Knowing Truth

Charles E. Gutenson

There is much debate on the vexed question of whether “absolute truth” exists. Why argue that certain kinds of truth claims must be held to express absolute truths? Throughout the history of the Judeo-Christian tradition, right relationship with God has been intimately connected both to right believing and right practice. It is not surprising, then, that Christian theologians should be concerned with holding right beliefs and engaging in right practices. Yet, the world in which we find ourselves is complex and populated by different cultures, some of which make moral judgments rather differently. Inevitably, we are drawn into moral debate. Given some act, say A, on what basis do we judge whether A is morally right or wrong? Indeed, the notion of absolute moral truths is attractive. What could be more straightforward, when engaging in moral debate, than to have a set of claims that are true in all possible contextual situations? Moral judgments would be easy, as we apply this set of truths—thus, avoiding the messy task of moral reasoning. So, we can understand and sympathize with the desire for absolute moral truths, but are they forthcoming?

Perhaps we could begin by recognizing that there are strong reasons to think absolute moral truths are neither desirable nor necessary for the work at hand. The reason they may not be desirable relates to the role of moral reasoning in the Christian life. The reason they are not necessary deserves some reflection. We can begin by asking. If our goal is to make right claims in the actual world, why should we think this requires that we identify positions that are true in all possible worlds? Philosophers and theologians who deploy the notion of possible worlds readily admit that many logically possible worlds are actually quite implausible. So, the notion of a truth claim that is true in all possible worlds seems rather unnecessary.

While the appeal to the concept of absolute truth is tempting, we suggest the notion of absolute truth is of minimal consequence for theological purposes, and ought simply to be dismissed forthwith from theological debate. Instead of determining “truth” in hypothetical possible worlds, we need an alternative that serves to guide our moral deliberations in the actual world. The sense of truth that we, as Christians, really care about is truth as God sees it or truth from God’s perspective. It is not that God has no perspective or that he has an “absolute” perspective (whatever that would mean); rather, the divine perspective gains its uniqueness purely from the fact that it sees everything as it really is. To the extent we can come to share the divine perspective, then, we will be situated to make right judgments. Our goal, then, as Christian theologians and philosophers is not to chase after notions of absolute truth, but rather to strive to become persons who share the divine perspective. It is not having a perspective that is the issue, but rather, having the right perspective. But how does one see things from the divine perspective?

W. Alston, in Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Cornell University Press, 1993), uses the notion of socially established doxastic practices, the belief-forming practices that we use to understand the world. Why does one particular group believe the world “works” one way, while a different group thinks another? Alston concludes that a major factor is the embrace of different belief-forming practices by the different groups. Two important points from Alston’s work are that (1) these practices relate to belief formation, and (2) these practices are socially established. The first point is relatively straightforward, and it explicitly recognizes that communities have particular ways of coming to beliefs about the world. On the second point, Alston observes that the “socially established” aspect builds into these practices checks and balances that help us avoid error. Whenever our beliefs are formed through a socially established process, we benefit from the perspective and reasoning of the different members of our communities. Of course, this alone does not guarantee that we avoid error—in some cases, entire communities draw the wrong conclusions about things—but it helps.

Deploying Alston’s notion of socially established practices, we see that our moral judgments are mediated to us through our communities. We might call these socially established practices of moral reasoning. We come to learn the practices largely through engagement in communal practices. We participate in the hearing, and ultimately, in the repeating of the stories that tell us who “we” are as a people, we observe the decision making of our leaders, we come to take for granted “our” underlying commitments, and we seek the approval of our communities as we make decisions for ourselves. Of course, later, we might come to participate in explicit opportunities to analyze moral reasoning or moral foundations, but initially we find ourselves being inculcated with the moral world view of our community by living within it and engaging with its members in actual cases of moral reasoning.

This moral reasoning begins very early in life, especially as our parents begin to encourage us in right behaviors and correct our wrong behaviors. If we tended to be stingy with our toys, our parents encouraged us to share; if we tended to be overly aggressive with our fellows, our parents encouraged us to control our aggressiveness; and if we took care to be fair when playing with others, we were praised for our right acting. Implicit was a whole constellation of moral commitments of which we were not reflectively aware, but which nonetheless were carried along with the encouragement to right behaviors. Some of these implicit commitments are obvious upon reflection and others are less so—our goods, though ours, are not to be unjustly withheld from others; justice is a necessity in human relationships; and our personal ambitions are to be balanced against the needs of the community as a whole. The acts that we are encouraged to engage and those we are warned against provide us with direct moral guidance, but moral instruction is aimed at forming us into a people who judge matters in accord with a community’s way of being. In other words, the judgments we make daily are not generally the product of matching possible actions directly with a set of rules. Rather, we learn to generalize from specific examples so as to make judgments in the various circumstances we encounter.

Consider a community that has the following generalized moral principle: One should not abort unborn children. Most communities would agree with this generalized principle, but unfortunately we are not faced with generalized circumstances. Instead, we are faced with concrete sets of circumstances that seem always to require our moral reasoning to extend beyond the generalized principle to ask. Given that one accepts this general principle, what ought one to do in this particular circumstance? Consider the following concrete circumstances: (1) The life of the mother is at significant risk, (2) The life of the mother is at moderate risk, (3) The unborn child will not live outside the womb, (4) The mother became pregnant during a brutal rape, (5) The mother and father are judged incompetent to parent, (6) Neither the mother nor the father want a child at this time, and (7) The mother is not ready to settle down, and so on.

