Thursday, April 21, 2005

Is There Ultimate Truth?

A reader left a comment here, asking me to prove my assertion that there is such a thing as ultimate truth.

Since we're talking about truth, let me be honest at the outset: I will be unable to prove ultimate truth satisfactorily under the rules of formal logic.

In the end, this assertion is rooted in faith, which is another word for trust.

But I think it's a logical faith. In Romans 12:2, for example, Paul talks about worshiping God with our whole lives, something I talk about here. One of our English translation, rightly, says that such self-surrender is our "spiritual worship." Literally, the original Greek says, logike latreia, meaning logical service. There is a sense in which, after a consideration of the facts, our experiences, and the well-documented human penchant for worshiping something, that it makes sense that we yield to the greater truth of God.

Let me give you what I consider to be two logical indicators for the existence of ultimate truth.

First: There is the amazing consensus that exists throughout history across varying cultures and belief systems about what is right and wrong. C.S. Lewis writes this:
If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teachings of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans, what will really strike him [sic] will be how very like they are to each other and to our own...I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. Men [sic] have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to--whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired...
It seems that all human beings sense the existence of an ultimate truth toward which it is best to conform one's life, although we all fail.

The Bible says that God's truth is written into our hearts and we sense its call on our lives, although we have the freedom to rebel and with our psyches clouded by the distortion of self that we call sin--a condition before it results in actions, we try to bury it.

Paul, in the New Testament book of Romans, speaks of "the wrath of God," which is not an act of punishment by God, but the consequence of routinely ignoring the ultimate truth we observe in daily life. (Wrath then is, as I tell my Catechism students, like what happens if we stick our fingers in an electrical socket. The socket has nothing against us. But the electrical system is set up so that if we "cross the line" of God's laws for good living, there are consequences. They may not be immediately evident. But there are consequences. More on that presently.)

Paul writes:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God [the Author of truth] is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made...(Romans 1:18-20)
The moral system, founded on twin pillars, which appears inbuilt in the human psyche is one which seems to pervade all human attempts to live good lives or establish virtue. Those twin pillars, summarized not only in the Great Commandment articulated by Jesus, but also in the two tables of the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament and in the two sacraments instituted by Jesus, are these: love God and love neighbor.

Even moral systems not founded on monotheism acknowledge the need to bow to Someone or something greater than self.

Even moral systems that differ on the implications of neighbor love agree that it is an ultimate value, the violation of which is a great wrong.

This leads to the second logical indicator for the existence of ultimate truth. It's quite simple: God has revealed it and has done so ultimately, in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Human beings have a desire to bury the truth that there is ultimate right and wrong and that it has an Author worthy of our surrender. After all, if we can do that, then we have license to be our own gods, accountable only to ourselves.

What child hasn't fantasized about or actually tried, gorging on all the cookies in the jar when Dad or Mom wasn't looking? (After all, they reason, I want those cookies!) What married man or woman hasn't fantasized or actually tried, taking sexual intimacies from outside their marital relationship? (After all, they reason, I want those cookies!) This inclination is really a desire to bury God and, in the words of Genesis, "be like God."

If one is successful in burying God and the ultimate truth around which He says life is good, we erase wrath (the consequences of acting like gods to ourselves), or so we think. (It undoubtedly is why the world killed and buried Jesus. Fortunately for us, Jesus wouldn't stay dead. But I'm jumping ahead of myself.)

God, being gracious and as the Bible puts it, "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love," is unwilling to see us victimized by our worship of self. God refuses to give us up to wrath without fighting for us. That's why Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, came into the world. The wages of sin may be death, as Romans 6:23 says, "but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Jesus reveals ultimate truth. He shows us what ultimate truth is by the life that He lived while walking this earth. It's a life of absolute love for God and neighbor. In this life, Jesus accomplished something which no human being, in spite of the sense of right and wrong that courses through the veins of all of us, had previously been able to do and something that nobody since has pulled off either. His is a life so perfect that He was able to act as the sacrifice, the payment, for our sins and so destroy the power of wrath over the lives of those who turn from sin and entrust their existences--past, present, and future--to Him.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus tells us. (John 14:6)

Although I believe that these two things--the inbuilt sense of right and wrong and the Person of Jesus--are logical indicators of the existence of ultimate truth, I realize that they don't prove my assertion.

