Skip to main content
What_is_truth

The Possibility and Pursuit of Truth

By Andrew J. Spencer

Editor’s note: 

Spencer is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His primary area of interest is the study of Christian approaches to Environmental Ethics, although Theological Economics is a close second. In addition to blogging at www.EthicsAndCulture.com, he is a frequent contributor to the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

The Christian worldview is nothing if it is not true. John 14:6 records Jesus’ declaration of his truthfulness and the exclusivity of that truth claim: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Paul comments that the historicity––the truthfulness––of the resurrection is a foundation that Christianity stands or falls by in 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.

The most basic question we need to strive to answer is not, “How does this make me feel?” Rather, we need to answer the question, “How do I know this is true?” Truthfulness is at the heart of Christianity. The entire Christian perspective is worthless if it isn’t true.

Recently I was struck by overlap between my overwhelming interest in truth and the perspective of someone with a very different view of life. In her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, Alice Dreger announces something should be obvious but needs defense in the contemporary age: “Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth. And if you want to work for truth, you must do a little more than wish for justice.”

Dreger is an advocate for intersex rights (which deserves more nuanced attention from Christians) and a proponent of sexual ethics at odds with Scripture. However, the commonality in understanding between my worldview and hers is noteworthy. We both recognize that truthfulness has ethical implications that are essential for society to exist. We both believe that truthfulness will lead to justice.

And this is important methodologically in our discourse with unbelievers. Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17 demonstrated that he was willing to start with where his interlocutors were at, complement them when he could, identify features of their worldview that resonated with his own, and even quote writers and poets that his opponents would recognize as their own and as potentially authoritative. In all of these ways, incidentally, Paul was following the well tread dictates of Greek rhetoric. Starting with shared ground in our evangelistic efforts is an impeccable bridge-building exercise and features a distinguished biblical pedigree and precedent.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life. We have access to truth, because of God’s illumination of his self-revelation in Scripture, in a way that secular thinkers and practitioners of false religions lack. This does not mean we possess a perfect objectivity—the ability to see things without bias—but it does mean we have access to truth and should strive for objectivity.

It is the pursuit of truth and its proclamation that is at the heart of the Christian life.

Even Dreger argues for the importance of objectivity. She wryly comments, “Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de fact criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners.”

We may disagree with Alice Dreger about what the content of truth, but we should be able to agree with her that the truth is essential and the pursuit of objectivity is necessary if we are going to find truth. Often, our first step in reaching out to people with the hope of the truth needs to be making a case for the existence of truth itself.

I recently reviewed a book for the academic journal Environmental Ethics. In Religion and Ecology, a professor from Florida International University, Whitney Bauman, applies queer theory to ecology in an attempt to discover a planetary ethic. The book, at its heart, is trying to re-envision the relationship between “self-and-other beyond substance-based notions of identity.” Bauman is rejecting the foundational understandings of the existence of truth in search of something that “works better” for the environment.

In Bauman’s post-foundational approach, he rejects the possibility of objectivity in natural sciences because science necessarily begins with certain assumptions. As Dreger acknowledges, and I affirm, any human pursuit of truth is tainted with our own perspectives. However, Bauman calls for an abandonment of the quest for objective truth altogether, which creates enormous difficulties both in theory and in practice. A standard we can only asymptotically approach without ever being able to achieve perfectly is not evidence for its absence, nor grounds to suggest that more closely approximating it isn’t a worthwhile endeavor.

The end result for Bauman is a mishmash of experience, emotion, and knowledge that is difficult to comprehend, much less defend. His goal, it seems, is to find a unity by erasing distinctions between categories. This includes his contention “that atheism and theism are really like two sides of the same coin, as are reductionism and holism or relativism and universalism.” Such a rejection of differences is bound to make both the theist and atheist unhappy.

For Bauman, reconfiguring the means of gaining knowledge is necessary, and it allows him to conclude that the best solutions for contemporary environmental problems are “free” higher education, universal healthcare, and the promotion of leisure time. The book offers no explanation as to why those things are good for the environment, but that just illustrates the problem with Bauman’s approach to truth. The method undermines the possibility of a meaningful solution.

Both Dreger and Bauman are people in need of the truth, which is rooted in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the approach to engaging them––and people that share their views––is entirely different.

People who accept that truth exists and is an objective reality can be influenced by traditional apologetic arguments. They recognize the cogency of the world and are seeking to find a systemic understanding that has explanatory power.

Others, though, who consider belief in any truth to be naïve, are more difficult to engage. With palpable paradoxicality, their axiomatic belief is that foundational beliefs are inappropriate. This illustrates the circularity of the belief system, but breaking through the infinite regress is much more difficult. The first step here is more important and harder. It requires demonstrating that an objective truth is possible and necessary.

In the arena of moral apologetics, it’s harder to reach those who don’t believe in at least certain obvious moral truths. Fortunately this remains a distinctly minority position among secularists, but, if Nietzsche was right (and he may well have been), it’s a position that is likely to grow in popularity as the implications of naturalism sink in. Ours is a culture that still benefits from the effects of being steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but, as even recent events have shown, the Christian framework for apprehending reality is gradually losing its grip on the popular imagination.

