I’m sure there are people out there who think there is no truth, or that the truth is relative. But I don’t.
I also don’t believe that truth is as simple as the Bible said it, I believe it.
I am extremely wary of dogmatism, yes. I would never be an apologist or evangelist. I am, probably, a universalist at heart.
But I don’t believe the truth is relative. How can a truth be relative? It’s an oxymoron.
But this is my one philosophical dogma: truth isn’t relative, but our perception of the truth is. It’s extremely relative. It’s changes based on what we know or don’t know. It varies depending on where and when we were born, what we experienced, what we didn’t experience, what our parents believed, what they rejected, what our culture accepts, denies, or ridicules.
All of those things shape a person’s perception, and our perception is all we have to go on when we study and seek.
I used to do a mental exercise as a kid, asking myself that if I were a Jew, would I accept Jesus as the Messiah? I always knew I wouldn’t, for the same reason I’d never consider Judaism now. Jesus wasn’t what the Jewish culture expected. He seemed to make up, change, or break fundamental laws. He claimed crazy signs and miracles, and as a child of cessationism, I would scoff at Jesus’ claims to healings like I dismissed the Charismatic’s of today.
My beliefs, my tendencies, my upbringing would make me a scoffer, not a believer.
Sociologically, we tend to join religious communities and accept the religious beliefs of those close to us — those who befriend us, help us, and bond with us in some way. Whether we like it or not, we seek out beliefs and structures that resonate with us — it seems true, it seems good, it meets us where we’re at, it relieves us, it empowers us, it results in something tangibly good and true and beautiful.
Anyone who has changed denominations or converted knows this to be true: we felt empty, lost, or beaten down before, and after, we feel found, at home, at peace. Even those who change their mind for more intellectual reasons experience this, or at least experience that feeling of thinking you’re right and then one new idea blows your old views out of the water.
I learned that our perceptions are relative from die-hard Christian apologists. I must have heard a million times that both evolutionists and creationists see the same evidence, approach it from a different worldview, and thus see the evidence differently. The evidence is there, as fact, but we all interpret it from our own lenses. Creationists pushed this idea in order to validate their own worldview and devalue opposing viewpoints.
And they’re 100% right — the evidence, the truth, the facts are out there, but we all view them differently. This levels the playing field. This should humble us. This should make us quick to listen and understand. This should be at the forefront of our minds when we talk to anyone different than us: Where are they coming from? Why? What do I have to learn from them?
It becomes not just an academic or scientific or intellectual discussion, but an exercise in empathy. We can’t truly understand what somebody is saying unless we understand from where they’re saying it. And we certainly won’t treat anybody with compassion or respect if we don’t recognize that if we were in their same shoes, we’d probably do the same.
In other words, it’s not just a battle of ideas. It’s not just a battle of worldviews. It’s an impasse between two possibly opposite experiences, observations, and upbringings. We think, study, and seek as whole persons, with our baggage and our joys, our moral and intellectual compasses already fixed.
And no matter how right you actually are, you’re still operating on the same level as anybody else — a person with five senses, a brain, a life partially lived, and all of that very, very finite.
My friend describes it as all of us standing at different points around a bright star. We’re all looking at the same thing — and we’re all looking at only a limited part of the one thing — and we’re shouting out our findings to each other. Of course, our discoveries are more or less truthful based on how accurate our senses and perceptions are, or from what angle we’re looking at the star, or how much we’ve learned and believed from the other people shouting around us.
We are all created in the image of God. We are all seeking the ultimate good. All of us know parts of the truth. All of us have huge chunks in our understanding of that truth. And that means we need to listen to each other.
I went to a school where warring factions of Christianity were forced to talk and listen to each other — and the results were amazing. Yes, people were very adamant about what they believed, about what they knew, about what they saw from their angle. No, people didn’t downplay their beliefs or give them up because “truth was relative, so why bother?” We had to talk through our beliefs because we all cared so deeply about the truth and we all so deeply disagreed. What was up with that?
We ended up saying things like, “I completely understand why you would think that. That seems like a valid interpretation of Scripture, starting from your assumptions and using your hermeneutics. I still don’t agree with it, because of this, that, or the other thing.” But we walked away with respect, and were less inclined to doom each other to hell.
We held our convictions and beliefs passionately but honestly. If this, that, or the other thing proved to be false, back we’d go to the person we disagreed with and ask them to reexplain how she saw things again. Conversations stayed open and minds were changed for the better because we understood, respected, and valued our differences.
Instead of pitting us vs. them, we found a place for everybody in the pursuit of truth. Because we understood that our perceptions were relative and finite, we felt more open to talking, seeking, and tweaking or overhauling our beliefs to better match the truth. It was a more honest, humble, respectful, and, I think, successful way of pursuing the truth, sharing our beliefs, and changing hearts.
Think of what we could understand in the church, in the world, if we all did that.
In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. … Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them… .
— Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air, page 172