The Truth Trap

I was driving up to Appleton, Wisconsin the other day for a meeting and I tuned into a Christian radio station, where a very passionate young man was teaching a Bible study.  His topic was “God’s Absolute Truth,” and he was making a case for there being one absolute, indisputable, eternal truth that comes from God.  His points about truth: universal, never changes, not-debatable, not open to interpretation, discernible through prayer (not dependent on I.Q., age or experience).  As I listened, questions mounted.  Even if truth is absolute, is it not impacted by our cognitive development?  Is “truth” the same for a five-year-old as it is for a twenty-five-year-old or a seventy-five-year-old?  Does learning impact our understanding of truth?  For example, does the knowledge of germs and bacteria change what we call “truth?”  Doesn’t geography, culture, history, environment condition truth at all?  “It snows in January,” is a “true” statement in Wisconsin, not so much in New South Wales.

The young man on the radio used scripture to “prove” his claims of truth — including the idea that women should keep silent in church and that it is “true” that women should not be ordained as pastors. (I Timothy 2:12)  He explained that this historic, cultural and geographic context has nothing to do with the “truth” of this passage — it is universal, eternal, absolute, and anyone who does not abide by it does not abide in “the truth.”  For me, this is a real slippery slope.  I am not sure that there isn’t such a thing as absolute truth; I am positive that we, as human beings, lack the knowledge, wisdom, and insight to grasp what it might be (even with the aid of prayer).

If there is such a thing as absolute truth, it is a treasure, not a weapon of mass destruction.  I cannot believe that “truth” exists to allow one side to defeat another.  The egotistical need to be right is a human issue.  If absolute truth exists, it doesn’t make those who possess it superior, merely fortunate.  And here is my bias — I think absolute truth has more to do with absolute good rather than absolute rules.

I fail the young preacher’s criteria in a big way — I don’t claim to “know” truth.  I merely claim that I “believe” certain things to be true.  I believe that grace is truer than judgment.  I believe love is truer than condemnation.  I believe acceptance is truer than division and alienation.  I believe forgiveness is truer than vengeance.  I believe compassion is truer than selfishness.  I believe there is greater truth in mercy and justice than rules and law.  Yet, I must acknowledge that all of these things are “true” in our scriptures.  My mind is simply not advanced enough to grasp the totality of all that is “true.”  Opposites and contradictions, mutually exclusive co-existent realities, irresolvable ambiguities — these are all aspects of truth that elude me, yet I cannot read the entire corpus of Hebrew and Christian scriptures without constant encounters with all of them.  It humbles me to confess, I cannot resolve all the mysteries to the point that I can stand against another person to say, “I am right and you are wrong,” when it comes to scriptural interpretation.  I may passionately believe that child abuse, spousal abuse, pillage, genocide, and human trafficking are abominable, but our Bible not only allows for, but often encourages just these things.  I “believe” the truth of universal civility and common decency, but there is nothing that makes such a belief “absolute truth” for everyone.

Why are we so obsessed with “truth?”  I personally don’t think we care much about truth.  I think the human motivations are to be right, and at our best, to be faithful.  We want to know what God wants of us and we need to craft a set of rules and values that define us.  This leads us to a normative perspective: if it is right for us, it must be right in general, and therefore right for everyone.  There are obvious and immediate flaws to such logic, but so what — we’re human (what’s logic got to do with anything?).  “Truth” is important to us as possessed knowledge — if we have the truth we are above reproach.  We are right.  We are brilliant.  We are holy.  Trouble is, it’s all an illusion.  The entire reason we need salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is that we are incomplete on our own.  The human pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, virtue and truth to attain salvation (works righteousness) is a fool’s game.  We are none of those things, if we’re honest with ourselves… and that’s the absolute truth.

22 replies

    • According to the dictionary, the adjective truer means “more true”. The point I am making is that we all develop a subjective and arbitrary hierarchy of truth. While my Bible says that “God is love,” it does not say that “God is judgment,” therefore, for me, love has a higher “truth value” than judgment — though I acknowledge that many Christians would question that love is truer than judgment. It’s obvious that some value judgment much more highly than love.

      • Thank you for trying to help me out, Dan.

        I suspect any further response by me would quickly descend into a useless wrangling over words (to paraphrase Wesley), so I will follow JW’s advice and cease.

        Grace and peace.

      • I hope you heard my earlier response in the lighthearted manner it was intended.
        As to Wesley’s instruction, truer words were never spoken…

  1. Something I’ve learned from Stanley Hauerwas is that it is more important for us to be truthful than it is to know absolute truth. Perhps the reason we would rather go search for absolute truth is that it keeps us from having to be truthful about ourselves.

  2. Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” I think you’ve also created God in your image when it turns out that God’s Truth (as you proclaim it) is the same as your truth.

    Can we really claim to know the mind, and therefore the Truth, of the God who said “my thoughts are not your thoughts”? Even when we think we are following the plain words of scripture, we find that others read these “plain words” differently than we do. Who’s right?

    One of my favorite delusions is that I’m more often right than other people are. Obviously, I think I’m right, or I wouldn’t believe as I do. But in humility I must admit the possibility of being wrong – even about the way I read and understand scripture. In fact, given my limited human understanding, there’s only one truth I can claim absolutely: I’m sometimes wrong.

    God IS truth, and I believe in God’s truth. But since I know I can’t fully grasp or understand God’s truth in this life, the best I and anyone else can do is to try to live by the truth we know. Meanwhile, I pray that we might approach our differences according to the commands of scripture:

    Do not judge.
    Love one another.

  3. It is funny that God’s absolute “truth” matches perfectly with that preacher’s particular ideology. When God’s truth is a perfect match to your dogma, maybe it’s your truth and not God’s.

    • “It is funny that God’s absolute “truth” matches perfectly with that preacher’s particular ideology. When God’s truth is a perfect match to your dogma, maybe it’s your truth and not God’s.”

      Understood. Agreed. So how then does one arrive at Truth? What is the criteria? Where can guides be found? What keeps one on the right path? How do we find agreement?

      • I don’t think “one” arrives at truth. I think this is why God gives us community and instructs us to test the spirits not as individuals, but as community in Christ. I believe that together we are greater than the sum of our parts, and we stand a much better chance glimpsing truth in its purest form.

      • I agree with what Dan said. I would only add that I see the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a method of finding truth. And I believe, as Dan stated, that community and discussion are also important tools in finding truth.

  4. There is only one being that knows and truly understands absolute truth, and that being is God. I don’t believe we, as flawed human beings, are capable of grasping the entire concept of absolute truth.

    The truth in which we believe is a poor man’s version that has been twisted to fit our current lives. We mold it and shape it around our actions, thoughts and observances.

    The absolute truth in the hands of human beings, who are prone to make mistakes and display poor judgment, are not capable of handling truth in its purest form. We will never know absolute truth until He feels we are ready to accept it and use it wisely.

    On another note, I am a trustee/member at Wantage United Methodist Church. I would very much like to get in touch with you, and this avenue is what I found first. Could you contact me at my provided email address? I would be extremely grateful if you could.

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