Is Truth Dead?

The April 3, 2017, issue of Time has a cover that, if not for the changing of one word, is the exact replica of the one on the April 8, 1966, issue of the magazine. The one published fifty one years earlier had in red letters on a black field the question, “Is God Dead?” The one published this year with the same colors and the same font asks, “Is Truth Dead?” It would seem that if the answer to the first was in the affirmative the second question should have been asked much sooner. In any case, given the way things have been going on these last five decades, no matter how the first question was answered, the second was to be expected. The twenty first century, so far, has been an exhilarating toboggan ride down the path to relativism for many.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

With more that 80 % of Evangelical voters casting their lot with Trump, I find this discussion fascinating. My interest in the post-modern influenced emerging church sensitized me to the critique of postmodernism coming from conservative, evangelical Christians. This critique often centered around the opinion that postmodernism erodes ultimate truth in favor of cultural relativism. In my opinion, this critique focuses on a superficial misunderstanding of postmodernism. As John Caputo writes, "“Postmodernism thus is not relativism or skepticism, as its uncomprehending critics almost daily charge, but minutely close attention to detail, a sense for the complexity and multiplicity of things, for close readings, for detailed histories, for sensitivity to differences.”

Now however, we see the majority of evangelical Christian voters supporting a candidate who exemplifies the very type of superficial “postmodern” erosion of truth and relativism that was critiqued in the emerging church. The irony of this situation goes even deeper. It is the very definition of postmodernity that Caputo offers which could push back against the our unfortunate 21st century toboggan ride down the path to relativism.


Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but the average person today doesn’t seem to be any better informed on the issue than Pilate was. Otherwise the illogical concept of truth being relative would not be as attractive as it has become in recent years. The idea that two people can have contradictory truths is as untenable as the idea that 2 identical objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Absolute truth exists, whether anyone wants to believe it, or not. I find it comical when someone says they don’t believe in absolute truth. I ask, is that an absolute truth?

“Truth” is the Lie that fits our MisConceptions.

We see through a glass darkly. But consider the lily, or the blood flow in the web of a frog. Design immediately suggests designer. Today it is the Trump Tower. When Pilate asked “What is Truth” it was standing right before him. The reason for doubt is to avoid responsibility and or accountability…

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This is a rich and insightful essay. I have a few responsive comments:

  1. I am not sure we can trichotomize biblical statements into truths of faith, scientific statements, and historical statements. It seems to me that biblical statements that indicate that the bodily resurrection of Jesus occurred, for example, are truths of faith, scientific statements, and historical statements. I am cautious about superimposing upon the biblical text a hermeneutical construct, a veneer as it were. And I endeavor (sometimes without success) to treat the biblical text holistically rather than divide it into artificial categories.
  2. I do not see how the trichotomizing of biblical statements contributes to the interesting semiological observations expressed in the essay. If the Bible is a sign (signifier) that points to a signified, (like the cross points to the crucifixion event), then all of the biblical statements, including truths of faith, are merely signs. In other words, a truth of faith expressed in the Bible is not any less a sign than a statement that can be construed as historical or scientific. It is risky to make semiological observations in an essay that addresses whether truth is dead, given Derrida’s finding that a signified is in reality also a signifier, with the result that all we have is an endless chain of signifiers and a perpetual deferral of meaning (truth). My counter is that the the hermeneutical circle, i.e., the back and forth between signifier and signified with a spiral toward greater understanding, is an effective counter to interpretative and epistemological freefall. But I agree that a semiological view of the Bible can contribute to the strengthening of our faith and understanding.
  3. We know that historiography and the study of hermeneutics as a whole have been largely neglected in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The 1986 Methods of Bible Study reflects a total ignorance of historiography, I regret to say. It is noteworthy that Paul does not attribute to the OT authors a von Rankean historiography. See 1 Cor. 10:11. We can have a fruitful conversation about historiography without attacking the truthfulness of the biblical text, because there are various legitimate approaches to re-presenting the past.

I fear that my comments may be too trite to do justice to this interesting essay that I will thinking about for some time. And I especially appreciate the closing paragraph.


Where did Abraham’s God come from? We are used to hearing from the God that has a history which makes His voice the “truth”. The Hebrews were told not to listen to any other God but their own. His identity was defined by his acts in Hebrew history. What is the object of our faith here in the 21st century? For the religious, God speaks through their religion.

