Friday, January 20, 2006

Testimony

Thomas G Long

We cannot live without trustworthy words, cannot be human without them. If at least some words cannot be relied on, we have no way of knowing who we are, cannot build relationships of love, and are unable to make even the most modest plans for how we shall live. So no matter how many times we get knocked over by half-truths and wholesale lies, we get right back up for the next round. If Christians commit to telling the truth, then, they are not just being nice people. They are using words in the way human beings most need to hear them.

Making the point that everyday life depends on the reliability and truthfulness of words, the philosopher C A J Coady imagines the he is travelling to a foreign city, say, Amsterdam. When his plane arrives, Coady believes he is in Amsterdam, not because he knows this for sure – he has never been to Amsterdam before – but because the pilot assures the passengers over the intercom that they are landing in Amsterdam. When he checks into his hotel, he fills out a form giving his name, date of birth, citizenship and so on. Not only is all of this accepted as true by the desk clerk simply because Coady says it is true, but also Coady himself believes it is true. He is sure that he is named C A J Coady, that he was born on such-and-such a date, and that he is so many years old not because of any concrete evidence but because others have told him that these things are true.

The next morning, when Coady wakes up, he calls the desk to get the local time, and he belies what the desk clerk says. Over breakfast, he reads a paperback about the amazing exploits of Napoleon more than 150 years before, and he believes that there was a Napoleon who was important in history, even though he has obviously not met Napoleon personally or experienced any of his exploits at first hand. The morning paper carries news of a military coup in Spain, and even though he has no way of verifying this for himself, he takes this news to be factual. After breakfast, Coady heads out of the hotel to do some sightseeing, tourist map in hand, once more trusting himself to the word of others. The point is clear. In a scientific age, we may think we base our knowledge and decision making on hard evidence, but in fact we live life mainly on the basis of testimony. Everyday life is dependent on people’s speaking truthful words to us.

No wonder we dream of a world where advertisers tell the truth [as in the film Crazy People]. No wonder we hunger for public discourse to be free of deception and spin. No wonder we yearn for people to be as good as their word. No wonder, then, that when Christians put breakfast dishes in the sink and head out into the workaday world, what they are called to do, and what the world most needs from them, is to go out there and in every area of life to tell the truth. It is startling, often breathtakingly refreshing, and, as Crazy People wryly reminds us, sometimes seemingly insane, but it is what Christian testimony is all about: telling the truth.

From chapter 5 of Testimony – talking ourselves into being Christian, published by Joessey Bass 2004
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