Over the past few years, I’ve heard several Christian thinkers explain the catastrophic consequences of the current culture’s disregard for truth. And while they do so with a great deal of clarity and insight, rarely do we hear them define the very concept that they claim our culture is apathetic towards. We are hardly ever told what ‘truth’ means.
But why bother defining it before talking about it? Do we need a long-winded philosophical explanation to understand what a mother means when she admonishes her child to “tell the truth”? Or did we think twice about what Colonel Jessup means when he tells Lieutenant Kaffee that the latter can’t “handle the truth”? No. It seems like there is no need to define truth before talking about it. To adapt the words of Justice Stewart, we know it when we hear it. We all mean the same thing when we say it.
Correction: We think we know it when we hear it. We think we all mean the same thing when we use the word. I’m not sure that we do.
The Pontius Pilate Syndrome
One isn’t a warrior unless he knows that which he is defending. And we call ourselves warriors for truth. We boast in our ability to run rings around the self-destructive relativist who denies absolute ‘truth’. We are enraged when Oprah tells people to speak ‘their truth’ rather than ‘the truth’. Most of us decry the postmodernists for devaluing ‘truth’. But when it comes to defining what we mean by ‘truth’, we are no better than Pontius Pilate. We walk away, not troubled by the fact that we have no answer. To be precise, we are worse than the infamous prefect, for unlike him, we do not even bother to raise the question. And when the question is raised for us to answer, we stumble, fumble, and mumble our way to safety. “JESUS is the truth,” we often reply and walk away, not really knowing the meaning of what we just said, in addition to leaving a rather puzzled questioner in our wake.
My goal today is to encourage you to ask Pilate’s question to yourself, before guiding you to what I know to be the most philosophically cogent and biblically sound answer to that question; an answer that begins with categorizing the various conceptions of truth in our world today, and ends at understanding what we mean when we claim that Jesus Himself is the truth.
The Many Conceptions of Truth: Which One is Ours?
The reason why many Christians trivialize the need to define truth is because they fail to realize that not everyone around them defines ‘truth’ in the same way. If one takes into consideration just those individuals who believe that truth exists (there are those who think otherwise), there are those who define truth in terms of coherence; they argue that something is true if and only if it is consistent with the beliefs that one already holds or the knowledge that one already has. There are others who define it in terms of pragmatic value; they argue that something is true (or ‘true enough’) if and only if it is the most useful of all available options (put another way, if ‘it works the best’). This view has attracted significant attention due to the popularity of one of its champions, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who believes that something is true if it has ‘Darwinian utility’ and aids in human survival. And there are others who define truth in terms of correspondence; they argue that something is true if and only if it corresponds to or accurately represents reality. Of these three major perspectives, which one must the Christian hold to?
Ought we to accept the coherence view of truth? This view might be particularly attractive to someone who does not wish to worry about the impossibility of contradictions; a religious pluralist, for example, can say that a certain religious claim is true for the followers of one religion and false for the followers of another. Clearly, a Christian cannot accept such a view; we hold that Christ is the one and only way to God, rather than being one of the many ways who just happens to fit in with the rest of our beliefs. Ought we then to accept the pragmatic/utility-driven view of truth? While Christians might believe that the truth itself has much utility, we do not reduce truth to being merely something useful; once again, we believe that truth is objective, and is not a matter of ‘whatever works best’.
Ought we to accept the correspondence view, then? Firstly, we have a strong philosophical case that urges us to do so. Every other theory of truth is self-defeating when it denies correspondence in favour of its own criteria, for to say, “Truth is not what corresponds to reality” is to make a claim about what reality is like, in other words, it involves asserting that this claim corresponds to a state of affairs in the world. Similarly, saying, “Truth is what works best” or “Truth is that which best coheres with the rest of one’s beliefs” also involves assuming that your claim corresponds to reality as you perceive it. Secondly, we have sufficient scriptural evidence to show that the Bible affirms the idea of an objective truth based on the nature of reality. A perfect example is is 1 Corinthians 15:14-15, which says:
“And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise.”
Put another way, Paul is suggesting that if our claims that Christ was raised from the dead do not correspond with reality, we are spreading falsity. While the Bible might not explicitly ask us to adhere to a certain version of truth, it implicitly assumes the correspondence view throughout. That ought to be good enough reason for Christians to adopt this view as well.
