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truth Matters – letter to Bethany

16 Jun 2010

A few years ago, Christian friends of ours asked me to write a letter about “truth” to their daughter who was graduating from high school.  They asked many of their and her friends to write on various topics and compiled the letters into a book for their daughter.

I thought I would post my letter to Bethany here because it summarizes my approach to truth (for a Christian audience).

truth Matters[1]

Dear Bethany,

While I don’t feel I know you very well, I have appreciated the few chances I have had to talk with you and get to know you some – including the honor of observing your recent baptism.  I also appreciate your friendship with my daughters.  And I am excited for you as you head out – to grab and enjoy life, and to make a difference – starting with your year on the ship.  Your parents asked me to write ONE page on “truth matters” – to be part of your “Life Lessons” book.  Impossible, but here goes.

truth matters more than anything else.  I don’t want to believe anything – from the trivial (Topeka is the capital of Kansas.) to the life-changingly important (Jesus came back to life after he died.) – unless it is really true – unless it corresponds with reality.  Pursuing truth is the most basic foundation of my faith / worldview / philosophy / way I live my life.

But we have a problem.  We are finite and fallible.  So, how do we get at truth?  How do we know we know truth?[2]

Let’s take a look at history.[3]  For a long time before the Enlightenment, many thought we could know truth simply by listening to what God says – through the Bible and the Church.  A great idea!  Who can speak with more authority than the Creator of everything?

But then people like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and others (who were Christians) started discovering truths – like the Earth moving around the Sun, elliptical orbits of planets, Sun spots, etc. – that contradicted the “truths” of Scripture.  This did not bother these guys – they merely saw the need to reinterpret certain passages of Scripture based on their discoveries.  However, this did bother some in the Church quite a bit.  In 1633, the Church put Galileo on trial for heresy – forcing him to say that the Earth did not move.

This new way of looking at things (basically Francis Bacon’s inductive scientific method) was pretty radical at the time and resulted in quite a bit of scientific progress.  Many Christians, like Galileo, saw the scientific method as compatible with God and his revealed truth in the Scriptures.  However, others saw these developments as a reason to reject the idea of God and divine revelation, “Hey, we are pretty good on our own at figuring how things work and how things got to be the way they are.  Who needs God anyway?”

Centuries later postmodernists started suggesting that maybe we had been a bit (or more than a bit) too sure of ourselves and arrogant in our claims to knowledge of truth.  They pointed out how trapped we are by our language, culture and groups.  They questioned if truth was accessible – or even existed in any meaningful sense.  They wondered if language was only self-reflexive – the way groups construct meaning for themselves – rather than referring to any reality.

Why the history?  I think that by going backwards through this history – by successively taking on board and applying the correctives of later thought to earlier thought – we may come up with our best shot at a good, working epistemology (theory of knowing) that can be the basis of our pursuit of truth.

So, we start out with the lessons of postmodernism – our limitations, the real ways our language, culture, group, etc. affects how we see and understand ourselves, the universe and everything.  We can’t help but recognize the sense of – and accept the reality of – these limitations.  But it seems that these limitations do not necessarily lead to a self-referential morass – it seems we can get at least some partially accurate ideas of what is around us.  The evidence for this is that, much of the time, it works.  Given their scientific and technological achievements, it seems the Enlightenment thinkers were onto something.

Even if complete and fully accurate truth is not accessible to us, perhaps it is approachable.  Given who we are, could we, ironically, come closer to truth by holding onto it less dogmatically – by wanting truth more than certainty?  I am not advocating gullibility or drifting with any wave or current that comes along.  Rather, I would suggest a way of knowing that is realistically aware of our cultural, historic, linguistic situatedness and boundedness, that is willing to listen and consider, and that sees this critical exchange between the knower, other knowers, and the stuff to be known as a way of approaching, or spiraling in on truth.  Some would call this a critical realist epistemology.

At this point, I would suggest that we sometimes equivocate in our usage of the word “truth”.  One way we use “truth” is to describe a statement that corresponds with reality – let’s use truth (small t) for this meaning.  But we also use it to refer to a worldview or system that puts together and makes sense out of truths.  Let’s use Truth (capital T) for this meaning.  Disambiguating our usage can, among other things, help us make more sense out of statements like, “That’s True for you, but not True for me.”

We all, consciously or unconsciously, adopt a system, worldview, faith, religion, or way of looking at things – a Truth.  Some simply accept what parents and/or society orders or recommends.  Many others spend at least some time (and some of us a lot more time) searching – considering, analyzing, constructing, deconstructing, adopting, abandoning, and tweaking worldviews.  While we accept our limitations in perceiving truths, and admit the significant role of emotions and experiences, a core part of our search is an attempt to figure out what worldview has the best “fit” with all we “know” about “life, the universe and everything” – what Truth most elegantly incorporates all truths and resonates most deeply with all of who we are.

