By Os Guinness
Photos by Jim Lott
Photos by Jim Lott
SPU WELCOMES OS GUINNESS Internationally acclaimed author and cultural critic Os Guinness spoke at Seattle Pacific University in February as part of the C.S. Lewis Institute's Discovery Lectures on Religion and Civic Life. "I read his book, Time for Truth (Baker, 2000), and was so impressed that I wanted him to speak on the subject at SPU," says John West, associate professor of political science and co-director of the Lewis Institute.
Born in China to missionaries, Guinness' given name is Ian Oswald. He was named, in part, for his grandparents' friend, renowned pastor Oswald Chambers. "I discovered he hated the name too," Guinness says, laughing. Why doesn't he use the name Ian? "My family is Irish," he explains. "So I never could quite understand why they gave me a Scottish name when our family is totally Irish." Like his parents, Guinness is on a mission: "I am a missionary to America."
Guinness, who holds a doctorate in social sciences from Oxford, worked with theologian Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland at L'Abri Fellowship International in the 1960s and '70s. While there, he served as mentor to Bob Drovdahl, now a Seattle Pacific professor of Christian ministries and education. "Os is an important person to listen to," says Drovdahl, adding that Guinness is well-grounded in both popular culture and history. Says West, "He regards himself as a bridge between the academic world and the public world. We don't have enough people like that."
Guinness is now a senior fellow at Trinity Forum, an organization he founded in 1991. "We're trying to address political and business leaders and really make a difference in their world," he explains. "Most of my work is not in the church."
Still, Christians in all walks of life know him through his writings, which include more than 20 books and study guides. Time for Truth was recently named by Christianity Today the best book of apologetics/evangelism published in the year 2000. He has a new book coming out in September titled Long Journey Home. "This is a book for actual seekers, and there are remarkably few of those," he says. "It's a book that means everything to me."
Guinness delivered two public addresses at SPU. He spoke on "A World Safe for Diversity? Reuniting America in the Midst of the Culture Wars" to a capacity crowd in First Free Methodist Church on the evening of February 26. His address in an all-campus Chapel the next morning was titled "Time for Truth." The following is the full text of his Chapel presentation, not the version printed in the Response, which had been edited for length. For the complete text of his address "A World Safe for Diversity?" go to the bottom of this page and click the link found there.
IT'S a tremendous pleasure to be back at SPU again. I wish we had time or the occasion for some feedback this morning, because I want to speak briefly, but straightforwardly, on an issue that needs a lot of discussion. The year 1989 was described as "the year of the 20th century." Those old enough to remember that extraordinary year have their favorite images of what went on when the Soviet Union collapsed. The joyous dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The flowers poking out of the gun barrels of the Soviet tanks. The toppling statuary of the man-gods like Marx and Lenin.
But my favorite memories were the vivid rallies in Prague — when night after night, for more than a week, a quarter of a million people packed the square to hear the speeches of a small, mustachioed, youthful-looking figure we now know as Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic. Again and again he portrayed the contrast between the Soviets and the Czech dissidents. "They were people of violence, but we would have no revenge," he said. And the quick-witted crowd picked up the chant, "We are not like them."
And Havel portrayed all the contrasts. But one of the leading contrasts in Havel's speeches was, "They were people of lies and propaganda, and we are people of truth." The motto of the movement was: "Truth prevails for those who live in truth." Earlier, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the one-man dissident movement against the Soviets themselves, had his famous line, "One word of truth outweighs the entire world." Now put yourselves in their shoes. They only had two alternatives. Facing the Soviets, the Czech people either had to have more power, physically, than the Soviets did, or they had to have a different kind of power. Clearly the Soviets had the KGB and many other forms of power. Realizing that they had none of that — they were a tiny, tiny handful — the Czech dissidents stood on truth. One word of truth outweighs the entire world. And ... the unthinkable happened. They won.
All over the West, the applause and the celebration was deep and profound. But here we are, little more than 10 years later, in the lead society of the West, and we do not have a similar view of truth upon which anyone could make such a stand today.
