We are creatures whose survival in this world depends upon the reliability of things we take as true: red traffic lights mean “stop,” not “go”; green lights mean “go”; and so forth. We accept this fundamental level of knowing, this “truth,” as reliable. When it comes to significance, ethics, and meaning, however, we struggle with knowing truth.
Skepticism about the process of human knowing has deepened in our culture. Indeed, our culture’s intelligentsia is afflicted with what I can only describe as a “philosophical allergy” to the very possibility of truth. They believe that universal truth is just a Western-history myth; that human nature, language, and culture effectively rule out any possible confidence we might have that truth is available to us; and that our knowledge is hopelessly obscured by the complex processes of acquiring and “constructing” it. We can only have facts, ideas, and beliefs created for the moment with no possible connection to universally true things. These postmodernists do not accept—as the Bible does—that human intelligence can work its way through complex, obscured experience to find what is true enough to be convincing.
In a recent interview, contemporary artist and critic Matthew Coolidge expressed this allergy to truth when he was asked, “Do you view your process of information gathering and sorting as an activity that produces a ‘factual’ account of things?” His responded as follows:
Well, we feel like fact is often just a more widely believed form of fiction—or can be, at least…. What is a fact? Is it just a consensus? It’s a collective conviction, I suppose, but we often wonder where the truth really lies and whether it can even be found. The X-Files people say, “Truth is out there.” I don’t know. Perhaps it’s in our heads more than anywhere else. (Artforum International, Summer 2005, p.287.)
Believing that truth exists is not an option for a biblical Christian. We can take truth for granted, or we can philosophize about it, but even a casual reading of the Scriptures reveals the reality and presence of a God who is both the beginning and ultimate source of Truth. Hence, human beings, even in their finite and broken condition, can find truth—earth-bound and partial though it may be. From the biblical perspective, we are creatures who need and use truth—even while we deny it. Christians should understand that their beliefs and faith are grounded in the book of Truth, the central character of which claims to be the human embodiment of Truth: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6).
Truth is the bedrock of biblical faith. But the Bible in no way suggests that earthly, human conditions cannot obscure the truth. I will explain what I mean.
Finding and acting on truth
In an earlier article, Desiring Truth (News & Views, August 2002), I discussed the concept of truth and our relationship to it, emphasizing two challenges that face believers: first, we must find what we believe to be true; and second, we must act on the truth when we find it.
Arriving at what we believe to be true is vital but often difficult; we are creatures made for truth, but truth can be tricky to discern. Although truth may be readily at hand at a fundamental level, at a more profound, experiential level, we may struggle to determine what is truly meaningful, valuable, and worth giving our lives to. We have access to truth all around us and, therefore, no excuse before God; but we also have an avalanche of data (information, divergent opinions, discoveries, commentaries, and so forth) vying continually for our attention and allegiance.
Acting on the truth is equally challenging. In my earlier article, I used Pilate as an example of someone who knew the truth but did not embrace it. Pilate’s dialogue with Jesus—Pilate’s personal inquiry—clearly revealed that Pilate had arrived at a truthful understanding of Jesus’ innocence; he knew the truth about Jesus, the circumstances of his arrest, and how the Jewish leaders had condemned him. For political reasons, however, Pilate refused to declare Jesus innocent and set him free. Pilate refused to accept the truth he knew and act on it with integrity.
As with Pilate, in many circumstances—if not most—truth is available to those who persevere in finding it. The nature and character of the Gospel we believe commits us to searching and testing our experiences in this world continually, which, by God’s grace, will result in understanding, choices, and actions coherent with true righteousness.
Holding the truth
Finding it and acting on it are two aspects of knowing truth. Now I would like to discuss an equally important third: “holding” the truth. Having found what we believe is true, and having determined how we should act upon it, how should we relate to the truth as “holders” of it?
If your mind and heart tell you that something is true, there are two necessary and appropriate responses. One is to acknowledge, embrace, and act on what you believe is true. The other is to hold that perceived truth in a manner that all seekers of truth should: firmly, but with humility. The following true story helps illustrate what I mean:
Two years ago, Judge Hamoud al-Hitar … and four other Islamic Scholars challenged five captured al Qaeda operatives in Yehmen: “If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle. But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.” The prisoners agreed. Two years later, those five prisoners, and 359 others who have gone through these “theological dialogues,” have so renounced violence that they have been released. (Openings, a newsletter of The Living Wisdom Center, July–October 2005, No. 21.)
