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III: The Problem of Truth

III: The Problem of Truth
The problem of truth is so intimately and inseparably connected with that of being that neither cannot be dealt with apart from the other. Therefore the old question as to which of the two has the priority can hardly be definitely settled.

It cannot be doubted however that for primitive man as well as for the average man of our times the question of truth is no other than that of reality. Truth and reality are one for him. As a matter of fact the question “What is truth?” is first asked only at the moment when what has hitherto been believed to be real becomes more or less doubtful. The question of truth stands on the borderline between naive dogmatism and nascent scepticism. It is the critical question.

The spiritual state of our time is characterised by curious paradoxes. On one hand modern man is a naive realist—even a dogmatist or absolutist—the material sensual data being to him unquestionable reality. If he speaks of reality in terms of indisputable certainty he points to the material world to the world of space filled with matter. But it so happens that modern science has shattered and riddled this compact conception of the world in such a way that modern man without giving up his naive conception of reality has at the same time become a sceptic. It is not the first time in the history of thought that scepticism and materialism have gone hand in hand.1 Those things which are the measure of all truth for the naive dogmatist somehow betray man by withdrawing themselves suddenly from him leaving him alone with the open question whether they exist at all. So it is not very surprising that those who at one time hold a thoroughly materialistic view of reality should at another time adopt an unqualified relativism or scepticism. The phrase “Everything is relative” is spoken emphatically by the very people for whom the atom or its elements are still the ultimate reality. Everything is relative they say but at the same time they declare as indubitable truth that the mind is nothing but a product of cerebral processes. This combination of gross objectivism and bottomless subjectivism represents a synthesis of logically irreconcilable contradictory principles of thought which is equally unfortunate from the point of view of philosophical consistency and from that of ethical and cultural value.
Apart from this last sceptical stage it must be said that modern spiritual evolution has been taking unambiguously the line of a more or less materialistic objectivism. This chapter of human history could be headed—to parody Kierkegaard's phrase—“The object is the truth!” It cannot then be a surprise to see man more and more engulfed in the object in things in material being in economic life in technics in a one-sided quantitative manner of thinking and in quantitative standards of value. In the sphere of material being the quantum is the only differentiating factor. Material being is merely quantitative being. An objectivist understanding of truth expresses itself therefore not merely in terms of practical materialism but also in a general quantification of all life as it may be seen in the craving for records in sport in pride in the growth of cities of millions of inhabitants in respect for the multi-millionaire in admiration for great political power. Reverence for the quantum is so to speak the new version of the worship of the golden calf. It is an inevitable consequence of the objectivist conception of truth: The object is the truth.
That the development of the Western mind should have followed this unfortunate line is by no means inevitable; indeed one might even ask whether Immanuel Kant and his predecessors and successors whose philosophy had pointed in the opposite direction have lived in vain? Was it not the main tenet of idealistic philosophy that the subject not the object is the truth; that the mind not the thing is the true reality? Since Plato worked out this revolutionary conception of truth idealism has been one of the great powers in the life of Western mankind. The question here did not concern merely the theoretical philosophy of knowledge but in a vital degree man and mankind in its totality. Once the spell of objectivism is broken once man has become aware of a reality different from that of things the road is open for a supremely rich development of spiritual life in all directions. Those who know something of the enormous contribution of idealism to European life cannot but pay it a high tribute and recall its great exponents with deep reverence. Who can help being impressed by the greatness and sublimity of idealistic thought as manifest in Herder's Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit in Humboldt's essay on the limits of the state? Who can resist Schiller's passion for free humanity springing from this fountain? Who would not be uplifted and feel his spiritual horizon widened on entering the thought-world of Hegel's philosophy of history?
And yet all this beautiful world is as if perished; all the idealistic spirituality of the last two centuries appears now like the flash of a meteor in the night sky. Such idealism has ceased to be a spiritual power among mankind and looking back we cannot help questioning whether it ever was a spiritual power in its own strength. It was a power of that there is no doubt. But was it not so only as long as it was combined with the Christian tradition an undertone—or if you prefer an overtone—of the Christian message which ceased to sound when the main note disappeared?
