A Beginner’s Guide to the Argument from Truth

And where did she go?
Truth left us long ago
And I need her tonight because I’m scared of loneliness with you, baby
And I should let it go
But all that is left is my perspective, broken and so left behind again.

– English Indie band, London Grammar, Rooting For You.

We are all Truth-seekers

In a time when the unspooling reality of post-truth as seen through Facebook’s fake news outlets; Cambridge Analytica’s (no longer quite so) clandestine political machinations; and the ongoing disinformation campaigns spearheaded by the Kremlin and The White House, it is, perhaps, unsurprising if we too have imbibed the cultural Kool Aid that truth no longer matters. Peter Pomerantsev summarises this sentiment in his latest book This is Not Propaganda like this: “‘There is so much information, misinformation, so much of everything that I don’t know what’s true any more.’” [sic.]

And yet, it is precisely when we see the cost of truth having seemingly exited the world stage, that we become more desirous of pursuing it. Truth matters. Along with London Grammar, we find ourselves longing for truth: ‘Where did she go? I need her…’ Post-truth reveals our desire for truth. We want transparent politicians and trustworthy news sources.

Even when spin, power-plays, and alternative facts seemingly dominate the world stage, this socio-political phenomenon is unable to eradicate our status as truth-seekers. If anything, it has only served to highlight it.

It is not that society does not long for truth, but that we are only too aware of our own limitations in perceiving truth truly. As, ‘all that is left is my perspective, broken and so left behind again.’ We want truth, but we are left asking the question, ‘is it possible to know truly?’

Our post-Enlightenment age has woven the golden thread of scepticism deep into hearts. Doubt reigns. Ostensibly, it is the preserve of the intellectually sophisticated and humble, most especially when the alternative is the hubris of restrictive, absolute truth claims. As the late philosopher Dallas Willard reminds us:

We live in a culture that has] for centuries now cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than the one who believes. You can be as stupid as a cabbage, as long as you doubt… Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists.[1]

The charge that sceptics are the social conformists is an interesting insight. However, what I would like to focus on is what Don Carson exposes as a common, unacknowledged, base-level assumption behind absolute truth claims. It is this that makes scepticism more appealing:

Behind the objection of arrogance to exclusivity lies this indefensible, destructive and controlling antithesis: Either you know something exhaustively and omnisciently, or you have to give up claims to objective knowledge.[2]

Many of us  are aware of our inability to access truth in toto. As the Christian worldview holds, ‘Truth left us long ago’, and ever since, we have been scrambling and searching for truth.

As a result, a  variety of views on knowing, reality, and being, have been formulated over the centuries, stemming from the early philosopher Thales (‘everything is water’), to Heraclitus (‘all is flux’, cue the lyrics to Pocahontas’ song ‘you can’t step in the same river twice’) to Plato (eternal forms are really real) down to Aristotle (all that matters is matter), reveal humanity’s quest for truth. We have always hungered after it, even when we have doubted whether or not it is possible to attain.

As Carson reminds us, we assume that unless we know completely (which we cannot), we have to give us claims to total knowledge (which we do). Why is this? There is a personal dynamic, as well as a philosophical one at work here.

The fall-out of modernity, in which the triumvirate of tradition, reason and authority ruled, created a profound disconnect between objective and subjective knowledge. Modernity significantly overlooked the personal needs of the individual; and we are only too aware of the ensuing devastating effects of power – oppression. When one people group; religious, tribal or otherwise, have colonised, commissioned crusades, and/or committed genocide, we are rightly left extraordinarily suspicious of any one overarching, absolute truth claim.

Objective claims to knowledge have been, therefore, discarded in favour of subjective claims to knowledge. It goes that no one person is able to determine what is true for everyone at all times, so the best choice is to self-create our own mini-narratives within our own geographical sub-cultures and contexts for our own lives and families. We see this encapsulated in everyday statements such as ‘you do you’ and ‘stay in your own lane’.

Relativism rescues… Or does it?

