The Inextinguishable Light
Posted by Ravi Zacharias on November 8, 1996
Winston Churchill once said that the most valuable thing in the world was the truth. So valuable is it, said he, that it needs to be constantly protected by a bodyguard of lies. Mr. Churchill made that remark in the context of intelligence and counterintelligence efforts during the Second World War. This assertion from that great statesman was probably the only pronouncement on which he and his nemesis, Adolf Hitler, agreed.Unfortunately, the propagation of lies is not restricted to conventional military warfare-it has also been the most insidious weapon in the war of ideas. And what is more, the practice of lying, according to surveys, is at epidemic pro-portions. Assuming, of course, that those surveyed told the truth.
As valuable a commodity as it is and as indispensable as it is to meaningful existence, truth is possibly the most violated concept in our world. This is more so now than ever before in history. The lies that punctuate business transactions; the lies by which trusted relationships have been destroyed-these we are aware of. The greater tragedy is not just that we live with a proliferation of lies, but that this is probably the first time, certainly in western civilization than society at large does not believe in the existence of absolute truth.
This radical step toward moral and metaphysical skepticism, which asserts the very impossibility of knowing the laws by which our individual lives must be governed, is the single greatest indicator of our postmodern mind. What is most surprising is that a disbelief in truth is not restricted to the liberal element; instead truth as a category has been jettisoned even among conservatives.
According to a study reported by George Barna in 1991, 67% of the US population did not believe in absolute truth. In 1994, that figure rose to 75%. In 1991, 52% of Evangelicals said they did not believe in absolute truth. In 1994, that figure rose to 62%. The difference between saying there is no such thing as the truth and living as if truth does not matter is a small one and the consequences for both catastrophic.
THE PERNICIOUSNESS OF ITS EFFECTSeveral decades ago, English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge warned of this spiritual plague coming upon the West, branding it her ultimate death wish. This is how he worded it: Yet even so, truth is very beautiful: more so I consider than justice-today’s pursuit which easily puts on a false face. In the nearly seven decades I have lived through, the world has overflowed with bloodshed and explosions whose dust has never had time to settle before others have erupted. All in purportedly just causes….The lies on behalf of which our wars have been fought and our peace treaties concluded! The lies of revolution and of counter-revolution! The lies of advertising, of news, of salesman-ship, of politics! The lies of the priest in his pulpit, the professor at his podium, the journalist at his typewriter! The lie stuck like a fishbone in the throat of the micro-phone, the hand-held lies of the prowling cameraman! Ignazio Silone told me once how when he was a member of the Old Comintern, some stratagem was under discussion, and a delegate, a newcomer who had never attended before, made the extraordinary observation that if such and such a statement were to be made, it wouldn’t be true. There was a moment of dazed silence, and then everyone began to laugh. They laughed and laughed till tears ran down their cheeks, and the Kremlin walls began to shake. The same laughter echoes in every Council chamber and cabinet room. Wherever two or more are gathered to exercise authority, it is truth that has died, not God. (Muggeridge, The Green Stick, p.19)
The most disconcerting aspect of this attitude toward truth is that anyone who holds to the possibility of truth is categorized as one who merely “believes” that such is a reality. The implication is that because truth does not exist, what is held to be true is only a belief and is therefore not a rationally admissible fact. At the same time, those who dismiss truth can end up believing anything at all, and any belief that is contemptuous of truth is considered plausible for that reason alone. This is the raw nerve of postmodern existence, and unless we establish the possibility and the necessity of truth, and of how one arrives at the truth, any belief system can be mocked at will, or off-handedly dismissed as cultural.
For the Christian this is where the battle must be fought, for no worldview suffers more from the loss of truth than the Christian one. In a culture where truth no longer exists, the very cardinal statement of Jesus, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” becomes meaning-less. And unless truth as a category is defended, every commitment that is made because of a commitment to Christ Himself will be deemed a “mere belief ” and differentiated from fact, thereby making it unworthy of intellectual assent.
