How do truth and belief relate? The question may be more important than you realize.
One of the milestones in my life was 1969 in L’Abri, Switzerland. Marilyn and I were studying with the Schaeffers. We were living in the home of Udo and Debbie (Schaeffer) Middelmann. One Sunday evening Udo said to me “You know, Christianity is true even if you do not believe it!” These words were a shock to me. In church, in my discipleship program, and in seminary, I had been taught that Christianity was true precisely because I believed it.
After two sleepless nights, I realized what Udo was saying. Christianity is true, even if no one in the world believed it. It is true because God exists! It is true to reality! It was at that moment that I realized that I had a “born again” heart, but my mind had never been born again. I had the mind of an atheistic materialist. If there is no God, there is no truth. All things (including morals and beauty, for example) are relative. Your truth is whatever you choose to believe.
I realized that I needed to have my mind transformed (Romans 12:2). I needed to love God with all my mind (Mark 12:30). I needed to bring every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
In the Christian pilgrimage, justification is to be followed by sanctification. In the same way, once I truly grasped what Udo was saying , I entered into a process of sanctifying my mind by becoming a lifelong learner and seeking to bring every thought captive to Christ.
Yet very recently, I came to see how deeply relativism is still embedded in my own thinking. Relativism is very seductive. The challenge this time came from our friend, Rick Pearcey. Rick is editor of The Pearcey Report and the man who wrote the foreword to Emancipating the World. In recent correspondence, Rick wrote a gentle but pointed reminder. He had been reading through the Disciple Nations Alliance core documents, including our Core Beliefs. Rick wrote:
To help communicate that the discipling of nations proceeds on the basis of knowable and verifiable truth and not mere “religion” or “belief,” DNA may want to consider recasting the “Seven Core Beliefs” as “Seven Core Principles” or “Seven Core Truths.” Something like this could model for others an avoidance of the secularist trap and the merely Greek Commission, while at the same time expressing anew the Biblical emphasis that Christianity is a reality-oriented commitment of the whole person to knowable, verifiable truth about God, man, and the cosmos. The world of empirical fact, in unity with the totality and wholeness of truth, belongs to Christ.
Truth is rooted in reality, not in the subjective experience. We see this in the Biblical concept of truth.
The Hebrew word for truth אֱמֶת (ʾěměṯ): faithfulness, reliability, trustworthiness, i.e., a state or condition of being dependable and loyal to a person or standard; true, certain, sure, i.e., that which conforms to reality, and thus certain not to be false.
The Greek word for truth is ἀλήθεια (alētheia) – truth, i.e., that which is in accord with what really happens, facts that correspond to a reality, whether historical (in the time/space continuum) or an eternal reality not limited to historical fact.
Note that both OT and NT concepts of truth are rooted in the hard facts of reality. This stands in stark contrast to modern and post-modern relativism- where people make up truth as they go along.
Similarly, what does the word faith mean? Do we believe despite the evidence (i.e. do we take a “leap of faith”) or because of the evidence? Our trust in God is not a subjective matter (e.g. “our beliefs”) but rather an objective matter of conviction based on the evidence.
We see this in both the Old and New Testaments concepts of faith.
The Hebrew word for faith is אֱמֶת (ʾěměṯ): faithfulness, reliability, trustworthiness, i.e., a state or condition of being dependable and loyal to a person or standard; true, certain, sure, i.e., that which conforms to reality, and thus certain not to be false.
The Greek word for faith is πίστις (pistis): what can be believed, a state of certainty with regard to belief; trust, believe to a complete trust; trustworthiness, the state of complete dependability.
Clearly, faith according to the Bible is exercised not despite the evidence, but because of the evidence. We believe because there is sufficient evidence to ground our faith. It is putting one’s trust in that which is true, that which is real. Rick wrote further:
Trust in God is not a matter of subjective “belief” in Old or New Testament “stories” or “narratives” “of faith.” Rather … Biblical trust concerns a commitment of the whole person on the basis of “good and sufficient” reasons and evidence concerning a God who is really there.
Because of this reminder, we are changing the Disciple Nations core documents from “Seven Core Beliefs” to “Seven Core Truths.” Rick, thank you for your gentle but clear admonition! Thank you for seeing again the seductiveness of relativism. As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another (Proverbs 27:17)!
– Darrow Miller
Lianggi EspinozaApril 11, 2013 - 9:36 am
Gracias por la excelente reflexión. Planteo una pregunta que me surge de estas ideas:
Entiendo que la fe cristiana no es ciega ni ignorante, sino es inteligente y racional. Es “una convicción objetiva basada en la evidencia”. Yo comparto plenamente esto, pero también comparto la idea de Kierkegaard de entender la fe como un “salto” al vacío.
