Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Truth vs. Fact

I had a discussion recently with a friend about the difference between truth and fact, and it occurs to me that this has an important place in my religious beliefs. I think that something can be "true," while not being a "fact."

For example, many of the morals espoused in fables seem, to me, to be true... though they are often based on stories that are clearly metaphoric. Tortoise and the hare, etc. Can a fictional story contain truth and wisdom? I was taught safety behaviors in grade school by an animated pony named "Patch." It was the first time I was exposed to the whole "don't take candy from strangers in large, black town cars" meme. Is the lesson false because the story is fiction? I don't think so.

On to religion.

Jesus taught in parables. This is stated explicitly. We also believe that Jesus always spoke the truth. So... Jesus told us stories (the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, etc.) that are both non-factual (in that they did not occur), and true (in that Jesus speaks the truth). This is complicated (or, as I believe, made compellingly poetic, powerful and beautiful) by the fact that Jesus himself is referred to as "the word." A word is not that which it describes, of course. I can't eat the word "pie" any more than I can ride in the words "black town car." But if Christ is the word, and the word is with God and the word is God... that's deeply (beautifully?) weird. And it says something about the power of metaphor, language, meaning, connections, relationships and conveyance.

Most Christians believe in the mystery of the trinity; Father, Son, Holy Ghost. So we know that saying "Jesus is God" may be a holy paradox, but it's not an obfuscation. To say, though, that Christ is "the word," and that he was at once with God and the same as God seems... oddly (lyrically?) vague. After years of thinking about this passage, however, I find it to be comforting and helpful. If Christ is the word, and the term can be said to have anything to do with what we think of as a word, then Christ is a way of conveying meaning. Which makes perfect sense. God sent his son to convey meaning to us. But if he is also God, then that which was spoken (Christ) is also that which spoke. Which means that the thing that brings meaning can be the same as the meaning. We're breaking down semantic bricks here, of course, but I find it interesting.

This is what happens when you study poetry, technical writing, and scripture in school.

So if the thing that conveys the meaning can be the meaning itself, then the metaphor can be the truth that is intended. OK... that didn't come out so cleanly. Let's try again. If Christ is the word of God, and also God, then the Bible can be the thing that conveys truth, and the truth itself. The line between the metaphor and that which it conveys becomes blurred.

Not sure if I'm explaining this well. I may try again later.

So... the parts of the Bible that everybody gets bent about (one way or the other) in terms of whether or not it's "true," are (imho), more about whether or not they are "fact." But if Christ can teach in true metaphor (not fact), and the bringer of truth (Jesus) can also be the truth itself (the word)... then why can't the Bible be true, regardless of whether or not it is fact?

Maybe the things God wanted to teach the early writers/readers of the Bible weren't teachable in terms of fact. Maybe they still aren't. Maybe you need metaphor to understand (in a meaningful way) the beginnings of the world. Maybe the stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Job, etc. are true in that they convey real, powerful, important wisdom about the nature of the universe. Maybe the things that actually, factually happened are less important than the stories?

I believe God gives us what we need to understand him (enough). I also believe that the universe is a few billion years old or so. I can reconcile those beliefs -- and not just with chicanery, but with some (I feel) elegance -- by keeping the definitions of truth and fact a bit... separated. Some of the most important truths in my life, after all -- love, beauty, music, peace -- are hardly explainable factually.

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