One of the interesting realities we now live in is that we cannot agree on what is the basic reality of truth. For some, “truth” is used to ostracize, correct, bully and hurt people. For others “truth” is about what can be described and measured in the physical world. For others, “truth” is a social construct that is a collective consensus about what will make humanity happy. And still others think that truth does not exist at all, or at least its unknowable; they think that truth is a subjective reality and that each person has a right to decide what is true for himself or herself.
And when it comes to religious truth, it is laughed at as not a serious form of inquiry and study. Religious truth for living life and to navigate reality has been marginalized to those poor souls who need an “opiate” for their survival. It is seen as useless as a newspaper horoscope.
Yet, does political truth, scientific truth, postmodern truth, or the truth of utilitarianism actually help us answer the deepest questions of life? At least since the time of Socrates, and I am convinced much earlier than that, humanity has sought to answer the following questions:
- What is the purpose of human life and why do I exist?
- What is goodness and how do I live a good life?
- Is there a divine presence that gives order, meaning and purpose to life, and does this divine presence promise life after death?
And for all the good of scientific knowledge, the philosophy of the enlightenment and postmodernity, their answers to these questions leave me fundamentally realizing that they give no compelling answers. At least for me.
At the center of this conversation for two millennia stands Jesus of Nazareth. This marginalized prophet has shaped our culture more than any other man who has ever existed. Hate him or love him, he stands as perhaps the most brilliant thinker humanity has ever had.
Jesus said he embodied truth. One wonders if when Jesus says truth and the folks on tv declare their truth, or the scientist shares the truths from telescopes and microscopes, or the modern or postmodern philosophers share their truths, if everyone is talking about the same thing.
One of the things that I am deeply interested in is to know the truth that Jesus said he represented and to see personally if he answers adequately the big questions of human life. So, I am on a personal crusade to know and challenge the definitions of truth that now flood our minds and compare them to how Jesus defines truth. I want to discern what is the nature of his truth and I want to know how to use “Jesus truth” in the most helpful and appropriate ways. I desire to extract principles for life from what he taught and lived.
First, we need to define truth. I think many of us define truth as objective reality–what can be measured, categorized and dissected. For example when I say, “the moon is up in space, going a certain speed, weighs a certain amount and orbiting around the earth”, I observe the physical world and then make linguistic representations of those observations. This is the truth of modernity. But objective truth (perhaps scientific truth is a better phrase) has its limits. It cannot tell me what is beautiful. It cannot tell me what is the nature of courage, compassion or love. It can describe synoptic firings and sociological stats but it cannot tell me why something is valuable (like why we love Mozart). In other words, it cannot tell me in any adequate way answers to the questions humanity has been asking for millennia. In fact, it has no framework to ask such questions or seek adequate answers.
The philosophers have been seeking truth too. They have been on the journey of defining truth for millennia. To their credit, they have been asking the right questions but their answers have sometimes done more harm than good.
Pre-modern philosophers answered these questions primarily through a deep belief in a metaphysical world. It was a time of myth, magic and mystery. It was also a time of deep human suffering. Everything was a spirit or force and the powerful used the spiritual to do horrendous things. Pre-modernity got many things wrong but it grounded truth in an eternal, spiritual universe. It gave sure answers to the big questions even if it did it at the expense (often but not always) of human dignity.
The modern era brought logic, science and it demystified the world. There weren’t spirits everywhere but atoms and gravity. It was also the rise of individualism, rationalism, and capitalism. And eventually science and rationality usurped truth as a reality and knowledge needed to live well and instead became about observation and individual autonomy. But at some point in the 19th century and surely by the early 20th century, truth as objective reality and a rationalistic endeavor just wasn’t answering the big questions. And this was mostly because our progress in science, rationalism and individual determination had shown (supposedly) that there was no god and we were an accident of accidents and our existence is just a whiff in cosmic time. For all the good of this era (in which we still live), it killed humanity’s eternal soul.
From there postmodernity was born in the quest for truth. Science, rationalism, naturalism and capitalism gave us freedom and a better quality of life but left the big questions unanswered in any compelling way. If god is dead, it must be that each person must answer these questions on her own if it is even worth trying. Truth is relative and unknown. And what might be true for you, might not be true for others. Subjective truth was embraced on a culturally wide scale. If you want to see philosophy in action, try and talk about moral absolutes with a teenager. You might be shocked by what you hear. The results have been catastrophic. There is something in humanity that is driven to find the answers to these questions and if there are no real answers, the only reality is suffering, pain and impending annihilation.
