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

  1. Dan, your post reminds of something Tillich said about Truth. While I can’t remember the exact statement, the gist of is was that all too often we confuse our own interpretation of Eternal Turth, which Tillich lables as “truth”, with the Eternal Truth that we interpret.

    I think we do this because we forget that we are creations, not the Creator. And, thus, confuse our finite grasp of an infitesimal portion of Truth with its entirety.

    Tlllich charges conservative Christians with this particular error. But in my expeirience it is more-or-less a universal failing of almost every religious group on the planet. One which, I think, is based on a certain amount of spiritual pride and arrogance.

    If we really understood that God is “Wholly Other,” that is entirely different from us, to use Ott’s phrase, we could not help but confess that there is FAR more to God and Eternal Truth than we can ever imagine.

  2. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
    11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. (1 Corinthians 13:8-12, NKJV)

    I believe God is absolute truth and if we were able to see things solely from God’s point of view we would be able to see absolute truth. But we cannot. Instead, when we look for absolute truth, we see all the other muckiness, distractions, … dare I say, “sin.” What we see clouds our understanding of the truth even as we read the Holy Scriptures.

    We pray for the Holy Spirit to help us understand. But our understanding grows as we do. Whenever I read a passage of Scripture, I almost always discover some new “truth” that I missed in previous readings. Was it not there before?

    Of course it was there, but I was not able to understand it at that moment. So my growth increases my understanding.

    If it were as easy as the radio person and Don seem to want to make it, we would need only to read it once and we’d have all the understanding we need. This is, of course, some people’s take on the Scriptures. But I cannot. So I continue to read and study allowing God to increase my wisdom and understanding.

    Blessings to all.

  3. This is ridiculous. God’s word is absolute truth. The image you use is in complete contradiction to the nonsense you write. I am sorry that trust is subjective and arbitrary and relative to you. I am sure you give great leadership to people who turn to you for guidance. The anything goes/anything you want to be true is true attitude you promote is the cancer that is eating away at the church today. As you usually do, you twist arguments to make common sense seem silly. Faith, my friend, is all about trusting God’s word to be true. You don’t question it. You don’t “interpret” it. You receive it, believe it, and live it.

    • Let’s agree that God is omnipotent, and that, for Him, space is malleable. Consider “Relativity” by M.C. Escher (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._C._Escher), which is based on the laws of mathematics established by our Creator. A person viewing any small part of the picture would see nothing to contradict their perception of reality, truth. But looking at the whole picture, that same person would not be able reconcile their perception and their experience – truth beyond their ability to comprehend, even though it is possible for God. If sensory perception can be incomprehensible, then could not the far more complex intellectual perception be incomprehensible as well? As disciples of Jesus, it is our responsibility to grow toward the truth, which necessarily means our perception will change.

  4. The Internet is amazing. I posted this article, made one phone call, and by the time I checked my email (maybe three minutes later) I already had a question about the post. The question, “So, you don’t believe that God will is absolute truth?” My answer: Ultimately, there is absolute truth, but I do not believe that it is within the scope of human comprehension to know what it is. We all may glimpse bits and pieces, but the mind of God is so much greater than the mind of humankind that I will never presume to know what God knows. The best I can do is to try to make reasonable and faithful attempts to live by what I “believe” the truth may be. But I also must learn to respect and honor beliefs about truth that differ from my own. Bottom line: I’m not God. What I “know” is such a limited and paltry sliver of what is knowable that I have no other option but abject humility…

  5. If by “absolute truth” one means that some things are the way they are whether I like it or not, then I don’t find it much of a problem. But if, as the fellow you listened to claimed, absolute truth has to be absolute, i.e., connected to nothing, in no context, then the idea is incoherent.

    I suspect the preacher is contending with relativism, of which there is plenty in our society. But much of that relativism is a response to claims of absolute truth in earlier times, so merely arguing for it more loudly and vehemently is not going to be an effective strategy.

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