Friday, April 29, 2011

A Musing about the Difference between Fact and Truth

In conjunction with the work that I have done on hesychast epistemology, my mind has been continually drawn back to the question of truth: what is truth and, particularly, what distinguishes truth from fact? Several possible answers come to mind, the most obvious of which is that there is no substantial difference. If something is factually accurate than it is true. If something is a fact than it is also the truth. This certainly accords with our everyday usage of the term. A truth is the opposite of a lie, any statement which is not factually accurate. There is a sense, however, in which this understanding of a lie is dependent on this assumed definition of truth. Another option, which also finds expression in common speech, is to understand truth as that macro-reality which is the accumulation of particular facts. All the individual scientific facts which point away from an intelligent creator and toward total human autonomy make the conclusions of secular humanism true.

A decidedly less modern view of the relationships between facts and truth makes the former the common bricks of a personal or cultural paradigm and the latter the appropriation of them. The translation into the vernacular would be “what is true for you is not necessarily true for me.” Few, if any, dispute the fact that the earth is round, that gravity keeps us bound to it, and that death is the inevitable end of all. How those facts are incorporated into one another in order to shape a picture of the world shared by an ethnicity, a community, or even kept private is what constitutes truth. What is true for me in my rendering of facts is truth.

While we toy with and borrow from both the scientific and the post-scientific mindsets described above, Christians cannot draw a meaningful conception of truth from any of these suggestions. With these as our tools, how are we to meaningfully understand Jesus famous declaration in John 14:6? Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Is he the truth merely because he preached only that which was factually accurate, that which corresponded to reality? Or is he the truth because what he preached and who he was functioned for those societies, communities, and individuals who have elected to have faith in him? If he were talking to A. C. Grayling would he be forced to say, “For someone else, I am the way, the truth, and the life. I don’t work for you.”

The temptation when reading John 14 is to treat the three terms as referring to three complimentary aspects or qualities of Jesus. Undoubtedly hundreds of excellent three-point sermons have been based on this reading. After reading the hesychasts, however, I am inclined to think that all three terms are ultimate futile attempts to describe a single, ineffable reality. Jesus is not the truth because he always speaks the truth. Jesus is not the way because he is the means for getting where we are going. Jesus is not the life because he brings with him the promise of eternal life. That makes for a nice Sunday morning soporific but it ultimately trivializes the nature of Jesus. Those may be factual representations of what Jesus does but they do not get to the nature of the thing being commented on, namely what Jesus is.

Here then, is my proposal, for what the triad of epithets means, admitting beforehand that just as language proved inadequate for Jesus to convey his meaning to his disciples my own language is more feeble still. When Jesus declares that he is the truth (and all the correlative terms which aim toward the same reality), he is revealing the mystery that God, in the self-giving act of Incarnation and redemption, is the normative Reality on which all other reality is contingent for whatever truth content it may possess. Jesus is the way not because he is the means to the appropriate end but because he constitutes means themselves. Jesus is life because everything apart from the self-giving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing God who enfleshes himself is dead. It may have a heartbeat. It may have neurons firing. It is dead nevertheless. Jesus defines what life is, and his use of the term is less an accommodation to our language than it is a corrective for it.

Thus, when Jesus makes the definitive declaration about his character and claims exclusivity (“no one comes to the Father except through me”), he clues us in to the absolute and transcendent nature of these claims. Gregory Palamas rights that terms like truth “would not, properly speaking, apply to [God], or else would properly apply to [God] alone.” This is because,

Every nature is utterly remote and absolutely estranged from the divine nature. For if God is nature, other things are not nature, but if each of the other things is nature, he is not nature: just as he is not a being, if others are beings; and if he is a being, the others are not being. If you accept this as true also for wisdom and goodness and generally all the things around God or said about God, then your theology will be correct and in accord with the saints.

When we admit that Jesus is the truth and that there are no other truths, it is not merely a rejection of religious pluralism. It is a rejection of idolatry in any form. Whatever we do is either true because it imbibes of the Truth, because the Truth works in us and through us or it is a lie. In every moment we are either alive because we partake of the Life, because Life enlivens us or we are dead. For every end, we achieve through the Way because there is only the Way or our means are in fact anti-means which achieve nothing. All other grounds for all other absolutes are illusory. Only in this way does Jesus declaration fully and appropriately answer Thomas’ question, “We don’t even know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Thomas missed the mark. He was looking for a contingent means to a finite end, much in the way we often understand faith as a concert ticket into heaven. Thomas didn’t know the way, but only because he did not yet know Jesus. To know Jesus is to know the way. To know Jesus is to know truth and to make all the facts known true.

This then is my conclusion. If we take the essentially tautological (and Socratic) definition that truth is that normative reality by which all true things are true and translate it into the Christian terminology above, we are left with this: the loving, saving, self-emptying God is that normative reality by which all things-factual or not, rational or not, scientific or not, pleasant or not-are true. Facts may be correct but they can be declared true only from the perspective of the One who created them and defined their content and purpose.

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