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The Truth about Truth, Part 2 (What Truth Is)

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My previous post was primarily an effort to dispel inadequate concepts of truth prior to discussing what truth actually is. Now that those partial concepts have been dealt with I can proceed to do just that. Thomas Aquinas wrote, in his Summa Theologiae, that “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.” Truth is that which corresponds to reality. To put it in more contemporary and applicable terms, and how theologian and apologist Norman Geisler phrases it, telling the truth is “telling it how it is.”

The primary reason for seeing this as a superior concept of truth is that without correspondence, the notions of truth and falsity would be utterly meaningless. The way we understand truth in our experience is by recognizing the correlation between reality and statements about reality. Likewise, the way we recognize falsehood is by discerning the difference between reality and statements about reality. If the correspondence view of truth was not so comprehensive, we should not expect to see any differences between statements and reality. However, this is clearly not what we do see (even my explanation here is contingent upon the reality of correspondence!).

For example, if I were to claim to you that I was present at the launch of the first manned space mission, there would be plenty of ways to verify whether I was telling the truth. However, all of these ways would accomplish the same goal: verification of whether my statement corresponds with the facts. In this case, the best place to start would be by verifying my own date of birth, which, having fallen long after the historical event in question, would prove that I was lying about having witnessed the launch. (For the record, this event occurred on May 5, 1961, 19 years prior to my birth.) In fact, a claim like this would not even fall within the ability of the pragmatic truth theory to verify, nor the coherence theory, nor even the intentions theory. No matter how sincere I might be in my delusion, the facts show that it is not possible that I would have been present for this event.

When a witness makes an oath to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ he or she is making a promise that depends on the correspondence theory in order for it to be coherent. Without the idea of truth being that which corresponds to reality, there would be no means of discerning the validity of testimony. If a witness’ statements need not correspond to reality, then it seems to me that there is hardly any need for such an oath to be made. In fact, if this were truly the case, all statements would be true, and theoretically, any dispute would be resolved without the need of a trial. In my mind I can imagine millions of lawyers joining force to defend the correspondence view, and in doing so, the validity of their careers!

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed several other views on truth. However, what I hope I made clear is that each of these views is inadequate to deal with the full scope of truth, and that most of the views were self-contradictory. Each view, whether it is the pragmatic, coherence, intentional, or existential, makes correspondence implicit in its claim. Thus, for one to claim that the existential view of truth is true, implies that the existential view corresponds to reality!

Written by Christopher Butler

March 2, 2006 at 2:06 pm

The Truth about Truth, Part 1 (What Truth Isn’t)

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The nature of truth can be discussed on the basis of negative and positive affirmation. In order to specify the nature of truth, it is perhaps most expedient to remove incoherent and inadequate ideas about what truth is first, then proceed to defining it (this is the easy part!). Thus, this article is subtitled, 'What Truth Isn't.'

Some may limit truth to the pragmatic, suggesting that truth is that which ‘works.’ This concept would be tested by the proof of future experience, as something would be confirmed to be true if it correlated with the right results. This view is incoherent because in trying to appeal to the pragmatic, it is actually appealing to truth as it corresponds to reality. To even hold the concept of ‘right results,’ one must have a presuppositional concept of truth as correlating to reality. Thus, a ‘higher’ concept of truth is necessary to support this subservient one. The pragmatic view is also inadequate because it confines truth to those things that are practical, and it excludes theoretical truths (such as mathematical proofs, sets, etc.) and factual truths (such as ‘today is Monday’). Neither of these categories is truthful on the basis of pragmatism; they are true because they correspond to reality. Even a truth that ‘works’ could be in fact incorrect. For instance, apologist Ravi Zacharias often relays a story in which a young boy challenges his father’s faith in the idols in his home, saying ‘Dad, why do you worship these wooden figures? They aren’t real- they were made by people!’ His father replies angrily and almost fearfully, ‘Don’t you ever say that! They are real and they are powerful.’ To prove his point, the child takes a stick and smashes a smaller idol to bits while his father is away. Then he places the stick in the hands of a larger idol standing nearby. When his father returns, he exclaims, ‘What happened? Who did this?’ The child replies, ‘I don’t know, Dad. It wasn’t me, but it looks like the larger god there did it!’ The father quickly answers him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you must have done it!’ The child again denies it and his father finally explodes, ‘Stop lying! You must have done this; these statues aren’t alive!’ The point here is that based upon the father’s idea of truth, the child’s ‘alibi’ should have worked, yet the correspondence with reality (even one of which the father lived in denial) was not there.