Les comparto una pregunta que tengo para pensar juntos: Cuando Abraham creyó que Dios le daría un hijo, o cuando lo iba a sacrificar, ¿el creyó a Dios con base a la evidencia o fue un salto en el cual confiaba en Dios superando su racionalidad?
adminApril 11, 2013 - 10:45 am
Thank you very much for reading and responding. I know Darrow will want to reply. Please stand by and he will respond as soon as he has opportunity.
adminApril 13, 2013 - 1:14 pm
Lianggi, thank you for your comments. The way I would state things is that faith transcends – goes beyond reason and but is not against reason. We trust God because of the evidence, not in spite of the evidence. I think that “a leap of faith” is usually used in the context of being “against reason.”
Elizabeth YoumansApril 15, 2013 - 10:45 am
Darrow, the same case can be made for the words, “value” and “virtue.” Most Christians refer to their “Christian values,” but values are relative to one’s worldview, one’s belief system, one’s opinions. The word “virtue” is a biblical word that is defined in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary as: “moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstaining from vice, or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law. The practice of moral duties from sincere love to God and His laws, is virtue and religion. In this sense it is true. Virtue is nothing but voluntary obedience to truth.” Webster defines “value” as: “Worth; that property or those properties of a thing which render it useful or estimable. There is in many things an estimated value, depending on opinion or fashion.”
adminApril 15, 2013 - 5:24 pm
Thanks for your note and insight. This was unpacked for me a number of years ago by the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. As I recall, she has a whole chapter that deals with this distinction.
Nathan MillerApril 17, 2013 - 9:23 am
To begin, thank you for this – it certainly is a great reminder of the importance of words and ideas. As I read this, and then re-read it, I believe that there is a related idea that can be useful in being an effective witness for Christ and in discipleship. This idea is another layer to the argument that you present in this post. It is the need to be intentional about evaluating not only our own lens – but to be aware of the worldview of the people with whom we are engaged, and to work to speak to them through ideas, stories, and perspectives that they can understand. In the western world, this often means understanding rationalism, then both understanding and representing the objective alignment between God’s word and the reality of the world around us.
In the same way that relativism subtly impacts what we say – dualism often influences how we Christians think and speak about God and in this, how we witness for Christ. We have allowed theological arguments to be driven in to the purely philosophical / spiritual space where many simply have no interest, and others assert no authority over truth. As a result, I often see Christians argue for the reality of God and the truth of his word on largely spiritual terms. In doing this we are speaking to people about something for which they have “no space in their mind” (credit to the Josie story in Discipline Nations) – they cannot assign the idea of objective truth to something spiritual / theological / philosophical, because all of their life they have been told that ideas in this space are purely personal and relative. We are challenging folks to see the objective truth of a thing that is kept in the “high” space – a space in which the rest of the world asserts that objectivity and objective truth cannot exist. When this fails we tend to fall back to “you just have to take it on faith,” which further reinforces the world’s position that our faith is not grounded in truth. Because we are not prepared to argue the reality of the truth of God’s word in the “real world” we are approaching the argument with only half of the tools in our bag. We are standing on hard ground digging a hole using a rake – when there is a pick and a shovel sitting next to us. To do this, we have to change our paradigm. We have to pick up the right tool, and “meet them where they are” – not in the “become like them to witness to them” sense, but rather in the sense that we need to be aware of the differences in our worldviews and how they see truth, in order to be most effective witnesses for Christ.
To begin, we have to understand the culture in which we are immersed. In your post you state: “After two sleepless nights, I realized what Udo was saying. Christianity is true, even if no one in the world believed it. It is true because God exists! It is true to reality!” I remember hearing you tell this story years ago; and while I did not lose nights of sleep immediately after hearing it, I can say that it is something that then and now is a subject that I grind on from time to time. While I am convinced of the “true truth” of God’s existence, our culture’s droning assault on this idea is not without impact, and from time to time I have to remind myself of the reality that God is not a being merely manufactured in my mind. As you know – my nature tends towards analysis, and the empirical. I want to touch, see, smell, hear, count, observe, and study something before I believe that it is real. While I my tendencies in this area are probably stronger than most, as rational creatures we each carry some measure of this in us. Our culture uses this reality to advance the idea that observation is the only means by which we can really know “truth” – and today this is truly the prevailing understanding within our western society. Most of us Westerners, even (or especially) those of us who call ourselves Christians,” are unaware of the degree to which this rationalism impacts our worldview – but there is no doubt that it does.
