The Inescapable Problem of Truth

The Inescapable Problem of Truth

In 2000 years, the fundamental conflict between those who follow Jesus (i.e. the church), and the rest of the world can be summed up in the brief exchange between Jesus and Pilate found in John 18:36-38:

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  “What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Jesus came to testify to the truth, or in other words to reveal what was actually the case about God and his kingdom, the world, and man’s relationship to both. His purpose for the church was to continue this “testifying” work in order to accomplish the mission of God, who “wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3).

How crucial it is then that Christ’s followers accurately conceive of what a Christian is. Someone who believes in Jesus? Well…yes, but don’t forget that “even the demons believe…and shudder” (James 4:19). More than just believing, a Christian is someone who has come to know what is actually true about God and his kingdom, the world and themselves in relation to both. That knowledge is grounded in our relationship to Jesus Christ who himself embodies and is “the truth”. (cf. John 14:6) The Christian therefore has entered into a new kind of living characterized by conformity to what they know to be true in Christ. Having come to know what is true, we now live as witnesses to the truth, and we do this with gentleness and respect; through compassion and mercy.

Truth in the 21st Century:

As Christians then, the nature of the conflict in our time (as with any time) is reflected in Pilate’s response to Jesus: “What is truth?” One possibility is that Pilate simply didn’t care about truth. He was happy with his life as it was and didn’t want any change that a confrontation with truth might force. And so it may be for many who we engage with in our culture. They’ve carved out a life that is working for them and they have what they want, so why mess with that? Unfortunately, while we may be able to get what we want for a time, truth has a way of forcing itself upon us. I may have built my dream life now, but no matter what I do I will not be able to hang on to it. Eventually, everything in life gets taken away, either by the fickle whims of “fortune” or the steady march of time. I may not want to deal with truth, but inevitably truth will deal with me.

The other possibility is that Pilate simply didn’t believe that truth existed or if it did could ever be known. In that case his response was a skeptical response, and one that certainly reflects the growing attitude of many in our culture. In his seminal work The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom diagnosed in 1987 a condition of the then emerging generation that has come to maturity in the 21st century. He states:

“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” (p. 25-26)

 Truth Has Become Relative:

To say that truth is relative is to say that it finds no basis in objective reality. In other words, it is true only for the person or group who believe it. For example, a rather large segment of the population would say that Coke is better than Pepsi. In fact, we could imagine a possible state of affairs in which every person in Canada believes that Coke is better than Pepsi. And so, if we made the statement “Coke is better than Pepsi”, all Canadians would agree that this was a true statement. Its truth value, however, would be subject only to those who held it; in this case all Canadians.

But now let’s say a new generation of Pepsi loving Canadians emerges and begins influencing the culture so that in 100 years time there are no more Canadians who think Coke is better than Pepsi. So now the truth about people’s love of soft drinks has reversed itself. This is because the truth was relative to begin with; relative only to those who believed it so that once they were gone, so was their truth.

Now, this is fairly uncontroversial when speaking about soft drinks, but what if we begin talking about other beliefs, like the belief that it’s wrong to murder? If truth is relative, then the best we can say is that murder is wrong “for me”. Or, as some cultural relativist want to say, it is wrong “for our society”. But can we really say that? If we do, then why do we make such efforts and commit resources to stop oppressive regimes like the Taliban, or oppose countries whose rulers commit acts of genocide? Why don’t we just stop and say, “well, we don’t like it but I guess they’ve found their own truth, and who are we to impose?” The reason is that we intuitively know that there are some truths that cannot be relative. Some things are true for all people, in all places, for all times. Another way of putting it is that some truths are objectively true; in other words true regardless of whether people believe it or not.

The Fallacy of Relative Truth:

The fact is, objective truth does exist. This has been the foundational assumption of mankind for his entire history until very recently. Yes, man’s history has been riddled with conflict over truth, but that conflict was concerning disagreements over its content, not its existence. And the reason why man assumed that truth existed to be found was that truth is inescapable. Its existence cannot be denied. Allow me to explain why.

When someone tries to affirm the relativity of truth, they are in essence saying that truth is in the eye of the beholder. This is popularly affirmed by such statements as: “You’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine.” Or as postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty puts it: “Truth is made rather than found.”1 But can this be true? Rorty’s very assertion is hopelessly flawed because by it he claims to make an assertion about truth that is not “made up”, but is objectively true. He wants all people in all places for all time to hold as true the fact that truth is “made rather than found”. In other words, all truth is relative, except for the truth that all truth is relative. That truth, he wants us to believe, is REALLY true. Simply put, the claim is self refuting because it affirms the very thing it seeks to deny.