Religion used to give us seemingly good answers, then it was science and rationalism, and then subjectivity. But when these didn’t work, we still kept hunting for the answers. It is as if the questions of existence, meaning and our future is written in the depths of our souls. They demand answers. And so out of profound need, we began to find comfort and grounding by joining groups of those who share a similar truth as we embrace. Gay, straight, conservative, Marxist, atheist, religious, transgender, and the list goes on and on. If you want to understand the current political and ideological groups that permeate culture, you must understand that they are our current answers to the big questions of life. But now the game has changed. Culture has told us that we must make up truth for ourselves. Truth is found not in its universal objectivity but where I can find some comfort, happiness and protection from the winds of nihilism. Ideological groups are the new religion. Here, truth has become synonymous to gaining power for my group, being free to paint truth/reality as I see fit, getting as much happiness as I can grasp in my mortal hands, and protecting myself from other groups who might hurt me or seek to impose their truths on me. The goal is to be among friends like me, enjoying the few decades on this speck of dirt before we are extinguished forever. Hopefully forgetting what we have been told that nothing matters at all except what our imaginations can project as meaning.
This is the best humanity has collectively done in finding truth, in answering the big questions of life.
But in the midst of all of this stands Jesus and his truth.
He said things like,
come to me who are heavy burden and I’ll give you rest.
“I am the way, the truth and the life.”
“Know the truth and it will set you free”.
He defines truth not as a personal journey of self discovery or measurements about the objective world, or a cultural invention but truth for Jesus is this: the knowledge that the human person needs that enables him or her to flourish in human life; it is the truth that enables humanity to navigate the physical world, our time in it and prepares us for life beyond physical death. Truth is the good and purpose-filled life.
It must be stated that His truth is at the center of every serious quest to answer the big questions whether the inquirers hate him or love him. They all know that though Jesus has been relegated to death and comfort, he spoke much more about this life than anything else. Every philosopher, theologian and thinker in western culture for 2000 years has had to reckon with the words, life and worldview of Jesus. He stands in brilliance because he, the man from Galilee is responsible, more than any other, for the framework of truth that has made our civilization possible.
And he says plainly that his truth is testable. He says we can follow him and experience the very life he had. Trust him, follow him and you will find his truth causing your life to flourish just like he said. The New Testament makes clear that the truth of Jesus can be applied right now and you can see results right now. This enables anyone who is a serious inquirer to see whether Jesus has truth or not.
So from Jesus’ point of view, his truth is the reality that I must know and live to do well in this world and the next.
So here are some working principles that I am seeking to live by as I seek the truth that Jesus offers.
— I define truth as the knowledge I need to experientially live the answers to the big questions of life. I know I am living in truth when my life works, I am experienced as good by others and I find satisfaction in my particular life situation. It must work in real life or I haven’t found the truth.
—Truth can be known and it is essential to be known for human flourishing.
—Jesus asserts his truth as the best information on living life and the best answers for the big questions of existence. This necessarily means other truths are less true than his truth.
—I trust Jesus and trust him as the Lord of truth.
—The Bible is where his truth is found.
—I ought to work hard to know HIS truth and apply it.
—I am a pastor so I am to help others discern the truth that will help them flourish.
—This necessitates that I engage others’ truths to discern what is really true for the flourishing of individuals, families, the church and culture.
—The truth of Jesus and the character of Jesus are inseparable. I must share Jesus’ truth in the way he himself shared it. If I do not, then I am revealing that I don’t, yet, fully know the truth he taught.**
Notice that I intentionally reject a group identity schema that pits groups against one another for the sake of power. It is not about idealogical groups that decide who is in and who is out. Truth is not a commodity of power. It isn’t about winning in some political or cultural sense. It is all about helping people find their way in this life and the next.
It also rejects the postmodern assertion that truth is unknowable. I hear this all the time mostly from compassionate but mistaken Christians. If truth is knowledge needed for human flourishing provided by Jesus, then it can be known and we must find it for the sake of our lives and the world.
Finally, this asserts that truth is much more than what can be seen, measured, categorized and observed. For all the good that such knowledge might produce, it cannot help in answering the biggest questions of human existence. If Jesus is right, truth is rooted in his father’s kingdom.
In these principles I embrace the way of Jesus: I am part of a kingdom community of ragtag nobodies bounded not by race, education, economics, moral strength or politics but instead by the crucified and risen Lord. We are following him and learning to live life in the way he intends. He says that such a life is embracing a cruciform life in hope of spectacular resurrection… it is the way to find out personally and collectively the answers to the deepest questions of existence.
We live such a journey humbly because his truth isn’t truth that merely make us right in arguments but his truth is a gift that truly set us free. It enables us to truly live. We aren’t playing the game of ideologies. We are living a life and helping others to do the same.
But we boldly proclaim his truth. Believing in the depths of our being from experience and what he revealed that his truth is the only truth that can help us flourish as human persons and prepare us for our destinies in the eternal cosmos.
In this kingdom all are welcome. He loves everyone and will start with them wherever they are at. This is what he preached and practiced. He is patient, kind and generous in his love. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to prove he is right. For that I am thankful. But every journey with him is one into truth, reality and human flourishing. His truth is lovingly severe and exacting. It will root out all untruth from our existence or we can’t live his truth. He loves everyone but you can’t know the truth, you can’t know him, until the brightness of reality invades every part of life. And so he says, “follow me” …. “come and die”, “lose your life so that you might find it.”
Sounds like the truth to me.