Lent Course 2007: Magnificat

Unit One - What is Truth?

"For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed".

Because the Magnificat makes a number of important social statements we need a social mechanism to discuss them. In other words, we need to think carefully about language if we are to use it to communicate with each other so that, to the deepest extent possible, what I understand you to say is what you intended that I should understand.

This Unit could easily become an argument about the meaning of the words which represent ideas rather than the meaning of the ideas; so we are going to use words in a highly technical way which will not precisely correspond with the way these same words are often used loosely in ordinary conversation. This does not mean that these same words could not be used to mean other, different ideas. The objective is not to define terms universally for all cultures or points of view but simply to use them in an internally consistent way in order to allow us to hold a discussion where we are not forever arguing about the meaning of the words themselves.

One often-quoted definition of a fact is that it is a proposition the contrary to which has not been proven. In this wider context a 'Fact' may simply be a statement within a paradigm. So, looking at the statements of our prototypes, when the politician uses the word ‘Fact' he is actually introducing a piece of contestable analysis; whether or not the lives of people have improved this is not, whatever else it may be, a fact. It depends which statistic you use and what you mean by improvement. All the statistics might show 'improvement' but phenomena which are not quantifiable might have got much worse so that no matter what the politician says, the people themselves may hold precisely the opposite view. In this instance: "Things are getting better" is not the same kind of statement as that about a bowl of oranges on a table.

2000 years ago a large number of people would have been able to agree with the fact and experience the truth of the bowl of oranges on the table but their theories about how this came to be would have been very different. Some thought that 'the gods' made everything happen, others thought that because the world was flat, things could naturally be stood on top of each other but most never gave it a thought as there was not much access at the time to theoretical philosophy. But the philosophers themselves were divided into two factions: followers of Aristotle said the table, bowl and oranges were natural phenomena perceived through the senses; whereas followers of Plato said these artefacts were only imperfect representations of a perfect (or archetype) table, bowl and orange.

In our own lifetime there have been a variety of propositions about the interaction between man and the environment. Half a century ago there was a paradigm that we lived in a steady state with predictable ice ages caused by the predictable changing relationship between the sun and the earth (Milankovitch cycles). Thirty years ago there was a theory that the fluctuations on the surface of the sun (sun spots) had a profound effect on our climate and that we were due for an unusually ferocious onslaught. Twenty years ago there was a theory that if we went on consuming fossil fuels, the climate change would cause a "nuclear winter". Neither of these theories became a paradigm or were absorbed into the existing steady state paradigm. Today the theory of global warming is fast destroying the old paradigm and becoming its replacement.

In a more particular way an account of a series of actions is a theory. Two people experiencing the same series of facts will produce different accounts or stories. Quite regardless of their different understandings of the motives of the actors, two narrators will select different incidents. We can see this in the four Evangelists writing about the life of Jesus; these special kinds of theories are usually described as theologies. At a much more down-to-earth level we can see the idea of theories in different accounts of the same football match and this is an interesting case because it alerts us to the danger of bias.

This issue is immensely more complicated by the question of whether the theory or proposition anticipates the selection of facts - known as a hypothesis - or whether it is formulated as a result of them. A theory, in this sense, can either be a speculative proposition with which events can conform or a distillation of what has been experienced which forms a pattern.

The most unreliable kind of theory is one where an individual case or personal experience is generalised.

Between the end of Newton's paradigm and the adoption of Einstein's paradigm there was, to use the famous phrase of Thomas Kuhn* "A paradigm shift".

Often when we refer to things as being true, obvious, or matters of common sense, what we really mean is that they fit into a some sort of cultural, economic or scientific paradigm. What we need to remember is that paradigms are provisional, they last as long as they are useful frameworks. By this yardstick, Darwin's so-called Theory of Evolution isn't a theory at all, it's a profound biological paradigm; it is, in other words, the best way we currently have of explaining why we are how we are. When Creationists say that their way of looking at things is on a par with or even better than Darwinism, they might be saying that the paradigm shift from the pre scientific paradigm of the Bible to the scientific paradigm of Darwin explains fewer facts and theories; but they might also be making a 'category mistake', using the idea of competing paradigms when they are really equating a scientific paradigm with a belief system.

We do not know how soon Darwin's paradigm will be overtaken by another but there will almost certainly be a wider and deeper paradigm of which the external data on natural selection is only a symptom.

