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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

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