Is Christianity True? It Depends. What Do You Mean By True?
Writers over at the Stand to Reason blog asked: “Is Christianity True?” [http://str.typepad.com/weblog/2010/04/is-christianity-true.html] That is an often asked question by Christians and non-Christians alike, I suppose. Unfortunately, few take the time to consider what they mean by the word “true.” Askers of such questions, like the writers at the Stand to Reason blog, leave the word “truth” ambiguous and unspecified.
“Truth” has multiple possible understandings. I’ll note two below and indicate how they relate to faith in Jesus.
First and perhaps oldest is the correspondence theory of truth [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-correspondence/#9.2]. What is that? Basically, the correspondence theory of truth holds that words more or less accurately reflect objective features of the environment. A better definition of some object, in other words, is a more accurate and truthful definition because it reflects the real essence of that object.
Most Christians, in my view, presume and advocate for the correspondence theory of truth. Those taking a harder edge on the matter demand that believers, for instance, verbally claim that Jesus’ resurrection was objectively real. Those taking a softer edge on the matter may not aggressively insist on the objectivity of Jesus’ resurrection, but when pressed they will mostly likely affirm that it was a real event. In other words, they presume that their particular interpretation (in comparison to all other descriptions of the resurrection) of the resurrection of Jesus is the most accurate and, therefore, truthful description.
What is interesting and ironic, historically and theologically speaking, is that the correspondence theory of truth was solidified as an epistemological perspective during the 20th century; it has deeper roots going as far back as the Greeks, however. To put it a bit differently, today there are very conservative evangelical Christians who rail against syncretism and, yet, unquestioningly embrace and insist on a conception of truth invented by the ancient Greeks.
As I suggested above, there are multiple conceptions of truth. There is no necessarily connection between having faith in Jesus Christ and a correspondence theory of truth—though, surely some would disagree with this.
Another perspective on truth is the pragmatic understanding. This view is historically much newer, but was also solidified during the twentieth century. You can read people William James and Richard Rorty for a fuller understanding of the pragmatic understanding of truth. James, for instance, argues that truth is an idea or action that is useful: “Let me begin by reminding you of the fact that the possession of true thoughts means everywhere the possession of invaluable instruments of action; and that our duty to gain truth, so far from being a blank command from out of the blue, or a ‘stunt’ self imposed by our intellect, can account for itself by excellent practical reasons.” Similarly, Rorty said that “On this view, to say that a belief is, as far as we know, true, is to say that no alternative belief is, as far as we know, a better habit of acting.”
From a pragmatic perspective, for instance, strings of words like “Jesus is the way the truth and the light” are truthful insofar as they are useful in concretely shaping your life and the life of those around you. It doesn’t matter whether or not the words accurately reflect objective reality—their truth is a practical matter. The key question for a pragmatist is “What difference does saying, ‘I believe Jesus is the way the truth and the light,’ make in your life?” Clearly, the concrete difference this saying has for different believers will vary greatly and is (at least to some degree) an observable matter. In other words, the fruit that one bears in the name of Jesus is observable to others.
In sum, I believe that it is important for the faithful to understand that: i) the correspondence understanding of truth is not the only possible understanding of truth. There are other possibilities out there. I have shown only one alternative—the pragmatic perspective. The faithful, once informed, are responsible for actively choosing and not simply accepting the correspondence approach to truth because of tradition. ii) the correspondence understanding of truth is historically a perspective rooted in pagan knowledge practices, which undermines the conservative attempt to lock down the objectivity of Jesus’ resurrection.