What is Truth?
Early the next morning approximately 6am as the sun rose up, the Roman governor of Palestine Pontius Pilate cross-examined Jesus before his crucifixion, when Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus proclaimed that "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18:37). To this, Pilate replied "What is truth?" and right away left Jesus to address the Jews who wanted Christ crucified (v. 38). Although we have no record of any reply by Jesus, Christians affirm that Pilate was staring Truth in the face… for Jesus had earlier said to Thomas, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
This discussion raises the perpetual question of the nature of truth. What does it mean for a statement to be true? This has been a subject of much debate in postmodernist circles, where the traditional view of truth as objective and knowable is no longer accepted. Many even outside of academic discussions may be as cynical about truth as Pilate’s "What is truth?" they smirk, without waiting for an answer. But unless we are clear about the notion of truth, any religious claim to truth--Christian or otherwise--will confuse more than enlighten. Before attempting to determine which claims are true, we need to understand the nature of truth itself.
Living in a post modern society where liberal thought has crept into the schools of higher learning for numerous years. It is no surprise that it has also slithered into the Church. If I would stand on a street corner here in Atlanta and ask individuals as they pass by…what is truth? Depending upon how many people I ask this question to, will determine amount of how many diverse answers.
If there are no absolutes as I have been told by so many individuals. This statement is making an absolute claim to truth. It defeats its own claim, which in turn makes it a logical fallacy.
I have been also told that truth is relative. Does that include the statement that truth is relative? It would have to, making this statement invalid since no claim to truth can be made by this statement, including the claim that truth is relative.
One very common response I receive is “you have your truth and I have my truth.” And if your truth and my truth are in conflict, what do we have? Can there be conflicting truths? If so, then how do you determine what is valid? If my truth is that there is no God, and your truth is that there is a God, does that really effect whether there is a God or not? Saying that we each have our own truth may make us comfortable but we would have to not care about truth to say this, because no matter what my experience or your experience tells us, the truth exists as it is.
A sweet elderly lady once said to me that truth is within you. If we seek truth within ourselves then we are back to what your experience tells you or to what you want to be the truth. Your perception may affect you and be true to what you want to believe, but it does not affect what the truth really is. Your experience and belief could be telling you that something false is true.
I will briefly argue for the objective view of truth and then put it against two of its main rivals, relativism and pragmatism. The view of truth, held by the vast majority of philosophers and theologians throughout history until recently, holds that any statement is true if and only if it corresponds to or agrees with factual reality. The statement, "the desk in my office is brown," is true only if there is, in fact, a brown desk in my office. The statement, "there is no brown desk in my office," is false because it fails to correspond to any objective state of affairs.
This reasonable view presupposes a basic law of logic called the law of bivalence, which stipulates that any definite, declarative statement must be either true or false. It cannot be neither true nor false; nor can it be both true and false. "There is a brown desk in my office" is true or false. Another fundamental law of logic expresses the same concept in a slightly different way. The law of excluded middle affirms that "either A or non-A." There either is a brown desk in my study or there is not. One more principle of logic teams up with the other two for further clarification. The principle of contradiction states that "A cannot be non-A in the same way and in the same respect." It cannot be true that there both is and is not a brown desk in my study.
Speaking with authority, questions, commands, and exclamations are neither true nor false, because they do not make claims about objective reality. If I pray, "God, please help me," it is true that I am praying, but I am not affirming that "God will help me" (a declarative statement). I am requesting help. Furthermore, if I say "Study harder!" to my lazy pupil, I am not affirming "You are studying harder" (a declarative statement); I am commanding or imploring his academic diligence. If I exclaim "Yes!" when my pitcher strikes out the cleanup hitter in the bottom the ninth to win the game for the home team, I am not saying, "He struck out the batter" (a declarative statement); I am voicing my approval. The question of truth is properly applied only to declarative or propositional statements.
The theological statement, "Jesus is Lord of the universe," is either true or false. Whether this it is calmly uttered or express with great emotion, it has only one truth-value: true or false. It either honors reality or it does not. The Christian claims that this statement is true irrespective of anyone's opinion (Romans 3:4). This is because truth is a quality of statements, not a matter of subjective response or majority vote or cultural fashion. For example, the statement, "The world is round." was true even when the vast majority of earth’s population believed it to be flat.
