“I have manifested Your name to the people whom You gave Me out of the world. Yours they were, and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your Word. Now they know that everything that You have given Me is from You. For I have given them the words that You gave Me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. All Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one. While I was with them, I kept them in Your name, which You have given Me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth. As You sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:6–19).
The single most common inscription on buildings at colleges and universities in this country is a phrase from Jesus’ own words: “the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32b, KJV). Sometimes it appears in its fuller version: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). How ironic that most colleges have long since given up what they would now consider the very presumptuous idea that they actually have a truth to teach. At my daughter’s college this phrase appears on the main academic building in Greek, which perhaps appropriately indicates that for the students at the University of Virginia, the truth is Greek to them.
I want to give you what you might call an apologetic for the truth, the idea that there is truth, and that it matters that there is truth.
There are three forms of truth that correspond to three different umpires. The first umpire is the traditional type. He says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way they are.” This leads to the idea that truth is “correspondent”—truth corresponds to what is.
A leading contemporary philosopher named Michael Dummett, in a book called Truth and Other Enigmas, says truth is mysterious. I disagree; I think truth is really quite simple, very plain. Truth corresponds to what is. That may sound almost quaint, but it’s the way we live our everyday lives. If I say that the keys are on the kitchen table, it is an easily verifiable statement. It is also an absolutely necessary one. If I want to find the keys to get in the car and drive somewhere, I need to know that the words “the keys are on the kitchen table” correspond to the reality of what is. When Barbara and I take our son to the airport to return to college after a vacation we’ll call the airline to ask from which gate his flight will depart, and we will expect to hear the truth from the airlines. If we do not hear the truth it will be very misleading and he may end up at the wrong terminal or the wrong gate.
Yet now in everyday life truth has become quaint, even rejected completely in the realm of principles and ideas. Some truths may be more difficult to verify than others, but I contend with you that there is always correspondence—there is always that which is true in any situation, in every type of reality. Let’s take a commonly held (and presumed to be unverifiable) truth. It’s commonly assumed that we could not verify the truth in this statement: God exists. Whether or not it is immediately verifiable, however, does not change the ultimate fact of whether God exists or not. If God exists, my ability or inability to verify His existence does not change what is true. The fact that a truth is less verifiable does not make it a matter of personal perspective or personal belief.
This leads to the second umpire. Instead of saying, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way they are,” this umpire says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.” For this kind of umpire, truth is all a matter of what he perceives, a matter of personal preference or personal judgment or perspective. This understanding of truth is so common today that it is accepted by almost everybody without reflection, by Christians as well as those who would not call themselves believers. There is a truth for you, and there is a truth for me; everybody has a little bit of the truth, and somewhere maybe we can get all our truths together. But what I perceive and believe may or may not correspond to what is, and the fact that I believe it does not necessarily make it true. The umpire may call a ball a strike, and it may affect the course of the game, but it does not affect the truth of what actually was pitched.
It’s interesting; we would never say about the car keys what we would say about philosophy or God or religion—“Well, if it’s true for you that they are on the kitchen table, then that’s wonderful.” I don’t really care whether it’s true for you that the car keys are on the kitchen table. What really matters is where the car keys are, and if they are on the kitchen table, can I get them and use them? I don’t really care, in a certain sense, whether or not you say God is true for you. Of course I care in one sense, but in another sense I do not care, because the truthfulness of God’s existence does not depend on your belief in Him, or your failure to believe in Him. Simply believing something to be true never makes it so; no one has ever made a belief true just by believing in it. A movement will not make a belief true. We could start the Car Keys on the Kitchen Table Movement, but it wouldn’t change where the car keys actually are.
Now, if you think about it for just a moment, you will see that this leads to a enormous danger today. If truth is what I believe it is, then there can be no safety in the end for the individual. What do I mean by that? In law schools today, for example, what is taught is “positive law.” What used to be taught was called “natural law.” According to positive law, there can be no ultimate basis for right or wrong, so I must determine judgment on the basis of the will of the community. If fifty-one percent of the community says that a crime is punishable by death, then by definition that is justice. If fifty-one percent of the community says that it is lawful for me to buy a kidney from a poor person or to harvest human fetuses for stem cell research, then it is just to do so.