We have to ask why that was so: why this idealism which at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century broke forth so powerfully and seemed invincible broke down so rapidly and was completely carried away by the waves of naturalism and materialism? Two observations impose themselves of which however only the first seems to be directly connected with our topic—the idea of truth—whilst the second seems to belong to an entirely different range of problems. The first observation is this: that this reversal from the object to the subject was an idea which could never become a universal conviction in our Western world as it had become in India. This idealistic subjectivism remained a queer philosophical tenet a speciality of a tiny elite of chosen thinkers. It would be a most instructive and fascinating study to trace in the early writings of Karl Marx (dating from the time when he was an enthusiastic pupil of Hegel) the complete right about turn which led him from the absolute idealism of Hegel to a gross materialism a process which we cannot fail to observe not only in the development of Marx but also in that of two other pupils of Hegel Anselm Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss. This all-embracing spirituality so to say toppled over; this excess evaporated like a kind of spiritual intoxication and what remained was the depression of a barren materialism. The way that Marx and Feuerbach went is very instructive. The tenet “The subject Mind (Geist) is the truth” changed into a positivist anthropologism; the transcendental Ego changed into the psychological fact of empirical consciousness of that man who taken as a whole is part of this world of things. Feuerbach's famous thesis “All theology is anthropology”2 meant the complete desertion of the idealistic line. It was the equivalent of looking upon everything metaphysical as a mere phantasm. This is what Hegel's idealistic philosophy led to in his most gifted pupils.
Among these Marx is the only one who made history. His name stands not without good reason for a whole world: the world of the proletarian man the socialist-communist worker's movement and a “Weltanschauung” based on the collectivist conception of man. Idealism offered no solution for the problem of society. It was a matter for the highly educated individual for an intellectual aristocracy. What the philosophical and literary giants at Weimar or Jena or around the newly created University of Berlin were discussing and writing did not touch the millions of common people whom modern machinery had thrown out of their rural patriarchical conditions into giant industrial cities and there pounded together like coal-dust into the briquets of collectivist masses. Idealism with its theory that mind reason spirit subject is the truth had no answer to the question “What is to happen to these people?” That is why it did not survive.
Objectivist materialism on the other hand remains in some way within the apparent reality of man. Man is an animal with appetite and therefore must be fed. Man is a gregarious animal living in flocks with his kind in order to face the common foe against which the individual would be too weak. Such is the view of man when the object is regarded as the truth. Man in conceiving of himself as object conceives of himself as an animal with the instinct for feeding and procreation and therefore as a gregarious animal. Objectivism necessarily leads to collectivism. If the object is the truth man is merely an individual of a species a part of nature. It may be added however that this view cannot be taken without the concomitant sceptical thought that probably there is no truth at all. In the collectivist society of Russia for example the search for truth is out of date.
We ask next whether there can be an understanding of truth beyond these two half-truths of objectivism and subjectivism and more credible than either. Can there be an understanding of truth which at the same time would be a solution of the problem of community? Within the last generation we have seen springing up more or less spontaneously in different areas and moving on parallel lines a series of attempts to tackle the problem of truth in a new fashion namely in such a way that the old opposition of objectivism and subjectivism no longer plays the dominating rôle. Perhaps it is possible to view in this perspective the original form of pragmatism as set forth in the writings of William James. Certainly the phenomenology of Husserl and such philosophies as those of Max Scheler and Martin Heidegger (both being descendants of Husserl) and above all the discovery of the I-Thou relation connected with the names of Ebner Buber and Grisebach are attempts to get beyond the subject-object opposition.3 All of the last-named thinkers have undergone the influence of Sören Kierkegaard. It was he who more than anyone else disclosed the unreality of Hegel's idealistic thoughts pointing to the problem of existing man. But what Kierkegaard contributed to European thought was nothing but original Christianity and the Christian understanding of truth.
If God is the primary reality then the word of God is the primary truth. Thus truth is not to be found either in the object or in the subject but beyond both. Truth then is God Himself in His self-communication to man. If this is the truth objectivism in its crudest form—materialism—is unmasked as idolatry as deification of the world. But then subjectivism too even in its most impressive form as absolute idealism is idolatry as well namely deification of the Ego the absolute Ego of Fichte which creates the non-Ego by itself; or the Atman-principle of Indian philosophy which is identical with Brahma the divine reality; or that Nous of Greek idealism which ultimately identifies the human Nous with the divine; or the absolute principle of Reason in its different forms underlying the various systems of newer Occidental philosophy.
If it is true that the word of God is the truth we have first to distinguish between Truth in the singular—which means God—and truths in the plural—which are truths about the world. As God is the Creator (and as such the primary reality) and the world His creation (and as such derived conditioned and relative reality having its ground in God) so there are also two kinds of truths: God-truth and world-truths. It is one of the great tragedies of Christian history that this distinction has not been carried through. Mediæval theology—and with regard to this question Protestant orthodoxy takes the same view—considered the source of God-truth revelation Holy Scripture as being also the truth and norm of world-knowledge. By so doing it has fettered the legitimate scientific use of reason and stamped the world-picture of Biblical antiquity with the authority of divine revelation. Thus Copernicus had to be called a fool and his successor Galileo accused of heresy because their teaching about the structure of the astronomical world was irreconcilable with the Biblical picture. For the same reason Darwin had to be called an enemy of God because he placed man as a “zoon” within the great connection of the animal world. The Church conducted a miserable crusade against the young serious and high-spirited scientific generation seeking truth—world-truth—at all cost.
