An excerpt from my latest book, FOUR LETTER WORDS: Conversations on Faith’s Beauty and Logic, available Fall 2011, but on discounted pre-sale for one more week at FourLetterWords.org.
TRUE: Does your truth have to be my truth too?
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, but would not stay for an answer. (Sir Francis Bacon, A.D. 1625)
- Some ideas are true and some ideas are false.
- When an idea is true for one person, it’s true for everybody.
- Truth is absolute, for all times and places.
- A fact can’t be both true and false at the same time.
- When two ideas contradict each other, they can’t both be true.
- Biblical Christianity is true.
- Wherever other religions contradict biblical Christianity, they’re false.
- Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6).
- And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
- “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
* * * * *
WHAT IS TRUTH?
“Let God be true, but every man a liar.” Romans 3:4
Some things are true. Some things are false.
You might get an argument about that.
Our church’s worship team was first confused and then angry when they discovered a major theft. Burglars had broken into our northern California church, and ripped off a truckload of instruments and electronic equipment, worth tens of thousands of dollars.
When they arrived for their final run-through, our worship team found the stage stripped bare. They borrowed some instruments and lead us in a great time of worship, but we still felt violated. During our worship times, we prayed for the bad guys—that God would melt their hard hearts and drive them to turn themselves in.
Among other things, the thieves stole an entire drum kit. Later that week, one of our drummers, Jeff, found a used drum kit on Craigslist, a classified ad website. Jeff drove to the seller’s house, negotiated a fair price and struck a deal. As he was loading the drums into his car, Jeff mentioned that he would play them at church.
The seller said, “Oh! This is for a church? Great! I’ll knock off a hundred bucks.”
Jeff thought, How cool! This guy must be a Christian.
His warm fuzzies popped like a balloon when the seller added: “…because Jesus is one of my gurus, too.”
Yes, it was really nice of the seller to reduce his price for us. We’re grateful for that; I celebrate every time a spiritual door opens in anybody’s life. At the same time, I cringe when Jesus gets clumped together with the world’s gurus, as if he were just one option among equals. The drum-seller displayed a common attitude toward truth in today’s culture. It’s the attitude that suggests that mutually contradictory ideas can both be true at the same time in the same way.
This doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t work in real life. Let me explain why by laying out two commonsense realities called Consistency and Non-Contradiction.
Most philosophers credit Socrates for first stating that a belief can’t be both true and not true at the same time.[i] When we speak, we expect intelligent listeners to hear our words the way we meant them.
If I say Chicago, deep-dish pizza is the best pizza in the world, then it is nonsense for me to say that it is not the best pizza in the world. If a thought could be both true and false at the same time, then we live in an absurd universe. Even worse, everything you tell me would be suspect, because I would have no way of figuring out if it were true or false.
Experts in logic call this consistency. Unless we want to skip straight to a throbbing headache, we have to agree that a truth, belief, idea, proposition, or assertion is always consistent with itself[J1] . If this were not the case, then I could tell you I love you but actually hate you and not be lying.
How crazy that would be! Imagine a first date…
YOU: You look really nice tonight. Great shoes, too.
YOUR DATE: You hate me, don’t you.
YOU: What do you mean, “I hate you?” I just said you look nice. Really nice. I’m happy to be going out with you.
YOUR DATE: Ah-HAH! You’re still thinking about your last relationship with Chris. I knew this was a mistake.
YOU: B-b-but… I always thought you were great, and-and, uhhh… I was happy about our date.
YOUR DATE: My mother warned me about people like you…
YOU: You’re crazy.
YOUR DATE: (suddenly happy) Oh! Thanks. I think you’re great too. So, where should we go for dinner?
The law of consistency keeps us out of the loony bin.
This is important for followers of Jesus. Truth makes sense. Every truth is consistent with itself because all truth flows from God; he is the fixed point in a universe in motion.
Even more, every truth should be consistent with every other truth. This is where things get hairy with our skeptical friends.
Two contradictory beliefs can’t both be right. Normal people know this. This is called the principle of non-contradiction (PNC). It reminds us of what we all know intuitively: that contradictory statements can’t both be true. If I tell you that Starbucks is two blocks up and to the left, and a street musician says it’s two blocks up and to the right, and we’re talking about the same coffee shop from the same starting point, at least one of us is wrong.
An ancient Persian scholar defended the PNC in a politically incorrect and morally horrific—though really persuasive—way, when he wrote,
“Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.” [ii][iii]
We couldn’t make it through a single day without trusting the principle of non-contradiction. Everybody knows this stuff. Everybody lives by it. No sane people question it. Until we come to religion.
Then, many skeptics shed logic like my dog sheds fur.
A prime example: atheists say there is no God. The ancient Romans worshiped a pantheon of gods (a whole bunch of them). Muslims teach a single, all-powerful god, called Allah. Christians maintain that there is one and only one God, who exists as a Trinity and has a divine-human Son named Jesus.
There’s no way they can all be true.
Here’s another example: Although some who called themselves Christian justified abuses like slavery and the subjugation of women from the Bible, they finally gave in to the relentless biblical arguments that God created all humans equal. While I grieve over those abuses, I also recognize that it was mainly Christians who abolished slavery in the western world[iv] and who first recognized the essential equality of men and women. St. Paul gave voice to Jesus’ message when he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).[v]
Meanwhile some religions still require women to walk behind their men and to cloak themselves from head to toe, while caste-oriented religions still justify child slavery.
My point is not to condemn followers of these religions. I feel compassion for these people. My point is to show that these religions contradict each other in important issues: God, human dignity, ethics, how we treat each other, how we interface with God, how we steward our planet, and our ultimate destiny.
They can’t all be right. The logic that guides our everyday lives says so.
