Being Valiant for Truth Today: The Christian College in a Post Christian World
Commencement address at Azusa Pacific University, 1994.
Proverbs 23:23, Isaiah 59:14 15, John 18:37
President Felix, members of the board and administration, colleagues of the faculty, most happy graduates, families and friends:
The time of graduation from college and university is one of the great moments in American life. A vast, collective sigh of relief goes up across the land every spring on this glorious occasion. Congratulations flow in all directions. Administration and faculty admire the finished products of their labors in the graduating class. Parents and family, who have an even more inclusive view of the graduates—not to mention the cost of an education today—have an even greater appreciation of what they have become, and a correspondingly greater joy. The graduates themselves stand on the threshold of their life‑work, or at least in a position to take it in hand with greater force and competence.
It is a grand time, a present moment to be deeply savored for how it draws the past and the future together. It allows us to have a sense, or at least a suspicion, of who we are and of who we might be. It is a time to think of how our lives shall count as we pass on through the times that are uniquely our own within God’s unfolding plan for human history.
So today we ask such questions as these: Where do we now stand? What are the issues of life that matter most now? Where on the field of life are the most important battles being fought, in which my life can be best expended? What can I do now, what can we do, that will be most beneficial to the good of human beings and the glory of God? What is the crucial step for this Christian university and its faithful constituents in a world that increasingly pushes Jesus Christ aside and is frequently called a “post‑Christian” world?
For Christians and for Christian institutions today, there can be only one answer to this question. By far the most important battle being fought world‑over, but especially in western—and, specifically, American—culture, is the battle over truth itself. It is a battle over the very nature of knowledge and reality. Christian educators and educated Christians have in the nature of the case an inescapable responsibility, not only for knowledge in this area or that, but for the interpretation of the very nature of the knowledge which they profess. And on this point they are locked in a battle to the death with the secular approach to truth, knowledge and therefore education.
The major cultural outlook on truth and knowledge today is to the effect that there is no objective truth or reality, that what we call “facts” are only human products, that there is nothing more to knowledge than the “best professional practice” as currently defined, and that reality is, in the words of Lily Tomlin, “only a collective hunch.” Moral principles more than all else are taken to be the mere prejudices of certain groups, none of which are superior to others.
According to the Barna research group, 71% of all adults in the United States say that there is no such thing as absolute truth. What that means is that nearly three‑fourths of us think that truth is only a matter of what we, or some group of us, believe. Now add their further finding that 4 out of 10 people who self‑identify as Evangelical Christians also hold that truth (and, of course, knowledge) is relative. (Chrisma , 4/94, p. 75) My experience with Evangelicals makes me sure that this figure is low, and that in fact a much larger percentage of them act as if truth were relative in their daily life. And I certainly understand why they do, and to a certain extent sympathize with them. For their whole world constantly hammers them with relativity, and assumes—especially in moral matters—that a person who stands on absoluteness is either stupid or a bigot.
Traditionally, of course, things stood just the other way around. This was so even in my childhood, which was not very long ago. But The Flight from God, as Max Picard entitled his penetrating little book of some years back (Henry Regnery Company, 1951), has now become the predominant form of western life. As God and his commands could be automatically assumed in most social contexts 40 years ago, now secularity is assumed. And with the flight from God comes The Flight from Truth, to reference another work, this time by Jean‑Francois Revel. (Random House, 1991) Revel’s book is a study of how deceit has been the controlling structure of 20th century existence. For without God man has no place to stand for perspective on the shifting scenes of human history, custom and desire.
The traditional view of truth has always been that truth, knowledge and reality are not matters of what you or your group think, but that the task of thought is to come to correct terms with what is there, regardless of how you or others may or may not view it. The earth is round, you have gas in your tank or money in your account, you are degraded by doing what is morally wrong, you will face judgment after death and an eternal destiny of a certain nature, regardless of what we may or may not think about such things. Truth was therefore utterly precious, as the verses we have heard read indicate, and evil and truth cannot coexist. Truth is so important that Jesus Christ came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and his people, his church is referred to in the New Testament as “the pillar and ground of truth.” (I Tim. 3:15) Truth is more vital than bread, because only by it can we successfully deal with bread and all the other realities upon which our existence and well‑being depend.
