Sunday, February 25, 2024

What is Truth?

 Have you ever walked into the midst of a heated argument, and thought, “Wait; you’re both wrong!!”  I have that feeling when reading one of the iconic scenes of the Bible, the questioning of Jesus Christ by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate was the Roman prefect and governor of Judea.  Let’s review the conversation as reported in the gospel of John.  (Keep in mind that the gospel of John was probably maintained by oral tradition for at least 35 years, and did not reach final form until about 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  The conversation may not reflect historical accuracy.)

“36 Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
37 ‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.
Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’
38 ‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.’”

                            John 18:36-38, New International Version

"What is Truth?"  Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate
Image credit unknown.

Jesus brushes aside the accusation of being an earthly king, and instead asserts that his entire mission is to testify to truth.  The gospels tell us that the truth Jesus preached is the reality of God, the necessity of worshiping God, the importance of loving neighbors, even neighbors you dislike, the importance of humility and forgiveness, the importance of renouncing worldly obligations (including family obligations) to follow him, the reward in the afterlife for worshiping God, and punishment in the afterlife for rejecting God.

But what if God isn’t real?  What if it is all a lie?  This seems to be the question that Pilate is asking, when he says “What is truth?”  Pilate doesn’t stay around for an answer to his rhetorical question.  I would read into Pilate’s question a rejection of the idea of truth, or a belief in relative truth, dependent on circumstances.  Let’s deal with Pilate first.

Pontius Pilate
Religion in the Roman empire of 33 AD was complicated.  Roman was polytheistic.  Roman gods and goddesses had parallels in Greek religion (I will call these beliefs religion, rather than mythology.  People of the time regarded their gods as real as Christians regard their God today.)  Egypt had its own gods and goddess of quasi-human character, and there were a number of Levantine religions in addition to Judaism.  Further complicating the divine roster were ruler-gods.  Ancient Rome was surrounded by cultures which venerated their rulers as gods.  Egypt is the most well-known example of divine rulers, with pharaohs regarded as divine intermediaries between gods and humans.  First Greeks and then Romans adopted the practice of deifying rulers after death.  We can’t know what Pilate thought of these conflicting religious ideas, or if he was a true believer in Mars, Zeus, or the emperor Augustus as real divine gods.  The rhetorical question “What is truth?” suggests that he regarded Jesus’ god as no better and no worse than the rest.

But regardless of uncertainties, we cannot disavow truth.  Logic falls apart if we cannot say that any proposition is true.  Mathematics disintegrates if we cannot firmly assert that 2 + 2 equals 4.  There is no corner of time or space in which 2 + 2 does not equal four.  Even in relativistic physics, the resting mass of an object is constant.  Truth is absolute.

Like Goedel’s theorem in math, truth is also necessarily incomplete.  We will never know the full truth about many things.  Also, some aspects of physical reality, like quantum mechanics, are subject to probabilistic rules.  But these probabilistic rules are themselves truth over the domains where they apply.  Further research will undoubtedly produce new fundamental discoveries and overturn current knowledge, but this does not invalidate the idea that truth exists.  Do not confuse knowledge and truth.  Knowledge is necessarily incomplete and imperfect.  Truth, which we may only approach, is absolute, whatever it is.

I cannot resist a tangential mention of a brilliant essay by Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong, published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1986, and in a collection of non-fiction essays in 1988, under the same title.  While truth is absolute, there are degrees of falsehood.  The statement 2+2=5 may be false, but it is less false than 2+2 =5,492,817, which is less false than 2+2=purple.

We recognize different degrees of certainty in determining truth in different settings.  In the courtroom, the preponderance of evidence (i.e. >50%) is sufficient to determine truth in a civil case, but evidence beyond a reasonable doubt is necessary for a criminal conviction.  Similarly, in science, different levels of certainty are assigned to scientific findings, with the ultimate determination of "unequivocal" for the highest level of certainty.  In this essay, I am searching for truth beyond a reasonable doubt, or unequivocal truth.  These are criteria where objections to the finding are not based on reasonable evidence, or opposing arguments which are not in good faith.

Our discussion of Jesus begins with another iconic passage from the gospels.
“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
John 14:5-6, New International Version.

In his statement to Pilate, Jesus said that he came into the world to testify to the truth.  In his statement to Thomas, Jesus said that he embodied truth, as well as the unique and only path to God.  Remember that claim as we consider statements from a number of other religions.

Jesus taught that he was the prophesied messiah, that God was real, and that there exists a kingdom of heaven which only believers can reach.  Jesus taught that devotion to God and Jesus was necessary for salvation from sin and eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.  There were many other teachings involving empathy, equality, forgiveness, and human relationships, but Jesus’ core message was about religion and the human relationship to God.  But how do we know that Jesus’ testimony is, in fact, the truth?  There are many claims to be the one true religion on Earth.

"The Christian religion is true, because it has pleased God, who alone can be the judge in this matter, to affirm it to be the true religion· And it alone has the commission and the authority to be a missionary religion, i.e., to confront the world of religions as the one true religion, with absolute self-confidence to invite and challenge it to abandon its ways and to start on the Christian way."
                         ― Theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968).

“The Bible clearly states that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to receive salvation. And that's how we can know that Christianity is indeed the one true religion.”
United Church of Christ Webpage

The Truth of Shintō is to be seen in the inevitability of its underlying doctrine.  This is apparent on consideration of the real significance of the great deities introduced in the oldest Yamato literature….This is the Truth of the Way of the Gods.
                        ― Kazusaku Kanzaki, Shintō Honkyoku no Kyōri ("The Doctrine of Shintō Honkyoku"), Uchü ("The Universe"), (January 1930).  [Complete quote and list of gods given below.]

