Saturday, November 30, 2013

Quid Est Veritas?

First off, I love science. 

Through observation and experimentation, we have come to define and understand our natural world. We understand the paths of planets and of comets and the anatomy of all sorts of plants and animals. We are able to diagnose and treat a number of medical conditions; we can land a mobile robot lab safely on the surface of another planet.

Of course, this is all possible because we are dealing with empirical evidence.  We can observe and test the physical, allowing us great understanding.  Mankind has had much greater difficulty, however, with defining philosophical ideals like valor, justice, or love. Still, in spite of our inability to truly and consistently define these concepts, we remain not only collectively convinced of their existence, but mystified by them.  In fact, the ancient Greeks actually created deities to personify many of these ideals.  Many great philosophers have written at length on these matters, and inquiries continue to cycle through works of literature, music, and art with varying depth, from the Shakespearean soliloquy to Haddaway's ubiquitous question of 1993. 

Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"), Antonio Ciseri, 1871
From a philosophical (or even theological) standpoint, the greatest question has to be that of truth.  Before one can tackle "true love" or "true goodness", one must answer how to know what is true.  Certainly, Pontius Pilate was not the first to ask, "what is truth?" - but his inquiry is probably the most well known, being recorded in the Gospel of John and thus in just about every hotel nightstand in the United States of America.  Scholars debate Pilate's motivation, but in any case, there is no record of a response to his question.

As I hope to finish this post yet this week, I must keep things rather basic.  With that in mind, there are two main philosophical camps concerning this question, based on whether one considers truth (to the degree it exists) to be relative or absolute.  If one man considers something to be true, is this based on his own mind and perception, or is he either right or wrong about a universal standard? Is our reality truth? Or, as Morpheus famously asked in The Matrix, "what is real?"

Morpheus is indeed illustrating a position of philosophical realism, that although perception may create a false reality - there is in fact another reality, a universal truth that remains true even if unknown or rejected.  I, like most theists, gravitate toward this school of the absolute. Plato illustrated this same concept with an allegory of the cave and shadows of reality, coming to the same conclusion: while truth exists independent of our perception, our definition of the real is often warped by our own experience.  But how does one mine the true from the untrue?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, speaking through his fictional character Sherlock Holmes, proposed that "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."  Although I agree that the truth is often considered improbable, I must also admit that such a statement is only plausible coming from a fictional super-detective.  The ability to ascertain truth from clues and observation is limited, in the case of a police detective, to that which one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.  Even if he or she correctly identifies the guilty, there must be evidence, and it must be admissible.  It must be properly obtained within the confines of the law.  In short, it may not be enough to know truth - one must be able to relay it to the minds of others by means of producing something they will accept. 

Although it follows the lines of Sherlock's sentiment, I prefer the allegory set forth by Tolstoy: "Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn't gold."  In the age of the internet, Tolstoy seems even more a genius.  We have instant access to all means of "information", but as anyone can post just about anything, fool's gold abounds. If you wish to "prove" any position, a simple Google search will reveal at least one or two supporting sites. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain can be attributed with any quote you wish, instantly endorsing your favorite ideology.

While these "wrappings" are evident in all forums, perhaps none is as dangerous as those done in the name of religion.  To again quote Tolstoy, "it is terrible when people do not know God, but it is worse when people identify as God what is not God." Christianity (like most religions) centers on the word of God being absolute truth, with God being the only pure example of the ideals humans universally seek, including justice and love. Unfortunately, even divine revelation is subject to limited perception and is thus often warped and misinterpreted, both knowingly and unknowingly.

Without question, any biblical scholar must devote himself to study, but even among a small number of genuine truth seekers there will be conflict.  I know of some who believe God has condoned the practice of (earthly) capital punishment, for example, while others are convinced that Christians are called to oppose the practice and defend life.  In both cases, I respect those positions and know they were not arrived at lightly.  As I wrote about several weeks ago, it is quite possible to have two people from the same congregation with conflicting interpretations of the account of creation that begins Genesis.  Many groups consider the Bible to be inerrant, some do not. Reading the same book, some will be inclined more toward pacifism than others.  Some will argue against the consumption of alcohol, some will lean more Arminian, some will insist a pre-tribulation rapture must take place.  Everyone's theology is a little different.

This leads me to the conclusion that every believer inevitably has at least a position or two that is in error, myself included. Even with the best resources, humans can't help but make mistakes. Absolute truth most certainly exists, but no one can claim to know it completely. There is an important distinction to be made, though it so rarely is: absolute truth exists, but your perception (or mine) of what it is may not be entirely correct. A disagreement on one's biblical position is not equivalent to disagreement with the word itself, only to an interpretation of it, and if we can be honest with ourselves, many of the details are relatively inconsequential. 

Seek God. Seek justice, seek truth. Accept that we will all fail to comprehend these fully. To err is human, but fortunately for us all, there is divine forgiveness.

1 comment:

  1. Exit Music: