Why Truth Matters: A Christian’s Role in the Pursuit of Knowledge

If you pay a visit to Lind Hall, located on the East Bank of the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, you’ll find a quote rather oddly situated above the elevator: “If history is any indication, all truths will eventually turn out to be false.” This quote comes from highly acclaimed inventor Dean Kamen, who is currently working to provide clean water to underdeveloped communities.

Without sufficient context for his quote, I must nonetheless assume that Kamen doesn’t fully believe his own statement. After all, as a scientist, he operates under truth on a daily basis: his clean water initiative, Slingshot, assumes the scientific truth that certain impurities can be removed with the right process (in this case, by vapor compression distillation). Kamen, without even debating it for a second, depends on the truth that water boils, and even boils at predictable points if one knows the temperature of and pressure on the liquid. But of course Kamen is not referring to empirical types of truths. Rather, when he says that all truths will be revealed to not be truths at all, he is referring instead to the beliefs we rely upon to frame our lives. And yet, he clearly believes that one should work to improve the living conditions of strangers. I suspect that Kamen lives his life not only according to scientifically measurable truths, but also according to moral truths. Kamen’s life thus completely contradicts his own statement.

His statement is also so sweeping that it invalidates itself. While Kamen claims that truths will always be proven false, in the same breath he creates his very own truth: all truths are false. However, if all truths will eventually be proven false, then Kamen’s statement will also be proven false one day. Therefore, Kamen’s statement—by its own logic—cannot be true. Because it cannot be true that all truths will be false, then there must be some truths that will never be proven false. The trick is figuring out which beliefs will remain true.

And that’s really where the problem lies. Our trust in truths can be sometimes misplaced. When beliefs we thought were true are proven to be false, they don’t leave a void. Instead, they are invalidated by more accurate beliefs, which move in to take their places in our understanding. And, equally possible, real truths risk being replaced by untruths. As human beings, unfortunately, we are prone to forgetting the truths we have learned, doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past. Even the beliefs we cling to are sometimes proven wrong: the sun does not revolve around the earth and the White Man should not be carrying any sort of burden to “civilize” other cultures, to name a few. In the face of such examples, of course it’s hard to trust in truth. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust truth at all. Rather, it means we should be careful about what we decide to believe. We shouldn’t choose to believe statements that feel good, because feelings change. We should instead rely on discernment and introspection to help us distinguish between what is false and what is true.

So Kamen is correct in saying that some supposed “truths” have been and will be proven false, but he makes a mistake to claim that all truths are eventually proven false. Yes, some of the beliefs we’ve chosen turn out to be wrong (and with violent consequences). But sometimes, it’s not that we were mistaken; we simply didn’t have the full picture to adequately inform our beliefs. Especially beginning in the postmodern era, we’ve taken to heart that history is written by the victors, and the reality of historical events is much more complicated than the victors would have you believe. We’ve learned from quantum mechanics that we’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding how the universe operates; Newtonian physics can’t even begin to do it justice. But even though truth is more complicated than we had first realized, we shouldn’t immediately give up on it. Rather, we should embrace the complications as a chance to get a step closer to the truth.

With these (mostly) postmodern developments, one would think that discerning the truth is a uniquely postmodern conundrum. In fact, this problem has taken many different forms over the millennia. At the time of Jesus’s life on Earth, the Roman culture was full of contradicting “truths,” with emperors claiming divinity, conquered people groups resisting or accepting Hellenic culture, and philosophies conflicting about how to live the ideal life. We happen to know that a particular Roman, Pontius Pilate, was somewhat fed up with the unreliable truth claims he faced. In the Gospel of John, we learn that before Jesus was executed, he was brought to Pilate, the Roman governor over Judaea. Pilate examined Jesus to determine whether Jesus was a threat to Roman rule. Jesus answered him: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NIV). Jesus presented Pilate with access to truth, yet Pilate was unable to see it. Instead, the governor asked skeptically, “What is truth?” Pilate had given up on understanding the truth, even though it was finally available to him.

I’m afraid that we often make the same mistake as Pilate and Kamen. We are equipped with logic and reasoning to determine the truth, but we often lack sufficient knowledge to accurately inform our reasoning. We’re surrounded by competing voices that claim to have the answer to weight loss, conscientious living, and effective social change. Like Pilate, we live in a world of blending cultures. The #YOLO phenomenon is simply an extension of the old “Eat, drink, and be merry” hedonism found in ancient Hellenistic cultures. And, particularly in the United States, we still worship the gods of money, sex, and military power. Like Pilate, we’re drowning in all the different claims for the truth about the world. Sometimes it’s easier to give up filtering out the untruths. Sometimes it’s easier to believe truth doesn’t exist at all.

