In my last post on the nature of truth series I talked about alethia, that is, manifest truth. I explored the idea that truth is not something that we instinctively know but rather it has to be revealed to us. As such we have encounters with the truth in various ways, intentionally or unntentionally. Launching from this framework I want to discuss another feature of truth that I call incidental truth. This is truth as an event, something that happens with in the world of spacetime.
The first time I heard truth being described in such a manner was in a lecture by N.T. Wright on YouTube. If my memory serves me right, he has said this in other places albeit without developing the thought further. He said that the Gospel is about something that has happened in the world, God stepping into human history in Jesus because of which everything has changed. The truth is in this regard is an event, something that has happened in the world. Besides it being a very nice rhetorical flourish in a very articulate man’s preaching, it is perhaps a very radical notion of truth.
Firstly, incidental truth could simply mean that which happens, in the same way that existential truth is that which is. Incidental truth concerns events while existential truth deals with what things truly exist. As you can see there is a fundamental relationship between existential and incidental truth because both comment on reality and how we fundamentally understand it as things and events. You could say incidental truth is basically about what actually happens to real things.
I am not a metaphysician but an event as I understand it, is the ‘thereness’ and ‘whereness’ of a thing. (Yes, thereness and whereness are real words.) It is that which happens at a specific time and place, something defined by time and space. Why did I just define something as obvious as an event? If we go with the Gospel notion of truth as an event, something that happened at a particular time in a particular place, it stands in stark contrast to the concept of a ‘timeless truth.’ This is not to say there aren’t things that are true no matter the time. However in scripture, the Gospel is not conceived in those terms.
The word ‘gospel’ means good news. News is about events not timeless truths. For instance if a loved one is very sick, what you are looking for is not a timeless truth, even though it might be helpful. You are looking for something to happen, something good and wonderful. What we call news is by nature not inconsequential. We do not report on the commonplace and mundane. When such non-issues are reported we do not call it newsworthy. When you hear the news that your loved one is going to recover it completely changes the outlook. Things are no longer the same. With the Gospel message, the wonderful news is about God acting decisively and climactically in history to rescue humanity and fulfil his purposes in the world. It is a reality altering event.
To miss truth as an event is to fundamentally misunderstand the Gospel. If something happens in the world, that essentially changes the state of affairs, resulting in a new status quo, then the truth is the change that has occurred. The world used to be a certain way but it is now no longer. The point of informing people of the news is so that they can react accordingly to the new state of affairs. The good news is that God has raised Jesus from the dead exalting him as Lord over creation. The correct response is to confess your allegiance to this new king. Believing the message does not make Jesus lord over your life. He already is and you were yet to acknowledge it. Faith likewise is not wanting something to be true but recognising that it is true and therefore placing your trust in it. This means whether the world knows it or not, accepts it or not, we are under ‘new management’, which means the future of humanity and indeed the cosmos is being steered in a new direction.
I understand the desire to keep truth timeless, unstained from our messy world. It has to be an immovable standard, a bulwark against diabolical powers. The problem with truth defined only along the vertical is that it is in danger of becoming ultra-transcendent. It becomes so lofty that it floats away from having any important role in our lives. Take the love of God for instance. As Christians have understood it, God is love. There is no time God did not love. This is fine and all but how do we know it is true? A timeless truth may well turn out to be an unknowable sentiment. Something that feels great for that particular individual and of absolutely no concern or value to anyone else. What is the practical difference between God loving us without ever showing it and him not loving us at all? Thankfully John 3:16 does not say for God so loved us he did nothing. It rather says he offered Jesus as a sacrifice to save us from destruction and give us eternal life. God’s love was demonstrated in a specific place at specific time, when he gave up his Son one good Friday on the cross of Calvary, a hill outside Jerusalem, two millennia ago. Theological truth, something about God’s character, was married to historical truth, a known event in the past. We should not attempt to put this divine union asunder.
The unshakeable Christian conviction is that history is indeed his story. God is active within and through human affairs so we should not separate theological truth from historical truth. There is no need to play off one against the other. It is not either/or but both/and. Besides, as time bound creatures there is no other way we can perceive God other than through the lens of our experiences in the world. It is not only the love of God but redemption makes no sense as a timeless truth. God revealed himself to Moses and the people of Israel as the ‘I Am’ within history. As you can see, the things that are essential to Christian faith, are real events. The centre of our faith is the resurrection of Jesus. If it did not happen then our faith is futile.
One of my favourite theological terms is the ‘Christ event.’ The gospels are about the Christ event. God accomplished something in his Son Jesus that inexorably changed the world. It was something totally unique within history which means the event was completely dependent on him. No one else could have done it. As something that actually happened to and through him, then the truth is literally Jesus, the one who caused this momentous change. The Christ event is concretely the truth event.