For that reason I have found that there is one key truth that has been most helpful to me in interacting with those that God puts in my path, and that I hope Christians will identify as a key area for improvement in our lives and witness. This idea, this reality, is that the truth of God’s word (and by extension his reality) IS observable and demonstrable. I am not speaking of a burning bush or other direct manifestation of God Himself, but rather the ability to objectively observe and assess the direct alignment of God’s word with the reality of our world. Your presentation of the Hebrew and Greek words for Truth with their definitions is both at the core of this reality, and is the edge of your piece from which I move in to my thought. Perhaps “more stories” can help to unfold the idea.
I remember hearing a story about Francis Schaeffer (I’m not sure – but I think that it was at the La’Abri Jubilee several years ago in St Louis) describing his first interaction with the bible and his eventual conversion. The short summary of the story was that out of a sense of academic honesty, and perhaps frustration with the lack of “answers” in the other philosophical texts that he was reading, he began to weave religious texts in to his philosophical reading. The bit of the story that really stuck with me was the statement that after picking up the bible – he never finished the other books – because he had finally found in the bible a book that provided answers and not just questions. More importantly, these answers were not just blind assertions of truth but were, both at first glance as well as upon deeper scrutiny, directly in line with the observable reality all around him. I am convinced that this reality is where we can meet those who cling so dogmatically to their rationalism. If we take the time to look – to compare the realities of the world to the truths presented in scripture, the radical alignment between the bible and reality is readily observable. By all accounts, Schaeffer had a brilliant and rational mind. Today’s culture would suggest that his conversion would require that he jettison reason in order to devote himself to his “spirituality;” but the substance of Schaeffer’s life would directly refute this suggestion. Rather, the direct alignment of God’s word with observable reality was something that God used in Schaeffer’s life and that he used in defending the truth of God’s word.
So if the truth of the alignment between God’s word and the reality of our world was something powerful in Schaeffer’s transformation, how can we make it so for ourselves and for others that God places in our path?
• First, we must remember that the people that we are talking to don’t see the world through the same lens that we do. If we speak to them in theological terms and assert these things as objective truths it simply will “not compute” for them.
• Second, we can study these ideas ourselves and prepare for the discussion. We can stop hiding from or fearing rational assessment of God’s word. We can look at what happens around us, good or bad, and ask ourselves “what does scripture say about this” and if we don’t have a clear answer, we can dive in to scripture to find one. Through this, we can strengthen our ability to show the truth of God’s word in context of the world that our neighbors know.
• Third, we can prepare ourselves for the discussion, and prepare to address it in terms that make sense to the person who can only see things through the lens of their unintentional rationalism. Prepare to challenge them in their belief that only physical truths can be observed. Most will have never challenged this idea – they will have simply absorbed it, believed it, and gone about their lives with the assumption that it is truth. In my view, the best approach is to confront them with a comparison that calls out the reality of their worldview. The “What if I deny gravity?” (below) question has proved an extraordinary starting point for these discussions .
From time to time I find myself in debate with a friend or co-workers (Christians or non-Christians) over the reality of God and the truth of Christianity. I have found your “what happens if we deny natural law – perhaps gravity – and get on the roof of a building and jump off…” question / story extraordinarily useful in setting the stage for a discussion of how we see truth. This question presents one immutable natural law, the truth of which they can see as being completely independent of their belief. It is real to them – they can understand it – and in this one simple exercise we are able to establish the idea of objective truth and in doing so create an anchor point to which we can return when they begin to assert relative truth. This opens the door to questions regarding God’s revealed truths as found in the bible, which are also both observable and immutable. What happens when people love their neighbors as themselves – when they give sacrificially to care for a neighbor in need – or they concern themselves with how their actions impact their neighbor, and work hard to act in a way that is kind and respectful? What are the consequences? Can we measure this and measure outcomes? Sure! Was it different 1000 years ago? 3000 years ago? Conversely, what happens when people lie, steal, break vows, or disrespect their parents? What about murder? What about when husbands don’t love their wives? What are the consequences? Can we observe and measure the very real results of these behaviors? Yes! Do these result in things that are “good” in and for our society and in the lives of those who practice or are impacted by them? In most cases it takes very little to come to agreement that the results of these actions, which God’s word condemns, are “bad.” This is a starting point.
If we are serious about being the very best witness for Christ that we can be, we need to fix the gap in our own minds regarding the objective truth of God’s word, prepare for the discussion by seeking out examples, and then the opportunity presents itself, we need to pick up the observable, objective alignment of God’s word with the reality we see around us, and show the relationship to those who will listen. When we do this we will be speaking a language that our culture can hear, and at the least we will be engaging with them in a space where they can no longer simply dismiss what we know as “just your beliefs.”
adminApril 17, 2013 - 11:42 am
Nathan, thank you for such a thorough and well-reasoned response to this post … one which I’m happy to publish.