The True Story

In one of my previous posts I mentioned how Pilate asked Jesus the most important question, “What is the truth?” This question may seem to be disarmingly simple. Surely, everyone knows the truth, right? From a cursory survey of the different worldviews and ideologies that pervade our world today it is apparent that the world is actually not so sure. People within families, societies, and worldviews often hold differing and sometimes contradictory views. The postmodern response to this plurality is to relativize the truth. You often hear people talking of knowing “their truth.” The truth is privatised and cannot come under public scrutiny. It loses its transcendent wings and is grounded forever in personal sentiment. How then do we discover the truth? If something becomes anything then it has really become nothing. It has lost its identity. In that the case the truth is an imaginary construct, a semantic power play. This is what postmodernism tells us but there is a glaring catch.

Conventional wisdom tells us that you cannot put a round peg in a square hole. There are things which are incompatible because they contradict one another. The law of non-contradiction cannot be denied. The problem with the postmodern view of truth and language is if it’s true then postmodernism is itself meaningless. The postmodern person must articulate himself through language yet his own words he does not trust.

The first feature of the truth I would like to mention is its propositional nature. The truth is a quality of statements where they can either be true or false. In this case the rules of logic must be applied. Logic is simply the rules of thought such as the law of non-contradiction I mentioned earlier. They serve as the traffic regulations for our reasoning, protecting us from simple foolishness. For example if I say the capital of Ghana is Accra and another person says that it is rather Tamale both statements cannot be true. This is the law of non-contradiction at work. Now if I have business to conduct in the capital it becomes clear I must make choice and choose correctly. We just cannot forgo logic.

Truth being propositional in nature means it can be perceived semiotically i.e. represented through meaningful symbols. Whether it is in mathematical statements, rational propositions or in the complexities of human language, art and culture, the truth can be expressed one way or another. Truth is semiotic. Every language has its own rules. Logic serves as the grammar and syntax of rational thought and argument. Culture also has its own form and structure.

Apart from being semiotic, the truth is existential in nature. The truth is basically what is. Something that is true is something that exists. In my previous example the capital of Ghana must exist before any true statements can be made about it. Deception occurs when something is offered but it cannot be delivered.

There is some confusion in modern times concerning the issue of what is and what is not. Many people do correctly recognise asking about the truth is asking about what is. However, they often miss that there are existential categories. A perfect example of this misunderstanding is the popular statement “staying true to yourself” or the more common street slang “being real.” Sharing your personal sentiments and disposition does not mean you are telling the truth. At most we can say you are giving a true report about what you privately feel but nothing about the world beyond yourself. The truth is about things that are both privately and publically real. Whether you feel Accra is the capital of Ghana or not does not alter the facts surrounding it.

Bringing together the previous concepts the truth is the meaningful communication of what is real. These are the semiotic and existential qualities of truth. Truth is the faithful representation of the world. True statements must agree with themselves and also correspond to things that exist.

Dr Ravi Zacharias once said that at one point or another we must all acknowledge that the truth is important especially when we are faced with a lie. Human language and communication in all its complexities would not be useful if we could not talk about things that are true. If only lies were uttered by people all the time even ordinary conversation would be pointless. The truth is important because it is meaningful. It is in words that truth and meaning come together, hand in hand.

In A Figural World I speak more about what words are. Now a word is not just a unit of speech or even the expression of a thought. In the scriptures it is used in a variety of ways. One of the names for the Gospel in the Bible is the word of truth. Now the Gospel is not just a message it is a metanarrative, the story of a story. Describing the Gospel as the word of truth suggests that biblically speaking the truth is a story.

Postmodernism correctly identifies the truth as a metanarrative yet it rejects the big, overarching stories for the little privatised ones. Some even consider people to be fundamentally semiotic creatures who understand the world through stories. There is no human culture or society in the world that does not tell stories. Our very worldviews are expressed through them which is precisely what happens in the scriptures. Questions of origin, meaning and purpose as well as morality, destiny and the nature of reality are addressed through the biblical narrative. Now we perceive what happens to us in the day not as mere pieces of information but as a series of interrelated events heading towards a definite conclusion. Everyone functions according to these narratives in which our worldviews are embedded. In the Bible human history is not made up of random events. There is a controlling narrative of a God who is orchestrating all things to fulfil his will. (The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright is an excellent resource on stories and worldviews.)

In other posts I further discuss the nature of the Gospel story. The best stories have conflict. In this case the scriptures tell us it is the very cosmos at stake. As custodians of God’s good creation when humans disobeyed their Maker the world fell into disarray. The Gospel is the story of how God is redeeming the creation bringing it back under his wise rule. When we speak the truth we are not only talking about real things. We are telling stories of our world and what goes on it. The truth is the real story of the world.

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