I’ve been seeing the expression “Biblical truth” bandied about on several fundamentalist Christian Facebook groups recently, and I want to address that weird and rather disturbing notion.
There’s a point every semester when I broach the subject of truth in my classes: it happens when we start our survey of African-American music, a unit that begins with a consideration of the Blues. The author of the textbook we use launches into a rather incoherent and saccharine discussion of the Blues as a vehicle for truth-telling. I think he mostly gets it wrong; nevertheless, it is a useful point of departure so we do read the section and discuss it. I always begin by telling my students that, just as the infinitives to hear and to listen don’t mean the same thing, so the nouns “fact” and “truth” are not by any means exact synonyms, although there is clearly a relationship between them (as there is between hearing and listening).
To help them understand my meaning, I have them do this thought experiment: go to the neonatal unit of the local hospital and choose your newborn. Become an omnipresent observer: follow that person all his life; record in your notebooks everything that person ever experiences, says or does. Omit no detail. At the end of that person’s life, you’ll have a mountain of notebooks – and a mountain of facts. Will you have in those notebooks the truth of that person’s life?
Of course not. There’s only one way to discover the truth of that person’s life: ask the person who lived the life. Truth is the synthesis we make of the facts. Facts are objective; truth is subjective.
When that person relates to you the truth of his life (I will continue to use the masculine pronoun for convenience), and you compare it to the facts you’ve assiduously recorded, you’ll discover that he “gets some of it wrong:” some of the facts will be out of order (in some cases reversing causality); many of the facts will be missing from his account; and most intriguing of all, there will be events in the tale told by your object of study that in fact never happened, but as far as he’s concerned, they did. They – along with all the other things he relates to you – constitute the truth of his life.
When he gets his facts wrong, is he lying? Not at all. He may be mistaken, but if in his mistake he has come to perceive the world a certain way, then his misconception is most certainly a part of his truth (a fact that psychotherapists understand full well).
In saying this, I don’t mean to undercut the merits or importance of truth: I just think we need to recognize it for what it is. It is synthetic, and it is subjective (“malleable” is another adjective that comes to mind). It is also of critical importance. I’ll come back to this in a little while.
I’ve encountered a number of fundamentalists who regard atheists as nihilists of necessity. None of them have ever marshaled a convincing argument to support this wild claim, but they keep making it regardless. In my understanding, a nihilist is someone who values nothing: who, seeing life as essentially empty, writes it off and thus (insofar as he is consistent) makes no value claims. (I’m probably over-drawing the portrait here, but I think this is pretty close to accurate.) That’s not what I am.
I don’t see life as empty at all, and am thus committed to justice and fairness. You could even say that I “believe” in them as moral absolutes, although I don’t think that’s the best choice of verb or of categories. But my commitment to justice and fairness doesn’t mean that I subscribe to a list of categorical imperatives that will ensure the triumph of those ideals at every turn, because the world is maddeningly complicated and each case must be decided on its own merits – that’s what it means to be human and fully engaged in the world. And that, I suppose, is where Christian fundamentalists and I part company.
Take a well-known objection to Kant’s categorical imperative against lying, for instance. The theoretical case I’m about to cite has been rehashed so many times that it could be said there’s a considerable literature about it, but I want to revisit it in slightly different language from any I’ve seen in print – in light of something that I said earlier about the difference between “fact” and “truth.”
If the SS knocks at your door and asks the question “Are you hiding Jews?” Kantian fundamentalists (and there are a few) insist that you must answer in the affirmative. The categorical imperative – “categorical” admits of no exceptions – is that you must not lie. I have seen this countered with a “hypothetical imperative” or a “contingent imperative,” but those constructions always struck me as paradoxical if not self-contradictory, and I think the matter can be settled more easily by an appeal to justice and fairness, and to truth as I have presented it above: not as facts, but as a synthesis of them.
It is a fact that you are hiding Jews in your basement. It is also a fact that if you turn your visitors over to the SS, they’ll be killed. Which is the more important fact? If you synthesize these two facts into a truth, what does that truth look like? In my construction, truth is more than merely not lying. Truth is the result of weighing all of the particulars of the matter in an assize that aims at justice and fairness. What is the truth of the matter? The truth is that – as far as the goddamned SS are concerned – you are not hiding Jews in your basement, and every decent human impulse demands that you communicate this truth to the SS.
Is that truth factual? Yes, it is. It is a synthesis of a great many facts: that you are hiding Jews in your basement; that they will be killed if you admit this fact; that the Nazi regime is monstrous and racism is an insult to human dignity; that the regime does not merit anyone’s respect or obedience; that your lie is far less offensive than the SS’s interrogation; that the people who are hiding in your basement are depending on you; and so forth.
So where does this leave us with respect to “Biblical truth?” My short answer is simply that there’s no such thing. There are certainly Biblical imperatives – and since God has (presumably) delivered them, they are as categorical as anything that may be imagined. But reading the list, I find myself unimpressed. I do not see in them a formula for a healthy society or a fulfilled life. I do not find them “truthful” in the sense I’ve constructed above.
Let me talk about that last bit just a little. I’m 65 years old. I’m certainly in the last chapter of what has in many respects been a very difficult life (but certainly a life filled with rare beauty and great passion in addition to its hardships and disappointments). Looking back on it, I can say with some confidence that the times I’ve been happiest are those times when I’ve been most free. Truth is synthesized in a condition of freedom: the synthesis of truth from the facts of our life is probably our freest act. I was never free when I assumed that the Biblical imperatives applied to me. Those imperatives – either in the narrow Old Testament sense of a Levitical code or in the broader New Testament understanding of sin in general being atoned for by the sacrifice of a cosmic Christ, which sacrifice must be acknowledged and “accepted” in order to be efficacious, are a formula for slavery not freedom.
We don’t need this. We’re already bound hand and foot by our evolutionary heritage: prisoners in bodies that – far from being made in the image of some deity – are booby-trapped from birth and fall apart at the slightest provocation. To say nothing of inconstant minds that are the epiphenomena of brains which drag around a very large and potent reptilian component and thus veer off into hysteria and madness at those very times when we are most in need of the crystalline clarity of neocortical reasoning. We’re born with two ruinous strikes against us. It seems to me that at least we might be spared that extra burden of supposedly divine laws that are as impossible to comply with as the U.S. tax code.
If those laws led to a good society, I suppose that might be grounds for ascribing some merit to them – for enshrining the Ten Commandments in the courthouse. But what kind of society is it that burns witches or stones girls whose “defilement” is discovered on their wedding night, or children who dabble in the worship of “other gods” or are disobedient to their parents? What kind of deity is it who calls for such penalties? Frankly, that doesn’t even look like justice to me, let alone justice and fairness. It looks like a formula for Afghanistan or worse.
Again: my rejection of “Biblical truth” does not make me a nihilist, or dangerous in any respect. The “moral code” to which I adhere is in my view far more worthy of mature human beings – and far more likely to yield decent outcomes – than anything that’s implied by the term “Biblical truth,” and it’s a sign not of reprobation and hellishness but of decency and humaneness.