Retribution was bound to come. Science paid the Church back so to speak in the same coin: in its turn it failed to distinguish between God-truth and world-truths. More and more science claimed the monopoly of truth-knowledge. The positivistic view that only scientific knowledge has a legitimate claim to truth and that nothing which is incapable of scientific proof can be true—this orthodoxy of scientific positivism forming an exact parallel with mediæval clerical orthodoxy—not merely has its following among philosophers and scientists but has become a very popular and wide-spread creed. This is the tenet: Science is the truth. The road to truth is science. Whatever lies outside the range of science has no claim to truth. Nothing can be aknowledged as truth that does not carry the placet of science. Now once this theoretical absolutisation of science is established its practical deification cannot but follow. Science is held to be the salvation of the world science will solve the practical problems of humanity science will play the rôle which in older times was ascribed to God. Intoxicated by the astounding progress of physics chemistry and biology swept off his feet by his successful storming of the secret of atomic energy modern man—particularly modern scientifically trained youth—expects from the progress of science the solution of all problems of life.
This fantastic exaggeration of the possibilities of scientific knowledge and its technical applications is hardly intelligible to those who have become aware of the distinction between God-truth and world-truths and therefore see the insurmountable limitation of scientific knowledge. But even among those who do not hold the Christian point of view and therefore cannot make this distinction between God-knowledge and world-knowledge there are many who recognise at least one limitation of scientific knowledge. They have come to see that science can never speak with authority about ends but only about means that it cannot find the meaning of anything but only facts and that science can therefore do nothing within that region in which human disorder has become most apparent—namely in the sphere of human relationships the sphere of ethical social and political problems. It has become clear—particularly through the technical application of scientific discoveries in the field of nuclear physics as for instance the atomic bomb—that we are facing a tragic discrepancy between the infinite means of power placed at our disposal by science and its beneficial use in human life. This fact has made many scientists and thinking people at large realise that even science stands under the primacy of ethical norms which in themselves are beyond scientific knowledge.
But man when he is possessed by the idea of object-truth thing-credulous man who cannot but think in terms of quantity whose eyes are blind to all that belongs to the sphere of quality cannot comprehend this situation. Combined with materialism and with its derivative collectivism his faith in the saving power of science has created something like a technocratic religion in which fanaticism and absolute soullessness thing-credulity and absolute person-blindness has created a new kind of humanity characterised by the most dreadful inhumanity of which those who still know something of spiritual and personal culture cannot but think with horror.4 This is the fruit of positivism of the deification of science.
The distinction between world-knowledge and God-knowledge—leaving to scientific investigation the world of facts and reserving for divine revelation the disclosure of the mystery of God's being5 will and purpose—is not the only revolution which the Christian faith produces within the realm of the concept of truth. There is a second just as important. What kind of a truth is it then which is revealed to faith? It is not truth in the sense of knowing something but in the sense of a divine-human personal encounter. God does not reveal this and that; He does not reveal a number of truths. He reveals Himself by communicating Himself. It is the secret of His person which He reveals and the secret of His person is just this that He is self-communicating will; that God is Love.
It is not possible to discuss fully here the depth and width of the Christian doctrine of God and His holy merciful will. I can only hint at the fact that the central Christian doctrine—the doctrine of the Trinity—has exactly this meaning that the mystery of God's being is communion. Not merely does He reveal His will-to-communion with us His creatures; He reveals Himself His very essence as Love as self-communicating Life. The mystery of the Trinity is the mystery of the Love-Life in God. This is a knowledge which stands beyond all analogies of philosophical theology or religious conceptions of God. It has no parallel whatever. That God is in Himself self-communicating Love—this is the doctrine of the Bible alone. Now this is to say that truth is thereby identical with the good in its highest sense—love communion. The fatal breach between theoretical and practical reason between knowledge of truth and ethical will is thus healed. The solution of the problem of ultimate truth—truth identical with ultimate absolute reality—is at the same time the solution of the ethical and social problem. The man who by revelation and faith takes part in the divine truth at the same time takes part in the divine love and is therefore taken into communion. To be in truth is to be in the Love of God and to be in the Love of God is to become a loving person to be in communion both with God and men.
