What is truth? Good question. I asked a bunch of theologians to answer it without crossing their fingers and here are their answers from Transforming Theology. Below I took a stab at the question in response.
Truth is dangerous business. Truth is really dangerous when it comes to religion. It is definitely not a fashionable topic to bring up at the dinner table and yet there is something about being human that makes us ask the question, ‘What is truth?’ Often the reason the question of truth is skirted is because it assumes the discussion is related to absolute truth. Absolute truth or universal truth focuses on truths that correspond to reality regardless of the context, time, place, situation, etc. Clearly if one had access or possession of an absolute truth it would really silence the conversation at the dinner table. The only options for those hearing the truth would be to accept it or face the consequences. The history of Christianity is full of moments where individuals or groups thought they had possession of truth wrapped up tight in their hands and went out on behalf of the truth of God to share it and compel people to accept it. On occasion, they even did this in very violent ways. Between the inquisitions, witch trials, crusades, colonizing, and abortion clinic attacks, it is safe to say we should definitely be suspect of those who think they possess truth absolutely.
“Never swallow anything whole. We live perforce by half-truths and get along fairly well as long as we do not mistake them for whole-truths, but when we do mistake them, they raise the devil with us.”, Alfred North Whitehead
If we are to reject the absolutism of truth how can we answer the question what is truth? In avoiding the discussion altogether we are tempted to resort to a strong form of relativism and not for bad reasons. We know just from personal experience alone that there is a plurality of truth. We know people who live beautiful and gracious lives in a diversity of religious traditions, and it is their own understanding of truth for them that compels them. To live with open eyes today is to live in a plurality of truth claims, be it from other Christians, a Jewish co-worker, or agnostic neighbor. Many of us have a felt desire to affirm the goodness of their life, their experience, and their truth because of its effects on their lives. If we want to affirm the plurality of truth, recognize its relativity, and reject absolutizing truth, how are we to talk about truth? What is truth? Can we answer the question as a person of faith without crossing our fingers? After all, it would seem that any affirmative answer neglects what we want to affirm in the lives of our neighbors. At the same time we also really want to reject some understandings of truth. We want to say no, genocide is wrong, Hitler Germany was immoral and we want to say it with the same passion that we celebrate the saintliness of people from many faiths.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts., Isaiah 55: 8-9
Luckily the possession of truth is not native to the Christian faith. Sure we can know God and even have some confidence about who we are relating to, but that is a ways away from possessing the truth ourselves. Being known by the Truth and knowing the truth are very different. Only God can possess the truth (thank God) and we are in the business of beautiful approximations, or as Paul said concluding his famous reflection on love, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Notice Paul’s use of first and second person. The communal ‘we’ sees, albeit dimly, while the individual ‘I’ knows only a partitioned piece. If truth is not something we have but something God has then it makes sense that we will know more of the truth together. When we bring the diversity of our experiences, insights, and stories together there is a better chance of ‘seeing’ the truth. In a very real sense we get closer to the truth by expanding the conversation, not limiting it. This is not a leap into blind relativism, but the recognition that the God we desire to know exists on and beyond the boundaries within which we so often attempt to put the Creator in. It follows that to be open to discovering God on the other side of our boundaries is part of recognizing the universal nature of the God who issues the call to ‘follow me’ into every particular context.
‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’, John 14:6
When it comes to religion, truth often gets thrown around as a way of disregarding people of other faiths. The refrain from the Gospel of John has become a particular mantra for many conservative Christians in their dismissal of other faith traditions. The problem with using the text that way is that it makes the text an answer to a question Jesus was not asked. In the gospel, Jesus, surrounded by his disciples, is asked by Thomas, “we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” The point of Jesus’ answer is not the distribution of some special knowledge that leads to eternal salvation or some particular theological doctrines about the divinity of Jesus and what was accomplished on the cross, In this conversation Jesus is making clear that truth is tied up in a form of life. Both here and after the resurrection Thomas wanted to know things objectively, he wanted to touch the risen Jesus and here he asks for a detailed map and itinerary for union with God, when all the while Jesus was already bringing it to them through their relationships. As Jesus says in the following verse, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” The truth Jesus gets at is a way of living into the reality of God’s grace in the world. Tom Reynolds refers to this as the “Truth-Effect.” When we come to understand truth as a living into grace then it becomes easy to understand talk about the ‘way’ and ‘life.’ When Jesus tells his disciples that he is that the way, the truth, and life to the Father and then that they have seen the Father by being his disciple, he is giving a rich description of the relational nature of truth. The truth is the way of Jesus, the life-giving way of Jesus. When you hear this text as part of a community of Jesus followers it becomes clear that when Thomas wanted a destination Jesus turned him towards the community and when Thomas wanted directions Jesus gave him a call to gracious living. The effect of truth is not the means to excluded others from God, but the call to live a life shaped by the truth, the life-giving way of Jesus.
As long as we consider truth something we possess and can grasp it, it ends up taking the shape of our hands, it has our fingerprints all over it. Jesus was wise enough to redirect the disciples from seeking objective truth about God. Objective truth is God’s business which we can attempt beautiful approximations of. God is Truth; so no truth is alien to God or forbidden to the believer and yet to realize we cannot possess the truth frees us to seek the truth. After becoming a disciple, Jesus directs us towards our neighbor and expects truth to be discovered through committed living in the way of Jesus. The nature of truth in the life of faith is in this sense subjective. As Helene Russell describes, subjective truth is the form of one’s mind and soul in relation to that which is most important, ones commitments, and way of engaging others, the world, and God. For a Christian to ask the question, what is truth subjectively is to think through how one’s awareness, experience, and living in the world can come to cohere with that of God revealed in Christ. In the words of Paul, what does it mean to let the same mind (subjectivity) be in you that was in Christ Jesus? This means there is much more to truth than coming to know something, truth is coming to embody something. To say Jesus is the truth is to say that in his life and in his way the God who is love was embodied among us and for us.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death…
even death on a cross. , Phil.2:5-8
As Christians we too come to participate in God and God comes to shape our subjectivity. God begins to make us true. Through prayer, art, worship, reflection, friendship, service, and many other practices we are shaping our subjectivity and letting the mind of Christ take root in us. Helene describes the subjectivity of one who knows the truth as one who sees all people as ‘loved and loveable’. In this simple phrase a sensitivity to the good news is expressed for if we look at anyone, regardless of difference, as loved and lovable then we relate to them without trying to erase their difference. They are not changed by us but our own subjectivity, our experience and understanding of the truth, is transformed as we emoby the truth, way, and life revealed in Jesus. To see truth through this lens connects well with Paul’s description of the mind of Christ in the Philippians hymn (2:5-11). Christian truth is misunderstood if it is grasped and exploited, instead it compels us to become a servant of all and even become vulnerable because there is no one in who is not loved and lovable.
The story of Jesus is full of examples where truth is understood and embodied in relationships. In fact a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry is his identification with the marginalized, ignored, and oppressed. The mind of Christ, the truth of Christ, is intrinsically tied to solidarity with the marginalized. There are many forms of marginalization, economic, societal, cultural, religious, ethnic, and for handicaps. To be marginalized seeing things from a different perspective, often from the underside or dark side of the culture dominant understanding of ‘truth.’ To be shaped by the experience and perspective of the marginalized can change your understanding of the truth about a subject, even a religious one. Joreg Rieger pointed out that this was what Jesus was doing in the conflicts over Sabbath healing. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus heals a woman’s arm that had been crippled for 18 years on the Sabbath. The religious leaders quote Jesus the Bible in order to demonstrate his infidelity to the truth, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ Their hypocrisy and presumptive leveling of God’s truth at him ignited Jesus’ and he replied, “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” So what is the truth about the Sabbath? Can you work? Can you give your animals water? Can you heal a woman? Can you set her free from bondage? The conflict between Jesus and the religious elites is not a conflict over the a Bible passage, but the nature of the truth to which it points. Is the Sabbath an objective truth that all people are subject to or is the truth of the Sabbath the people?