Sunday, August 30, 2015

What Is Truth?

By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            What is truth?  That was the skeptical response of Pontius Pilate to Jesus saying, I came into the world to testify to the truth. (John 18: 37-38)  Pilate’s question has echoed down through the ages.  Some, like the poet John Keats, have found truth in the beauty of art: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty."  But for Jews, Christians and Muslims, God’s truth came through their prophets. 

            The Jews had many prophets, beginning with Moses, and Jesus was a Jew who is considered the ultimate prophet and the last word of God by Christians, just as Muhammad is for Muslims.  Muhammad affirmed that the Jewish prophets, including Jesus, were messengers of God’s truth like himself, but considered most Christians and Jews to be unbelievers. (see Notes below)

            Religion can reveal mystical truths but it can also blind believers to new truths and reason.  Fundamentalist believers reject any new truths and reason that conflict with their ancient religious scriptures, and that included Galileo’s discoveries in astronomy and Darwin’s theory of evolution.  But the most serious problem with fundamentalist concepts of truth has been with religious laws.  Christians cited holy laws to mount the Crusades, conduct Inquisitions and establish a Puritan theocracy in colonial America, and today militant Islamists seek to create a caliphate based on ancient Islamic laws known as shari’a that are barbaric by modern standards of justice.

            Judaism and Islam are deontological religions that emphasize holy laws—Mosaic Law for Jews and shari’a for Muslims—as God’s truth and standard of legitimacy and righteousness.  The teachings of Jesus are more teleological and emphasize the supremacy of love over law as God’s truth; but fundamentalist Christians believe the entire Bible, including Mosaic Law, is the inerrant and infallible word of God, just as fundamentalist Muslims (Islamists) believe the Qur’an and its shari’a are the perfect and immutable word of God. 

            To support their exclusivist claims Christians cite John 4:16 where Jesus says, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.  It is one of the I am sayings that are unique to John’s Gospel in which Jesus is presented as the Logos, or word of God (John 1:1-14).  The symbolic Jesus of John’s Gospel is not compatible with the more historic Jesus of the other three Gospel accounts, where Jesus refuted religious exclusivism when he taught that all who do God’s will are his brothers and sisters in the family of God.

            Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims are zealous proselytizers who believe that theirs is the one true faith and that God condemns all unbelievers; and they believe that they have a holy obligation to impose their religious laws on others as God’s will and truth.  That exclusivist idea does not comport with the forgiving, loving and merciful God revealed by Jesus, but it is the norm for fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who consider their ancient scriptures to be the sole source of God’s truth and who measure their success by the number of their believers.

            Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion—not even his own—and he summarized God’s will in the greatest commandmentto love God and neighbor.  It is made up of two commandments taken from the Hebrew Bible that were conflated into one:  We love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and the story of the good Samaritan made it clear that our neighbors include unbelievers.   Islamic scholars have embraced the greatest commandment as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.     
            The teachings of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad have many similarities, but also many differences.  The teachings of Moses and Muhammad emphasize obedience to God’s law as the standard of righteousness, and God’s rewards for the obedient and punishments for the disobedient.  By way of contrast, the teachings of Jesus emphasize love over law and the transforming power of God’s forgiving love and mercy, or grace, to reconcile and redeem sinners as children of God, rather than their obedience of holy laws.
            God is love, and no one can claim to love God and hate his neighbor (I John 4:16-21).  God seeks to reconcile and redeem us through forgiveness and love, while Satan seeks to divide and conquer us through fear and hate.  Unfortunately, Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best work in the synagogue, church and mosque. 

            Our journey of faith is a search for truth—as to the meaning of life, the mysteries of death, and how we relate to our neighbors in a world of increasing religious conflict and violence.  Religion can give believers insight into truth or blind them to it.  To survive in a changing world, religions must conform their beliefs to advances in knowledge and reason, but throughout these changes, love remains.  God’s love is the only immutable truth in the world, and the only power that can save us from ourselves.  That is God’s truth.   

Notes and References to Resources:

Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2014; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Jesus: A Prophet, God’s only Son, or the Logos? April 19, 2015; An Introduction to God Is not One(Stephen Prothero), April 26, 2015;  A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, June 14, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; and Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015. 

“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (lines 46–50 from Ode on a Grecian Urn)
John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819).  Keats must have had a glimpse of heaven.  In his letter of November 22, 1817, to Benjamin Bailey, Keats mentioned "another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated."  See

Muhammad asserted that Allah/God was truth (See Surah 22:6), and that Jewish prophets and Jesus were messengers of God’s truth like himself (see Surahs 2:87; 3:3; 3:45-57; 3:84; 3:113-115; 5:18-20; 5:44-46; 5:110-511; 42:13; 43:57-61; 57:27; 61:6;  ); but Muhammad condemned most Jews and Christians as unbelievers since they were not obedient to their scriptures as perfected in the Qur’an (see Surahs 3:110; 3:187-188; 4:153-161; 5:12-16; 5:82-85; 7:159-169; 57:27; 62:5-6); and Muhammad condemned Christians who believed that Jesus was the Son of God as blasphemers, asserting that God/Allah has no family or son (see Surahs 4:171-172; 5:17; 5:72-75; 9:30; 10:68-70; 18:4-8; 23:91; 43:81; 46:100-101; 39:4).  See selected provisions of the Qur’an cited in The Teachings of Jesusand Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, at pages 470-485; 503-506; 528-542. 

For additional commentary, see the following topics in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of LegitimacyThe family of God and spiritual kinship (Mark 3:33-35) at page 21; The greatest commandment(Mark 12:28-33) at page 25; Love over law(Mark 2:27; 3:4; and 7:17-23) at pages 31 and 35; Criticizing self before others: the blind leading the blind (Luke 6:39-42) at page 214; Loving your neighbor: the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) at page 223; Jesus before Pilate (John 18:34-38) at page 330; Faith and eternal life (John 3:14-18) at page 394; and The way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) at page 416.      

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts and the NYTimes article on progressive young UMC pastors. They could save mainline denominations like the UMC from oblivion, but I think the house church concept and other innovations they have employed are inconsistent with existing institutional church doctrines and bureaucracies. We'll have to wait and see how it goes.