Relativism, then, is the philosophical position that each person or group defines their views on truth/s, ethics, and values. Problems with this position are encountered almost immediately.  I will list just two:

First, it is self-referentially incoherent. The proposition ‘truth is a social construct’ is itself a social construct! To say, ‘all truth is relative’ is itself relative! Relativism makes a universal truth claim by saying all truths are relative. This falls foul of that which it is trying to achieve. For relativistic truth claims to mean anything at all, they have to be taken as statements of absolute truth.

Second, as Peter Hicks states in Evangelicals and Truth, “Relativism destroys meaning and makes communication impossible” (p.137). For the relativist, there is no shared world of meaning. This is deeply problematic as it renders all attempts at communicating meaning – linguistic or otherwise – futile. Not only is this position philosophically untenable, but it also cuts against our daily experiences of life. The fact you are able to read and discern meaning through these sentences is evidence that communication does happen, and reality isn’t thus just because we declare it to be in accordance with our own personal preferences or thoughts. Objectivity is a needful, necessary assumption.

Moreover, more often than not, ethically speaking, moral relativism also possesses immense limitations. A universal standard by which we can judge right and wrong is not only necessary but wanted. Some things are wrong at all times and in all places – genocide, murder, rape, to name a few. These are not local transgressions; such acts are objectively evil. To say otherwise would be to hold that if the Nazi’s had won the Second World War, then their victory would have legitimised the Holocaust de facto.

Perhaps this may be unsatisfactory response to the thorough-going relativist. They may say, ‘Who cares whether or not truths are relative? I am very happy living mine.’ As the author Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water:

We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.

This is the ultimate challenge. Are we able, as the German Protestant church leader Johannes Hamel commended, to speak ‘true words as fingers pointing to the crucified Christ?’ Can we as the church provide, what the philosopher Alistair MacIntyre exhorts us to in After Virtue: “What matters as this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which is already upon us.”

Moreover, as Hicks goes on to write:

…however strong our commitment to postmodernism and relativism may be, we have to admit that the asking and answering of questions is foundational to human life as we know it. Exploring the world around us, and ourselves, and our relationships to each other, and the meaning of things, and concepts like beauty, truth, and value and goodness, did not start with the Enlightenment: these things are an essential part of what it means to be human. To veto the asking of questions is to deny our humanity.

At bottom, Relativism denies our humanity. There is, however, at least one good insight from relativism. Ellis Potter in How Do You Know That? summarises the benefit and pitfall to postmodernity (the backdrop to relativism) like this: “I am grateful to postmodernism because it has restored subjectivity to truth. I am unhappy with postmodernism because it has eliminated objectivity from truth.” 

What, then, is the alternative?

We have seen that we are unable to know exhaustively, and local accounts of truth are insufficient to hold the weight of their own philosophical argumentation, let alone our human desires. What, then, are we left with? How can we know anything?

Carson goes on to identify that our inability to know exhaustively doesn’t preclude our ability to know partially. More than that, exhaustive knowledge is a false Enlightenment ideal, whereas partial yet true knowledge accords much more profoundly with what it means for us to be human. Indeed, there is a ‘coming-to-know’ and an ongoing relationship with knowledge that neither modernity nor postmodernity have been able to embody or employ.

Covenant Epistemology

Rather than restricting ourselves to local formulations of truth, or binding ourselves to irrelevant, abstract objective truth, covenant epistemology, an account of biblical knowing, upholds the aspect of truth as discovery. Truth is discovered, not manufactured.

When considering the boiling point of water, few of us would brandish a thermometer and continually test the boiling point of water in order to observe that it does (usually) boil at around 100C.  We have received this knowledge from trustworthy sources of authority. Reliable guides have conducted the experiments and discovered the boiling point for us. This means we are no less rational for asserting 100C as the boiling point of water not having conducted the experiment, than those who have. This is just one example of truth revealing itself to us – either directly or by way of testimony. All truth is revealed truth – this applies to scientific discoveries just as much as it does to Whitney Houston’s long-time existential question, ‘how will I know if he really loves me?

Reality is personal. The triune God, reality, reveals truth, if we adopt the receptive posture of humility.

