“I have a testimony that this is true.”
“Our church is based on the Bible, the Word of God.”How many times have you heard those statements or similar ones? Can we deny the sincerity of persons making such statements?Several years ago, a young missionary stated in our home, “The more that I talk to people, the more I know that ours is the true church.”
We said nothing, but you can imagine how ineffective his ministry was after that comment.
In this essay, I shall examine the meaning of truth, using scriptural and non-scriptural quotations. Some problems in defining “truth” will be noted. You will find a little of the following subjects: astronomy, drama, geography, literary quotations, logic, optics, philosophy, physics, political science, religion, and scripture. Do not be concerned if you are not an expert in these fields, for neither am I. However, illustrations gathered from these fields lend themselves to the topic. If you find parts of this paper confusing, it is a part of my approach to show how confusing people can be in expressing their interpretations of the Scriptures to prospective converts. It is hoped that there will be something clear which will help you in your search for truth.
aJohn 14:6 —
“Jesus said to him, I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life:
No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
bEther 1:108 —
“For behold, I am the Father, I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world.”
Jesus said that he is truth. Thus, when we use the word “truth” or any other word derived from it, we are referring to facts that have their origin in him.
At the extremes of religious truth are absolute and relative truth. The former expresses the deepest reality, the sacred, God, or “what-is.” The latter indicates accurate information about life, the importance of which is limited to specific situations and short-term goals.1
I shall be referring to both types of truth. Absolute truth is unchangeable, and, except for direct revelation from God, is incomprehensible to our finite minds. Relative truth is that by which we abide from day to day. This truth can be built upon (or distorted), as we see in the fields of science, for example.
Voltaire, in Letter to Cardinal de Berris, April 23, 1764, said, “There are truths which are not for all men, nor for all times.”2
This would apply to absolute truths. Man cannot abide them. He has either distorted or rejected the truths which have been given to him. However, a few humble men have reached a higher level of spirituality and have seen that which is not for most to see. Moses, in the Tanakh (or the Old Testament of the Bible), is an example.
George Farquhar, in The Beaux’ Strategem, Act V, Scene 1, said, “Truth, sir, is a profound sea, and few there be who dare wade deep enough to find out the bottom on ‘t.”3 Man tends to be satisfied with what he has, not being eager to search for hidden truths. He is often critical of those who discover what was not previously known, since he is comfortable where he is. He does not see the truth spoken in this scripture.
fTrue Words –
“True words are not beautiful.
Beautiful words are not truthful.”
To those who do wade deeply, new insights are uncovered. Half-truths or misconceptions are no longer acceptable to them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Essays, First Series: Intellect, made an interesting observation, “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please, – you can never have both.”4 Man has his agency, or freedom, to choose. He can learn or he can relax. Time is too short not to use it wisely.
eDhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha —
“The wise find peace on hearing the truth, like a deep, clear, undisturbed lake.”
If man chooses repose, he may exemplify a statement by Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass, “Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”5 This approach is unfortunate. Events in all areas of our society attest to the reality of this statement. Truth then becomes distorted. When this distorted view becomes dogmatic, the results can be tragic.
Note the view of Origen on truth in Liber de Principiis, circa 254 C.E., “That alone is to be believed as truth which in no way differs from the ecclesiastical and Apostolic tradition.”6 We shall look at some examples in religion and astronomical history to show how this concept was put into practice.
The lifelong maxim of John Huss was, “Where I see anything at variance with the doctrines of Christ, I will not obey, though the stakes were staring me in the face.” He had to do battle against a whole theological faculty. He had to separate, for truth’s sake, from friends whom he had prized through life. He opposed indulgences, among other things.7
How many of us would be willing to abide by his maxim? Today, we see around us people who are experiencing separation from friends and family for the sake of truth. Some feel that this is only the beginning of what is yet to come.
When he was taken to his place of execution, John Huss prayed for his enemies. Seven bishops stripped him of his priestly robes that he was wearing. The mark of his tonsure (part of the head being shaved) was removed with great cruelty. A cap daubed over with figures of demons was placed on his head. Then he was led forth to be burned in the name of religion. As he died, he repelled the temptation to recant, but called on Christ for mercy. His ashes were cast into the Rhine River.8 This man lived and died by his maxim in his search for truth.
