For the hearts of this people have grown dull.Matthew 13:15
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’
Perhaps you have heard it said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” We all come to the table of understanding front-loaded with a host of assumptions we don’t even know we have. These assumptions are often inherited from a host of sources: our parents and up-bringing as well as our culture, education, religious affiliations, ethnic heritage, etc. These assumptions surround us like the air we breathe, though we are no more aware of them than the fish is the water in which it swims. These assumptions supply us with the background of reality as we see it (unconsciously to us and mostly taken for granted), shaping the way we understand and perceive the world around us. These assumptions may be true, or they may be false, but either way, they shape our perceptions and govern our responses to the various circumstances of life. For the most part, they provide the security of the known – the reliable and the trustworthy. As already intimated, these assumptions are often inherited and tend to shape us by stealth. These assumptions include what we believe about religion, politics, relationships, behavior, social protocols, along with a host of other things too numerous to mention. Very often these assumptions go untested, for we are not ourselves even aware that we have them, since they are as much a part of us as the color of our eyes.
Because these assumptions about reality shape the perceptions by which we see the world, they often blind us to realities that lie beyond them. Very much like Neo in the Matrix, we may suspect that there is something beyond the world as we perceive it, but our assumptions serve as an effective barrier, even a kind of prison, beyond which is it difficult to see. Nevertheless, it is almost certain, that some, if not many, of these assumptions are false. However, here we must add this caution. Many of our assumptions about life and reality are true, and have been proven to be so either experientially, empirically, or both. It would be nearly impossible to function in this world otherwise. We would be paralyzed if we couldn’t be sure of anything. It is this fact, that many of our assumptions can be relied upon, that enables our false assumptions to stay hidden so well and for so long. It is a fact that we will all live and die still embracing some false assumptions. To believe otherwise would be to a believe that we can arrive at some kind of epistemological perfection, which we will never achieve in this lifetime.
Growth requires the challenging of certain assumptions. We are encouraged throughout life to investigate and exchange our oversimplifications of reality with a more comprehensive and truer version, which we do to a certain extent. The child who believes in Santa comes to realize that Mom and Dad are their true benefactors every December 25, and the moon in not made of cheese, whatever others would have had us believe in a more innocent and naïve time in our lives. Maybe it’s the surrendering of these simpler assumptions that make us feel that we are committed to truth and the search for understanding. Indeed, it seems to be the common occupation of young people going off to college to shrug off the version of reality inherited from their parents in exchange for a very different picture of the world, taught to them by their professors and reinforced by the elites in media, entertainment, and higher education. But what if we’ve simply exchanged one version of the Matrix for another? Where did these new assumptions come from, and are they any more reliable than the ones we left behind? What constitutes true reality? How should we really see the world? Can we come to know truth?
If the Bible tells us anything, it is that truth is knowable. In fact, the Bible goes even further, telling us that blindness to truth is not the result of victims who simply lacked access to good information, but rather was the result of people who refused such knowledge.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, (Romans 1:18-20, emphasis mine)
The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 emphasis mine)
When truth is not known, it is because it is rejected in favor of something else; some other philosophical position or lifestyle choice that is in contradiction to where the truth would have led us. This a priori commitment to a given worldview that endorses whatever beliefs or behaviors the individual desires to justify are evidence of man’s rejection of God in favor of his own desires, though this may very well lay below the surface of one’s conscious awareness. The Bible is clear that while men are accountable for the truth they might have known, they have help in their delusions.
But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4, emphasis mine)
The truth is, we all cling to our assumptions for one reason or another. Indeed, beliefs about reality, whether about the natural world or about matters of faith, should not be easily surrendered simply because someone disagrees with them. We should demand good evidence for a change of convictions and not be willing to surrender them simply because someone has an argument that initially sounds compelling. As the old Proverb states,
The first to speak in court sounds right—
until the cross-examination begins. (Proverbs 18:17 NLT)
Rather, what is required for our growth, naturally as well as spiritually, is not a readiness to hand in our beliefs and assumptions like we hand in our pencils after an examination, but rather a willingness to allow our assumptions to be challenged by the light of truth. This can still be a frightening prospect, especially when our entire understanding of reality is shaped by beliefs we’ve inherited but not taken the time to truly examine for ourselves. We may well wonder, “What if these convictions are proven wrong or I come to believe differently than those who lovingly taught me what they themselves inherited from those who loved and taught them?” I know from my own experience that this can be very unsettling. Our underlying assumptions about faith, for example, are the very foundation to what we believe about reality on a macrolevel. The truth claims we’ve come to embrace about God, creation, redemption, and the rest are the very ground upon which our reality is constructed. When any aspect of our belief system is challenged it can feel like the tectonic plates of reality beneath us are shifting. However, to not allow our assumptions to be challenged is to refuse to grow beyond what we received from others who may very well have simply passed on to us what they were taught with very little critical analysis of the facts. At some point, we must make the transition from an “inherited” faith to one that is our own personal possession due to our own search for and confirmation of the truth. We needn’t distrust what good people have shared with us, but we must allow what we’ve learned to be stood up against the scriptures as the ultimate arbiter of reality. For believers, the scriptures alone stand as the inspired plumb line by which all doctrinal questions are to be examined for accuracy. Of course, even this demands good evidence for the integrity of the scriptures themselves, but that is a discussion for another essay.
