[asa] Truth

From: Merv <mrb22667@kansas.net>
Date: Wed May 30 2007 - 01:35:25 EDT

James Dobson has kicked off an outreach called the "Truth Project"
http://www.thetruthproject.org/about/

It has polished multimedia flash & bang, and is apparently exciting
small group audiences around the nation. While I gravitated to the
"science" lesson first to note the celebrated correlation between
evolution & evil in the world, I did find their first lesson
(veritology) to be truly thought provoking. Truth, Dr. Tackett tells
us, is that which accurately mirrors reality. I found myself in full
agreement with that statement (who wouldn't be?), but with some
inexplicable troubling of spirit. I am re-reading "Being Reasonable
About Religion" (2006) by William Charlton (the book I am supposed to be
submitting a review on one of these days.) and it provided an
interesting counter-point to this "mirror" truth assertion that made me
wonder where I stood. Partly inspired by the "Truth Project" above, and
mostly drawing on influence from having read "Being Reasonable...", I
composed an essay to organize my thoughts. (This is NOT the book
review, but only draws on Charlton for inspiration.)

For any who care to read several pages worth pasted in below and give
feedback -- thank you.

Truth & our approaches to it

Truth has been defined by some scientific thinkers and Christians alike,
as "that which mirrors reality". It is an empirical approach that
places high value on actual observable reality, and measures the truth
of any statement by how well it matches that reality. And very few,
outside perhaps a few modern sophists, would bother to question this.
And even among self-styled post-modern cynics, we could argue that,
despite their attempts at universal skepticism, they don't really
question this when it comes to practical choices of life.

Some, of the "softer" sciences and humanities have attempted a revenge
on "harder" sciences by demoting them to "just another" category of
thought that could have no more claim on truth than any other. And to
this, a physicist may respond with all the vehemence of any religious
apologist defending absolutes: "but these effects are directly and
repeatedly observable! --airplanes fly, electricity shocks you... here,
let's measure it together!" And, of course, on the Christian side of
things, we are just as eager to see that same defense of Christian
doctrines, and we take up arms along side the physicist, albeit while
fighting for an expanded set of truths. But on the question: "should
truth be (at least in principle) empirically observable to everybody?"
we seem to be in full agreement.

I don't wish to challenge the above assertion, but I want to expand on
it. Such empiricism, began to be embraced at beginnings of modern
science in Galileo's time. (And even then, academia fought it tooth and
nail.) As this conflict found its way into religious/scientific
controversies of the nineteenth & twentieth centuries, something of
empiricism was "smuggled" into Christian thought (particularly those who
would describe themselves as Biblical inerrantists) that failed to
register on their radars and might have merited their critical objection
if they had noticed it. And that loaded assumption is this: All truth
claims must be subject to empirical testability (at least in principle)
or such empirical evidence as what a historian or archaeologist can
muster. I.e. truth (if it is to earn that label) must match empirical
reality in every way we can possibly observe. This is not to say such
Christians believe empirical methods can reveal all truth. But, they
accepted the empiricists' claim to absolute veto power. E.g. if a
Scriptural claim or promise is given, and our direct observations
contradict that claim, then our observations trump our understanding of
Scripture, and it is our understanding of Scripture which must change.
Hence, the importance of the "science" label to creation science
promoters. This granted "veto power" given to empiricism is not a
bad thing, except that it has significantly changed the answer to "what
is truth". We have swallowed empiricism with a vengeance, and it has
become our measure (and more importantly -- our limiter) of truth. I am
using the term 'empirical' in a slightly wider sense than the physical
scientist would, by including such things as historical scholarship.

So on a question of, say, the account of Job, or of Jonah, while it may
be noted that the accounts seem mostly beyond our historical-empirical
investigation, nevertheless, inerrantists have allowed empirical thought
to frame how they think of those events. The over-riding question is
the literal truth of those accounts. If it was the case that one of
these accounts did not happen in the way described (i.e. it is either
wholly or in part "merely a story"), and some overwhelming evidence
compelled the inerrantist to accept this, then it would be a severe
(maybe even fatal) blow, in his estimate, to Scriptural integrity. The
literal historical truth of the story is the only truth that counts,
because this is the only kind of truth that (again -- in principle) is
empirical. Any other "truth" or theological teaching to be found in
the story is a lesser truth because of its subjectivity and its
immunity to empirical verification. But an inerrantist believes all
accounts (which are not explicitly labeled as parables) must be
historically accurate as well as true in every subjective sense, so any
empirical challenge to any of it is a challenge to the whole
enterprise. Either it is true, or it is not. --that could be the
empiricists' battle cry.

