Thoughts on Absolute Truth and Certainty in a Post-Modern Relativistic World

Is there a more perfect foil for amateur philosophers and theologians than Calvin? I grew up in a society and a culture which says, “Question everything and especially all authority. You can’t really know anything. There is no ultimate truth.” We’ve all been led to believe that there are no absolutes – that if you submit to any authority you are weak – that it is naive to search for truth or to desire certainty.

If you believe in right and wrong as absolutes you are called intolerant, and it is only in promoting evil that you can claim the moral high ground. Vice has been made a virtue, and virtue has been made a vice. [Tweet This]

The Search for Truth

And yet, in the midst of all this, the quest for truth has been my ultimate starting point. And, while I would say that I pursue truth, I wouldn’t necessarily say that I pursue certainty.  This may seem like a minor distinction, but for me at least, I think it is an important one. 

A couple of quick points about certainty. There are probably two extremes that we could tend to. One extreme would be to think that we can have certainty in everything. The other extreme would be to think that we can have certainty in nothing. A correlation to certainty would be the concept of absolutes. These three words – truth, certainty, and absolutes aren’t synonymous, but they are very closely related. Here are some of my starting premises which I shared in another post called Thoughts on the Intersection of Faith and Reason:

1. Truth is the recognition of reality – we could fairly say that truth and reality are synonymous. Reason (man’s primary means of knowledge) is also his primary means of arriving at truth.

2. To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in thinking. To maintain that contradiction (error) is to abdicate both reason and reality – in other words, to abdicate truth.

I went on in that post to define my reasons for faith and describe what I meant by a, “Reasonable Faith.” Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is no god higher than truth.”  I would go one step further and say that when we find truth, we find God. In other words:

1. I believe that truth is an accurate representation of a fundamental reality of which God is the very foundation.

2. When Christ claimed to be not a truth but the Truth – it revealed to us that Truth is a person, and that that person is God.

3. Because real truth conforms to God/reality it is certain. Certainty derives from truth.

4. Absolutes (the practical application of truth) derive from certainty.

Admittedly, the premises above derive from a Christian worldview, although you could remove God from the equation and still come up with very similar points.  In fact, in my next post I plan to look at Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism which makes some very similar overall claims in spite of the fact that she was an atheist – namely, that reality exists independent of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, and that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic. After all, what is philosophy if not the search for truth?

Truth and Certainty?

Now we should pause and deal with the question of whether men can apprehend truth with any certainty. It seems to be an increasingly common view in our age of post-modern relativism that logic and human rationality can’t really be trusted to provide us with answers to our questions.calvin-and-hobbes-relativism

Within Christian circles this is most often expressed in the statement that man as a finite being cannot comprehend the infinite. And there is a certain element of truth to this. Werner Heisenberg said that, “It will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth.” and, it is for this reason that I think that it is necessary to add something to the equation at this point.

1. An infinite God chose to reveal Himself to finite man.

2. He did this by means of both General Revelation (i.e. creation, the natural order, the human soul, the human conscience – knowledge of moral absolutes, etc.) and Special or Particular Revelation (i.e. the Prophets, Incarnation, Scripture, His Church, etc.).

This presumes at least two truths:

A. God wishes to be known.
B. God can be known.

Therefore, as finite beings we can know “truth” because the Truth has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

We can presume that man was created with intelligence and reason to facilitate the reception of Divine revelation. We can further presume that Divine revelation makes it possible for men to know truth, because God wishes both to make Himself known, and to be known. [Tweet This]

Another foundational premise:

Because God is Truth, God’s revelation of Himself must be true in whichever manner He chooses to reveal Himself. Whether in creation, the incarnation, scripture, etc. God’s revelation of Himself must conform to ultimate reality and truth since that is who He is by nature. Therefore:

A. God’s revelation is infallible.
B. God’s revelation is authoritative.

Now when it comes to general revelation, most Christians would agree with the points above. That there should be no incompatibility between science and religion, or between what is observed in the natural order and what is revealed by God. When we begin to look at special revelation, I realize that we begin to get us into issues of both inspiration and inerrancy. And, incidentally, I am not overly fond of the term inerrant, mainly because it can be used as a weapon against Scripture by those who don’t understand such things as context, culture, literary genre, phenomenological language, the author’s intended meaning, the authors intended audience, etc., etc.  I am much more comfortable saying that Scripture is trustworthy, true, and accurate within the message it is seeking to present.  Having said all that, I firmly believe in inerrancy when properly defined and understood. And from a logical, rational standpoint, as we have stated above, God’s revelation about Himself must be true (and therefore inerrant) however He chooses to reveal Himself. Now, if Scripture is not revealed by God (i.e. not God breathed or inspired) then it need not be in inerrant. But if it is inspired then it must also be inerrant. God cannot reveal something untrue about Himself when He is ultimate truth.

