In the two most recent posts, we explored What is Truth?, and also introduced the idea that there are constraints in Conveying Truth. It is important that those discussions don’t give the misleading impression that there is no truth, or that people are free to make up their own truth.
In discussing the seemingly simple question “What color is the sky”, we learned that truth can have multiple facets, and that gaining a full understanding of that truth may take work to comprehend.
Philosophers have argued over a number of different theories of truth. One theory, termed the pragmatic theory of truth, expresses the idea that an inquiry into what is true ends once a truth is found that is useful. In our running example, we can say that for the purposes of selecting a crayon to use for a child’s drawing, the statement “the sky is blue” should end the inquiry–this statement should be accepted as truth because everyone could agree that it is ideally useful for the task at hand.
However, this statement does not capture the full truth of the question: “What color is the sky?”
A second theory of truth is termed relativism. The idea conveyed by this theory is that a statement can only be judged as truth from within a specific framework or perspective. So in our example, from the kindergarten teacher’s perspective, “The sky is blue” is true, while from the astronaut’s perspective, “The sky is black” is also true, but these truths must be considered independent of each other.
However, again, neither of these statements capture the full truth of the question “What color is the sky?”
A third theory of truth is the correspondence theory, and that is the idea that a statement can only be considered true if it corresponds to a static, fixed reality. Previously, we discussed the idea that the kindergarten teacher might have said “the sky is gray”. Since this statement would not have corresponded with reality, it would have been false.
Many argue that these three theories stand in contradiction to each other, and perhaps at an academic level they do, but for our reverse-engineering exercise of trying to understand God’s truth, we gain value from harmonizing them.
The challenge made to relativism is that it appears to enable someone to invent any truth they want by claiming that they are taking a different perspective. In one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church, he shared wisdom for that church. It would be fair to say that there are significant differences between the culture of that time and place and the culture in our hometown today; therefore, if we take the relativist line of reasoning, in isolation, it could be argued that the wisdom that Paul shared doesn’t apply to us. In fact, a simple extension of this line of reasoning would lead to the argument that none of the wisdom in the Bible should be applied in our own lives today. What might give us pause to think, though, is the fact that God has inspired a multitude of men and women, through the ages, to carefully preserve for us His wisdom as recorded in the pages of Scripture. Why did He do that, if He didn’t intend us to apply it in our lives?
The answer lies in the harmonizing. Moving back to our “What color is the sky” question, we can see that pragmatically true statements can be made from multiple perspectives, but each of these truths derives from a static, fixed reality. In the “What color is the sky?” case, that underlying truth is best described in the language of physics and chemistry. Photons of light are emitted from the sun and other celestial bodies at various wavelengths and these photos interact with the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere in ways that science can now mathematically model with a high degree of accuracy.
One notion that becomes apparent, through this discussion, is that truth is always observed through one specific perspective at a time, but to understand the full nature of that truth, we need to step out of the box of that perspective and consider many other perspectives. In our search for God’s truth, we can find many such perspectives in the many different books of the Bible. But it may take work, and thought, to discern the underlying, corresponding truth of God revealed through those books.
In Genesis 28:20 we learn that Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” If we assumed the correspondence theory alone, and ignored perspective, we might read into this that the Lord is perfectly fine with us negotiating with Him, and that it is just fine for us to demand that God provide specific value to us before we accept Him as our Lord. However, if we look at a different perspective, from a different time and place in Biblical history, we can find another exchange between a man and the Lord: And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:18-20). Here Zechariah was essentially asking for nothing more than a brief explanation before placing full trust in the Lord, and he was punished for it. Arguably, a contradictory wisdom is expressed between these two passages.
However, once we consider the different perspectives, the contradictions go away. Zechariah was a trained priest who had the benefit of the teachings and writing of Moses and all the prophets to help guide his understanding of who God is, and to understand the relationship that God sought with the Israelite nation. Jacob, on the other hand had none of these. He lived in a multi-theistic culture and likely had only the stories told to him by his own father to guide his simple understanding of this one, specific god that spoke to him. An underlying truth that we can draw from these two stories might be that God knows us and meets us where we are in faith, and another is that he expects more from those who have been given more: a similar lesson to that expressed by the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).
Another notion becomes apparent once we stop to consider why we are so interested in the truth of God. The answer, of course, is that we seek to understand God and his wisdom because we wish to apply His wisdom to our own lives. But in the end, it is only pragmatic truth that is actually applied, and applied in our own cultural context. So truth is not found in plainly false statements, truth is not found in a superficial understanding of statements or events taken from a singular perspective, and truth is not something we can make up to suit our will. Truth is revealed through multiple perspectives, one facet at a time, and it may take work, courage, and perseverance to set aside our own perspective so that we may gain a fuller understanding.