Often I will share a message on Sunday morning and afterward think of things I should have said or not said or said differently. Recently, in a sermon entitled “Truth, by the Spirit”, based on John 16:12-15, I referred to a certain conclusion that some people have drawn from the horrendous attacks and loss of life that occurred on 9/11 fifteen years ago. That conclusion was that truth, or rather, the belief that one has found the truth, is dangerous and that the world will only be truly safe when everyone agrees that no one has a truth that is true for everyone at all times and under any circumstance. I gave several reasons why I believe this conclusion is erroneous and, in fact, dangerous. In doing so, I was not satisfied I did a very good job of it and perhaps left out an important part of the message I felt called to give. So, let’s take another look at the question.
If the truth, on ultimate questions such as the existence of God, the meaning of life, right and wrong, etc., is purely subjective, in other words, a matter of mere opinion, then truth on ultimate questions cannot be known. But the assertion that the truth about ultimate questions cannot be known is itself a claim to know a truth about ultimate questions. It is therefore self-contradictory. So, for starters, this idea is nonsense. But it gets worse.
Those who claim that truth on the big questions is just a matter of personal opinion have no reason to protect the rights of individuals or minority groups who disagree with them about that or any other question. At first that seems counter-intuitive. But in fact, if such people gain a majority standing or a position of power, they will have no reason to respect the rights of others. After all, if someone expresses an inconvenient opinion or engages in behavior they think hinders the attainment of their goals, they would regard such conscientious objectors as a nuisance to be pushed aside. In fact, the notion of individual rights and conscience is one of those “ultimate truths” which they claim cannot be known and are therefore mere opinions. No, the best protectors of the right to dissent from the majority or from those who hold power are those who believe that ultimate truth is knowable and that one of those truths we may know is that truth is only honored when it is freely adopted, not coerced. Those with this conviction will feel duty-bound to protect the rights of those who disagree with them as to what is true.
Now I realize that some people who believe they have found the ultimate truth, especially the followers of Al-Qaeda or ISIS, believe they have the God-given duty to deprive people of their rights and even their lives if they do not agree with them. But that is not simply because these radical Islamists believe they have the truth. It is because the “truth” they think they have is a lie. Believing in truth is not the problem. The problem is belief in a lie. If there is no truth, then there can be no lie.
This is why those who hold the position that ultimate truth is unknowable and that all claims to have found such truth are therefore false, have a really hard time combating a movement like radical Islam. They cannot use the tools of reasonable persuasion, of opposing error with truth, since they have cast truth aside. They are left with only two things: the carrot and the stick. On the one hand, they dangle the carrots of hedonistic self-indulgence or the material comforts of advanced, western civilization and on the other they apply the sticks of police and military force. None of these can ultimately defeat an ideology that holds these incentives in absolute contempt. As Osama bin Laden warned the west, “Be prepared for a war that lasts generations!” Their lie can only be exposed and discredited by people who believe they have the truth, not by people who have given up the very idea of truth.
I realize that this leaves secular governments, like ours and those in Europe and elsewhere, pretty much at a disadvantage. They cannot counter the religious ideology of ISIS and Al Qaeda with religious arguments. They have long agreed to abandon religious reasoning or terminology in their official pronouncements. The most they can do is say things like “Islam is a religion of peace and these guys have hijacked a peaceful religion for their evil purposes.” Even this is really getting into matters of religion which is technically against the rules. What they could truthfully say, and should say, is that the great majority of Muslims are peace-loving people who have no interest in taking part in “Jihad”.
So that leaves the long-term effective effort of opposing religious extremism in the hands of people who are free of the constraints of maintaining a neutral position on religious questions, namely, those who argue for the truth of a different religion than the one espoused by the radical Islamists. They may be Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews or even atheists, but they alone can attempt to counter the arguments of the extremists.
I don’t think it would surprise you to know that I think that the gospel of Christ and pleading its case against the claims of the Islamic radicals is the most effective way to end the plague of their terrorism. After all, the Islamic radicals are fundamentalists. The traditional or moderate Muslims have, to some extent, modified Islam from what it was in the beginning – a religion for warriors on a quest to conquer the world. Moderate Muslims must make the case for the peace-promoting modifications they have made. Such a case may be made but it will be a hard sell for anyone who wants their religion “as it was in the beginning”.
On the other hand, those who believe in the truth claims of Christianity can take the Islamic fundamentalists on their own ground by comparing the fundamentals of Christ with those of Muhammad. If anyone believes this approach to be ineffective I simply say the proof is in the pudding. Many young Muslims who either already were, or were on their way to becoming, radicalized have turned to Christ when confronted with a loving, passionate and reasoned appeal from a Christian or Christian community. This cuts Jihad off at the knees. The problem is that too few are engaged in bringing the gospel to young people who are at risk of radicalization. Instead, vast numbers of Christians are content to pull up their draw bridges and cower in their castles, entrusting their defense to the sword-wielding state. The best defense is a good offense and the best offense against a lie is the truth!