Pastors’ Blog

ABSOLUTE TRUTH AND PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE: YOU CAN BELIEVE IN BOTH

Categories: Apologetics and Philosophy

“My truth” vs “The truth.” “Facts” vs “perspective.” These kinds of debates permeate the western world. There are many meaningful and potentially productive discussions that can not get anywhere because people disagree about either the nature of truth itself, or the firmness of their own personal grasp on it. Sometimes it seems like the greater mass of people is divided into two basic categories: those who deny absolute truth and those who think their personal grasp on the truth is absolutely correct. I would submit that a careful examination of these to perspectives reveals both to be preposterous.

Consider for one moment the oft-repeated statement “there are no absolutes.” I have know many children who are able to piece together that this is a self-refuting statement. It presents a denial of absolutes in an absolute statement. Going deeper, a denial of the absoluteness of any absolute statement automatically creates another absolute statement. If I were to say, “Jean Claude Van Damme is the greatest movie star of all time.” This would be one absolute statement. If you were to (incorrectly) say “No he is not,” you would have countered my absolute statement with an alternate absolute. If you go further, and say that movie star greatness is a matter of opinion, therefore, there can be no absolute standard for greatest-movie-star-ness, you have now made an absolute statement about the relativeness of this question. In other words, you have stated with certainty that the identity of the greatest movie star of all time cannot be established as a universal fact.

On the other hand, we have many who not only believe that absolute truth exists, but also believe that they themselves are in possession of it because they are able to see the facts clearly. After all, who can argue with facts? I am reminded of the following dialogue in the Seinfeld episode titled “The Maestro:”

MAESTRO: You know, I’m sorry but, I didn’t mention it earlier but actually I prefer to be called Maestro.

ELAINE: Excuse me?

MAESTRO: Well, ya know I am a conductor.

ELAINE: Yeah, so?

MAESTRO: Oh I suppose it’s O.K. for Leonard Burnstein to be called Maestro because he conducted the New York Philharmonic. So he gets to be called Maestro and I don’t.

ELAINE: Well, I mean don’t you think that he was probably called Maestro while he was conducting, not in social situations. I mean his friends probably just called him Lenny.

MAESTRO: I happen to know for a fact, that he was called Maestro in social situations. I once saw him at a bar and someone came up to him and said “Hello Maestro, how about a beer”. O.K. So that’s a fact.

In the case, the Maestro was in possession of a fact, needing no interpretation whatsoever, which objectively proved that Elaine should call him “Maestro” rather than “Bob.” I use similar reasoning to prove all sorts of factual points to my wife, and yet she is so prone to rejecting the clear evidence of the facts.[1]

How can we navigate the ground between our absolute truth deniers and our objective fact holders? I think the answer lies in a little good theology and a lot of humility.

“Absolute truth” means truth that is true whether anyone knows it, and independently of how anyone feels about it. Another way to say it is that absolute truth refers to truth that is true whether anyone believes is or not. The reality of absolute truth begins with understanding the attributes of God. A study of the attributes of God fits into the category that we call “theology proper,” so named because it examines the truth about God that lays the foundation for all other theological study. Virtually any good Evangelical Systematic Theology will begin with a study of theology proper. I would encourage anyone wanting a more thorough discussion of the attributes of God to do some further reading.[2] But I want to focus on two attributes in particular that relate to absolute truth: Omnipotence and Omniscience.

Omnipotence combines the omni prefix with the Latin word potentia, meaning “Power.” God’s omnipotence means that He is all powerful. God’s omnipotence is seen in His ability to create the Universe from nothing, as well as His miracles which violate the natural order (which He Himself put in place). The word “Almighty” is used 56 times in the Bible, only referring to God.[3]

Omniscience comes from the Latin prefix Omni, meaning “All.” Scientia is the Latin word for “Knowledge.” To be Omniscient means “to know all.” To say that God is omniscient means that God knows everything. God is the only being in the universe of which this is true.[4]

God’s omnipotence means, among other things, that he created everything that exists. This means that the Universe does exist. The sun is real, the ocean is real, etc. If you consider the existence of the universe obvious apart from belief in God, all I can say is you really need to read more philosophy. You haven’t thought nearly deeply enough about this. But more on that later.