The Inconsistency of Relative Truth:

Not only does espousing relative truth suffer a fatal logical flaw, it is also hopelessly unworkable in practice. Let’s take an extreme example for illustration purposes and assert that ‘torturing babies for fun is truly wrong’. Again, measured against our moral perceptions this seems undeniably true. (i.e. true for all people in all places at all times). Someone may object however, and say that some ancient cultures like the Vikings did torture babies for fun (although the onus is on them to demonstrate historically that this was indeed the case). Even if that were true, this does nothing to invalidate our assertion. That society ‘X’ does a thing does nothing to negate our intuition that always tells us ‘torturing babies for fun is truly wrong’. From any such example would it not be more reasonable to affirm that society ‘X’ acted out of moral deficiency, moral blindness or irrationality than to suppose that their actions in some way validate the moral rightness of torturing babies for fun?2 After all, if it didn’t then we would have no grounds to condemn acts like the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews, or any other horrible crimes.

The fact is that the common experience of humanity clearly points toward the existence of objective truth. In the Appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis catalogues the recorded moral laws from known cultures across the ages and observes the emergence of a common set of codes, most notably:

  • Don’t kill the innocent
  • Don’t cause unnecessary pain and suffering
  • Don’t cheat or steal
  • Keep your promises and honor your contracts
  • Don’t deprive people of their freedom
  • Uphold justice
  • Tell the truth
  • Help others
  • Obey just laws

While such observations do not necessarily take us directly to the existence of the God of the Bible, what they do do is illustrate by historical evidence what we ourselves know through experience: we know that some things are truly good/right and some things are truly evil/wrong. That is, they are true for all people in all places for all time. Even the thoughtful atheist cannot deny this. In his book, Ethics Without God, atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen states the following:

“It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [as wife beating and child abuse] to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil…I firmly believe that his is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.”3

Atheists like Nielsen argue that one does not need religion to come to such a conclusion, but to merely be a thoughtful and reflective person. Indeed, we could agree and observe that many atheists are very moral people; of this there is little doubt. But it isn’t that an atheist can be a moral person that is in question; rather that one can justify the existence of objective moral truth on an atheistic stance. We haven’t sufficient space here to discuss why an atheistic stance fails to support the existence of objective moral truth, but suffice for now we may simply state that it does because it fails to provide the necessary ontology (theory of the nature of reality) for objective moral truth, and we will see this when we reflect upon what moral truth in particular is.

How is Truth Best Explained?

In their book, Relativism: Feel Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl note the following four observations regarding moral truth:

  1. Moral rules exist, but they are not physical things.
  2. Moral rules are a kind of communication
  3. Moral rules convey obligation
  4. Breaking moral rules results in guilt.

When one makes the following observations about moral truth, it is hard to escape the need for a mind in order to explain its existence. Moral rules exist as thoughts communicated between minds. But not just between living people who share in society. Consider that a moral law like “thou shall not murder” was written in the Bible almost 2500 years ago. Someone holding this law to be true recorded it in writing, but then they and the society they lived in eventually died. Now, 2500 years later we pick up a Bible and read those words and we too come to the conviction that this moral law is true. Yes, the words written on the paper are physically passed down to us, but the truth idea behind them is an immaterial thing that has also survived 2500 years of time between transmissions. To do so, not only does the writing survive, but the idea that the writing represents survives so that its moral force is perceived and felt by the person who receives it 2500 years after it was written. That means that this moral truth exists independent of the people who happen to believe it. If an idea can survive 2500 years of history between two minds capable of holding it to be true then the question becomes, “where does this idea exist between minds?” The answer must be that it continues to exist in another mind; a mind that does not begin and end, for where else can an idea exist? The Christian response is that the truth: “murder is wrong” exists eternally in God’s mind. The reason our minds can grasp it is because it is a communication from God’s mind that can be grasped by our minds, being made as we are in the image of God.

God also becomes the best explanation for why moral rules carry a force of obligation. On atheism there is no personality in the universe; it is simply eternal impersonal matter. On a naturalistic view of the universe, moral truth cannot carry obligation because there is no person to whom we can feel obligated. Obligation can only be had between persons. Why shouldn’t we murder? The naturalist’s only answer is that we have developed a sense that murder is wrong because natural selection favored that trait as more advantageous to survival.4 But on this view our sense of obligation is merely an illusion foisted upon us by natural selection, when really it is simply advantageous to survival. But couldn’t we be justified in murdering if we determine that doing so in some cases would actually be more advantageous to survival? And since we now know that moral obligation is simply a “trick” of natural selection, can’t we just do what we want since we know it isn’t really wrong? We quickly see that without God, any moral sense of actual truth evaporates.

