Monday, March 5, 2012

What is Truth?

In his response to the uproar over Rush Limbaugh’s recent incendiary comments, John J. DeGioia, President of Georgetown University, cited the words of St. Augustine:

“Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us.”

With the combination of political rhetoric, massive amounts of available information on the Internet (which may or may not be verifiable), the ability to edit Internet-based videos, and number of other assaults on our thinking, truth becomes an elusive prize. Often what we believe is true is what we prefer to be true. Verification is a lot of work. Just because it’s on YouTube doesn’t make it true.

We Christians struggle with the idea of truth. We believe our scriptures to reveal truth, but we draw firm lines when it comes to the language that describes how scripture’s authority is described (infallible, inerrant, authoritative, and so on). We sometimes insist that one descriptor over another must be affirmed in order for orthodox faith to be grasped as true.

We believe that God is source of all truth. We believe Jesus when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Yet we are puzzled when Jesus doesn’t respond to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). It might have been helpful if Jesus had supplied a precise definition rather than remaining silent.

To suggest that truth cannot be fully grasped sometimes results in accusations of relativism or postmodern subjectivism. Yet here is one of Christianity’s most profound thinkers telling us that truth must be sought without arrogance, and that it might not yet be known.

We have to be careful about believing that we can fully grasp truth. If we believe that God is the source of all things true, then it has to follow that truth cannot be fully grasped by human beings, since God cannot be fully grasped by us. If we claim to have a hold on the truth (as in our precise theories of the atonement, the authority of scripture, science vs the Bible, and so on), then we might think that we can canonize our views and stop talking to anyone with a different view from ours (except to fight with them). We might also run the risk, having locked down our version of truth, of no longer really needing God. The god of our own perceptions is a sorry replacement.

The people of God have a long history of nailing down their perception of truth and then having to change directions. We are not exempt from that process. As Augustine suggested, the pursuit of truth is something that we do together, in community, and with people who see things differently. That’s a tough business, and it requires humility and civility. And from what we see in public discourse, those two qualities appear to be in short supply.

It occurs to me that, in the Bible, the words “seek” and “truth” often go together.

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