Aristotle stated with absolute authority that the universe was earth-centred because man was the supreme human, patterned in form after the gods. Through the ages his word was accepted.9 His universe was spherical, having the sphere of the fixed stars as its circumference and the earth, also spherical, lying motionless at the centre. Within the outermost sphere lay, one within the other, the spheres which carried the planets, sun, and moon.10
Claudius Ptolemy, an Egyptian astronomer, combined the theories of Aristotle with those of later astronomers and his own studies and established a doctrine concerning the universe as it was then conceived. Man and his earth remained the centre of the universe. His ideas and explanations of the movement of celestial bodies were accepted by astronomers, educated laymen, and the church.11
The Ptolemaic hypothesis of the universe was in fashion at the time that Copernicus made his studies.12 He challenged some of the ideas listed as law in Almagest, Ptolemy’s encyclopedia of astronomical knowledge.13
Conservative scholars who resented any change of ideas snapped at Copernicus. He was warned to stop this heresy and to cease questioning what was known fact.14 He remarked, “It does not shame us to confess that the whole space in which the moon revolves, together with the earth, moves along a great orbit among the planets, round the sun every year; that the sun remains permanent and immovable, whatever its apparent motion.”15
Those scholars illustrated what one scripture says.
cOrnaments of Gold [43.30] –
“And when there came to them the truth they said: This is magic, and surely we are disbelievers in it.”
Galileo chose to investigate physical truths for himself. He engaged in experiments to determine the truth of some of Aristotle’s positions, and when he found him to be in the wrong, he said so, and so taught his pupils. This made the “paper philosophers,” as he called them, very angry. He repeated his experiments in their presence, but they set aside the evidence of their senses and adopted Aristotle as much as before.16
Neither Copernicus nor his immediate followers suffered inconvenience or restraint on account of their astronomical doctrines; nor had Galileo, until this period of his life (1612), incurred ecclesiastical censure for anything which he had said or written. But the Inquisition now took up the matter as heretical and contrary to the express words of Scripture; and in 1616, Copernicus’ work De Revolutionibus, Kepler’s Epitome, and some of Galileo’s own letters, were placed on the list of prohibited books; and he himself, being then in Rome, received formal notice not to teach that the earth revolves around the sun.17 Some people in authority cannot bear to hear the truth.
cThe Cattle [6.5] —
“So they have indeed rejected the truth when it came to them; therefore the truth of what they mocked at will shine upon them.”
For two thousand years, until 1660, the pattern of man’s thoughts about themselves and about the world had been the pluralistic and qualitative scheme of the universe devised by the ancient Greeks. In this scheme, as inherited by the Europeans from the Romans and the Arabs, anything could happen, including miracles and spontaneous generation. In the form of scholasticism, the words of the ancient philosophers and scientists had become involved with the word of God.18
aProverbs 23:23 —
“Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding.”
Such men as Huss, Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo showed that they believed this. Other learned men, as well as the church, preferred to hold on to their traditions. Too often today, man is unwilling to search for truth, being satisfied with traditions, particularly in religion. When they do encounter truth, they do not recognize it.
cJonah [10.39] –
“Nay, they reject that of which they have no comprehensive knowledge, and the final sequel of it has not yet come to them; even thus did those before them reject the truth; see then what was the end of the unjust.”
Bruce Marshall, in Father Malachy’s Miracle, 1967, expressed it this way, “There are men who claim to love the truth. But if a truth comes from God, they reject it and veil their faces like hypocrites and pharisees.”19
A scripture gives an admonition to those who reject truth.
cThe Cow [2.42] —
“And do not mix up the truth with the falsehood, nor hide the truth while you know it.”
The Catholic and Protestant churches accepted the earth as the centre of the sixteenth century universe. When the church believed something, that was that. To go against the teachings of the church was to flirt with probable excommunication, invite certain persecution, and risk possible burning at the stake.20
Isaac Newton was the next man whose scientific studies lasted over a period of time. For over two centuries, his system was the last word possible in the science of nature. Although he would have denied it, it was based on the great mathematical physicists who had preceded him.21
Of himself, Isaac Newton, in Brewster’s Memoirs of Newton, volume 2, chapter 27, 1855, said, “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother or prettier shell, than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”22
It is no longer possible, as it once was, to conceive the principles of Newton as absolutes and his definition of the universe as final. The technical close of the Newtonian system came dramatically and suddenly with the development of relativity.23
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity carries the classical relativity of Newton forward another step.24 Toward the end of his life, Einstein wrote, “Newton, forgive me. You found the only way which, in your age, was just about possible for a man of highest thought and creative power.”25
I have spent considerable space describing the advancements in science and the church’s attitudes to the discovery of new truths. These illustrations are useful in drawing parallels to contemporary ideas toward truth in religious matters.
b2 Nephi 12:36-38 —
“For behold thus sayeth the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little:
And blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom;
For unto him that receiveth, I will give more: and from them that shall say, We have enough, shall be taken away even that which they have.”
