The Truth? Whose Truth?
by Ervin Taylor, February 9, 2015: Back in the May 2015 issue of the Adventist Review (AR), my good friend, the long-time editor of the Adult Sabbath School Quarterly, Cliff Goldstein, contributed another of his usually interesting but sometimes infuriating “Cliff’s Edge” opinion columns on one of his favorite topics. No, it was not about evolution. That’s another one of his favorite topics which does happen to be the subject of his most recent column. His February 2016 “Cliff’s Edge” piece, titled “Two Adams, Two Eves?,” is a response to a book written by Dr. Desmond Ford, titled, Genesis Versus Darwin, a book which had already been reviewed in an Adventist Today website commentary. Cliff raises his usual problematic arguments against Dr. Ford’s excellent biblical reasons for rejecting a recent, seven-day creation and worldwide flood. May I suggest that Ford’s arguments clearly win the day for those not absolutely fixated on literalist and fundamentalist approaches to interpreting the Bible, especially the opening chapters of Genesis? But, of course, Cliff would understandably disagree.
The topic of his May 2015 column is another of his favorite topics, which is the title of his piece: “The Truth,” as in, I assume, “The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.” (Please see my postscript at the end of this piece about that phrase being used as the title of a recently issued book by a retired Adventist historian.)
Over the years, Cliff and I have had a series of conversations reflecting his insistence that he discovered what he termed “The Truth” when he joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I certainly never disputed the fact that he had discovered “his [religious/spiritual/existential/metaphysical] truth.” I simply took his word for it. Who am I to say that he didn’t discover his truth? No one is in a position to deny that. That was never the issue.
Parenthetically, as a minor historical footnote, many, many decades ago, certain Adventists would sometimes use the term “in the Truth” to talk about those holding membership in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Those who were not Adventists or who had once been Adventists and had left the denomination were referred to as being “out of the Truth”—among other things.
But back to my conversations with Cliff. Our dispute revolved around his constant assertion that he had discovered “The Truth.” When he said that, I said, “your truth,” and he would say, “The Truth,” and then I would say, “No, you are talking about your truth,” and he would say, “Truth is Truth,” and so on. Our discourse tended to kind of stagnate at that point and we moved on to who would win the Super Bowl or World Series that year and other similar more-important topics.
Cliff begins his “Truth” column by describing his upbringing in a non-observant “secular Jewish home.” He notes that his “secular education” was “essentially structured on the postmodern meta-narrative that “truth” (as he says, “to pilfer Nietzsche”) was just “a mobile army of metaphors.” He then defines “Postmodernism [as] the retrofitted sophistry that Plato ate for breakfast more than three centuries before Christ and what [the Roman Catholic theologian] Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century A.D. dissed in the first pages of Summa Theologica: ‘For whoever denies the existence of truth . . . grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition ‘Truth does not exist’ is true; and if there is anything true, there must be truth.” The last sentence of that statement would certainly warm the heart of a Medieval scholastic.
Cliff then says that “Despite all I was taught from Mrs. Reiger in kindergarten, and from all the other teachers on up, at the tender age of 21, I realized that I had been nurtured on a self-refuting error.” I must say that the quality of the elementary, middle and high schools that Cliff attended must have been exemplary for him to have been exposed at such a young age to a very sophisticated learning experience that included metaphysical philosophy.
Let’s not get bogged down in questioning Cliff’s understanding of or definition of Postmodernism. Let’s just say that I have been informed by philosophy colleagues that this term has been used over the last 30-40 years to describe a wide spectrum of philosophical and literary positions. However, I understand that there is a general consensus in Postmodernist literature that the truth claims advanced by proponents of any philosophical, political, or religious system of thought that propounds some overarching truth claim meta-narrative are, in fact, largely, if not entirely, projections and reflections of social and cultural conditioning of those who are advancing these systems. To which I would add that they also might be projections of the personality characteristics of their authors. Because of this, according to this point of view, we post-moderns should reject any system of thought whose proponents insist that they have discovered something that could be described as reflecting “The Truth”–even if it exists.