Another incoherent and inadequate concept of truth is the one which suggests that truth is ‘that which coheres.’ A coherent truth is one which is internally consistent. However, like the pragmatic truth, even the affirmation of what truth is relies upon a correspondence view of truth. The statement in and of itself cannot be verified on the basis of internal consistency. The only means of verifying a statement such as this is by correspondence to reality. Additionally, many statements can be internally consistent but do little to actually be informative in regards to reality. For example, the statement ‘There are no married bachelors’ is internally consistent, and is true regardless of whether any bachelors actually exist, much in the way that the statement ‘1+1=2’ is true regardless if it is referring to the addition of actual objects. While coherence is a legitimate test for falsehood, it is not necessarily an adequate test for truth.

Another concept of truth that is not sustainable is the concept that truth is based upon intentions. Like many of these concepts, this one too is indebted to the correspondence view, as it makes a statement about reality that is, itself, supposedly true. In addition, this view tends to limit truth to what is relayed by statements, however, we must accept that certain things can be true regardless of whether they are ever recognized or spoken of. Another problem with this view is clearly shown by history. Many scientists have sincerely believed in certain things and have written about them being true only to later discover that they were wrong! If truth is expressed in intentions, then truth is certainly an unstable concept.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important idea about truth to be debunked, is the Kierkegaardian concept of truth as that which is ‘existentially relevant.’ Kierkegaard suggested that truth is subjective to experience and is not propositional. The first problem to point out is the inconsistency of the statement itself: If truth is not propositional, then one cannot make propositions about truth. Therefore the propositional statement, ‘Truth is that which is existentially relevant,’ must be rejected. However, to answer the proposition itself, truth cannot be limited to the subjective for a variety of reasons. The first reason is that if truth is that which is existentially relevant, then other physical, mathematical, historical and theoretical truths are meaningless. Yet, it is precisely through these types of truths that we make sense of our experiences! Secondly, those things that are relevant to one particular experience are not always true, and true ideas are not always relevant to every experience. For example, the proposition ‘WordPress is a useful blogging tool’ may be extremely relevant to me (or perhaps another WordPress user) but not to the many who might not even know what ‘blog’ means. However the truthfulness of the proposition has little to do with its comprehensive relevance. Though my statement may be meaningless to someone who does not maintain a blog, it is true nonetheless.

I examine these distinctions in order to show that a view of truth must be comprehensive or 'large' enough to adequately deal with all kinds of truths, yet specific in its exclusivity. In other words, each of the 'truth is that which…' statements above do not adequately deal with truth as we experience it. This means that these theories have not yet reached a full realization of what truth is.

In the next part of this article, I hope to address what truth is, which I concede is a more difficult task than what I have undertaken here.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 28, 2006 at 7:51 am

The Relative Years

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It will not be a large surprise if our current era is one day referred to as ‘The Relative Years.’ It seems like just about every cultural issue can ultimately be reduced to a matter of morality, a matter that many firmly believe is relative. The past election, inundated with the usual political rhetoric, almost completely discarded other issues and thrust the issue of morality on to center stage. What became clear very quickly was that each party was more interested in making a proprietary claim to the entire concept of morality rather than actually taking a meaningful position on any number of the moral issues at hand.

Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Many who defend a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion propose that those who do not support that right simply not have one, but stay out of the way of those that do. They often say things along the lines of ‘if you don’t like it, don’t do it.’ Yet, this does not adequately deal with the disagreement from either side of the opinion; it merely diverts the discussion to a matter of preference. This ‘answer’ fails to deal with the inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of abortion, thus the objection to abortion, that it amounts to the murder of an unborn life, has not really been addressed, nor truly refuted. This is what is often at the heart of the problem, that claims of preferences are confused with claims on behalf of morality.

The difference can be made plain by addressing two statements:

  1. I like discussing morality.
  2. It is wrong to deliberately deceive someone.

The first statement is certainly a statement of preference, since it describes a particular person’s (my) subjective point of view. This is not a normatively applied statement. In other words, the statement should not be construed to suggest that all people should enjoy discussing morality. However, the second statement is a moral claim. It tells us nothing about individual behavior, but addresses only the concept of deceit and whether or not it is appropriate. Even a statement such as ‘I like to deliberately deceive people’ would not be making a moral claim. It only describes the behavior of an individual rather than addressing the moral value of that behavior. In fact, the mere existence of preference claims implies an objective standard to which they preferences would relate. The right to prefer one thing over another is certainly an objectively understood right in and of itself. What then, are some objections to the view advocating objective morality?

One common objection is that moral variance from one culture to another proves that morality is relative. However, both logic and history can quickly show otherwise. Were it not for the general consensus among the allied forces that Hitler was doing something morally wrong, the United States, among others, may not have gotten involved in the second World War and put an end to the Holocaust. If this seems like less of a cultural issue and more of an abuse of one man with too much power, consider then the issue of female genital mutilation, an issue which the United Nations, among others, has clearly voiced opposition to and enacted programs to change policies concerning its practice. Even our own country has confronted its own culture and put an end to practices that are in opposition to moral standards (e.g. slavery, racial segregation). Disagreement over morality does not imply the absence of truth. Nor does a disagreement over a moral issue lead to the conclusion that the issue does not exist. If, however, disagreement were enough to support the relativism of morality, then we would not have had reason to end slavery or stop the Holocaust, nor would we have reason to bring murderers, rapists, pedophiles, or thieves to justice.

Additionally, on an individual level, the proposition that disagreement shows the non-existence of objective truth is self-defeating. I certainly do not agree with such a claim, so by its own standard, it cannot be true, nor should I be required to affirm it. One way to test a proposition like this one is to address its logical consequences. If it is true that morality is relative to people, places and times, then it would be incorrect to say that things like rape, incest, abuse and torture are always morally wrong. Yet, such a conclusion is absurd! If moral relativism is true, then the many historical heroes of our own culture, such as the likes of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for sweeping moral changes in society, would have to be judged as immoral. J. P. Moreland has said, ‘If relativism is true, an act is right if and only if it is in the society’s code; so the reformer is by definition immoral (since he adopts a set of values outside the society’s code and attempts to change that code in keeping with these values).’

Another common objection to the proposition that morality is objective rather than relative emerges out of the misunderstanding of tolerance. The proposition that objective morality does not exist, therefore all views should be tolerated is self-contradictory. If everyone should be tolerant, then tolerance is an objective standard. Yet, tolerance is being invoked on the basis of relativism. Tolerance does not mean the general acceptance of all views, but to endure error. The definition itself presupposes an objective rather than a relative standard. What relativism truly does is bind the relativist to other moral positions, rather than freeing him from any. To refer back to the issue of abortion, many a political candidate has stated, ‘I support the right to abortion though I don’t personally agree with it.’ The problem here is that the reason for the moral value of abortion has been discarded. If life begins at conception, then abortion does amount to murder- so the appropriate political stance should be toward life, rather than abortion procedure. If life does begin at conception, abortion should not be tolerated. If life does not begin until birth, then no one should have any greater problem with abortion than with contraception. The candidate that affirms the right to abortion while disagreeing with it personally has simply blown a smokescreen over his agnosticism and submitted to the moral judgment of someone else. In other words, those that choose to ‘tolerate’ another conflicting moral issue are actually agreeing with the apposing position!