Based on Abraham’s experience and Paul’s admonition, God speaks to us personally, outside any formal seat where God resides among people. No church is going to go along with that. There are well established lines of communication with God. Is it possible within the established Christian church - the established Adventist church - to actually hear from God? In practice, truth seems to be whatever the community says it is. 1984 revisited. That goes for God’s truth as well, except for the ardent nonconformists - and we know what happens to them.

As Christians, our guide fro truth is the Holy Spirit, which brings up more questions than answers.

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With Scripture we are dealing with “oral tradition” (Paul may be somewhat excepted) that eventually was written down. As oral tradition, it needs to be studied differently than written tradition, especially when history or historical research as we practice it, did not exist. Neither did “science” as we practice it. We are dealing with “story”–the primary mind-set of Judaism–as you well know. Logic, science, even history are contributions from the Greek culture. For me, this suggests that the effort to isolate science and history from the story are difficult, if not impossible. Having said that, a good story, to connect with the “hearers” (not readers originally) will often speak of physical events happening in time frames the hearers often experience for themselves, or can at least imagine happening that way. The “bodily” resurrection of Jesus is such an event, though “bodily” in this story, is like nothing we have ever experienced. Something happened which changed the early church and the course of history. But, as Paul reminds us, we “see in a mirror” very imperfectly, but then we shall know as we are known (I Cor. 13). Any claim of a miracle in a story will be treated with suspicion in the modern world. For us to at one and the same time acknowledge the justification for such suspicion and testify that with all its difficulties, we believe it, is to move to “faith.” This does not mean faith is irrational or unscientific, but in some sense “trans-rational” and extra-scientific.

So appreciate Professor Weiss’s reflections on these challenging issues and your response to them! Marvelous conversations!!


It is not faith but cant that has been the burr under the saddle of every village atheists from Robert Ingersoll to Richard Dawkins.To ask people to believe–not against “reason” as such, but evidence–is akin to the torture that hapless Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 underwent in order to “see” five fingers while staring at four. To demand that educated people believe that the entire world was flooded for a year around 2400 BCE and that all the animals in the world survived on board a crate without ventilation and with only eight people there to take care of them and dispose of their feces is a travesty, especially when you realize that the flood left no trace behind and that neither Judaism or Christianity considers such “faith” worth a hill of beans.Dr Weiss has a refreshingly honest way of dealing with these perennial distractions so that focus may be placed where it should, on ultimate reality.

That being said, I understand those who cling to the wreckage of fundamentalism since it is gives textual foundation and thereby an illusion of certainty, to a faith that otherwise might seem arbitrary and subjective.


I thought I had made clear that the truths of faith are expressed in analogical and metaphorical language. The problem is to attache the certainty of faith to the language of faith and at the same time give that language historical and scientific value, thus taking away from it the certainty of faith. Those who do that “trichotomize” the biblical text, and seem to be oblivious of the consequences. I am not “trichotomizing” biblical language. Analogical and metaphorical language do not aim at certainty. They appeal to the imagination.


Dr Weiss does a great job of exploring different ways of discovering truth: scientific, historical and through faith. And emphasising that faith is ultimately experiential.
Yet to me he seems to be headed in the direction of fideism (a la Schleiermacher and Barth), where faith becomes almost exclusively experiential.
Christianity is by definition a historical faith. We have to understand that it’s truths were revealed in an ancient environment, not a modern one, and make appropriate scientific and historical allowances. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t aspects of scientific or historical truth to the Christian faith.
Wolfhart Pannenberg illustrated the possibilities of approaching theology with the tools of critical analysis, aiming for a faith that is both historical and also experiential.

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To confess that God acted in historical events is not to give the truth of faith to those events. It is not possible to give historical or scientific value to events because they are described in the Bible. Using the tools of critical analysis,Pannenberg does not do that. Christianity is not the only faith that, by definition, is a “historical” faith (religion). To try to anchor the truth of faith in historical truth is to reduce it to an opinion. The truth of faith can only be demonstrated by the kind of life lived by the faithful.


The basis of faith has to be credible even if it is not provable. Then faith has integrity as well as efficacy.

The Mormon faith is lived out in a very appealing way by many wonderful people. Yet its historical claims are a barrier to most thinking enquirers.

Similarly, most Christians don’t think the faith works if the resurrection of Jesus is just a spiritual symbol - it has to be some sort of historical reality as well as a spiritual event.

