Subjective, Objective, True: Part 3

Well, I’ve found my first two posts on the CRM website fun, and since Don Jeff seems to like what I’ve been posting, I think I might just post some more. This part of the essay was the most fun of the three to write, mainly because as an English teacher, I spend more time analyzing texts than constructing philosophical arguments. With this post perhaps you’ll see why I teach English. 🙂 I’ll begin with some purely philosophical problems with Objective Truth and move on, hopefully, to a more compelling and older way to think and write about Truth.

Some Problems with Objective Truth

The purely philosophical difficulty with Objective Truth is that it pretends to certainty without recourse to authoritarian claims while in fact relying upon an arbitrary, infinite, axiomatic regress.

Wow, that sentence was fun to type.

Now let me break that down. As I’ve noted in previous parts, the Enlightenment in general and Objective Truth in particular sets out to establish the nature of universal knowledge, those things that anyone and everyone can know without having been given anything by any tradition or community. (Tradition and community are pretty much synonymous, but that can wait for another time.) However, in order to get to that universality, Objective Truth must make assertions vulnerable to infinite regress. Allow me a demonstration.

Let us say that sentence 1 is “Socrates knows Athens.”
Then let us say that sentence 2 is “Sentence A is objectively true.”

In order to demonstrate the truth of sentence 2, one would need a further sentence 3 that reads, “Sentence 2 is objectively true.” Otherwise sentence B might just be an assertion; someone other than speaker 2 would have to speak the sentence. And then “Sentence 3 is objectively true,” and then “Sentence 4 is objectively true,” and so on. Because any sentence has a speaker, true Objective Truth requires that some final observer of the sentence and the thing itself stand everywhere, knowing everything, yet stand nowhere, because a speaker standing somewhere would necessitate the sentence X + 1, “Sentence X is objectively true.”

Now that voice from nowhere is philosophically possible; the ultimate negation could be the ultimate source of truth, if one is attempting a nihilistic philosophy. However, in a philosophy that does not end with a nowhere, one must eventually stop comparing this sentence with that and trust a speaker. That means that the Objective Truth train has to stop at the Scriptural text if one is really to trust the Scriptural text. To make claims of Objective Truth of Scripture is to appeal to Scripture +1. And eventually, if one follows the Objective Truth tracks to the end, one always ends nowhere.

And since nihilism is not my aim, I end my discussion of the logical problems there.

Certainly Paul would not have engaged in the silliness that I did above, but he does avoid the correspondence trap when he writes about the Scriptures:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (1 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)

Paul does not fall into the trap of seeking a viewpoint from nowhere but places his confidence in the God-breathedness (or divine inspiration, if one prefers Latinisms) of the Scriptures. Whether or not what God says is objectively true does not concern Paul; that God says it (and that Paul believes it) settles it. (I always wanted to use that line in a theological essay.) Rather than seeking objective correspondence, Paul sees Wisdom in the Scriptures and in the God who gives Scriptures, not in the correspondence between the Scriptures and some unnamed Objective reality. Using terminology that invokes the books of Proverbs and Job, Paul points to the Bible (as he knew it) as a good gift, something that God has bestowed for good use by God’s people. To demand some kind of (impossible) epistemological proof from those holy words would be, I think, a kind of blasphemy in Paul’s eyes.

Flowing from that logical problem, as is already becoming evident, is an ethical shortcoming: such a methodology positions its wielder to suffer the classical vice of pride. In the Greek tragedies, the main tragic character (usually the king) often falls into ruin because he overreaches the proper place of a human being, presuming power or fortitude beyond human capacities. In Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Oedipus tries to overcome the word of an oracle. In Medea by Euripedes, Jason ignores the powers of sorcery and revenge in his quest for social power. And in Antigone by Sophocles, King Creon attempts to exert divine power over his subjects, withholding his dead enemies from the gods by denying them ritual burial.

Like Oedipus, those who would hold forth Objective Truth miss the inevitability of such a philosophy’s contradictions and the ruin that such a contradiction brings.

Like Jason, Objective Truthers ignore the materialism and radical doubt that drives the modern epistemological project, and like Jason, they’re likely to lose all that is dear to them.

And in a similar manner to Creon’s overreach, philosophies of Objective Truth would withhold trust from the Scriptures unless they prove to match up with material objects. Such moves, intended, I’m sure, to impress skeptics, overreach the place of humans, who are to be tested by the Creator, not to test the Creator.