Written by Christopher Butler

January 5, 2006 at 6:24 am

Now or Never

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My wife and I are currently spending some time living abroad in Penang, Malaysia, where she teaches in the art department at an international school. After volunteering to chaperone a group of thirty high school seniors on their annual trip, she and I found ourselves desperately trying to get some sleep on the overnight bus ride that would take us across the entire Malaysian peninsula to where we would connect with a boat to the island of Redang. We were not quite prepared for the nature of that struggle, as many of the students were engaged in an impromptu karaoke session to some of the latest pop songs, singing at the top of their lungs. They began to sing a song by John Bon Jovi, which, as we began to decipher the lyrics, we joked must have been the postmodern ‘theme song.’ The chorus sings, ‘Oh baby it’s now or never. I’m not gonna live forever. I just wanna live while I’m alive.’ Needless to say, we had a little fun with the triteness of this sentiment. After all, what exactly does the singer mean by living while he is alive? As we listened, the philosophical conflict which we had assumed would go unrecognized was completely expressed when I heard a student sitting behind me say under his breath, ‘I am gonna live forever.’ He had bypassed much of what our culture struggles with epistemologically by asserting the most absolute and finite truth he knew- the redemption and resurrection through the saving grace of Christ- and thereby revealing the clash of worldviews happening right there on the bus.It is not necessary to dwell much on the explanation of the epistemological climate in which we currently live. The influence of relativism is strongly felt in almost every conceivable level; it skews the trajectory of social thinking and programs, establishes a historical myopia, and subjects almost all philosophical and theological conclusions to the utmost intellectual scrutiny while excluding itself from that same scrutiny. When truth in essence is unreachable, as we are told today, then we must settle for truths in plurality, which in itself is not wrong, but as an end, provides few answers. Yet many are content with truths, not necessarily because of what they individually may provide, but I suggest for the gaps between them, which allow ideas to go unchallenged no matter what they may advocate. Taken to the next level, which I believe we see today, truth as an objective reality has been rejected, leaving the individual no more latitude than the limits of himself in his search. Ravi Zacharias has said that no matter what the abuse, some professor from somewhere could be flown in to validate it. Thus the gaps are filled with even more particular and derivative ‘truths’ prescribed by intellectual authority.

Going back to the Bon Jovi song, which expresses the fatalism so typical of our relativistic society: If there is no epistemological base, then there is no means of certainty for the future. For if truth is limited to us, in all of our non-eternal finiteness, we have no point of reference for a transcendent future. If there is no certainty for the future, then living for the now becomes very attractive, if not necessary. But the Christian worldview is determined by both a present understanding of God-given morality and an eschatological scenario based on the promise of salvation in Christ specifically because of its grounding in a transcendent source of truth. If we can trust the future, then there is no reason left to live for the now at all costs. If we know that our souls are secure in Christ, then we don’t have to subscribe to the ‘now or never’ mentality. If it is ‘now or never,’ then at what cost? At what cost to others or to even ourselves? Carl F. H. Henry wrote what I think is an astute refutation to the ‘now or never’ thinker:

“Biblical truth, tran-scultural as it is, has an indispensable message for contemporary culture. It addresses modern learning, modern ethics, modern political and economic concerns and all the idolatries of our polytheistic society. It proclaims the Gospel to a generation that is intellectually uncapped, morally un-zippered and volitionally uncurbed. Those who consider the latest fads permanently in will of course dismiss the Christian message as the last hurrah of an antiquated outlook. They reveal their sickness of soul by derogating terms like morality, piety, family, work, patriotism, born-again, evangelical, theology; Christianity they dismiss as a kind of middle-class hedonism, declaring it intellectually inadmissible they meanwhile espouse a life that neither reason nor conscience nor spirit can support or condone. Repression of sensuality and of self-gratification they call psychotically abnormal. Subordination of the flesh they leave to Medieval monks or consign to the future resurrection. Affirming sexual pleasure to be the supreme good of a life of unending revelry, they waste away into ethical ghosts and skeletons.”

Written by Christopher Butler

October 22, 2005 at 9:58 am

The Postmodern Vacuum

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‘But the new rebel is a skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.' (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1909)

Chesterton’s quote, even decades ago, so accurately portrays the postmodern mind, forced to vacillate among disparate issues, non of which are capable of providing an adequate philosophical foundation yet many potent enough to fracture reason across the board and instill angst before essential questions can even be entertained. I might be appropriate to continue this section with a joke often invoked within a discussion such as this: What do you get when you cross a postmodernist with a used car salesman? You get an offer you can’t understand! Postmodernism is a word not easily defined, yet it is certainly a contemporary ‘buzzword’ used in many different contexts; invoked frequently in the speeches of politicians, the criticisms of works of art, the discussion of higher education, and even the cue cards of television talk show hosts. Its ambiguity of meaning allows for the ubiquity of its use, and perhaps the root of the confusion stems from postmodernism’s implicit rejection of absolutes. Postmodern theory suggests that knowledge itself is contingent upon circumstances such as time, place, and social status, through which the individual creates his own knowledge. In fact, in this framework, the concept that knowledge may arise or exist from outside the individual is inherently suspect!

According to postmodern theorist Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernism is characterized by its ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’ The late literary theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida concurred, and argued that knowledge could not maintain integrity without invoking an ‘original utterance,’ the logos. The idea that man would be given or have access to the ‘original utterance’ is thus called logocentrism. Critics of postmodern thought would rightly agree and point out that without being grounded in an objective standard, postmodernism can masquerade as philosophy without having to account for the logical disparities that so clearly exist when such a system attempts to be practically applied. The Christian, regardless of his philosophical or logical capabilities in argument, should be expectedly and unabashedly logocentric. The Word of God, as preserved in the Bible is the first and last word- the source of the metanarrative from which we presume objective morality, elitism of ideas, and the convictions of the individual. This is fundamental to Christian theology and has clear and logical implications upon forming a Christian worldview. As observed by a Wikipedia author, ‘Many of these critiques attack, specifically, the perceived "abandonment of objective truth" as being the crucial unacceptable feature of the post-modern condition.’ This is absolutely the case, for there can be no compatibility between a philosophy reliant upon the reality of objective truth and a philosophy that elevates agnosticism to its objective truth (essentially, to state that truth does not exist and defend such a statement as being true).

We have all encountered postmodernism in its popular form of relativism, an attitude reflected in a phrase at this point cliché: ‘Truth is relative.’ Yet it is such a pronouncement which pulls the carpet from underneath itself! If it is so, then that must include the statement itself, thereby invalidating it. If it is not so, then such a statement is meaningless in its inability to adequately reflect reality. One who claims that truth is relative speaks into an intellectual vacuum; he can neither generate worthwhile response, nor express anything truly meaningful. This is the bankruptcy of postmodern thought, and yet Alan Bloom, in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, affirms the state of things as he writes, ‘Every professor on a university campus today can be absolutely sure of one thing: that almost every student coming in for an education is confident that truth is not absolute but relative.’

What is a Worldview?

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The word ‘worldview’ is a term borrowed from the German ‘Weltanschauung,’ meaning literally to ‘look onto the world.’ A worldview is an essential and consistent sense of existence that creates a framework within which knowledge is understood and applied. Worldviews by nature are cross-cultural and have more to do with the philosophical origin of a social conscious rather than the basis of individual social behaviors and practices.

