Objectivity is your friend –Dennis McCallum
I was born during the transition from modernist era to postmodernism. Like a modernist I believe there is truth in the world which is discoverable and that there are absolutes. Yet, the uncertainty of our postmodern age requires me to acknowledge that knowing what is an absolute rather than situational “truth” can be difficult, if not impossible to determine. I have tried to live an examined life and regularly revisit what I belief in the light of evidence. The last forty years has greatly reduced the number of things I am certain of. I like to say I have many strong beliefs, most of which are loosely held.
Truth is worth pursuing though it can be threatening and uncomfortable. Truth can demonstrate we are wrong or show we are failing. Ignorance doesn’t make us less wrong, nor does it save us pain in the long run. It is far better to know for certain what is true, even when unpleasant, because that gives us an opportunity to go in the right direction. Proverbs 27:6 says “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”
Truth… not lies, half truths or secrets
Truth is the only thing worth standing on. Lies, falsehoods, secrets, excuses, might seem expedient, but they are like quicksand. They will drown your life if you walk in them. Lies can only hurt people and will rot away your heart and conscience. Secrets limit your ability to share fully with others and damages your inner life until exposed by the healing light of truth and honesty. In recent times stories about superheroes often demonstrate how deadly lies and secrets can be. Secrets and lies used to “protect” a loved one end up hurting more than the truth would have.
Ultimately, lies and falsehoods will be revealed and brought to light because the Lord knows all. So live your life as if everything you do and say will be broadcast for everyone to see and hear. Live in the light. In the end you will give an account to the Lord, and you won’t be able to fool him. Indeed, many secrets and cover-ups are exposed in this life. Don’t compromise the truth today because in the face of eternity it is foolish.
While it is not a popular viewpoint today, I believe in absolute truth, what Francis Schaefer called “true truth”. There is only one reality, one true morality, things are either truth or false. If two people hold conflicting views, they aren’t both right, though both could be wrong. The challenge is discovering what is true. This takes work and humility. Even if someone works to discover what is true, it doesn’t mean they will succeed. Some things might be so beyond our ability to understand that we will never really know the truth, we will see only a small portion of the truth and come to an incorrect conclusion. This dilemma is captured in the classic parable describing three blind men who encounter an elephant. Each man touches a different section of the elephant (leg, trunk, side of the body) and come to a different and wrong conclusion about what the whole elephant looks like.
Something that many people miss is that the only person who knows each blind man has an incomplete perspective is a man who is not blind and is standing outside the story. Often I hear people use this parable to suggest that all faiths or religions lead to the same place and are equally valid. While this seems like a position of humility, it’s actually the height of arrogance, because the person is assuming they are like the person who can see, and the communities of faith and religion are the blind who can only see a small part of the truth. We need to have enough humility to admit when we don’t know what is true.
Just as the sighted man is the only person who can tell the story of the elephant, God is the only one who can fully tell the story of our world. That’s not to say that we can’t use our senses and mind figure things out, but what we discover will be an incomplete and often misleading.
This brings up an even more unpopular belief. The Bible is true and trustworthy. I reference some of the evidence for this in my post about faith. The ultimate author of the Bible is God who knows more than us. It’s very common for us to favor our experience and beliefs over the Bible, yet God know more than us and loves us more than we love ourselves. When our experience and beliefs disagree with the Bible it’s appropriate to ask if we were misreading the Bible or if we are misinterpreting our experiences or failing to see long term results.
The Bible is God’s self revelation and is able to give us insight into things that are either so important to Him that He wants to be sure we know them, or things we wouldn’t be able to discover if we reasoned just from our own experience. The Bible is like a letter from a dear friend. It can inform us, but we have to read the letter in the context or our relationship, based on what we know of our friend. The Bible is wholly true, but it is not a comprehensive textbook or an encyclopedia. For example, I like to say that Genesis is about home, not the house. The stories of a house would talk about how the walls are constructed, list materials and a floor plan. When people talk about their home, there may be some allusions to it’s construction, but the focus is typically on how it was a space that felt safe, a place you long for.