THE DAWNING OF AN ERAScholars who deal in social theory and cultural shifts tell us that the modern world as we know it spanned the two hundred years from 1789 to 1989-from the storming of the Bastille in France, which signaled the beginning of the French Revolution, to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized the collapse of Communism. That brought the modern era to an end and ushered in the postmodern world. But the break-down of both these edifices of human construction, with all of the tyranny they represented, is meager compared to the breakdown now facing the West, a breakdown heartily sanctioned by the free western societies now basking under the banner of the post-modern mind. In the modern world reason reigned supreme and it was envisioned that rational man would hold all things together. Now, postmodernism has become the buzz word in academia, the word by which all things have fallen apart; for reason itself is banished as a dinosaur in humanity’s evolutionary climb, and truth is considered extinct.
The modern world had emphasized purpose and design. The postmodern world emphasizes randomness and chance. The modern world sought stability in values. The postmodern world sees values as transient and relative. The modern world saw reason as the means and meaning as the end. The postmodern world glories in unreason and celebrates meaninglessness. The modern world pursued a synthesis of all disciplines in its search to find the unity of truth. The postmodern world focuses on deconstruction and extols the marvel of contradiction. In short, the very purpose of the university, which was to find unity in diversity, is now in contradiction to its own name, and students are graduating unable to bridge the disciplines and proudly boasting a skepticism that one can be sure of anything.
There is one monumental difference between the modern and the postmodern mind. In the modern pursuit, even though there was an inhospitable climate towards spiritual truths, debate was nevertheless possible because information was still subject to induction and deduction. Calm spirits could prevail to allow facts a place in dialogue. In the post-modernist mentality the purpose of dialogue or debate is not for truth but only for feeling, and as passion has taken over, facts are given no legitimacy. The result is hate-filled shouting matches.
If any progress is to be made amid the shifting sands of cultural change, it is imperative that we understand where any meaningful dialogue can begin. Too much is at stake, and too many lives will be hurt or lost if we are unable to agree even on the starting point.
This is not to imply that a moral consensus can be reached purely by arriving at the truth. Not by any means. But it does assert that at least in theory we can determine whether a statement that is made about reality is true or false. If even that is denied, then no judgment on any statement is possible That state of affairs is logically impossible and existentially unlivable.
THE SEDUCTION OF A LIEAristotle gave us three reasons for knowledge. The first was for truth. The second for morality. The third for technique or what we now call technology. Truth is primary, from which morality and technique flow. In our time, technology is supreme, morality is mocked, and truth has been eradicated. But thankfully, all is not lost, for at least postmodernism has unwittingly awakened society to the realization that truth, morality, and meaning are connected. If the first goes, there is nothing on which to base the other two. On every side society feels this colossal breakdown, and a stirring is taking place deep within the national conscience that when truth has been lost, the results are devastating.
This state of affairs is arousing many from their stupor, a stupor that the modern mind created when it trumpeted that rational man could arrive at his Utopia without God’s absolutes. In fact, so drastic has been the realization that our purpose on earth is inextricably bound to our behavior that some scholars are reluctantly admitting that the teaching of the Bible provided a logical basis for goodness, and that with the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian ethic, the basis for morality is gone. So how do such antagonists to the Gospel message then deal with this need for a foundational ethic?
The suggestions range from the absurd to the preposterous. Take, for example, one scholar who presented his thesis at a symposium of The American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in 1991, in Washington, DC. His basic argument begins with the admission that a catastrophe has come upon us as a people. Philosopher Loyal Rue argues that science has made it impossible to believe any longer in the myths of the Bible, myths such as God giving the Ten Commandments and Jesus rising from the dead. But with the loss of these tenets, he says, we have lost the very underpinnings of moral theory which had provided a legitimate recognition of accountability and charity. We are left, therefore, with the unprecedented situation of needing to concoct a “noble lie” so powerful that it will furnish us with reasons to be good, even though those reasons in themselves will be untrue. In effect, what is being said here is that without a transcendent order, ethics is unjustifiable, and with-out ethics, life is unlivable.
On all fronts, therefore, our existential realities are pointing us to the relationship between truth and life. And what reality has revealed to be joined together, let no man put asunder. The question is, how do we arrive at the truth, principally the truth on which all other truths hang, and by which life must be governed?
