I generally write an informal introduction to my longer blog essays, so here’s the introduction to this one. I tend to imagine progressives as those who think that the newer idea is generally better and conservatives as those those who think that the older idea is generally better. By those criteria, I’m neither a good progressive nor a good conservative, but in this case, I do think that older conceptions of truth are in fact better than Enlightenment and High Modern-era conceptions, so it works out nicely for this blog. My philosophy professor from college, Phil Kenneson, wrote a very good essay entitled “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and it’s a Good Thing, Too” more than a decade ago, and in that essay he explores postmodern alternatives to Objective Truth. So as not to duplicate what is already a very good essay, I’m going to explore older models of truth that can be helpful in a postmodern context. That might not make any sense, so this seems to be a good time to launch into the first part of the essay:
Video Killed the Premodern Star
One of Hegel’s valid insights is that history renders all of human life radically contingent. Not only the technologies we use and the political realities in which we operate but also the categories with which we apprehend the world, the expectations we have of those different from us, and our definitions of sameness and difference change with history. I begin with this tidbit because some people fall to the temptation to call themselves “premodern” because they happen to like the Cappadocians more than the German Idealists or the French Deconstructionists. Alas, history will not allow premodernism to most of us living in 2007.
Suppose a person in 2007 considers himself an Augustinian. (I for one do.) Whatever else that entails, the person who constructs himself thus (if he wishes to be aware of his historical moment) also must decide on his relationships with deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, consumerism, environmentalism, and a host of other ideologies that Saint Anselm, just to use a ready example, never had to worry about. Thus while both might be meaningfully Augustinian, Nathan Gilmour is a post-Freudian Augustinian, while Anselm neither was nor could be.
Such is not to condemn Gilmour or Anselm (though Gilmour gets edgy putting his name in the same clause with giants) but to note that each is Augustinian in a different era and thus in a different way. In fact, one could reasonably assert that a Kantian in 2007 must be a post-modern Kantian, something that a Kantian in 1850 would not have to be. To call someone a post-modern modernist sounds contradictory, but such is the power of history.
All that engine-revving is simply for the sake of this point: the Augustinian, Calvinist, and Edwardian resources I set forth in this essay, if they are to be useful at all, must be post-modern resources. Unlike Anselm, a Christian in 2007 chooses to think like Augustine against the competing philosophical concerns of the epistemologists. So with that assumption in place, I will begin working backwards in time, beginning with a rival to the epistemologists and ending this part of the essay with the text of the Bible itself. At each stage of this philosophical survey, my focus will be on the metaphors with which each writer treats truth. The final part of this essay, forthcoming in a few days, will examine some problems with Objective Truth philosophically and propose a few ways of thinking about truth.
Jonathan Edwards: “A Divine and Supernatural Light”
One of the joys of contributing to a project like CRM is that I can talk about Jonathan Edwards with someone other than English teachers, who as a group tend to treat him as a character in a Hawthorne story. Edwards’s sermon that I teach when I teach American literature is not the more famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon that stirs up fears of a Protestant planet but does little Protestant theology (Dante would say amen to most of it) but “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” where he actually talks about how the Scriptures are true.
As I noted in part one, Objective Truth begins with the assumption that truth means basically the capacity for a spoken or written sentence to mirror exactly the true character of an object. So if the sentence “David wrote Psalm 51” is objectively true, then anyone, irrespective of time, place, salvation, or anything else, can apprehend in that sentence the precise character of the material world at the moment when a human being named David wrote a text called “Psalm 51.” Such a narrow view of truth would bore Edwards. When he talks about the cognitive effects of redemption, truth has to do not with a mirror but with appreciation and apprehension precisely of things unseen:
As the prejudices that are in the heart, against the truth of divine things, are hereby removed; so that the mind becomes susceptive of the due force of rational arguments for their truth. The mind of man is naturally full of prejudices against the truth of divine things: it is full of enmity against the doctrines of the gospel; which is a disadvantage to those arguments that prove their truth, and causes them to lose their force upon the mind. But when a person has discovered to him the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.
Hence was the different effect that Christ’s miracles had to convince the disciples, from what they had to convince the Scribes and Pharisees. Not that they had a stronger reason, or had their reason more improved; but their reason was sanctified, and those blinding prejudices, that the Scribes and the Pharisees were under, were removed by the sense they had of the excellency of Christ, and his doctrine. (A Jonathan Edwards Reader 112-113)
So for Edwards, truth is not a mirror but a measurement, a judgment of excellence or foolishness. The truth is not an object or even a correspondence between objects and sentences but the harmony of a teaching with divine reality. What stands important in Edwards’s sermon is not that all humans have innate capabilities to apprehend objects (they don’t make up the sum total of reality, after all) but that God has given to some the capacity to apprehend the goodness of God’s redemption.
Edwards illuminates the first important objection that I have to Objective Truth: When evangelical apologists use the phrase, they usually aren’t talking about objects. The example I gave above has to do with an object, a text on a page. But “Jesus died for our sins” is not an object but a historical event, and more than that a historical event loaded with theological meaning. If somebody does not believe it, as Edwards so nicely puts it, the best way to account for disbelief is not a faulty philosophy of material things but a Sin-damaged capacity to love divine things. And if someone believes and follows Christ, the Church should rejoice not that statements about objects mirror the actual nature of the objects but that God has seen fit to remedy the damage that Sin has done to that human creature’s mind.