Omniscience means that there is no fact that God does not have. New information often causes human beings to re-evaluate things they thought they knew (though not nearly often enough), but this never happens with God because there is no new information for Him. He has it all. This means that when God says something is true we can accept it as true. We can know that nothing will sideswipe Him. If you are starting to see that this means that one must believe in God for this approach to truth to work, congratulations! You are tracking with me.

The fact that there is a God who determines absolute truth through absolute power and absolute knowledge does not mean that you or I are objective evaluators of what that truth is. To understand this fully we must embark on a crash course in the history of philosophy. For most of human history, the main question under discussion by philosophers was “what is the world/universe made of?” We call this ontology, or the study of being/existence. All of this changed with a man named René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes was a brilliant mathematician and scientist. His contributions to geometry were an important contribution to mathematics. But the greatest waves he made were in philosophy. So much so that his writings caused what is sometimes called “the cartesian shift.” He shifted the main subject of philosophical inquiry from ontology to epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It asks, “how do we know what we know?” In Descartes’ view, something could not be known for certain unless it could not be doubted. This is sometimes called “radical doubt.” This premise led Descartes to a crisis of faith (Descartes was a Christian) which the religious establishment of his day could not help him with. He felt that to have any objective basis for knowledge, he had to find at least one fact that could not be doubted. Finally, he landed on one such fact: The existence of his mind. Recognizing that it might be possible for him to be deceived about everything else he thought he knew, there was still something that was thinking. This was summarized in the Latin phrase Cogito, ergo sum – “I think, therefore, I am.” Using this point as a beginning, Descartes constructed philosophical arguments for the existence of God using a variation of the classic Ontological argument.

The ontological argument essentially says “God is greater than every other imaginable thing, therefore God must exist. Otherwise there would be possible to imagine something greater, namely, something that actually exists.” Believe it or not, a lot of smart people have found this argument very compelling. To others (myself included), it seems like a very silly argument. After Descartes, most philosophers were willing to grant his inception point, “I think therefore I am.” But most were not willing to grant his follow up points. What this has given us is a bunch of people who can be sure of their own existence (in some form or other), but little else. Philosophers have basically responded to Descartes in two different ways: 1. They accepted the premise of radical doubt and determined that true knowledge is impossible (e.g., David Hume, Fredrich Nietzsche), or 2. They determined that Descartes’ premise of radical doubt was incorrect, and it was possible to know things even if it was also possible to doubt them (e.g., Immanuel Kant, George Berkeley).

We can agree that Descartes’ radical doubt approach to truth was wrong without diminishing his great contribution to modern thinking. The fact that Descartes lived before the computer age and the potential for virtual reality makes his observations all that more brilliant. Most people throughout history would have thought that Descartes ideas were “just stupid” because they can measure the world around them by their senses. “I see, hear and feel the world, so of course it’s real.” But the reality is that the senses can be deceived. An octagonal shaped tower looks round from a distance. People see mirages in the desert. If you stick your left hand into a bucket of freezing cold water and your right into a bucket of hot water, then stick both in a lukewarm bucket, the the temperature of the water in the third bucket will seem to be different on to the two hands. Then of course, there are hallucinations that the hallucinator thinks are real. Again, one might argue that these are exceptional cases, but that the senses are generally reliable and that shared sensory experience is a good, objective guide to truth. Enter VR.

I think of two of my favorite sci-fi series to illustrate this point rather well. These are the Matrix films produced by the Wachowski siblings, and the Mortality Doctrine novels by James Dashner.

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not watched or read these series, and you plan to, then you may want to do that before you continue reading.

In the Matrix, real human beings are cerebrally plugged into a sophisticated virtual reality program, but most of them have no idea because the program is so good. The mortality doctrine series is similar but has a different twist. In the fictional future, human beings deliberately plug themselves into virtual world called “The VertNet” to play games and do various activities. The protagonist of the story is a boy named Michael who spends most of his time in the VertNet. By the end of the story, the reader discovers what he or she has long expected. Michael is not a real boy at all, but a sentient program so well designed that he thinks he is real.

