What is truth?

A shepherd and his dog are herding a flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW appears out of a dust cloud. The driver, a young man in an Armani suit, Gucci shoes, and Oakley sunglasses, leans out the window and asks, "If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?"

The shepherd looks at the man, who is obviously not a shepherd, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, "Sure. Why not?"

The driver parks, whips out his smartphone, uses GPS to obtain an exact fix on his location, gets a NASA satellite to take an ultra-high-resolution photo that he exports to an image processing facility. In a few seconds, he turns to the shepherd and says, "You have exactly 1586 sheep."

"That's right. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep," says the shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car.

Then the shepherd says to the young man, "Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?"

The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, "Okay, why not?"

"You're a consultant," says the shepherd.

"Wow! That's correct," says the man, "but how did you guess that?"

"No guessing required," answered the shepherd. "You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew; to a question I never asked; and you don't know anything about my business . . . 

" . . . Now give me back my dog. "[1]

This morning I want to you to consider a question, a question to which you may already have an answer, even if your answer is more intuitive than the one I offer. There is, however, no charge beyond a few minutes of your time.

Now for the question: What is truth?

Our culture is increasingly shaped by the pervasive idea that truth does not exist, that is, all truth is relative. Like many ideas, this one has enough truth to make it sufficiently credible that numerous persons, and even some scholars, espouse it.

What is the best color or food? Who is the most beautiful, handsome, or loving person? Is socialism or capitalism the best economic system? Does conservatism or liberalism offer the most realistic hope for a good future? These are all questions of opinion and our answers vary widely depending upon our values, tastes, and criteria for weighing alternatives.

Relativism has its place but relativism is not the whole story. Is a traffic light, for example, presently red or green? I want your answer to be the same as mine. Philosophers, theologians, and others call this second approach to truth pragmatism. Unless a person is color blind, everyone agrees when a traffic signal turns red or green. Yet physicists and neuroscientists tell us that the colors red and green do not really exist. What a person experiences as a particular color is in fact that person’s brain processing light waves of a particular frequency and then describing that experience using a mutually agreed upon label.

Pragmatism is essential but has two limitations. First, pragmatism routinely depends upon things that may be at least partially false. People have experienced color for longer than I can guess, but only in the last couple of centuries have we acquired knowledge of both light waves and how the brain processes what the eye sees. For most of us, that discrepancy is not a problem. But sometimes pragmatism unintentionally inhibits scientific advances, as when Einstein and others proposed quantum physics as a corrective to Newtonian physics. Second, pragmatism emphasizes experienced reality, not issues of ultimate reality or truth. On the one hand, I rely upon my legs to walk. On the other hand, I know that my legs are not solid, but comprised of sub-atomic particles to create the illusion of being solid even though my leg consists of more open space than of matter.

Christianity claims God revealed its ideas about ultimate truth. Most importantly, Christianity claims that God has revealed God’s self to us. Claims about first principles or ultimate reality are not unique to Christianity. Other religions and even some philosophical systems, such as Plato’s concept of eternal forms or ideas, represent similar claims. Philosophically, this is known as a correspondence theory of truth, i.e., our concepts correspond to the nature of ultimate reality.

Correspondence theories of truth have a couple of significant limitations. First, the knowledge that humans develop over time using pragmatism has proven that some correspondence theories of truth are false. Theories of a flat earth and of a three-tiered universe with heaven up, hell below, and earth in the middle exemplify such mistakes. Ongoing advances in human knowledge have prompted many people to discard all correspondence theories of truth in favor of relativism, pragmatism, or some combination of the two. Second, the most basic correspondence theories of truth are inherently non-verifiable. Our finite existence and finite perspective preclude any direct perception of whatever infinite ultimate reality may exist. We therefore must respect other claims about ultimate truth, perhaps searching for commonalities to clarify our own thinking.

Christian living requires integrating these three approaches to truth. First, respecting the dignity and worth of all humans entails respecting diversity and varied opinions. Contrary to some fundamentalists, Scripture actually instructs us to practice this form of relativism.[2] Thus, the Episcopal Church and we at St Clement’s repeatedly emphasize that everyone is always welcome and we work prophetically to achieve equal justice and treatment for all.

Second, pragmatism is necessary for daily survival. Paul refers to this approach to truth in today’s epistle reading when he enjoins us to put away falsehood and speak the truth to our neighbors.[3] Unless people agree upon facts – not opinion, but facts – both community life and civil discourse become impossible,[4] an increasing danger in the United States today.

Third, a correspondence theory of truth allows us to understand our experience of a love greater than self, a power we call God. We see and hear echoes of these experiences in the Bible, in the sacraments, and in the lives of God’s people. This is the type of truth of which Jesus speaks when he describes himself as the bread of life, a symbolic rather than literal statement about God and ultimate truth.[5]

May you know the truth and may it set you free for life today and always. Amen.

(Sermon preached the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018, 
in the Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI)

[1] Source unknown.
[2] E.g., Acts 10:34-35.
[3] Ephesians 4:25.
[4] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 77.
[5] John 6:35.


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