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.