Truth in a Pluralistic World

The notion of truth is under siege today. In my 35 years of teaching philosophy at secular colleges and universities, there is perhaps no other topic that sparks as much debate as the question of the existence of truth. Any time I dare to suggest that there just might be such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”, I invariably encounter a battery of standard objections, outright disbelief, and even indignation. It is as though I had suggested that the earth is flat!

Students are not alone in rejecting the idea of truth. Most everyone today thinks of truth as subjective and relative. In other words, truth is thought to reside in me or in society, and it varies with individuals or societies. The idea of “absolute truth” which is the same for all, and which is independent of what you or I, or a society, believes, is thought to be absurd. It is all a matter of opinion. And, “my opinion is as good as yours”! How many an argument or debate concludes with the words, “Well, it’s true for me”? And there is nothing more to be said after that.

Some Contributing Factors
Why is the notion of relative truth so popular today? There are a number of reasons. Truth, it is thought, judges, polarizes and divides. People who hold to absolute truth are thought to be dogmatic and intolerant. What we need instead is open-mindedness, and this is thought to exclude any affirmations of truth. “Critical thinking” is the current buzzword in education. The resulting skeptical mindset again makes it difficult to believe in truth. One of the central functions of education is to cultivate the intellectual virtue of tolerance, and tolerance is thought to mean that one refuses to judge the beliefs of others. The democratic ideal has led us to believe that truth too is determined by popular vote. Or, in keeping with the democratic ideal of equality, we have come to believe that my belief must be as good as yours – all beliefs are equally valid.

Some time ago, a student of mine, very piously proclaimed that she didn’t have a right to tell anyone what to believe. What she also meant to say was that I as a teacher also didn’t have a right to tell her what to believe. Another student wrote, “What is truth to one person may not be truth to another.”

We live in what is often referred to as the postmodern era. Postmodernism, at its core, is a reaction to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had a strong faith in objective science and universal reason as the only means to discover truth. And truth should be the same for everyone. But today, even science is under attack. It is now generally acknowledged that no person can be as objective as was assumed when modern science first emerged during the Enlightenment. Postmodernists also maintain that “reason” is not the same for everyone. All thinking is shaped by the history, the social and economic background, and even the psychology of the thinker. Some, like Walter Anderson, who has written a book with the colourful title, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be, go so far as to suggest that we construct our own realities, and that we therefore live in our own unique worlds which each of us describes in his or her own unique language (see sidebar quote below). The result – there is no objective reality and there can be no such a thing as common, absolute truth.

It should come as no surprise that in this relativistic postmodern climate, any claims to religious truth are met with a good deal of skepticism. And any suggestion that Christianity might have a corner on the truth is thought to be sheer nonsense.

Some Problems with Postmodern Relativism
But postmodernists who carry their views to an extreme like Anderson, invariably contradict themselves. They are forced to concede that we can communicate with others who disagree with us, which would suggest that our languages are not quite as different as they assume. They also seem unable to avoid talking about their postmodern viewpoint as better than that of “old-fashioned” modernism. But, better in terms of what? Better presupposes a best! Maybe there is truth with a capital “T” after all!

The private worlds of extreme postmodernists also tend not to remain entirely private. My neighbour and I simply are not living in two completely different worlds. And that is why we can talk to each other! And that is also why I could teach at a Lithuanian college, as I had the privilege of doing a few years ago, and the students were quite capable of understanding the philosophical ideas I was trying to convey.

Human constructions of reality also seem to be subject to certain constraints – I simply can’t create a reality in which I don’t get a bump on my forehead when I run into a concrete wall. It seems that the notion of an objectively “given” reality is inescapable. Indeed, there is some justification for questioning the motivation behind the very idea of constructing one’s own reality – it smacks of human pride. The “real” world has an amazing way of humiliating postmodernist artificial constructions of reality.

We also seem to find it difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense. If all truth is relative, there really is no point in arguing with someone. We should simply listen to each other, and at most, be amused at the variety of positions that we hold. But we find it hard to do so. The reason for this is that we care about truth – and about error. If truth is relative to the individual, there would also be no point in searching for solutions to the problems that we face. Deep down inside, all of us are a little afraid that what we believe to be true just might not really be true, and thus the search for “real” truth continues.

Truth and the Search for Truth
I would suggest that the all-pervasive relativism of today rests on a fundamental confusion – a failure to distinguish between truth, and our search for the truth. It is obvious that our search for truth is subjective and relative. We often find that we have to change our minds about what we believe and even about what we have claimed to know. But this in no way suggests that truth itself is relative. Indeed, we change our minds precisely because we realize that we haven’t got the truth.

There is the famous Persian story of some blind men, each describing an elephant from his limited perspective. This story is often used to illustrate the subjectivity and relativity of truth. But we forget that the story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers who are not blind and who can therefore see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant. The story only makes sense if there is a real elephant out there, which someone can see and describe more fully. Partial truth only makes sense in the light of some notion of full truth. The recognition of error presupposes Truth with a capital “T”.