We see how much scientific knowledge has increased from the time of Aristotle to what it is today. Knowledge has been built on what has gone before. The Christian church refused to learn new relative truths since it felt that it had absolute truth. Society suffered as a result. The truth of that scriptural quotation has been in evidence in the scientific field.
Some people, when discussing religious matters, give the impression that what they believe is absolute truth. When two or more people of the same religion or of different religions take the view that they, themselves, but not the others to whom they are talking, have the truth, a matter of logic is involved. No more than one, and maybe not even that one, can have the absolute truth, although they all may have a portion of the truth.
I am reminded of the six blind men of Hindustan who described an elephant as they felt it with their hands. If people would not become dogmatic, but take to heart that scripture, they could find truth. When a person has allowed himself to listen to God and to accept a little truth, he opens himself to the reception of more and more truth. Even as the churches of the Middle Ages hindered the search and acceptance of truth, so the churches of today need to be cautious about the claim of being the true church or about the belief that no more revelation from God is needed. They should heed the warning of that scripture. Unfortunately, it is possible to use that scripture to bring in new doctrine that may be false.
G. K. Chesterton, in Heretics, said, “Truths turn into dogmas the moment they are disputed.”26 As I consider how one scientist after another becomes important for a time, then is replaced, I am reminded what a character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, said, “All the world’s a stage. / And all the men and women are merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances.”27 Thus, for most people, truth is relative.
According to the pragmatic theory of truth, theories are verified in experience by testing and applying them to actual situations. Where they are found workable, they are said to be true.28 Advocates of the theory contend that it is employed by the natural sciences. Scientists, by accepting the relative and growing nature of “true knowledge,” do not find themselves bound, as philosophers do, to a rigid, absolute structure of truths that cannot possibly be changed or revised. The philosopher, William James, feels that this theory allows for the occurrence at any time of new data and new ways of dealing with them.29
When a Christian has misinterpreted a scripture passage, he may respond according to either the philosopher or the scientist mentioned above. If he takes the approach of the philosopher who is not a believer of the pragmatic theory of truth, he will refuse to see his error, or will refuse to make adjustments when he does see the error. If he takes the approach of the scientist as portrayed by James, he will examine his belief and change it if he finds that it is wrong. He will not accept any new belief or doctrine simply because it is different. He will test it against the scriptures and discard that which proves to be contrary.
In world religions, truth is advocated as a corrective to three general sorts of deception: (1) intentional deception between people, or lying; (2) error due to lack of information; (3) inclination toward self-deception.30
The first would include church, political, or corporate leadership or personalities who knowingly tell people things which are wrong or withhold important facts for particular motives. There may have been reaon why Christians of the Middle Ages were deceived on the second point. Many did not have the Bible. There is less reason for Christians of today being so deceived. Those who are, probably, may be victims of the other two, also. It is unfortunate that people allow themselves to be deceived by the third point. Their truth is that which is convenient for the circumstances.
The Communist thinks that he has grasped the inner meaning of the world, the final truth about man and society. The adherents of Communism are so utterly certain of their truth and so intoxicated with the beatific vision of the kingdom of heaven that they become an easy prey for religious intolerance. Their first loyalty is to the truth that will ultimately bring all men to salvation and freedom. Their first duty is to make that truth prevail. The sacred word of Marx, according to the prevailing interpretation, says that the inevitable way is through intolerance, conflict, and violence. Their impatience with the willful obstructors, the lazy who do not care, and the blind who cannot or will not see, becomes almost unbearable.31
Have you not read in history books about similar attitudes of the Christian churches in the past? Do we not see some evidences of the same in the Christian churches of today? The same opposition that the Communists detest is also faced by those teaching the Christian gospel. The absolute truth of the Communists is not the absolute truth of God.