This use of the word 'believe' is often confused with the common use of the word ‘believe' which means that, at an individual level, circumstantial evidence gives rise to a theory, as in: "I have reason to believe from what I have heard, that you are John Smith". The giveaway word in that phrase is 'reason'. The belief is based on evidence. This is the way in which the idea of belief is sometimes used in the Christian tradition where the Bible is treated as evidence in the way that scientists treat a biology textbook as evidence of Darwin's evolutionary paradigm. Indeed, one of our contemporary problems is that in trying to understand biology some people equate the Bible with Darwin's writing.

Just because we use the word 'belief' it does not mean that there is no evidence-base. After all, Jews, Christians and Muslims all hold that their beliefs are based on documentary evidence. In this context belief simply means that we take a selection of facts, truths, paradigms, theories, and we make our own personal belief paradigm based on this selection. The three Abramic religions treat Hebrew Scripture differently and within each belief system there are sects.

What is important here is the understanding that belief is personal. A belief is simply a state of affairs accepted individually and personally; it is incidental that it is accepted by a large number of different people. A belief in itself cannot exist without personal acceptance.

Our prototype pilgrim uses the word ‘believe' in the sense of his need to hold onto something in the face of confusion; but it is perfectly possible for us to enjoy all the following experiences simultaneously without conflict; we could:

Having considered all these terms, we are now left with the idea of truth as a universal phenomenon.

So far we have used truth in the rather narrow sense of the truth of a statement for the individual but it is, paradoxically, used to mean precisely the opposite, to mean a phenomenon abstracted from personal experience which holds regardless of it. So, people commonly say:

It is not difficult to see, now that we have come this far, that our four prototypes do not mean the same thing when they use this idea of truth. The first three, however, have something in common; they are using an abstracted idea of truth which implies that anything contrary to these statements is false. If I say that: the God of the Bible is not the true God, that knowledge of truth cannot be attained objectively, that you can be a true democrat without thinking that all people are equal, then I am in opposition to truth. In essence, the preacher is putting his belief in opposition to non believers; the philosopher is putting his objectivity against those who are not objective; and the politician is putting his theory of equality against other theories of social organisation, but each of these statements is based upon deeper, unstated assumptions: that belief, objectivity and democracy in themselves have uncontestable meanings and that, therefore, there is something perverse in contradicting them.

We could go much further down this route but, for practical purposes, the point is simple enough; when truth is said to be uncontestable, the argument about the nature of things shifts from being open to being closed, from being speculative and exploratory to being moral. It is not our capacity to think that is being brought into question but our integrity.

Let us now, as inhabitants of the so-called post-modern age, explore the opposite set of propositions:

What these statements tend to advocate is the exact opposite of traditional thinking. We are not expected to develop theories, to understand paradigms, to be discriminating in what we believe and reject. Clearly, even at a superficial level, all religions cannot be equally true; they may all direct us to the same god but they cannot account for that god in precisely the same way. Equally, if there is no such thing as truth in the sense in which philosophers use the word, then abstract language loses all meaning. The case of the politician is superficially the easiest to reject because economy with the truth is a contradiction because truth tries to transcend the particular and, therefore, you can't slice bits off it.

What this statement is taken to mean is that the politician only chose the bits of truth which suited him at the time. This is the nearest expression of what contemporary 'postmodernists' mean by truth. It is a consumerist phenomenon which is based entirely on individual, arbitrary preference. This may well possess many virtues (although we will see later that Christians would not accept this) but it is not a helpful way of conducting social discussion. It may well be that believing in Jesus Christ and the efficacy of crystals are equally valid in some way but it is not comparing like with like, one depends upon a complex, doctrinal structure, the other on a biomedical theory.

Our problem is that in arresting our theological development at a stage of plain assertion we are inviting the criticism that we talk about Jesus in the way that contemporary consumerists talk about crystals:

It will emerge from Unit Two that the primary difference between Crystals and Jesus is that the first is about self improvement whilst the second is about concern for others but, in the meantime, we need to focus on the emotional, intellectual and spiritual resources we bring to bear in trying to enjoy a closer relationship with God. Nobody imagines, for example, that praying to crystals will improve their efficacy, whereas religious traditions testify to the efficacy of prayer. Very few people, not even the most venal of politicians, would equate consumerism with altruism; and, although the Western tradition has been to over-rationalise religion, very few people would argue that there is no value in trying to understand the idea of God using the intellectual gifts we claim are god-given.

Behind all these ideas lurks our cultural paradigm of truth as a universal phenomenon which urges us to try to transmit that truth to others. This is the most problematic 'category mistake' of all because what we as Christians want to transmit so that others may understand is our belief, our personal encounter, strengthened in a corporate context. What binds us is not an imposed truth or set of doctrines but our personal belief, our encounter with Christ in emotion, reason and spirituality.