Relational Truth & Systems Theory

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Here's a thought that shook my world that is derived from systemic theory:

Old school philosophical, scientific, and religious inquiry seeks to find objective truth by observing as a neutral party from the outside. Its goal is to discover an absolute truth. However science has been discovering that we cannot be neutral observers because our observation actually changes the results. This is all the more true in relationships: you cannot truly understand another unless you enter into their lives. It is not possible to truly know another without loving them. Truth then cannot be separated from love.

Beyond this, there is also a practical problem with the old school approach of seeking to find the objective impartial truth: in relationships this approach inevitably leads to conflict because it seeks to determine which party was more correct, and thus who “wins”. Theology that is focused on determining these kinds of absolute propositional truth claims (such as systematic theology) has often fallen into this trap. Systemic theory instead seeks a relational understanding of truth. Instead of asking what the absolute right answer is, it seeks to understand how each person in a relationship perceives what is happening. Because its focus is on seeking to understand people relationally rather than determining who is "right", it leads towards reconciliation and understanding instead of towards blame and conflict.

While this is an approach that is relational, it is not relativistic per se. That is, systemic theory does not claim that truth is relative, but simply that we are. We each perceive what we do, and if we care about others, if we care about relationship, we need to care about their perceptions and feelings - about them -more than we do about our being right. You might say its the difference between being right and being righteous. righteousness is not self-focused, but cares for the other.

We are relative because we are all inside of this world of ours, we are all connected to each other in relationship, for better or worse. We are all subjects of God's world. Reality is not subjective, we are. We perceive everything from our own perspective. God is the only one who is absolute and who can speak absolutely. All the rest of us are locked into our own relative perspectives, clouded by our own particular blinders. Yet even God, (who alone could have come making absolute truth claims), when he came among us in Christ did not seek to demonstrate that he was right, but instead focused on relating and reconciling us even though we were all wrong. (and again our wrongness biblically was fundamentally because we were estranged from relationship that was remedied through reconciliation).
Without denying the reality of absolute truth, on a far deeper level we need to recognize that Truth is at its very core relational, and when the one who is Truth came among us it was in order to seek relationship. In other worlds, truth must be the servant of love. The goal of theology needs to be to foster loving relationships by seeking relational understanding rather than to make correct propositional statements. That does not mean we need to throw out all propositions, but that they are means towards love and relationship. Robert Webber in "The Younger Evangelicals" suggests that this relational understanding of truth is leading to a new approach to apologetics and evangelism: instead of using reason to present "evidence that demands a verdict," people are convinced of truth by seeing it embodied and lived out leading to them encountering that truth relationally themselves. Thus knowing truth takes on a biblical relational sense: knowing means loving.

To me, as someone who believes in absolute truth, this is profoundly challenging. It tells me that I need to care more about relating and understanding another than I do about what the "truth" is. That means that I need to re-think what truth means. But the more I think about this the more I see how biblical it is. Truth is not an abstract fact, it is a living Someone. Jesus said "I am the Truth". That means Truth is alive and relational. Truth is loving and life-giving. Truth is transformative and reconciling. Truth is love, and what is unloving and life-sucking simply is not truth.

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At 4:05 PM, Blogger Sue said...

I love your blog, Derek :)

And I loved this post so much - so tasty, so nutritious, so much to crunch on - that I linked to it.

At 5:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Sue. Glad to be crunchy :)

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Darin L. Hamm said...

Someone just connected me with your blog and I just wanted to say thanks.

You articulate your position well.

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Darin :^)

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

Hey Derek,

I stumbled across your blog today when I googled "christus victor." I decided to poke around and look at some other things as well.

This was a great post, bro. I am also someone who believes in absolute truth (I think it rather foolish not to), and this was challenging to say the least. But like you, the more I ponder on it the more convinced of it I become. Thanks for posting this.


At 1:35 AM, Blogger Jonathan Evans said...

Thanks for the blog. I am preaching today 12.3.08 on John 8 - You shall know the truth, and I was bringing in some stuff from what I have learned about conflict transformation, focussing on truth not being about finding the truth of 'what happened' i.e. who was in the wrong, but rather on finding the truth about how things have impacted the parties in a dispute. It's only when this truth (i.e. relational) is found, that parties can move on. Having written the sermon, I googled 'truth' 'Jesus' 'relational' and came across your blog. I'll come back and read more later!

