Is Truth Dead?

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Published:
March 31, 2017

The April 3, 2017, issue of Time has a cover that, if not for the changing of one word, is the exact replica of the one on the April 8, 1966, issue of the magazine. The one published fifty one years earlier had in red letters on a black field the question, “Is God Dead?” The one published this year with the same colors and the same font asks, “Is Truth Dead?” It would seem that if the answer to the first was in the affirmative the second question should have been asked much sooner. In any case, given the way things have been going on these last five decades, no matter how the first question was answered, the second was to be expected. The twenty first century, so far, has been an exhilarating toboggan ride down the path to relativism for many.

Back in 1966, the cover story dwelt on the value of theology and the state of the church. Several theologians had published books in which they reflected on the problem faced by theology when the word God becomes meaningless. Already in 1950, Anthony Flew had published an essay titled “Theology and Falsification” in which he gave a new dress to a known parable. Two explorers come to a clearing in the forest. One of them, greatly impressed by the loveliness of the place, tells the other that surely a gardener is taking care of such an awesome spot. The other agrees to the unusual beauty of the clearing but argues that it is the result of the wonderful workings of the natural world. It does not require a gardener for its existence. To decide who is correct, the explorers carry out a series of tests to provide evidence of the gardener. Watch dogs, fences, sound detectors, seismographs and other instruments are installed to reveal the presence of the gardener who works on the clearing. As these tests give negative results, the explorer affirming his existence starts qualifying the nature of the gardener. He is invisible, intractable, inaudible, etc., etc.

In sum, the parable teaches that even though the explorers are not able to prove the non-existence of a gardener who takes care of that beautiful clearing in the forest, the assumed gardener had died “the death of a thousand qualifications.” The death of God discussed by theologians in the Sixties did not filter down to the masses in the way in which they discussed it. Popularly, it had to do with the absence of God in the lives of most people. It was made a part of the cultural phenomenon called secularization. The theologians, however, were concerned with the fact that logic demands that sentences be able to stand against “falsification.” The problem for them was that the word God had lost its referent. What had died was the word God. They were not concerned with the being of God.

Besides, many things that had previously been ascribed to the workings of God could no longer be so described on account of the way in which scientific investigations were explaining the ways in which nature works. Little by little, the space where God could act, if God’s acts are thought to be interruptions in the cause and effect continuum, was becoming smaller. The process had begun with a major blow when Isaac Newton, a staunch Christian, discovered what has come to be known as the law of gravity: apparently God is not the one who drives the sun, the moon and the stars in their orbits, after all. Gravity keeps them in their orbits. The traditionalists of his day heatedly denounced his teaching as unorthodox.

The consistent denial that scientific advancements are part of an attempt to take God out of the picture has, no doubt, made a strong impact on a significant number of people in these United States to this day. As university education reached a larger segment of the population, scientific and philosophical sophistication have opened the minds of many to a wider horizon of meaning, and these developments have demanded that theologians be more aware of the frames of meaning in the minds of the people they try to serve. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, humanity has come of age. These days even three-year-olds know that their parents are the ones who give them their Christmas gifts.

On account of these developments, theology has been going through a period of transition marked by small fads of one type or another. There are no contemporary theologians attempting to come up with a magnum opus. The twentieth century saw with admiration the impressive work of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Karl Rahner. They were very different in their approaches and their conclusions, but those who disagreed with them recognized their efforts and respected their points of view. Today, theology is taking a back seat to theological ethics and spirituality, disciplines that focus on the internal and external aspects of the lives of human beings. It has become difficult to speak of what God does or is in se. Fundamentalists who claim to know God’s mind and how to interpret faithfully what, according to them, God himself/herself wrote in the Bible only communicate to their kind, whether or not they belong to the same religious denomination.

In his classic little book The Dynamics of Faith (1957), Paul Tillich makes a distinction between scientific and historical truths and the truth of faith. It is essential to recognize that not all true statements are of the same kind, and Tillich gives a clear definition of these three types of truths. To confuse one type with another is to create mental havoc and speak nonsense. A “scientific truth” is subject to scientific rejection or modification by a new discovery that passes peer review. This means a scientific truth is inherently conditioned by time. While it proves effective to predict what may be the case in related phenomena, it has practical value, but its standing is in permanent jeopardy. That is, its certainty is transient. New scientific discoveries will replace it. Even the law of gravity has recently been modified.

Academic history, the only one with standing today, was born when it adopted as its object the reconstruction of the past “as it actually happened.” Histories written before the middle of the nineteenth century were interested in using the past for contemporary needs. Their authors did not evaluate their sources critically, and they chose them according to predetermined agendas. They were not concerned with the reconstruction of the past to advance human knowledge.

Of course, this kind of “history” continues to be written to this day. All history writing, it must be admitted, is an activity carried out by individuals who are themselves within the stream of history and have opinions about its wellbeing. This means that scientific norms of objectivity can never be met by historians. In spite of very determined efforts to tell what actually happened, academic historians only achieve different degrees of probability for their efforts.  Peer review among historians never comes up with exactly the same results because, unlike scientists who can repeat experiments in order to check results or review evidence in situ or in a lab, what happened yesterday is no longer available. Historians who aim to reconstruct the past can never be certain that they have actually done so. Different historians giving an account of a past event attain only approximations to what “actually happened.” Readers of their accounts are free to judge the percentage of probability attained by different historians. Unlike scientific truth whose certainty is transient, even the best historical writing does not attain to certainty. It can only have a high degree of probability.

