Tuesday, May 22

Nothing But the Truth

Truth is both unchanging and universal and written on every man, woman, and child’s conscience. We never have to apologize for the truth. It is able to withstand every charge. It is able to bear up under every challenge. It is sufficient unto itself. In due course, it will prove its own value and veracity. The dumb certainties of experience will attest to its surety. As Shakespeare once quipped, “In the end the truth will out.”

The truth is not merely a moral construct. It is not a subjective application of some man-made ethical system. It is a reflection of the way things actually are. It is a part of the very warp and woof of reality. So, to veer away from the truth is to swerve into the realm of the fantastic. If we don’t live in light of the truth we are simply not being honest with ourselves and those around us. It is a dangerous form of denial. It is not too much to say therefore, that to deliberately and perpetually reject the truth is nothing short of a kind of insanity.

Truth is objective. It is consistent. It is balanced. It is both beautiful and practical. It is both good and helpful. It is accessible, knowable, and comprehendible. It is dependable, predictable, and unchangeable. Truth is believable—because it squares with the world as it is and with us as we are.

Knowing the truth—and living in accord with the truth—is not just sensible and sane, it is remarkably fruitful and productive. When men discover the truth it is as if the lights suddenly come on in their minds, hearts, and lives. Progress is made. Justice is served. Hope is satisfied. Trust is established. Love is confirmed. And freedom is safeguarded. Truth is just as surely a benefit to the scientist as it is to the philosopher. It is just as critical for a physician as it is for a husband. It is just as essential in the work of the artist as it is in the work of the lawyer.

In the midst of this poor fallen world where evil is pitted against love for the hearts, minds, and affections of all men everywhere, truth is an essential weapon in the arsenal of the good. Integrity, honor, and courage depend upon it. Indeed, apart from it, a civil society cannot long survive.

Men who deny the fact that there is any such thing as objective truth crop up in every generation. But, they are always in the minority—clamoring for attention on college campuses, on Hollywood back lots, or on late night talk shows. But their ideas seldom make it out of such enclaves into the real world. For most of us, the truth is rather obvious. At the very least, we are able to see the truth in hindsight.

Unfortunately, we don’t always live like it. The fact is we are not naturally inclined to affirm the truth even when we are perfectly well aware of that truth. On the contrary, our first impulse is generally to recoil from it. We try to avoid it. We try to ignore it. We try to side step it. Or we try to deny it. We might admire the truth, but rarely do we really want to hear it. We prefer a sugar-coated version of life, the universe, and everything. We are unabashedly partial to perspectives slanted in our favor.

That is why, throughout history, sages have been persecuted, statesmen have been rejected, and saints have been vilified. Think of all the great men and women across the ages who were rejected by their own people in their own day simply because the truth they told was unpopular. Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah were beaten, imprisoned, and sent into exile. Scientists like Galileo were silenced as dangerous heretics. Educators like Boethius were mocked as impractical mystics. Adventurers like Columbus were dismissed as idle dreamers.

During the past century or so we have been particularly rough on those who proclaimed the truth. Teddy Roosevelt was considered too volatile to hold high elective office. Winston Churchill was voted out of office after winning the Second World War. Booker T. Washington was dismissed as an ineffective compromiser.

The reason for this is simply that the truth can sometimes be uncomfortable. It can cut across the grain of our preferences and prejudices. It tells us of the way things have always been, they way they are now, and how they ought to be in days ahead. Thus, sometimes the truth can really hurt. Sometimes, in fact, it can be down right offensive.

Even when a perfect truth is offered perfectly by a perfect messenger, it can ruffle our feathers and raise our hackles. The renowned English preacher of the last generation, D. Martyn Lloyd Jones once remarked, “The great effect of our Lord's preaching was to make everybody feel condemned, and nobody likes that.”

On almost every page of the New Testament, we find Jesus offending someone. When He wasn't confronting the Scribes and the Pharisees, He was rebuking the promiscuous and the perverse. When He wasn't alienating the Saducees and the Herodians, He was reproving the tax-collectors and the prostitutes. He even had a knack for estranging His own disciples with His “hard sayings” and “dark parables.”