As I also said in my previous post Thoughts on the Intersection of Faith and Reason, I believe that this idea of a reasonable faith is a profoundly Christian idea.  I believe that it is supported by Scripture, the teaching of the Church, and the witness of countless saints, as well as Christian scientists, philosophers, and theologians throughout the ages.  I believe it is one of the key distinctions between Christianity and other world religions (i.e. Mormonism). I believe that Christianity is reasonable because it is true.

Adding Something to the Equation

But, back to my starting premises – as Christians we believe in a transcendent God and we believe that He chose to reveal Himself to us.  Without this divine revelation, the agnostic position would indeed be reasonable.  But it is precisely because of this divine revelation that Saint Paul is able to write, “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. So they are without excuse;1 It is this revelation that introduces something new into the equation.

See the equation doesn’t work if we are just talking about finite beings seeking to understand the infinite. And we should remember that any search for truth is ultimately an encounter with the infinite – an encounter with the One who claims to be not a truth but the Truth. But when we add divine revelation to the equation things change. Revelation presumes that God wants to be known and has made Himself known. It presumes that the Divine can make Himself known to finite men even though He is infinite. It presumes that through God’s ultimate self revelation in the incarnation, we might both have the truth and know the truth, and that that truth will set us free.

Scripture itself is full of countless verses which proclaim as their purpose, “that you may know…” with the most famous being, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.2 ”  This is Divine revelation in a nutshell. Knowledge of God through the incarnate Christ. Saint Luke begins his gospel with this as the stated goal when he writes, “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.3

A Logically Flawed Position

Most Christians would probably agree with much of what I’ve said above.  They would also agree that God wishes to make Himself known and to be known.  But, there are many Christians who somehow believe in divine revelation and absolute truth – but not that God would somehow safeguard that truth in order to provide us with certainty.  That premise seems logically flawed.  Which leads to a few questions:

Why provide us with Divine revelation, if that revelation won’t be properly understood and therefore cannot be properly applied? We have said that Divine revelation must always reveal truth because God is truth, but –

1. What good is Scriptural inerrancy without teaching inerrancy?

2. What good is Divine revelation without authoritative transmission?

This is one of the many logical conundrums I found myself facing with Protestantism. I had to ask, of what value is Scriptural inerrancy without teaching inerrancy?  To say that God has preserved His Word without error, but that He has no problem with it being taught in error made absolutely no sense to me. It was unreasonable. It was logically flawed. And, I don’t believe that God is either.

I believe that God wants us to be certain about a great many things when it comes to what He has revealed about Himself, and that we can be certain – not because of our own intelligence, but because He chose to reveal Himself to us.  In other words God is certainly able to make clear that which is beyond us.  And, I have come to believe that He has provided His Church for us that it may be, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” as we are told in 1 Timothy 3:15.  I believe that this is a very great gift indeed, but that it is also entirely in keeping with a God who wishes to make Himself known.

When we look at these verses from Scripture which talk of God making Himself known to us we begin to see a striking thing. Over and over we see that His revelation of Himself comes through the transmission of those who were given the authority to transmit this revelation. Let’s look for instance again at Luke’s introduction to his gospel. I am quoting from the New King James Version and not a Catholic translation. I have put some of the words in bold to highlight this thought.

“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.4

How many current ministers of the word can claim a “perfect understanding”? How many can claim to have received the gospel from eyewitnesses? How many say to their flock, “That you may know with certainty…”

How about 1 John 4:6-7 “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” Notice here that Saint John takes quite seriously the words of Christ to the apostles, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.5 ” Notice further that his authority (given by Christ) becomes the basis for knowledge of truth and error.