In other words, whatever else we Christians do when we pursue truth (you like that, Jeff?), we must hold to our place, not as those who put God to the test but as those who gird up our loins like men and answer. Our place as creatures and as Christians (to use Calvin’s two major categories of how God relates to humans) is not to hold up what has been handed down until it can prove its own Objective Truth; our place is to receive the good gifts of God and to proclaim their goodness to the nations.

An Attempt at an Alternative

The immediate objection that I anticipate is that, without some recourse to a super-individual measurement, nobody has a reason to believe the claims that we Christians make about reality and morality and even God. My response would be that genuinely Christian truth, like any other genuine truth, must convince before it coheres. Such will be my final proposal relative to Objective Truth, and it should suffice at least to start a good discussion.

Probably my favorite Biblical saying involving the truth is from John : “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32, NRSV). I don’t know why revolutionaries in history have appealed to me (Edmund Burke, conservative extraordinaire, was not nearly as impressed), but the connection between truth and freedom has always rung true. Now when Marxists talk about Objective Truth, they appeal to one of those revolutionary truth-freedom junctures: if indeed the working class knows the truth, that what we see of objects is all the truth there is, then they will be motivated to organize in this world rather than waiting for the next, and freedom thus becomes the end of history.

However, the John passage includes more than the truth-freedom juncture: the freedom that Jesus offers is in the context of discipleship. In the Greco-Roman world, one became a disciple of a teacher in order to be initiated into modes of cognition and existence not available otherwise. Rabbis would attract students seeking Wisdom. Stoics would draw students into an ascetic way of life for the sake of inner peace. Plato’s Academy set up an entire school dedicated to the exploration of what cannot be seen, only apprehended through the intellect. Likewise, when Jesus links discipleship and truth and freedom as he does, he relies on the ancient assumption that the truth, being a good worth dedicating one’s life to, involves a completely different way of life on the parts of those who would seek it. Later in John Jesus connects the Way and the Truth and the Life explicitly in a passage that I should not even have to quote on a conservative evangelical blog.

Thus truth, after the manner of the gospel of John, is always connected with discipleship and always leads to a way of living from heaven, not from earth. If I might hazard a guess about you, the reader, I’m going to guess that over the course of the last paragraph, you’ve not given a single thought to subjects and objects. If I’m wrong, say so in the comments section. My point, though, is that the Bible itself is rich enough in Truth-talk (I’ve not even scratched the surface of the gospel of John) that our theological task could begin just with those few hundred pages on which printers print the New Testament and go from there, never quite exhausting that gift as we expound on it, and the response of the world, as Jonathan Edwards has told us, will be joyous acceptance on the parts of those who have taken up God’s grace and rejection on the parts of those who would still oppose God’s redemption. The task of theology, whatever else it is, ought to be the proclamation of compelling accounts of the gospel using the language of the Bible.

The last few paragraphs have the feeling of a sermon for a reason: the truth, if we take it in the Bible’s terms, is not the object of a philosophical investigation but a proclamation, a declaration of God’s victory through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah over the powers of sin and death. Such a proclamation comes out of a particular time and place and makes claims over the most contested (sin) and uncontestable (death) realities that the world knows. To compress all of that into simple correspondence not only loses much of the truth’s power to set free but also imprisons it to whatever anyone, no matter what one’s history with the gospel and with sin, can know at any time without any help from any tradition. The Bible simply tells a different (and a better) story.

So after all of that painful history of philosophy, I leave the reader with a vague direction for future truth-talk: make it compelling. Proclaim the gospel with all the art and all the heart of one whom God has saved and is saving and will save. Understanding is a worthy goal, but faithfulness must seek it. Philosophy is a fine pursuit for many things (I plan to write some more for this very blog), but theology, that formalized kind of prayer in which we make explicit precisely to which God we pray, must come not from the universally known but from the sent-forth. That sending-forth and that being-sent, that missio dei, not an appeal to God +1 in the name of Objective Truth, must be the mode by which the sent Church proclaims to the nations that Jesus saves.

