Lesson 8: Religious Truth

What is truth?Taylor obviously supports John Hick’s call for a Copernican revolution in theology that would place God at the center and Christianity among the great religions orbiting around God. She significantly restates this with Absolute Truth at the center and “people of good faith with meaningful perceptions of that truth” orbiting.

This provoked a member of my Monday night symposium to ask what we mean by religious truth. He wondered if truth has different meanings in different disciplines, specifically if scientific truth differs from other truths. I think he was reflecting the popular perception that science has become the only discipline dealing with truth in our day.

However, one of the scientists in the group quickly responded that they never use the word “truth” as a scientific term. Instead they speak of “hypothesis,” “theory,” and “law.” His colleagues agreed that their method might enhance an ongoing search for truth, but they never claim any of their findings to be an absolute truth.

Their statements led others to suggest this understanding is shared in different forms by thoughtful members of all academic disciplines. They all talk about the need for truthfulness and humility in the ongoing human search for truth, more than specific absolute truths.

They then challenged the theologians to explain what they mean when their traditions speak of religious truths. For instance, Buddhism lists Four Noble Truths:

  1. Life involves suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by craving for that which cannot satisfy.
  3. Suffering can be overcome by enlightenment.
  4. Enlightenment comes from following the Eightfold Path which includes right thought, right action, and right meditation.

One participant responded that his Buddhist friends do not think of these as doctrines but rather as underlying assumptions for a variety of practices that lead to a peaceful life. In fact, his friends prefer to speak of Buddhism as a practice, not a religion.

The discussion then turned to Christian truths. The group acknowledged once more that they did not regard the ancient creeds as statements of truth, at least not without modern interpretation. When pushed, they accepted basic truth claims such as God created the universe and Jesus is the son of God. As time was running out (the discussion was on Zoom because of the pandemic), one of us talked about the difference between fact and truth. Another suggested a religious truth is a belief on which you base your life and for which you are willing to give your life.

I am reporting this discussion because I think it offers some insights for beginning a description of Christianity’s place among the world’s religions. I left thinking it reinforced Taylor’s understanding of a religion as a worldview. Later, I wondered if lifestyle is a better description.

The discussion caused me to think of how John’s Gospel, which certainly can be read as a book about the truth that sets you free, makes truth claims from prologue to conclusion. Although many use these to exclude other religions, the Evangelist constantly makes room for including further ideas. Jesus’ proclamation, “I am The Way, the Truth, and the Life” presents truth as a path and a lifestyle, where an honest and complete reading of the gospel finds is summarized as loving one another as Christ has loved us. I certainly would list that statement about love as a Christian truth. And I would note that Jesus makes clear in the surrounding verses that there are others beyond his followers in God’s beloved community. He also promises the Holy Spirit, whom he calls the Spirit of Truth, will continue to offer new insights.

As soon as I perceived how similar this is to Buddhist thought, I also discerned differences. When Jesus says you must lose your life in order to save it, he sounds pretty close to a Buddhist claiming you must lose your life in order to find peace. However, Jesus speaks in the context of taking up your own cross and following him. The promise is when you empty yourself for others, your self will be raised up, not blown out. Leading a redemptive life characterized by sharing and caring enables you to find, not lose, your true self.

As fascinating and perhaps helpful as this intellectual exercise is, one wonders if it makes much difference in handling a situation such as the coronavirus pandemic. Both Buddhist right thinking and Christian loving care recognize a difference in the way self-isolation is practiced. If your goal is only to save yourself, you most likely experience all sorts of anxieties and fears. If your intention includes saving others so more in the community might survive, you will find satisfaction, even in the face of death. This might present a truth for which we would be willing to die.

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