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Questions and Answers: What Is Truth?
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Polly: Morning, Honoria. Have you got a minute to talk?
Honoria: Sure, Polly. How are you doing? I haven’t seen you since you stopped coming to rehearsals. Have you quit the play?
Pol: Yes, how did you guess?
Hon: Well, it just seemed like the sort of thing you would do; no offense, but you can be such a stickler on what you believe is right or wrong behavior!
Pol: If you believe in right and wrong at all, I think it’s a pretty good thing to be a stickler about it.
Hon: Oh, of course, Polly. I’ve always admired you for the way you stick to your convictions—but you can’t take the trouble to lay down the rules for the rest of the world, now can you? The part you had in the play didn’t require you to do anything morally questionable, even if some of the other characters did. And you can’t decide for them what’s right and wrong for them, right?
Pol: Not if “right and wrong” are specific to the individual. But you see, I don’t think that. I believe in absolute truth.
Hon: Oh, what does that have anything to do with it? Of course I believe that facts are unchangeable, but people’s views and morals aren’t.
Pol: Truth is more than mere “facts,” Honoria. And even if it wasn’t, one fact to deal with is the existence of a standard by which people’s changeable views and morals are judged. Without that, we couldn’t have a right and wrong at all.
Hon: Wait a moment, Polly. You’re going a little too fast for me. How does the issue of right and wrong connect with the idea of absolute truth?
Pol: Same way everything else does. There has to be an acknowledgment of truth before we can acknowledge a rule. As C.S. Lewis stated, if there truly is a “Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature … this Rule of Right and Wrong … or whatever you call it, … must somehow or other be a real thing — a thing which is really there, not made up by ourselves … a real law which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.”1 If right and wrong are just our own decisions, there’s no law and no truth: it’s all a matter of personal choice. But if there is an Absolute Truth out there, then it applies to right and wrong as well as every other matter in the universe.
Hon: But how can you be so sure truth applies in every instance? Maybe — I’m not saying it is, but that it could be the case — maybe truth is only applied selectively, to some areas of life and not others?
Pol: That’s not an uncommon argument, though it’s rarely stated so honestly, Honoria. The trouble is, that if there is no absolute truth to guide every area of life, we can’t be sure what areas it does apply to and what areas it doesn’t. And if we want to say that truth is flexible in moral areas, then we compromise our ability to even talk about it or form any sensible judgments, even in our own opinions.
Hon: For example?
Pol: Well, as C.S. Lewis said: “But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust? … the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies … I was forced to assume that one part of reality — namely my idea of justice — was full of sense … If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.”2 Unless there is some absolute rule, some framework or guideline by which everything else is measured, we could never have arrived at the definitions “right” and “wrong.” So even people who say there’s only “right for you” and “right for me,” by their very use of the terminology, commit themselves to believing in an absolute defining rule of right and wrong. And if we must admit it exists, there’s no point in not trying to live by it — it will ultimately exact its price from us later on. Truth always catches up with us.
Hon: I guess so. But if that’s true, isn’t it still, well, rather arrogant for us to tell other people what is true and what isn’t? I mean, if there is an absolute truth, it’s available to everybody, and it’s each individual’s responsibility to find it for themselves.
Pol: You’re absolutely right — up to a point. Certainly everyone is responsible for making their own moral decisions, and you can’t force other people to do the right thing, especially since we are all likely to make mistakes. It would be very arrogant to claim to be so clever as to discover the Truth on one’s own — but it’s not arrogant to claim to know the Truth.
Hon: What do you mean?
Pol: Jesus is the Truth — “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Only He can give it to each individual; but if one individual already knows the truth through Jesus, why shouldn’t they tell someone else about it? Saying that everybody has to discover the Truth of the Gospel on their own is like saying everybody has to discover the law of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics on their own. We learn a lot of truths from people who know them already. No one but God has all the Truth, which is why each of us is responsible for evaluating what we know and have learned by His Word, to determine what is in fact true and what is false. I hope I would never be so arrogant as to expect people to accept faith in Christ on my word alone, as though I were some perfect, infallible know-it-all. But there is nothing arrogant in saying to someone else: “Actually, I have some experience in this and know this is true; if you’d like to check it out for yourself, here’s where you can look for confirmation.” People have to accept truth on others’ testimony very often — like any jury in a court of law. But it is each individual’s own responsibility to check that the testimony we have been given is actually true.
Hon: But how on earth can we know that?
Pol: By God’s Word and His Holy Spirit in us: “hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirt of error”(1 John 4:6).
Ask your children: What do you think about Polly’s answers to Honoria’s questions? Do you have any other questions of your own that this dialogue has brought up for you? Challenge them to think up more responses they could give, if someone asked them a question like Honoria’s.
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 50th Anniversary ed. (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002), p. 20
2 Ibid. pp. 38-39