What is truth?

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

What is truth?

June 14, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando  {0312}

NOTE:  A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, "What is truth (John 18:38)?" Whether asked cynically or sincerely, the question is ancient and ever new.
It is mostly philosophers and theologians who address this question directly. The various answers given depend upon the thinker's presuppositions about metaphysics (the nature of being), epistemology (how we know) and linguistics (a theory of the meaning of language).
At some level all of us ask, "What is truth?" Christians care about this question since our faith has to be grounded in the truth and our calling is to be the people of the truth. A Christian perspective on the truth will not necessarily conform with contemporary philosophical reflections on truth, especially those of some prominent postmodern philosophers, because our presuppositions are based upon our faith in the revelation of God.

What are some Christian perspectives on truth?
In the Scriptures there are two words that are relevant to the meaning of truth. In the Old Testament truth is understood as "emeth," which means fidelity, constancy and reliability. That which is true is considered to be something on which we can rely. In the New Testament truth is "aletheia," which means an unveiling of that which is concealed.
These biblical terms imply the most important Christian presupposition about truth, which is that truth has its origin in God, who alone is faithful and who reveals God's self to us. Truth is one of the attributes of the living God and, therefore, to speak of truth itself is to refer to God.
There is a notion that truth is only in our own minds. In his first Duino Elegy, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke spoke of "our interpreted world." The idea is that what we perceive as real or true is the construction of our own minds. Sometimes this notion is coupled with the idea that God does not convey truth to us because God is utterly transcendent to the world. According to this notion, truth is what human beings — as individuals or groups — make it.
While it is the case that our minds play a role in the way knowledge is acquired through sensation and intellectual faculties, a Christian perspective is that truth is located, first, not in our own minds, but in God. For Christians, God is not only transcendent, but also immanent. The classical Christian view is that God is Being and all other beings participate in God. Moreover, Christians trust that God creates all things through the Word or "logos" of God, which is the principle of rationality and communication between God and us. We trust that God is always communicating the truth to us. This truth is not something we manufacture, but something we receive.

Since truth is "aletheia," an unveiling, we cannot conceive of truth as only an object. Often we speak of "seeking the truth" as if it were an object to be found. Because truth is God's self-disclosure we might also consider truth to be a subject. That is, truth is seeking us. God is always speaking the truth to us in creatures, in the events of our own experience and of human history, and in God's special revelation in the stories of Israel and Jesus Christ. Indeed, if there were not a continuous unveiling of the truth, we would have no confidence that we know anything at all.
In the Christian perspective on truth, there is the understanding that truth is ultimately personal. Truth is the faithful communication by a person that discloses the depths of reality. In the Gospel of John it is said that "the Word (logos) became flesh and lived among us," and that he is Jesus Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life (John 1:14, 14:6)." The whole Christ as the incarnation of the Word in his life, death, resurrection and ascension to God the Father is the revelation in history of the truth. In Trinitarian terms we say that truth is personal because it is the communication of the Father through the Word — through whom all things are created and who became human for our sakes — by the illumination of the Spirit.
There are many implications of the understanding of truth as personal, but one of them is that truth cannot be received only by thinking or intellectual activity, but also by loving or living our lives in the love of God and our neighbors as ourselves. This is something almost forgotten in philosophy, which originally was a love of wisdom for the sake of living the good life, but which has tended to become primarily a matter of intellectual speculation. From a Christian perspective we who have received the truth are also called to do the truth and manifest the truth in our manner of living.
A Christian perspective on truth transforms the way we look at the world and live our lives. For one thing, we shall view the natural world and each creature differently than others. Christians should take seriously the knowledge of the physical universe obtained by the natural sciences, but we have to reject the dogmatic philosophical assertion often confused with scientific knowledge that the existence and evolution of the physical world is the result of Chance rather than God. Perhaps more importantly, we perceive that no thing is ever just a mere fact, but a creature that participates in God. Thus, there is a mysterious depth in every creature worthy of our reverence. This reverence for the mystery of creatures is the basis for an ecological wisdom in a society in which the creation is exploited and regarded only for its utilitarian value. Being created in the "logos" of God, the truth of a tree transcends the botanical analysis of its structure and processes of life and its economical worth to us.
Moreover, from a Christian perspective the truth in history cannot be the knowledge and wisdom only of the serious historian or the maker of public policy. This truth is known only to God who has promised to reveal it at the End of history. Yet, God's purposes in history have already been unveiled in part through the prophets illumined by the Spirit. As a practical matter, Christians have to humbly acknowledge the complexities and ambiguities of the exercise of political power in history, but we are also witnesses to God's purpose to open the horizon of history to the coming of a kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace.
Christians, along with other human beings, believe that there is a moral universe in which there is right and wrong. In our commitment to moral truth we also trust that love is the "more excellent way (I Corinthians 12:31)." This love, which is the truth of God, prohibits self-righteousness and produces forgiveness and the virtues of kindness and compassion.

Alas! We live in a culture of "talk" and "spin." There is more interest in winning than in finding the truth. To live for truth begins with turning our minds and hearts to God, saying, "In your light we see light (Psalm 36:9)."

This article relates to Christian Faith.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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