You can see that what's generally called postmodernism is skeptical and corrosive when it comes to truth, that there is no truth on which you can stand and say, "One word of truth outweighs the world." For many, truth is purely relative. Purely a matter of perspective, depending on where you're coming from. For others, whose thinking is more skeptical, truth is at root the will to power. When you say something and have the power to make it stick, then that's called truth, but it's really power dressed up as truth. And you can see that this corrosiveness of post-modernism is not only in certain university departments around the world, but it's at the street level, too. And sadly, it's very, very wide in the Christian community, including evangelical circles.
TWO COMPANION CRISES TO THE CRISIS OF TRUTH
Now I'm not arguing against postmodernism in the name of modernism. For myself, I think one is as bad as the other. But there is one simple reason why postmodernism is more dangerous today. And that is, it's today's problem. You can see many people attacking modernism, flogging a dead horse, while over-balancing into the arms of postmodernism without thinking.
In the few minutes we have, let me just raise a few simple points. First, the two companion crises to this crisis of truth in America. Second, two simple, basic arguments to people who are careless about the issue of truth. And third, two challenges that truth raises to all of us. Truth poses a challenge to all of us, because the answer to postmodernism is not just in words, or in theory, or critique. At the end of the day, if we are biblical people, we have not only to know the truth in standing for it, but we also have to live in truth, and we have to become people of truth, which puts the searchlight back on our own hearts and lives.
But first of all, two companion crises to the crisis of truth. Look at the last generation and you can see that the crisis of truth has gone hand-in-hand with a crisis of ethics and a crisis of character. And all three of them are raising questions that go to the very heart of the American experiment. Here is a place where biblical people join hands very solidly with the ideas of the framers of the American Constitution. Because if anything was clear at the beginning of the American experiment, the framers realized that freedom went hand-in-hand with truth, character and virtue. And all three of those are under assault today.
Take ethics. In many discussions today, we are inches from the situation that was in Germany before the Nazis in this sense: For many modern Americans, it is worse to judge evil than it is to do evil. Because we have a profound crisis of ethics.
You may remember Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery. Set in a Midwestern town, there is tremendous suspense that builds because something is going to happen that is vital to the community. And if you know the story, you know there is an incredible denouement, and the ending is a human sacrifice. When it was published in 1948, there was a barrage of protest. "Unthinkable." "It couldn't happen in America." "Totally outrageous."
There was a report a few years back about a college teacher in Pasadena who had been teaching The Lottery — among other stories — in her literature class for 30 years. In the early days, the response when they read The Lottery was outrage. "Human sacrifice?" "Here in America?" Then came Vietnam. Death. Violence. A brutalizing of people's perceptions — and very different responses from her students. And then came the '80s and '90s. The gay movement. Radical multi-culturalism. And this teacher described how on a day in the mid-1990s, in a class of 20 students who were all in their 20s, not one single adult made any protest against the human sacrifice.
"Hey, America is all about religious liberty, isn't it?" "That's their sort of way of doing things; who am I to say?" "I mean, that's their culture." "That's where they're coming from." Etc., etc. And people who would save the salmon, and save the whales, and save any number of other things, wouldn't raise a single protest against human sacrifice.
And for the first time, the teacher injected her own views, trying to stir some comment. And even then, not a single person would make any moral stand against slavery and sacrifice.
It's been said that America's new 11th commandment is, "Thou shalt not judge." So profound is the ethical erosion — at the theoretical level and practical level — that in many circles in this country today, non-judgmentalism is so prized that it is worse to judge evil than it is to do evil.
Now in this case, the roots of this are profoundly theoretical. You can trace this back to the thinking of, say, Friedrich Nietzsche and his extraordinary assaults on any notion of absolute right and wrong. One way he did this is by what he called perspectivism. Just as there are many lies, plural, so there are many truths, plural, so there's no one truth. Everything's a matter of perspective. It's relative.
But he also had a far more damaging assault: Stripping things down according to what he called the genealogy of morals. You think virtue is a virtue. It's not at all. That's taking them at their face value. But go behind the virtue to, say, pity or compassion. And behind it, if you trace the family tree back, you see weakness and resentment. But they dress themselves up as virtues. So nothing is what it seems. And if you dismantle it, deconstruct it, you go back to see that underneath it all is simply a will to power.
