The truth about truth

Jesus Christ has always been a controversial figure. Take John 18:33-38, for example, when Jesus is addressing Pilate. He says that he came into the world to speak about reality, and everyone who listens to him knows the truth. This is controversial because Jesus is saying that if you don’t listen to him, you’re deceiving yourself. You are a fool. It is difficult to be neutral in the face of such a statement!

My observation is that in our current ideological climate, truth is not really an objective reality as much as it is an experienced reality. There are no absolutes. But this is not a new concept. The idea of there being no absolutes has been around for a long time, initially referring to moral absolutes. What is often called ‘modern thought’ rejects the idea of moral absolutes when it comes to there being a moral God. And because society wants to reject the concept of a moral God, it tries to explain morality as something that changes from culture to culture and context to context. And post-modernism is then a way of extending this modernist thinking, to the concept of truth. No longer are we talking just about morals, but post-modernism says that there is no objective, absolute truth. And so, what is true for you may not be true for me. I think this has significant consequences for our identity and meaning as people. Let me try and illustrate.

The Western pre-modernist lived in a hierarchical society with strong authority structures and strong traditions. A powerful part of that society was the church, and those at this time had a place in those structures. They recognised, and accepted, the way that things were. They accepted the traditions and authority structures of their society. God was part of their thinking, because it was part of the structure. Knowing your place in a structure, and not rocking the boat, meant that knowledge and truth was passed down from the pre-determined and unquestionable authorities.

The advent of modernist thinking changed education to focus on questioning and challenging the status quo. In the breaking of French aristocracy with ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, the French Revolution perhaps best exemplifies this change in thinking. This changed the landscape about what is true. The modernist doesn’t accept anything as true until it has been proven. Observation, testing, reasoning – science is the great development of modernism, and this is how the modernist knows what is true. God is not in the truth equation as the God hypothesis can’t be tested, humanly speaking. This also has ramifications on life. The past is to be questioned and challenged. And on the basis of what can and can’t be proved, revolution needs to happen. Life is about building a better world based on knowledge and understanding. Don’t just let it be.

However, the post-modernist in the West has witnessed the failure of modernism. All the great hopes of science and technology have not solved our problems. There is complete disillusionment of the power and validity of human reason. And so, there is no such thing as truth. Knowledge is an invention to make sense of the world. The whole modernist understanding of truth has been futile, self- deceptive and oppressive. Why should what you regard as true, be imposed on me? Why is it that what is true in your head should be true in my head? There is no such thing as truth. Again, this changes our lives. Achievement is replaced by performance. The post-modernist is about impressing others. The purpose of life becomes difficult to be able to grasp and it leaves us floating without meaning and all the more prone to ideological crisis.

What about the follower of Jesus? A Christian recognises the validity of certain aspects of pre-modern, modern and post-modern thought, but is unable to hold wholeheartedly to any. God exists, not because of tradition and authority, but because he made himself known clearly in the words of Scripture. The Christian believes that God is the definition of goodness, and that humanity can know and be in right relationship with God. And there are only two options in life – safe in the arms of Jesus, or facing the rightful wrath of the God we have rejected. For truth, this means that it is possible for knowledge to be passed down through history. We do learn from the history of understanding, and from authority structures. It also means that it is a mistake to dismiss something that can’t be proven by science or human logic, because by definition our thinking is finite as finite beings[1]. The Scriptures clearly show the Creator – creation distinction. So, we don’t just accept human tradition and authority for the sake of it, we don’t limit things to what can be proven by human reason, and we don’t pretend that there is no truth at all. The Bible shows all these to be thoroughly flawed.

This changes everything. The only way to understand what is objectively true, is to understand truth from outside of our context. Finite beings are always influenced by our surroundings. It is an inevitability. But Creator God is infinite, objective in character, and in his power has given us truth by speaking to us directly. God is truth. Jesus is truth who lived among us. Jesus allows us to have purpose in life and understand the truth of how God created us to live, by his sacrificial death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Thanks to Jesus, we know our history, our place, our purpose in life, and our ultimate destination. That is a certain hope, it is our assurance. The question is, are we prepared to listen to Him?

[1] That’s not to say that science and human logic have nothing to say about the truth of God.