But this is what I know: If you will allow yourself to surrender to Jesus Christ, you will also believe in ultimate truth. I dare you to try that.

It's what I did back in my atheist days. I found my mind, heart, and will stirred by something as I spent time with these Christians, everyday people who never claimed to be better than others, but who found hope, strength, and encouragement in Christ. I was further stirred as I started to read the Bible in a translation that was accessible to me.

Against my will, against my previous derision of faith, of Christians, and of the weakness of those who surrender, I found myself loving Jesus Christ.

I finally said something like, "God, I don't know if You're there and I don't know exactly what's happening to me. But if Jesus is Who You are, I want You in my life. I don't want to the be the ultimate authority of my life because I know that I'll only screw up."

I haven't always obeyed God's ultimate truth. I do things that deserve wrath. (In fact, one of my frequent daily prayers is, "Thank You, God, for not killing me as I deserve.") But I have found God to be just like He reveals Himself to be through Jesus: a Truth of rightness, love, charity, and forgiveness on Whom I can build my life!

I hope that this helps.

15 comments:

Craig Williams said...

Mark, thanks for this blog. In our day it isn't that an ultimate truth is untenable, it is that people have abandoned the discourse that would pit one truth against another to see which hold up the best. Of course, one of the great arguments for the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be the church living their Savior's life. It is unfortunately one of the greatest arguments against our claims when we refuse to be obedient. Sigh.

Derek Simmons said...

Mark:
May I pick a phrase or two from your blog....and then pick at it? Not for the purpose of picking on you but so that you might help me to better understand your point.
"(Wrath then is...like what happens if we stick our fingers in an electrical socket. The socket has nothing against us. But the electrical system is set up so that if we "cross the line"...there are consequences.)"

Isn't this teaching a Deistic view of God? He designed and built the wiring system and the generator and then walked away, leaving us with rules for the proper and improper use of his creation? Aren't you saying "If you get burned it you and not God that does the burning?"

It seems to me that you may be too eager to shield your students from any of God's Characteristics except Love.

The only reason you can be accurate yet wrong in describing the "Wrath of God" as an inherent consequence of rather than punishment for disobedience is because God is a Constant and Consistent God. It seems to me we are "burned" by our disobedience as part of God's Character, as surely as we are healed by His Grace as part of His Character. To soften God by saying that He plays no role in the consequences we receive except as Creator/Designer suggests --if not states--He plays no role in meteing out those consequences to us when we are disobedient. Too many are willing to say that God is Love without adding and without understanding the caveat, "Yes: but He is not ONLY Love."

Don't you risk catechising your students right into that point of viewing God as something less than His Fullness?

I'm interested in your further thoughts. Thanks.

Your Brother in Christ,
Derek

Jim said...

Mark, good post, but you don't need to (sic) C. S. Lewis for using the generic "him" when referring to "anyone." That's proper English, and the plural "they" would be grammatically improper, though politically correct. Don't give in to Postmodern grammer bud!

Blessings,

Jim G.

John Schroeder said...

Great Post -- I've linked to it here.

Derek Simmons said...

Mark:

Thinking about and then looking up others who take a view similar to the one on which you catechize your students I discovered a much more recent source than the Deists: Robert Brow. Perhaps all you are doing is passing on the "new" evangelicalism believing it to be an improvement over the original "old" one.
Your Brother in Christ,
Derek Simmons

Mark Daniels said...

Derek: Thanks for your interest and your points.

My little analogy regarding wrath could perhaps, lead to a depersonalized, mechanistic understanding of God. So, your comments provide a caution for me and I appreciate it. However, in my Catechism classes, I try to share my analogy within the context of consistent discussions of the Personhood (maybe more accurately, Personhoods) of God.

As to Robert Brow, I've never heard of him.

The point of my analogy really, is that while God has no desire for any to be lost to Him, there are consequences for sin which He has built into the universe and He will not violate His law. Through Christ, however, He fulfills it and offers us a share in the victory He's won through the cross and the resurrection.

I hope that clarifies things a bit, Derek.

Thanks for your continued interest in the blog and for your comments.

Blessings in Christ,
Mark

Kate Marie said...

Thank you for an excellent post. Regarding ultimate, transcendent truth versus relativism, I'm reminded of the observation (attributed to Chesterton, though there's some question about the attribution), that the danger of relativism in not then men will thereby believe in nothing, but that they will believe in ANYTHING.