How about the other crisis, the crisis of character? You know the story of Rigoberta Menchu. On the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by the Europeans, the Nobel Peace Prize went to a young Mayan Indian. She told the story that led to this award all over Europe. And the red carpets were rolled out by the Pope, and by various crowned heads, and by presidents.
In 1979, as Menchu's story went, in a little village in Guatemala, the whole town was forced into the public square to see the execution of 23 guerrillas, including her 16-year-old brother. They were all hideously tortured, and a soldier brutally used a pair of scissors to cut all their clothes off and illustrate to the crowds what each of the wounds had been caused by. Then they had gas poured over them all, and they were burnt alive, writhing on the ground.
Menchu told this story all over Europe. In huge crowds, the spotlight would fall on her, and people would break out spontaneously into tears, and the emotion was profound. Eventually, as I said, it led to a Nobel Peace Prize.
But then other parts of the story kept coming out. People — such as an anthropology professor — began to realize that she should have got the Nobel Prize for fiction, not peace, because much of her story had been fabricated. Her parents and brother had been killed by the secret police — but not in that way. In fact, no one had been burnt alive in the public square in the way she described. It was largely a fabrication. But when people pointed that out, others said, "How outrageous to coerce on her our Western views of journalistic veracity. She had in mind the larger truth of her victimized people. And in the name of that larger truth, it was thoroughly proper to concoct stories like this."
You can see examples of this on the left, in the center, and on the right. Including, say, Christian fund-raising letters. As you know, many of the stories told by rescue missions — as they were raking in the shekels — were actually concocted stories, or stories put together with different parts so that they were far more emotionally powerful.
Now where are we today in this world of spin and fabrication? In our Western culture — and you can see this from the Bible and the classical Greeks on down — there has been a stress on truth and character, as in the biblical idea of being who we are when nobody sees us except God. So there's a link between character and truth because God sees the heart, not just the appearances. So for most of the West, the word of Jesus has been decisive. Who are those people who act in public in ways which they are not in private? They are actors. And the Greek word is "hypocrite." Now there have been other voices. Machiavelli, for example. If you have to portray yourself as something you aren't — fine. Because all that matters at the bottom line is survival. By and large, those have been the maverick voices, but in the last hundred years in America, they are increasingly the dominant voices.
Mark Twain, who created himself in many ways, said, "In America, the secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
Groucho Marx said, "Hey, these are my principles. And if you don't like them, I've got others."
And you can see we move down to today. We are in the world of public relations, and spin doctoring, and impression management, and plastic surgery. Anything but character. Anything but truth.
Take, for instance, the impeachment hearings. As in the O.J. Simpson trial. Very simple tactic in the postmodern world. It's not truth that counts. Whoever has the dream-team lawyers, whoever has the PR consultants, whoever has the attack dog friends - wins. The challenge then, as the president said, is to win. Why? There is no truth. There is no character. Everything is a matter of impression, and image, and power.
TWO CHALLENGES THAT TRUTH RAISES TO US ALL
More quickly, the second point. Two basic arguments for those who are careless about truth, which may include some of you here today, because many evangelicals are remarkably careless about truth. I haven't time to get into two arguments for those who are radically skeptical about truth, but maybe in the discussion later we can get into that. But I think there are two arguments. On the one hand, to our fellow believers — people who share the biblical faith; on the other hand, to our fellow citizens — people who don't share the biblical faith but do share an appreciation, say, for American democracy.
For our fellow believers, first. The lesser argument is that without truth our faith is vulnerable to drastic dismissals as varieties of bad faith. The most damaging critique of the faith in the 20th century is that faith is bad faith. Christians believed because they were afraid of the alternative — the terror of meaninglessness, or whatever — so they believed and it was essentially a crutch.
At the end of the day there's no answer to that, except the conviction that we do not believe because of the alternative; we believe because we are convinced that these things are true. Too many Christians have defenses for their faith that are utterly inadequate by biblical standards. They believe because they feel it. No. We do feel it, thank God. We do experience it, thank God. But we believe because it's true. Or, they believe because it works. Thank God it works. Powerfully and deeply. But we do not believe because it works. It works because it's true. And without truth, we have no answer to many of the fundamental recurring critiques of faith today.
