The first chapter in our review of Baggini’s A Short History of Truth is titled Eternal Truth. He begins by exploring the notion of revealed truth, the creation of sacred texts, and notes that a paradox exists. The majority opinion about any specific revealed text is that it is not revealed at all, and yet the majority believe that one set of texts are revealed texts. In other words the majority believe in at least one revealed text that the majority judges to be false. So goes the wisdom of the masses.
But adopting a minority opinion is not bad, especially if in considering all the possible alternatives, in which none have the majority opinion, then one is left to conclude that the minority opinion may be correct. It is this that allows the notion of rational belief in revelation, or lack thereof. This includes atheists in the mix, for they too have to adopt a minority opinion against the vast weight of the majority which claim revealed truth exists.
This discussion opens the conversation to the reality that, in a so called ‘post-truth’ world, the vast majority still believe in truth, and for that matter divine given truth. It is not the absence of truth that is our problem, it is its over-abundance which has led to conflict and division. In the mix, the minority opinion affirms that their specific revealed truth is contrary to other forms of revealed truth, even to other conversations about truth and science.
What does this do to the conversation between science and faith? There is a form of rationalism involved in ‘fundamentalism’, for the logical conclusion of literal adherence to a revealed text is the rejection of anything that exists in contradiction to that text. It is interesting to note however, that there is a growing acknowledgement that science is not the enemy of faith, or in contradiction to revealed truth. Religious believers accept that there are many facts or truths embedded within science, and with a growing optimism toward other revealed texts and their associated belief systems, the divisions are becoming less profound. It logically follows therefore that if intolerance emerges out of a stringent literalism to revelation, than the reverse must be true, that with tolerance there is less stringency toward literalism.
Is there, therefore, a growing divide between those who take a literalist position to a revealed text and those who do not? Not really, as very few seem to hold to an absolute form of literal interpretation. There seems to be more of a pick and mix. For example, Christianity holds to the literal belief that Jesus died, rose, and ascended as core to the Christian faith. However, the other parts of Scripture are all explored in various ways around this core, with some being literal, some metaphorical, some allegoric, and some simply story or myth (myth as in story that explores revealed truth). Even Islam, which claims to have a total consistency with science, requires interpretation of the text to sustain this notion of consistency. The play between divine intervention and the laws of physics is compatible with divine revelation and intervention.
Few accept that the sacred texts are mere metaphors, though, affirming that they contain genuine profound truth. That the divine mind is beyond reach of human thinking and logic. Faith therefore is ultimately a mysterious thing that shapes our lives and orients us toward the transcendent. It is something not thought, but felt. Which frustrates the atheist who wants the world to live in the black and white of rationalism – which as anyone knows is fundamentally impossible for even science has more grey areas than actual fact.
Trying to eliminate faith in revealed truth is probably counter-productive. All agree that worthy religious truths are a distinct variety of truth. Their value cannot be measured against objective facts, or empirical truth. To treat them as such diminishes their value rather than enhances it. Faith is a vastly different thing to facts and only when we hold both in their proper perspective can both live in harmony with the other. We get into trouble the moment we begin to confuse the two.
As I read through this chapter, several thoughts came to mind.
Firstly, in a so called ‘post-truth’ world, the overwhelming majority of people on planet earth still ascribe to some form of eternal transcendent truth. This truth is revealed in some way, and around this revelation various religious movements have emerged. These exist in contradiction to each other, but engagement with the other is not a task of empirical rationality, but of listening and discerning those points where the transcendent moment intersects.
Secondly, I would question how much of the scientific rationalism is also a pursuit of this connection with some form of transcendence. Science is not the clear empirical reality most people assert. In fact, once you move past the logical façade, science seems to be asking more questions than it is capable of answering. Scientific theories are exactly that, a theory or thought which science then attempts to answer using empirical thought. The problem is that once you begin down this path, you end up with more questions, and ultimately you have a faith moment where you believe, either divinely revealed or not, that the god of science is ultimately correct.
Thirdly, eternal truth, revealed truth, faith, all lie at the deepest recesses of our being. We have deep within us the longing to find some sense of meaning beyond ourselves. The hunger of the secular world for connection with this space is seen in their eclectic approach to the spiritual supermarket world in which we live. We get Catholic-Buddhists seeking self-actualisation, animists merging different cultural practices as they seek ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’, privatised faith systems that draw from all sorts of varies sources, all of which are hungering for a connection with the transcendent. Even atheists are people of faith, for they affirm their belief that there is no such thing as faith. In the west, our abandonment of the traditional religious world-views, has opened the door to other searches of eternal truth – the ‘post-truth’ world is not as true as it seems.
Finally, from a Christian perspective, there are fundamental truths about God that cannot be abandoned simply for the sake of accommodation or convenience. But we do not approach these from a position of black and white legalism, but one of grace and love. The divisions that exist within the church, and with Christianity and other religious systems, are not a true reflection of the Gospel or the revelation of Jesus to the world. Christianity is strongest when it is at its weakest. It is in the cross that victory is found. While we hold to an incomparable and unwavering truth, we do so at our own expense and not at the expense of the other. That is the servant path of grace we are all called to lead.