Wednesday, April 20, 2011

True? or False? or Who Cares?

I saw a bumper sticker last week that said, “The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.” Is this true? How could we know? Does someone really believe this? It is certainly a profession of some sort. I wonder if the people who own the car are committed to this statement in their everyday life.

Every day of our lives we make statements about things we believe are true. In some cases it doesn’t matter if there is truth behind our beliefs or not. In other situations it’s crucial to know the truth that underlies our beliefs. If I’m going to have brain surgery to remove a tumor, my life depends on whether those who are going to operate know that there is a tumor there and know how to get to it and remove it safely. I certainly don’t want them to operate on me if they just profess that they know how to do it without actually knowing how. Similarly if someone is going to rewire my home, I want them to know how electricity works and the facts that govern the proper wiring of a home.

In virtually every area of normal life we know that there are some truths which can be known and taught. Then when these truths are believed and acted upon, workers and organizations can be committed to the policies and procedures that are based on this knowledge and they can then profess that they can accomplish certain things.

Everything seems to change when it comes to religion and religious profession.

I recently listened to an interview of Dallas Willard by Ken Meyers.* Dr. Willard is a professor of philosophy at University of Southern California. In the interview, Dr. Willard compared “profession”, “commitment”, “faith”, and “knowledge”. What interested me is that he spoke of religion often emphasizing profession and commitment without the foundation of faith based on knowledge. This might all seem too philosophical but I think there are some important things for us non-philosophers to think about here. As I have already indicated, for most normal every day situations there are truths that can be known and then believed and acted upon.

In our day truth and knowing are under attack. For some, the whole concept that there is a religious truth is absurd. For others, the problem is more the question of how one can know what is true. For these people, it’s not the existence of truth that is the problem, but that it seems impossible to them that we can know what the truth is. Both of these situations generate a level of skepticism that makes it almost impossible to have a normal conversation about religion and religious truth.

As a Christian, I was intrigued by Dr. Willard’s idea that often within Christianity we have begun to focus on profession or commitment without these being based on knowledge of the truth. In earlier times, churches grounded their members in what was at least purported to be the truth. They taught these truths to their constituents so that they had a knowledge of them and then could believe them, develop commitments to them and finally profess them.

These days, in many religious congregations, the idea that there is truth that can be known and believed has almost disappeared. When we simply have as our goal commitment and profession without the foundation of knowledge of truth, those commitments and professions will not last long. In addition, without the belief that there is such a thing as truth or that truth can be known, it’s impossible to subject one’s own belief or the beliefs of others to any sort of scrutiny or discussion. Personal growth and communication with others is stifled. As a result, the idea of sharing the gospel with others in order to bring them to faith in Christ becomes more and more seems more and more antiquated because we’re trying to say we believe in something that is true. Many people don’t have any idea what that means.

Let’s go back to the narrative I presented at the beginning. Is it true that “the earth does not belong to us but rather we belong to the earth?” I might propose a bumper sticker that says, “The earth is the Lord’s.” Is one bumper sticker true and the other one false or are they both false? Maybe they are both true. Could they be? Does it matter? Maybe they’re just words. If there is no truth or truth cannot be discovered then we can say whatever we want and all statements are equally valid … or invalid.

However, if truth exists and it can be known, then what we say does matter. We can have discussions or even arguments about what is true and what is false. We can make decisions as to what beliefs to abandon and what beliefs to adopt based on their truth or falsity. When leaders try to lead us in a given direction, we have the foundation we need to discern truth from error.

We are going to discuss this further in upcoming posts, but let me encourage you to apply the same principles in religious discussion as you do in the rest of life. There is truth. You may not know it all but it’s there. Some religious statements are true. Some are false. You need to find out which are which because your future well-being depends on knowing the truth. When you know the truth, then you can believe it, commit yourself to it and profess it. But don't try professing things you don't know are true.

* The interview was part of Volume 100 of an audio journal series published by Mars Hill Audio. (

1 comment:

David C. Taplin said...

I heard John Piper talk briefly about this. The idea that there is absolute truth is not accepted by people, and if you say you know something to be true, they write you off as arrogant, and dismiss you for that reason. The truth of what is taking place is actually the opposite;however. If a person says there is no absolute truth, then the only thing left for them to do is what THEY want to do. This removes authority in their mind, and gives them freedom to do whatever their decide to do. In making themselves "free" in this manner, they become their god in the sense that no thing or no person outside of themselves can tell them what is right or wrong. This is arrogant and self serving.