What Is Truth? An Answer Explored

What Is Truth? An Answer Explored July 29, 2022

What Is Truth? An Answer Explored

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Pilate asked “What is truth?” Philosophers have been asking it—before and after Pilate. Today, in the early twenty-first century, many people have given up on truth. There seems to be a new crisis of truth in Western culture. Pop psychologist Ashleigh Brilliant said in the title of one of his books “I have abandoned my search for truth, and am now looking for a good fantasy.” That seems to reflect the attitude of many postmodern people.

I could go on and on talking about the crisis of truth, but anyone who has been paying attention to American culture knows about it. At least they must have heard of “truthiness” and “alternative facts” and etc.

I used to drive on Interstate 35 in southern Minnesota and always passed a large sign that simply said “Truth.” Then the sign was gone. Whatever happened to “Truth?” I wondered. Then I discovered that the sign was for a company called Truth—after the name of its founder. Still, I wonder, what has happened to truth in contemporary Western, for me especially, American, culture?

Even many Christians seem to have given up on truth because of so much conflict and disagreement within and between churches and “ministries” and because of scandals involving Christian leaders and for many other valid reasons. Gradually, increasingly, belief in truth is dwindling away; people are looking for a good fantasy.

I still believe in truth, but how? What do I mean by truth when it is so difficult to pin down—outside of say mathematics or physics? Does truth even matter in Christian theology? Does Christianity depend on truth? Or can Christianity be thought of and believed in as just a good fantasy? Can both Christianity and Buddhism be true? And I don’t mean can both HAVE truth in them; I mean can their core beliefs both be true?

A few years ago a Christian professor told me that “Reincarnation can be true for Shirley MacLaine even if not for you.” I didn’t even know how to respond to that. But that seems to be a common belief about “truth” even among Christians today. (I was tempted to respond to him with “That reincarnation can be true for Shirley MacLaine even if not for me can be true for you even if not for me.”)

My theology professor Wolfhart Pannenberg liked to make a BIG point of this: Truth is what is real; what is real is true. In other words, for him, and I agree, “truth” means correspondence with reality or just reality itself whether anyone knows it or not. If a tree falls in the forest….? Yes, the tree makes a sound even if there are no ears to hear it because “sound” means “sound waves.”

Pannenberg’s theory of truth, however, was coherence, not the classical “correspondence theory” of truth. How’s that, you ask?

Simply put, in one sense, “truth” is what is really the case; in another sense, “truth” is when an idea corresponds with reality. But how do we know what ideas correspond with reality when our senses often deceive us and especially when we are talking about matters beyond the senses?

Pannenberg argued that a true proposition is one that “fits” with all other true propositions into a system of truth. The shadow of Hegel always haunted his theology and I dared to say so much to his annoyance.

I would say that, when we are looking for truth in metaphysical or ideological systems, the criteria are twofold: 1) explanatory power, and 2) inner coherence. A true system must have broad and deep explanatory power, ability to explain human experience, and it must be generally free of inner contradictions. It’s statements of fact, propositions, must cohere with each other. Logic matters as does evidence.

According to Pannenberg, in agreement with Hegel but also disagreeing with Hegel (wait, I’ll explain), history is the competition between systems of ideas that claim to be true but only the end of history can reveal finally what system of ideas is true to reality. On the way to the end, that system is truest that has the most explanatory power and inner coherence. But, Pannenberg believed history is not yet finished; Hegel had to say that history was finished, ended, and dared to say (for whatever reasons) that its completion appeared in the Prussian state and its culture and in his own philosophy.

Obviously, Pannenberg, like Hegel, was not attempting to offer up a definition of truth in the subjective sense of “inward truth,” emotional truth, personal truth, but he, like Hegel, was attempting to settle the question of “What is truth” in the objective sense of reality itself. Unlike Hegel, however, Pannenberg radically denied the accessibility of objective and absolute truth itself now; for him truth is historical and eschatological.

Pannenberg combined two things most people would say are incompatible—truth as evolving and truth as absolute. Absolute truth is future; present truth is open to change. However, as a Christian, he believed that eschatological, absolute truth, has pre-appeared in Jesus Christ, especially in his resurrection from the dead. So there is access to absolute truth even if it is not universally immediately available to everyone without “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” He did believe, however, that belief in the resurrection was more reasonable than disbelief in the resurrection, which is what drew many conservative Christians, myself included, to journey to Munich to study with him.

So what is truth? Truth is what God “sees” and knows. It is what is really the case, right now, and what will be the case at the end of history. Truth for us is justified belief about reality. What justifies a belief about reality? Its explanatory power and its coherence with all else that is true, that is believed with justification. Is this circular? Yes, inescapably so. Right now, in the midst of history, circularity in thought about reality, truth and knowledge, is inescapable. Even the skeptic believes in something whether he admits it or not. And there will inevitably be a degree of circularity in what he blelieves.

So, to make this less than fully abstract, let me go back to reincarnation. Is reincarnation true? There is some evidence for it, mainly the accounts of children who seem to know things about people who died long ago when they have no way of knowing those things. Especially parents claim that their children are telling about their former lives. But is it consistent with Christianity as a belief system? No; Christianity includes belief in resurrection. The two accounts of life after death are logically incompatible (regardless of Christians like Geddes McGregor who claim otherwise). Can reincarnation be true for Shirley MacLaine but not for me? No. To say so is to sacrifice logic. Try THAT kind of logic in a court case. However, IF I were not a Christian, I might believe in reincarnation. The competing truth claims will only be settled with one being true and the other not true in the end, when history is complete and finished. However, for Christians, Jesus’s resurrection points strongly toward resurrection being true and reincarnation being false.

The point is that, on the way to the end, systems of truth claims ought to engage in civil and respectful debate using arguments about explanatory power—appealing to human experience in its broadest sense—and logic.

Now, someone will say something about “faith.” Pannenberg always argued that he was not denying faith, but faith cannot replace reason in the historical debate between competing worldviews. Faith is subjective belief and is justified for the individual and for a faith-community so long as it does not go against reason or impose its belief-system on others with force. For the Christian, belief in the truth of the Christian gospel requires a “step of faith” (not a “leap of faith”) right now. The Christian risks believing, with good reason, that the end of history will finally and fully justify, even prove, his or her belief in Jesus Christ as Lord correct.

Now, let me bring this around to the reason for this blog’s existence—to promote classical Arminian theology. I have said many times that both Calvinism and Arminianism (the two main competing Protestant theologies about salvation) have problems, mysteries, possibly even conundrums. Only the eschaton will prove one right and the other one wrong. However, on the way to that eschatological demonstration of truth, one has greater explanatory power than the other one and it also has greater internal, logical consistency than the other one. What we need now, before the eschatological demonstration of truth in this matter, is civil, respectful debate such as happened between me and Michael Horton in our two books Against Calvinism and For Calvinism and in public “conversation” at Biola University. Right now we are mostly talking past one another without considering each other’s best arguments. And I am still convinced that most Calvinists continue to misrepresent Arminianism. We will never have the kind of civil, respectful debate so long as that habit continues. Both Calvinism and Arminianism cannot be true; both may be false, but I don’t think so. But where I differ from most Calvinists and most other Arminians is in believing that the absolute truth will only emerge fully and universally for all to see at the end. In the meantime, we can and should continue to put forth our best reasons—pointing to explanatory power and inner coherence as tests of tentative and historical truth.

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