Christians, however, do have access to truth, because through Christ we have personal access to the God who knows everything. Jesus is God in physical form. At the beginning of the Gospel of John, the author helps us understand Jesus’s divine identity by referring to him as the Word:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:1-4)

Describing Jesus as the Word was very intentional: “Jesus the living Word, like the written Word, becomes the place of meeting, where God’s hid den glory is unveiled and the Father becomes known.”[1] He is our way of tangibly understanding an impossibly complex concept like God; he is our access point to the source of knowledge itself. He can also bring order into the chaos of our lives, because in Him we can find reliable truth. After all, his role as “the Word”— which is a translation of the Greek logos, from which we have the modern day “logic”—is to bring order out of a chaotic universe. Therefore, it is crucial for Christian academics to consistently seek God, while facing so many conflicting truth claims in their daily lives. If we do not rely on Christ, we most certainly will lose his stability amid the flood of competing ideologies. Ultimately, we have a responsibility not to hoard this stability for ourselves, but to point others to the knowable and reliable truth found in Jesus.

The well-worn adage that “we come too late to say anything which has not been said already,” as rephrased by Jean de la Bruyère, truly haunts the modern academic. We are encouraged to continually narrow our focus: entering college, we must choose our major; entering graduate school, we must study a particular era, author, or molecule; entering our doctoral careers, we must contribute new research, often in a race with others who are seeking to fill the same niche. Originally, the process of finding that tiny role and staking my claim on it discouraged me from pursuing an academic career. And yet, here I am, studying the tiny field of Medieval Germanic literature. If I follow the path of the average academic, I’ll write a handful of books and a slew of journal articles, which few people will ever read. If I’m lucky, I might be interviewed for the History channel. As it is, I sometimes wonder how the labor of my life will make any difference in the world, especially since anything I have to say has already been said before.

But even so, I chose to pursue the professorial career because I realized how influential my own professors had been on me. I remember the time a Woolf scholar described my writing as “a string of pearls.” I remember the many times I sat teary-eyed in the office of one of my German language professors, completely worn out by personal dramas and in need of some calm advice. I remember my Medieval Lit professor challenging modern assumptions about our ancestors. I felt that, in the lives of my future students, I could make a difference just as my own professors had done. Even though my career path might be bleak, the chance to study what I love and help others at the same time was a chance I couldn’t pass up.

And although my words may never be heard by thousands of people, in fact, they have lasting significance. As Jesus says in Matthew 12:35-37:

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Our words can cause harm or healing, so it is important that we are careful to speak in a way that honors God. As Christian academics, we’re in key positions to help our colleagues and generations of our students. Because we have access to the truth, we can challenge the assumptions that guide our colleagues. Because we are called to love others, we can reach out to the students who have been rejected by their peers. Because words have eternal consequences, we must avoid those empty, careless words that are easy to say but difficult to support, like the ones positioned over the Lind Hall elevator.

If given the chance, Kamen might qualify his basic statement to avoid its logical loopholes, but for now others have already taken it up as a truth to be pondered, valued, and inscribed on the walls of Lind Hall. It concerns me that they have done so, without considering that they have simply adopted an unsustainable “truth” while decrying all other truths. It discourages me that a group of people who devote their lives to discovering new truths about the world also believe that those truths will one day be proven false. It compels me to look for additional ways to make lasting meaning, beyond the temporary truths of our careers.

I think that’s why we need to remember how important our words truly are. Our daily interactions influence others in ways we can never measure. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.[2]

As Christians, we must never lose sight of our deeper calling. God has laid the passion for learning within our hearts, given us the abilities to pursue that passion, and brought us to our particular roles within the university. Whether or not we manage to have a brilliant career, God nonetheless has a purpose for our lives: that we might respond to His words of truth and testify of the truth to others. Our work in academia may one day be invalidated and our articles never read, but our treatment of others will be preserved for eternity.

 

1 Richards, Lawrence O. Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985. p. 635.

2 p. 59.

 

Having recently moved to Minnesota from Florida, Jennifer Schmitt is a first-year graduate student within the department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch Studies. She is working toward a Master’s and PhD in Medieval German and has interests in folklore and material culture.

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