What is Truth?

A good friend emailed me on Monday evening and asked if I “happened to see the CBS Evening News, when Scott Pelley interviewed 3 seminarians studying at the North American Seminary in Rome.” I had not. But on his suggestion, on Tuesday morning, I went to the web site and watched the interview with the three young men who were described as being among “the brightest and the best” of future leaders for the Roman Catholic Church.

While many things struck me about the interview, one item in particular stuck with me. The seminarians said that they hoped the next pope would carry on in the tradition of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pelley asked if that meant that they wanted another conservative. One seminarian jumped in and said that it’s not a matter of being conservative. Paraphrasing him, he contended that the church had been entrusted with the truth and that next pope needed to safe-guard the truth.

As Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, as recorded in the gospel attributed to John, chapter 18, verse 38: What is truth?

It was clear from their expressions that the three young men had a sense of certainty about the Roman Catholic Church as custodians of truth. To be honest, this concerns me much more than whether a pope or any religious leader is conservative, progressive, or holds any other perspective. My concern is that the claim to be the custodian of truth is that the implication is that one group has the truth while others don’t.

When I teach courses in ethics or critical thinking, one of the lessons explores how it is that we come to know something. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, the source of knowledge was Divine Revelation. The only way to know something was if God revealed it. With the rise of the scientific era, we’ve come to understand that knowledge is based on a process of reasoning and investigation. This shift has meant that we’ve come to know that Earth is not the center of the solar system but is one planet that revolves around the Sun. We come to know many other things, like the laws of physics, the chemical elements found in the universe, and the understanding that truth, itself, is relative and not absolute.

A simple example may help clarify what I’m attempting to say. Because of Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, we know that it is true that all of us are subject to gravity. In other words, because of gravity, we’re not going to float up off the ground and end up in outer space. Because of further research by other physicists, we’ve come to know that gravity is not absolute: the gravity doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that it’s different on other planets, and that the Earth, the moon, and the Sun all exert different levels of gravity. Gravity, while it exists, is a relative force.

Truth is much like that. What is known to be true can vary among cultures and evolves over time. Truth is interpreted based on one’s knowledge and context. Because we have the ability to learn from history, we can come to understand that things once thought of as true are no longer viewed as such. It’s not just that times change, but social constructs, cultures, and ways of understanding also change.

My post-modern understanding of truth runs head-long into conflict with how the seminarians understand truth. From a post-modern perspective, truth is rooted in a context not in a revelation from a deity. In this context, I understand that truth of the Bible is to be found in the ways people sought to be faithful in discerning a sense of the Divine in their lives. The stories of the Bible convey this process of trying to understand living faithfully with a God who is the source of all being, is generous, and provides for all creatures. That’s very different from a literalist view of the sacred text that insists that science must be wrong for the Bible to be right.

In the end, I have no reason to believe that Roman Catholicism or any other religion is THE custodian of truth. Instead, humanity, through our shared experience of living deeply and fully, moves toward deeper truth and understanding – something that no one can claim as their own but that is shared by us all.

While I’m glad that I watched the brief interview with the seminarians, what they conveyed is nothing less than alarming to me. By claiming to have a monopoly on truth, the stage is set for others to be continually subjected to hurt and condemnation in the name of Jesus, whose message was one of love and compassion.

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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