How does our acceptance of a certain theory of truth affect our interactions with non-Christians? For one, it allows us to recognize whether we are using the word ‘truth’ in the same way as them. Defining truth also adds context and clarity to the message that we intend to present about truth. Consider the thesis that we live in a ‘post-truth’ world; whether or not this thesis holds is entirely contingent on the theory of truth that one holds to. A coherentist, for instance, can easily reject this thesis; the “true for you, but not for me” position continues to be popular today. A pragmatist can also reject this thesis, for people are all happy to accept whatever works best or is most useful in the circumstances. We are in a post-truth culture, however, if ‘truth’ is defined as correspondence to reality; facts have no value anymore, and what we call ‘objective truth’ is dismissed as a product of societal power games. A coherentist or a pragmatist will tell you that they care a great deal about ‘truth’ and might dismiss you as an alarmist for claiming that our culture is ‘post-truth’, unless you unequivocally define what you mean by ‘truth’, namely as correspondence to reality.
The Many Kinds of Truth: Are They Equally True?
The fact that all truth involves correspondence to reality does not, however, entail that all truths are of the same kind; for instance, there is a difference between metaphysical truths, scientific truths, moral truths, and aesthetic truths. One does not have to accept the correspondence theory to affirm the existence of these different kinds of truth; Jordan Peterson, for example, regularly refers to the many differences between scientific truth and moral truth. There are many, including pragmatists like Peterson and correspondence theorists like myself, who affirm that these many kinds of truths are on a hierarchy, with some being more important than the others. But on what basis are we placing one kind of truth above another kind in terms of importance? Peterson argues that moral truths are higher than scientific truths because moral truths are ‘more true’ than scientific truths; this is an acceptable position for a pragmatist, for according to them, one thing can be more true than another if it has greater utility. The correspondence theorist cannot affirm this, as all truths, regardless of type, are true for the same reason- they correspond to reality.
On what basis, then, can a correspondence theorist claim that one kind of truth is more important than another?
Consider these four truths:
- Murder is immoral.
- In hockey, slashing an opponent results in a penalty.
- The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than a landfill.
- A MacBook Air weighs three pounds.
Each of these truths is objectively true; they are accurate descriptions of states of affairs in the world. (Unless you think that number 3 is not objectively true. In that case, you’re delusional.) Yet, they do not seem equally important to us; put differently, knowing some of these truths matters more than knowing others.
Of the four, the first is more important in an absolute, context-independent sense. There is no conceivable circumstance in which knowing that murder is immoral does not matter to us, not even when one is playing a hockey game or gazing at the beauty of the Taj Mahal; we take it for granted that it is a truth that is always worth knowing or being aware of. For the sake of convenience, let’s call such truths paramount truths.
The second and third are objectively true, but how much they matter to us varies depending on the context; we do not assume that they are truths always worth knowing or being aware of. For instance, it is more important for someone who is playing a hockey game to know that slashing an opponent leads to a penalty, than it is for them to know that their MacBook at home weighs three pounds. Let’s label such truths that are only worth knowing in certain circumstances as non-paramount truths.
It is clear that paramount truths are more important than non-paramount ones in some objective sense. But by what standard? Why is it the case that some truths (like the immorality of murder or other moral truths) ought to matter to us in all circumstances, while other truths (like aesthetic truths) only in some circumstances?
The answer seems to be consequentialist in nature; we value certain truths more than others because their being true is of greater consequence to how we think, decide, and act. The philosopher Timothy McGrew pointed out to me that we derive this hierarchy of importance for truths from a hierarchy of importance in the order of reality; the lives of human beings matter far more than the relative beauty of a Mughal mausoleum or the weight of a laptop computer, hence truths about the former are higher up on the hierarchy of truths. This correlation between the two hierarchies makes perfect sense if one views truth as corresponding to reality.
Not only does this criterion let us distinguish between paramount and non-paramount truths, but it also lets us rank truths within these two categories. For instance, if ‘God exists’ is true, then it would have to be the greatest of all paramount truths; no other truth would have greater consequences than it, for it describes what Tillich called ‘Being-itself’, or the ground upon which all things exist, including all truths and beings. In the case of non-paramount truths, however, it becomes difficult to rank truths as being objectively more important than the other without the context, because as we’ve defined them, they are essentially context-dependent.
Thus, all truths are equally true, but not all truths are equally important.
Christ the Truth: What Does That Mean?
What, then, do we mean when we say, ‘Christ is the truth’? I have often heard it said that it means that Jesus is ‘the definition’ of truth. I’m not sure that most people who say that actually know what that’s even supposed to mean. Surely, our takeaway from “I am the truth” is not that Christ is identical to the dictionary definition of ‘truth’, just as we don’t believe that Jesus is a hinged, sliding, or revolving barrier used at entrances, a tree with branches that can be cut off, or a food item made of flour, water, and yeast, despite Jesus’ claiming to be all those things at some point in the Bible.