The literal inerrantists' hostility towards non-empirical
interpretations of Scripture is very understandable, since such
subjectivity invites the believer to "spiritualize" away any account
that is deemed miraculous or incredible -- right up to the resurrection
of Christ himself. This is a very real danger that will often be
referred to as a "slippery slope" by those who maintain their position
solidly on literal inerrancy. And anyone else who does not maintain
such a stand should acknowledge the intellectually attractive &
progressive nature of these doubts. It is much simpler, though not
necessarily easier, to maintain one's stand on one extreme or the
other. Those on the "it's just a story" extreme probably have lost any
faith except in a pragmatic sense of "what works for me" as they attempt
to retain the benefits of a social club that occasionally recites
extraneous ritualistic words.

But on the other side, the literalist must be careful in their readings
(and even in their study of Scripture itself) that any apparent
discrepancies in even the minutest details must be resolved so as to
preserve the literal truth of the whole. The reader is then, forever
the detective on the lookout for any difficulties at the literal level &
how to resolve them, which often distracts from the intended message.

It is also hard to maintain any position between these extremes, as one
is always pulling against the tempting slippage towards more and more
marginalization of God's work in this world until He is not seen, by our
estimate, to have ever done anything spectacular in any observable
sense. That cannot be a faithful reading of what Scripture tells us.
There is no easy answer to this for a mature Christian who wishes to
delve into Scripture and ask all the hard questions of it. But we
aren't called to be intellectually lazy.

I agree that truth is a mirror of reality provided that the said
"reality" is not limited to the empiricist domain. Christians accept
that there is a God who is not (like the Greek gods) a mere part of the
universe, but who caused it to be. So there is at least one truth a
Christian must hold beyond empirical reach (let alone angels, demons,
spirits, our own souls...) that require us to consider that the Bible
speaks of more than just this world. In 1 John 4 we are asked, if we
cannot love our brother whom we can see, how can we love God who is
unseen? Faith alone reaches some places where empiricism must drop by
the wayside. Scriptures speak of this world, to be sure, and what
empirical truth we can know does rightly influence how we understand
Scripture. But our understanding of many passages should not be limited
to mere empirical truth which, by itself, is the wisdom of this world.
It isn't that some deeper Truth may contradict empirical truth.
Logically, that is impossible. Rather, Scriptural Truth may sometimes
go in directions where empirical truth cannot follow. And that may be
where we have the most to learn about a world that makes this world look
like the grass of the field which is here today and gone tomorrow.

Have I, as some would accuse, simply smuggled in a "let's be
intellectually respectable" card that will allow me to pick and choose
what I want to consider physically true so as not to have to believe
anything too embarrassing? Well -- I believe God raised Jesus from the
dead (both in the physical sense and more). And I believe God created
the universe and everything in it, and did (literally) many other
miraculous things described in the Bible. If He can do that, then
obviously it isn't a question for me of what He can do. It is a
question of knowing, through accurate understanding of Scripture, what
He /has done/.

We also are much in need of correction in our false assumption that God
only acts in special cases we call miracles. Actually, God causes the
sun to rise and the rain to fall... He does it all whether we can give
a natural explanation for it or not. Providence within God-given
natural laws is not to be disdained. If, for example, it was strong
wind that brought & removed the locusts on Egypt, it is still no less an
act of God (Exo 10:13, 19). If he mediates his actions by working
through natural laws, He is still just as sovereign in that event. But
that is all a departure from the main subject of this essay, though it
does show precedence for God choosing to operate within natural laws --
giving at least some Biblical endorsement to the speculation that He may
prefer to work that way most of the time.

For understanding we have much direct & indirect empirical knowledge on
which to lean. And just as importantly, we have the Word, the Holy
Spirit, & the body of Christ (i.e. ALL Christians whatever their views
on these issues) all working in combination to teach and admonish us
regarding not only this world, but also in a domain that empirical
knowledge can't reach that must remain in the eyes of faith until such
time as it can become knowledge. That requires a certain humility of
readers to realize they may not yet have the last word on how a passage
is significant. But it also requires us not to hide behind that
humility as an excuse not to witness confidently of God's work in this
world. That is the excuse I am too prone to raise.

--Merv Bitikofer

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Received on Wed May 30 01:31:14 2007

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