Written by Pastor Ed
April 23, 2017
I Peter 1: 3-9
John 20: 19-31
“Seeing is believing”, or so the saying goes. One of the philosophy professors that I had in university was a proponent of a school of philosophy called Logical Positivism. I won’t try to explain the philosophy here, but in simple terms, this early 20th century branch said that the only statements that had any meaning were those that could be verified somehow, or contrarily, if you could think of a way to unverify them, prove them false. It really grew out of a very scientific worldview, championed by men like Ludwig Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer, and has been mostly abandoned, in fact had mostly been abandoned even in the 70’s, but my professor had clung to it.
Thus in a Philosophy of Religion class, we spent the entire semester in arguments about the existence of God, which of course you can’t verify. The professor said he really wanted to believe in God, but philosophically couldn’t and so asked us to try and convince him. It made for an interesting class.
On Good Friday, the theme focused around Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” How do we discern truth? As noted, there seems to be a debate going on currently about truth. Steven Colbert, popular late night talk show host said recently,
“It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” ( Stephen Colbert)
And someone else has said,
“Given a choice between their worldview and the facts, it’s always interesting how many people toss the facts.” ( Rebecca Solnit)
So is there a difference between facts and truth? And how does that relate to our familiar story of Thomas? Well, as it turns out there is a difference, and perhaps it is one to which we should pay some attention, particularly as we read the Bible.
It turns out there is a web site called differencebetween.net where you can ask such questions. Their response to the question of the difference between facts and truth is summarized like this:
- Facts are more objective when compared to the more subjective truths.
- Facts are more permanent when compared to the more temporary truths.
- Facts exist in reality, whereas truths are usually the things that one believes to be true, or the things that are true in the current situation.
- Facts can also answer the ‘where,’ ‘when’ and ‘how’ questions, whereas truths answer the ‘why’ question.
Other explanations are more practical. A philosophy site states, “A fact is a reality that cannot be logically disputed or rejected. If I say “fire is hot,” I don’t care how great your reasoning skills are, if you touch fire your skin will burn…Facts are concrete realities that no amount of reasoning will change. When one acknowledges a fact, they are doing just that. Facts are not discovered, facts are not created, facts are simply acknowledged.” Or even more simply, “The telephone book is full of facts, but it doesn’t contain a single idea.” ( Mortimer Adler)
Then again, William Faulkner, American novelist said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other. “ And Maya Angelou agreed saying, “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”
So what, you’re asking, does this have to do with our scripture reading from John 20 regarding Thomas? As you recall, when Jesus first appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, according to John, Thomas was not with them. And when the other disciples told Thomas that they has seen Jesus, he was skeptical and said he would not believe them unless he had proof – until he himself saw the identifying marks that would convince him of the facts.
Thomas wanted to see some facts before he would believe the truth that Jesus was raised from the dead. And John records that Thomas was given that chance. Jesus appeared again and invited Thomas to see his hands and feel his side, and thus believe. And he did. And then Jesus makes an interesting comment. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” To which John adds his postscript that this book was written so that “you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (20: 31)
John notes that there are a lot of other things Jesus did that he doesn’t record in his telling, and if you read the four Gospels, as Jenn pointed out last Sunday, you discover that the timelines don’t all coincide, partly because John doesn’t pay much attention to timelines. Because John, indeed all of the writers, are much more concerned about the truth than they are about facts. Thomas wanted facts, something he couldn’t dispute, but John knew that his readers, either then or now, weren’t going to have facts to check out, but only the witness of those who told the story.
You see, if you try to read the Bible as though it were full of facts, as some do, you run into all kinds of difficulties, because people don’t always get the facts right, as we discovered last Sunday. People’s experiences, point of view, and prejudices make a difference in how facts get interpreted. And as one quote said, people are often just as ready to abandon the facts as they are their own opinions, if the two don’t match.
And we know that even things we once thought were solid facts don’t always prove to be correct. As we learn more and more about the universe, we have had to abandon some of what I learned in school as fact. Quantum physics opened up a whole new way of looking at the universe. E=mc² changed everything.
So if you make the Bible out as a book of facts, then you can always dispute the facts. Clearly we know from the fossil records that the earth is much older than Bishop Usher figured it out to be by adding up the genealogies in the Old Testament. And so skeptics can dismiss the Bible because it doesn’t fit the facts as we know them. Or, you can, as some do, try and make the Bible fit the facts, or dismiss the facts as wrong, which often leads to ridicule and some very interesting and convoluted interpretations.
But the Bible was written, as John says, to point us to the truth; that is to an interpretation of what we see around us and what we believe. We believe that God created the world and everything in it. Others have different creation accounts. We believe that God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt. The Egyptians would undoubtedly write the history differently.
And we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples. Our experience and the testimony of people like John and the other Gospel writers have led us to accept that truth. As Matthew points out in his Gospel, the chief priests came up with a different story that persisted even to the time Matthew was writing. Their explanation, that the disciples came and stole the body away, probably makes more logical sense, but it doesn’t fit the testimony of John nor of many others through the centuries who have come to experience the risen Christ.
Thomas questioned the truth of what the other disciples told him, until he too had experienced the risen Christ. Truth can, and perhaps should always be questioned. Doubt is not bad. If we simply accept everything that people say as truth, we will find ourselves mighty confused, I think. We are told to test the spirits and only hold fast to that which we find to be true. Just as we might question other’s beliefs, so we should expect that people might question ours. And sometimes even we will find ourselves questioning something that we have held as true. Doubt is not opposed to faith, in fact I would suggest that doubt often makes our faith stronger.
Now this all may sound like I’m saying that there are many different truths, as we’ve been led to believe by recent politicians. The reality is that, yes, while there are given facts, and with today’s technology you need to get your facts straight because someone is going to be checking up on you, truth is open to debate, just ask any lawyer. While the facts may be the same, your and my interpretation of those facts may be very different, again based on many other factors.
But that’s ok, because we don’t follow a set of truths. We follow a person, namely Jesus who we have come to believe is the Messiah, the Son of God, not because we have seen facts about him, but because we too have experienced life through him. We have had an encounter with the living Christ, just as Thomas did. That’s the basis for our understanding of the church and baptism, as a decision a person makes when they have come to accept that truth and experienced Jesus in a personal way.
Now certainly that belief is not simply arbitrary. We have the testimony of the scriptures and the history of the church through the ages. We have the experience of many people. But until we too have come to experience and accept the truth that John points us to, those will always just be other people’s truths and experiences. Like Thomas we may question what they have shared, until we have experienced it for ourselves. Then our faith becomes owned, our own, and we join with Thomas in proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”
To quote the words of I Peter:
“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of faith, the salvation of your souls.” (I Peter 1: 8-9)
Thanks be to God.