If we look back we can see that to have fixed the problem of truth on the object-subject opposition is the disastrous error in Western spiritual history. Ultimate final absolute truth is neither the object nor the subject neither the things nor the mind nor reason. The either/or of objectivism and subjectivism rather hides than reveals what is ultimately true. Whether the knowing subject or Ego posits itself as the truth or whether it posits as truth its known object—“something” in neither case is this relation one which discloses ultimate truth. God is neither our known object nor is He our knowing subject; He is the self-communicating absolute subject. Or as the Biblical language expresses it He is the Lord.
So long as truth is thought of within the subject-object dichotomy it is unavoidable that either the subject or the object becomes God the ultimate truth and reality. Now since neither the subject nor the object is the ultimate truth it is inevitable that man's mind shifts from one pole to the other in an incessant pendulum movement. It cannot rest quietly with either of the alternatives since neither of them carries real conviction. This veering from objectivism into subjectivism and back is unavoidable because in the long run neither of these two answers to the question of truth is credible. How should the object the world of things be the truth when the subject the knowing thinking Ego stands above it? How should the known be more than the knower? On the other hand how should the subject be the ultimate truth whilst there is a world assigned to it whatever it may be in impenetrable reality? Fichte may throw his philosophy of the absolute Ego into the world of the Enlightenment as “sonnenklarer Bericht”6 but it will not be long before there is an Ernst Haeckel in the field offering his gross materialism as the solution of all the riddles of the Universe. And for one reader whom Fichte may find there will certainly be a hundred or even a thousand who will buy Haeckel's book as the last word of pure scientific knowledge.
But if it is true as faith knows it to be true that God's word is the truth it means that truth—absolute ultimate final truth—is not “something” that I can know as an object opposite me neither is it reason or spirit my knowing mind but it is the divine Thou who in His own initiative discloses Himself to me. True God is over against me yet He is no object but spirit. True He is spirit but not my spirit; He is the absolute subject which I am not. In disclosing Himself to me as the absolute spirit or Ego as my Lord as one who says “I am the Lord thy God!” He does not become the object of my knowledge. The God of revelation is never my knowledge-possession. In making Himself known to me He makes me totally His own. If we were to use here the categories “subject” and “object” we should have to say: In this truth-relation I am the object of this subject. This is exactly what the Apostle means when he says: To know God truly is to be known by God.7 And this fact—that God knows me and reveals Himself to me as the one who knows me—is nothing else than what the Bible terms election that election which is the sovereign act of His freely given divine Love.
This is what the Christian message calls finding the truth. Now we can understand why the Gospel says “I am the truth!”8 Ultimate truth identical with ultimate reality is not “something” but God in His revelation in His word. And this word of God is not merely a word about God but that word in which He encounters me as person and that person in which God encounters me as truth.9 This is the incarnate word in which the eternal mystery of the divine personality discloses itself in a historical person. But again this disclosure or revelation of God's truth cannot take place in an “objective” act of knowledge but in such a way that it discloses at the same time the solitary egotistic human subject for the divine Love and thereby transforms it.
Is it then historical truth? Yes and no. Yes for it is in history that this revealed secret encounters me as truth. No for it is the eternal God who now speaks to me in this historical revelation. Thereby the historical event ceases to be historical and becomes living presence. It is by present inspiration that past incarnation becomes truth to me. It is by this historical revelation of the incarnate word that this present inspiration can take place.
This truth we said is not truth which I possess but truth which possesses me. In this context the Bible uses an expression which is unknown to philosophy “To be in truth”. This does not mean merely ethical truthfulness though this ethical truthfulness is certainly included. But to be “in” truth means much more: it means the same thing as to be in Christ the same as to be in God's Love. Where this truth is known something happens within the centre of the knowing subject. To know this truth does not mean as is the case with ordinary knowledge to become richer enlarged enhanced. To know this truth means to be transformed. To be in this truth means to become a new creature a new kind of being. Being-in-truth means being-in-love. It is not mere knowledge that is given here but communion. To know this truth is to become a loving person.
Once more we look back on the history of the truth-problem. Its unfortunate development is marked not merely by the setting up of the object-subject-opposition but also by the dissociation of truth and communion of the true and the good. From Plato onwards we see the knowledge of truth developing in a direction which isolates individuals instead of gathering them into communion. Whether man seeks truth in the object—in things or in the subject—in mind or spirit in either case knowledge of truth does not create communion. Either it creates the isolated spiritual individual or it creates collectivism; science and technics do not really unite mankind. What modern technics do is to create combinations of a thoroughly impersonal character. On the other hand idealistic philosophy had an effect similar to that of mysticism though not to the same degree; it makes the individual independent not only of the world but also of his fellow man since it considers the development of the spiritual personality the ultimate purpose.10 Idealism always leads to some kind of individualism; materialism on the other hand to some kind of collectivism. It is only in the Christian concept of truth that truth and communion are identical. Truth is love because God is Love.
