Aletheia

It’s been a while since I talked about the truth. (No, this does not mean I have been conscientiously lying for months.) Rather it’s been a long time since I addressed the nature of truth in my writing. The concept of truth is such an interesting thing to explore. It is one of those words whose meaning is often assumed but never really examined. When you look at the real world critically, you quickly realise notions of truth can seriously differ among different people or even within an individual. In exploring the characteristics of truth under the shadow of the biblical worldview I came across five features. They are semiotic, existential, narratival, epistemic and moral aspects of truth. Through reflecting on the truth I was enlightened. I discovered truths about the truth. This leads to another key dimension of the truth: discovery.

[1]The Greek word for truth is aletheia. The prefix a means not and lethe means hidden. Therefore aletheia literally means “the state of not being hidden”, “disclosure”, “unconcealedness”, “truth.” It is that which is open, evident, apparent and real. [2]In ancient Greek philosophy it was the true reality behind something and not just what something appears to be. This has a direct connection to what I described as existential truth, that is, what something is. Of course a things is what it is whether we know it or not but what aletheia connotes is becoming aware of what it is. This epistemic dimension, which is knowing what something truly is, is the establishing of a relationship between the knower and the known. Since we come to know the truth, truth is no one’s private property but rather something we discover: aletheia.

The uncovering of truth puts us into the world of lived experiences. It does not exist purely as cerebral abstractions but something that real persons experience. This means truth can be sought after, investigated, stumbled on or revealed. An encounter with the truth can be reassuring, even exhilarating, or flat out horrifying and scandalous. Whatever it is, it elicits a response that changes how we orient ourselves to reality and our perception of it. Without truth being discoverable, we would not be able to pursue vital disciplines like science or history, and justice would be unattainable.

People usually discover the truth by either looking for it or it coming across their path. When it comes our way, either we are reliably informed of it or we chance upon it. Sometimes we like what find and other times we don’t. Truth being humanly discoverable and intelligible says something about the type of world we live in. For instance in the philosophy of science we have the mysterious anthropic principle, that is, we have a universe in which it is possible to do science. We inhabit a reality that yields to human investigation. Living in such a world, it seems to me our search for the truth is not completely humanly self-motivated. After all if truth exists independently of us, our inclinations towards it cannot be totally self-generated. This means in an uncanny way truth plays a role in its own discovery. This feature of truth comes into full view in the biblical worldview.

When we look at the biblical narrative, the language used to describe it suggests that it is no so much that we grasp the truth. It is rather the truth that takes a hold of us. For instance in Paul’s speech at the Areopagus, the human search for the truth is rather about the truth leaving cosmic clues in its wake, goading us as we feel and fumble after it. When we do find it we realise that it is the truth that has found us. Perhaps the chief metaphor of this in scripture is that of light. We do not simply see the light, it dawns on us flooding us with truth and exposing who we are. The truth confronts us. Active truth in biblical thinking is grounded in the personal identity of a unique agent, Jesus the Son of God. In other words Jesus is the very incarnation of truth. On the road to Damascus the truth had a dramatic encounter with Paul, knocking him to the ground and uncovering his stubborn blindness. Him bearing the image of the absolute reality behind all else makes him the full representation of truth, shining with awesome power and authority. I believe he later alluded to this event in 2 Corinthians 4:6 where he says,

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

This is what the scriptures describe as revelation, the ultimate discovery of the truth, when it manifests its glorious self to us. Now revelation as truth uncovered means it is something that can be found in the world, in the cosmic environment if you will. The spatial language we use in discussing the truth are not mere metaphor. Truth not only has a presence in the world, as Paul and so many other Christians have discovered, but it is personally active. Jesus described this as the Spirit of Truth, the one who leads us to all truth.

Truth having personal attributes and consequently personal appeal can only make sense once we find it in the express identity of the author of reality. These qualities are necessary for it to be humanly possible to recognize truth as a living standard, something revealed as opposed to something contrived. Lies, trickery and deceit do not change reality, truth stands eternal. They rather alter perceptions so as to obscure the light. Ironically this means lies depend on the truth. They cannot exist on their own because they are diabolical copies of the truth, mere phantasms as opposed to fleshed out reality. This is what makes deception so dangerous yet enticing, because it looks an awful lot like the real thing. It is no wonder that the spirit of deceit is in scripture described as a predatory monster that relies on cunning and seduction to lure its victim.

Being on the receiving end of a lie is a terrible thing, even devastating. The scriptures therefore make the provocative argument that the currently disjointed state of the world is because humanity as a species has suppressed the truth by rejecting its author, the God of creation. Idolatry is therefore seen as the ultimate lie. This may be a bit of stretch to fathom but it is quite easy to appreciate the destructive power of lies and deceit. Where self-interest is religiously worshipped then humans who bear the image of the God left unhonoured will be abandoned. My own country is plagued with outrageous levels of corruption costing people access to basic health care, the destruction of the environment, the loss of job opportunities among a litany of other socioeconomic woes. With that perspective it is much easier to see how the absence of truth ravages the world.

If truth was not something discovered, ultimately a revealed standard, people could legitimately change the narrative to suit themselves. Trust and faithfulness would be impossible. It would be like playing a game with constantly moving goal posts, absolutely pointless. With this mind revelation in scripture is not really the passive reception of the truth. It rather indicates who takes the initiative in the discovery of truth. It is God who leaves the crumbs for us to follow. He wants to show us the truth, the question is are we willing to see it?

[1]   ἀλήθεια, Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon.

[2]  ἀλήθεια, Kittel, Gerhard; Friedrich, Gerhard; Bromiley, Geoffrey, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged).

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