The philosopher, Esther Meek, in her magnum opus, Loving To Know, traces the contours of knowing fuelled by love, over-against the Enlightenment ‘knowledge-as-information’ approach, and the post-modern ‘all is love’ mantra.

The suggested alternative to knowing which steers clear of the over objectification of knowledge and its power-plays as well as the eddying waters of relativism and subjectivity, is, what Meek has coined, covenant epistemology.

Meek builds on the work of former scientist-cum-philosopher, Michael Polanyi, in order to establish a way of knowing that restores heads and hearts, facts and values, objectivity and subjectivity, the knower and the known – a full-bodied, Biblical epistemology. That is, a Biblical exploration of how we know what we know; indeed, how even come to know in the first. This is the realm of epistemology. It is the study of knowing.

In A Little Manual for Knowing, Meek delivers an entrée to this covenant epistemology. Here she writes: “[If love] is at the core of all things, if reality is, at its core, the highly sophisticated interpersonal act of gift, then knowing is quite sensibly a responding to the gesture of love.”

Covenant epistemology (knowing) is a response to overtures of love leading to obedience and delight. Knowing, then, takes place within the setting of interpersonal, covenantal relationship. Knowing is a moment of encounter and transformation, after which we are never the same again. We do not know in order to love; instead, we love in order to know. It is as we humbly submit ourselves to clues that reality begins to reveal itself to us. For example, Polanyi illustrates with the act of riding a bike. To begin, when learning to ride the bike, one seeks to physically indwell the clues – that is, we sit on the bike, our legs start peddling and our bodies try to keep us on the bike. Attempts are made to coordinate balance, momentum and direction. At some inexplicable point there comes a moment of integration when those clues (pedalling, steering, balance, etc.) can be relied on in a subsidiary, secondary, way. It is from those clues one is lead to riding the bike. It is when one no longer focusses on said clues and instead finds oneself riding the bike, that reality is encountered. And we know, not because we are now able to close off the boundaries of knowledge and precisely articulate the event of bike-riding, but because it opens us up to further knowing. We can now ride that bike in a variety of contexts, with multiple persons. Knowing leads to more, not less, all because we submitted humbly to the clues of bike-riding until we received the gift of bike-riding. There is, therefore, a bodily rootedness to all knowing. Everything we have come to know starts with our bodies. Sherlock provides us with a similar paradigm. He gathers seemingly opaque clues and trusts himself to a hitherto unknown pattern. As he does so, reality breaks in, and the pieces of the puzzle come together transformatively.

Truth is Personal

Truth is profoundly personal because reality is personal. We are made in the image of a Triune God who has shaped us for knowing truly, but not exhaustively. All humans are fallen, finite and limited creatures. Yet, we possess the capacity to know truly; not because we are competent and capable enough in order to create it ourselves, but because God is gracious enough to reveal truth to us. He does this definitively by sending the eternal son in the power of the Spirit to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. The eternal son takes on flesh and dwells amongst us.

Jesus is Truth

The quest for objective and subjective knowledge is revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He does away with our false dichotomies. Modernity affirmed objective and discoverable knowledge, while postmodernity affirms subjective, self-creating knowledge. In Christ, we see objective truth subjectively displayed in the incarnation (for more, please see my own book, MORE>Truth). The theologian John Stott once said that Christianity bypasses the modernist/postmodernist debate by making truth personal – Jesus is Truth with flesh on.

Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). On this, the missiologist Lesslie Newbigin states: “…though we do not know what lies ahead, we are on a track we can trust…This is what is made possible only by the death and resurrection of Jesus.” We do not know what lies ahead in life, yet, in the words of Dutch watchmaker Corrie Ten Boom, who facilitated the escape of many Jews from the Nazi Holocaust, we can “trust an unknown future to a known God.” All because Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.

Jesus’ absolute truth claim sounds like another power-play, another attempt to crush, dominate and restrict. And yet, it is the most inclusive-exclusive truth claim any one will ever encounter. The Kingdom is open to anyone, regardless of background, socio-economic status, sexual-orientation, country, class, race, language, etc., the list goes on. Furthermore, Chatraw and Allen in Apologetics at the Cross cite the historian Larry Hurtado, a specialist in Christian cultures, in making the case that what set Christianity apart from the early ancient world is its “transethnic and translocal” quality “addressing males and females of all social levels.”