The irony of defining truth is that while in practice we all instinctively recognize it when we see it, we nevertheless ask the question if it exists, theoretically. Professor Dallas Willard, who teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California, asks this of our sensitivity to and estrangement from the truth. What would you think if you asked your ten-year-old, “Susie, is it true that you ate the cookies on the counter?” and she placidly replied, “Mother, what is truth?” Thankfully, Susie may not have gained that evasive philosophical sophistication. But Pilate of old had, and he raised the question of Jesus, “What is Truth?” Jesus answered him with a categorical response. But before we turn to His answer, let us establish some definitions.
THE SCAFFOLDING OF CERTAINTYVery simply stated, truth is the judgment expressed when we use the word “is.” The verb “is” asserts some-thing about reality to which the statement conforms. In other words, the statement “This is so,” expresses a state of existence that is real, and not dependent on belief in it in order to make it true. The reality being represented is objective, universal, and transcendent. This is precisely the logic by which we operate, and the logic by which we either make statements about reality or make denials about what is not real. “The logic of truth is the same for all exclusionary claims to truth” (Mortimer Adler, Truth in Religion, p. 10).
This leads us to the definition of an absolute. An absolute is basically an unchanging point of reference by which all other changes are measured. Each discipline brings with it a handful of certainties by which others are developed. Those certainties, if assumed, must be previously demonstrated when used as absolutes.
For the Christian, the starting point is God. He is the eternally existent one, the absolute, from whom we draw all definitions for life’s purpose and destiny. This God does not expect us to come to Him in a vacuum. He has so framed this world and our minds that the laws of reason and logic that we use lead us to the certainty of His being, and assure us that we may know Him who is the source of all truth.
THE STRUCTURE OF REASONHere we run aground and face the first criticism from the skeptic: Are we not using logic with which to prove logic? The answer to that is straightforward. The logical system is built on four fundamental laws, laws that are impossible to argue against without at the same time proving them. For the sake of brevity, let me discuss just two of them.
First is the Law of Non-contradiction. This law affirms that no two contradictory statements can be both true and false, at the same time, in the same sense. To deny the Law of Non-contradiction is only to affirm it, for to say that the Law of Non-contradiction is not true is to assume that the denial is true and the law is not. But that is precisely what the law says-that two contradictory statements cannot both be true. There is no way to get around this. The second foundational law is the Law of Rational Inference. By that we mean that inferences can be made from what is known to what is unknown. No one could prove any point without the Law of Rational Inference. There are conclusions that may be legitimately drawn when statements are true and the argument containing those statements is valid.
Postmodern skeptics cannot tolerate the Law of Non-contradiction because of the rational inferences they draw from it-that truth does exist-but it is evident that they live by the implications of these laws. And what is more, one of the most fallacious ideas ever spawned in western attitudes towards truth is the oft-repeated pronouncement that exclusionary claims to truth are a western way of thinking. The East, it is implied, is all-inclusionary. This is patently false. Every religion, without exception, has some foundational beliefs which are categorically non-negotiable, and exclude everything to the contrary.
Truth by definition is exclusive. If truth were all-inclusive, nothing would be false. And if nothing were false, what would be the meaning of true? Furthermore, if nothing were false, would it be true to say that everything is false? It quickly becomes evident that nonsense would follow. In short, therefore, truth boils down to two tests: Statements must correspond to reality, and any system of thought that is developed as a result must be coherent. The correspondence and coherence tests are applied by all of us in matters that affect us.
Therefore, when Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father except through me,” He was making a very reasonable statement by affirming truth’s exclusivity. The question one may legitimately ask is whether He demonstrated that claim rather than just stating it.
THE BATTLEGROUND OF THE HEARTLet us see, now, how Jesus responded to Pilate’s question. The conversation had begun with Pilate asking Jesus if indeed He was a king. The very surprising answer of Jesus was, “Are you asking this of your own, or has someone else set you up for this?”
This is the first and most important step to under-standing the nature of truth. In effect, Jesus was asking Pilate if this was a genuine question or purely an academic one. He was not merely checking on Pilate’s sincerity. He was opening up Pilate’s heart to himself, to reveal to Pilate his unwillingness to deal with the implications of Jesus’ answer. Intent, in the pursuit of truth, is prior to content, or to the availability of it. Author George MacDonald once said, “To give truth to him who loves it not is only to give him more plentiful reasons for misinterpretation.” The love of truth and the willingness to submit to its demands is the first step.
