Discipleship: What Is Truth and Does It Matter?

A recent Barna Research Group survey on what Americans believe asked the question, “Is there absolute Truth?” Sixty-six percent of adults responded that they believe that “there is no such thing as absolute truth; different people can define truth in conflicting ways and still be correct.” Seventy-two percent of those aged 18 to 25 expressed this belief. In a recent series of more than twenty interviews conducted at random at a large university, people were asked if there was such a thing as absolute truth—truth that is true across all times and cultures for all people. All but one respondent answered along these lines:

“Truth is whatever you believe.”

“There is no absolute truth.”

‘If there were such a thing as absolute truth, how could we know what it is?”

“People who believe in absolute truth are dangerous.”

The lone exception was an evangelical Christian, who said absolute truth was in Jesus Christ.

I suggest that the situation that these surveys reveal is fairly typical of the Western World. As Clive Calver says, in an article ‘Thinking Clearly About Truth’ in Christianity,we “drift on a tide of uncertainty into a sea of unknowing.”

Oddly enough, those who claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth make scores of decisions every day on the basis that they believe some things are true and some are false. We all do. I will not turn on a light without believing in the reality of electricity, or drive a car without believing in the effectiveness of the combustion engine. No one flying in a cloud through mountainous terrain would want to be directed by a navigator who did not believe in the truth of his instruments. No one undergoing brain surgery would want to be operated on by a surgeon who did not believe that some things about the brain were true and some not true.

And yet, when it comes to the most important issues of life—What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Does it matter whether I am good or bad, or is there any such thing as goodness and badness? What happens when I die? Will I be called to account by the Judge of the Universe or will I not? Does he exist anyway?-it is assumed that either we can’t know or it doesn’t matter. Figuring out something that “works for me” is all that is required. Or I can assume the attitude of Marilyn Monroe who is said to have declared, “I believe in everything—a little bit.”

One thing I must never do is to tell anyone else they are wrong. Not long ago, the popular US column Dear Abby tackled the issue of family quarrels over religion. A reader told Abby:

Your answer to the woman who complained that her relatives were always arguing with her about religion was ridiculous. You advised her to simply declare the subject off-limits. Are you suggesting that people talk only about trivial, meaningless subjects so as to avoid a potential controversy …It is arrogant to tell people there are subjects they may not mention in your presence. You could have suggested she learn enough about her relatives’ cult to show them the errors contained in its teachings.

In response, Abby wrote this:

In my view, the height of arrogance is to attempt to show people the ‘errors’ in the religion of their choice.

In today’s climate, to suggest that you might be right about your beliefs and that others might be wrong is about the greatest offence one can commit.

The poet Steve Turner wrote a brilliant parody of this attitude and called it “Creed”. Part of it goes like this:

I believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter
I believe that there is no absolute truth excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

Yet, in spite of the pervasiveness of these attitudes to truth, voices are being raised in protest. Michael Novak, in an article in the Reader’s Digest, declared that “the most critical threat to our freedom is a failure to appreciate the power of truth.” This link between freedom and truth was strongly argued by Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclical Veritas Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, in commenting on this encyclical, said, ‘in the absence of truth, power is the only game in town.”

The purpose of this booklet is to explore these questions. Is there real truth to be discovered? Does it matter? Will it affect my usefulness or happiness either in this life or the next? 

Dick Tripp, Lyttelton, New Zealand

Author: Dick Tripp

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