At the beginning of every academic year I tell my students that their number one priority (after God) while attending university is their studies. While students at all universities will face the temptation to ignore their courses so they can spend more time with their friends, students at Christian universities also face a particularly unique temptation. At schools like Tyndale University College many students find themselves tempted to spend too much time on various ministry opportunities and not enough time on their coursework. These are the students that get upset with me when they realize “number one priority” means that their ministry activities should take a backseat to their academic studies.
What these students have to come to understand is that the pursuit of truth is the number one goal of any university. It is good to have the opportunity to go on missions trips, play in a worship band, or attend prayer meetings, but students can do all of those things without going to university – that’s what the local church is for. Universities are not churches. Because of this, students must realize that to properly honour God while in university their academic studies must take priority over their ministry activities.
While I was not involved in crafting the mission statement of Tyndale University College, and I have no idea whether those involved with that agree with me on this, I think the fact that the Tyndale mission statement lists the “pursuit of truth” as the first of four guiding principles that direct the Tyndale community is a symbolic recognition of the unique role that universities play. However, in order to actually begin a pursuit of truth, we must have a clear understanding of what ‘truth’ is.
The traditional understanding of truth, dating to at least Plato and Aristotle, maintains that for a proposition to be true it must correspond with reality. That is, to say that a proposition is true is to say the content of that proposition lines up with the facts of the actual world. For example, if one said the proposition “Jesus died and rose again” is true, one meant that a real person named Jesus really died and rose again. The proposition was true because its contents matched the facts of the real world.
In contrast with this view of truth is a contemporary understanding that makes the individual, and not the facts of reality, responsible for determining whether something is true. This view of truth is not just culturally popular, but has also become popular within contemporary Christian circles as well. For example, in his popular book Blue Like Jazz, Christian author Donald Miller writes:
There are many ideas within Christian spirituality that contradict the facts of reality as I understand them. A statement like this offends some Christians because they believe if aspects of their faith do not obey the facts of reality, they are not true. (Blue Like Jazz, 201.)
There are many problems with this view of truth, but we will concern ourselves with only two: one theological and one philosophical. (Many within the so-called “Emergent Church” make similar claims as Miller’s. For a fair evaluation of this movement, I recommend Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church by D.A. Carson or Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.)
One of the philosophical problems with Miller’s view of truth is that if correspondence with reality is not what makes a proposition true then the only other likely candidate is the individual – truth becomes relative to the beliefs of the individual person. It is surprising that many people, Christian or not, find such a view of truth attractive because it is patently false. On such a view, your belief that the earth is spherical is what makes it spherical, and if I believed the earth was flat, then that belief would make it flat. But how could the earth be both spherical and flat? One of us must be wrong. Similarly, even if a community strongly believes that killing people because of their race is morally acceptable, it would remain morally wrong. It isn’t wrong because we believe it is wrong. It is wrong because it conflicts with an objective moral standard.
A theological difficulty with Miller’s statement can be seen in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). The Christian faith, according to Paul, is not dependent upon our individual beliefs and desires, but on the objective historical fact that Jesus actually rose again. If we were able to travel back in time to Resurrection Sunday we would either witness Jesus rise from the dead or we wouldn’t. According to Paul, if Jesus did not rise from the dead then Christianity is false – no matter how strongly we believe otherwise. Whereas, if he did rise, then Christianity is true – no matter how strongly others believe it to be false. In either case, it is not our beliefs that make Christianity true or false, but instead it is the facts of reality.
Having a correct understanding of the nature of truth is important because it is what actually motivates the pursuit of truth in the first place. If truth is simply what we make it to be, then there really isn’t much to pursue. A pursuit of truth isn’t necessary because we can find it by simply looking inward and reporting our current beliefs. Central to the Christian worldview is the belief that God is the creator and sustainer of all that there is. But if I am the one who makes that belief true, as relativism espouses, then it is not God that creates me but I who create God. However, if truth is correspondence with reality, then I am capable of pursuing something other than myself. I can pursue truths about this world as God made it, not how I want it to be. Even better, I can pursue God for who He is and not who I make him to be.
(Note: This post is a slightly revised version of an article originally published in the Fall 2009 issue of Connection.)