“Jesus said to him [Thomas], “I am the…truth…””
It is illustrative to notice that Jesus, according to the author of the gospel of John, identifies himself with truth. He is truth. Please, consider for a moment, truth being embodied in a loving person whom one loves. To know the truth, to “know” this truth, one doesn’t so much think about it as one hugs Him. One doesn’t so much rationally investigate it as develops a relationship with Him. In his recent article in The Crossroads Doug Culp pointed out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church early on states we are called to seek God, know God, and love God. Loving God is dependent upon and consequent to knowing God. This type of knowing is the knowing of a friend; not the knowing of an equation.
The text from John reveals that Christianity thinks of truth in the same manner as did the fourth century B.C. metaphysics of Aristotle, and as did the thirteenth century A.D. metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. For these, and many others besides, truth is a transcendental property of Being. That is, wherever existence is found, truth exists. Truth is a quality of existence. Truth exists. Its existence is not dependent on a person’s observation of it, belief in it, and most certainly not in a person’s statement of it.
From the era of the moderate realism of the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries A.D., truth was understood to be a quality of existence; a thing which exists in everything which exists. Another characteristic of these metaphysical doctrines of moderate realism, is the belief that things have essences or natures. The way in which one correctly describes these essences and correctly explains events is by identifying the internal causes of those things and events. This type of explanation is referred to as causation. Causation believes that every thing is the same as its four internal causes; the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause. To correctly understand and know a thing, one must know its material, formal, efficient, and final causes.
In the twelfth century A.D., the seven century long comforter of the so-called Dark Age was removed from human imagination and thinking. Ideas long forgotten were rediscovered. Other new ideas began to percolate in western consciousness, bubbling to the surface of human awareness. One of these ideas was that events could be fully explained by identifying the external causes of those events. This type of thinking, referred to as causality, did not attempt to describe things and events by identifying the internal causes of their nature or essence. The causality of modern science simply did not consider essences or natures to be real, to be worth attempting to describe. Description, reduced to identifying causes and effects, was considered sufficient for explaining events or, if one chose to speak so incorrectly, to describe the nature of things.
A corollary or a consequence of the thinking that essences don’t exist and that external causality could sufficiently describe and explain events, was that truth did not exist. Truth, in this causality way of thinking, is nothing more than the accurate description of the external causes of an event. Truth, in this way of thinking, is identical with facticity; the exact correspondence between an event and the words used to describe that event. Truth is reduced to words; the use of words to describe the external causes of an event. Truth is no longer a quality of existence. It is the use of words to describe or explain the causes of events as the effects of those causes.
The things which scientific causality describes are physical phenomena, such as the behavior of two asteroids colliding or two billiard balls colliding or two subatomic particles colliding. Such physical phenomena are relatively simple things to explain and describe, as compared to understanding two egos in conflict or why persons fall in love or the feeling a parent has for a child who is seriously ill. Limited to the types of physical phenomena they could explain, it became apparent to everyone that the explanations of scientific causality could be absolutely accurate, in their own limited manner. People became use to and comfortable with this manner of absolutely accurate scientific speech. Soon people began to find, not only comfort, but also a sense of security and safety in this type of limited knowledge.
Finding one’s sense of security, comfort, and safety in something other than God is idolatry. Truth, in the limited sense of the description of external causes in words, and in mathematical symbols designed to abbreviate the use of words, became the altar at which the cult of modern science worshipped. This statement requires an immediate qualification. More often than not, those who worship at this altar of external causal explanation, at this limited notion of truth, are those who only understand popularized versions of modern scientific explanation. Most scientists understand that what they are doing is providing only the descriptions of the external causes of physical phenomena; i.e. events. And those real scientists who are Christians understand, though very useful in its own limited manner, that the explanations of modern science only deal well with explaining and describing inanimate physical phenomena; less so with life, even less so with human life, and almost not at all with the attributes of human life such as love.