Truth is precious to human life in all of its dimensions because it alone allows us to come to terms with reality. If your beliefs about your automobile are false you are going to have unpleasant run‑ins with reality. And that is true of everything from investments, to personal relations, to God. Truth is not everything, but without it nothing goes right. And when we think about the Christian gospel, and what we do as a Christian people, we must understand it in the category of truth, of indispensable information. If we don’t see it in that light, we simply haven’t understood it. Jesus’ words are the best information on the subjects of greatest importance to human beings—whether they know it or not.
But if this is so, why is truth and absolute knowledge of life and reality under such attack at present? It is because the 20th century is the age of desire and will, of hedonism and the idolization of the rebel? This is not the place for a scholarly analysis, but the words “utilitarian,” “pragmatism,” “existentialist,” and now “postmodern,” along with names such as “Freud,” “Marx,” and “Nietzsche,” all stand for the ascendancy of will and desire over truth and reality and knowledge as something that stands independent of human will and culture. These words and names represent forces which currently dominate the world of ideas and taste to the extent that they form a new orthodoxy, one that presents human will and desire as ultimate points of reference. This is the true meaning of “secular humanism.” It is not something that has to do only with radical groups, the ACLU or certain political and cultural figures. These forces determine the content of the popular and scholarly media, the popular arts, legislation and the interpretation of law, what counts as news, and how educational processes and curricula are formed and conducted from kindergarten on. Only by intelligent and sustained resistance can you avoid having your entire life shaped by anti‑God/anti‑truth forces.
Dave Breese’s book, Seven Men Who Rule the World from the Grave (Moody Press, 1990) is an inspired concept for showing up the ideas and people that really govern our world. (Darwin, Dewey, Marx, Keynes, Freud, etc.) Although it could serve as a starting point for what needs to be done by qualified Christian intellectuals and academics, it hardly makes a beginning. We who stand with Christ in the world of arts, letters, and knowledge must understand that it is from the very centers of supposed research and knowledge that the strongest attacks on truth come. From these centers, now, the very phraseology of the American past is turned against truth and reason on behalf of will and desire. A recent formulation of “The American Dream” by a professor of education at Bradley University illustrates this. She says that the American dream is: “people can do or be what they want if they just go ahead and do it.” (National Forum, the Phi Kappa Phi Journal, Vol. LXXIV, #1 <Winter 1994>) You only have to think a few moments to recognize the lunacy in this statement. But very many people, including many Christians, will at first, if not finally, respond favorably to such an account of “what America is all about.” By far most Americans now accept this interpretation of what life is supposed to be like, and that is one major reason why crime is devastating our country and responsible behavior is popularly despised or at best redefined.
The inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness has become something those who coined the words never dreamed of: an unquestioned license to do what you want and be resentful if it doesn’t work out—and of course it can’t work out. That is the truth of the matter. Truth and reality must be denied where will and desire are made supreme, for they do not accord with will and desire. The little girl asked to define a lie in Sunday School already knew this. She replied: “a lie is an abomination to God and a very present help in time of trouble.”
When reality does not fit our desires, we twist and distort it as best we can. And the master stroke is to deny that there is such a thing as truth at all, other than as what is believed. A secular humanism must relativize and distort truth, the nature of truth, if human will and desire are to be ultimate. And it now has the entire weight of the intellectual and academic world, wittingly or not, at its service. (If you will read the Humanist Manifesto’s I and II, you will clearly see how it all hangs together.)
Sound reasoning is also sacrificed to will and desire along with truth and absolute knowledge. Invalid reasoning is forced into the service of desire to get conclusions compatible with what is wanted. Recently a state court upheld the right of the Boy Scouts organization to exclude homosexual males from the role of scoutmasters. A member of the Los Angeles School Board who is himself homosexual said: “It is nothing short of discrimination and will harm young people.” He stated his intention to have the School District not allow the Scouts to use public school buildings for their meetings. (Los Angeles Times, 4/1/94) Now discrimination means to restrict people on a basis that is irrelevant to the role they might otherwise perform. E.g. not allowing blacks and whites to drink from the same water fountain, live in the same areas or go to school together. Being homosexual is, by contrast, relevant to the role of the scoutmaster, in a way which hardly needs be explained. The action of the Scouts organization and the court were not discriminatory at all, but the false charge of discrimination is used to sweep away resistance without regard to the soundness of the reasoning. Similarly, the Executive Director of Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services in Los Angeles, said that “The message that is inherent in this decision is that being different is not allowed, and any child who might discover that he is different has been put on notice and warned: stay hidden, keep quiet, lie, be afraid.” (ibid.) Of course being different is not the issue at all. But, again, sound reasoning is discarded to gain the point of will and desire.
