When a friend suggested a post about Truth, the topic seemed to demand fat paragraphs and big words. But on reflection, I don’t think those are the best tools for the task. Maybe a spade and a lilac bush, a telescope and a book would better serve to say what’s True...
Truth = Reality
I remember lying on my back on a New Jersey summer afternoon, staring up at the enormity of the sky, getting dizzy trying to take in the vastness. I was a typical kid, trying to grasp Reality.
I remember trying to catch a moment in time, like a butterfly, saying “it is now EXACTLY 12:57:07 – no, 08 – no, 09, o’clock…” This could go on until it was time for lunch.
I remember trying to wrap my mind around the idea that what I perceive as the color red, my friend Celia might perceive as blue, and we could go through our whole lives (a span of years that seemed incalculable at the time) - AND WE WOULD NEVER KNOW that when I saw a red apple, she saw a blue one. I tried to devise a clever test that would reveal the split in our two (putative) realities, but never succeeded. In the end, we both saw the apple. That much is a fact, and a truth. I returned to my Barbie Playhouse, where I could invent an engaging reality of my own devising.
I think a hunger for Truth – a.k.a. Reality in all its vastness – is hardwired into us. As we grow up, we find ways to manage and handle that hunger, usually some fool method that lets us think we’ve got a grip, lets us think we’re in charge. A grown-up version of my Barbie Playhouse, and not always a bad thing. We build pet stories, political parties, denominations, organizations. But we can’t really manage Reality. We’re all sojourners seeking Truth.
Truth is Particular.
I know the universe is made of atoms, and that the desk at which I sit is more empty space than matter, but it’s the matter that matters, or at least the arrangement of it. Particulars like French onion soup on a November evening, like the scent of lilacs in the vase on the hall table, like the flash of recognition at the sight of your dad’s handwriting on his favored sort of paper – these are life’s touchstones, bits of Truth.
They are just particular facts, but each is a little doorway to Truth.
You know where you are with a particular, and you don’t have to be an intellectual. You know if the soup is cold and the lilacs droop. You know if your dad loved you. That’s crucial, because Truth must be accessible to everybody. The smart, the dumb, the materialist, the bored, the hostile, the compliant.
That’s where particulars come in. But when we assess our particulars, we’re like the committee of blind men describing the elephant: one said it’s smooth and hard – he was rubbing a tusk. Another said the elephant is wrinkly, as he felt its hide, while a third, holding its trunk, swore an elephant is like a snake. You get the point. They were all correct, but, just like us, none had the full picture.
Our fatal human fault is extrapolation: we take what little we know and expand it, concluding it sums up all there is to know.
Jesus, in His thirty-some-odd years on Earth, was very particular. People who encountered Him knew they’d been healed, or fed, or loved. They embraced His words because they had particular experiences with Him Who spoke. None of them knew all there was to know of Him, but knowing their particular experience was enough. Knowing only a corner of the elephant leaves you with a serious misunderstanding, but knowing any aspect of God’s astonishing character will be enough to carry the knower for years, decades, life. People have particular encounters with Him, although the encounters may not involve actual loaves and fishes, they are nonetheless real, and lead to Him, Who is Truth.
We need to meet Him for ourselves. He’s as particular, as individual, as each one of us.
Where to Find Truth – Or Maybe, Where Not To...
If God is fair, and I think He is, He’d make sure everybody on His planet could see what’s true, if they wanted to. So it’s writ large – in the stars, in Nature, in the Bible, in Jesus – His Books. They reveal a Creator big enough to be multi-faceted, like that elephant. Some chapters are redolent with wonder (think, the Aurora borealis,) some with mystery (think, fireflies,) some I do not understand (poison ivy.) And Jesus is God’s audiobook. That’s my take.
But I’ve been in churches that thought Truth was their exclusive commodity, that they’d cornered the market. Personally, I’ve had some great moments in some great churches, but sometimes there’s an admixture under a steeple, and some pulpits should have Caveat Emptor carved in oak – “let the buyer beware.” Truth mixed with error is more toxic than unadulterated lying – you drink more of it before you feel the effects.
Oh, dear, I don’t want to set up a scene where the only two camps on our mental prairie will be the Never-Churchers and the Gotta-Churchers, when what I really think lies between the camps, in the wide space between and among them – not a camp at all, but the expanse of the True Church, which is just the people who’ve recognized Jesus as Lord and Savior. They can be found inside and outside of churches, cults, and bars, and they try to keep their gaze on Him, even though they sometimes get distracted. And we’re like the blind men investigating the elephant: we all have part of the truth. We were warned that “we see through a glass, darkly.” But, unlike the elephant, having an idea about a tiny bit of the truth of God can still be milked for a lifetime of growth and learning and relationship.
Some invoke Science as the source for Truth.
Science used to be linked inextricably to God, but during the Enlightenment scientists sought a divorce. It wasn’t a divorce God wanted, but, like many divorces, it happened. Then, as in many broken marriages, one party went and had a fling – a lot of scientists had an affair with Charles Darwin, neatly allowing them to disavow God. The affair has gone sour in the past few decades, as the reality of Nature’s massive complexity has started to break through the layer of assumed Darwinism that has blanketed humanity for over a century. The simple argument – well-presented in Michael Behe’s classic, Darwin’s Black Box – is that the intermediate steps Evolution assumes between simple organisms and the creatures we see, are impossible, because their occurrence would have killed off the species before it could even think about evolving.
Likewise, the argument that the stars in the sky got there without God putting them in place. Once the Big Bang Theory was posited, astrophysicists had the problem of explaining how the universe could have had a beginning without a Beginner. Nonetheless, many persisted. Then, the evidence of the massive fine-tuning that makes life on Earth possible started to emerge, and physicists left and right have begun to jump ship off the good ship Beagle (Darwin’s vessel to the Galapagos. Sorry – couldn’t resist.)
So, Then What?
So, then, where do we go to seek Truth? Maybe back to that New Jersey field, staring at the sky… maybe we need to be more childlike.
Somewhere in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard compares the universe to a scarf many miles wide and even more miles long, and then puts each of us as a tiny short thread somewhere on that scarf. Her description sums up our smallness, and God’s largeness, in a way that leaves me appropriately humble.
When my younger son was three, his dad found him in front of his bedroom window at two in the morning. Asked why, he replied, “I just want to wook out da winnow and fink about fings.” We’d do well to spend some of the time we spent as kids, thinking about things, anchoring our tiny selves in the universe in which we’re placed, asking our Creator for insight into Who He is, What He does, and How He relates to us. Psalm 19, at the mathematical center of the Bible, says it best:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth His handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard...
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul. The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple…
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.
I inherited this plaque, dating back to the 1920s, from my mom. I have always loved it...
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