Charles S. Pierce states that men seek belief, and the search for truth in practice is the search for belief. The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by truth. If belief were to tend toward absolute fixity, we would have the truth.32
Think about what that man said. How many people join a particular church or congregation or political party because they can hear or experience what will make them comfortable? How many people search the Scriptures for passages which will verify their religious beliefs? Should they not test their beliefs against the truths which are in the Scriptures? What happens at a general assembly or conference of your church or a convention of your political party or profession? After a discussion, sometimes heated, an issue is brought to a vote of the delegates. Does not the decision of the majority decide the fate of the issue? The greater the reverence of the people for the position of the leader, the more likelihood that his point of view will prevail. In these cases, what assurance do we have that truth has prevailed?
Each person needs a strong testimony. However, he must be aware that the source of it may be the Supreme Being, the Adversary, or man. Can it stand the test of the teachings of the Scriptures? I knew a man who, a number of years ago, was converted to a church by others who had strong testimonies of the truth of their church. He, too, had a testimony. Just prior to his baptism, he had a vivid spiritual experience which caused him to turn away from that church. Some people’s testimonies truly are from our Creator. However, some seem to be based on tradition. God is not the author of confusion.
Even as there have been men of science who searched in their fields for truth then discarded errors, there have been men in religion who searched the Scriptures for truth, then refuted wrong beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, there is a negative side in religion, as well. There have been men who have distorted the teachings of the Scriptures through misinterpretation, either innocently or for personal gain. Thus, truths were discarded. As one man builds on the teachings of another, instead of uncovering new truths, the distance from truth may increase. The spiritual results may be both pathetic and tragic.
Anne Munley, in her book The Hospice Alternative, makes this observation. “A large number of hospice patients appear to be deeply rooted in the teachings and rituals of the organized religions with which they are affiliated. I do not wish to imply that personal religion is absent from such spirituality. It is likely that personal religion is also present, but what is most evident in conversations with such patients is their focus on the comfort of familiar ‘truths,’ practices, or rituals.”33 (Hospice is the care of dying cancer patients.) The author gives a few concrete examples. The truths on which these patients hold are not necessarily the truths of God since they differ from one religion to another.
Man’s interpretation of truth can be so misleading that those who see or hear it may be easily deceived. The URL http://dragon.uml.edu/psych/stair.html gives an illustration of deception.
Look at the drawing of the set of stairs. Examine the top parallelogram (or any other). Is it on a horizontal plane or on a vertical plane? Do you first see one plane then the other? This is an optical illusion. Likewise, one person can tell you that something in the Scriptures is true. Then another person can tell you that the opposite is true. Some people will accept one “truth” then later reject it for the other “truth.” They can be easily deceived in this manner.
People, believers and non-believers alike, can read the Scriptures and prove whatever they desire to believe. I have been told that was why Jesus came: to attempt to correct those who think this way and who actually were found to be in error and misguided. This may be true in theory; but, in many cases with Christians, they continue to dispute the views of others.
We know that man has made changes in the Tanakh and the New Testament of the Bible. A comparison of the various editions of the Book of Mormon will show that this book has not been exempt from changes. Has this also happened with the Scriptures of other faiths? Is it any wonder that people cannot be sure what truth is?
In his book Beyond Pitcairn, Vince Farrell quotes from Why Don’t You Keep Holy the Sabbath Day? pages 3-15, in the Clifton Tracts, Volume 4, published by the Catholic Church and released in North America in 1869. “We Catholics, then, have precisely the same authority for keeping Sunday holy, instead of Saturday as we have for every other article of our creed, namely, the authority of ‘the church of the living God, and ground of truth’ (1 Timothy 3:15).34 We follow Catholic tradition, believing it to be a part of God’s word, and the Catholic Church to be its divinely appointed guardian and interpreter.”35
Non-Catholics may be critical of the relationship between tradition and truth in that church. If so, they should examine their own churches. They might be surprised to see how closely they follow tradition themselves. At least, Catholics are more open in admitting the importance of tradition than other Christian churches are. Is this not a form of deceit on the part of the critics?
There are many words in the Hebrew language for “deceit” and “lies,” but there is only one word for “truth.” God’s truth is one! Man’s lies are most infinite!.36 In regard to the Scriptures, truth seems to be based on one’s experiences and interpretation. We can say then that truth is relative.
What direction are you going if you walk to the rear of a westbound passenger train traveling at seventy miles per hour? The answer is relative to your point of reference. If that be the coach, you are traveling east. If that be the countryside, you are traveling west. If that be the earth rotating on its axis, you are traveling east at 812 miles per hour at the latitude of the Kansas-Nebraska border (40º N.).37 If you like, you can also consider that the earth is revolving about the sun. Then, the galaxy of which our solar system is a part, the Milky Way, is also turning. Can you give the absolute truth about the direction of your movement?
