Because today’s western society insists there is no absolute truth, it follows that there is no agreed norm to guide human behavior. This makes life and the choices we make, entirely arbitrary.
Robert Letham in The Holy Trinity makes this comment about the postmodernism of today: Postmodernism cannot stand the test of everyday life. It does not work and it will not work. ‘It fails the test of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who insisted that language and philosophy must have ‘cash value’ in terms of the real world in which we go about our business from day to day… We assume there is an objective world and act accordingly… Wittgenstein compared a situation of there being no objective truth to someone buying several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true!’ (L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell, 1963, pp.93f; quoted in R Letham, p.453.)
Story of faith. How then do we respond? Given that ‘story’ is something that our society accepts let me make some suggestions for conversations you might like to plan with a friend or friends over coffee.
To begin, it’s worth making time to think about your own story of faith. Recent research reveals that when church-attendees have been able to tell family and friends their ‘story’ of faith, their friends are more likely to accept an invitation to attend church. And, more than that, their friends are more likely to return.
My ‘story’. In telling my story I recount how I was keen to find out answers to two key questions during an undergraduate degree at Sydney University – ‘Did Jesus really rise from the dead?’ And, behind that: ‘Is the New Testament authentic?’
Yes, my questions are those of the Age of Reason, but I find that I receive a hearing because my response is framed in a personal story. As one of my subjects was Ancient History I had professors to speak with and sources to examine. I was directed to primary sources, such as Tacitus’s History of Rome, Josephus, and Pliny’s correspondence during the reign of the Emperor Trajan.
Tacitus, Josephus and Pliny are all agreed that Jesus is a real and influential figure. Indeed, there is more than a suggestion within Josephus that Jesus was not only put to death on the order of Pontius Pilate, but that his followers, even on pain of death, said that they had seen Jesus physically alive again. For his part, Pliny confirms the central claims of the New Testament that although Jesus of Nazareth was crucified as the Messiah his followers gathered weekly to worship him as the risen Lord.
Furthermore, I understood that the Bible, written by many different writers over more than two thousand years, provides us with historical context. We see this, for example in the birth narratives of Luke.
In his introduction Luke writes: Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who were from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may have the certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
Luke wants us to know:
He was writing a history—he was setting down an accurate and orderly account of events that had recently occurred. His writing is not myth or legend that have the appearance of a history such as Tolkein’s, The Lord of the Rings.
His research is thorough. While he says that he himself is not an eyewitness, he was careful to check the accuracy of the facts (1:2). Thucydides said: Where I have not been an eyewitness myself, I have investigated with the utmost accuracy attainable every detail that I have taken at second hand (History of the Peloponnesian War).
His narrative is true. Luke’s reference to eyewitnesses was more than just a convention. The picture we have in Luke and Acts leads us to conclude that he met with people who had been with Jesus throughout his public ministry – the twelve disciples and other close followers, including Mary. It seems that he met with these people in Jerusalem when Paul was under house arrest in 56-59AD.
Dr Edwin Judge, an internationally acclaimed historian comments: ‘An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomenon of Jesus as an historical one. His many surprising aspects only help anchor him in history. Myth or legend would have created a more predictable figure. The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it.
My story – over a first cup of coffee – begins with an unexpected figure whose own story looms larger than that of anyone else. I suggest to my coffee conversationalist that they might like to read Luke chapters 1-3 before our next cup of coffee.