Can you handle the absolute truth?

Article by Michael Ramsden

Read Michael’s full biography

From the canyons of the mind, we wander on and stumble blind.
Looking for some kind of clue a path to lead us to the truth. But who will answer?
Is our hope in walnut shell worn round the neck with temple bell,
or deep within some cloistered walls, where hooded figures pray in shawls?
Or high upon some dusty shelves, or in the stars or in ourselves? But who will answer?
(Lyrics from the song ‘Who will answer?’, written by Sheila Davies and performed by Ed Ames, 1967)

As every verse of this once famous song unfolds, the question that comes up is not ‘what is the answer?’ or ‘what is the truth?’, but ‘to whom can we turn for authoritative answers?’ or, indeed, ‘who might have the truth?’ Over the last twenty-five years, there has been a very big change when it comes to this whole question of truth.

 

When I was a university student, the prevalent view was that all truth is relative. ‘What’s true for me is true for me, and what’s true for you is true for you – let’s all have our own truths and be happy together.’ Now, there’s always a problem with this, because when someone makes a statement like this, they are not only wanting you to believe it, but they are offering it in an absolute way.

They are essentially saying, ‘This is the way you should think too. This is the way that all enlightened people should think.’ Yet if that’s the case, it’s not just true for you, it’s true for everyone. But if it’s true for everybody, it’s not just true for you – and so you have a problem. That was very much where the culture was. That was then briefly overtaken by a moment – at least in popular culture – when the argument shifted to saying there is no such thing as truth.

Everybody thinks they have it and everyone is looking for it, but no one has any of it, which is good news, because that is liberating. The trouble is, when someone says, ‘there is no such thing as truth’, they are telling you they believe it is true that there is no such thing as truth. But if it’s is true there is no such thing is truth, then what they are saying isn’t true. But if it’s not true that there is no such thing as truth, then what they have said is false. Yet if there is no such thing as truth, they have said nothing, but in a very complicated way.

When someone tells you there is no such thing as truth, they are asking you not to believe them – so don’t. Roger Scruton

British philosopher

This idea was superseded by more or less what we have now, which is a resurgence, to some extent, of the belief in truth. Many would say there is such a thing as truth and some absolutes can be discerned through, for example, scientific experimentation. By contrast, we also know that anyone who believes in God believes in something that isn’t true, and therefore they should be told as much.

At the same time the politeness around this conversation has evaporated. When I became a Christian people would look at me and say, ‘Michael, I’m so happy that you believe what you believe’ – and by that they meant, ‘Michael, I can see that you are genuinely fulfilled as a Christian, and you are excited by what you believe and it has brought meaning in your life. I am happy that you believe what you believe, and I wish I could believe what you believe, but I can’t.’

People said this to me almost word-for-word in many different countries and it caused me to think about what exactly they meant. By and large, what they were saying was, ‘Look, Michael, I am happy that you are happy, but the reason you are happy is because of your faith’. And what they meant by ‘faith’ is believing in things that either aren’t true or things we can’t know.

For most people faith is believing something in the absence of evidence. That is what a normal faith is, by definition – or at least by their definition. A strong faith is, therefore, believing in something, even when you suspect it isn’t true. So, the strongest possible faith would be the ability to believe in something that you know is not true. So, belief relates to something that does not reflect reality. But what do you call people who believe in things that are not real? The answer is “crazy”.

What they are in fact saying is, ‘Michael, you are insane, but the main thing is that you are happy and insane. I am happy that you are happy, and I wish I could believe what you believe, because I would like to be happy too, but I simply can’t embrace that insanity to join you.’

Yet the culture has moved on and that kind of attitude has gone. It is now seen as a positively bad thing to have faith, because it’s not good for you and it’s not good for society, as we can see when believers go around blowing things up. It follows that it’s not okay to say that I’m happy for you, because we should be saying the exact opposite: we are against what you believe.

A chronic misunderstanding of faith

This raises an interesting question for Christians, because it comes down to a chronic misunderstanding of what faith is. The idea that faith is belief in something in the absence of evidence (or contrary to evidence) is a definition that goes against 2000 years of Christian thought.

There are hundreds of thousands of books on the topic and you won’t find that kind of notion in them at all, despite some people insisting this is what Christians believe. It just shows you how much the internet reigns supreme! Nor is faith believing in something simply because it makes you happy, is convenient, or is what you would like to think fantasy.

Fantasy (or believing in a ‘fantasm’) is something that can only be seen with the imagination’s eye. It is like if I talk about a unicorn. You can visualise one in your head, but you can’t see it with the physical eye. But faith is not fantasy. The word faith, as used in the Bible, is always in response to something that is true and real.