Many years ago, I was teaching an evening philosophy course which a number of adults from the community were auditing for interest sake. One of my students was a physician, an agnostic with whom I had already enjoyed many an argument. In this particular class, I was once again defending the notion of Truth with a capital “T”. And then this physician spoke up: “But your notion of Truth sounds suspiciously like your notion of God.” He was right of course, though I hadn’t made any reference to God in the discussion thus far.

In order to make sense of the passionate search for truth that characterizes us as human beings, it seems that we are driven to talk about God’s all-encompassing view of truth, which will ultimately judge our limited and partial understandings of truth. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I believe in God! It is only in God’s light that I am able to see any light in this often dark and confusing world.

Religious Truth
What about religious truth? It is especially here where the arguments for subjectivity and relative truth would seem to be most appropriate. After all, there are many religions, each claiming to be the truth. But the fact that people differ, does not prove that they ought to differ. There was a time when there were conflicting opinions with regard to the shape of the earth. Some people thought that it was flat and some people thought it was round. But we all know that the flat-earthers got it wrong!

Clearly, differences of opinion with regard to religious matters seem to be more difficult to resolve. This is because religious questions have to do with the heart of our belief systems, and therefore they are more complex than scientific questions. Also, so much is at stake with religious questions, and thus we have more difficulty approaching these questions in an open manner.

But despite the seeming difficulties in coming to agreement on religious questions, there is still a correct answer to these questions, an answer which exists independently of what anyone believes. We may in fact only be able to settle the question in a conclusive manner at the end of time. Christians maintain that there will come a time when every person will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:11). Until then we have to live with a bit of ambiguity and try as best as we know how to get as close to the right answer as we can.

Exclusive Truth Claims
No doubt there will be some readers who will find the point I have made in the last paragraph quite unpalatable. Some may have agreed with my argument up until the last paragraph. But to talk of Jesus Christ as the only Lord – surely that is being terribly presumptuous. Indeed, it is Christianity’s claim to exclusive truth that is a stumbling block for many.

I quite agree that it seems rather arrogant for Jesus to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But what if what he says is true? Surely it is equally presumptuous to arbitrarily preclude this possibility. You might argue that it is not arbitrary. Other religions make similar claims to exclusive truth, and they can’t all be right. Again, I agree that if several religions each claim to be the only truth they can’t all be right. Remember the flat-earthers! Only one can justifiably make such a claim. But one of them might just be right.

Here I would remind us that making exclusive claims is inescapable. The nature of truth is simply such that we cannot help but make exclusive truth claims. If I think that I have got it right, then, if you disagree with me, I must think that you have got it wrong. Here it might be argued that a more eclectic and non-exclusive approach to religion is more generous and more tolerant. But, to claim that truth is found in all religions is still to make an exclusive claim – namely, that those who disagree with this are wrong. The eclectic and inclusive approach to religious claims is in fact very ungenerous and intolerant with regard to religions that make exclusive truth claims. We simply can’t run away from the problem. We have to face the question as to which claim to exclusive truth is in fact right.

No, it is not Christ’s exclusive claims to truth that is the problem. The real problem exists in the way in which finite and fallible human beings relate to claims like the one made by Jesus Christ. Christians need to take the words of their own Scriptures to heart: “For we know in part and prophesy in part… Now we see but a poor reflection” (I Corinthians 13:9, 12). As Christians we need to be more humble in our proclamation of the truth. After all, we can’t really take credit for the truth that we have found in Christ. And we don’t understand it as fully as we might. There is still much to learn!

On the other hand, for those who are still wondering what to make of religious truth, I would remind them that it is foolish to rule out Christ’s claims arbitrarily because they are exclusive. Instead, a more open approach to the matter is to take these claims seriously and to investigate as carefully and honestly as you can whether Jesus’ claims might in fact be true.

Some sidebar quotes:
Walter Anderson illustrates the different views of truth by telling the joke of three umpires having a beer after a baseball game. One says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way they are” (the Enlightenment view of truth which assumes there is a real world out there). Another responds, “There’s balls and there’s strikes and I call ’em the way I see ’em” (the subjective view of truth). The third says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin’ until I call ’em” (the postmodernist denial of truth and reality). (Walter Anderson, Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be)

“No seeing can be called serious which is without any clue. Wandering about in a twilight where all cats are grey is not seeking truth.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

“The absolutely true, meaning what no further experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge.” (William James)

“If God held in his right hand the pure Truth, and in his left, the perpetual striving for Truth, and said to me, “Choose,” I would respond, “Give me the left, despite the danger of error; the pure Truth is for Thee alone.” (Lessing)

“An important part of our own commitment to one particular tradition or faith standpoint will be our desire to share this outlook with others, to testify to its truth, to express the universal intent attaching to it by exposing others to it, engaging in the humble task of persuasion not in order to suppress or curb the holding of other points of view, but in order that others might be free to consider ours and to explore the possibilities inherent within it as an account of the truth….[T]he condition under which such testimony or witness must be engaged in is a willingness to consider the views held by others, not because we are not confident in the truthfulness of our own perspectives, but precisely because we are, and because we are also more committed to truth than to our own accounts of it” (Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking).

(This article was first published in Encounter: A Mennonite Brethren Herald Special, Feb. 21, 1997, pp.14-18, and is here slightly revised.)


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