It would be utterly false however to pass this critical judgment upon our spiritual history from the viewpoint of a self-assured Christianity of a pharisaical churchliness. We have already pointed out that empirical Christianity has sadly sinned against its own truth in not distinguishing between God-truth and world-truths or at least in not distinguishing them consistently. But there is a second even more serious failure to be mentioned: the identification of revealed God-truth and fixed dogma. In the very place where St. Paul says that knowing God means to be known by God he uses the famous phrase which the dogmatising Church unfortunately never took seriously: “We know in part” (“Unser Wissen ist Stückwerk”). Even that which we know by God's revelation we know only in part. It is absolute truth merely in so far as it is God's word; formulated by us as our knowledge it at once becomes part in the whole weakness and imperfection of our human condition. God's revelation identified with human dogma is the transformation of God-truth into world-truth. Now this is the general formula for metaphysics: metaphysics is the extension of the process of acquiring world-knowledge into the realm of God-knowledge it is God-truth in the form of world-knowledge. Within metaphysics the absolute truth God is something knowable a part of man's own realm of knowing. I think it is this which Kant had in mind when attacking all metaphysical theology. But we are not concerned here with the philosophical criticism of metaphysics; whatever metaphysics may be for the philosopher from the Christian point of view it is a grave misunderstanding. Even more it is a kind of idolatry identifying God with the product of our own thought.
It is exactly this which underlies the dogmatism of the Christian Church i.e. the false identification of God's revelation and our formulation of it which takes place as soon as one forgets the basic truth that “we know in part”. The Church dogma taken as absolute springs from the innate tendency of man to absolutise his own knowledge of truth. Like all dogmatism and more than any other it has produced an obduracy of mind and heart. It has fettered necessary spiritual freedom and anathematised critical examination thus evoking in reaction a hostile attitude towards the teaching of the Church which has taken the form either of a rationalist dogmatism or of a relativist scepticism.
But there were even graver consequences. Church dogmatism has made almost impossible the truly Christian understanding of truth. For centuries inside and outside the Church it produced and sustained the false conception that faith or belief means to accept certain revealed truths taught by the Church or the Bible which have to be accepted on their authority. This erroneous conception of faith as a heteronomous authoritarian belief—as submission to the authority of the teaching Church or to that of the Bible—has become an almost insuperable hindrance to true faith-knowledge. Where this false conception of faith prevails—where faith or belief is understood as an acceptance of doctrines instead of a divine-human encounter—it is no longer the unity of truth and communion and therefore no longer the faith which cannot but work itself out in love. This orthodox dogmatism has separated faith and love and produced a kind of believer in whose life love is not the characteristic feature. For this reason the Church bears a large part of the responsibility for the misunderstanding of the truth-problem which so unfortunately characterises our history.
To sum up the genuinely Christian understanding of truth is such that it allows all necessary freedom for scientific investigation of the world and at the same time guards against the misunderstanding that science holds the key to the mystery of human existence and is the source and norm for ultimate truth. The divine knowledge given to faith does not merely fulfil the highest endeavour after truth but at the same time brings man into communion with God and man. Whilst in ancient philosophy the unity of truth and goodness was dimly felt or aspired after but not known11 and whilst in modern times the search for truth and the search for community have led in diverging directions this unity of truth and communion comes through the revelation of God Who is the ground of all reality and the source of all good. This genuine Christian understanding however sits in judgment not only upon modern spiritual development leading consciously and unambiguously away from Christianity but also upon empirical Christendom itself which has hidden that true understanding by its dogmatism. The great promise of St. John's Gospel that truth shall make us free was not fulfilled by traditional Christianity and still less by modern intellectualist conceptions of truth. Neither science nor the Christian dogma has proved to be the liberating power. Science stands bewildered and helpless before the ethical and social chaos of our time. And the dogmatism of the Christian Church has discredited the truth of revelation and hidden it from those who seek a real solution of this chaos. But wherever the genuine original truth of revelation in its New Testament purity and depth is grasped by or rather gets hold of man there forces of moral renewal and a spirit of communion are created which alone are capable of reuniting that self-dissolving human family and of solving the problems of society. It is there also that the old problem of science and belief faith and knowledge is seen as a misunderstanding and ceases to exist because it is possible to give to science what belongs to science and to revelation what belongs to revelation and still see their unity in the One who has created this world different from Himself and has reserved to Himself the revelation of the mystery of His own being and will.