Truth and true things

There’s one in every family, and in my family, I’m it. There’s always one person who knows what’s going on. One who decides the schedule, keeps the calendar, makes the to do lists and gets the “to dos” done. It’s part of being human, I think, to want to find and create order, to organize and evaluate. Certainly some of us tolerate more disorder than others of us, but even messy people have their systems, a way they make sense of and organize their lives.

We want our lives to make sense. We want a certain amount of order. We want the parts of our lives to fit together and make sense. Our desire to understand goes beyond our personal, daily lives.Not only do we want our individual lives to make sense, we want the world to make sense.  We work hard to find meaning, order and structure.

  Chaos to order. That’s the story of the cosmos and deeply part of who we are. We want to find and understand what is permanent and trustworthy and reliable. The need to understand and find meaning drives us to seek the truth. And that is what makes us, both the scientists and the theologians,  explorers looking for the truth. Truth seeking is an important part of being human.

But, being human, we take a step beyond seeking and understanding.  We claim it. Give it a name and do our best to own it. Because, once we have found the truth, once we understand the truth, well, who can then disagree with us? Really, it’s only logical that those who know the truth, who understand the truth ought to be in charge. We think truth is power.

The search for truth, the ability to recognize and claim the truth is, deep down, what drives much of the science and religion debates.

Simply put ( and I hope not too oversimplified) both believe truth can be definitively known. Biblical literalists believe truth is found in the Bible. Scientism finds truth in the findings of science. For both groups there is an ultimate, definitive location where truth is found and anything that suggests another source of truth is not actually true and must be rejected.  What I have outlined here , of course, is the “hardliners” view, black and white, no grey at all. positions.

The difficulty Friends (on both sides) is that your truth is too small. Both groups, if they are not careful, end up reducing the truth to what can be definitely known and understood by humans. Truth becomes something we can possess, have mastery of. The truth becomes something that humans can grasp in its entirety without doubt.

It is ironic that just as believers in scientism and creationists are both Biblical literalists, they both are in some sense physicalists. (Especially when it comes to Genesis chapter one.)  Perhaps it is because they both share these views that they disagree so fiercely.

So if Genesis chapter one isn’t literally true, in a physical, historical sense, none of the Bible is true. That’s the argument of  both scientism and creationism. Both sides place a high value on the physical. 

Science, of course, can only study what physically exists. It’s concern is to understand the natural, physical world.

Out emphasis on the physical is one of the important things about Christianity. Religious belief isn’t only about the spiritual, non physical world. Christians believe this world, this physical world matters.

But at the same time, not everything that matters is reducible to the physical or material. Music is more than sound waves and ear drums. Art is more than the paint and paper, retinas and optic nerves. Love is more than hormones, pheromones, and the desire to reproduce.

We know this intuitively. If you have ever been unexpectedly moved to tears by a work of art. If a song can takes you back to college. If the smell of fried chicken takes you back to Sunday dinner at Grandma’s.  If you have ever fallen in love. You know that truth cannot be reduced only to the physical. The physical is part of it, we are physical beings. But at the same time, our lives and the world consist of more than the physical. There is something about life than cannot be reduced only to the physical.

If you have been reading carefully, by now you may have noticed I am using the word truth in two senses. There are true things we are able to know and there is “Truth”.

For me, I find I have to remind myself periodically of this. I don’t know if it’s my training in science, or theology, or merely the fact that  I am human, but if I’m not mindful I can mistake knowable, true things for truth.

There are many, many true things we can know. Science and religion as bodies of knowledge both can teach us many true things.  But we must be careful not to confuse true things with truth. We need to be careful with our language and our thinking to keep the distinction clear.

Many scientists will express a sense of awe and wonder as they contemplate the cosmos they investigate. There is a sense of a grandeur, of something wonderful that exists beyond themselves.

Christians believe that we cannot know all there is to know about God. We can know some things, but other things lie far beyond our knowing. For Christians truth isn’t discovered. For Christians, truth is a person, Jesus. Truth is someone who knows us and with whom we develop a relationship.

 There is a sense of mystery present in the universe than neither science nor religion can fully know or explain.

So the next time you are in a discussion about truth, it might not hurt to remind yourself that we can know and speak about many, many truth things. Of truth,we should perhaps be more circumspect in our speech. Humility in the presence of truth is a good thing.

I’d like to know, what do you think?


Those of you who pay attention to things in the sidebar will have noticed the High Calling Blogs badge. Conversation in Faith is now part of this network of bloggers who write about faith and our daily work (which includes but is also more than, our paid jobs.) I invite you to meet some of the very fine bloggers at High Calling. I think you will find the home page of the sponsoring organization The High Calling of interest as well.

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