When you say that truth is relative, that it is a matter of personal perspective, then most people call you tolerant. There is no one right truth for everyone; we must be careful not to draw the lines too sharply; we must not come to conclusions about the beliefs or behaviors of others; otherwise, we will not be tolerant.But that’s not tolerance. Real tolerance is saying that there is a truth, there is a right and there is a wrong, and there is also a right and wrong way to treat people who believe in the right or wrong. Tolerance has nothing to do with the truth; tolerance has to do with how you treat people. Tolerance today has slipped over in the idea that everything is equally right. That is not tolerance at all. In fact, today you cannot say, “I disagree with you, and I am in fact quite sure you are wrong, but I accept you and recognize your right to be wrong.” Now we are in a situation where everyone must be equally right, everyone has a share of the truth. To say otherwise is considered bigotry. Once again, though, this kind of thinking does not work in everyday life.
Imagine a group of people who are lost in the forest. Everyone in the group has compasses, but for some reason each person’s compass points a different way. Can you imagine one of them saying to the others, “I will respect your compass if you will respect mine.” This is not going to get anybody out of the woods.
Some people who rarely speak about relative truths are structural civil engineers. The bridge is either going to hold up, or it is not. I asked a civil engineer a couple of years ago, “When the planes flew into the Twin Towers on 9/11, did you know that they would collapse?” His answer was prompt and thoughtful: He said, “No I did not think the towers would collapse, because I knew that structurally they were built to withstand such impact; but when I heard how much fuel was on board those jets, and therefore how hot it would be after the planes exploded into the buildings, then I knew for certain that the buildings would collapse.” If he had been given enough time he could have calculated the exact moment that they would collapse. When things really count, we are rarely subjective about them; when it really matters, we don’t go for relative truths. You don’t want tolerance or pluralism in a brain surgeon.
Now I suppose this is easier in the hard sciences, and more difficult in philosophy and social sciences and especially the humanities, where if the claim that you have the truth is made, it is certainly seen as very bigoted. Remember our definition of truth: Truth corresponds to what is. The truth may be hard to find, but that does not mean that there is not a truth that corresponds to any reality in any discipline in any situation, even if it is difficult to verify. When Jesus said to the Father, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17b), He is saying that there is a truth, and that we must seek it. We should be like a dog on a hunt about truth. Christian people, of all people, should be people who know that there is a truth and that the fact that there is a truth matters, and not just narrowly or spiritually, but in every field, in every discipline.
In history, truth about certain historical facts can change the way we think about what actually happened. Now, there may be debate over those facts. For example, there may be debate over what number of the founding fathers in our country were born-again Christian people versus what number were just moral and biblically oriented people. It is a big debate, and it’s difficult to verify, but there is a truth. Or, take biology and the ethics that come out of that—there is a truth about whether or not cloning is right or wrong. Does anyone think that a human being will not be cloned in ten or twenty years? No, we know it is going to happen, because there is not a sufficient truth basis in the disciplines of medical and biological ethics today to prevent it from happening. Or take the arts (and this is much more difficult): Is there such a thing as artistic truth, or is it all just a matter of taste? You like this kind of music; I like that kind of music. Well, it is difficult, but there are those who have studied this and they say that there are such things as aesthetic absolutes. If music or the arts is your discipline, you must pursue that truth.
What about the third umpire? He is the radical postmodernist. He says, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothin’ until I call ‘em.” Some of you have contact with this form of truth. If you are in college today and you listen seriously in your classes, you will know that you are being exposed to this notion of truth. Here is the way it works: If the modern view of truth is relative, the postmodern view is that there are no truths at all; there is only language by which we seek to shape meaning. The language that I attribute to reality or events becomes truth for me, if I choose so.
Let me give you an example. A young pregnant woman walks into a clinic to discuss having an abortion. One counselor says to her, “This is what will happen today if you have an abortion: We will give you medication and you will be sedated. Contractions will begin and fetal material will be extracted from your uterus and be disposed of as surgical waste.” Now, imagine a different counselor speaking to the same woman on the same day. This counselor says, “This is what will happen if you don’t have an abortion today: We will look at your baby with a sonogram, which will tell us whether you are carrying a boy or a girl. You will be able to see and hear the heartbeat of your child.”