Jesus “meek and mild” was rarely meek or mild when it came to telling the truth. He pulled no punches. As philosopher and theologian Michael Bauman has commented, “At various times, and when the situation demanded, Jesus publicly denounced sinners as snakes, dogs, foxes, hypocrites, fouled tombs, and dirty dishes. He actually referred to one of His chief disciples as Satan. So that His hearers would not miss the point, He sometimes referred to the objects of his most intense ridicule both by name and by position, and often face to face. . . . Christ did not affirm sinners; He affirmed the repentant. Others He often addressed with the most withering invective. God incarnate did not avoid using words and tactics that His listeners found deeply offensive. He well understood that sometimes it is wrong to be nice.”

He was an equal opportunity offender. But His message was never intended to be popular; it was intended to be true. His was a message of Good News, not nice news. And that is simply not a popular notion. Not now. Not ever. Thus, “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.” (John 1:11).

None of us like to hear that we are wrong, that we have to make changes in our lives, that we have to adjust our way of thinking, or that we have to admit our faults. We are loathe to confess that are in need of repentance, forgiveness, or forbearance. And we persist in our pride even when we know the truth.

The truth demands something of us. It may or may not demand something of us as dramatic as what it demanded of the passengers of Flight 93. Though the truth ultimately sets us free, it does so at some cost.

Sometimes it is not so much our resistance to change that blinds us to the truth as it is our insistence on change. We moderns are enamored of progress. We live at a time when things shiny and new are prized far above things old and time-worn. For most of us, any truth confirmed by wisdom and experience across the ages is automatically suspect. We tend to look on such ancient and universal truths as little more than evidence of quirky primitivism or nostalgic sentimentalism. Such things are hardly more than the droning, monotonous succession of obsolete notions, anachronous ideals, and antiquarian habits—sound and fury, signifying nothing. As philosopher Richard Weaver has argued, “Since the time of Bacon the world has been running away from, rather than toward, first principles, so that, on the verbal level, we see fact substituted for truth.”

It is no less ludicrous to assert that something may have been true at ten minutes before the hour but cannot be at ten minutes after the hour than to assert that something may have been true ten centuries ago but cannot be ten centuries hence. If something is true, the hands of the clock are of little relevance.

In our pride, we think we know better than all those who went before us. According to Paul Johnson, this odd approach to denying long-held truths has actually been institutionalized as a part of the peculiar culture of modernity, “With the decline of clerical power in the nineteenth century, a new kind of mentor emerged to fill the vacuum and capture the ear of society. The secular intellectual might be deist, skeptic, or atheist. But he was just as ready as any pontiff or presbyter to tell mankind how to conduct its affairs.”
This new breed of prophet, priest, and king brought a tragic compulsion to his task of unmaking truth—and thereby remaking the world in which he lived, “He proclaimed from the start, a special devotion to the interests of humanity and an evangelical duty to advance them by his teaching. He brought to this self-appointed task a far more radical approach than his clerical predecessors. He felt himself bound by no corpus of revealed religion. The collective wisdom of the past, the legacy of tradition, the prescriptive codes of ancestral experience existed to be selectively followed or wholly rejected entirely as his own good sense might decide. For the first time in human history, and with growing confidence and audacity, men arose to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better. Unlike their sacerdotal predecessors, they were not servants and interpreters of the gods but substitutes. Their hero was Prometheus, who stole celestial fire and brought it to earth.”

As a result, this motley band of social engineers marshaled little more than their wits in their attempts at annulling old truths and thus reinventing humankind—a task no less arduous and no less fantastic than trying to annul gravity and reinvent the wheel. The result was predictably deleterious. Ultimately the self-appointed prophets, priests, and kings had their vaunted ideals dashed against the hard reality of history. The sad experience of the twentieth century—two devastating world wars, unnumbered holocausts and genocides, the fierce tyrannies of communism’s evil empire, and the embarrassing foibles of liberalism’s welfare state—ultimately exposed their high flying dreams as the noisome eccentricities that they are.