The Truth will set you free

At the time of writing, I am currently sat in an idyllic getaway home off of the coast of Norfolk, and I cannot help but recall the plotline to Frozen 2, which I just so happened to see yesterday! (You have to see it.) As you can probably recall from the ebullient singing of small children, there is an iconic moment in Frozen (1) where Elsa creates her own ice-palace in order to establish a place where she can be truly herself – really free. She sings with aplomb “Let it go, they can’t hold you back anymore…” Her freedom creates an ice palace of isolation and it does not take long to see the destructive consequences of this in the film.

**Spoiler Alert**

In Frozen 2, that abiding existential question, ‘who am I?’ and ‘why doesn’t this feel right?’ continues to haunt Elsa. That is until, one day, she starts to hear a voice and so she sets out to follow it. What ensues is a transformative journey of encounter and revelation. Elsa goes from singing ‘let it go’ to ‘show yourself’. As she humbly submits herself to reality, reality discloses itself. Elsa learns who she really is. She finds true freedom in humble submission to her nature. Elsa is no longer struggling to create herself ex-nihilo. Instead, she receives the gift of who she is, her true identity, and she is set free.

Minus the singing reindeer, this is what life in Jesus is like. We receive our identity as children of God, and in so doing, we are granted the gift to be more ourselves, not less.

When Jesus says the words “And the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) to his disciples, he is outlining freedom from the bondage of slavery (8:34). Often, we consider slavery as an external force subduing us, but what if slavery is also bondage within and to ourselves? This is such a slavery from which we cannot emancipate ourselves. We require one more powerful than ourselves, who is also able to step into our condition, in order to free us. This is a person who uses his power to stoop and to serve, not to manipulate and to spin. But, it begins with truth-telling, in saying there is a predicament from which we need rescue.

Os Guiness picks up on this in a statement to the Veritas Forum at Stanford:

If truth is dead and knowledge is only power, all that remains is a world of lies, hype and spin… But truth matters supremely because in the end, without truth there is no freedom. Truth, in fact, is freedom, and the only way to live free is to become a person of truth. Living in truth is the secret of living free.

Such free living in the truth comes at a price. As John Steinbeck reminds us in his magnificent work, East of Eden, “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie. It takes great courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s a punishment for it, and it’s usually crucifixion.” As Willard wrote earlier, as opposed to the sceptics, are we willing to be social non-conformists in our willingness to live in the Truth?

Humanity’s search for truth is ultimately found in Jesus. He is the one who is able to account for the longings of our hearts and the structure to the framework of reality. It as we encounter him through the pages of Scripture that, like Elsa, we may hear the voice of one leading us to life. Little Lucy from C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles experiences a similar event:

“Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name.” Isn’t this the kind of Truth we desire? Truth who knows completely, yet loves us deeply, calling our name, calling us home.

Kristi Mair headshot

Kristi Mair is an author, academic and speaker. She holds a BA in Philosophy and Theology and an MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Formerly with UCCF, she is currently combining PhD studies in philosophical theology with a role as Research and Pastoral Support Fellow at Oak Hill College, where she lectures in philosophy. Kristi continues to speak regularly at campus-based and local church events, as well providing training in persuasive evangelism. Kristi’s first book, More>Truth, was published by IVP in 2019

Further suggested reading:

Introductory Level
More>Truth, Kristi Mair. 
Little Manual For Knowing, Esther Meek.
A Wilderness of Mirrors, Mark Meynell.
Evangelism in a Sceptical World, Sam Chan.

Introductory to Medium Level
Saving Truth, Abdu Murray. 

Medium Level
Evangelicals and Truth, Peter Hicks.
Proper Confidence, Lesslie Newbigin. 
The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi.

[1] Extract taken from The Veritas Forum at Ohio State University.

[2] Carson, Don. Can We Be Sure About Anything?, 121.