I often have very black-and-white, either/or thinking because of my autism. But the culture I live in taught me that loving people means uncritically accepting everyone and everything about them. It taught me that being a good person means not imposing an idea of truth on others, and that truth is not objective. I learned to adopt a relativistic outlook because that is the “good” way of thinking, and how to be “nice”.
In some ways, it was good. I learned how to think in less concrete terms and be more flexible, and nothing was a problem because there was no objective standard. But I found it very difficult in practice; it was confusing and stressful because there was no certainty in anything. And the flip side of nothing being a problem was that nothing was “right” or “best” either, also because there was no objective standard to measure by. That outlook combined with diminishing faith was very damaging to me. I took it to the logical conclusion: Since there is no absolute truth, there is no God, at least no powerful effective God. Without truth, there is no right or wrong, no sin, and no need for a saviour. God is reduced to no more than a possible cause to begin the universe, and a nice idea. Without truth and without God, there is no ultimate or lasting purpose and meaning to life and existence. It was a joyless time.
When I began re-examining whether or not God is real after years of perceived irrelevance, it coincided with questioning whether or not there is absolute truth. I realised quickly you can’t logically have one without the other; God without truth is irrelevant, truth without God has no foundation. I learned that truth is objective, and is discovered not invented; if it is invented it can’t be objective truth. I also came to realise there must be both God and truth for the world to make any sense, and for life to have meaning*. The obvious question after discovering that there is truth was: What is the truth?
The answer came in Jesus. It took a long time to decide Christianity is true, but when I got there, it answered everything. Jesus boldly claimed not just to know the truth, but to be the truth. He claimed not just to know a way, but to be the way. Jesus is truth incarnate. To know Him more, is to know truth more. To believe and accept the truth more, is to believe and accept Jesus more. Through the grace of God we can know Him in a real and personal relationship. But as with human relationships, knowing about the person matters. I can have a personal relationship with the shopkeeper but I don’t know them or have any intimacy with them. That requires getting to know them and learning about them.
So how does one get to know God better? Through His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. How does one learn about Jesus? The bible.
Jesus is truth, so finding the best way to know Him is essential for knowing the truth. The bible is key for getting to know and learning about Him. But how can we be sure to understand it properly? Six people can read the same passage and come up with at least six interpretations of what it means about the person of Jesus and His will for us. We need certainty of accurately understanding the bible as well as simply access to it, because if Jesus is truth, and the bible is the best way to learn about Him, a valid interpretation can’t be subjective or “my version”.
Fortunately, Jesus didn’t leave us to fend for ourselves with only a book. He established a church, founded on the apostles, that He gave the authority to teach the good news. This authority to interpret and teach was passed to the successors of the apostles, down through the generations to this day. Its beginnings can be seen in the bible, and an understanding of that responsibility, authority, and purpose is clear from the very beginning of the church, even before the books of the new testament were completed. The passing on of this understanding is known as tradition, and the interpretation of bible and tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit, is known as the teaching authority of the church. To know Jesus as fully as possible requires the bible, tradition, and the teaching authority of the church; all three are established, guided, and protected by God for His people.
Through knowing and following Jesus we can discover objective truth. The increasing certainty I found from this way of thinking was reassuring and inspiring. It made me want to start learning as much as I can about God, the natural world, people, everything really, because it all means something. But as I began to see things in more concrete terms again, I started to worry that disagreeing with other people’s opinions was being ungenerous, overly critical, and basically not nice. The prevailing culture says to accept everything, not to judge, and everyone can be and believe exactly what they want. Although I no longer thought the relativistic attitude is accurate or helpful, I didn’t know how to fit this renewed way of thinking with being kind, and I sometimes worry that trying to discover and follow truth might make me “hard”.
Once again, the answer is in Jesus Himself. When I worry about becoming hard-hearted by holding to truth, I look at Jesus who is truth: God as a helpless baby; God going to meet the weak, outcast, unwanted, sinful; God crucified. When we really know and follow Jesus, we become like Him and so grow in love. By His grace we will grow in both truth and love, and learn to manage the tension between them. When it seems impossible, look at a crucifix. There Jesus unites absolute truth and justice, with total love and mercy. Embracing and balancing truth and love, justice and mercy, are not abstract unattainable principles. They are made tangible and held together in the person of Jesus. No matter how challenging it is to balance truth and love, no matter how uncomfortable it is to follow truth, the person of Jesus makes it worth any sacrifice. And He showed us how by first sacrificing Himself.
Jesus taught exacting standards for behaviour and even thought. But this didn’t make Him hard or unloving. He set the highest possible standards, asking for perfection, but He offered the deepest love and forgiveness recognising our weakness. Jesus reached out to sinners in love, but He didn’t leave them as they were, He always invited people to live in truth. Today we think pleasing oneself is freedom, and allowing it is kind. But taken to its conclusion, saying that it doesn’t matter what people do is saying people don’t matter, they have no purpose or responsibility or role to play. Jesus held the extremes and the perfect example of both justice and mercy within himself, He personified both truth and love. He could do that because He is life, He is truth, because He is God. We are called to follow Jesus in every aspect of life. That means including the seemingly impossible balance between recognising and holding to the absolute truth, and yet being loving and merciful at the same time. Following Jesus may seem more difficult than adopting a relativistic, “anything goes” outlook. It has very demanding challenges, but it makes one strive for the best, and do everything possible to help others along too. Relativism can only lead to confusion and doubt and emptiness because it is based on the idea that nothing is real. So, the choice is between God and reality, and a superficially comfortable illusion.
My specific challenge for embracing both truth and love is to recognise my tendency towards black-and-white thinking and notice when it is not helpful, either as not loving, or over simplified so not true. Also, I struggle to remember what is true and to hold that alongside acting in love; that is hard because of my difficulty holding multiple things in mind. I get sucked into situations and lose all awareness of my intentions. But I can ask God to help me, and be confident that He will because this is what He asks of us. These are my particular challenges because of autism, but I expect everybody has some pattern of thinking that gets in the way of either being loving and merciful, or recognising and holding to the truth of God. In a way, it’s helpful to know this difficulty isn’t specific to autism. It is a difficulty arising from being human. It is not meant to be easy after all, Jesus said that to be disciples we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily and follow Him. But we can be confident in God’s help to meet the challenges all of us face to live in His way, holding fast to His truth and loving unconditionally.
*This new book contains good summaries of the arguments for why God is necessary for truth and for human purpose: Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley