Is there not one thing true? Is there not one true thing?
The winter cold in the mountains of West Virginia pierced to the bone. It was 2002 and I was in the midst of my education at the Physician Assistant program at Alderson-Broaddus University. I dreaded the walk between my car and the Hugh C. Myers building where my classmates and I spent hours reviewing, quizzing, and challenging each other. Occasionally, these sessions strayed from the medical textbook to questions of the existential sort. One conversation has stayed with me, or maybe more like haunted me, throughout these nearly 20 years.
Jay was one of the brightest and most inquisitive students in our class. With a quick wit and pointed questions he often annoyed our professors with a strong desire to know the whys behind what we were learning. Jay and I were wrapping up a study group one chilly evening and somehow stumbled upon the topic of relativism. He shared quite earnestly that he lived his life based upon his feelings and tried to convince me to do the same. In any given situation, be it a decision of large or small consequence, political stance, or moral dilemma the solution was to go with the answer that feels right. He was not interested in social norms, tradition, religious dogma, or really any other standard of living other than his own emotions. He stayed true to his convictions when I asked the obvious questions and gave examples of what might happen if everyone just followed their unobstructed feelings and did “what was right in their own eyes.” He held his ground, staying surefooted in his belief until he let it slip that he was in favor of the death penalty. “What if that death-row inmate was just following his feelings when he committed his crime?” I asked. That made Jay stop and think for a moment. Maybe his philosophical road led to trouble if followed to its end.
Then the conversation turned to Jesus. If Jay was to follow his feelings above all else, what mechanism did he have to know anything true about history, or a historical person like Jesus. That’s when he really surprised me. Rather than deny the Christian view of Jesus, or affirm the typical liberal academic view of Jesus, Jay said, “I like what I believe about Jesus.” He was dead serious. And I was at a loss as to how to progress from that point. He appealed to no source for his understanding of Jesus other than his preference, and he had created an image of Jesus that worked well for him. What’s more, he was happy for me that I also had a version of Jesus that I believed in. From his perspective, he had his version and I had mine, but we both had Jesus. In the end, I guess he sort of saw us as agreeing.
But was it actually true? Did either of us have the truth? Did Jay’s perception of Jesus match reality and did it even matter? After all, regardless of what you believe about him, Jesus has a concrete and historical reality, doesn’t he? Or have we reached the point of progress in our “woke” ways of thinking to eliminate the objective altogether? That question may seem like hyperbole at first, but when you consider the current denial of gender identity, the allowance of any pronoun of choice, or the denial of correct answers in mathematics, it seems that Jay may have been ahead of his time.
“The concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false, and teaching it is even much less so . . . Upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuate objectivity as well as fear of open conflict.”Oregon Department of Education “Equitable Math” Toolkit 2021
If you read it carefully, the Oregon Department of Education does not so much have a problem with mathematics as it does with right and wrong answers. It is this idea of unchanging truth that applies to everyone at all times that they reject, and mathematics is simply collateral damage. Singular correct mathematical answers that apply to everyone mirror the principles of absolute truth and in our current cultural climate of relativism that “oppressive” way of thinking cannot be tolerated.
Why this embrace of feelings over facts as a viable first principle of living? Could it be that some people are repelled by the concept of an absolute truth because of its association with the Divine? The natural person is opposed to God who is the Author of absolutes. Therefore, those things like objective history or mathematics that share His eternal qualities are suppressed. Objectivity points to and flows from the unchanging, absolute, and eternally true Creator. To deny truth is to deny Jesus, because he is the way, the truth, and the life. While it may not be explicitly stated, the rejection of moral law is a rejection of the moral Law-Giver. Just as the worship of evolutionary theory over creation is a rejection of the Creator.
“The series of natural numbers is infinite. That one and one equal two and two and two equal four could not have been otherwise. Such mathematical truths never begin being true or cease being true; they hold eternally and immutably.”Edward Feser, “Keep It Simple” At First Things (April 2020)
So my friend Jay may not have had a quarrel with absolute truth so much as he had a quarrel with God. Trying to convince him that true things were true and false things were false was fighting the battle too far downstream. The source of his ideology was springing from a fist raised at his Creator. And such is the case for all people before God intervenes in our lives and opens our eyes to Jesus who offered Himself to bridge that eternal gap separating us from God.
I hoped that Jay could be convinced that history had actually happened. That past events, people, and places are not subjective or imaginary but objective and real. Was Jesus just a mythical character who never really lived, or was he the Son of God miraculously risen from the grave, or something in between? Whatever the case he was something. He was defined. His connection to reality cannot be altered by Jay’s feelings or my own. Even if we agree that we cannot know certain aspects about his life that does not mean those events did not take place. For example, unless the course of my life dramatically changes, history textbooks will not record anything about me. And even if they did, no one would know what I had for lunch yesterday, but that does not change the actual and real fact that I did have lunch yesterday; it was a bowl of chili garnished with shredded cheese and green onions. It happened . . . I ate it . . . even if no one acknowledges it. It is written in stone, in the past, and no one can change it because it was a real event. The same is true of Jesus. If he lived he has a real history that cannot be changed. It can be misunderstood, misrepresented, denied, or ignored, but it cannot be changed any more than I can alter my bowl of chili from yesterday. My feelings and preferences cannot change the chili to pizza, or the onions to sour cream. If the chili was bad and I ended up with food poisoning my displeasure in it would not erase its history or its affect over my life.
The question is not whether history actually occurred, regardless of what we say we know that it did. The question is how can we reliably know true history and in this case, the true Jesus? Some would say that we cannot know, and because of our shyness regarding absolutes, we feel at liberty to form our own reality. But at what price? If Jesus’ life has any implications for your life, wouldn’t it be important to understand who he truly is? If the Christian view is historically accurate, then how you respond to Jesus has eternal consequences. If we are free to create an image of Jesus after whatever likeness we prefer, he is disconnected from the real world and therefore has no bearing on our lives. Like Batman, he becomes a fictional superhero that can be reinvented over and over by whoever happens to be telling the story.
As Jay and I walked to the parking lot, trying to keep warm, and presenting our concluding arguments, we had hit a stalemate. I focused the conversation on truth when I should have focused it on God, the Giver of truth, and Jay was convinced that my overly critical mind was a representation of what is wrong in this world. We went our separate ways and as I climbed into my car I said, “Just think about what I said Jay.” And without missing a beat he replied, “I don’t want to think . . . I want to feel.”
Resources for Discovering the historical Jesus:
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John found in the Bible – These eyewitness accounts document the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
A Question of Cannon, Michael J. Kruger – How do we know that we have the right books? Why are some included and others excluded? This volume systematically explores and answers those questions.
Can We Still Believe the Bible, Craig L. Blomberg – A defense of the historical reliability of the Bible.
The Case for Christ, Lee Stobel – A journalist investigates the life of Jesus.