So one needs the evidence of plausibility as well as the evidence of a lived faith.


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Anyone who thinks that historical plausibility will give more certainty to the truth of faith does not understand the difference between the certainty of faith and the certainty of historical truth. Historians do not deal with what is plausible or possible. They only deal with what is provable, and then chose what they consider to be the most provable. That the resurrection of Christ is real is not at all a matter for historical investigation, unless one wishes to argue that only material realities are real.


I find much in this piece refreshingly thoughtful, and yet, what I ultimately find expressed is a view of faith that seems strangely alien from that of the New Testament believers: “The truth of faith, on the other hand, cannot be modified or proven wrong by new discoveries or be sustained by a high degree of probability. It requires total certainty. This means that the truth of faith is neither scientific nor historical, and that no scientific or historical statement can claim to be a truth of faith.”

So much for Paul’s confession that the Christian faith boils down to singular historical event–Christ resurrected. As that of those before rested on the mighty acts of God in the world, in history.

Incredibly, it seems the author makes the same error as the fundamentalist: he seeks to bring “certainty” to faith. While taking very different routes, one seeking to use science/history to establish the certainty of faith, the other seeking to divorce faith from the world to find unassailable certainty, both find themselves at the same destination. While “certain”, though, this faith is an unfamiliar one. “Faith is not certainty of knowledge; it ‘is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’” (Testimonies, Vol 4 p. 27)

Thanks for a great article!
I fully agree with your distinction between scientific and historical truths in relation to the truth of faith. As I understand you, the truth-content of faith does not, and should not, belong within epistemic categories, like scientific knowledge. Religious truth is concerned with issues of meaning and a way of life. As such it is not irrational, but non-rational, which is a different rationality from scientific instrumental rationality.

God is not an object of “scientific lab-investigations”, which is what both religious and scientific fundamentalism tend to believe; both are concerned with epistemic certainty.

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Truth is the new hate speech…so its not dead…its just that people are calling it a different name now…

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I am glad you understood what I tried to say. I would only make a small change to your observation. We both agree that the truth of faith is not and cannot be irrational. You suggest that it is non-rational but yet has a rationality of a different kind. I would say that faith transcends reason.
Thank you for your input.

Citing Paul Tillich in Dynamics of Faith, Weiss claims that there are three kinds of truth:

1.“scientific truth” (subject to scientific rejection or modification by a new discovery that passes peer review.) 

2. “Academic historical truth” that is concerned with the reconstruction of the past “as it actually happened,” as opposed to what narrative would best function as a precautionary or inspiring tale for today.

3. The “truth of faith” that “cannot be modified or proven wrong by new discoveries or be sustained by a high degree of probability. It requires total certainty. This means that the truth of faith is neither scientific nor historical, and that no scientific or historical statement can claim to be a truth of faith. Their truth is that of scientific and historical statements, period.”

While I have not read Tillich, certainly this is an incomplete list of truths! How can Weiss not include mathematical or logical truths, such as “1 + 1 = 2" within the decimal system, or “If A = B, and B = C, then A = C.” These mathematical and logical truths cannot ever be proven wrong within their respective paradigms and therefore are always absolutely true. In that sense, they resemble “faith” as defined by Weiss. So it seems they should have been in his discussion of “faith.”

Yet mathematical and logical truths are not called “faith,” despite their certainty. Why not? I think the explanation is instructive. Mathematical and logical reasoning take place strictly within an abstract paradigmatic framework constructed by humans. These truths occupy that abstract framework, and therefore, unlike science and history, have no external reference by which they can be falsified. The various “Schools of Theology” (of which there are thousands) are also paradigms constructed by humans calling themselves “theologians.” How can each variant of the “truth of faith” be impossible to prove wrong? The answer seems obvious: Each “Truth of faith” promises reward or punishment on the “other side” such that verification or falsification is impossible unless we can obtain reliable reports back from the “other side” of the grave. We do indeed get lots of such alleged reports, some claiming to be Inspired, but they fall under the category of “private evidence,” and we all know how problematic that is.

And that (“private evidence”), is the real reason why “True faith” cannot be falsified. It is NOT because “It is the essence of the life of God,” as Weiss asserts, but for a much more parsimonious reason: The claims of “True faith” in the theological paradigm consists of future rewards or punishments that cannot be realized until after we all become “food for worms.”

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