But second, Jesus said something even more extraordinary. After identifying His Lordship in a kingdom that was not of this world, He said, “They that are on the side of truth, listen to me” (John 18:37). Jesus was not merely establishing the existence of truth, but His pristine embodiment of it. He was identical with the truth. This meant that everything He said and did, and the life He lived in the flesh, represented that which was in keeping with ultimate reality. Therefore, to reject Him is to choose to govern one’s self with a lie.
THE WORD AS TRUTHLet me take this point further. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, He branded His creation “good.” That both defined reality and how we ought to live. Out of that relationship with God all other relationships take their cue, including the use of language in defining the world. We read that Adam named the creatures. That naming was the work of man, as sub-sovereign, defining reality in God’s terms.
It was at this point that truth was tested. The temptation of Satan was the challenge to the first humans to take upon themselves the prerogative of God and redefine reality in their own terms. The lie entered and truth was violated by rejecting the propositional revelation of God and contradicting His definitions of good and evil. By yielding to that temptation Adam and Eve “exchanged the truth of God for a lie,” and chose to create their own realities. This, as God had warned, would lead to death and destruction.
It is noteworthy that when the tempter came to Jesus in the wilderness the temptation was the same, namely, to make His own terms for living. Jesus rejected this seduction by quoting the Word, i.e., the definitions of God. Jesus quoted from the book of Deuteronomy, which literally means the “second law.” This was God’s law reiterated to His people. The opposite of Deuteronomy is autonomy, or self law. It is in this con-text that we must understand Jesus’ statement that the truthfulness of one’s intent was revealed by a response to Him, for He is the fulfillment of God’s law, and the expression of His truth.
THE EMPIRICAL DEMONSTRATIONGod’s answers to life’s questions of origin, meaning, morality and destiny are not just proven by the process of abstract reasoning, but are also sustained by the rig-ors of experience. And in the reality of history, He has demonstrated empirically the living out of truth in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of His Son.
In short, the intimations of truth come in multisensory fashion. The Guardian of Reason leads us to check the correspondence of His word with reality and to ascertain the coherence of the assertions. But our experience in life proves those truths in concrete reality. Our grand privilege is to know Him, to bring our lives into conformity with truth which leads us to that coherence within. He has said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In a world increasingly enslaved by error and alienation, and seduced by images to believe a lie, how wonderful to be freed by the truth to His peace. The Scriptures tell us that the enemy of our souls is the father of all lies. He will do anything to keep us from coming to the truth, because it is the most valuable thing in the world and leads us to the source of all truth, to God Himself.
SKEPTICISM’S SURRENDERTo all of this the skeptic might say that such conclusions may be drawn only if the God of the Bible exists. To that I heartily answer, Absolutely! And on numerous campuses around the world it has been my thrilling privilege to present a defense for the existence of God and for the authority of the Scriptures, unique in their splendor and convincing in the truth they proclaim. But let us not miss what the skeptic unwittingly surrenders by saying that all this could be true only if God exists. For, implicit in that concession is the Law of Non-contradiction and the Law of Rational Inference, which exist only if truth exists. Truth, in turn, can exist only if there is an objective standard by which to measure it. That objective, unchanging absolute is God.
I heard a cute little story, growing up in India. It is the story of a little boy who had lots of pretty marbles. But he was constantly eyeing his sister’s bagful of candy. One day he said to her, “If you give me all your candy, I’ll give you all of my marbles.” She gave it much thought, and agreed to the trade. He took all her candy and went back to his room to get his marbles. But the more he admired them the more reluctant he became to give them all up. So he hid the best of them under his pillow and took the rest to her. That night, she slept soundly, while he tossed and turned restlessly, unable to sleep and thinking, I wonder if she gave me all the candy.
I have often wondered, when I see our angry culture claiming that God has not given us enough evidence, if it is not the veiled restlessness of lives that live in doubt because of their own duplicity. The battle in our time is posed as one of the intellect, in the assertion that truth is unknowable. But that may be only a veneer for the real battle, that of the heart.