How to Seek Truth
I believe that the Bible is fully true, but just because it’s true doesn’t means that it’s easy for us to understand. The Berean Christian set a good example for all of us:
Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.Acts 17:11-12
The Berean Christians were devoted to studying the Bible because they believed it to be truth from God’s lips. While the Bereans had a belief, a faith, the Bible was God’s true, this wasn’t a blind faith. The things they learned were put to the test and examined to see that it was true. This is different from classic utilitarianism which believes something is true because it works. Rather, things work because they are true. So what did the Bereans do? They did their best to read and understand the Bible. They would then put their understanding into practice and then see if it “worked”, the way a scientist tests a hypothesis. The Bereans not only gained knowledge by faith, but put that knowledge to work which made the truth personal, experiential, the sort of truth that transformed their lives for the better. This sounds like an exciting and wonderful community to have been part of.
The Bible authors make it clear than we should have a strong foundation, an examined faith. Paul wrote that we should be the most pitied of men if our faith isn’t based on truth (I Cor 15). Peter calls all of us to have a ready defense, that is to be able to explain what we believe and why (I Peter 3:15). When I first created my website I posted a description of my faith. Decades later I find that I am every more sure of my core beliefs, but I have become much less certain about many of the beliefs which aren’t at the core of my faith. The next sections explain why that is.
Consistency Between Truths and Life
If it is foolish not to live based on the truth, why do people live any other way? Sometimes being committed to the truth seems too hard or too polarizing. It seems like it would be easier to stick with “truth” that doesn’t offend others, that everyone is comfortable with, that seems to remove unwanted conflict. Sometimes we do this by ignoring something that is true. Sometimes we do this by telling lies, often small one, that we don’t think will hurt anyone.
Of course, sometimes we aren’t being purposefully dishonest, we are honestly wrong. We have thought about an issue, maybe studied the particulars and have come to the wrong conclusion. The solution for this is to be willing to honestly look at the facts and be willing to change our position if we find we are wrong. We must not let our pride stop us from admitting when we are wrong. Another common issue is when someone hasn’t thought through a issue, they merely follow “traditions.” This as an unexamined life. The solution is to examine life. Look for facts and data which actually speak into whatever you care about. It is amazing that people who are willing to spend hours researching a purchase or a sports team spend very little time examining their assumptions about life.
Often times people’s day to day conduct seems to contradict their stated views. This is especially common among religious communities. While some of these people are blatant hypocrites, their actions showing their true hearts, often times people like this do “intellectually” believe their high sounding words even though it doesn’t come out in day to day life. Why is that… are they completely irrational? Typically no. What’s going on is that over time their experience has led them to use ineffective method to get some result. This has resulted in deeply held misbelief that contradicts what some philosophical position they express.
It is very easy for us to lie to ourselves, to choose to believe something that we should know is not true. The prophet Jeremiah observed “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah goes on to observe that only God can cut through the deceit, and know what is true. Thankfully, God’s Spirit has given us a new heart and is happy to help us understand what is going on if we are willing to ask him.
Limits of Examination: Some Mysteries Can’t Be Uncovered
When the Bereans’ experiences differed from their understanding of the Bible they didn’t throw out the Bible, nor did they ignore their experiences. Rather, they used the apparent conflict to examine their understanding of the Bible as well as examining how they were evaluating their experiences. Sometimes this sort of careful examination would allow them to resolve the issue. Sometimes, they would find themselves facing a paradox or a mystery, something that seemed beyond their ability to know. While difficult, these sort of issues did not result in the Berean’s giving up on thinking or trying to understand.
Os Guiness’ excellent book In Two Minds (an abridged and slightly updated version was called Doubt and then released as God in the Dark) examines healthy and unhealthy ways to examine faith and resolve doubts. Guinness point out that rationality is not in conflict with mystery. Mystery is when we encounter things that are beyond human reason, but it is not against reason. It is a mystery to man and not to God. In these places the challenge for us is to suspend judgment and not press human reason to answer questions when it has insufficient information, but to trust God because He has shown Himself trustworthy in the areas we can understand. Guinness observed that rationalist (rather than rational examination of faith) result in one of two errors. Either “knowledge without experience” or “experience without knowledge”. Genuine understanding generates genuine faith, and genuine faith in turn generates genuine experience. without genuine faith, experience can be easily counterfeited by emotionalism. Without genuine understanding, what passes for faith can be a counterfeit confidence of purely human origins
Limits of Knowing: Uncomfortable Truths and Paradoxes
There are a number of things that make me uncomfortable as I read the Scripture. For example, I am uncomfortable with God apparently ordering genocide. My modern sensibility says this is wrong, always. Yet it seems like God told Israel to do just this. It doesn’t seem like most of these genocides occurred. One way to resolve this dilemma is to figure out a way that God wasn’t actually telling the Israelites to do what it seems like He was. There may, or may not be merit in a number of these arguments. I am not a Hebrew scholar, nor have I attempted to study this issue in great detail, so I am not comfortable judging these explanations.
