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Fr. Glenn: ‘What Is Truth?’

on November 5, 2017 - 6:21am
By Rev. Glenn Jones
Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church
Los Alamos

One thing very all too evident in our day is the impatience and incivility manifested in so much of our public (and likely, private) discussion. I often lament to hear of persons walking out on talks, lectures, sermons/homilies etc., simply because some (even perhaps all) of the speaker’s points do not coincide with the “walker’s” own ideas.

One wonders how the walker will understand accurately the speaker’s views and ideas if exiting the moment he hears something “offensive” or not in accord with his own? After all, are we so very sure of our own opinions and beliefs as to brook no challenge or believe no refinement is necessary or even possible? What if the speaker’s ideas are that which we had never considered, or he has data of which we were theretofore ignorant? We might even discover that we’ve been (gasp!) wrong!

Hopefully most people DO at least try to think through their own views and opinions rather than simply holding with unthinking stubbornness to what’s popular (or unpopular). Attitudes of intolerance can smack of pride (“My brilliance is unassailable!”), and/or fear of having one’s own “apple cart” upended, having no recourse to reasoned defense. But if one’s positions/ideas cannot stand up to scrutiny, what’s the point of having them? The crucible of thoughtful, sincere, polite, and yet rigorous inquiry helps remove the dross of error, leaving the purity of truth remaining.   

“What is truth?” That famous question directed at Jesus by Pontius Pilate (John 18:38) seems as if it wouldn’t be so difficult a question to answer, but “truth” has been the subject of philosophy, science and religion since the dawn of Man, and to find it the deepest longing of human consciousness.

Disregarding for the moment Rene Descartes’ famous “I think, therefore I am”…(with his lesser-known continuation of “but I can’t be sure of much else!”) argument, defines truth as “the true or actual state of a matter … conformity with fact or reality”. Simply put, truth IS what IS—reality stripped of misconception, imagination and delusion. After all, scientists become scientists to search for truth in nature. Theologians become theologians—and philosophers, philosophers—in so as to search for that truth which is not discoverable by physical sense alone.

In the real search for truth, one must be ever ready—and even eager—to cede victory in argument in favor of truth, for if one ardently longs for truth, his objective cannot be any other than acquiring knowledge of what really is. The goal ought be to understand, not trivialities such as winning an argument. After all, a victory for error is no victory at all; quite the contrary. A focus on “winning” regardless of error leads to deformations of truth—whether distortions, false emphases, omissions or outright lies—and is why we so often and so unnecessarily scream over politics, religion, science, etc. 

In its search for truths of nature, science has an advantage: it can rely on the concrete tangibility of the senses, mathematics and human innovation to find ways of enhancing ways of further discovery. Truth in religion is much more difficult to discern, as religion does not lend itself to test tube or measuring rod. Because clear verifiable evidence is not nearly as readily available in religion, much may depend on faith and reasoned speculation.

Sometimes data is lacking—both in religion and science—and one therefore takes a position on faith, so aptly defined in scripture as “…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) This is the case in religion AND science. The scientist may advance his conviction—his theory—using best available data, and other scientists criticize it (hopefully constructively)—the very purpose of peer review. While science has the advantage of working with the physically-discernible, religion by its very nature depends much more on faith (though evidence is by no means entirely lacking … if one seeks it). This does not necessarily make a religion less true, only less readily verifiable—just as a blind man may not see the stars, yet the stars exist nonetheless.

But … oh, so many religions, each with varying branches and interpretations/denominations. Like with scientific theories, one—or none—must be right and truth; how can it be otherwise? As in science, reliance is on data, and the ultimate “data” of Judaism and Christianity, at least, is scripture … and, most of all for Christians, Jesus Christ. As scientists agree on much but not all, so do Christians agree on much of theology, yet with varying interpretations on some. 

Yet we must be wary of “making God in our image” by ignoring or even distorting data to fit our own preconceptions, or like a resident of Plato’s Cave (“The Republic”, Book VII), refuse to seek the light of truth, preferring the comfort of the non-challenging and familiar—either the scientist or the religious. Real truth is objective, not subjective; it is how/what things really are … how what is, IS … which cannot but recall to Jewish/Christian mind: “I AM WHO AM” (Exodus 3:14).

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. It is what is. For Christians, the answer lay unmistakably in Jesus’ declaration: I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)