How can we find truth? We have to test everything. Since many things about our existence – the earth we live on, and our future – cannot be proved by using the scientist’s method of experimentation, we must rely on the information which we have from various sources.
Should not man be searching for truth instead of concentrating on the material things of life? Would he not be more appreciative of what he does have in life?
gThe Superior Man XV.31:–
“The Master said, ‘The object of the superior man is truth, not food. . . . The superior man is anxious lest he should not get truth; he is not anxious lest poverty should come upon him.’ “
hGuru Amar Das: Page 36, Line 19 —
“The virtuous obtain Truth; they give up their desires for evil and corruption.”
Some people also have direct revelation from God. This must be consistent with other revelation. How can we try to avoid the problems of misinterpretation which have been so common? We must have a close relationship with our Creator. We must search the Scriptures diligently. This includes the Scriptures of other religions. No one religion can properly claim to have the sole, or complete, Scripture.
We must be willing to test our beliefs against what is in the Scriptures and discard any that are not consistent. We must not accept anyone’s ideas until we have done the same check objectively. That includes this essay. We must pray in connection with our studying. If we accept the truths that God provides for us, He will provide more. We must not become discouraged if, after we have done these things, people scorn or persecute us.
dThe Mahabharata —
“Truth is immutable, eternal, and unchangeable. It may be acquired through practices which do not militate against any of the other virtues.”
eDhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha —
“He who drinks in the Truth will live happily with a peaceful mind. A wise man always delights in the Truth taught by the saints.”
When we feel that we have obtained the truth, we need to take the advice given in the following scripture. If we do not, we are faced with the risk of losing that which we have.
hGuru Nanak Dev: Page 62, Line 11 –
“Truth is higher than everything; but higher still is truthful living.”
- The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 15. New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1987. Page 63.
- The Home Book of Quotations. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1967. Page 2049.
- Op. cit. Page 2055.
- The World Treasury of Religious Quotations. New York: Hawthorne, 1966. Page 1008.
- Op. cit. Page 1009.
- Great Men and Famous Women, Vol. 3. New York: Selmar Hess, 1894. Page 108.
- Op. cit. Pages 110 and 111.
- Poole, Lynn and Gray. Scientists Who Changed the World. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1960. Page 16.
- Guthrie, W. K. C. The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. New York: Harper and Row, 1960. Page 137.
- Poole. Loc. cit.
- Great Men and Famous Women, Vol. 3. Page 123.
- Poole. Op. cit. Page 17.
- Op. cit. Page 19.
- Great Men and Famous Women, Vol. 3. Page 124.
- Op. cit. Pages 161 and 162.
- Op. cit. Pages 163 and 164.
- Nussbaum, Frederick L. The Triumph of Science and Reason: 1660-1685. New York: Harper and Row, 1953. Page 1.
- The World Treasury of Religious Quotations. Page 1010.
- Poole. Op. cit. Page 3.
- Nussbaum. Op. cit. Page 3.
- Bartlett, John. Familiar Quotations. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968. Pages 379 and 380.
- Nussbaum. Op. cit. Page 26.
- Gardner, Martin. Relativity for the Million. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Page 36.
- Op. cit. Pages 73 and 74.
- The Home Book of Quotations. Page 2050.
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. New York: Avenel Books. Page 239.
- Stroll, Avrum, and Richard H. Popkin Introduction to Philosophy. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1922. Page 416.
- Op. cit. Page 419.
- The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 15. Page 64.
- Corry, J. A. Democratic Government and Politics. Torornto: University of Toronto, 1951. Page 62.
- The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 6. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Page 427.
- Munley, Anne. The Hospice Alternative. New York: Basic Books, 1983. Pages 241 and 242.
- Ferrell, Vance. Beyond Pitcairn. Altamont, TN: Pilgrim’s Books, 1984. Page 216.
- Op. cit. Page 217.
- Bullinger, E. W. Number in Scripture. Grand Rapids: Kregel, nd. Page 89.
- Hawkins, Gerald S. Splendor in the Sky. New York: Harper, 1961. Page 19.
- a – Bible
- b – Book of Mormon
- c – Koran (Qur’an)
- d – Mundaka Upanishad
- e – Dhammapada: Sayings of the Buddha
- f – Tao Te Ching
- g – The Analects by Confucius
- h – Sri Guru Granth Sahib