You see the difference? The language, the vocabulary, describes the situation, and it actually shapes the way it is viewed. The important question is, who defines the language? Who shapes the vocabulary in any given situation? The postmodern answer is that the most powerful person shapes the vocabulary. On university campuses this takes the form of what is called deconstructionism. Here is the way it works: Is Macbeth good literature? Who says? It was written by an Englishman in the sixteenth century, and we happen to know that this Englishman had his problems with women, that he was sort of bigoted and a chauvinist. Who says his English is good English? Who says Shakespeare’s point of view is a worthy point of view? Who says that good literature does not constantly use profanity and bathroom language in every line? Who says?
Now if you think I’m just pulling your leg about this, find a way to sneak into the faculty meeting of an English department in any major university of this country, and this is what will be shouted about—I mean shouted about—as to who gets to define what is good literature in that English department. This view of power as the postmodern way of determining truth is the way things get done today.
It is tragically reminiscent of some earlier versions and understandings of truth. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in the 1880s about “the will to power,” which was basically saying the same thing—the one with the power gets to define the argument, set the terms. Do you know what the direct result of Friedrich Nietzsche’s teaching was? Nazism. The whole twentieth century was changed by this man’s definition of how one goes about saying what is true and what is not.
This third umpire may be difficult for us to grasp. The problem is that we Christians are being set up for a fall, because many of us are already playing by the second umpire’s rules. We are therefore more susceptible to the third umpire than we dare to think. I only know one way out. It is not relative truth; it is not truth that is defined by power; it isn’t even traditional truth, because traditions can be wrong. No, the only way out of this problem for Western civilization (if I dare to be so dramatic) is what I would call embodied and unified truth. What do I mean? Embodied truth is truth that lives in and through people and is verifiable, as it were, by the evidence of what we see in their lives.
Recently I attended a wedding rehearsal where everyone stood up and complimented the bride and talked about what a wonderful person she was, how her character had shone so brightly, how her Christian witness had meant so much to so many people. Finally her little brother, a high school junior, stood up and said, “I know that all these things all of you have said about God and about Jesus are true because I’ve seen them in my sister.”
That’s embodied truth. There was a little girl who was scared in bed at night during a storm. All the shadows looked like monsters and every sound was like a bogeyman. Her dad went in to comfort her and said, “Remember the truth, honey, that you are not alone and that God is with you.” The little girl said, “Yes, I know, but I was hoping that the truth would have some skin on him.” Well that is just the point. Jesus Christ had, and still has, skin on Him.
Earlier in the book of John, it says, “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14b). We beheld it. This Word is the word of people who have seen the Word, the fullest expression of truth, the fullest embodied truth that has ever lived. These are eyewitness accounts. They are the most direct link we have to the one who said, “I am the way, and the truth” (John 14:6a); to the one who said to His Father, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17b).
Truth is embodied, and then it is also unified. When Christians say they believe in truth, they often mean that they believe in spiritual truth or moral truth. Whenever I hear those words, warning signals go off in my brain. Spiritual truth? What is that, and how is it different from true truth? The way we often think is that there is a spiritual truth, and that there is a material truth. That idea is called dualism, and it has been around for a long time, at least since Plato. The theory is that all reality is split into halves, and we believe that something may be spiritually true, but materially (or physically) it is much less clear what the truth element is. Things are divided spiritually or materially, by grace or nature, Thomas Aquinas said. Kant said they are divided by faith and reason.
Today we speak of religion and science. That should be very common to your ears. Both have truths; both are part of the truth. Don’t believe it; it’s not true. The truth is one; the truth is unified. What is true in one sphere is true in another. We relegate truth to the spiritual sphere and we squeeze into a narrow limit our definition of truth. “Nature eats up grace” is another way of saying that; it always moves that way. What is in the material realm will always eat up or consume that which is in the spiritual realm.
Truth in the Bible, however, is a unified field. Why is this so important? Let me make this as practical as I can. What kinds of temptations do you face? Do you face spiritual temptations? Well, maybe, yes. Do you face intellectual temptations? Yes, sure. Do you face physical temptations? Oh, yes. We know about those, don’t we? Almost all of our temptations are physical in nature; they have to do with the body: Staying in shape or being a couch potato; uses and misuses of food; uses and misuses of sex, alcohol, and other substances; what we look at and what we don’t look at.
