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Decoding Theology-Speak: Instant Replay

10 January 2009

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.


What is truth?


I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father except by me.



A couple of weeks ago, the boys and I were watching an NFL game of some consequence – the winner would go to the playoffs, as I recall – and near the end of the game, a running back tried to punch it in off-tackle, took a glancing hit from a linebacker, and fell forward into a pile of 300-lb bodies, stretching the ball to try to break the plane of the end zone.  The original call was a touchdown, but it wasn’t obvious, so the defending team’s head coach tossed his red hanky onto the field.  The TV network showed at least three different angles on the play, and what struck me was how ambiguous the film really was.  From one angle, it was obviously a touchdown; from another angle, it clearly was not.  

I don’t remember the decision, but it doesn’t really matter.


I do remember, though, wishing the network had had a camera in a different position, a position that would have been much more conclusive at that critical piont in the game.  Alas.


The question, of course, is:  “did he, or didn’t he?”  Get the ball to break the plane of the end zone, that is, before any of his critical body parts touched the ground.  Critical, as in, “identified by the rules of football as those parts any of which touching the ground would constitute being `down’ if said touching was the result of or coincident with contact with the body of a player on the opposing team, provided that the opposing player was blah, blah, blah…”  Good grief, this rabbit hole never ends!  But you know what I mean, even if we have to engage in the most laughably legalistic gyrations to be both accurate and precise.  (No, there is no post forthcoming on that topic as applied to Scripture.)

The answer, of course, is:  “it depends on which camera you believe.”  But even that doesn’t help us all that much.  First, at least in this example, we’d like to think that either he did or he didn’t, and that whether he did or didn’t is at least something knowable in that binary sense, even if we didn’t have the camera angle available to prove it conclusively.  Another way of putting it is that “God knows whether he did or didn’t,” by which we mean that whether he did or didn’t is a matter of fact, and because it’s a factual matter, its answer is knowable, and because the answer is knowable, the Omniscient One must therefore know it.  

(No, we’re not going to chase down Open Theism in this post, either.  Disclosure:  qb is probably an Open Theist.)

If the answer we seek amounts to a knowable fact – that is, either he did nor did not break the plane, but not both, and certainly not neither – then we believe that (a) God knows whether he did or didn’t, and (b) if we had only had that one, perfect camera angle, we’d know it, too.  All that stands between us and the same level of knowledge as God (at least in this limited and specific context) is the perfectly placed camera, fully operational, fully reliable.


I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about this.  I’ve rendered it in a way that borders on the absurd, but I’ve done it to make a piont:  every single one of us is interested, at some level, in how we come to know what we say we know.  Those partisans who say he did break the plane rely on the proof provided by one camera or one ensemble of cameras, and those who say he didn’t appeal to another camera or two or three.  And even if we’re not interested in how WE come to know it, we are unfailingly interested in knowing how SOMEONE ELSE WITH WHOM WE DISAGREE comes to know it.  Like children on the playground, we’re inclined to tell one another:  prove it.

It’s not going to help us much, at this juncture anyway, to evaluate the claim that whether or not he broke the plane is a knowable fact with exactly one possible answer out of two choices.  That’s a question about truth, and although it’s deeply related, it’s not our topic for the day.  (Whether or not truth is knowable is a massive philosophical undertaking; I don’t have the intellectual horsepower to do it justice.)

Here’s the main piont for us.  We evaluate competing claims about truth (not truth itself, OK?), and having resolved them to our satisfaction, we turn around and call our conclusions knowledge.  Each one of us evaluates those claims according to our unique sets of criteria, deciding

  • which sources are credible (which cameras are working correctly, or were working correctly when the event in question took place?);
  • which sources ought to be weighted more heavily (which cameras were closer to the action, or had a field of view in which our event was central and clearly in focus?); and
  • how we sift through all of the evidence, interpolate between and among its pieces, and overall just put it together into what we hope is a coherent account of what actually happened.

That process is known as epistemology:  how do we arrive at our personal or our community knowledge?


Sometimes, epistemological questions detract from the discussion.  Sometimes those who raise them are just being petty or gratuitous so they can appear sophisticated.  But that is usually only true when either (a) the evidence is overwhelmingly one-sided or (b) the stakes just aren’t that high.  Asking me how I know my computer really is a 24″ iMac is a trivial matter, really.