Now I want to outline two courses of action that will helpfully respond to this situation, and to which we all, in one way or another can contribute, if we would be valiant for truth.
First, Christian educators and their institutions must refuse to allow secular institutions of learning to interpret the nature of truth and knowledge, and thereby to define the standards of professional acceptability for culture at large, including Christian institutions of higher education themselves. Recently a master’s degree (‘MA’) in Christian Evangelism was proposed to the faculty of one of our very best Christian schools. It was strenuously opposed by that faculty because, they thought, the intellectual standing for which they had long striven in the eyes of a nearby world‑class university would be lost. The intellectual and academic integrity of Christian institutions of higher education is constantly compromised, in various ways, by professional standards that strike at the very core of their existence.
Be sure it will do no good to shout and march about this. (I have a friend who speaks no French. When he goes to France, he says, he just speaks English louder.) No, the appropriate response is for the leadership of Christian higher education to establish something like a national committee on the status of knowledge. They must take the initiative and wisely invest in reversing what, for all its current power, is only a very recent trend in higher education. 95% or more of the history of higher education in the Western World is on our side. By our best efforts and God’s reliable grace the tide can be turned and truth and knowledge be returned to the place of honor which made Western education great in the first place.
Second, every individual here can change their world directly and substantially, and vindicate the absoluteness of truth in their world, if they will simply exhibit and practice the law of God in their own lives. Let us simplify things and just speak of the Ten Commandments. Today, most people in our culture only know the Ten Commandments as a movie that gets shown around Christmas and Easter. But the Ten Commandments are God’s gift of specific information on how best to conduct human existence. They are given to us by revelation because human beings are not capable, at least in their present condition, of figuring it out on their own. We have to be told and taught.
Yet, we as Christians today are not providing this information to the world or living in it ourselves. You will frequently hear Christian commentators pointing out the irony that the Ten Commandments stand written on the walls of the supreme court of the United States, but cannot be exhibited in our public schools. But let me ask you a sobering question. How many churches do you know of where the Ten Commandments are written on the walls or plainly exhibited for all to see constantly? I don’t know of any, and if you know of one, I hope you will tell me so I can write them a letter of congratulation. How much serious teaching and preaching do we have on the Ten Commandments as the only specific framework of a decent human existence? Very little I fear.
But let me just tell you that the individual and social problems which overwhelm us today would almost totally disappear given a consistent—don’t worry about ‘perfect’—application of the Ten Commandments by professing Christians in this country. By a perversion of the meaning of grace and love, we have convinced ourselves that we can disregard God’s moral information. We can no more succeed with this project than we can succeed in business or science by disregarding the multiplication tables. The consequences may not be as immediate and as precise, but Jesus himself pointed out that as we move toward the end of human history—perhaps it is now—“because lawlessness shall abound the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matt 24:12) You cannot know love and effectual grace in life outside of the commandments of God. And if you will but hold these commandments before you and those around you, and consistently live in them, you will do more to remove the modern reproach to truth than any other thing you can do. Most of the moral disputes that ravage our society would be dispelled if the strength and beauty of God’s righteousness were made visible to all in the concrete existence of professing Christians, so that it could not be explained away as a fluke or illusion.
I do not know if you were moved, as I was, to see Billy Graham stand and deliver before a world‑wide audience at Mr. Nixon’s funeral. He presented the simple gospel of Christ with the awesome weight of a righteous life. Even those who don’t believe a bit of it would not enjoy contradicting him. The power and truth of a life lived within the law of God by the grace of
God cannot be consistently resisted, and it is the greatest gift you can give to your world. I say to every graduate who leaves this place, chose this above all, and God will honor you and you will bless your world. To have graduated with a 4.0 grade point and to have the brightest of prospects is nothing compared to a life of God’s righteousness, and, when joined with it, is a blaze of glory that illumines a darkened world, strengthening the hand of all who stand for the Christ of Truth and the Truth of Christ.
Please consider partnering with Dallas Willard Ministries to provide additional resources like these to help people live more fully in the Kingdom of God here and now. DWM is a 501(c)(3) organization, and all contributions are tax deductible. Thank you!