On Subjective Truth
This post was originally published on the Integrity Blog.
Recently, a coworker and I were discussing potential interview questions that one might face at our school. We teach at a liberal arts school, and one that professes a love for truth, beauty, and goodness. My friend posed the question: how do you know if something is true, good, or beautiful?
Having studying philosophy, I have written a paper or two on this sort of thing. I could probably examine the different qualities that reveal a perennial truth or explain how our knowledge of reality is formed by our senses and the rational aspect of our intellect.
But how would I answer this question in plain, everyday language? How would I answer this question if I were asked it in an interview, or even in a casual conversation with friends? How do I really feel about this question?
It’s a question that is timeless, and one that has captured the brilliant minds of so many great thinkers and writers. As a student, the idea of objective truth captivated me. I fell in love with philosophy and the tradition of western thought. The clear cut categories of essence, being, form, matter, act and potency make so much sense to me. The language and beauty of philosophy gave me a tangible structure that held aloft a clear and concise vision of reality. It became a great love of mine. An understanding of metaphysics and epistemology rocked my type A, thinking and calculating self.
Truth has the convenience of being truth and real whether or not we believe it’s there. It exists beyond belief. It is there, existing and being, regardless of whether or not I tap into it. It is reality.
But, like all true and good things, it is not meant to be there, existing and being separate from my acknowledgement of it. I am like a vessel, hollowed out with the capacity to receive this truth into my very being and interact with it. Truth is meant to be fleshed out, incarnated, and made concrete in a personal way, even though it is an objective thing.
For what is the objective truth apart from my subjective experience of it and love for it? What is objective truth, existing outside of space and time, without the person of God to perpetuate it, give it existence, love it, and fuel it? I cannot comprehend an objective truth that is not also bound it, by its very nature, to a real person who is subjective.
Christ did not say, I have the way, the truth or the life. He did not say, I have discovered the way, the truth, and the life.
He said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. His being is truth. It is Himself.
Truth is a being with love, with a heart, with a desire for relationship, with an eye for beauty, with emotions, with humor, with joy and with life. Literally, the truth is a person pulsing with life and goodness and fecundity.
Truth is 2 + 2 = 4. Truth is a rational principle, or truth can be a Thomistic explanation of the composite nature of man. But truth is also crying hot tears over loving someone so much it hurts, truth is sacrifice for the sake of another, truth is joy in encountering the grandeur of creation, truth is a newborn opening its eyes for the first time, and truth is laughter with friends. Truth comes alive when our human nature feels Him incarnate in us.
Truth is not meant to be discovered only in a classroom or talked about in academic or religious settings. Truth is everywhere and in everything, and although it exists without us doing anything about it, it bursts into greater depths when we encounter it, recognize it, and act in it as our own subjective, hungry self.
My favorite explanation of truth is this:
Truth is the self-expression of God.
I don’t think truth is limited to objectivity. I don’t think it is limited to subjectivity either. I think it, or rather, he, exists in and goes beyond either dimension.
Truth didn’t stay in the sky or in the pages of a book. It took Incarnate form and walked among us, breathed with us, ate with us, laughed and died with us.
Alas, the reality of truth and perennial reality is something so real and so alive that words fall very short in even beginning to touch its nature. I believe it is when we experience it, as subjective and human and frail and feeling persons, that we come the closest to truth. We know it when it is a joy to experience, a suffering to endure, and a thrill to ponder.
So, how do we know if something is true, good or beautiful? I suppose it depends on how well we really know He who is those things. As John Piper writes:
“...But to enjoy him we must know him. Seeing is savoring. If he remains a blurry, vague fog, we may be intrigued for a season. But we will not be stunned with joy, as when the fog clears and you find yourself on the brink of some vast precipice.”