"But this is what I know: If you will allow yourself to surrender to Jesus Christ, you will also believe in ultimate truth. I dare you to try that.

It's what I did back in my atheist days. I found my mind, heart, and will stirred by something as I spent time with these Christians, everyday people who never claimed to be better than others, but who found hope, strength, and encouragement in Christ. I was further stirred as I started to read the Bible in a translation that was accessible to me.

Against my will, against my previous derision of faith, of Christians, and of the weakness of those who surrender, I found myself loving Jesus Christ.

I finally said something like, "God, I don't know if You're there and I don't know exactly what's happening to me. But if Jesus is Who You are, I want You in my life. I don't want to the be the ultimate authority of my life because I know that I'll only screw up."

Your beautiful description of surrendering to God "against your will" reminds me of one of my all-time favorite poems (posted recently on my blog):

The Collar

I struck the board and cried, “No more;
I will abroad.
What, shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasure: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not; forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away: take heed,
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling ‘Child!’
And I replied, ‘My Lord!’

-- George Herbert

Mark Daniels said...

Kate Marie: Thanks so much for your comment. I hope that you will visit and comment again soon. God bless you!

Mark

Kate Marie said...

Thanks, Mark. I just discovered your blog. I do plan to visit again soon, and I'm sure -- judging from the quality of this post -- there will be lots of great things for me to read and comment on.

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Quite the echo chamber in here. I'm bemused at how the fact that you didn't acutally manage to prove anything (and even admitted as much in advance) has been so effectively papered over by the adulation of your sycophants.

Anonymous said...

But hey, let's analyze the pseudo-proof with something approaching actual rigour anyway:

"First: There is the amazing consensus that exists throughout history across varying cultures and belief systems about what is right and wrong."

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc - There are any number of compelling explainations for this phenomena that do not require the imposition of absolute truth.

"This leads to the second logical indicator for the existence of ultimate truth. It's quite simple: God has revealed it and has done so ultimately, in the Person of Jesus Christ."

Beg the question much? "I know there is absolute truth because there is this diety who is absolutely true." Pull the other one.

Look, just for the record, you can spare me the condescending commentary regarding how "back in [your] atheist days" and "against [your] previous derision of faith" because I have no such antipathy toward Christianity. In fact, I find it rather quaintly beautiful and look upon the results of a civilization that has been informed by its teachings with more than a little appreciation. As far as that goes, I even find Christians to be, generally, incredibly wonderful people. Having said that, and while I understand the desire for the fundamental "knowledge problem" of human existance to be given a pat answer, I find the dogmatic and righteous exercise thereof mentally asphyxiating. In Judiasm, they speak of the unending struggle with the mystery of divinity - I see in Christian theology not a struggle, but a manumission of critical thought in deference to the warm blanket of theological certitude.

Mark Daniels said...

I guess it comes down to this: Do you deem Jesus trustworthy or not?

I do and in that relationship of trust, I understand Him to be ultimate truth.

My hope is that you can get to know enough of Jesus to willingly trust Him.

Thanks for stopping by the blog, for your comments, and for making me think.

Mark Daniels said...

Dear Second Anonymous Commenter:
A Christian is not one who embraces a warm blanket of certainties and platitudes and willfully disregards the sometimes painful mysteries of life.

On the contrary, following Christ entails "taking up the cross," refusing to flinch at or deny life's dark passages, its pain, and challenges. Read Bonhoeffer's poetry written before his martyrdom for opposing Hitler. He wrestled with the unknown, but chose to cling to Christ because in Him, Bonhoeffer saw a fellow sufferer.

Faith says, "If God went to a cross, how can I suppose that I won't face my cross as well? "

But the comfort is that we don't face it alone...and that because of Christ, something more awaits us.

This is why Marx had it wrong. Christian faith, far from being the opiate of the masses, is the means by which the masses stand up to injustice and exhibit the life style of compassion and concern you've apparently admired in Christians you've seen.

Thanks for your comments.

Mark

LotharBot said...

"you can spare me the condescending commentary..."

Was this intended to be ironic, or did you just not realize how incredibly condescending your own comments were?

Anonymous said...

Greetings,

Can there be a truth so great
that possibly god could do nothing greater?

God loves mankind as he loves himself.

In the spirit of peace

Eric