The Consequences of Truth
Readers of Tabletalk over the last 30 years have learned a lot about theology. But they have also learned a lot about history, philosophy, and the arts. The various writers of the “Truth and Consequences” column have been writing about culture, a category that includes everything from great literature to awful TV, from family values to moral collapse. What Tabletalk has been serving up over three decades is not just Bible study but more broadly, truth.
“Truth” is a word that these days nearly always comes with quotation marks around it. Many people today believe there isn’t such a thing. There was a time when the major apologetic issue was whether it is true that God exists. Today, the apologist must deal with an even more fundamental issue, whether truth exists.
Thirty years ago, when Tabletalk first got started, truth was somewhat more popular. But, to allude to the title of a book on the subject, the last three decades have seen a significant truth decay. And a person’s or a culture’s view of truth has consequences.
In the premodern days — say, from the ancient Greeks through the rise of Christianity, the Reformation, the seventeenth century, and in some circles beyond — there were all kinds of truth. Reason leads us to some truth. Scientific experiments lead to other truths. Some truths, such as those having to do with the God of Israel, can only be known through revelation.
But a moral principle also had the equivalent status of truth. “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” were understood to be transcendent, objective, and as valid as any other fact.
Even aesthetic principles were equivalent to truth. Beauty was an objective quality in a work of art or of nature. Some works of art really were understood to be better than others. Not as just a matter of subjective personal taste, but as a matter of objective reality. “The true,” “the good,” and “the beautiful” constituted the three “absolutes.” Truth, goodness, and beauty were objectively valid categories in the external universe.
The consequences of believing in all of these different kinds of truths, plus the objective reality of morals and aesthetic standards were, to put it briefly, Western civilization. That is to say, education and law; Bach, Rembrandt, and Shakespeare; the Reformation and America.
Then in the eighteenth century came the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. The great range of truths became restricted to only one. Reason alone became the only authority for discerning what is true. Then, in the nineteenth century, only one kind of reason passed muster: scientific reasoning. Only what can be empirically verified through experimentation and other applications of the scientific method could have the status of truth.
This was “modernism.” In these centuries, older premodern notions, such as Christianity, with their more generous openness to different kinds of truth, still exerted their influence. But in the twentieth century, modernist scientism reigned supreme.
This narrow-minded view of truth had consequences. If only what can be empirically sensed and measured can be true, the universe shrank to what the senses can perceive. The material world was assumed to be all there is.
Furthermore, other kinds of knowledge had to be translated into material, empirically detectable terms. No one can see a moral absolute, let alone put it in a test tube. So morality became utilitarianism: something is good if it is materially useful.
But if modernists restricted the range of what could be considered true to only one category, the postmodernists — whose reign began in the 1960s and became dominant when Tabletalk was first getting started — took the next step.
Postmodernists believe there are no absolutes at all. Truth is not a discovery, but a construction. Some say that truth is a cultural construction, so that our beliefs about reality are all forced on us as we grow up in a culture. We think what and how we do because of our culture, and those notions, in turn, are expressions of power, allowing one group (males or whites or heterosexuals or humanoids) to oppress another group (women or racial minorities or gays or animals). Others say that truth is an individual construction, that by our will we create our own reality, so that what is true for you may not be true for me.
Believing that truth is nothing more than a construction has consequences: Morality is “pro-choice”; there is no moral principle applicable to everyone, so whatever a person “chooses” is right for him or her.
In religion, whatever a person “chooses” to believe is right for that person. Religion has to do not with what is true, but what one wants. All religions are equally valid. And truth has nothing to do with it.
In education, if there is no truth, what is there to teach and what is there to learn? Thus our current educational crisis.
Tabletalk reminds us that despite our personal and cultural denials, truth exists after all. And that Christians can be confident that truth is on God’s side.