In other words, Edwards, writing during that time when the Enlightenment was at the height of its powers, rejects the claim that real knowledge is universal, applicable to anyone with the ability to cogitate or to sense the material world. Instead, this sermon insists, a real apprehension of truth happens only when God saves a soul (that is to say, a rational entity capable of but fallen from Truth) from the errors of the world. In this sermon, Edwards situates truth in a biblical narrative, asserts that, like bodies that get sick and friends who die, creaturely reason that rejects its Creator’s call is part of a fallen world, and the important thing for coming to Christ and living rightly in God’s creation is not objects but redemption.
So in the twenty-first century, removed as we are from Descartes and Locke and Kant by hundreds of years, a reclamation of Jonathan Edwards’s way of talking about truth is not difficult: unlike the other texts that I’m going to examine, he knew well the projects of the rationalists and empiricists and rejected them for Biblical reasons. He knew that, irrespective of their truth, some would reject the teachings of the apostles, and his account for such was not to redefine universally accessible truth but to note, with the text of the Bible, that not all seeds fall on good soil. Edwards lived a couple generations before Hegel’s influence, but nonetheless one could imagine, as a postmodern, that he would have rejected Hegel’s materialism and would have continued to proclaim that only the eyes of the redeemed can see true things.
John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Calvin, writing as he did a couple centuries before Edwards, was not concerned with the Enlightenment, and such a lack of concern can be instructive. His actual treatment of objects is an interesting place to start a discussion of Calvin and truth:
On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity.
Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. Nay, the bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. If, at mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. (Institutes 1.1.2)
Did you catch the objective truth in there? Calvin uses objects as illustrations of a moral principle, but his working assumption is that human senses can only apprehend the lowest of objects (that is to say the dirt and not the sun). Thus Calvin thinks that human reason can apprehend some objects but would wonder, I imagine, why we moderns get so excited about seeing dirt.
On the other hand, when Calvin deals with those realities that are unseen to the unredeemed eye, the truth of which he speaks draws on classical rather than objectivist vocabularies:
Since, then, the Lord first appears, as well in the creation of the world as in the general doctrine of Scripture, simply as a Creator, and afterwards as a Redeemer in Christ,—a twofold knowledge of him hence arises: of these the former is now to be considered, the latter will afterwards follow in its order. But although our mind cannot conceive of God, without rendering some worship to him, it will not, however, be sufficient simply to hold that he is the only being whom all ought to worship and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of all goodness, and that
we must seek everything in him, and in none but him. My meaning is: we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and Judgment, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or
wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety, out of which religion springs. (Institutes 1.2.1)
Although exegesis of these two passages would be a worthwhile endeavor, I simply point to the model of truth that Calvin assumes. In the first of these two passages Calvin echoes the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic and sets up a discussion of truth in Plato’s categories. In Plato’s model, the truth is not something immediately available to all people but comes as a result of educational discipline, a lifetime of learning to see what is not readily apparent. In his allegory, the student’s eventual ability to gaze at the sun and to apprehend its true Beauty is the height of such philosophic contemplation. Calvin takes Plato’s image and situates it within a Christian narrative: the natural eye, unable to gaze upon the sun and to discern definite shape (as a PSA, please don’t stare at the sun), is like the natural Reason, unable, when gazing upon God, to see the form of goodness because the fallen eye, like the fallen Reason, becomes dazzled. Likewise, the true moral goodness is not visible to all so that anybody can discern God’s ultimate good. Instead, most people can only tell general differences, can see only white when a sharper eye can see tints of yellow and brown.
To bring the discussion back to Objective Truth, Calvin often uses optical metaphors when talking about morality and theology, and in almost every case, his stance is a skepticism conditioned by Christian salvation narrative. In other words, Calvin does not seem to expect that the unredeemed will see Creation as Creation, much less as redeemed Creation, unless God has given them the grace that is a look into divine goodness (that is to say, unless they’re not unredeemed). Thus the primary concern of the Objective Truth strand of modern-era apologetics would seem, I think, a rather strange concern to Calvin.
What I have written here is barely a sample of Calvin’s Platonic views of truth; a good read of the Institutes will reveal that time after time, Calvin writes about truth as something given at redemption because it was lost at the fall, and when he does acknowledge a common human knowledge of objects, it is not for him a major concern but a basic concession from which he builds a theological point. At no point do I imagine Calvin getting entirely excited about human beings’ abilities to speak sentences that correspond to material objects; he has his eyes on more important truths.
These are merely two writers from the Reformed tradition who see no need for Objective Truth; a survey of Christian thought, from the Bible forward, will reveal that Objective Truth is really a niche market, the obsession of a few, historically, who have become convinced that the Enlightenment project has gotten the philosophical game right up until the last few steps. For the rest of us, historically, truth means not exclusively correspondence of objects and sentences but also harmony with God’s goodness and illumination of reality by means of God’s grace.
In the next and (hopefully) last segment of this series of blog posts, I will examine some of the philosophical problems with bringing Objective Truth into a Biblical framework and propose one (not by any means the only) alternative for conceiving of the true and truth with Biblical vocabularies.