When we hear this word, truth, we think of different things, sometimes very different things. And in the right circumstances, we can all be right. Is mint chocolate chip the best ice cream flavor? It might be–for you. Is it 127 miles to Edgemont? That depends on where you are in relation to Edgemont. Does fiction teach truth? Perhaps. Does 4 x 25 = 100? Always and absolutely. Is truth absolute? Sometimes.
There are different kinds of truth, and sometimes I think we get them mixed. Some things are relative, like how far it is to Edgemont. Other things are not up for debate in any society, such as the solution to a mathematics problem. For me, the best flavor of ice cream in the world might be Moose Tracks, but you might disagree with me. In a case like this, neither of us is right or wrong.
Then there are elements of truth mixed with fiction. For example, many Christians would agree that C.S. Lewis’ children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia teaches a great deal of truth, though none of us believe that an actual country of Narnia exists geographically in space and time in some other world accessible only through magic. Our problem isn’t that there are many kinds of truth. Our problem is that we’ve gotten them mixed up so that many of us no longer understand which type of truth applies to this or that situation.
Let’s start with favorite flavors. If my husband and I disagree as to the best restaurant in town, can either of us be wrong, excluding danger of food poisoning? Even if he likes a dive with great ribs and horrible music, and I prefer a cute, cozy place with the best bagels in town? The answer, of course, is no. We have different tastes. There’s nothing morally superior about bagels and cute, nor anything evil about sugary ribs and tinny music. So in this case, we can both tell different truths and we can both be right–for ourselves. This sort of truth can apply to any preference . . . cars, cities, climates, music, social environment, style of worship, method of bible study, breed of dog . . . . God has given us an infinite variety of favorite things to choose from. Pleasures enjoyed within His guidelines are all and always good.
But let’s talk about Edgemont. How far away is it? I’d have to look at a map, but it’s most likely closer for me than it is for you. Some things are different–really different–for me than they are for you. I love teaching children. Teaching children is a good thing for me to do, but it might not be good for you. Maybe God has gifted you to provide accounting services to people like me who hate, hate, hate doing numbers. I’ve actually met people who love to do bookkeeping. This mystifies me, but I do not call these people liars. They think it’s mystifying that I enjoy teaching children. Maybe God has called you to be a mechanic. Maybe you’re supposed to care for your family at home. That’s where you love to be. That’s where you’re happiest. Maybe God wants you in full time ministry. Or not. God has given each of us a path to follow, and we will do different things as we walk that path. Our paths may be parallel, but they will never be identical. What is right for you may be wrong for me. In this case, truth is relative. It depends on the person, the stage in her life, her giftings and situation . . . lots of things. So truth is relative, but not all truth.
Next we have truth in story form. I remember meeting young parents, when I was also raising my small children, who believed that fiction was sinful because it was a lie. Even though I was young and impressionable, I understood that this was silly. Fiction is capable of lying, telling the truth, and of being neutral.
Some fiction writers want only to tell an engaging story and in the process, hopefully, to make money and maybe to help people understand the world around them, to create a work of literary art, to expound on a favorite hobby, educate children, etc. Their fiction can depict lifestyles we don’t want to expose ourselves to, let alone our children. It can tell charming stories about rabbit families trying to outsmart a vegetable gardener. Neither of these scenarios is necessarily truth or lie. The gritty street-smart story might tell fables of the con-artist with the heart of gold, and the anthropomorphic rabbit family might depict a human family with sensitive accuracy.
Fiction is often engaged in for sociopolitical purposes. Fiction that promotes an agenda I disagree with turns me off. I think it is a lie. This isn’t a relativistic lie. This is the sort of lie that goes like this . . . If I’m right, the author is wrong, and, if the author is right, I am wrong. This is the sort of lie (or truth) where you can’t both be right. Now in some cases, I’m willing to admit that I might be the one who’s wrong. I often have been. The thing I’m not willing to go along with is the possibility that we’re both right.
This is not a favorite flavor. If it were, I wouldn’t care. Does any reader mind reading an otherwise excellent story about someone who thinks coffee is ambrosia, though the reader may prefer tea? Certainly not. But let’s say the reader believes adultery to be a sin, and the story shows adultery in a favorable light while mocking chastity. This reader would consider the story to be a lie. So, is it a lie, merely because the reader sees it that way? No. It is only a lie if the reader is right in his beliefs about adultery. However, if the reader is right in his beliefs, the writer of fiction has presented a falacy. If he believes it to be the truth, he hasn’t personally lied, but he has certainly presented a lie to his readers though he knows it not.
