Sometime in the 1960s, Jane Fonda appeared on the Dick Cavett Show.* During the show, she had an interchange with the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Jesus is the Son of God, you know,” asserted the Archbishop. Fonda retorted, “Maybe he is for you, but he’s not for me.” The Archbishop of Canterbury replied dryly, “Well, either he is or he isn’t.” Fonda’s view of truth demonstrates why I need to speak about truth itself before we can make sense of the question, “Is Christianity True?”
“What is Truth?” It’s difficult to say what Pilate meant when he asked Jesus this question (John 18:38). Jesus had just said that he came into the world “to bear witness to the truth” (18:37). Was Pilate skeptical of all truth claims or merely doubtful of Jesus’ particular truth claims? When we hear the question, “What is truth?” we prepare ourselves for a deep and ponderous discussion conducted in an obscure philosophical vocabulary. We have a feeling that we are embarking on an interminable journey that ends right were we began, none the wiser for our trouble. In my view, that feeling of futility says something important I want to explore.
The question, “What is truth?” calls on us to think critically about a concept we use daily without difficulty, and this request may be the source of our sense of futility. We are being asked to define and explain something that seemed obvious before the question was asked. The concept of truth is so fundamental and primitive to our thought that we can’t find terms more fundamental and primitive with which to explain it. All language presupposes the concept of truth, even the language we use to define the concept of truth. At the end of a discussion of truth we could still ask, “Is our definition of truth true?” The discussion, then, begins again at the beginning!
Adjectives and Nouns
As interesting as I find complicated philosophical discussions of the nature of truth, I want to begin by asserting that we already know what truth is. The meaning of truth is implicit in our everyday language. Let’s begin with the simple distinction between the noun, “truth” and the adjective, “true.” We learned in grammar school that a noun names a thing and an adjective modifies a noun. An adjective “modifies” a noun in that it names a particular property of the thing the noun names. As an example, consider the noun/adjective combination, “navy blue slacks.” The adjective “navy blue” names a property of the noun “slacks.” Slacks can exist in different “modes” (brown, blue, gray, etc.) and the adjective specifies the particular “mode” in which these slacks exist. Hence the term “modify” is used of the function of adjectives.
We use the adjective “true” to modify sentences that assert facts. Such sentences are called “propositions.” Only propositions can be true or false. Questions, exclamations, lone words, and fragments cannot be true or false, because they do not make assertions about reality. To put it in concrete terms, the sentence “God raised Jesus Christ from the dead” makes an assertion about reality. This sentence is either true or false. The adjective “true” modifies the assertion the sentence makes. As we pursue the question about Christianity’s truth, we must ask about the truth of a set of propositions that make up Christianity’s truth claims.
Truth and Reality
Let’s think about the noun “truth”. As I pointed out above, nouns name things. What does the noun “truth” name? It names a property of a proposition. Propositions can be true or false. A true proposition possesses the property “truth”. Hence “truth” is a property that can be present or absent in propositions. But what is this property? What is its character, considered as a thing named by a noun?
To answer this question adequately, I need to introduce another term, “reality” (or the thing itself). Implicit in language is a distinction between sentences and the things about which sentences speak. We know the difference between the sentence, “My coffee cup now sets on my desk, about one foot to my right and about an arm’s length away”, and the actual state of affairs described by the sentence. As I write, I am experiencing the actual state of affairs empirically, and the above sentence expresses my empirical experience. You are experiencing the image the sentence puts into your mind, not the empirical experience I am having. The sentence is a proposition and the real things (the desk, the time stamp, the distances, and the cup) are what the proposition refers to. It would make no sense to ask, “Are the real things true?” Truth is a property of propositions, not of things. Reality takes priority over truth, because propositions depend on reality for their truth. In my view, reality is an even more fundamental or primitive concept than truth. How do you define reality? I may try to say something about this later, but I will let it be for now.
So, what is truth? Truth is the property that exists in a proposition when that proposition corresponds adequately to reality, to the things it describes. Truth is a relationship of correspondence between a proposition and reality. Truth is not a synonym for reality, though it is often misused in this way. Hearing a proposition asserted places an idea or image of an actual state of affairs in your mind. The proposition is true insofar as the image it contains corresponds to the real things it names.
Why is this discussion about the concepts of truth and reality important in our quest to answer the question, “Is Christianity true?” It is important because misuse of these concepts is very common in religious or moral discussions. We’ve all heard such statements as the following: “Truth is what is true for you.” Truth is what works for you.” “Christianity is true for me.” “All religions are true.” Thoughtlessly accepting these statements deflates our passion for God and excuses our indifference and worldliness. I believe these thoughts on truth and reality demonstrate that statements like those above are not only thoughtless and mistaken but are downright nonsensical.
In this series, I will be asking whether the assertions Christianity makes about reality actually correspond to the reality about which it speaks. I can accept no other meaning to the question, “Is Christianity true?”
*I’ve not been able to locate the original source for the Jane Fonda story. If someone knows where I can get a video recording of this show, I love to have the information. If the story is apocryphal please let me know.