Jesus answered . . . “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.1
Truth is a loaded topic. But as the quote above suggests, debate about the meaning of truth is nothing new. In fact, some of the earliest literature we have probes the depths of the great question, “What is truth?”
Over 2,300 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle mused that truth must correspond to reality—to what we can see and know.2 In subsequent millennia, countless definitions of truth have been proposed. These include the coherence theory, constructivist theory, pragmatic theory, consensus theory, performance theory, and many, many others.
A quick scan of a contemporary newspaper or magazine reveals fierce debate about what’s true in politics, relationships, the media, sports, and religion. And, for better or worse, responses to these questions are about as numerous as there are people to respond. “What is truth?” is not an easy question to answer.
We instruct the youngest members of our society, “Tell the truth!” We implore the oldest, “Please pass on the wisdom (i.e., truth) you’ve discovered!” But what do these sentiments really mean?
The pursuit of truth is indelibly written on the hearts of every human being. And though the pursuit is universal, agreement on the essence of truth is not. Unfortunately, the more fundamental the question, the more emotionally charged the issue becomes.
In recent times, truth has been questioned perhaps like never before. In fact, rather than proposing a new “theory of truth,” as in days gone by, philosophers are actually questioning the whole pursuit of truth itself.
Friedrich Nietzsche, the renowned German philosopher, set off this trend by suggesting, “‘Truth’ is nothing more than the invention of fixed conventions for merely practical purposes, especially those of repose, security and consistence.”3 For Nietzsche, truth is merely what works or what a person could use to suit his or her own interests.
Fast-forward more than one hundred years, and many people—whether knowingly or not—have adopted Nietzsche’s philosophy. Rather than viewing truth as corresponding to something outside of us—that which we can see, touch, or measure—truth is defined as something within us.
From this stance, truth is highly subjective and relative. A signature of postmodern thought, this relativistic view of truth is a reaction to modernism and its tendency to recognize only objective truth.
Religion in particular seems to be one of the most explosive—and consequently avoided—truth discussions. And for good reasons: Religious people are often hard-headed and closed-minded about their opinions of what’s true and what’s not. Add to this the fact that religion is often linked to enmity and even violence, and it’s easy to see why truth is such a hot-button issue.
Yet the fact of the matter is that the pursuit of truth will not go away. As history has demonstrated and human nature bears out, we will always be drawn to consider what’s true and what’s not.
So how does one rationally consider these claims to determine the truth when it comes to emotional issues like religion and politics?
There are functionally two components to any conversation. One is content: “What do you believe about X?” The second is posture: “How do you state your opinion on X?”
More simply put, there is what you say and how you say it. Of course, both components of conversation can elicit highly emotional responses. But most often the second component, posture, is the culprit. When someone mandates his or her opinion in a judgmental, triumphant, or condescending way, it’s hard not to become defensive.
Why, then, are many people turned off when Christians talk about truth claims?
It usually has little to do with the actual content of their presentation. Generally speaking, people are willing to consider the opinions of others, even if they disagree with them at first. Unfortunately, the posture with which Christians deliver their opinions is often disrespectful and lacking in humility.4
In fact, a recent study of young people’s opinions reveals that over 85 percent believe Christians are judgmental and hypocritical.5 Because of this, many Christians are beginning to take a more humble approach to discussions around faith and truth.
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller recounts a time when he and his friends created a confession booth in the middle of their college campus. Ironically, the purpose of the confession booth was not to hear confessions; it was to confess their own faults to their fellow students: “We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. . . . We will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus.”6
Can I make a definitive statement about what I believe to be true? Yes. Will my definition necessarily equate to yours? No.
Though a viewpoint—a “truth”—that is different from our own can be alarming at first, this is no reason to cease to communicate and live harmoniously. To discover the answer to the question of what truth is, all people—regardless of religion, ethnicity, or age—must be willing to engage in a humble dialogue.
I invite you to join this conversation by sharing your thoughts and questions.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 18:37b–38.
- “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” Aristotle, Metaphysics (Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications, 2009), section 1011b25, 104.
- Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” section 2: Early Writings: 1872–1876, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 30, 1997, last updated April 29, 2011, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/#EarWri187187.
- Ironically, one passage frequently quoted by Christians is 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Unfortunately, what’s so often omitted is the last half of that verse, which says, “But do this with gentleness and respect.”
- David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons, UnChristian (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 27.
- Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 118.
- Photo Credit: pefostudio5 / Shutterstock.com.