Instead, we understand all of the above ‘I Am’ statements as Jesus using common objects like doors, vines, bread, and shepherds, or common concepts like light, to reveal something about His divine nature. “I am the door”, when read in context, is intended to communicate that He is the only way to salvation and eternal life (John 10:9), and “I am the true vine” is intended to highlight our need to remain rooted in Christ in order for our actions to bear any fruit (John 15:5).
Putting together this general trend of Christ’s use of ‘I Am + [common object/concept]’ in Scripture, together with our understanding of truth as correspondence to reality, we can derive an interpretation of “I am…the truth” that is consistent with how we interpret all of the other ‘I Am’ statements, namely as glimpses into Christ’s divine nature.
God is the ground of all being, the sole source of all reality. If He is the sole source of all reality, and if truth is whatever corresponds to reality, then it follows that God is also the author of all truth; for it is His creating and sustaining reality as it is that determines what the truth that corresponds to it ought to be. Furthermore, this entails that He alone is capable of perceiving and knowing all of reality, which further entails that He alone is capable of describing or revealing reality in a manner that is entirely accurate and indubitably trustworthy. Put another way, His description of reality is the only one that is guaranteed to correspond to reality as it exists; that is, His revelation is the truth, given that truth is whatever corresponds to reality.
It was this revelation, this truth, that was revealed to the prophets at sundry times and diverse manners, and delivered to our fathers; an infallible message that God preserved in spite of the fallibility of the men who delivered it. In these last days, however, He chose to not only speak, but to reveal Himself to us; the Word, through whom all things were made in the beginning, became flesh and dwelt among us. Because of the Incarnation, we no longer have need for middlemen, for we have the source of all reality revealing to us reality as it exists; the source of truth directly revealing those of His thoughts that He wished to be made known to us. He came to reveal the One that no eye but His has seen, the One with whom He is one, and the One only He can make known (John 1:18, 6:46).
It makes perfect sense, then, for Christ to say, “I am the truth.” He wasn’t claiming to be the property by virtue of which propositions correspond to reality; He was claiming something greater. Like every other ‘I Am’ statement, He was granting us a glimpse into His divine nature; in this case, a glimpse into His role as the author of reality and determiner of truth itself. He was identifying Himself to be one with the One, the purest revelation of the One in bodily form, and the only path of access to the One.
The next day, He stood before a man who asked Him the very question He was the answer to, but did not wait to hear that answer. He did give the answer, however, merely a few hours after that, as He hung on that cross moments after giving up His ghost. For centuries before that, the purest form of the truth lay on two tablets of stone, engraved by the fiery fingers of God Himself, enclosed within a wooden box in a room surrounded by a veil that hindered any man from venturing in. With His last breath on that cross, however, He tore that veil apart, and with His arms outstretched, welcomed all men to partake of the Truth; found not on a pair of missing stone tablets, but in Him and Him alone. Three days later, He defanged death, conquered the grave, and led captivity captive. Or as James Stewart of Scotland put it:
“The very triumphs of His foes, He used for their defeat. He compelled their dark achievements to subserve His end, not theirs. They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to His feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King come in. They thought to root out His doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had defeated God with His back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated: they did not know that it was God Himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.“
That is what the Truth is capable of. Perhaps Colonel Jessup was right. You can’t handle the Truth. Or at least you can’t bury it.
So, what is truth? We are often too impatient to wait for an answer, not realizing that the answer came to us. Truth is that which conforms to reality as God knows it. Truth is that which conforms to reality as God has revealed it to us. And Truth embodied is in God’s revelation of Himself to us, through His only-begotten Son. The love demonstrated in His death and the power demonstrated in His resurrection makes the Truth impossible for us to ignore. It makes sense, now, for us to lament our culture’s apathy towards truth; for they are not just ignoring a property of a proposition, but the source of all reality. One cannot get there, however, with relativism or pragmatism or coherentism. We must start with the fundamental idea of correspondence to reality, and end at the one who is both the one path and the one destination, the Truth Himself.
These are three blog posts on reason, human nature, and types of truth that I read a while ago on a blog called The Interminable Socratic. I found them to be interesting, illuminating, and unquestionably worth reading. Do take a look at them when you have the time.
- Reason and Human Nature (Part I)
- Reason and Human Nature (Part II): Subjective and Objective Truth
- Reason and Human Nature (Part III): Indicative and Imperative Truth
Special thanks to Timothy McGrew, Joshua Rasmussen, Seth Baker, Jordan Peralta, and Esther O’Reilly for helping me sort out my thoughts on weighing various kinds of truth against each other, and to Ruth Eckman for allowing me to link her excellent blog posts under the ‘Additional Reading’ section.