Wednesday, May 1, 2019

One City, Many Gates

How can faith integrate into itself the idea that there are multiple and variant narratives of truth?

It would seem impossible.  Faith, or so we tend to think, involves having one defining story, a singular mythopoetic.  There is a single acceptable set of truths, and anything outside of that truth set is either not of the faith or heretical.

We have, from the modern era's mechanistic assumptions about inerrant texts and the pre-modern era's assumptions about ecclesiastical inerrancy, assumed that authority is singular.    So of course religion can only have one truth.  Accepting variation would be a violation of canon.

And we know from the fandom of our modern corporate myth-o-tainment franchises that varying from canon...any canon...seriously sets people off.  Some days, that's pretty much all reddit and Twitter do.

Only, well, the Christian canon is weird.

At the core of the Christian faith, there are four Gospels, four alternative narratives of Jesus.  Three...Matthew, Mark, and Luke...share general parameters with one another. completely different.  They arise from variant oral and written traditions, all trying to get at who Jesus was and what he taught.  Each was written into a specific context in the early church, by a writer with a particular and discernable editorial emphasis.

Mark, furtive and blunt as a bludgeon.  Matthew, the earnest traditionalist.  Luke, the erudite historian.  John, the poet and the mystic.

Their tonal variances are nontrivial.  But, more importantly, none are exactly the same story.  They present us with variant characters and differing chronologies.

They cannot be reconciled or blended with one another without some serious surgery.  This is a problem for fundamentalism, because you cannot be "literally inerrant" if your texts are "literally different."

The early church also struggled with this.  How can you have this peculiar dissonance?

Efforts were made at mashing them up, at creating one authoritative and harmonized story.  Tatian's Diatesseron was one early attempt.  But the Jesus movement did not go that way, as the words "Tatian's Diatesseron" aren't likely front of mind for most Christians.  The choice was made to retain these variant accounts.

So what if they're different?  So what if they don't line up exactly?

It doesn't matter.  The geist...the spirit...of them is the same.  There are four gates to our city, but they lead to the same place.

And, in fact, keeping those variant perspectives was viewed as ultimately having more value.  Having variance deepens the core truth of each, with each text offering insights that the others do not, creating a sense of a whole that is richer and more complicated than a unitary perspective could provide.

Variant narratives of truth?  That's pretty much the core of the Christian canon.