What is Truth? Epistemology and You

Here’s a little taste of what I tell students in my theology classes when I talk about epistemology and theological method. I first talk about a hierarchy of knowledge.

On the lowest level is data — unsorted, chaotic information that humans sort intuitively and that we also learn to discern and understand.

The second level of knowledge is the level of facts. Scientific or secular investigation of the world yields much factual information about what the world is like and how it works, at the natural, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, and other levels. Factual information yields a phenomenological understanding of the world, but not a purposeful understanding of the world. In other words, a facts-oriented view of the world cannot answer the why question — i.e., it cannot answer questions of ultimate meaning. This is why scientific cosmological arguments seem to over-reach when they purport to answer transcendent questions, attempting to make Christian faith irrelevant.

The highest level of knowledge is the level of truth. Truth goes beyond mere fact to yield insight into meaning, hope, and purpose. An example: Jesus rose from the dead. Notwithstanding the doubts of skeptics, this is considered to be a fact of history. However, it is not, of itself, a statement of truth — only fact. Christians affirm the truth of the resurrection, which is that is demonstrates Christ’s power over death, shows Christ to the the firstfruits of the resurrection, etc. These are not normal, factual, secular statements about Jesus. The level of truth, associated with theology, involves knowledge by faith. Faith is necessary for understanding truth.

Even secular humans (i.e., those who profess no faith in God), having been created for truth and for relationship with God, the transcendent giver of truth, intuitively seek truth. But sinners that we are, we often do not gravitate toward truth from God, but substitute our own. We assign meaning to facts that may not correspond to God’s truth, and in so doing, perpetrate evil and sin arising from pursuit of our selfish inclinations. A secular person often wants to raise facts to the level of truth, but in doing this, that person is importing theological convictions that are usually unacknowledged, self-generated, and arbitrary. That is idolatry.

Christians, having been influenced by secular ways of looking at the world, have often confused facts with truth. They tend to collapse truth down into the realm of facts, making the mobilization and organization of factual evidences and other cognitive information the measure of both faithful theology and missional witness. While theology and witness are attentive to facts, and do not contradict factual evidence, they must be constructed in light of the reality that truth goes beyond mere facts, and is believed not simply cognitively, but by faith. So truth is a qualitatively different kind of knowledge compared to facts.

You may be thinking that truth is more immediately related to facts than I have let on. That’s probably because there’s more truth in your heart than you’re willing to acknowledge. Unfortunately, it’s only enough to hold you accountable, not to save you. But that’s for another day…

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