American architect Frank Lloyd Wright said, “The truth is more important than the facts.”
I agree, although I’m not sure that I could explain why. What is the difference between truth and fact?
There are differing answers to this question depending on whom you ask. One author on the subject says that facts are more objective, permanent and verifiable in reality than truth. The author went on to use a curious example to demonstrate the empirical reliability and constancy of facts by referring to the sun always rising in the east and descending in the west. I found this amusing, as the example is not a fact but a perception—a false perception no less. The sun doesn’t move up or down in relation to the earth, it only appears that way relative to our perspective from the earth’s surface. If our perspective was from the sun or outside our galaxy, we would see the earth rotating as it orbited around the sun.
This highlights a fun fact about facts. They are not based on reality itself, but on our perception of reality. This means that facts can change as our perceptions change. The truth, on the other hand, does not change, according to my Christian worldview. Our understanding of truth certainly changes, but truth itself doesn’t. It changes us.
With the risk of oversimplifying, I distinguish fact from truth this way: A fact describes a fragment of reality in a particular context from a particular perspective, whereas the truth relates to the whole. For instance, you can use isolated facts dishonestly, to deceive and move people way from the truth, as some politicians frequently do. But truth is always honest, holistic and integrated.
I realize that this distinction is vague and probably unhelpful, but I’m not sure I can define truth more clearly. You see, for Christians, truth takes on an even larger and more mysterious synthesis, namely, with God. For Christians, all truth is “divine truth.” As St. Augustine said, “Wherever truth may be found, it belongs to the Lord.”
When I engage “divine truth,” it often confounds more than it clarifies. It grasps me more than I grasp it. It is not an objective “thing” that I can memorize and pull out of my conversation repository like a piece of trivia or baseball stat, because it is not something I can simply learn and comprehend. Divine truth is something I encounter and become—or resist.
Many Christians, myself included, have been trained to focus on the facts, rather than the truth of Christianity. Luke said that he wrote his gospel account so that we may “know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:3-5).
Many Christians today are well instructed in biblical facts, but do not yet know the truth they point to. Jesus suggested that many Jewish leaders in his time had become so focussed on the Bible that they were unable to see what it was pointing to, namely, his own being. My hunch is that Jesus would hand the same diagnosis to many of us Christians today.
“Divine truth” cannot be communicated by merely presenting the facts about God and Jesus in written or spoken word. Not even if we “speak the truth in love,” whatever we think that means. In my experience, it often means imposing our opinions on others. The interesting thing about Paul’s mandate in Ephesians 4:15 about “speaking the truth in love” is that it isn’t about speaking.
Theologian John Stott explains: “ ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is not the best rendering of this expression, for the Greek verb makes no reference to our speech. Literally, it means, ‘truthing in love,’ and includes the notions of ‘maintaining,’ ‘living’ and ‘doing’ the truth.”
“Divine truth” is deeper than our language, and is beyond it. As Paul writes in I Thessalonians 1:5: “[T]he gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.”
Paul is saying that the truth of Christ is revealed not merely by communicating ideas with words, but by a spiritual energy, by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, and by the kind of people we are as we live in “divine truth.” One of my mentors puts it this way: “The truth of Christ is more caught than taught.”
This is Pt. 7 of “The pursuit of truth” series.
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.