But in fact we really do feel obligation to follow moral truth. The reason we do on the Christian view is that we are obligated to God to follow that truth because he has made us to reflect his image, and God by his very nature is a perfect moral being. As his Creation, we are made by him and for him and therefore are obligated to reflect his perfect moral character. And it is for this reason that when we do not we feel real moral guilt. Not because we have broken some arbitrary set of rules that could have been otherwise if God had just decided to make some different rules, but because we have actually committed a real moral offense against God’s very being. To break a moral rule is not to break something held in the abstract; it is to commit an offense against a person, namely God. This is why, like children who feel guilty when disobeying their parents, we cannot escape the guilt that comes with breaking God’s moral commands; sometimes to the point of deep personal breakdown and pain.

Conclusion:

Relativism is essentially the denial that truth exists. The problem with relativism is that in order to stand as a valid position, it must affirm the very thing it seeks to deny…it wants to be understood as REALLY TRUE. The existence of truth therefore seems inescapable. What is more it seems to be supported by the evidence of human history, and is coherent with human experience.

There is a real battle for truth taking place in our culture today, and a large part of that battle is the perpetuation of the idea that claims to truth lead to oppression, dogma and control. But the problem is not with the existence of truth, but with man’s sinful desire to be the sole determiner of truth. That has been his problem from the beginning.

The TRUTH is, we have nothing to fear from truth. We don’t need coercion to uphold it, because truth is self-authenticating. Truth cannot be used to oppress people because real truth is liberating. As Jesus taught us:

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

If you are a Christian, be encouraged by the fact that in Christ you have been brought into a living knowledge of the Truth, and in the Scriptures as God’s revelation you possess a body of true knowledge about God, the world and your life in relationship to both. True living, therefore, is found when you re-order you life according to His truth. And the greatest need your friends and family have is to be presented with the message and person of Jesus Christ AS the truth. Taking this position may not make you popular, but remember Jesus’ encouragement: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

If you are not a Christian, you may disagree with much of what has been said here. In that case I would happily invite questions or challenges out of a genuine desire to discover the truth. (Obviously if you disagree with me you think what I have written is “not true”). But I would also encourage you to consider for yourself the invitation that Jesus made in the light of what has been discussed here. If truth is really inescapable; and truth is truly self-authenticating; and truth is truly liberating; then openly and honestly pursuing Jesus Christ who claims to BE THE TRUTH means that discovering him, [IOW who he truly is] will mean discovering a reality that is inescapable, where you will find his truth to be self-authenticating, and where you will find life in relationship to him to be truly liberating. I will conclude that thought with Jesus own words:

Matthew 11:28-29 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

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[1]Albert Mohler, “Truth and Contemporary Culture,” in Whatever Happened to Truth, ed. Andreas Kostenberger, 53-73. (Wheaton, Ill, Crossways, 2005), 58.

[2]Louis Pojman, “A Critique of Ethical Relativism” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings 5th Edition, ed. Louis P. Pojman, 38-51, (Belmont, CA, Wadsworth, 2007), 47.

[3]Kai Nielsen, Ethics Without God, (Buffalo, NY, Prometheus Books, 1990), 10-11.

[4]The naturalist may try to appeal to genetic causes for holding beliefs like “torturing babies for fun is wrong”, or at least the more general moral sense that such things are wrong. Appealing to physical causes is of course their only play since on their view of reality, what else can be appealed to. Much fanfare has been made in the recent past about advances in evolutionary psychology claiming that DNA research has discovered the physical genetic causes behind moral beliefs. For all their optimistic claims about discovering the genetic cause for psychological beliefs however, evolutionary psychology over the past twenty years has failed to produce any real evidence. (See my: The Myth of Evolutionary Psychology and How Our Minds Evolve, 2012) But, let’s just suppose for argument’s sake that a physical cause could be traced; that in fact a gene could be found for the belief that “torturing babies for fun is wrong”. That still would not solve the problem in explaining how a physical cause (i.e. a gene) could produce a non-physical effect (i.e. an idea). Also, even if one day a physical cause for our moral belief (“torturing babies for fun is wrong”) could be found, how would that in any way be evidence against the objective nature of moral truth? One could just as easily maintain that a genetic cause for moral beliefs in humans is simply the sign that man as God’s physical creation is adequately designed to function in a universe that contains objective moral truth; that that unique genetic design feature differentiates us from the animal world and makes us uniquely suited as physical/spiritual beings to live in moral relationship with one another and with God?

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