Suddenly, Descartes’ point seems a little less silly. I am not suggesting that we all might be humans plugged into a sophisticated VR program, much less that we are sentient programs that think we are real boys and girls. My point is this: “If we were, and the program was good enough, how would we know?” We wouldn’t! Like Descartes, we would know that something was thinking, be it real boy or computer program, but we couldn’t get any farther that that using only reason. So much for your objectivity.

Does that mean that we can’t know anything beyond our own existence? I personally don’t think so (though Hume, Nietzsche and other great minds would disagree). But it does mean that you must believe something before you can really know anything. Almost anything we believe; we believe because a credible person said it. Most of us accept that the photos from the Hubble Telescope are genuine, though most us have never seen the Hubble Telescope or understand exactly how it works. Most of us believe DNA sequences exist even though we have never seen one. We could cite many, many examples to illustrate the fact that the world is full of people of faith in one thing or another.

This is why a classical Christian approach to knowledge is summarized in the phrase “faith seeking understanding.” This approach to knowledge was first articulated by St. Augustine and reaffirmed by Anselm of Canterbury. These two teachers of the past understood what Descartes missed. It is not possible to build a knowledge base from scratch.

Putting all of this together, we see that there are two possible ways to know something for sure. Either you can know everything (be omniscient), or someone who knows everything must tell you, and you must believe them. Without omniscience, there is always the possibility that one fact can change everything, much like Neo’s red pill.

This is where the Christian doctrine of divine revelation becomes important. We have access to absolute truth because God has revealed it in the Bible. This also explains why Christians (and Muslims and Jews) tend to believe in absolute truth, while non-Christians often do not. Apart from an omniscient and omnipotent God, truth would certainly be relative. He exists, so it is not!

Buuuuuuuuuuuuut…..remember that it is God who is omniscient. You are not. God objectively navigates facts. You are always affected by your biases and prejudices. People who believe the Bible is the Word of God typically agree on many points: That God exists, that He created the world, that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, that Jesus died on the Cross and rose again, etc. But we don’t agree on everything. In fact, we don’t agree on a lot of things. How can that be if God’s Word gives us objective truth? Because we are not objective people.

This is where we need a lot of humility. We need to have enough humility to understand that truth and perspective are not enemies. We need to understand that, when we listen to the perspectives of others, this is one way we can get closer to knowing the absolute truth. My theological education at Dallas Seminary had a heavy influence on church history and historical theology. Why? Because the professors understood that we are often blinded by 21st century biases, and sometimes the perspectives of non-21st century theologians help us see outside of them. Irenaeus, Augustine, Anselm and Luther had their biases, but so do I. While they did not have the benefit of my insights (now might be a good time to say “thank God”), I do have the benefit of theirs.

And today, with the blessings of modern technology, I can listen to the perspectives of Bible believers around the world. Humility says that listening to the perspectives of Christians of different nations and different cultures within my own nation better enable me to understand God’s absolute truth.

Why does this matter? Because in our current cultural climate may Christians are quite resistant to hearing other perspectives. For instance, some say “I don’t need to hear black evangelical perspectives, I just need to read the Bible and access God’s absolute truth.” Some seem to believe that any other approach is a denial of absolute truth. This approach assumes not only the objectivity of God, but the objectivity of one particular man or woman, whoever oneself may be. This is the height of arrogance.

Once again, I say, the antidote is a little good theology and a lot of humility. God is omniscient. You are not. God is objective, you are not. Do not swerve in your commitment to absolute truth but be humble enough to realize that your own personal perspective is not necessarily the same thing. Love others enough to listen, and love God enough to realize that you just might be wrong.


[1] Just in case anyone did not catch that that was a joke, it was.

[2] For a good, understandable introduction, see Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986). Many have also found Wayne Grudem’s text helpful. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).

[3] Gen 1; Exod 6:3; Rev 1:8, 19:6.

[4] Job 23:10; Psalm 33:11-13, 92:5, 139; Isa 46:10; Luke 12:6-7.

Author: Pete Vik

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