to many small churches or no church gatherings at all.
What about the critical realists? Representing the best of both the positivist and instrumentalist worlds, how would they fair in dealing with this issue? Using the watchword, “the truth we know and the truth we are learning,” it seems that critical realists would recognize that we have different understandings of the compatibility of a homosexual lifestyle with Christian practice. In humility, we would continue to dialogue with our brothers and sisters to better understand those who don’t agree with us. A critical realist church could hardly exclude the GLBT community from leadership or membership, since all are still struggling toward truth together. The most that could be said affirmatively is that thinking Christians do not yet agree.
As a pastor who has watched his own and several other denominations struggle bitterly over the place of the GLBT community in the church, I think that this position would be much more honest and perhaps closer to where we really are as a church. However, since the critical realist position does not seem to exclude the full inclusion of GLBT's in the church as we work on truth together, my hunch is that few in mainline churches will be willing to embrace this stance because of the potential political fallout.
I hope that Through the River is widely read. The presentation is certainly accessible to those with little or no background in philosophy. The issues the Hirsts address are not simply theoretical but have a quite practical focus. Dialogue both within faith communities and and between different religious groups has fanned into flames in recent years and all would benefit from stepping back and considering how one comes at the truth.
The scheme of three truth lenses allows us to see how we can move toward a position where positive engagement with others can occur, without having to sacrifice either our own sense of what is true about ultimate reality or our notion of who we are as persons conditioned by different sets of cultural experiences. Dr. Paul Hiebert, through the Hirsts, offers us a third way beyond retrenchment or disengagement. In fact, one could argue that critical realism may well be the epistemological follow-through of Jesus’ command to love. We listen. We’re non-defensive. We believe that God is working in every situation. We are not rescuers of the truth. We can live with dissonance. We don’t have to sacrifice truth to relationships. We discover truth in the other and in the stranger. And in the process we grow in love toward God and neighbor.