Therefore, Christians who historically have affirmed this view of truth--hold that there are good historical reasons to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead in space-time history, thus vindicating his divine authority ( Romans 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 ). The Apostle Paul was adamant about this: "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:14-15). Without this view of truth, these resounding affirmations can only ring hollow.
Today this objective view of truth is being brought into doubt by certain postmodernist philosophers who claim that the quest for an objective truth that is describable through language is part of the discredited project of modernism, an over-confident approach to knowledge stemming from enlightenment rationalism. Therefore, statements about scientific facts, religious realities, or moral principles cannot be known to refer to objective states of affairs. On the contrary, language is contingently constructed through communities; it cannot transcend its own context and refer to realities outside itself.
The concept that objective truth is unknowable entails that a relativistic and/or pragmatic view of truth be put in the place of a correspondence view. I will argue below that both of these views are logically unsupportable.
One challenge to the objective view is relativism. Relativism comes in various shapes and sizes, but its salient claim is that the truth of a statement depends on the views of persons or cultures, not on whether statements correspond to objective reality. For a statement to be true simply means that a person or culture to believes it to be true. Hence the popular refrain, "Well, if that's true for you..." or, "We can't judge other cultures." According to this view, one person can say "Jesus is Lord" and another can say "Allah is Lord," and both statements will be true, if they accurately express the sentiments of the speakers. This view seems to advance tolerance and civility, but it does so at the expense of logic.
If I say "Jesus is Lord" and you say "Allah is Lord" both statements cannot be objectively true because they describe mutually exclusive realities. Jesus is known by Christians as God made flesh (John 1:14), while Muslims deny that Allah incarnates. If "Lord" means a position of unrivaled metaphysical and spiritual supremacy, then Jesus and Allah cannot be both be Lord because "Jesus" and "Allah" are not two words that mean the same thing. If we mean to say that I believe in Jesus and you believe in Allah, there is no logical contradiction, since subjective states of mind cannot contradict each other; that is, it may be true that I subjectively believe X and you subjectively believe non-X. But X and non-X themselves cannot both be objectively true. When dealing with divergent claims to objective truth (as we often do in comparative religion and philosophy), contradictions emerge frequently.
When truth is considered dependent upon the person or culture holding the belief, anything can become "true," which is absurd. Flat-Earther, Geo-Centrists, Cargo Cultists, and Phrenologists have been falsified by the facts. Relativism removes any reasons for changing one's beliefs. If my belief makes something true, there is no objective warrant to alter my beliefs in the face of argument or evidence. Unlike the correspondence view of truth, which seeks objective support for the truth or falsity of statements (whenever possible), relativism offers no means of verifying or falsifying any belief apart from discerning whether one holds the belief or whether a particular culture tends to affirm certain things. Such an attitude applied to medicine or science would be deemed ridiculous.
Medical doctors have good reason not to bleed their patients, as was commonly done for centuries. Biologists have good reason no longer to believe in the spontaneous generation of insects from mud. Human subjectivity un-tethered from objective constraints is a shallow and shabby thing. When it reaches a certain stage we call it stupidity or even insanity.
Relativism is self-refuting; it cuts its own throat. The statement, truth is a matter of personal and cultural values, not a matter of a statement's correspondence with objective reality, is a claim about "the ways things are"; that is, it is a truth-claim about objective reality. But this is the very thing it cannot be. If truth is only a function of individual preferences, one cannot escape the prison of subjectivity in order to make objective statements that supposedly apply to all of reality. For these reasons, we can safely say that relativism is false; it does not correspond to reality.
For the Christian, the ultimate expression of truth is found in the Bible, in Jesus who said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life..."(John 14:6). Of course, most philosophers and skeptics will dismiss His claim, but for the Christian, He is the mainstay of hope, security, and guidance. Jesus, who walked on water, claimed to be divine, and rose from the dead, said that He was the truth and the originator of truth. If Jesus is wrong, then we should ignore Him. But, if He is right, then it is true that we should listen to Him.
The eyewitnesses wrote what they saw. They were with Him. They watched Him perform many miracles, heal the sick, calm a storm with a command, and even rise from the dead. Either you believe or dismiss these claims. If you dismiss them, that is your prerogative. But, if you accept them, then you are faced with decisions to make about Jesus. What will you believe about Him? What will you decide about Him? Is He true? Is what He said true?
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who stated: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist,”