Recent events have reminded us that facts are important. Indeed, the very importance of truth has been demonstrated for us. It has been done in a negative way. Still, we witnessed many sane responses to facts that intend to save lives and appear to do so. It is a cause for celebration.
I have seen too many lies from too many fundamentalist sources to believe that truth matters to many of them. The President and many leaders in his party continue to give false assurances. It is difficult to take any of them seriously. Unfortunately, the infatuation fundamentalist people have with the present resident in the White House means other Christians should consider the importance of truth for those who want to continue believing in the way of Jesus. I will give a brief overview of what truth means for Christian philosophy.
The Culture of Excuses
My fundamentalist upbringing taught me the rest of Western culture was enamored with “relative truth.” I recall the supposedly amazing insight one teacher of mine had when he recited the following, “To say there is no absolute truth,” he said pontifically, “is itself an absolute.” And there amazingly was the refutation of one absurd assertion by an equally absurd statement. There were other rhetorical attempts to prove the point such as, “You can be so open minded that your brains leak out.” Statements like this one and others has created for fundamentalism an atmosphere of excuse-making.
How did this happen? Simple. Cleverness is mistaken for wisdom. Consider the sports radio bloviator. The hosts can complain with a clever turns of phrase often enough while flattering their listeners. Audience members magically come to believe that they as fans know what’s best for the team. They are so sure that if the coaches, managers, athletic directors, or owners do anything contrary to the fan’s “solution,” then the professionals are “arrogant idiots” and should be fired immediately.
What does this example have to do with excuses? I am glad you asked. Consider now the possibility that the professional coach while taking that contrary action succeeds in winning games. The fans have to adjust their complaint making excuses for their previous position. They weren’t really wrong, the say, the action only worked because of the lack of talent of the other team. Next week, the person asserts, against (here one should name the hated rival) it won’t work.
Denying the Real
Harry Truman famously said that every economist should have one arm tied behind his back so he cannot say, “on the other hand.” Why? Because President Truman wanted definite answers in order to take definite actions. He can’t really be blamed for that. Who doesn’t want to know they are doing the right thing with the right information? Well, I can think of a few people.
Being a pastor I have watched many terminal patients go through the stage of denial described by Kubler-Ross. It is a natural process for humans to undergo. No blame can be attached to church people who want more than anything to believe that they will overcome what threatens to and will eventually take their lives. We can certainly sympathize.
My own denial of my alcoholism in early recovery put denial in a more grayish area. I told myself that I could control it all I needed was a little willpower. Addicts and alcoholics often come to a realization that the continued using or drinking will kill them. If they don’t grasp the fact, they die from using and drinking.
I watch smokers continue their habit while not believing it would ruin their health and take their lives. If they acknowledge this fact, they may resign themselves to an attitude that denies the reality by claiming, “I am going to die from something anyway.” Attitudes surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic that deny the reality take one of these forms. “It’s a hoax. It’s really not that bad. I am not at risk to get it.” There are enablers for these attitudes. They convince themselves they are correct to be enablers.
What Is Truth?
Pontius Pilate’s question from John 18:38 is one of the devastations that extinguishes a candle during the Good Friday service. What makes it so? Because Jesus already answers that question in the previous chapter.
Chapter 17 of the gospel is a long prayer Jesus offers after explaining to his remaining disciples that he is leaving them. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they may be sanctified in truth.” (17:17-19) What is truth? The word (logos) of God is truth. The prologue in the chapter 1 leads us from the word of Creation to the word taking on Creation to live within it.
Christians understand that truth is not something within themselves. Truth is outside of us. The disciples are told that the Advocate (The Holy Spirit) will come to help them remember being in the presence of the logos of God. The letter 1 John talks about self-deception proving “the truth is not within us.” (1:8)
Fundamentalists believe that truth is within themselves. Here is an odd twist to the dismissal of “relative truth.” There is a mistake involved in understanding the Bible as the word of God to which Jesus refers in John 17. It is a short step to believing that the most clever statements from would-be interpreters must be the truth as well. It has the “ring” of truth to it. Therefore, it must be the truth. Then, the next step is to proclaim, “I have the truth.”
Facts, the Real, and the Truth
A person may attempt to argue, “are you progressive Christians not saying the same thing?” No. We doubt ourselves. We know we are fallible. Most importantly, we accept that we are. This is the reason we can boldly proclaim what we believe is true. It sounds paradoxical. We accept the truth is outside our own selves. This means we can look to sources other than our own imaginations to interpret reality including the text of Scripture.
“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams said to a jury that wanted to convict British soldiers for what was dubbed “The Boston Massacre.” They were acquitted. How we apply facts humbles us. Denying facts allows us to humiliate ourselves. Human beings do one or the other every day. It is how life is.
There is no real “personal” truth. Belief does not counter the facts. Spiritual principles and disciplines are meant to accept the real in order to accept the truth. These principles and disciplines do not change reality. They help us oppose the evil and the unreal. They help us oppose the lies and the liars. We are to live being grounded in the theological virtues to respond to the world as it is with faith, hope, and love so that the world can be transformed. We cannot do this by hiding from reality by the idolatry of our own opinions and prejudices.