Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 40 (January 1994): 2-5.

Plausibility and Truth

Robert Jenson's essay, "How the World Lost Its Story" (October 1993), reminded me of a lesson I learned while I was completing a degree in creative writing. I had written a short story based on an incident that "actually happened" a year or two earlier. One element of this particular story struck my readers as implausible, although as I argued, "It actually happened that way!" My instructor-a realist in the mold of Hemingway-patiently pointed out to me that I was writing a story, not an account. When writing a story, he told me, it doesn't matter that something actually happened; it only matters that its occurrence is plausible within the story. I was confusing actuality with plausibility, the objective of philosophy with the objective of fiction. This is how I learned the meaning of the claim that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to be plausible, whereas truth does not.

Professor Jenson asks, "How, in a world that entertains no promises" [a postmodern world], "is the Church to speak her eschatological hope with any public plausibility?" While I am no theologian, I believe the answer to this question is simple and unchanging: the Church's hope is not a question of plausibility and never has been. It is a question of faith- faith that the truth of Christ, for which he gave his life, points beyond the narcissism of plausibility to the one thing necessary for our fulfillment as cognitive and loving human beings. I can't imagine anyone with even a glimmer of insight into the meaning of Christ's life feeling that the "mordant laughter" of a Foucault or a Derrida is of much significance.

John F. Baker Newberry, MI

If I understand him correctly, Professor Jenson is saying that Christianity is bound to revert to its pre-Constantinian status, as one option among many in a postmodern world of religious, cultural, and moral relativism. He makes a beautiful case for that unhappy conclusion.

But why should Christians give up God's claim on the World? Won't God provide a way? He always did in the past, didn't He?

Professor Jenson seems to embrace a cyclical view of history, rejecting every Christian philosophy of history that takes seriously the providence of God. The history of Christianity was not determined by social forces. It is not a history subject to academic prescriptions. It is symptomatic of postmodernism, really, to reason that socially things do not look very optimistic right now, so we had better jump back 1,600 years. . . .

Mr. Jenson seems enamored of the Eschaton, but sad to say he loves it as part of a story more than as a mysterium tremendum to be realized in history. The two-thousand-year history of Christianity played out exactly the logic of the Christian story, with its culmination in the Second Coming of Christ. The problem is that Christians did not learn from the example of Jesus that the Son of God comes with a new story. Mr. Jenson is too in love with the "preaching and teaching and hymns and prayers and processions and sacramental texts" to recognize that these are exactly a Christian version of pharisaism. To everything there is a season, and the late twentieth century is not the season to get sentimental.

Naturally in a postmodern world, a modest and undoubtedly temporary peace and security may obtain by everyone privatizing their stories, retreating into their enclaves. This would be to give over the public square to Samuel Beckett. But Mr. Jenson wisely teaches us that the world needs a God-centered story. He may hope that God's world- transforming love will again burst forth from the womb of the Church. I too maintain that hope, but if it is to happen, the old story will not be its vehicle. For one thing, it excludes Jews and Muslims. The intense antagonism between Jews, Christians, and Muslims is explained by the fact that they share the same characters but tell different stories about them. The messiah is the one with the new story, who illuminates and transcends these three stories, along with the Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and even secularist and feminist stories. His new story will be absolutely true to them all, because it is God's story disembellished of tribalisms. And it has a happy ending after all.

Tyler Hendricks Vice President Unification Church of America Irvington, NY

On Evangelizing Liberals

M. B. Handspicker left me a little confused with his article "Evangelizing Liberalism" (October 1993). He seems to argue for maintaining Christian orthodoxy, but he says, "What leaves me dissatisfied with the beliefs said to be necessary for the creation of 'strong religious communities' is that they are relatively peripheral doctrines." These beliefs are apparently the ones set forth by Messrs. Johnson, Hoge, and Luidens in "Mainline Churches: The Real Reason for Decline" (FT, March 1993): (1) That Christianity is the only religion with a valid claim to truth, (2) that persons can be saved only through Jesus Christ and otherwise go to hell, and (3) that therefore one should try to convert others to the Christian faith.

To focus on only one of these beliefs, the second, does Handspicker really believe that salvation through Jesus Christ alone is a "peripheral doctrine"? "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6). What doctrines would Handspicker consider central? It's small wonder that the mainline denominations are in decline.

Thomas A. Hagan Scobey, MT

While reading M. B. Handspicker's "Evangelizing Liberalism," I was reminded of an old proverb about the exhibition of an elephant in a dark room to those who had never seen an elephant before. As seeing with the eye was impossible, each was feeling it in the dark with the palm of his hand.

The hand of one fell on the trunk, and to him the creature was like a water pipe. To the one whose hand touched an ear, it appeared to be a fan. Since another handled its leg, the elephant was a pillar. And so on.

As A. Graham Ikin suggests, "All of our cross sections of reality are like this. They are real points of contact with the whole that unites them. It is fruitless to waste time standing out for any particular finite viewpoint as exclusive or total, or quarreling with those who from another human viewpoint have seen another aspect. We need to pool our partial aspects of the truth, not ignoring others, nor depreciating or apologizing for our own, but accepting each as valid within its own sphere and making its own contribution to the integrated complexity of the whole."

This, along with the words of Mr. Handspicker, is good advice-as long as we do not miss the eternal aspect of the Scriptures and the absolute directives contained therein.

John-Paul Morgante Austin, TX