But the higher argument is very different. Only as we take truth seriously do we take God seriously. In other words, at the end of the day, for the follower of Jesus, truth is not a matter of theory. Truth is not a matter of philosophy. It is a matter of theology. God is true. He acts truly. He speaks truly. And all that he says and all that he does can be seen to be true. And those who love God as he is, care about truth, which is at the very heart of who he is.
Now, I actually think this is magnificent. Any of you who've seen the alternatives today — Eastern religions or secularism — you realize they have no foundation for truth. Only in the biblical position do you have a reason why human beings are not only truth twisters, but truth seekers.
How about with our fellow citizens? Two arguments here — a negative and a positive. The negative argument is, without truth we are all vulnerable to manipulation. That, of course, is the point of Solzhenitsyn and Havel. Only on the basis of truth can you stand against manipulation. And those who think the postmodern world is a brave new world — strip away everything and you get down to the will to power — how foolish that is. What you get down to is vulnerability to raw power and manipulation and coercion. Only on the basis of truth can you stand. Not only political manipulation, but any interpersonal manipulation. With a relationship in your family or your workplace, that is coercive.
The other argument is, only on the basis of truth is there freedom. You cannot have freedom without truth.
How about the last two issues? Two challenges the truth brings to all of us. Here I would argue we can't just debate postmodern people who are relativists and skeptical and so on. We can only answer this by living in truth and becoming people of truth. As you think of truth in your life, you realize that truth raises two possibilities for each of us at any moment. Either we seek to conform the truth to our desires, or we seek to conform our desires to the truth. Now that's very easy to say, but much harder to do.
There are many brazen examples of intellectuals who've done the first. For instance, Aldous Huxley. He admits in his autobiographical writings that when he left universities, he decided — not on the basis of thinking — he decided that the world had no meaning. Why? If the world had no meaning, he could create meaning, and the sense of meaninglessness was "an instrument of liberation." He didn't come to the conclusion that there was no meaning. He chose that there was no meaning for him, so that he could be free to make his own meaning.
Now many people have done varieties of that. In the short run, magnificent. You're free. You choose. The world is up to your own making. In the long run, since you're not dealing with truth, you're out of touch with reality, and the net effect is lostness and confusion.
The other way is the opposite. Very tough in the short run. Instead of seeking to conform the truth to our desires, we seek to conform our desires to the truth. And that's uncomfortable: "I just told a little white lie. I have just crossed the line and blurred something." You know, each of us knows in our heart with our conscience when we're in danger of doing that or have actually done that. And then we have to face up to it, because truth calls us into question.
The first approach — in one word, one modern word, President Clinton's word — is "compartmentalize." In other words, if you've got some uncomfortable reality in your life, cordon it off and keep it separate. The president described how his mother taught him to do that, and that was the only way he could face the ugly realities of growing up as a child of alcoholics. Compartmentalize. But that simply is lack of integration, lack of integrity. It's when you have Saturday night Bill and the Sunday morning president, as one of his friends said.
The other approach, in one word, is "confess." In other words, face up to the truth, and if we're wrong, acknowledge it. One of the greatest post-modern thinkers, Michael Foucault, who hated the Christian faith, did say there was one thing he deeply admired, which was confession. Why? In confession a person who confesses voluntarily — I don't mean coercively, but voluntarily — goes on record against himself or herself. When do we ever go on record against ourselves? We want to put our best foot forward. We want to look the very best we can be, even if it's a false front and a false face. No, Foucault said. In confession, voluntarily, someone goes on record against themselves. In the short term, it's painful. But in the long term, it's liberating. As we're in touch with truth, and we bring our lives and our words and our deeds in line with truth, we find freedom. Far too briefly. There is no text in all the Bible that is on more university walls in America than "The truth shall set you free." But while the text still adorns the walls, that truth no longer animates the minds.
But if you go out into the wilderness and the darkness of post-modernism, and come out the other end, you will come back with a sense of wonder at God's simple, profound, human gift of truth. Without truth, there is no humanness. Without truth, there is no freedom. Don't be one of these foolish evangelicals who, reacting to modernism, folds into the embrace of post-modernism. You know the issue from the inside out. You realize the words of Jesus are no cliché. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Editor's note: To read the full text of "A World Safe for Diversity," the Monday night address given by Os Guinness, click here.