But I think there is an uncomfortable explanation. What is recorded is exactly what it appears to be. That God did order genocide, and the only reason it didn’t happen was Israel was disobedient. Can I explain why God would order something that seems to me so wrong? No. Do I think innocent young children should be killed? No. And yet, who am I to stand up and judge God. Do I know more than Him? Am I more good? Do I truly understand what love is, and the consequences of every act and action? What if a child that God ordered to be killed would have driven a society to depths worse than Hitler, and that killing him would have prevent a greater evil? When God does something or says something that doesn’t make sense to us, we need to remember that we have a limited understanding. Rather than passing judgment, maybe we need to take a step back and let God be God. To let these apparent differences between what we think we understand, and what we see in the Scripture bring us to God in prayer and stretch our hearts. Asking in humility for understanding, but knowing that in this life, there are many things we will not understand. I think the Steve Curtis Chapman song “Questions” does a nice job capturing this stance.
Progressive revelation is when truth is revealed in an incremental way. Rather than getting everything at once, things are learned in steps. Sometimes the steps are too large for anyone to make. In these cases, sometimes God, or our chemistry teacher will tell us something that moves us along the path of understanding but isn’t the full truth. Rather, it’s something that has been simplified for us. Once we master the truth in simplified form we can take the next step. I saw a great example of things with a women who was doing Igantian exercises with me.
Early on in the Ignatian exercises, a dear lady shared something that “God had showed her”. I wanted to jump up and say “No, that’s not possible. Here are five Bible passages that clearly show what you said is wrong.” During these exercises we don’t engage in “cross talk” (e.g. don’t comment on other people’s experiences) but rather stand in witness to what God is doing. Several months later, at the end of the exercises, this women’s life had changed more for the better than any of us. Her sharing at the beginning was what she was able to understand where she was at then. The following months God continued to moved her, showing her more and more truth, growing her understanding. I would bet at the end of the exercises, she would disagree with her earlier statement, yet it was a stage she had to pass through to her greater understanding.
The Two Books
the Bible is filled with passages which talk about examining our world can help us understand what is true. Not just facts about the material world we live in, but also more ethereal truths like the nature of God. Theologians called this general revelation. It’s often said the Bible is one book, and the world we live in is the second book. Both books should be read and understood. If they conflict, we should reread both and figure out what we have mis-understood. Maybe it’s a paradox, but it is just as likely we are reading into one of the books rather than letting it speak for itself.
Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow explores how we use two systems when thinking. The “fast” system is much easier for us to use and is faster… but it is driven by broad generalization. As a result, it’s very easy for us to jump to wrong conclusions and to be influenced by others without even knowing it. There is a nice interview with Dan Ariel about Irrationality, Bad Decisions, and the Truth About Lies. At some later time I will do a stand alone post on what I have learned from Kahneman and other researchers working in this area.
- Take time and examine what you believe. If something isn’t working take the time to reflect on your life and your beliefs. Be prepared to admit you are wrong and consider a different perspective.
- Have the humility to admit you could be wrong. Always consider if your beliefs are falsifiable. Live an experimental life, testing what you think is true.
- Be willing to speak the truth, even if it is unpopular, or you will be persecuted for speaking the truth. If you aren’t willing to pay the cost for saying something that needs to be said, who will?
- Don’t pretend you have everything together. People often do this because they think people will respect them more. This is not effective because people can sense you are living a lie. Be honest and vulnerable. An authentic life is very attractive.
- Don’t make people second-guess you. Make sure people know where you stand, what are your concerns, etc. We are called to speak truth in love as if seasoned with grace. This means temper what you say based on what the person needs to hear. Don’t use the truth as a weapon.
- The God Who is There – Francis Schaeffer
- God in the Dark – Os Guiness
- Courage to Teach – Parker Palmer
- Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
- Honesty, Morality & Conscience – Jerry Bridges
- A Circle of Friends – Robert Wicks
- Telling Yourself the Truth – William Backus
- Basic Biblical Counseling – Larry Crabb
- Lessons from Life – Mark Verber
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of anotherEphesians 4:25