“It is our firm conviction that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, as the revelations state, ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.’”

                        ― Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1985, on the webpage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, "The Only True Church".

"30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased."
                        ― Doctrine and Covenants 1:30, 1835  (Church of Latter Day Saints).

“If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: Search after truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after truth... Hinduism is the religion of truth. Truth is God. Denial of God we have known. Denial of truth we have not known.”
                        ― Mahatma Gandhi

There is only one God, and It is called the truth, It exists in all creation, and It has no fear, It does not hate, and It is timeless, universal and self-existent! You will come to know it through the grace of the Guru.
                        ― Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Holy Scripture of Sikhism, circa 1604.

“‘Once that has been made clear, we can easily say that Allah sent only one form of legislation for all of mankind to follow, otherwise if we were to say that there is more than one then that would entail that Allah is unjust because He left us to wander about on earth without showing us the right way to do things, and this is impossible because Allah is Just.  Therefore the only logical conclusion is that there is only one true religion, which contains guidance in all spheres of life, and that all other religions are false.”
                           ― Kamil Ahmad, current webpage.

“He who upholds Truth with all the might of his power, He who upholds Truth the utmost in his word and deed, He, indeed, is Thy most valued helper, O Mazda Ahura!”
“Truth is best (of all that is) good. As desired, what is being desired is truth for him who (represents) the best truth. (Gathas 27.14)”

                            ― Zarathustra, circa 1000 BCE

There are approximately 3000 to 4000 different religious faiths and traditions known in historical times.  Most of these claim to be the one and only true religion, and the only path to know God, receive salvation, have happiness in the afterlife, etc.  A few religious traditions, like Unitarianism, accept all faiths, but this sweeps contradictions under the rug instead of rationally working toward an understanding based on truth.  Some of the intellectuals writing about religion come very close to the correct analysis, but fail at the end. 

Zacharias Ursinus, circa 1563 AD, wrote: “doctrine which contradicts itself can neither be true, nor from God, since truth is in perfect harmony with itself, and God cannot contradict himself.” 
And yet, despite obvious contradictions in doctrine, in the Bible, in the concept of God and the injustice in the world, Ursinus fails to conclude that religious doctrine is false, and God isn’t real.  He was so close.

Sometimes an Internet meme is the simplest way to convey an idea.  The claims by many religions to be the one true faith cannot possibly all be true.  Nor do relativistic equivalencies between different churches make sense.  While there are some similarities between religions, there are also deep and fundamental differences of doctrine and belief, from polytheism/monotheism, to creation stories, to religious commandments, etc.  These differences are real and irreconcilable.

Since Jesus declared that he embodied truth, the subsequent 2000 years have not provided any convincing evidence that God exists.  There is no evidence that prophecy is true, that spirits exist separately from corporeal humans, that life does not end at death, or that an alternate world of God’s kingdom exists.  It is a lot to accept without evidence.

I will explore further proof that God doesn’t exist in my next post, “From Agnosticism to Atheism.”
The image of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ is used without permission and not for profit.  It will be removed upon a received request.


Additional claims of religious truth:
“The expression "one true church" refers to an ecclesiological position asserting that Jesus gave his authority in the Great Commission solely to a particular visible Christian institutional church—what is commonly called a denomination. This view is maintained by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox communion, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the Churches of Christ, and the Lutheran Churches,[1] as well as certain Baptists.[2] Each of them maintains that their own specific institutional church (denomination) exclusively represents the one and only original church.”
― Wikipedia, The One True Church

“It is not possible that that religion should be true and divine….it is only the doctrine of the church that is true and divine….Now, as the doctrine of the church is the only system of religious truth that has ever discovered and proclaimed a way of deliverance from the evils of sin and death, which alone affords real and substantial comfort to the conscience, it must be true and divine.”
― Zacharias Ursinus, circa 1563, 14 Reasons Christianity is the True Religion, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Truth of Shintō is to be seen in the inevitability of its underlying doctrine.  This is apparent on consideration of the real significance of the great deities introduced in the oldest Yamato literature.
Ame-no-Minaka-Nushi-no-Kami (‘‘The Deity Who is Lord of the Center of Heaven’’), the first god named in the Kojiki is correctly understood as the central existence of the universe, the primary source of all things, both animate and inert. All the phenomena presented to human senses are the manifestations in time of this absolute god. The Absolute functions in time in the form of the two-fold creation kami, Taka-Mimusubi-no-Kami and Kami-Musubi-no-Kami. These two beings represent activities of opposite kinds, from which the phenomenal world has had its rise. This positive-negative, or male-female, potency appears in Japanese history as the great father and mother of the race, Izanagi and Izanami, from whom is born the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-Ōmikami, who in turn is the progenetrix of the Imperial Family and the Japanese people. Amaterasu-Ōmikami, in her position among the historical personages of Japan, is like the sun in heaven about which the planetary bodies revolve. The aptness of this solar metaphor accounts for the sun imagery of the early mythology. The statements just made point to undeniable facts in Japanese history. This is not a matter of mere chance or coincidence, but is so by inner necessity. This is the Truth of the Way of the Gods.

Kazusaku Kanzaki, Shintō Honkyoku no Kyōri ("The Doctrine of Shintō Honkyoku"), Uchü ("The Universe"), (January 1930), quoted in D. C. Holtom, The National Faith of Japan: A Study in Modern Shinto (1938).

No comments:

Post a Comment