It’s at this point that many of our friends hop off the train of rationality by suggesting, Religions all say the same things. Really? How can religions “say the same things” when they actually say opposite things? The law of contradiction never takes a vacation.
And isn’t it at least a little inconsistent for your professors or friends to argue that all religions say the same thing, and then to disagree with yours?
Jesus drew a dividing line between truth and falsehood: “You are of your father the devil…He… does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). I guess, to Jesus, some ideas were true and some ideas were false.
Unfortunately, the devil’s lies are alive and well in our classrooms and neighborhoods today. But it’s subtle. Our friends and professors aren’t trying to be deceitful. They’re trying to be true, but society bent the mental playing field out of shape during the middle of the game. It happened so fast, we hardly noticed.
Generations of Christians clipped cluelessly along, assuming that everybody agreed with them and believed like them and respected them. They never noticed when the surrounding culture first questioned, then doubted, then discarded, and finally inverted their most cherished beliefs.
While the church slept, truth and falsehood got married. Good and evil became one. And hell became a suburb of heaven. How did this happen?
Enter postmodernism, the rebellious offspring of modernism. Let me give you a brief and painless description of how both “-isms” approach TRUTH, and then see how they stack up against biblical Christianity.
God’s way seems foolish to the Jews because they want a sign from heaven to prove it is true. And it is foolish to the Greeks because they believe only what agrees with their own wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:22, NLT).
I grew up running around a small church in Chicago. I was a Christian and assumed that anybody who wasn’t a Christian just hadn’t thought about it enough. The biblical message made sense to me.
Until high school.
Then, I faced my first crisis of faith.
I began to doubt Christianity because I couldn’t reconcile the Bible with evolution. The Bible told me God created the universe and fashioned Adam and Eve. Science told me that a Big Bang created the universe, and then all life evolved from it.
I couldn’t put the two together. Yes, many excellent Christians believe God himself guided the process of evolution. This book isn’t about evolution, so I won’t get into that. But, for my struggle at that time, theistic evolution (God-guided evolution) didn’t work.
I came very close to abandoning Christianity because of a scientific theory. Science, as I had been taught it, undermined my faith. The story ends on a spiritual high note, however, because I studied the topic and wrote a term paper that satisfied my doubts and reassured my faith.
We’ll let science represent a worldview called “modernism.” This worldview tells us that TRUTH comes from scientific or mathematical exploration. If science can’t observe it, measure it, or put it into a formula, then we can’t claim a belief as true. So, to a committed modernist, Moses didn’t part the Red Sea, Jesus didn’t walk on water, and nobody rose from the dead.
To its credit, modernism has led to advances in medicine, agriculture, engineering and virtually every other field, making life easier and healthier. Christians affirm much of modernism, because it reflects the human rationality that flows from the massive intelligence of God.
However, modernism chokes on its own I.Q. It forgets that we couldn’t think at all unless God thought first. So modernism thought itself smarter than God, and reasoned him out of existence. That put it in the awkward position of having to explain beings like us that have more intelligence than whatever made us. The solution? Define all intelligence as a freak convergence of impersonal forces. That definition had the unintended consequence of robbing humankind of its dignity, but we’ll save that for later.
It also explains why my teachers presented evolution with no room for a Creator. Modernism, in the end, undermines Christianity by claiming to be the only source of truth and by denying miracles and anything supernatural. It has no use for, and no belief in, anything beyond the bounds of nature. As astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[vi]
Postmodernism, on the other hand, snubs its nose at modernism, and embraces mystery and spirituality.
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6)
Postmodernism approaches truth as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Pick what you like and stop when you want to. It’s really not that simple, but postmodernism adopts a more fluid approach to truth than modernism ever conceived.
In a speech before the United Nations Prayer Breakfast, Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, described driving past the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University. He noted the unusual architecture, and was told it was “America’s first postmodern building.” His host explained that it was designed “with no design in mind” to reflect the fickleness of life. The building has stairways leading nowhere, columns coming down without touching the floor, a crazy girder system supporting the roof, and pillars holding up nothing.[vii]
Ravi asked his host, “So [the architect’s] argument was that, if life has no purpose and design, why should the building have any design?” His host told him he was correct.
Then Ravi asked a question that could only be answered with embarrassed silence: “Did he do the same with the foundation?”[viii]
Truth might seem adaptable or even optional on the surface, but once you dig, you always find it solid and unmoving. God designed our hearts to crave truth, and we’re unsettled till we find it.
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[i] “Portrait of Socrates” in marble. Photo by Eric Gaba. Used by permission. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of the file under the conditions that you appropriately attribute it, and that you distribute it only under a license identical to this one. All photos herein attributed to the Creative Commons share this permission.
[ii] Picture of Avicenna the Physician. Used by permission. Copyright © The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS) Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
[iii] Avicenna, an Islamic philosopher, writing around eight centuries after Christ. In Metaphysics, I; commenting on Aristotle, Topics I.11.105a4–5, cited from Wikipedia, “Law of non-contradiction.”
[iv] Google “William Wilberforce” or watch the movie Amazing Grace.
[v] Jesus put flesh on his counter-cultural opinion that women and men were equal in places like John 4:4-27 (the woman at the well, see esp. v. 47) and John 8:1-11 (the woman taken in adultery, where the guilty man was missing and where he called her “woman” used as an ennobling term).
[vi] Carl Sagan. The Cosmos (Ballantine Books, 1985), p. 1.
[vii] Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch, What is Truth? 1890. Artwork, public domain. Photograph, public domain from WikiCommons.
[viii] Ravi Zacharias, “Address to the United Nations Prayer Breakfast,” at http://www.rzim.org/GlobalElements/GFV/tabid/449/ArticleID/96/CBModuleId/1045/Default.aspx?id=13