In the interest of this discussion, let us stipulate that there is indeed a valid category that we will, for our purposes here, simply call “God’s Truth.” Since we are all theists, we are simply stipulating that God—however conceived–knows all of the Truth that can be known about anything about which the Truth can be known. We will also stipulate that “Truth” exists and is known to God. Thus the issue to be considered is not if “God’s Truth,” i.e., religious, spiritual, existential, metaphysical “Truth,” does or does not exist. The question is: Is it reasonable for any human to claim that he or she has come to know that kind of “Truth” and, most importantly, that this “Truth” should be accepted by every human? My initial supposition is that Cliff’s answer to that question would be in the affirmative. My response to that question would be emphatically in the negative. However, some might object that it is certainly not reasonable to assume that even Cliff can be arguing that any human is capable of knowing all of God’s Truth. That would be absurd. I agree.
So let’s refocus on what it seems to me is the crux of the problem raised by Cliff’s assertion. In the context of Cliff’s article, may I suggest that the main question is whether any human has enough insight or knowledge or personal experience to justify declaring that he/she is capable of knowing “God’s Truth” for anyone but himself/herself? I would submit that the answer is no. Why? I submit that the reason is because no human possesses the requisite ability to make valid inferences about the nature of, for example, Ultimate Reality, based on the available public evidence. We thus must fall back on our uniquely personal subjective experience. Given how easily we humans can be fooled, a subjective experience may give us spurious data. However, if an individual wishes to accept his own personal experience as providing “God’s Truth” for himself or herself about religious, spiritual, or metaphysical matters, then so be it. There is no logical means of disconfirming someone’s unique personal experience, if the individual is so inclined to accept certain religious truth claims based on his own subjective personal experience. However, that belief cannot be extended beyond the individual having the subjective personal experience to anyone not having a similar experience.
Is it possible for humans to know some limited tiny part of or extremely small aspect of “The Truth” as God knows Ultimate Truth? Okay, that might be possible. But, may I suggest that it is very difficult to know what those little, tiny parts might be, in view of the very diverse understandings of different human philosophical and theological systems?
If someone wishes to introduce purported “inspired” information from a presumed special revelation of God, that, in my view, really does not solve the problem, since that revelation must be communicated by and filtered through human agency. There is simply no way of bypassing human agency. Conclusion: At best, we can assert that we know something about “God’s Truth” only for ourselves. In the opinion of this writer, stating that we know “God’s Truth” for anyone else would be a spurious assertion.
To avoid possible misunderstanding of the scope of this suggestion and risk talking past each other, let us make sure that we are clear about what is meant about “God’s Truth.” We are not addressing empirically based facts about the physical world that are accessible through various forms of historical, scientific, or other types of study of publicly accessible objective information. We are addressing beliefs which typically, in our modern world, are classified as religious or metaphysical in nature dealing with such questions of the nature of ultimate reality.
Those who disagree with my take on Cliff’s point of view are encouraged to explain their disagreement. Those who agree might wish to say why they agree. Those who are agnostic on this subject are also encouraged to post a comment.
While I was writing this discussion of Goldstein’s “Truth” article in the AR, an advertisement appeared for a book written by an Adventist historian, Dr. George Knight. The publication date is 2012 but it apparently is just now being distributed. The book carries the incredible title of The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. In obtaining a copy of this book and reading through it, one conclusion that a reader might make is that Dr. Knight has decided to double down on the obsession of orthodox Adventist authors to equate the Adventist version of Christianity with God’s point of view. In a coming opinion piece on Knight’s unfortunately titled book, I’d like to address the question why even traditional Adventists of considerable ability appear to need to continue to write books that argue that Adventism must, at all costs, retain its 19th-century exclusivist and triumphalist sectarian orientation.
We might recall that in a book that Knight published in 2009, The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism, he argued that if modern Adventism does not emphasize its classic prophetic interpretations and apocalyptic message, it might as well disband. To quote Dr. Knight, “If Adventism’s apocalyptic big picture isn’t valid, the most sensible thing is to shut up shop, go home, and do something meaningful with our lives.” I suggest that this opinion might make sense for a convert to Adventism, but not necessarily for someone who is a second-, third-, or fourth-generation Adventist.