[see Subjective, Objective, True: Part 1–Grammar and History and Subjective, Objective, True: Part 2]


About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


7 thoughts on “Subjective, Objective, True: Part 3

  1. >Nathan,Thank you for your feedback. Perhaps it may be better suited to dialogue via email regarding the Ooze post regarding my epistomological dilemma? Not necessarily that it is a delimma without a proper solution, but only because I am at a current impasse. I kind of chuckled to myself about it over the weekend however, especially regarding how I should answer the question, “how do we know grass is green?”, I realized, that if that is what that particular thread has evolved to, then perhaps I may as well bail on that thread and topic because our time, I consider, precious. Some may think that that is a copout, but like you, we’ve already completed our undergrad work in philosophy and passed our required tests and exams. We’ve had better profs challenge our intellect and our ability to think. I realized that, suffice to say, that I understand grass is green because it is a posteriori?? I agree that Plato is foundational as well. And, I believe that is what was taught to me by my philosophical prof and mentor. So, I’ll keep plugging along and keep raising my hand from time to time to ask more questions. I’m a bit rusty, but I thank God for peeps like you and jeff who are always a blessing to talk to and ready to give an answer, or a least direct one to the source of where to find it :)Peace

    Posted by hylander | August 7, 2007, 1:15 am
  2. >I even feel compelled to stretch my wings a bit and dive into some newly discovered waters of knowledge.And for that I thank you!You’re welcome. And thank you for the compliment. As I’ve said in the comments section of another part, I am a teacher, and it’s gratifying to see my gifts benefiting others.What are the other major perspectives or theories of truth? Are any of them complimentary to Biblical truth that you have mentioned?I see a Platonic (specifically a Republican) model informing Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Both of them imagine the Good that is God illuminating creation in ways that allow people to see what was before dark. Obviously such a picture of truth also comes from the gospel of John, especially the first chapter, but I would argue that John is also a text influenced by Plato.Such influence is not too surprising, as the Renaissance, with its focus on retrieving the ancients in their original texts, was one of many forces that spurred the Reformation. And when John was being penned, Middle Platonism was one of the main contenders for the intellects of the Empire.Since such luminaries (pun intended) as Paul (especially in Ephesians 5) and John (especially in John 1) and Augustine (especially in Confessions all seem to turn to Plato to formulate their pictures of Jesus as truth, I’m inclined also to go with Plato.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 4, 2007, 6:53 pm
  3. >Nathan,I am very impressed with what I have read. Granted, I have told this to Jeff via email already, but I have to read this level of writing slowly in order to chew on it and make sense of it. I sometimes really feel inadequate and perhaps unprepared to understand some of this. Granted, I am an undergrad in philosphy, but my emphasis was more with logic, some metaphysics and other minor disciplines. I only briefly covered epistemology. So, that being said, I am dusting off some of my old school texts and pulling out some of my old school notes to try and brush up on what I remember. I even feel compelled to stretch my wings a bit and dive into some newly discovered waters of knowledge.And for that I thank you!I appreciate your perspective. What are the other major perspectives or theories of truth? Are any of them complimentary to Biblical truth that you have mentioned?Lastly, I am stuck and have hit a wall regarding by ability to respond to Reflection in the Faith Forum under the thread entitled “What is Truth”. I don’t want to dodge the question, and I honestly wish to respond, but haven’t a clue as to how. The question is: “how do we know that grass is green?” Of course, from what little I have read, it appears that Reflection and perhaps Windblown too are of the school of thought that subscribes to Postmodern philosophy of Foucault and maybe even Derrida. I personally have not read too much on them, and from my limited knowledge, I tend to prefer the ancients like you. Anyway, based on the question regarding “how do we know grass is green”,it appears that I have attempted to discuss this issue from the correspondence theory of truth, but alas, I’m at an impasse.Any help you can provide or any resources you can refer me too would be greatly appreciated. :)Thanks!hylander

    Posted by hylander | August 3, 2007, 3:39 am
  4. >Uh oh, aren’t we rejecting objectivity in favor of subjectivity and personal experiences now? Not necessarily. As I said on the other post’s comment section, I’m going to write a bit about that neglected question.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 2, 2007, 3:23 pm
  5. >Great conclusion. Very “compelling.” 😉

    Posted by Jeff Wright | July 31, 2007, 5:30 pm
  6. >”Paul does not fall into the trap of seeking a viewpoint from nowhere but places his confidence in the God-breathedness (or divine inspiration, if one prefers Latinisms) of the Scriptures.”An expected question might be, “But how do we know that Scripture is God-breathed? Paul said it is but why am I to take Paul at his word?” This would seem to illustrate the problem of infinite regress that you spoke of. I think of Psalm 42:7 at this point, “Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me.” Uh oh, aren’t we rejecting objectivity in favor of subjectivity and personal experiences now?

    Posted by Jeff Wright | July 31, 2007, 5:22 pm
  7. >”In other words, whatever else we Christians do when we pursue truth (you like that, Jeff?), we must hold to our place, not as those who put God to the test but as those who gird up our loins like men and answer.”Yes. 🙂

    Posted by Jeff Wright | July 31, 2007, 5:12 pm

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