A student of mine once commented, “We don’t know which religion is true, so we might as well just believe in what we want and be happy!” This statement captures well a very popular idea today. It basically says that there really is no such thing as truth, and even if there is, no one can really know it. This idea calls into question the very foundation of being able to talk about God and knowing things about him, or doing what we call “theology.”
Before we can “do” theology, it is first helpful to understand that there is such a thing as truth and it can be known. Truth and knowledge are essential and are foundational to theology. Without them, theology itself becomes just an exercise in stating someone’s opinion versus another. In fact, it would be like playing a meaningless game in which two opponents are blindfolded and asked to find their way through a maze—and the maze does not even have an end! If there is no truth or knowledge, there is no correct theology. If there is no correct theology, then there is no final conclusion on anything about God—just like the maze that has no end.
The study of theology, however, assumes to describe accurately the basic teachings of Christianity. It is a study in knowing what is true about God, his creation, and so forth. Therefore, in this post we begin by addressing these concepts that provide the foundation for our study of theology. This post in a particular concerns the idea of truth. In subsequent posts we will look at how truth relates to theology and then to the idea of knowledge.
What is Truth?
When Jesus was handed over to the Roman governor Pilate to be tried and then crucified, Jesus commented, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37; ESV; emphasis added). Pilate did not waste a moment, but replied with the very important question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).
Relative v. Objective. Have you ever attempted to answer this question—what is truth? How would you begin? As we saw above, many people today think truth is whatever you think is true. In other words, truth is relative to the person. This concept of truth, or relativism, makes truth dependent upon what a person thinks, feels, or believes. What is true for some is not true for others according to this view. If you think that Jesus is Lord, then that is true for you. Someone else, however, may not believe that Jesus is Lord, and thus it is true for him that Jesus is not Lord. Therefore, if relativism is true, then the idea that “Jesus is Lord” depends upon who you are.
Critiquing Relativism. Is relativism a good way to describe truth? There are a few ways to consider whether such an idea is a good one. To begin, think about how most people use the word “truth.” Imagine a child who broke his mother’s most cherished antique vase. “Tell me the truth,” says the mother to her child. “Did you break the vase?” Is the mother asking whether the child believes or feels whether he broke the vase? If so, the child could easily avoid any consequences of breaking the vase by saying, “My truth is that I believe and feel that I did not break the vase.” The mother, however, is not asking what the child believes, thinks, or feels, is she? Rather, she is asking if her child in fact broke the vase apart from how he feels or thinks about it. In other words, she is asking how the world really is and what events really took place.
From this simple example, we see that truth is not relative to the person but is objective—the way the world really is apart from a person’s perception, feelings, or thoughts. It also means that something is true for everyone in all places. For example, the sky is blue during a sunny day for everyone in all places apart from what anyone perceives individually. Now, it may be true that some people may not perceive or think the sky as blue for some reason or another, but this does not mean the sky is not in fact blue on a sunny day. People’s perceptions, feelings, and even thoughts can be incorrect.
Another way to think about this concept is to say that truth is that which corresponds to the way the world really is. This is known as the correspondence theory of truth. The statement “the child broke the vase” is true if and only if that statement corresponds to what occurred in the real world. If the child broke the vase, then the statement is true. If the child did not break it, then the statement is false.
One implication that follows from the concept that truth is objective, or corresponds to reality, is that truth is absolute, or unchanging. Although it is popular to use the term “absolute” for the term “objective,” it seems better to reserve “absolute” for the idea that truth is unchanging. This means that “1+1” will always equal “2”, and that “’God exists” will always be true. Objective truth is absolute; it never changes.
Consider another approach on how to discern whether relativism is a good way to think about truth. If we were to think just a little more deeply about the statement “truth is relative to the person,” we find that it makes no sense. Why? Because the idea that truth is relative is actually making an objective claim! To understand this, we can rephrase it just a bit: “it is objectively true that truth is relative.” Think about that statement for a moment. The person who makes such a claim has worked himself into a difficulty: is it objectively true that truth is relative? If so, then truth is not really relative—at least one truth would not be, namely, that truth is relative! If it is not objectively true that truth is relative, then we can ignore the statement because it is not true for everyone!
The problem here is that the idea that truth is relative is a self-defeating statement or belief. It makes a claim which cannot be true if applied to itself. To illustrate this using another example, consider the statement “it is wrong to think that right and wrong exists.” Is this phrase making a claim that cannot be true if applied to itself? Of course it is. To see this clearly, we need only ask, “Is it right or wrong that no right and wrong exists?” If it is right that “no right or wrong exists,” then obviously right actually exists, namely, that “no right or wrong exists!” If it is wrong that “no right or wrong exists,” then obviously the statement is false because wrong exists!
In summary, we see that truth is objective, not relative. This has implications for how we do theology. In the next post we will see how this is so.