The Brexit negotiations have been thrown into disarray following the rejection of the chequers plan by the EU leaders recently.
In the interest of openness and honesty I should say that I voted to remain in the EU in the referendum and would still prefer not to leave it – although I do have misgivings about being part of a group that makes it so difficult to leave! But whatever your view on Brexit, circumstances have shown that neither side in the referendum accurately described what would happen if the UK voted to leave the EU. Many remainers suggested immediate dire economic consequences which have not been born out. Leavers suggested that a good trade deal and the resolution of challenges – such as over the Irish border – would be easy to reach – the reality since then has been very different. The latter view seemed particularly unrealistic – how can you state so confidently that something will happen when this can only be with the agreement of others who have expressed such a different viewpoint.
So did the leaders of the leave and remain camps deliberately lie in order to win our votes? This may be true in some cases, but I am inclined to be more generous. I think many people were so taken up with their own convictions that they failed to see or understand – perhaps were even incapable of seeing – other perspectives on the matter. When we only see our side of an argument, then our ability to grasp the truth is seriously impaired.
This is nothing new. We are all swayed by our own personal experiences, past events or circumstances, friendships, preferences etc, as we look at an issue. No matter how hard we try, we will always look at things from a biased and limited perspective, and disagreements will occur with those who view matters from a different point of view. The more serious issue in my view is that we often fail to acknowledge our own limitations and insist that others recognise our ‘truth’. As Jesus said to a group who insisted that they were seeing clearly:
If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. (John 9:41, NIV)
So do we give up on any idea of knowing truth about any matter, and admit that disagreements, conflict, wars, are inevitable. If there were no God then I think I would be forced to such a pessimistic conclusion. But as a Christian I have more hope. There is a God who does not suffer these limitations, who sees all aspects of a matter. One in whom there is truth, indeed who is truth. And he offers to help us and guide us into wisdom. He has also given us a guide to know that truth and help us in the thorny issues of life – the Bible. You may say that in saying this I’m just setting up my own truth from my own biased perspective. I can’t prove that God is the ultimate truth but I have found by experience that I can trust in him and his word in my life.
For everyone, we need to recognise our own limitations and that we will never be the source or guardian of truth. With humility we need to listen to the one who is far wiser, who sees all things, and who is a far better guide in life than anyone else. Where there are things which we disagree about, perhaps he might just see things better than us.
For the person who accepts this, there is another question however. We may accept that God is our guide, and the Bible one of his primary ways of guiding us. Yet still Christians disagree about what God has said in the Bible. How do we know which Biblical interpretation is really the truth?
An important answer to this question is that God promises us that his Spirit will guide us into truth (see for example John 16:13, 1 Cor 2:14). But faithful, humble Christians, seeking the help of God’s spirit to understand the Bible, still come to different conclusions as they read it. I believe that there is another important element in our answer to this question. The Bible isn’t just given to us individually, but to us together as His church, his followers. We need the help of each other to understand it. This is emphasised in the picture of God’s people as a body with many different parts each with its gift to bring to the church as a whole. This is usually applied in terms of roles or gifts that we use in serving the church together, but it applies in other areas, including our understanding of what God is saying and has said to us. We need each other’s gifts, experiences, wisdom to gain a better understanding of the truth that God had revealed to us together as his people. Just seeking to understand it on our own, or only with people similar to ourselves – or just those from our own Christian tradition – will lead to a distorted understanding, like that of a bunch of ears, or a gathering of knees might have compared to the more rounded view of a body!
So we need to spend time listening to and learning together with many other followers of God with different characters and backgrounds, and from different church traditions than our own. This is not just talking about the occasional isolated ‘united church service’, or spending time with those from a few selected churches that we feel are ‘sound’ enough, but a real living out of Jesus’ picture of us together as His body the church. This is not easy to work out in practice. While we need to listen to different voices, not all are really seeking to listen to God’s truth – we need discernment too. But if we want truly to seek to know better the truth that God has given us, this seeking together is not an optional extra but a necessity.