Interestingly, the fundamentalism which sometimes attends modern evangelical Christianity, also bows at the altar of causality and truth as facticity. This is not surprising. The reformation, from which modern evangelical Christianity arose, came into being at almost the same time as the development of the scientific revolution of the post-medieval modernity. The reformers were excited about the ability of modern scientific speech to speak so clearly and accurately about things. The fundamentalist who believes that every word of Genesis is an historical fact and the scientist who believes that the universe is the product of forces independent of any God are actually students of the same school. They both bow to the altar of causality and facticity.
It is not an idolatry for the evangelical Christian to seek to limit spiritual investigation and discovery and utilization to truth as facticity. It is unfortunate to do so, because this type of speech, limited to notions of causality and truth as facticity, cannot, by their own definition, understand and display the essence and nature of life, human life, and the attributes of human life such as love. Imagine using the Calculus or quantum mechanics to describe the tender care of a parent for a child. It simply can’t be done. The things with which science deals so well, are relatively simple affairs compared to life realities and human realities and spiritual realities. In itself, the limitation of religious and spiritual speech to scientific causality and facticity, does not allow one to get anywhere near the heart of the spiritual realities with which one wishes to deal; love, sin, salvation, redemption, charity, and many others. Limiting theological investigation and the spiritual quest to descriptive limits of modern science inevitably leads such investigation and yearnings astray.
Idolatry begins when a person seeks comfort, security, safety in something other than God; than in a relationship with God. As regards the agnostic scientist or atheistic understander of popularized science, this idolatry begins when the explanations of causality and facticity become seen as the only type of explanation and description. And even that is not idolatry until she or he begins to find his or her sense of comfort, security, and safety in the not so warm and even less tender arms of the explanations of scientific causality and facticity.
Similarly, reducing the speech about spiritual matters to the descriptive speech of facts, in itself, is not idolatry. Insisting that every statement in the bible or from a religious authority must and can only be a scientific fact, a literal fact, an historical fact is not idolatry. Such an attitude, however, denudes spiritual speech of its ability to describe the essence and nature of the more valuable and complex things of life, human life, and the attributes of human life such as love.
When fundamentalism, the belief that every religious and spiritual statement must be factual descriptions, becomes something upon which the fundamentalist depends for a sense of comfort, a sense of security, a sense of safety; it is then that fundamentalism becomes an idolatry.
In the late sixth century B.C., the prophet Isaiah confronts King Ahaz of Judah (Isaiah, chapter 7). Ahaz has adopted Assyrian religious practices so as to placate the Assyrians and their allies who seek to conquer his kingdom. Ahaz hopes to demonstrate to the Assyrians that he is just like them by means of adopting practices attendant to belief in Baal. Specifically, the immolation of one’s own children. King Ahaz burns his own son alive so as to communicate to the Assyrians that he is just like them in worshipping Baal, and that he has no desire to challenge their right to his Kingdom, as he has just killed his own son. Ahaz perhaps believed what he was doing was for the best for the people under his rule. That is, Ahaz is very attached to his idolatry. To shock him out of his complacent acceptance of his idolatrous beliefs and attitudes, Isaiah approaches Ahaz with his own son in hand. Without saying a word, the presence of Shear-Jashub screams for justice, “Ahaz, here’s my boy. Where’s yours?” Notice, Ahaz idolatrous attachment is not to Baalism. His idolatrous attachment is to pleasing the Assyrians. Burning his boy alive is seen as necessary; even good.
Idolatry is idolatry. All idolatry, left unchecked leads to a culture of death. The idolatry of Ahaz leads to the horrific gruesome murder of his own child. Modern worship at the altar of fact and causality causes one to think of the use of the abortifacient and carcinogenic Plan B as good. Fundamentalism, be it an evangelical Christian or Catholic fundamentalism which requires God measure up to a standard of factual truth, inevitably causes people to lose faith.
One must learn that God exists. One must trust that God exists. But, eventually, one must move beyond trusting that God exists, to trusting in God. One must move beyond being attached to the true statement that God exists, to an attachment to the God who is true.