How will we judge whether or not a woman might morally terminate a pregnancy in these conditions? There are a number of answers, but of course each one will be conditioned by a set of values that the community in question bears and deploys in order to judge properly the situation. What is the value of the unborn child? Is the unborn a person? What is the value of the life of the mother? May one have an abortion for the sake of convenience? The values implied by the answers to these questions are often implicit, but certainly impact the manner in which we think through the question. The main point is that we embody both generalized principles as well as specific valuings that arise from within our primary communities and which we learn, through practice, to apply for ourselves. Here is the key. If we wish to make judgments from God’s perspective, perhaps our best course of action is to participate in communal practices aimed to make us think like God thinks, and to make the kinds of judgments God would make. If this is correct, we have now come to a point where we must move beyond “good arguments and better evidences” to engaging the practices that the Christian tradition has said will form us after the divine image. Moral reasoning is not solely an exercise in cognitive and epistemic development (though these should not be ignored), but also (perhaps primarily) an exercise in spiritual formation.

This claim may seem odd, since it flies in the face of the modernist myth of objectivity, according to which the best judgments are made from the perspective of the cooly objective explorer. Pre-commitments to any particular perspective will surely skew inquiry and lead us to the conclusion implied by the presuppositions of our perspective. In our postmodern world, the myth of objectivity has collapsed, partly because the situatedness of all inquiry precludes being truly objective, and partly because we are beginning to realize that disinterest is not the virtue once thought. What we are arguing for, then, is a virtue epistemology of the sort that recognizes that (1) to see things rightly is central to making right judgments and there can be no better perspective for seeing things rightly than God’s perspective, and (2) we become better knowers as we become better imitators of God, i.e., as we become more holy. To learn to see things from God’s perspective, we must engage in practices of spiritual formation aimed at our becoming Christ-like.

Study of Scripture

The Christian tradition has held that the lifelong study of Scripture is one of the premier practices that serve to form us as Christians. The biblical narratives constitute the one story of God’s involvement in the world, and, as such, they provide a record of God’s acts. Owing to God’s great love for his creation, he is fully engaged in his acts in the world. So, his acts in the world reveal God as he is. The paradigmatic expression of all divine revelation is the sending of the eternal Son, and it is through Scripture that we learn about the incarnation and ministry of Christ. Scripture, then, is not as much a slate of propositions to be learned as a narrative aiming to form us into the image of Christ.


Prayer is a means of formation from a number of perspectives. First, we should note that prayer may be ill-used. A wise man once wrote that magic aims to conform the divine will to human ends, whereas prayer is the intentional conforming of the human will to God’s ends. Second, the Holy Spirit is the divine person who indwells us and empowers us to live the life that pleases God, and prayer opens us to the Spirit. Finally, God desires that we move beyond our own self-interest to being concerned more for others. By engaging in intercessory prayer, we imitate the “other-orientation” of the divine life and prepare ourselves to be the agents that God uses to bring it about that his will is “done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Eucharist or Communion

While the eucharistic celebration varies somewhat, it is consistently held that Christ really is present with, and mediates divine grace to, those who participate. Additionally, many hold that there is a mystical collapse of the boundaries between time and space so that the church universal is together at the banquet table of God. Christianity is first and foremost a relational faith, and the Eucharist both enacts and anticipates the great banquet of God in which all believers will share in the consummation of the kingdom of God. In all this, we are conformed to the image of Christ.


Gathering for worship of the Triune God is a practice that is critical to the formation of God’s people. It is exceedingly hard to imagine how one might be formed so as to share the divine perspective if one does not have a right grasp of the relationship between God and humanity. If humanity receives its very existence from God as well as every good thing that attends existence, then love, adoration, appreciation—in short, worship—are due to God. The human participation in worship should never be seen as giving to God honor and praise that would be lacking without it. Instead, worship is the one and only appropriate response for creatures to extend toward their Creator.


While the engagement of Christian practices before becoming a “member of the household of God” is possible, repentance and conversion are the most significant practices in which one who wishes to see things from the divine perspective might participate. Repentance involves coming to see the fallen nature of humanity, the availability of divine grace for restoration, and the reception of converting grace to begin the healing process. Much of “seeing things rightly” is implicit (if not explicit) in these practices. If we wish to come to see things from the divine perspective, we must see our sinfulness, how we really are. Then, we turn to God in order to receive the offer of grace aimed at restoring right relationship with God and with each other.

Acts of Mercy and Piety

While there are many Christian practices, we will only consider briefly two more: acts of mercy and acts of piety. These are often underemphasized or emphasized in a one-sided manner, but both are essential aspects of being formed so as to “think like God thinks.” Acts of mercy are oriented to serving the “least of these.” In good Jamesian fashion, it is seeing a brother or sister in need, engaging in prayer for them, and then taking whatever steps we can to provide the care they need. The announcement of Jesus’ mission in Luke 4 draws particular attention to his ministry to those normally on the margins of society—the poor, the sick, the outcast—and the fact that the eternal Son chooses incarnation as one of the marginal speaks a message that we in affluent societies seem least prepared to hear. To engage in acts of mercy is, first and foremost, to undertake to imitate God in his special care for those least able to care for themselves and to identify with God in a very profound way.

Whereas acts of mercy focus outwardly, acts of piety focus inwardly. Acts of piety serve to make sure that our acts of mercy are rightly grounded in a proper response to God’s call on our lives rather than in abstract humanism. As such, our acts of piety explicitly include resistance to temptation as well as obedience to the call to embrace a lifestyle of self-denial for the sake of others in imitation of Christ. Just as there can be no acts of mercy that are not rightly grounded in a proper sense of personal piety, so also must our lives of personal piety and devotion issue forth in lives that actively aim to be in service to those around us.

I have focused mostly on the question of how we might come to know what is true and to make right judgments. At the end of the day, our ability to perceive and grasp the truth is a matter both of epistemology and virtue. Thus, we need both to take seriously the philosophy of knowledge and Christian formation, and come to see things as God sees them.

Posted Apr 01, 2006