Most works of fiction will contain some truth and some lies and a lot of neutral material. We can’t expect to agree with the author on every point. Works of fiction do, however, often have a definite slant in one or another direction. Fiction is a gray area. Did the writer slant too far in one direction for me to approve the overall message of his story? Perhaps, perhaps not. This is a judgement call and not an absolute. The absolutes come in small doses. Since we’re talking about adultery, I’ll stick with this subject. Given that it is absolutely wrong to break faith with your spouse and willingly engage in sexual relations with another person, no matter what, that part of the story, if it presents otherwise, is a lie. If a story contains too much of this sort of thing, I tip it into the kitchen trash. I can’t enjoy it and I can’t, in good conscience, sell it or give it away because it’s telling lies. I want nothing to do with it and am only sorry I contributed one more sale to its roster.
This is why I can’t swallow things like the DaVinci Code promoting itself as a “harmless work of fiction”. It is not a harmless work of fiction. It is a lie. It contains numerous black and white factual deceptions and untruths about history. The sort of things we admit as evidence in a court of law. The kind of lies that can be legally proved. Of course, the mere fact that a truth cannot be legally proved does not make it any less an absolute, but let’s talk about the easy stuff first.
Math is the gold standard when it comes to explaining absolute truth. If 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4, the world falls apart. That’s not hyperbole. It really does. Math is not an opinion. It’s true for me and it’s true for you. It’s true if you live in New Jersey and it’s true if you live in Papua New Guinea, or even if you’re hanging out on the space station. It’s true if you’re a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Baha’i, or a worshipper of Italian opera singers. It’s even true if you don’t believe in math. It doesn’t matter what you believe. Some people would call that narrow, but there’s really nothing anyone can do about it. If it’s true, it’s true whether we approve or not. In this case, truth is absolute.
My argument is that we put a lot of things into the relativistic or the preferential truth category when they belong in the absolute category. Does reality change for you if you believe there is no God? No. You’re either right or you’re wrong. The existence of God is not a matter of preference, and it’s not something you can affect by your belief or lack thereof. God either exists or He doesn’t. There are plenty of reasons to believe in the existence of God, and this argument isn’t aimed at persuading atheists to leave their foolishness, so I’ll assume, for the purposes of this article, that you do believe in the existence of some sort of deity. What is or are he, she, or they like? Who’s right? Is anyone right? Does it matter what we believe in, so long as we’re on a spiritual path? A journey of some sort? Are there many roads?
In the western world, we are blessed with many roads–too many to count. We need a lot of roads because we want to go to a lot of different places. The road to Miami won’t do if you want to go to Tampa, and it won’t do if you want to go to Denver, either. Some places have only one road in and out. If you want to go to Alaska, the Alaska Highway is your only real choice. Different roads go to different places. That’s why we have so many roads. Otherwise we could save a lot of money and have only one road which would take us wherever we want to go. Some roads don’t go anywhere at all. I remember hiking in the Appalachian mountains and coming to a beautiful, new, paved four-lane highway. We walked on it for a while. No one was using it but us, because it didn’t go anywhere. It stopped short right in the middle of the wilderness. Apparently, funding had run out. Some roads don’t take you anyplace except out into the middle of nowhere.
So, if you want to go to the afterlife, are there many roads that will take you there? Well, yes and no. If it’s Nirvana you’re looking for, you want Buddhism or maybe Hinduism or some other eastern religion. But does Nirvana exist? Maybe the road goes nowhere. Are you looking for a paradise with gardens that have rivers running below them, and which Allah may let you into if your good deeds tip the scale against your sins and if he’s in a good mood? That would be Islam.
Men have made up all sorts of stories about life after death. It would take a long time to look at all of them. But making up a story doesn’t make it true. If Nirvana exists, Nirvana is all that exists. It is the complete unity with all things and so must encompass all things, including all places. If the paradise of Islam exists, then no other paradise can, for Islam teaches that all Infidels are consigned to hellfire. That pretty much rules out alternative paradises. If the Heaven of YHWH exists, then the paradise of Islam is no longer in play. Only one can be correct. The afterlife is not a smorgasbord. It is a family meal. You have to eat what is on your plate or nothing. God will not changed it out for you because you were expecting Valhalla.
Pretending that all religions are true is silly. They cannot all be true, for they are mutually exclusive. If any one of them is true, it is the only one which can be true. Most religions proclaim their exclusivity. Those that try to include other faiths invariably make the mistake of including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which spoils the whole game. These three are exclusive religions. By their own teachings, each declares itself to be the only true story. Because they make these claims, they cannot logically be included in a fruit punch type religion such as Baha’i. They are either lying, and thus not worthy of inclusion, or they are telling the truth (well, one of them is) and thus negate the other religions in the punch bowl.
How do we tell which if the many beliefs of men is the true religion? We’ve taken the first step in realizing that there can be only one. Which one should you invest your future in? That is the most important question you’ll ever ask in this life. Make sure you get the answer right. And as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. (And meanwhile, I’ll talk more about this truth business in a future post.)
Grace and Peace to you,