Saturday, September 5, 2009

What About Conflicting Truth Claims?

The question about conflicting truth claims was raised by the reader of this blog who has commented most often. It is an important issue, and one that merits careful attention.

There are three main ways that individuals or groups can respond to conflicting truth claims: (1) With criticism, rejection, and attacks upon truth claims that conflict with one's own. (2) With a "live-and-let-live" attitude that basically accepts truth claims different from one's own as more or less equally valid, and (3) With dialogue in which the nature of the conflicting claims is clarified and serious attention is given to the differences being discussed.

The first of these three approaches was the most common in the past, but it is an approach that should be rejected, as it has often led to animosity and to bloodshed. I reject any action in the name of truth that leads to violence.

The second approach is becoming more and more common, and certainly it is good for fostering peaceful relations with other people. But I have serious questions about and problems with the relativism and pluralism it spawns. (This is such a timely and important issue that I want to deal with it further in a later posting on this blog.)

The third, I believe, is by far the best position. It does not reject other truth claims to the extent of causing harm, but neither does it accept them without question. Except for cases where conflicting truth claims are clearly injurious to others, there is an openness to listen and even to learn from those espousing opposing views. For a Christian believer, this is especially true with regard to the faithful adherents of the main religious traditions of the world.

As I wrote in my comments posted on August 31, "dialogue is only possible where there are different viewpoints shared freely." Dialogue involves talking about differences more than about similarities. Careful analysis of those differences may show that some of them are superficial and can be harmonized. But other differences may well turn out to be substantial and unable of being disposed of easily.

John Hick, one of the examples of Christian liberalism that I introduce in my forthcoming book "The Limits of Liberalism," has a chapter called "The Conflicting Truth Claims of Different Religions" in his Philosophy of Religion (third edition, 1983). Hick concludes his chapter with these words: ". . . the great religious traditions of the world represent different human perceptions of and response to the same infinite divine Reality" (p. 121).

Hick's conclusion is no doubt true in many ways. But it does not answer all the questions. There are contradictory and conflicting claims that remain. As most of us know well, there are some remarkable conflicting truth claims between, say, fundamentalist and liberal Christians. So there are, naturally, often even greater conflicts between Christians and those in other faith traditions and especially between Christian believers and those who are atheists and/or complete secularists.

For the Christian thinker, to lash out against conflicting views with belligerence is not acceptable. But, neither, is a relativistic acceptance of conflicting or contradictory views. The hard work of dialogue and the continual search for, and witness to, the Truth is our obligatory task.


  1. One of my "thinking friends" who has read and responded to several of my postings sent the following comments by e-mail. His ideas are so important I am posting them here for others to read, and I will be responding to some of the questions he raised in future postings.

    My friend, who is not a pastor or a religion teacher but an intelligent, perceptive layman, wrote,

    "I've read your latest blog, and appreciate the opportunity to read and respond. I'm not sure of our [human] capacity to find Truth, and believe what may be best and purest of our many faith traditions are those segments of those faith traditions--be they Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, etc., that consider the Eternal, the Divine, to be unknowable, even unspoken and unnamed.

    "Will we know Truth when we see it? Are we capable of knowing Truth, or are we so afraid that Truth may result in the rejection of our own worldview, our own faith tradition, that we would turn from Truth when faced with it? In our seeking, are we more interested in justifying our own worldview and faith than we are in truly finding answers to the more difficult questions? It seems that if we are sincere in our desire to find Truth, we need to be sincere in accepting the Truth even to the extent it may require the rejection of our own faith tradition (as we Christians have asked millions of "converts" to do in our history). Yet I do not believe that most Christians would be willing to reject their faith if the Truth as revealed would require such a rejection. We are not so much interested in the Truth, as we are in arguing that our faith is true.