At 6:28 PM, Blogger Eric Valosin said...

I seem to be echoing other comments, not to mention resurrecting quite an old post now, but I wanted to commend you an such a great articulation of a very challenging concept.

I'm an artist exploring how mystical experience can function in a digital context after postmodernism, and I've been wrestling with the whole Platonic metaphysics vs relational truth thing for a while. I couldn't have said it all better myself (I've tried.)

I'm excited to poke around your blog more and check out your other work! Thanks for blogging!

At 5:48 PM, Blogger virtuous circle said...

I think it would self evident that we should try to embody Christ in loving acts- Christ, The Way, The Truth and the Life. Yet, this is a goal, which i think anyone who is honest will say that are VERY far from. Because Christ was the full embodiment, the incarnation of God in flesh, his perfect love may yet take a while to manifest in mere mortals, even those striving daily in their emulation of Him. Does this mean, that none can therefore be in apprehension of various Truths about the objective nature of spiritual reality, or that their revealed or realized Truths are invalid because they are not the embodiment of love-which definition is Christ himself? Not at all. Such ideas may not be well received by others, but I don't see how this would in any way impact their veracity. There have been many "fire and brimstone" prophets and preachers speaking truths that may be hard to hear, because they offend our comfort and sensibility, however such truths may be fully valid. i am suspicious about judging the veracity of truth on the basis of how "loving" someone is perceived to be. Firstly, such an apprehensive is subjective by very definition. How I feel is relevant to myself alone. Secondly, it is derivative- we are judging truth on the basis of a another concept- in this case love, rather on the merits of the concept itself. Thirdly, if the measure of "truth" is "love", then equally those who are loving must be truthful. yet anyone who has spent anytime in the world knows that there are many exceedingly loving people who are really full of piss and vinegar- espousing ridiculous ideas unsubstantiated by revelatory truth or reasoned truth or even common sense observation. So, ultimately, YES for being more loving when sharing what we feel to be truthful account of reality (physical and spiritual) but NO to using subjective notions of "love" as a definitive yardstick for objective truth.

At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


You mention the prophets "speaking truths that may be hard to hear, because they offend our comfort and sensibility." The prophets are indeed confrontive, but consider what it is that they, in almost 100% of the time in the Bible are confronting people about: They are confronting people, damning people (literally) about exploiting the weak, about not caring for the vulnerable, about not being loving. As you note the way they do that is confrontive and consequently their audience likely felt... confronted. In other words, they likely did not feel warm fuzzies about it. But the goal of the prophets was to speak in service of loving action (not feelings).

Similarly Jesus was often confrontive and made the religious leaders he confronted so mad that they on several occasions sought to kill him. They certainly did not "feel" good about what he was saying to them. But again the reason Jesus said what he did was in order to promote love, to say to them "hey you are hurting people, stop."

It seems that when you disagree that love is "a yardstick for objective truth" you are thinking of love as a feeling, and thus if when, for example a Pharisee didn't "feel loved" when Jesus "spoke truth" to him the focus and aim of Jesus was not on promoting love, but instead on promoting truth.

I would respond that the focus and aim of Jesus was absolutely on love, and that Jesus saw no contradiction on him being often confrontive to people in speaking out for love. It was not about feelings, but about action. Jesus said that the whole of the law was summed up in two commands, love God and love your neighbor. Jesus left his followers with one command "love each other." So it is Biblical undeniable that love was clearly the central aim of Jesus. But in the biblical framework, love is not about feelings, but about action. It means acting in a way towards another that promotes life and flourishing, rather than in a way that promotes hurt.

A parent for example may set boundaries for their kids with the goal of loving them and having them grow to act lovingly. The kid may not feel happy about those boundaries, but the aim of the parent in setting them is love.

Their goal however is not to just be right, and this is also not the goal of Jesus. His goal is always everything (including truth statements) in the service of promoting love, promoting well-being, promoting doing good, promoting righteousness. You might say, the goal of Jesus (and what should be our goal as well) is not to be right, but to be righteous.


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