When it comes to important questions about Jesus or Paul, though – questions with big-time pastoral implications, like “did Jesus really do what the account in John 7:53ff says he did?” – it’s almost always fair game to ask “how do you know that?”  Wherever we load up the Scriptures with weighty, pastoral burdens that affect people’s lives in a significant way, we’ve got to think straight.  The questions of epistemology are designed to make sure we think straight, to hold us accountable.  Epistemology forces us to read the Scriptures in a community of faith in which we are always questioning our methods (selecting some data, rejecting others), our presuppositions (what we take for granted, our world views), and our motivations (what we are trying to achieve, and why).

Otherwise, we might end up paying some people a hefty playoff bonus when, in actual fact, the people with the other uniforms were – as God is our witness – the ones who earned it.  And that, friends, is what we call injustice.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 January 2009 12:21 pm


    It does us well to remember that the English word “truth” comes from the old Anglo-Saxon “treowth” whose meaning is also related to plighting one’s “troth”–that is, the old Germanic sense is one of loyalty and fidelity. The Latin “veritas” was associated with the goddess of truth–Veritas–pure and transparent. The Greek “aletheia” has a general sense of that which is revealed and remembered, not hidden. Hebrew “emeth” (or its variations) suggest solidity as well as the above variations. I cannot speak for the Aramic which was, likely, Jesus’ dialect. But my guess is that the word he used is similar in meaning to the Hebrew. His words have been filtered through centuries of linguistic and cultural development. What Jesus means by truth and what we moderns understand of truth are different. Modern English connotations of truth have more to do with accuracy of detail, measurement, Eucledian logical progression, and are philosophically naturalistic–as opposed to the more, ahem accurate “my spouse is true to me.”

    Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed our challenge poetically: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”



  2. queueball permalink*
    10 January 2009 9:20 pm

    As usual, you’re way ahead of me, Coop…although my main target here ends up being knowledge, not truth per se. I’ll try not to take too many amateurish liberties! qb

  3. 12 January 2009 1:34 pm


    You are, I am, in the “true” meaning of the word “amateur,” lovers of these efforts. If accuracy is not your idol, liberties are helpful and necessary and creative.

    You pointed to instant replay. For me at least, another consequence of instant replay besides perspective conditioning knowledge is that I have been so trained by instant replay while lounging in my easy chair that when I take in an actual game, I am not as focussed, expecting to see the original on replay and from several perspectives. So, is what I perceive on the field true or what I perceive in replay? Technology, it seems to me enriches our understanding whether microscope, telescope, spectrometer, or television. It alters our thinking and behavior and reconstructs our knowledge and perceptions. It opens up new worlds. In that sense, techonology is like poetry and metaphor.



  4. queueball permalink*
    12 January 2009 10:35 pm

    Wow, Coop, we part ways there. qb is – perhaps lazily – a skeptic when it comes to technology, if not a neo-Luddite. (As I type on my MacBook Pro, of course.) Right now, it seems to promise more than it delivers.

    BTW, in the ZIP code in which I am typing this, another Black Hawk helicopter is down with more of our fine, young warriors aboard. It is obscene to think about it in these terms, but those warriors’ blood is the overhead we pay to stay in the game as free Americans. I don’t know how you do what you do, day after day, grave after grave.


  5. 12 January 2009 11:17 pm


    Are you nearby College Station as you type? Sad. (By the way, I do what I do because, inter alia, I read the songs of the warrior-king David, talk with others about my sorrow, allow my self to weep, and have through faith what the Book of Common prayer calls “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”)

    Most things promise more than they can deliver, but only because of our imaginative and God-given longing. Technology as metaphor and poetry: imagine how the microscope changed the world of Leeuwenhoek (and ours) when he peered through the lenses and saw all those little beasties never before imagined or seen. Even a Dutchman has to be moved to his depths. Like the poetic imagination, technology reshapes how we see and sense. As Shakespeare puts it in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
    Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
    And as imagination bodies forth
    The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
    Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
    A local habitation and a name.” Likewise, technology does the same–if we let it.



  6. 14 January 2009 11:26 pm


    Reading and re-thinking and -imagining in community doesn’t necessarily change our minds but rather enriches our minds and changes us. Andrew Mckenna is telling us about knowing when he says: “We don’t read the Bible. The Bible reads us.” We know even as we are known. E.g. try reading in group John 13:21-30–the Passover betrayal narrative–and emphasizing verse 30: “So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” And it was night. That inspired tour de force has read the dark writing in my heart and caused me, catching my breath, to cry: “Save me, O God!”



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