As we reach into the world with the hope of the Gospel, there is more to the discussion than just memorizing an evangelism outline. We need to ask enough questions to be aware of the appropriate starting point and make the case that needs to be made. The Bible itself makes it clear that our outreach needs to be audience-sensitive. In Paul’s speeches in Acts, his sermons to Jews and God-fearers were filled with biblical references; but at Lystra or Athens he shifted gears, finding common ground elsewhere: in nature, in pagan poetry. Although his preaching on such occasions tapped into biblical truth, explicit references to the scriptures came to a screeching halt. One size doesn’t fit all. In some cases, in a culture increasingly relativistic, pluralist, and postmodern, the conversation will have to begin by explaining that there is an objective moral order in the universe and that such truth is both available and valuable.

 

 

Image:”What is truth” by Nikolai Ge – http://www.picture.art-catalog.ru/picture.php?id_picture=7515. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:What_is_truth.jpg#/media/File:What_is_truth.jpg

1280px-Alexander_Ivanov_-_Christ's_Appearance_to_Mary_Magdalene_after_the_Resurrection_-_Google_Art_Project

Biblical Ethics and Moral Order in Creation

By Andrew J. Spencer

Spencer is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His primary area of interest is the study of Christian approaches to Environmental Ethics, although Theological Economics as a close second. In addition to blogging at www.EthicsAndCulture.com, he is a frequent contributor to the blog of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

With the constant press of present troubles, it is easy to forget the simple truth that our contemporary cultural concerns are not all there is. As we look for somewhere to anchor our ethics, it is easier to pursue fashionable schemes than to look for simple explanations in ancient books. It is easier, but often less helpful.

Oliver O’Donovan’s ethics, founded on the biblical storyline, are some of the most helpful for moving readers outside of their cultural context. Though his reasoning is nuanced, the basic principles of his ethics are simple. Ethics is founded on the objective reality in the created order. This order was distorted when Adam chose to sin. The resurrection of Christ began the process of renewal that will eventually restore all of creation to its objective, undistorted goodness.

We live in the time between the beginning of the restoration and the complete renewal of all things. As Christians, we stand with one foot in the fallen world and the other foot poised to step over the threshold into complete renewal. We have certain hope in the coming restoration, but equal certainty of the sinfulness of the world.

Ethics must continually seek to identify the order and coherence with which the world was created. This reveals the reality of the Creator and uncovers the way we should live within creation. Since the created order has been distorted by sin, special revelation––i.e., Scripture––is necessary to point us toward an undistorted moral order.

One of the most dangerous and popular fallacies, or logical errors, is the “naturalistic fallacy.” By definition, the naturalistic fallacy is improper reasoning from the way things are to the way things ought to be. For example, if most teenagers smoke, then it is morally acceptable for teenagers to smoke.

Using the example of smoking, which has been demonized by our culture, this fallacy seems unrealistic. However, if the example is shifted to pre-marital sex, its explanatory power is better revealed. According to the naturalistic fallacy, if many people engage in pre-marital sex, then it must be morally acceptable to engage in pre-marital sex. A logical corollary to this is that those who oppose engaging in pre-marital sex are either sexually repressive or even morally evil for opposing something that has been determined to be morally acceptable.

These conclusions stand in contrast to the traditional Christian perspective, as revealed through Scripture, that sex is designed to occur within marriage. However, this sort of faulty reasoning is common in contemporary ethical debates on issues well beyond sexuality. It is also trapped in a vision of ethics that assumes that morality is determined by social acceptance, rather than an objective standard. In other words, societal norms can be based on a statistical evaluation of present practice, without considering the true nature of the common good.

O’Donovan’s pursuit of an objective moral order that reflects the unchanging character of God frees us from the tyranny of contemporary trends and provides a way of arguing against the naturalistic fallacy. Although it does not rely on proof texts, it is profoundly biblical as it explains why Scripture is an absolute necessity for ethics and shows how Scripture should be applied to ethics.

For example, if an unchanging God created all things in a particular manner that was morally good, then it stands to reason there is a specific way of living that is consistent with that original ordering. That way of living would be an objective, moral good.

However, the status of the created order as morally good leads to a question as to why things are out of line with that moral good. The answer lies in the pages of Scripture, as Genesis 3 informs us that Adam chose to defy God’s command by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This set in motion the disordering of the created order. Humans became sinners and creation itself was put out of line with its original moral goodness.

Thankfully, God didn’t simply leave creation in its distorted state, but he set in motion his plan to restore it all. The resurrection of Christ punctuates that plan, as an exclamation point that points toward the complete restoration of the moral goodness of the created order. The resurrection event reveals the future renewal, but it also exposes the reality of the present disordering. No mere human action could restore the creation to its original moral goodness, it required the death of God himself in Jesus Christ.

In other words, Christ’s death, burial and resurrection are key events in ethics because they explode the myth that things are the way they ought to be. Instead, the radical distortion of creation set in motion by Adam’s sin needed a second Adam, who lived without sin, to set it right. However, to know this, we must have it revealed to us in Scripture.

All of this is freeing as we engage in moral reasoning. Instead of determining what laws should be passed based on current trends in popular opinion, we are freed to look for patterns that promote the common good and are as consistent as possible with the original, objective ordering of creation. While others may reject our proposals and indict us for not applying their reasoning, we can humbly pursue actions that best reflect the restoration of the created order that will come at Christ’s return.

The biblical pattern, built upon the objectivity of the created order and the resurrection of Christ, enables a Christian to seek a timeless ethics, rather than one driven by the winds of contemporary culture concerns.

Image: “Christ’s Appearance to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. By Alexander Ivanov. CC License.