Despite history’s stern rebuke though, there are still a few die-hard devotees of this ever-hopeful worldview at work in our society. Their cant is rather ragged and shop-worn but their influence has not yet altogether disappeared. According to historian William Gairdner they are intent on making one last ditch effort to usher in their man-made utopia of man-made truths, “The legions of well-intentioned but smug, educated elites have agreed in advance to reject thousands of years of inherited wisdom, values, habit, custom, and insight and replace this heritage with their official utopian vision of the perfect society. They are the progressives, and they can be found in every political party. Trained as scientific, or logical rationalists, these social utopians haughtily treat all social or moral traditions and conventions as arbitrary, rather than as venerable repositories of indispensable social, family, and religious values. They despise natural authority, especially of a local or family variety, and they want to replace it with a sufficiently homogenous state power to bring about their coercive social dreamland. So with a government wage or grant in one hand and a policy whip in the other, they set about forcibly aligning individuals and customs with their dangerously narrow vision, then clamor after ever greater funding and ever more progressive legislation for the education or socialization of the people.”

But many of the wisest of men and women of our day were never fooled by this Tower of Babel-like effort. They recognized that a comprehension of the truth is a foundation upon which all genuine advancement must be built—that it is in fact, the prerequisite to all real progress. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “Weak things must boast of being new, like so many new German philosophies. But strong things can boast of being old. Strong things can boast of being moribund.”

Unhampered and unfettered truth is the only ground upon which honest, open, and free relationships may be built—whether in families and communities or among societies and nations. Wisdom, as it has been expressed through all the ages has always welcomed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

In order to advance the cause of life and liberty in these dark and difficult days, we will have to recover what we have lost at the hands of the prophets, priests, and kings of modernity—we must learn the lessons of history. But we will also have to overcome our aversion to the truth when it makes us uncomfortable or when it offends us.

Truth can stand the debate test. Poke it. Probe it. Explore it. Expose it. Turn it upside down. Turn it inside out. Put it under the microscope. Place it under the harshest of conditions. The truth will endure. It will always show itself to be true. On that we can surely and safely rely.

The American experiment in liberty was rooted in that kind of confidence. And if the experiment is to continue in the days ahead—benefiting our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren—then we must take care to follow in their footsteps.

There is no need for us to attempt to reinvent the wheel. The battle for truth has been fought again and again and again. Successfully. We need not cast about for direction. We need not grope in the dark for strategies, programs, and agendas. We need not manufacture new ideas, new priorities, or new tactics. We already have a tested and proven formula for victory. We already have a winning legacy. We simply need to reclaim it. We simply need to recover what is rightfully ours. Whatever the cost, we need only to rely upon the truth.

The infamous skeptic Friedrich Nietzsche once confessed, “We all fear truth.” Why would he say that? Because, as the great Spanish author asserted, “Truth may be stretched but it cannot be broken, and always gets above falsehood, as oil does above water.” And that is a fearsome thing to doubters. On the other hand, it is a great relief to all the rest of us. After all, it is the truth that will ultimately set us free.

4 comments:

nbta said...

Amen.

David said...

Dear Dr. Grant,

Thank you for putting that so well. Is there anything in particular you are thinking about right now that moved you to write this?

Diane V. said...

What a grand post on TRUTH! Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a lengthy word about it! I loved that quote by Bauman. Where did it come from? I must say that something about this post brought me a sense of relief and joy and hunger and reverence and fear all at the same time! I can only suspect that God's heart was beating through the elder when he wrote these words to Gaius in III John, "I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth."

George said...

David: Actually, there were several reasons that I felt compelled to write this piece--which sort of grew like Topsy on me rather unintentionally. Part of what I've been thinking about a lot lately have been the flurry of new books by Atheists, attacking the Christian faith--whether the silly Dan Brown, DaVinci Code, and Gospel of Judas stuff or the ardent Sam Harris, A.N. Wilson, and Christopher Hitchens stuff. Part of it was also the material I've been working through as I've been preaching in the Gospel of John. At any rate, the idea of Truth just keeps percolating in my mind and I felt compelled to write this rather long and pedantic blog.