In other words, we use it in the same manner as if I were to say, ‘I have faith in you as a group’. I am saying: (1) that you exist (even if I don’t want you to); and (2) that you are trustworthy (I can rely on you – you are dependable and you keep your promises).

This is the sense in which the Bible talks about God, knowing he is (not hoping, wishing or thinking it), and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). That is a statement about his truthfulness. A few verses earlier it says, ‘faith is being certain [fully persuaded] as to things that are not seen’, it is talking about a total assurance in something that is real. This is very different from saying something like, ‘I have faith my football team will win this week’, because you cannot make such a guarantee – unless of course you have some kind of mafia connections who will ensure that type of result for you!

Rooted in truth

Christianity claims to be rooted in reality and truth. But there is something else about the way Christians view truth, which is a little bit disconcerting: it reveals things as they really are. In one sense all truth is revelatory, which is why the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Spinoza tried to drive a wedge between truth and revelation – this was arguably quite a big philosophical mistake, because all truth is revelatory in nature.

If I were to say to you that there is a laptop on the table and there isn’t, then my statement, which claims to reveal something, is wrong, because it does not reflect reality. That would probably mean that I am either mistaken or there is a moral dimension to this, a lie or some kind of deception. It is the revelatory nature of truth that makes people so uncomfortable.

Aristotle wrote a lot of famous books, one of which was Politics. About a third of the way through, he says imagine you are trying to create a perfect society and in this perfect society someone arrives who is so perfect they are considered to be a god amongst men. What would a society do with such a person, he asks?

 

A perfect person, if he ever came amongst us, would reveal, by his very nature, all the imperfection around him. Aristotle

Greek philosopher (384 - 322BC)

Aristotle is very clear: they’d be ostracised or killed! Why? Well, a perfect person, if he ever came amongst us, would reveal, by his very nature, all the imperfection around him. In other words, you wouldn’t want it revealed who you really are. This is exactly who Jesus claimed to be: a god amongst men – someone without fault.

When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, he looked at Pilate and said, ‘Everyone who is on the side of truth believes in me’. Pilate responded, ‘What is truth?’, before walking away. If you knew the moral complications that were going on in Pilate’s life at the time you would understand, but interestingly he goes on to say to the crowd that he found no fault, no error at all in Jesus – nothing deceptive or morally wrong.

The uncomfortable nature of truth

Truth has this uncanny way of revealing things as they are, and that can often catch us out. Maybe that is why at times we feel uncomfortable when something true about us is revealed, something we might otherwise have liked to keep hidden.

Jesus Christ speaks about this to his disciples when he says the light shines in the darkness, but people prefer the darkness (John 3:19), because if we step into the light our evil deeds may be illuminated and made known. In other words, it might reveal the kind of people we really are.

This is an uncomfortable thought, as most of us go around trying to pretend to others we are something we are not. There is a part in every human being that recognises that if people really saw us as we are (the dark sides of our character), then they might be put off. We try hard to appear patient, and loving, and kind, while repressing the urge to simply speak our mind.

Yet the Christian gospel would be very bad news if it was simply true and only revealed things as they really are, because it would show things that would not be very comfortable for any of us. Here is the point I wish to end on: Jesus Christ claimed to be the truth, and to have the truth, and to proclaim the truth, and to reveal the truth – and to offer evidence for what he claimed he was telling us was the truth. But, crucially, he also claimed that this truth wouldn’t simply reveal the way things are, but it would transform the way things are.

Truth that transforms

Just before I became a Christian, I joined a group which met once a week where we could ask questions about the Bible. After six months in the group, we all went on a camp together. It’s a complicated story, but it was in a country that wasn’t in favour of these kinds of things taking place. Fortunately, I was related to some of the people who helped rule the country, so I simply picked up the phone and got permission from the government, through my family, to make this camp happen.

As it happened, I then became a Christian on the second day away – so, technically, I actually organised my own conversion! At this camp, I finally came to the realisation – after six months of asking difficult questions – that it was true and real. I didn’t want it to be, because if it was and I became a Christian, I would simply become a hypocrite. I would be trying to live a life – a better and moral life – that I was not capable of living.

All I could think about was that I would be trying to pretend to be something I was not, namely a better person. Yet what I had totally failed to factor in was the nature of the gospel (the Christian truth): it isn’t simply something that reveals the way we really are, it also transforms you as an individual – and it eventually looks forward to the ultimate transformation of this world with a new heaven and a new earth. In other words, it’s not just a truth that reveals, but it’s a truth that changes. And after I became a Christian, I began to become a very different person than I was before and all of my friends noticed it.

That is precisely why the gospel is called ‘good news’, because it not only reveals truth as it really is (and as God really is, and as the world really is), but it transforms the way that things are. My closing prayer is that you will personally begin a journey to find out more about the nature of that claim and, by doing so, you will come to experience for yourself how that is possible.

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