In my case, I was very fortunate in that many of the things I had been taught had sound, deep historical and theological roots into what we know as traditional Christianity – what Lewis called Mere Christianity. Well established are the truths of the existence and nature of God, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the deity and Lordship of Christ, etc. None of these things were affected by my awakening to my own assumptions, though to be sure, there are ongoing disputes on some finer points of doctrine even regarding these foundational issues. Nevertheless, my faith held sure in all such areas of basic doctrine. However, some of my convictions did change on what some might call some of the “lesser” issues of doctrine. In fact. God’s dealings with me were for the very purpose of helping me to see that my assumptions did indeed exist, and that many were based on more sectarian or denominational convictions rather than on the immutable council of God’s Word.
Of course, our assumptions do not end with doctrinal issues. We are beset by assumptions in many areas of life that can limit our understanding and experience if we are not willing to realize the potential fallibility of our position. Anything as simple as our unwillingness to try new and different foods can come from a presumption that we don’t like that kind of thing, though we’ve never tried it for ourselves. We can find prejudices like this hiding out in a hundred different areas of life, simply because we have accepted a narrow narrative about life and reality that we never bothered to put to the test. Some of these can be of lesser consequence but others can be catastrophic. Peter had certain assumptions about Gentiles and God’s intent for the Church until a vision of a sheet let down from heaven challenged Peter’s understanding of what God called “kosher.” Saul’s assumptions about loyalty to God were corrected by a light brighter than the noonday sun which stopped his career of persecution dead in its tracks. His old assumptions died on the Damascus Road as a new and larger world of reality was opened to his understanding. Though temporarily blinded, the man who would be known as Paul the apostle had never seen so clearly. Likewise, our assumptions about the course our own life is to take may well be challenged by a call to ministry that takes us down a different path than the one for which we were groomed. Parents, friends, and counselors may fail to understand this change. Both Paul and Peter would no doubt tell you that sometimes the awakening to a greater reality can separate you from those still blinded by assumptions they refuse to abandon. This is where patience is required as well as humility. Patience is needed because we need to appreciate the security people find in their assumptions and humility because we ourselves are still not perfect in understanding. There will be more to learn and other assumptions to abandon. Too often, we are like a bird that once disturbed from its present roosting place, flies only a few feet away to resume its position of immobility. A little light breaking through our darkened understanding doesn’t mean we can now rest where we are but should rather signal to us that we are likely to need further illumination.
How can we settle into some way of testing our assumptions without abandoning all we know? Is there a pattern we can follow to ensure we are not gullible nor unteachable? I think there is.
Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:10-11)
The Bereans were open to the Word, ready to learn and receive fresh insights into the truth. However, they were not fools nor gullible children. They understood the immutability of God’s Word and its authority to determine all issues of life, doctrine, truth. As the gospel was seen to be truth in the light of the overall council of God’s Word, they believed, and their faith was well rooted in truth.
God has supplied us with His Spirit (see John 16:13 & 1 John 2:26-27) and His Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In addition to this, much of the settled doctrines of the Church came through careful examination of the scriptures by many people over long periods of time. Those tested positions provide us a firm ground upon which to find agreement. We may not agree in all points in every area, but the same Spirit who guides each of us will bring us to consensus on many points to provide a sound platform of fellowship and agreement. It is living well in this tension of teachability and discernment that enable us to grow, line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little (see Isaiah 28:10). I do not believe this ever ends here in this life or maybe even in the next. Our God is inexhaustible, and there is no end to the searching of His understanding. What we can be assured of is that He is a God who reveals Himself to those who are desirous to know Him; who see knowledge not as an end in itself but as a means to know the One whom all true knowledge reveals.