What is Truth?

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When it comes to religion – can everyone know truth?  Can anyone?  Today’s guest post is from Justin Perry. it seems like most people fall in between two extremes when it comes to the ability of human beings to know about God:

  • On one end (and according to most TBMs), anyone, at least in theory, can know the Church is true as long as they sincerely ask God, and as long as they aren’t too sinful.
  • On the other end, there are people who firmly believe that no one can know anything for certain about God. As an LDS missionary, I met a woman who would counter every testimony by saying, “you don’t really know for sure, you only think you know.” Yeah, this was pretty awkward, especially in church. Also, it was rather odd how she alone could be certain that no one else was certain.

In addition to addressing the question epistemologically, it’s also important to take into account the historical usage of the term “true”.

In the 19th century, when sailors would get their bearings on ships, they would say that their heading was “true” if it would lead them to their destination. If they found that their heading was not leading them to their destination, their heading was considered “false”.

In 19th century America, when people would debate about religion, they would often argue if certain beliefs were “true” (or if they were useful for steering your life so that you would end up in heaven). If a belief was “false”, it would not help you get into heaven and by default, it would send you to Hell.

A number of Protestant (mostly Evangelical and Fundamentalist) denominations still use the “true”/”false” classification system for religious beliefs, arguing that their doctrines were “true”, and that anyone who said anything different was teaching false doctrine.

From this perspective it still doesn’t make a lot of sense to say “the church is true” (since a church can be anything from a building to a belief system), but the statement that the gospel is true is an assertion that the Gospel will lead you on to an eternal reward.

This is why it is so common for people to say that Mormons are going to Hell. The logic is that if: 

  1. Mormons have beliefs that are not approved of God (such as the Book of Mormon or the prophetic authority of Joseph Smith) and
  2. Their unapproved doctrine is false in the sense that it will lead them away from a heavenly reward then
  3. Mormons are going to Hell.

The question of whether individuals or groups are capable of plotting “true” courses towards heaven (as well as the question of whether there can be more than one “true” course), are still widely debated.

I’d be interested to hear what others think.  Do you believe everyone can know?  Can anyone?  Can you?  Discuss.

Comments 6

  1. By the time you will know, you will be in a considerably different state than you are now (either dead or translated or something like that.)

    I mean, consider the veil. This is part of LDS theology…we don’t know and so we are supposed to believe on faith.

  2. Joe, read this post: http://mormonmatters.org/2008/07/07/praise-honor-glory-be-to-god/

    Great post, Justin.

    My only answer right now is that each of us has to act on what we perceive in our hearts and/or in our minds – that we have to follow whatever promptings we believe we have been given in whatever way we feel they have been given. I believe there is Absolute Truth; I just don’t believe we “know” much Absolute Truth. What I “know” is what I personally believe I have experienced in a way that makes me comfortable saying I know it – as well as I can know it right now.

  3. Religious folks in general and us Mormons in particular tend to talk about knowing in unusual ways. In that it seems to take the form of an epistemological assertion while having its origin in an individual subjective experience of the divine. So the nature of the experience and the status as knowledge can not be experienced by others. I think this is the actual starting place for a discussion of truth in the religious context in that truth is always allied with knowledge and given an ontological status.

    Question. Why wasn’t the list of the ways truth is conceptualized in the religious context a bit longer? It seems common enough that the idea of truth we use today has to do more with understood material absolute. A description of things “as they really are” [sic.]

  4. The word ‘Truth’ is a loaded gun. If you start pointing it at other people, you shouldn’t be surprised that they either run for cover or come itching for a fight. But, if you keep it to yourself, and know that your beliefs are true, then you will be able to make friends outside of gun shows.

    A mortal person cannot know truth. They can merely have very strong beliefs, that they take as truth. To paraphrase Men In Black, ‘In 1000BC, everyone ‘knew’ that the sun god Ra, rode his chariot over the sky from east to west. In 500AD, everyone ‘knew’ that the earth revolved around the sun. In 1491, everyone knew the world was flat. And in every year since Moses’ personal scribe hilariously inserted an extra creation story into the Book of Genesis, every devoutly religious person has ‘known’ that their religion is right.

    There is a young woman somewhere in Indonesia who knows that the teachings of Mohammed are true. An elderly man will bath in the River Ganges tomorrow dawn, knowing that truth lies somewhere between Ganesh and Vishnu. A father will go to sleep in Ireland, tonight, knowing that Pope Bendict is right. They all think they know the truth. I do not know which of them is right. I only know that it takes something more than myself to know, right now.

    Meanwhile, I’ll keep believing that I am the one that is right.

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