The truth of faith, on the other hand, cannot be modified or proven wrong by new discoveries or be sustained by a high degree of probability. It requires total certainty. This means that the truth of faith is neither scientific nor historical, and that no scientific or historical statement can claim to be a truth of faith. Their truth is that of scientific and historical statements, period. Statements about history and nature found in the Bible are not truths of faith. Neither are they scientific or historical because the Bible was written before the establishment of science and academic history. The Bible is a testament to the faith in the Creator God of the Hebrews and the faith of the followers of Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles, in God’s re-Creation by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

Within the Bible, we find that several events are told more than once and that the various accounts differ in significant details, at times contradicting each other. The explanation for this is quite simple. The authors were not historians whose aim was to reconstruct the past “as it actually happened.” They used the past for a contemporary need. That is what all historians of antiquity did. In modern times, many have attempted to reconstruct the life of Jesus “as it actually happened.” So far, there have been three Quests of the Historical Jesus. Each was pursued by several scholars using different presuppositions, and each has ended in open failures. The criteria being used to evaluate the authenticity of different sources according to degrees of probability fail consistently to attain a consensus. What Albert Schweitzer said in 1911 of the first quest, I think, is true of all three. Each attempt says more about its author than about Jesus of Nazareth.

The fact that science and history fail to confirm the truth of the Bible, however, should not be a problem for the faithful. Whether the Bible is or is not a good book of science or history, according to modern cannons, is not something that should disturb those who share the faith of the writers of the Bible. The truth of the Bible is a truth of faith, and as such, it rests on the certainty provided by the Spirit that moved over the waters to bring about God’s Creation and that raised Christ from the dead to bring about a New Creation. To express their faith both the ancient witnesses and the present witnesses of the work of the Spirit depend on the language at their disposal. But their expressions never reach the reality of what God is doing. Besides, their expressions make it clear that their language is to be understood in reference to a reality they can never know. Human language can only speak the truth of faith analogically or metaphorically.

The gospel According to John speaks of signs. They are markers on the road leading to a destination, but they should never be confused with the eternal truth. Their significance is bound to their function as pointers to what is actually Significant. Tillich in his little book insists that the really outstanding thing about Christianity is that it has a cross as its central sign. Given all we know about crucifixions, it is impossible to make an idol out of a crucifixion. It is, therefore, somewhat astonishing to see superstitious distortions of the cross of Christ. As an event of the past the crucifixion of Jesus may be reconstructed with all the characteristics of historical reconstructions that achieve various degrees of probability. Not too long ago archaeology proved that all crucifixes are visually incorrect. As the truth of faith, what God did in Christ can never be reconstructed by any historian or artist.

The certainty required by the truth of faith can only be had on God the Creator. Faith can only be placed on a person, never on information of any kind. Information belongs in the realm of science and history. That is the difference between faith and hope. Paul already realized the difference and said that we are saved by faith (Rom. 3:22) and in hope (Rom. 8:24). Hope functions in the imagination where scenarios that become information are created. That is why what believers hope for is not even close to the reality that they will encounter at the consummation of all things (1 Cor. 2:9, paraphrasing Is. 64:4). The scenarios hope envisions only have various degrees of probability. The truth of faith is certain because it is fixed on God. When certainty is fixed on descriptions, it is not a truth of faith but a superstition dealing with idols.

Time’s question “Is Truth Dead?” was prompted by what is happening in the public square in the United States. Its relevance is in the context in which the cover article deals with it. It has to do with the turmoil being experienced in the United States because spin, alternative facts, hyperbolic truth, and, as Stephen Colbert famously put it, truthiness, what science and history prove to be falsehoods, are paraded as truth. The word post-truth is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary to refer to these falsehoods. The president of the country, a former promoter and salesman (professions distinguished by the ability to bend the truth), has become the most visible purveyor of such “truths.” Time’s article is concerned for the future of the country when it is impossible to know what exactly the president believes because facts are exempt from scientific or historical tests of authenticity. In this context, it is quite sobering having to admit that Christians have been persistently promoting information that is subject to scientific and historical verification as truths of faith. By attaching faith to idols, they have been contributing to the obfuscation of what is true.

The gospel According to John reveals that the Truth is not something to be stored in the mind but something to be lived by the power of the Giver of Life and Truth. If we were to understand truth in Platonic terms, truth is the essence which all true statements share. That may be applicable to scientific and historical truths. The Truth of faith, however, is not the essence of esoteric information. It is the essence of the life of God. In this gospel, believers are those who live abundantly because as disciples of Jesus they abide in the Truth (Jn. 10:10; 8:31). Both faith and hope ought to be examined critically so as not to be manipulated by idols and mirages. According to Paul, Christian faith is built on the faith of Abraham. To be noticed is that Abraham did not believe the promise. He believed in God, the One who promised. Because he responded to God with faith, he received the promise, and a promise sparks hope. Hope requires descriptions built by the imagination. Faith has God as its object, and its certainty is experiential.

 

Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana.

Cover typography courtesy of Time Magazine.

 

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