For example, the essential worldview at the center of classical Buddhism is cyclical, which is made manifest in the understanding of recurring events and experiences. Within monotheistic traditions, there is an essentially uni-directional worldview derived from the understanding of a single force and purpose that governs the universe. These worldviews inform the systematic theology of both traditions, however, they are not always perceived due to the entropic effect of syncretism. (The problem of syncretism, which Webster defines as ‘the combination of different forms of belief or practice,’ has existed since the beginning- recall how when Moses was receiving revelation from God, the people grew impatient and turned to idolatry yet still referred to the god of their own creation as ‘your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:4)’ They took their experiential knowledge of God’s character and actions and applied it to an idol- desiring God in a way that made sense to their simplistic framework, rather than the authenticity of God Himself. Today, we see numerous examples of syncretism in cultures where Christianity is reintroduced and fused with other traditions like shamanism, witchcraft, voodoo, etc.) Many of the present expressions of Buddhism are actually syncretistic with more animistic practices rather than maintaining the classic teachings of Buddha.

Likewise, Christianity has itself experienced political syncretism that is quite contradictory to the Biblical worldview in unfortunate and devastating manifestations (the crusades, the inquisition, etc.). As Ghandi said ‘I like their Christ, but I don’t like their Christian.’ In saying this, he was pointing out the sad truth of hypocrisy among Christians currently and historically- that our worldview does not and has not always cohered with our philosophy. Though syncretism gives birth to its own worldview, it is one that has lost the logical coherence of its pure form. That is why we must not allow syncretistic forms to represent the Christian faith.

The importance of the worldview concept for apologetics, however, is as follows: One must strive to understand the perspective of philosophical worldview from its untainted form, but also understand the individual by his worldview, which may no longer cohere to first form. In addition, a theological understanding of the basis of a worldview must itself be comprehensive and contextualized. For the Christian, the Biblical worldview will not simply be summed up in the command ‘You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37).’ This is certainly the greatest commandment, as Jesus says. However, the Christian worldview is also cosmologically and eschatologically informed, and so when we read in Matthew 24:31 ‘And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other,’ we see that there are expectations for the future that will have certain worldview implications. So we look to the worldview to be a coherent and comprehensive manifestation of philosophy, though we understand that it is many times not the case.

Written by Christopher Butler

August 25, 2005 at 10:50 am

The Exclusivity of Truth

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Many begin to carve out a case against Christianity on the basis of morality, speaking of the exclusivity of Christianity as its “darker side.” This creates the implication that exclusivity is wrong, or that a preferable world view would be one that mediates among all the disparate views that exist. However, such a preference in and of itself is a moral judgment. From what basis does one make that judgment? If one makes his moral judgment from the foundation of objective morality, he must accept the consequence: that objective morality will ultimately have a point of exclusion. In addition, the sobering reality is that all religions of the world have a point of exclusion, and must also account for the same claims that are so often brought against Christianity.

So, while two major religions can both be wrong in their claim to truth, they cannot both be right if they are mutually exclusive. In other words, if Christ asserts His identity as God and His redemptive sacrifice for all mankind on the cross as the truth and only means of salvation, it cannot also be true that all is actually one, and that humanity is participating in a cyclical passage of understanding its own divine role in a pantheistic universe, as the Hindu revelation claims. It cannot also be true that Mohammed was God’s one and only chosen prophet, one who refutes the divine claim of Christ, and that the word of God is forever preserved in the words of the Koran. Neither can it be true that all faiths are compatible, as the Baha’i faith suggests, because to assert this would be to grossly distort and violate the fundamental tenets of all religions. You can see where this is going: Truth, whether only in claim or in actuality, is always exclusive. Some may try to escape this by allowing truth to always be relative, thus equally validating and affirming all claims to truth. Yet, the logical failure of this claim is manifest when one tries to account for those that claim that truth is not relative. Logic is tied to the rules of “either or,” not “both and.” As Ravi Zacharias wittily puts it, “Even in India, we look both ways before crossing the street. It is either the bus or me!”

Written by Christopher Butler

April 20, 2005 at 3:36 am