Then, as we go through life and come across new information, how do we evaluate it?  What do we ask first? “Is this true?”  (Does it correspond with reality?)  Or:  “Is this True?”  (Does this fit nicely with my adopted world view?)  Of course it is not all as simple as this and you could rightly accuse me of presenting a false dilemma.  However, I hope my point is clear – as expressed in the title of this letter – “truth Matters”.  It is much easier to simply throw out new information that does not fit nicely, than to carefully evaluate its truth and consider its implications.  Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (New and Old Testament professors, respectively), in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, tell of students who, when beginning study of a difficult Bible passage, don’t ask “What does this mean?”, but rather want to know how to explain it away or make it fit with their theology.

And this takes us back to Galileo, the Church, and listening to God.  Many Christians decided to become followers of Jesus and adopt a Christian worldview through a process like the one described two paragraphs above.  One integral part of a Christian worldview is the scripture that informs it.  Thus, having recognized the scripture-informed worldview’s fit with reality, I continue to explore – “listen to” – both God’s works (creation) and God’s word (scripture) in appropriate ways – and, as necessary, change or tweak my worldview.

Both Galileo and the Church were listening to God.  However, Galileo allowed his understanding of God’s works to tweak his understanding (interpretation) of God’s word.  The Catholic Church did not – at that time.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Catholic Church lessened its opposition to heliocentrism and eventually removed Galileo’s and Copernicus’ books from their Index of Forbidden Books.  But it was not until 1992 that Pope John Paul II formally admitted that the Church had been wrong in condemning him.  Galileo and the others didn’t get everything right either, but they clearly saw their work as scientists as “listening to” God.  Johannes Kepler spoke of his astronomy as “thinking God’s thoughts after him”.  Francis Bacon wrote that no one could be “too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works”.  (Interestingly, this quote was included in the frontispiece of the first edition of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.)  Today, although many see science and faith as necessarily clashing, many see them having a complementary relationship.  For example, check out Francis Collin’s new project – biologos.org

One more bit of history, if you will allow me.  In the second half of the 20th century, many, at least in America, became disillusioned with modernism on a personal level (as opposed to postmodernism’s philosophical challenges).  Sure, it was great to figure out how we and the universe evolved.  And how to mass produce fast cars and all sorts of other fun stuff.  And how to nuke our enemies.  And even how things like love and morals “really” work (just chemicals in the brain or societal constructs).  But something was missing.  Thus, many started to explore and pursue spirituality.  This was not so much a pursuit of religion – as that had clearly been debunked by Enlightenment thinking – but a searching for “something more”, for deeper meaning, purpose, etc.  More recently, in perhaps an admission of this lack in the traditional, naturalist worldview, we see the full-of-wonder atheists/agnostics amazed at the vastness and surprising mechanisms of our “determined” universe.

I think this is another way that a Christian worldview “fits” and makes sense of our experience of reality.  A personal God creating humans in his own image, and giving them free will.  Wanting a relationship with them, but allowing them to walk away.  Desiring them to come back, and providing a way, but not forcing them.  Leaving hints and echoes – beauty, music, desire, love, justice, poetry – in and around them.  Hoping for reconciliation. . .

In some way, I believe, God does interact with us personally – usually not in a “parting of the Red Sea” kind of undeniable clarity – but in both small and deep ways that resonate with our being both comfortingly and challengingly.  The Unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit desires to bring all of us and our diversity into the celebrating unity (not uniformity) of his love.  And, while I adopt, adapt, and live out a Jesus’ Kingdom worldview, I have faith in a person (not a system) – faith in God himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Well, Bethany, thank you for plowing through all three pages.  I am sure that there are parts that you might not understand, appreciate, or agree with.  But this explains a lot of where I am coming from.  And this is how I want to challenge you – and other young people who want to follow Jesus today.  truth Matters.  I hope I have given you some things to think about – both for now and the future.

I wish you God’s blessings and all the best as you enter the adventure of adult life – exploring and enjoying the beauty and diversity of all the things, the life, and the people God has made, and as you do, finding ways to make a unique difference wherever you go!

Peace.

-John MacLean


[1] As I just reviewed this (Mar, 2013) – several years after writing it, I noticed that I at times confound modernism and enlightenment, and I don’t mention modernism as a reaction to both enlightenment and romanticism –and romanticism’s reaction to enlightenment.  Also, I am sure that, if I revised this, there would be other ways I would want to change it as well.

[2] We could go on to ask more basic questions.  How do we know we are not in the Matrix?  Or a brain in a vat being poked by an evil demon?  But we will have to discuss Skepticism another time.

[3] I emphasize that what I am saying here is VERY rough – it couldn’t be otherwise in a few pages.  History and knowledge and life are much more complex.  Also, some of the framing of this comes from the beginning of NT Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God.  I would also recommend Hummel’s The Galileo Connection and a chapter in NT Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus – “Walking to Emmaus in a Postmodern World”.  Also, DA Carson in The Gagging of God, while challenging the conclusions of postmodernism, discusses the valid ways it challenges the arrogant hubris of modernism.

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