What Makes Truth True?
President Ulysses S. Grant recalled the effect of repetition on his mind when, in his youth, his teachers required him to repeat the phrase, “‘a noun is the name of a thing,’…until I had come to believe it’” (1). And with time and repetition, even a fallacious idea sometimes acquires the status of truth. For example, the phrase “What’s true for you is not true for me”, erroneously applies the word, true, to represent subjective experience, not objective truth (2).
It’s important to discern the difference, to challenge the error, and to know and live according to what is objectively true. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it’s a matter of salvation:
Man’s salvation consists in knowing the truth, so that the human mind may not be confused by diverse errors; in making for the right goal, so that man may not fall away from true happiness by pursuing wrong ends…. (3)
How do we know what is true?
Truth is real, objective, universal, equal, unchangeable, discernable, and authoritative. These attributes help distinguish truth from subjective experience and describe its trueness. But they don’t explain what gives truth its force-of-truth, its power, and its meaning. In other words, here, we’re not discerning the qualities of truth; we’re searching for what makes it true?
Truth and Creation
Truth rests in an authority above ourselves and above any manmade institution. All of reality exists within the truth of God’s creation. Christ, the Logos, the Word of God, imbues creation with His truth: the truth of His existence, His providence, and His laws. Joseph Ratzinger described Christ as “the fullness of creative reason itself…the presence of a creative truth that lies at the foundation of being…” (4).
There is no alternative reality, no subjective experience that we can substitute in its place. In fact, if we fail to recognize the existential relationship we enjoy with the Triune God and His creation, then truth becomes incomprehensible. According to Joseph Ratzinger, “Where God is shut out, peace on earth breaks down, and no godless orthopraxis [right action] can save us. For there is no such thing as right action without a knowledge of what is right.” (5).
Then, we shouldn’t be surprised when our culture struggles to comprehend truth after cutting itself off from God. The prophet, Amos, seems to foreshadow our struggle when he prophesied a “famine” of truth. “Then shall they wander…in search of the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it” (Amos 8:11-12). If Amos were alive today, he’d be leading the fight for religious liberties; he’d be a clarion voice for truth.
Christ as Truth
In addition to Logos, Creative Reason, and Word of God, we also refer to Christ as Truth. To our minds, truth is a set of doctrines and commandments, or a moral virtue. It’s not a Person. So, when we say, Christ is Truth, our mind struggles to create an appropriate image. In 1870, the First Vatican Council listed 15 divine attributes of God (6) to confront “the growing tide of atheism” (7). The list begins with “one, true, and living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth” (8).
But because God is entirely simple and perfect—having no parts—those attributes do not exist separately as a component part of His divine nature. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, truth is not a part of God but one with Him: God “is His own…act of understanding. So, it follows not only that truth is in Him, but that He is truth itself” (9).
A new phrase to repeat
What makes truth true? We “believe that the things revealed by Him are true…because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived” (10). The Decalogue, Revelation, Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, articles of faith, dogmas—these truths are made true because Christ is not a mere ideal, a moral teacher, or a philosophical idea. He is, in reality, God and Truth. Accordingly, I propose that we replace the phrase, “What is true for you is not true for me”, with “Truth is true for everyone, and you’ll find it in Christ.”
How would you explain “What makes truth true?” to an atheist, one who doesn’t acknowledge his existential relationship with God and Creation, or Christ as Truth?
(Next week: God “reveals to us his mystery” (11). But He also gives “us the power to assent to it” (12), the subject of the next blog: The Pathways to Truth.)
1. Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters, Grant, 21
2. Truth and Ice Cream, Ted Horn, Catholic.com
3. Light of Faith, Aquinas, 3
4. Joseph Ratzinger, In Communio, 191
5. On the Way to Jesus Christ, Ratzinger, 108-9
6. Denzinger, 1782
7. The Catholic Catechism, Hardon, 55
8. Ibid, 55
9. Summa of the Summa, Kreeft, 146
10. Dei Filius, Vatican I, chapter 3; CCC156
11. What is Dogma?, Journet, 23
12. Ibid, 23