[Editor's Note: Dr. Esther Meek taught at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, and now she is a professor of philosophy at Geneva College. She is the author of Longing to Know.]
I have been thinking about the word, “true.”
It’s a concept that matters deeply, and it is one that
philosophers have struggled with little success and much frustration to define.
My own work in the theory of knowledge to offer a positive alternative to
modernism and postmodernism implicates me, obviously, in the matter of truth. But
I have been dancing around the concept, so to speak, and not exactly giving it
focused attention. So this post is a preliminary foray into the question of
what “true” is.
Theologian John Frame taught me to see things in threes—the embodied knowing person, the known world, and the norming words. So I start my inquiry regarding truth by identifying three dimensions. Truth, first, always involves my affirmation, my “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” Like a hammer that really isn’t what it was meant to be until it is wielded by a hammerer, truth always is truth in action—someone claiming it. It takes an active personal involvement, or it’s not even truth. It’s your congregation reciting the Apostles’ Creed, or your math professor asserting and employing theorems and strategies.
Truth is also about the world, about reality, about what is
known. (1) Sometimes we mean by truth
that there is something objectively there to be known. This is the formative
hope of truth: without it, we might as well not even talk about truth. The
Bible reveals that all that is there is there because it is either God or God
made and makes it. But also from a creaturely knower’s vantage point, I am
forever bumping into it, being surprised by it (and Him): my question of the
morning is how to get my tub faucet to stop dripping furiously… (2)
But the idea of truth seems centrally to do with how our
claims accord with what is there. It is notoriously difficult to offer an
account of this. The knower can’t ever step outside of her- or himself to do a
test to see if the proposed statement matches the world (much as I, as a
surprise-party thrower, can’t ever, in advance of the party, ask the principal,
“Are you still clueless?”--!). By now in the unfolding of the Western tradition
we are all sensitized to the fact that reality comes to us along the lines of
the way we have crafted it with our preconceptions, and that we shape it in our
very knowing. (3) This is both the agony
and the ecstasy of being a creaturely knower. God situated us in a world and
mandated us to understanding and caring for it.
In my own work I have been recently preoccupied with saying
that we should take as our paradigm of all knowing the interpersonal covenantal
relationship. We need to see truth as troth,
to appropriate Parker Palmer’s powerful and apt aphorism. (4)
But here I want to consider another sense of the word, drawn
from common parlance: it is the way we use “true,” if we are building something.
It connotes the perfect alignment of two pieces, or of the work with
verticality (as with a plumb line). The story of the building of the Gateway
I have another image in mind, and that is tuning a guitar,
or an orchestra. When you reach that moment of perfect alignment, suddenly the
sound widens out with the rich resonances of overtones that make your heart
Putting words on the world is something we do because we
were both made and called to do it. Finding an apt word, Proverbs says, a word that is true in its alignment, is
like apples of gold in settings of silver—treasure upon treasure. It’s also not
guaranteed, and a matter of wisdom.
I believe that we never have what we call “exact matches”
between words and world. I mean this not in the “don’t get your hopes up” sort
of a way. I mean it in two ways. First, following Proverbs, and also ordinary
experience, our claims take tuning, so to speak. We can have expressed partial
understanding, or can have partially expressed understanding. We are always in
process of coming to know more fully and deeply. It takes skill and wisdom and
troth. It also calls for grace in partial knowing. (5)
Second, we should not take success in truth to be exact—that is to two-dimensionalize what really happens. Carrying on the tuning analogy, “exact” would be to deny the inbreaking of overtones, the very reality that invades you with surprise and delight. Claiming exact truth about your spouse or about God would be an insult. There is a meaningful and mysterious depth to both knower and known and knowing that means that truth is always hard to pin down. The moment of truth sets up allusive resonances of shalom in both knower and known, and accord between them, even while it continues to mystify and draw us.
(1) Here I am including God as an objective real to be known. I am not identifying him with his creation, but seeing both as items we aspire to contact in our knowing.
(2) I use the term, “creaturely knower,” following Frame and theologian Mike Williams, who feel it is important to distinguish and describe the knowing we are talking about as that of creatures, as opposed to that of God, the Creator.
(3) There are a couple Bible verses which assert something like this, for example, Proverbs 10:24.
(4) See his To Know As We Are Known: Education As A Spiritual Journey. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
(5) Consider that the “Now I know in part” phrase is set in the context of the Love chapter (1 Corinthians 13).
© 2006, Esther L. Meek.