Religious conversations tend to be peppered with talk of “the truth”, sometimes written with a capital “T” for added “umph”. Let’s toss around some ideas about truth.
First, what is it? I understand truth as the adequate correspondence between judgments (sometimes called propositions) about reality and reality itself. If I encounter a tree and I judge it to be a maple, we determine if my judgment is correct (true) by examining the tree to see, if indeed, it is a maple. Properly speaking, truth is a property of judgments, not of things or people. In other words, the tree isn’t true, my judgment about it either is or isn’t true.
There are other ideas about truth that have merit – truth as pragmatism and truth as coherence, to name just two. These theories do shed additional light on truth as a concept, but they ultimately rest on correspondence theory for even their own justification.
I should note that there is also a sense of truth that is metaphysical – harkening back to the scholastic period of thought – that truth (verum) is a transcendental property of all being. I accept this notion of truth, but I also understand that it has more to do with grounding metaphysical (and then logical) insights such as identity and non-contradiction that it does with arbitrating common philosophical or theological discussions.
Since truth resides in persons’ judgments about reality, and since human persons (leaving aside the issue of Divine or angelic persons, for the moment) are limited in knowledge and accuracy of perceptions – humility and a healthy dose of skepticism should always accompany our pronouncements of truth – we may be wrong, we have overlooked something, or the thing we may be judging is more complex that we originally thought. (Additionally, it’s safe to assume that not all of reality has been discovered or is known, therefore, human knowledge, and our grasp of the “truth” is limited).
If one reflects on a correspondence approach to truth, one begins to see the need to add certain nuances to some theological conversations. Allow me to summarize/portray a conversation between a pastor and his friend to make some points clearer:
Friend: I believe the Bible is true.
Pastor: I think you mean to say that many of the foundational messages found in the Bible are true.
Friend: No, I mean the Bible is true – all of it.
Pastor: Well, strictly speaking, a book can’t be true. Truth applies to its claims or its message, and the Bible makes thousands upon thousands of claims – some historical, some scientific, some metaphysical, some moral, and so on. Are you saying that every claim in the Bible is true?
Friend: Yes, the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, and is therefore, true.
Pastor: How do you know the Bible is true?
Friend: I know the Bible is true, because it tells me it’s true.
I hope by now, you, the reader is getting the gist of where this is going. The truth of scripture is a contextual question – what exactly about scripture, what claim, what aspect, are we saying is true? It makes little sense to say the entire collection of writings is true, because it begs the question, true concerning what?
Let me raise a further issue that often plays a role in theology – the human individual is always the arbiter of truth, at least in the common sense application of the terms. Does this mean I am advocating subjectivism? No, not at all. What I am saying is that human individuals are beings that are capable of making judgments and are also capable of evaluating their own and other’s judgments – thus they are beings open to the truth and capable of knowing it.Truth is an ongoing dialog between reality and human beings – truth resides in human judgments about reality, and those judgments are shown to be valid or not by human observation (and thus further judgments) about our judgments and reality. (We can have the conversation about foundationalism, or the grounding of human knowledge, at a later date.)
A central point is this – we decide for ourselves what is true, we must make the decision, based on the best of our abilities and knowledge, as to what we accept as true or not true.
Now, some people will want to argue that God, or some form of revelation, or scripture, or a religious authority decides what is true. I’m not arguing that these things cannot play a role in helping us see what’s true.
What I am saying is that even in the case of revelation – the individual is presented with a message that they must decide whether or not they accept as true. Even if they accept the message’s truth based on authority, or even faith, they, at some point, decided for themselves that this authority was worthy of believing.
If you believe in “this” and not “that” it is because, for whatever reason “this” makes more sense to you than “that.” Scripture, authority, revelation of some kind can all play a role in your thinking, but they do so, because at some stage, you accepted that these were worthy of consideration. Another conversation, to help illustrate this point:
Friend: I believe in the Bible because I believe its God Word.
Pastor: How do you know it is God’s Word? And why is God’s Word something you should put your trust in?
Friend: God gave the Bible to human beings and revealed this truth to the Church and I accept it.
Pastor: The notion that you “accept” God’s revelation implies two things – first, that you, in a sense, stand in judgment over God’s message – weighing for yourself its validity and worthiness. Second, it means God addresses us as persons – offering reasons, appealing to our intellect, will, and heart to ask for our acceptance, not forcing us to believe or accept something as true, merely because He reveals it.
It bothers some people to assert that they are arbiters of the truth. The seeming association with relativism and subjectivism doesn’t sit well with some. For others, it’s the recognition that if they determine what they accept as true or false, then they increase their degree of responsibility in life. And for some, truth is something they wish to reserve to God alone.
While some of these sentiments are understandable, they can cloud a discussion and interfere with deepening our understanding of God, ourselves, and our world. How we understand the truth, and how we use the term matters and is something worthy of reflection.