More than one “kind” of truth?

(Off-the-cuff thoughts on a Saturday night.)

When the creation accounts, the Exodus, and the Exile were in turn challenged for their historicity [by the method of critical history which arose out and was the essential tool of the Enlightenment], Christians sometimes practiced strategic defeat: this or that aspect of the Bible could be relegated to myth or legend, but the “important stuff” remained true.

What was seldom noted, however, was that both attackers and defenders had accepted the same definition of truth.  The greatest triumph of the Enlightenment was to convince all parties that empirically verifiable truth, in this case historical truth, was the only sort of truth worth considering.  (Luke Timoth Johnson, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels, p. 60)

Even many (most?) Christians have a hard time grasping the notion of truth being anything other than that which is empirically verifiable.  My knee-jerk response to the above paragraph is What other kind of truth could there be?

I’m sure he’ll provide some answers later in the book.  But the author makes an interesting point nonetheless.  The problem with many of the debates that Christians engage in these days—abortion, 6-day creation vs. evolution, to cite two examples—is that we participate without first questioning whether the very ground rules by which we are operating in these debates are acceptable.  The fact is, we tend to debate on Enlightenment terms.  Johnson will argue (I suspect) that perhaps those ground rules should not be acceptable to Christian—at least not to the exclusion of others.

The problem with Intelligent Design, for instance, is not the argument that the origin of the universe is in an intelligent being.  The problem is (perhaps) that ID tries to operate within a purely empirical framework against a “foe” which has historically been the one to lay down its own rules—ID has entered the fray by accepting and working under terms with which it ultimately may not agree.

UPDATE: There’s more: after I clicked “publish” on this post, I continued reading the book.  After the above quote, Johnson briefly (and simplistically) outlines four responses of the church to Enlightenment empiricism (or rationalism or modernism), one of which he calls “active/resistant”, in which pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism falls as well as modern-day Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism (which, I guess, is my tradition).  Johnson has this to say:

The active/resistant response is the most obvious and visible.  It regards the challenge of modernity (and therefore of historical critical inquiry) as a threat not only to specific biblical passages or particular tenets, but to the entire perception of the world given by faith.

…The active/resistant option would like to think that it is defending tradition against the corrosive acids of rationalism.  But in its fundamentalist version, the conservative stance is profoundly paradoxical, for it seeks to root Christian convictions precisely in the historicity of of the biblical accounts.  By so doing, it finds itself co-opted by the very framework of modernity it is sworn to oppose, for it accepts the crudest form of the correspondence theory of truth as its own, and it enters into the debate seeking to ground the truth of the Gospels in their referentiality.  (pp. 61, 62)

Seems my thoughts weren’t that far off of Johnson’s.

2 thoughts on “More than one “kind” of truth?

  1. Ian H.

    There’s lots of kinds of truth – look at Jesus’ parables, for instance. They’re not historically, verifiably true, but they contain truth nonetheless. Or the Psalms, which aren’t historical accounts at all, and yet speak powerfully and truthfully. I take Genesis 1&2 to be kind of that way – they’re not historically true in the YE creation sense, but they contain the important parts of the story truthfully (i.e. the “who” of creation, rather than the “how”).

  2. Dan Kearns

    Professor Johnson does a few courses for The Teaching Company that are some of the best lectures I have ever heard. And I spent way too many extra years in school, so I’ve heard alot. He has a series on early Christianity and a series on the Greco-Roman moralists who anticipated much of Christian thought, but the one that most amazes me is that he does a small series as part of a “World Religions” course and nails Christianity down in just a handful of lectures.

    He really is something. The very model of a scholar.

    Even when he, IMHO, goes wrong, he’s still worth listening to! 🙂

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