|April 15, 2010
NATURE OF RELIGIOUS TRUTH
Truth is a slippery concept—even though the word is generally used with complete confidence. A working definition of truth is “a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like.” But the concept also has an ontological (metaphysical) association—i.e., truth is an ideal or fundamental reality transcending perceived experience. That is, it is always and eternally true. While one may wonder whether any such ethical value in the universe deserves such an accolade, it is certainly the case that religious truth is not to be equated with “always and eternally true.” The history of religions in Western culture confirms two axioms about religion: believing something is true, does not make it true. But, on the other hand, if you believe something is true, so it is—for you. What follows from these two axioms is that truth is not always true, and sometimes an untruth is true. Or put another way: all religious truth is relative.
Here is how it works: believing a thing to be so, does not make it so. For example in the 16th century the Catholic Church took the 2nd century Ptolemaic view of the universe virtually as an item of faith: the sun, moon, and planets circled the earth, which then was regarded as the center of the universe. Such a view fitted and supported the stories of creation in Genesis. God created the earth for human beings, and it was on the earth that God’s plan of redemption took place. To lessen the earth’s position in the universe was perceived as an attack upon the Church, the Bible, and Christian faith. Such a view was contrary to Scripture—so the church reasoned, and believed deeply. When Nikolas Copernicus proved that the earth rotated about the sun the religious authorities suppressed his views, which Copernicus wisely had not allowed to be published till his death in 1543. The religious authorities took a dim view of anyone who thought differently and around 1600 burned Gordiano Bruno at the stake for refusing to recant the views of Copernicus. The church’s belief was “religious truth” in the 16th century—even though it was not true.
Religious doctrine is the easiest place to see these axioms at work. Baptists believe that the Lord’s Supper is purely symbolical—a memorial of the death of Jesus, which the church practices to commemorate the “sacrifice” of Jesus. Catholics, on the other hand, believe the wine and “host” (i.e., the bread) are transformed at a certain point in the Mass into the actual blood and body of the Lord. Hence, for Catholics participation in the Eucharist is participation in the actual body and blood of the Lord—it is a means of receiving grace from God. Each of these beliefs, though contradictory, is true for those who believe it to be so. In this way religious truth is true for those who believe it to be so, but not true for those who do not.
Religious truth is affirmed by value-laden, or “opinion” language. It is like saying “I like ice cream,” or “apple pie is better than turnip greens!” Religious truth is like appreciating beauty—which, as we all know, lies in the eye of the beholder. One person’s “act of God” is another person’s natural fortune or misfortune. There is no universal standard. Religious truth is not like a mathematical formula—like 2 X 2=4, for example. This later statement actually is an “eternal” truth in our universe. But the statement that “the Bible is the Word of God,” or “the Word of our God abides forever” (Isaiah 40:8) is in all universes only true for the person who believes it to be so. To regard any deeply held religious belief as having eternal certitude overlooks the obvious relative and contradictory nature of religious truth.
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:08am
And, I would argue, there are "flavors" of truths. Your reference to Baptists believing that the elements of communion are symbolic and yet they feel obligated to repeat the ritual. Popular 18th century Protestant language set aside the use of the term "sacrament" in favor of "ordinance," suggesting that it was God's law that you repeat this symbolic ritual lest you be damned to eternity in hell. So then, is it symbol or litmus test? Literal truth or metaphor?