Believing in Yes and No

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Believing in Yes and No

“Saying no is a way of saying yes,” David Bentley Hart reminds us in the June/July issue of First Things, “and the more joyfully one says yes the more adamantly should one say no.”

On a practical level, if you say yes to moving to Cleveland, you are simultaneously saying no to living in San Francisco, New York, London, Peoria, and, well, every place other than Cleveland. And if you say yes to the house at 1234 Elm Street, you say no to all the other houses in Cleveland. And since it cannot be otherwise, you may as well say yes “joyfully” and no “adamantly.”

While Hart’s comment may apply to real estate, his point is about Christian doctrine and he cites German theologian Karl Barth’s comments about “Yes and No.” Just as it is with real estate, saying yes to some theological ideas means that we say no to others. It’s a simple extension of the law of non-contradiction: something cannot be A and not-A at the same time in the same sense.

If we say yes to the Christian notion of God — that there is one God who is from eternity a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — we are committed to a long list of noes. No, He is not radical unity as Islam teaches. No, He is not one with the universe as in pantheistic religions.

If we say yes to Jesus who declares, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), we are necessarily committed to noes. No, you cannot have life with God through Islam, Buddhism, Scientology, or that nice, soft, fuzzy American religion that sociologist Christian Smith termed “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”

You know, even typing that last sentence makes me squirm. As Hart writes, there are those “who treat a care for doctrinal limits as if it were a cover for arrogance, a desire for power, fear of change, etc.” And asserting a particular doctrine of God and “one way” to Heaven feels like all three. It sounds positively un-American. After all, who am I to say?

“Who am I to say?” could be the refrain for our entire culture. Christian or not, we have lost the conviction that we can know and assert the truth about things with any sort of certainty. The truth about faith, morality, and even science seem shrouded in uncertainty.

Yet in 1963, scholar Harry Blamires wrote in The Christian Mind: How a Christian Should Think:

Briefly one may sum up the clash between the Christian mind and the secular mind thus. Secularism asserts that opinionated self as the only judge of truth. Christianity imposes the given divine revelation as the final touchstone of truth.

Nearly 50 years later, the secular mindset has eroded and continues to erode that bedrock Christian conception of truth. Instead of joyful yeses and adamant noes, we couch our words in hedge clauses that betray our uncertainty: “But I could be wrong,” “Who am I to say,” “For me at least.” After all, it sounds humble and democratic.

But truth is not and never has been about you and me. It is about God. We have points of view; God has view. A Christian worldview understands that sufficiently through revelation and reliably through reason, we can know truth about life and God, allowing our yeses to be yeses and our noes, noes joyfully, adamantly and finally.

Publication date: May 22, 2012