Friday, May 25, 2007

What is Truth?

This question has been asked so many times through the centuries by philosophers, theologians and lay people alike that it has become somewhat of a cliché. Perhaps the most famous instance of this question is when it is asked by Pilate in the gospel of John in response to the suggestion by Jesus during his trial that he had "come into the world to bear witness to the truth" (John 18:38). It would have saved everyone a lot of time if Jesus saw fit to clarify his previous statement, but he doesn't. But then again, perhaps Jesus had more important things on his mind at the time.

Most of the dialogue in the debate between modernists and post-modernists has centred around the question of whether absolute truth exists or whether truth is merely relative. The objective and the subjective is thus seen as diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. But is our search for truth obscured because we are asking the wrong question? Rather than ask whether truth is objective or subjective, Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard would ask the question: "Which truth is most important?" With respect to Christianity, Kierkegaard, using the pseudonym Johannes Climacus writes in "Subjectivity is Truth":
All essential knowledge concerns existence, or only that knowledge that relates to existence is essential, is essential knowledge. All knowledge that is not existential, that does not involve inward reflection, is really accidental knowledge, its degree and compass are essentially a matter of no importance. This essential knowledge that relates itself essentially to the existing individual is not to be equated with the above-mentioned abstract identity between thought and being. But it means that knowledge must relate itself to the knower, who is essentially an existing individual, and therefore all essential knowledge essentially relates itself to existence, to that which exists. But all ethical and all ethical-religious knowledge has this essential relationship to the existence of the knower.
Kierkegaard does not dismiss the concept of objective knowledge - he merely suggests that objective knowledge is of secondary importance in the Christian faith. Even if the reliability of the Bible and Christianity itself were established beyond doubt, he suggests that objective truth is trumped by the greater truth of subjectivity. Even if every word of the Bible were true, this would still not mean that the Bible is the truth. Or to be more accurate, this would not mean that the Bible is the Truth. What matters is the individual's relationship to Christianity, rather than the propositional claims that Christianity makes for itself.

Like Kierkegaard, Thomas à Kempis rejects the importance of objective and propositional truth. He writes in his third meditation entitled "On Being Taught by Truth":
How happy a man is when the Truth teaches him directly, not through symbols and words that are soon forgotten, but by contact with itself. Our own way of thinking and our own impression give us only a false or limited view [emphasis mine].
Christianity is at heart a subjective and experiential truth. Think about it. How would you go about explaining the colour green to a person born blind? Or better still, how would you explain falling in love in conceptual terms? I guess I could try, but I could absolutely guarantee that my description would give no insight into what the person who is falling in love experiences. One simply has to experience falling in love themselves to share in my truth. And once they have fallen in love, no words will explain what they feel, but rather words will merely undermine and understate the experience. Quite simply, the truth that can be spoken about is not the truth. But mark my words, the person who has fallen in love, though he or she cannot articulate this truth, has nonetheless stumbled upon one of the greatest truths we can know in this lifetime.

Even if every word of the bible were true, the biggest mistake we could possibly make is to regard the words of the Bible as the Truth. When we do so, we worship the revelation at the expense of the Revealer, the creation at the expense of the Creator. Even through careful exegesis of Scripture, we objectify God and thus create Him in our own image. When we do so, we become idolators. As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, "Concepts create idols, but only wonder grasps anything".

The way in which Thomas à Kempis compares symbols and words is extremely helpful in clarifying my understanding of the Bible in the life and faith of the Christian. I believe the Bible should be seen in sacramental terms - it is a gateway to the divine, rather than the divine itself. We must not merely reflect, meditate upon and exegete the Scriptures, but rather we should travel below the surface and expose ourselves to the Truth to which they witness. If we pursue the Scriptures in this way they will prove to be helpful, but if we see the Scriptures as an end in itself, the Scriptures will only serve to obscure the Truth. Indeed, in the same address in which Jesus calls himself the Truth (John 14:6), he instructs his followers to abide in Him (John 15:4). It is only through discipleship that we will be taught the Truth, a truth beyond words that surpasses all knowledge.




7 comments:

Stephanie said...

Is it perhaps unbiblical to suggest that the bible is the Truth?

Dr. Chaotica said...

"Christianity is at heart a subjective and experiential truth. Think about it. How would you go about explaining the colour green to a person born blind? Or better still, how would you explain falling in love in conceptual terms? I guess I could try, but I could absolutely guarantee that my description would give no insight into what the person who is falling in love experiences."

I would agree with you that a thing like colour or love is an experience, but it is based on an objective truth. Just like how Green is light of 520-570nm and Love is a combination of hormonal and neurotransmitter activity.

The Bible, God and Christianity do make objective claims about the nature of reality, humanity and themselves. Claims that have proven false in light of the evidence (or lack thereof)

David Castor said...

The Bible, God and Christianity do make objective claims about the nature of reality, humanity and themselves. Claims that have proven false in light of the evidence (or lack thereof)

I could very well ask you what the objective claims of Christianity are. Then again, I could ask you the much more important question: "How have you personally and subjectively appropriated these truths to come to the position you are at today?"

emblazoned said...

Thanks for sharing that David, the thoughts contained therein are indeed my position on Christianity. As uncool as it is, my faith is an extremely subjective one, and an awareness of this tempers me from fundamentalist extremes.

Well put.

One Salient Oversight said...

Great is your mercy, O LORD; give me life according to your rules.

Psalm 119.156

David Castor said...

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2 Corinthians 3:6

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