Much could be noted in this intriguing story. For my purposes I only want to point out that Judge Hitar holds one view of Islamic law regarding violence while the al Qaeda prisoners adamantly hold a different one. Side by side are two views of “the truth.” I would argue that Hitar’s posture toward his view (his truth) is a good one. Though he surely believes his interpretation of the Koran is correct, he is theoretically (and probably truly) open to being convinced that he is incorrect. Thus he holds his theological conviction with openness rather than closed dogmatism. Not only does his ethical posture toward what he believes make his perspective inviting to consider, but his posture also embodies a moral imperative of openness inherent to authentic truth-seeking.
Truth and humility
Let me suggest three reasons why we should be humble and open regarding what we believe to be true rather than closed and dogmatic.
First, coming to truth is fundamentally a personal process. Even if the truth we hold has been given to us by others (in the form of editorials, lectures, personal conversations, and so on) rather than arrived at on our own (by reasoned examination of primary documents or lab experiments, for example), still we have undergone a profound process of hearing, seeing, summarizing, and concluding. As finite people, we decide what we will believe to be true—no matter what our source of information.
Socrates was the master of unpacking and revealing the flaws in people’s process of acquiring what they believed to be true; and in doing so, he exploded the assumptions and the conclusions of those with whom he dialogued. Socrates’ demonstration of the process by which people “know” has implications for us. We need to be aware that our process of acquiring knowledge should be careful, examined, and, in the end, held with a measure of humility because it is finite, partial, and vulnerable to all sorts of misconstrued, biased, or mistaken information.
Second, my cultural (taken-for-granted) environment powerfully influences what facts and perspectives seem believable to me—a phenomenon called a “plausibility structure.” For example, believing that Mormonism is true is easier in Salt Lake City than in Manhattan. If virtually everyone around a person (family, close friends, classmates in college) believes something to be true (for example, that Joseph Smith received a personal revelation from God), the belief tends to become more plausible or believable to that person. This fact led philosophers of science Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn to point out the same phenomenon in modern, so-called “objective,” science: scientists often assume “facts” are objectively true that have not been proved by laboratory experiment.
Third, the Bible shows clearly that our knowledge is not only limited but, more profoundly, that it can be colored by the effects of sin and death at work in the human heart. Facts and truth exist, but they are apprehended, filtered through, and acted upon by frail, finite, morally rebellious beings whose agendas often conflict with that truth. If my sinful heart wants something to be true, I will doggedly deny clues that inform me of its falseness. The darkness in our souls tends to make any knowledge we possess confirm those “truths” that perpetuate the darkness.
Despite how we acquire knowledge or how our plausibility structure influences us or how our sin sabotages us, however, the Bible exhorts us to be people of the truth. Indeed, commitment to truth lies at the heart of biblical spirituality. The three reasons I just listed (for why we should be humble and open regarding what we believe to be true rather than closed and dogmatic) point to a spiritual way to hold our truth. The biblical path to genuine spirituality lies in the direction opposite to that taken by the Pharisees, who were sincere to a fault but close-minded in their orthodoxy.
Personal understanding and grasp of biblical beliefs begin in all of us as weak understanding and small faith. We can all look back at our own immaturity and recognize that our understanding grows better over time as sounder beliefs replace faulty ones. Stubbornly or ignorantly adopting a closed, dogmatic, “no-more-growth-needed” manner may well block the path to true spiritual maturity. More spiritually fitting is the attitude of holding our biblical beliefs with humility before others while being open to God’s guiding and teaching over time. Such an attitude implies growing, changing, and improving our “orthodoxy”; it also assumes that we do not need unwarranted dogmatism to protect what we believe. We need never fear the truth that comes from an improved understanding of the Scriptures. If we are committed to embracing truth wherever we find it, our present understanding will grow as we hold what we believe with humility and are open to clarification and change.
We should stand firm on the belief that truth exists, that we can know it, and that we should act upon the truth we know. But we should also always be aware that we might be wrong about some important things. We need, therefore, to be cautious and humble. Wisdom teaches us that seeking what is true and living by it with conviction does not have to be accompanied by a spirit of unteachable intransigence—even when the truth-seekers are fallible, sinful beings like ourselves.