There was a TV series in the mid 2000s called “Truth, lies and videotape” — from which I want to borrow the title for this blog. Inadvertantly or not, who ever came up with that phrase made a philosophical statement by their placement of the comma. They made a distinction not only between truth and lies but also between truth and videotape. You might think that something you actually see on videotape is the truth: it is what happened. But we all have learned, from Youtube and other sources, that videotape can lie. People can construct “phony” videos — of cats doing impossible things or people speaking a different set of words in a video of Hitler speaking. This raises the philosophical question for me of, if you can’t trust your senses what can you trust? Is there “truth” out there or, at the end of the day is truth only what I decide is true? This is the deep philosophical question I explore in Chapter 7 of my book Imagining Rama; a brief guide to exploring the universe, mystery and meaning. I won’t attempt to cram that discussion into this blog. I’d like to focus instead on how Christians use the word “truth” and how that can lead to problems.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. . .” [John 14.6] That settles the truth question for Christians. If we want to know the truth we only need observe Jesus. If we had a videotape of Jesus’s life we would know the truth, right? But how would we know that over 2000 years someone hadn’t edited that tape to fit their purposes? The same question can be raised about the Bible. How do we know we can trust what is written about Jesus? There are two basic parts to answering that question. First, Christians take seriously the work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the creation, translation and teaching about the Bible down through the ages. We believe that that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let lies creep into the Bible. Second, we take seriously the work of scholars down through the ages in examining the origins, context, internal consistency (or lack of it) and base our assent to the Bible’s truth on their rigourous and objective work. In summary, believing Christians don’t need to break their head over accepting that Jesus is the “truth.” However, we still run into a profound philosophical question when it comes to “using” the fact that Jesus is the truth. When each of us observe Jesus we see Him through our human “filters.” We know that through the findings of modern science; it’s the way the human mind works. So, even if Jesus is the truth, how do we get to that truth? How do we get past our biases, mistaken notions and other human conditions which “filter” our understanding of the truth?
The quest for truth
For Christians, like every other human being, discerning the truth involves a search for it, even a life-long quest. St Paul implied this when he said, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” [1 Corinthians 13:12] Some of you might argue, what about people who have a very simple faith, and simply follow their honest sense of what Jesus’s truth is? They don’t need to search for the truth; they have it, as a gift from God. My answer would be that, while there may be such people, even some of the greatest saints have had to engage in a quest for truth: Peter, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, etc. My sense is that the usual model for most Christians is that they must using their reason to search for the truth which Jesus is. And, because Christians have the church to aid them in this quest, they need not worry about finding the truth. Christians simply engage honestly in the quest, in humility and prayer, knowing that like everyone else they don’t have a direct phone line to God and can make human mistakes. That leads me to my point about a danger that Christians face in proclaiming the truth.
If Christians must search for the truth, and are aided in that search by the church, what about non-Christians? They encounter additional difficulties. The first of these is the philosophical question about truth. Unlike Christians who accept that Jesus is the truth (although still needing to discern what that means in their lives), non-Christians run into a philosophical barrier. Is there such a thing as truth “out there”? If not, then their quest involves a search for their own “authentic” sense of the truth inside themselves. If that is as far is their search goes, human beings can imagine almost anything as being true (and often do). “My truth is as good as your truth” is as far as many people get in their quest. One problem (among others) with this stance is that many people simply glance at life and its issues and take whatever the conventional and media wisdom says is true. This is a weak substitute for a genuine quest for truth but one that many people adopt.
The second difficulty non-Christians face in their quest for truth is, sad to say, the Christians that they encounter. Even if philosophically they are prepared to search for the truth outside of themselves, how do they encounter Jesus as the way and truth and life? One way is through the media, which presents a fairly biased view. Even if they reject that source, they are left with only three believeable sources: individual Christians, the Bible and churches. Without going into the very complex situation of the church and Bible in the modern world, let me focus on one aspect of individual Christians as the primary source for non-Christinas to encounter Jesus in the world.
There are two ways for a non-Christian to encounter Jesus in a Christian — in our actions and in our love for the non-Christian. Let me assume that they meet a Christian who is exemplary in carrying out the works that Jesus himself carried out — bringing good news to the poor and binding up hearts that are broken. [Luke 4:18] How do they experience that the Christian loves them? They are honestly searching for the truth and Jesus, and engage in conversation with us. What do we say about the truth? One thing we might say is, “I know the truth and here it is. read the Bible or this tract.” I don’t think such a stance is either effective or authentic. If a Christian is engaged himself in a search for truth, how can he claim certain possession of it? In a way, he is claiming that he has a videotape of Jesus (or a direct phome line to God) and knows the truth. I am not doubting that many Christians believe that they possess the Truth, in its entirety and certainty. I am suggesting that stating this to a non-Christian immediately sets up a “we / they” situation which inhibits the conversation and the search for truth. “We Christians know the truth and you non-Christians don’t.” (And inside Christianity you’ll hear a variation of this “We Baptists have the truth and you Catholics don’t (and viceversa).”
If we want to follow Jesus’ way to the truth, we need to observe how he did it. He never established a “we / they” — “I’m God and know that this is true.” he was gentle in his approach. That is the danger I think many Christians need to be aware of, and pray about.