    "You fairly casually reject pluralism/relativism, and I'm curious as to your reason(s), . . . Why deny God the ability to set in motion multiple paths to the Eternal, when we know God provides multiple paths to a variety of other destinations (love, reconciliation, justice, societal order) via a variety of experiences and circumstances. For example, it can be true that, for a given person, God may be found through tremendously difficult circumstances--evidenced by born again folks who have experienced considerable suffering through drugs/addictions, illness, family dysfunction, etc., anger/evil/greed (thinking here of the author of "Amazing Grace"), and evidenced as well, and equally, by those who find God through a full life lived in devotion to God (i.e., those folks who have grown up in the church and who found God not through tremendous suffering but through life in the church). Indeed these are multiple paths to the one Truth (as we Christians find that truth), and if we defined Truth or the path narrowly as one or the other, then we'd lose an awful lot of very faithful folks.

    "Are you equating Truth with the path to Truth? I made some assumptions above based on your reference to plurality suggesting that the paths of the various faith traditions are different paths to different truths, not different paths to the same Truth, variously defined and named.

    "Also, it seems when we struggle too hard to prove the validity/legitimacy/truth of our own faith against the assertions or truth claims of others, what we've done is simply tried to influence Truth, rather than allow Truth to influence us. It seems an awful lot of church folks suffer from the same affliction suffered by many politicians--the belief that if we say it long enough, loud enough, with enough conviction/passion, and just the right way, it must be t[T]rue. I find much in the dialogue/conversation regarding Truth to be nothing more than an attempt at control or ownership of the Truth as if it were property to be found in limited supply. I think, as I've mentioned regarding creeds, stories, etc., when we try to name it, we are simply trying to own it, to make it ours, to secure it for ourselves. It, Truth, is not property. It is an essence beyond our comprehension, yet worthy of our greatest aspirations. However, we do not, cannot, find finds us."

  2. Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, whose comments were posted in connection with a earlier posting, has again sent comments that I am sharing here with his permission. (Please note also what I write after his comments.)


    What would you think of Douglas V. Steere's idea he called "mutual irradiation"? As you do, he rejected both "burying" others and simply coexisting (I've noticed bumper stickers with a prominent appeal for that). Instead, he argued that we should believe strongly enough in our own tradition to allow the light of God in us irradiate others even as we allow the light of God in others to irradiate us. Douglas probably went farther than you may in thinking that the God of this vast universe does not have such limited candlepower that God could only illuminate Christians. That would not mean that the light is equal everywhere, but we must be open to recognize how limited our human capacity is to perceive the truth of God, who is beyond knowing.


    Dr. Hinson is the author of "Love at the Heart of Things: A Biography of Douglas V. Steere" (1998). I know little about Steere (1901-95), but I was so intrigued by Dr. Hinson's quote from him and respect my friend and former teacher so much I have ordered his book on Steere and look forward to learning more about him. -- LKS

  3. I have been having trouble with your three options, Leroy. I agree that #1, rejection of competing ideas, is not in the best interest for persons of faith. It has a lot in common with J. S. Mill's notion of silencing opinions. Your #3, the one you advocate, seems to welcome open disagreement and debate about competing claims, but it is unclear as to what the aim and outcome might be. You may be operating on an assumption that competing views ultimately do surface truth. Or, you may be assuming that even if truth does not emerge, people can agree to disagree. I would like to hear you elaborate #3 further. Your option #2 seems implied in #3, though, and for that reason I can embrace it.

    I have already alluded to Nancey Murphy's "Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism..." in a previous post, but I would here, also. She abandons foundational approaches to truth, urging that the old epistemological assumptions on which it was grounded have been shown not to be as certain as once thought. She argues for an approach to truth that grows from a Lakatosian model of the "research program." We form hypotheses and suspend judgment until the data is in.

    Along these lines, persons of faith are able to make real commitments to the claims of their faith story while also affirming an openness to new data, new information, that could radically challenge the fundamental assumptions driving those commitments. Research programs are driven both by genuine doubts, probing questions, and real commitments to see the program through to satisfactory answers. I would propose that persons of faith hold to faith in that manner: committed, yet honestly open to information that could show one's commitment to be unfounded. It would be difficult both intellectually and emotionally, not to mention incredible catichetical challenges. Still, it would be honest, and honesty is dear in religion these days.