Some Christians will say, “Look, I’m a Christian. Spiritually I’m okay. It really doesn’t matter much what I do down here.” Immediately you think, “Oh no, that’s not right,” and you are correct. It is not right, but a lot of Christians who may not say it will think it, and even more, will live their lives that way, as if to say, “Something is spiritually true, but materially I don’t really see the connection.”
Jesus forever said that we cannot think that the spiritual and material are not connected by coming in the flesh. When He transcended the dividing line between the spiritual world and this world, He forevermore dictated that we cannot think in a divided field. He rose from the dead and is still in the flesh today at the right hand of the Father. The flesh of Jesus Christ still exists. That tells us there is a unified field of truth in the spiritual realm of heaven; there is a man with flesh on Him.
Now here is the key and here is the problem: Dualism will always lead to relativism, and then it will always lead on to radical postmodern relativism, because it divides the field of truth, which inevitably forces us to pit one type of truth against another. When we do so, we cannot say to God the Father what Jesus says in this passage, “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17b). Nor can we say, “May we be sanctified by this truth,” as Jesus prays for us. “Sanctify” means “to make holy, to change.” The truth of God is to change us, but the truth of God will never change us if we perceive that change to be only spiritual. It is the whole truth for the whole person in every area of endeavor.
You may wonder how to apply this in your personal and business relationships. I do not know the answer to every one of your questions. I know some of the struggles you have, and I know the difficult situations you confront in your homes and places of work, and the difficult decisions that must be made. I will tell you that you must not stop seeking truth, even if you do not fully know what it is in every situation.
Only with embodied and unified truth will we keep Western civilization from turning into first a shouting—and eventually a shooting—match. I am not exaggerating. The cultural divide over, say, the issue of abortion in society today is an illustration of the fact that we have not gotten the terms right to even begin to talk; we cannot have a civil conversation about this because all we do is yell at each other, and eventually we will shoot, which has already happened.
This is so important because in the twilight it is easier to see true light, to see that which is real. Anyone who is thoughtful about Western civilization will tell you that it is in its twilight, when the differences between right and wrong and truth and untruth are so ambiguous that it’s hard to see. What we desperately need is not traditional truth, not relative truth, and not power truth, but embodied and unified truth lived out by Christian people who are willing to walk into the twilight and bring light there, sometimes at great cost.
You have all heard how dangerous it is to drive at twilight because you can’t see clearly. More accidents happen at twilight than at any other time. That’s us; that’s our world. More accidents about truth are happening every day, and it is harder to see and know what the truth is. I am saying, gently but firmly, that I am tired when I look at the church, and I am tired when I look at myself, and I don’t see a whole lot more than what’s going on in all the twilight around me. I see the same ambiguities, the same uncertainties, the same willingness to compromise, the same silly statements: “Oh well, everybody has to contribute to the truthfulness of this situation...” and so forth, right into the abyss.
There is an embodied and unified truth about everything. Even if it is hard to find in your area or your discipline, as your pastor I charge you to find it and go after it. The only way to do so is with the guidance of a Word that is not relative, that is not powerful in the sense that we have been talking about power, but is revealed. The only way you have an embodied and unified truth is when you have a revealed truth. It comes from outside us, outside the twilight. It comes from a different place and it brings a different kind of light. One word of truth spoken into this semidarkness, embodied and unified in your life, can make a huge difference.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent many years in a gulag, a Russian prison camp. He was not a Christian at that time, but he had a friend there who was. This friend went to Solzhenitsyn every day and pulled out of his clothing little scraps of paper on which he had written little hidden parts of the New Testament. This friend would read these to Solzhenitsyn, who was lying sick in the gulag. Over time, Solzhenitsyn became a believer and went on to be the sharpest, most brilliantly-lit critic of communism in the twentieth century, which led, I believe, in a very direct way to the accumulation of truth that caused communism to fall.
The Word of truth spoken to this man changed the world; but this is still not all of the story. Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave a famous address at Harvard University in 1978 called “One Word of Truth,” in which he not only said that communism was doomed, but he said the West was doomed as well for the same reason. The reason? We obscure the truth. We live in the twilight. We don’t stand; we don’t embody the unified truth of God. That’s my New Year’s challenge to you. God bless you.