I will probably write another post at another time to deal more completely with the issue of authority, but for me that is where all the above premises and logical suppositions begin to fall apart. When we remove God given authority and replace it with our own, the equation just doesn’t work. We said earlier that God’s revelation was infallible and authoritative, so here’s a couple of final premises to ponder:

1. My interpretation of God’s revelation is not authoritative.

2. My interpretation of God’s revelation is not infallible.

Without an external authoritative and infallible interpretation of revelation there can be no certainty on matters of faith and morals. There can be no absolutes. Christianity itself devolves into relativism for lack of absolutes and truth.  The last 500 years of church history has shown the pragmatic results of removing from the equation the authoritative interpretation of revelation that Christ gave to us through His Church.

Peter Kreeft on the Church

I want to return here to something that I said at the beginning of this post. If you believe in right and wrong as absolutes you are called intolerant, and it is only in promoting evil that you can claim the moral high ground. Vice has been made a virtue, and virtue has been made a vice. And yet against all of this stands the Church, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Peter Kreeft, a brilliant philosophy professor at Boston College, a tremendous apologist, and a convert to Catholicism himself, put it this way in an article about his conversion entitled Hauled Aboard the Ark: 

“The issue of the Church’s historical roots was crucial to me, for the thing I had found in the Catholic Church and in no Protestant church was simply this: the massive historical fact that there she is, majestic and unsinkable. It was the same old seaworthy ship, the Noah’s ark that Jesus had commissioned. It was like discovering not an accurate picture of the ark, or even a real relic of its wood, but the whole ark itself, still sailing unscathed on the seas of history! It was like a fairy tale come true, like a “myth become fact;” to use C. S. Lewis’ formula for the Incarnation.

The parallel between Christ and Church, Incarnation and Church history, goes still further. I thought, just as Jesus made a claim about His identity that forces us into one of only two camps, His enemies or His worshippers, those who call Him liar and those who call Him Lord; so the Catholic Church’s claim to be the one true Church, the Church Christ founded, forces us to say either that this is the most arrogant, blasphemous and wicked claim imaginable, if it is not true, or else that she is just what she claims to be. Just as Jesus stood out as the absolute exception to all other human teachers in claiming to be more than human and more than a teacher, so the Catholic Church stood out above all other denominations in claiming to be not merely a denomination, but the Body of Christ incarnate, infallible, one, and holy, presenting the really present Christ in her Eucharist. I could never rest in a comfortable, respectable ecumenical halfway house of measured admiration from a distance. I had to shout either “Crucify her!” or “Hosanna!” if I could not love and believe her, honesty forced me to despise and fight her.

But I could not despise her. The beauty and sanctity and wisdom of her, like that of Christ, prevented me from calling her liar or lunatic, just as it prevented me from calling Christ that. But simple logic offered then one and only one other option: this must be the Church my Lord provided for me—my Lord, for me. So she had better become my Church if He is my Lord.”

A Reasonable Belief

And here I have come almost full circle back to something I said earlier. I would like to say it again using slightly different words. I believe that Catholicism is true because it is reasonable.  I believe that it is an accurate representations of a fundamental reality of which God is the foundation – and therefore I believe that it is also certain. I believe that it conforms to both logic and Divine revelation as seen in the Holy Scriptures. When I say that I believe it to be logical and reasonable and true, I say it as a positive declaration – not as a negative indictment, as such proclamations have come to be taken by our post-modern relativistic society. Because it it true, it is also good. Because it is both good and true, I can trust it and submit myself to it’s authority. In submitting to that authority I have found that the Church’s yoke is easy and her burden is light, because it is the very yoke of Her master Jesus Christ who said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.6

For me, that pretty well sums it up.  God desires us all to come to a knowledge of the Truth – namely His Son, the Truth incarnate. He provided for us both revelation and a means of being certain of that revelation.  I am profoundly grateful for all of His revelation, and for ensuring it’s safe transmission and interpretation to us so that we can have certainty when it comes to His Truth. I’ll end with a charge from St. Paul to Timothy in his second letter to him.  May we all do our upmost to live up to it:

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.7

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  1. Romans 1:20 

  2. John 17:3 

  3. Luke :1:1-4 

  4. Luke 1:1-4 

  5. Luke 10:16 

  6. Matthew 28:19-20 

  7. 2 Timothy 4:1-5 

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