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Alexander Goerlach

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Truth, Opinion and Jesus

Posted: 08/21/11 05:26 PM ET

Can we talk about objective, irrevocable truth? Or merely about claims to truth that are contested by the statements of others? Truth or opinion -- the answer to that question has massive implications for our idea of man.

For the publisher of a debate magazine, the question is almost unavoidable: Can we talk about Truth with a capital T? We believe in discussion, which means subjective truths are pitted against each other. The best arguments -- or the arguments that are best articulated -- will eventually prevail. Language thus becomes the medium through which we gain access to truth. It cannot be divorced from the speaker.

The linguistic turn in the latter half of the 20th century led to an understanding of language as a contextual property. Language is more than the emission of sounds. Speech becomes an exercise in self-actualization. Speaking is acting, which is another way of saying that language cannot be anything but subjective. In the context of the trifecta of speech-thoughts-world, no objective truth remains that should be understood as a given. Children don't actualize a pre-programmed language database when they begin to form words out of sounds. They are actualizing the world they experience -- their world, their subjective existence.

Insights from linguistics and neurology have helped to raise substantive challenges against the traditional idea of truth. We tended to think of truth as something objective and exterior to the world, something larger than material reality. Those ideas have been filed away with the emergence of the linguistic turn. The concept that has replaced them is decidedly different: Truth is opinion -- the stuff that fills the pages of a debate magazine like The European.

The linguistic turn is the most recent slight against man after the belittlements that he experienced through Copernicus, Darwin and Freud. It states: "You are incapable of anything but a well-formulated opinion. Your knowledge is limited." Man is not the recipient of a revelation, nor is he capable of knowing what larger reality might surround him. Instead, he constructs his own reality through the tools of language. He is constantly and subjectively engaged with the people he converses with, and -- on a larger level -- with all human beings that share the same cognitive capacities. His world is one in which things are elevated to truths through the discursive process. There is no objective Truth that can be known and that would provide the key to unlock all the secrets of our reality and existence.

We are not confronted with an objective reality; we are always part of our subjective reality. The world "becomes" through us. When we die, our world dies with us. That understanding of truth has many consequences, two of which I want to mention briefly:

The entrenched interplay of words and deeds has become obsolete with the linguistic turn. For our ancestors, a wise and just man was someone who lived his life according to the norms that he had recognized as true. That is the standards against which ancient heroes and Christian saints were measured. Christ becomes the true son of God in the theology of late antiquity because his actions are manifestations of his preaching. Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and ends up forgiving his tormenters himself. Yet we have to concede that those convictions are not found outside of ourselves or that they are the result of divine mercy. They form inside of us and become real when we articulate or think them.

A second consequence concerns the distinction between good and evil. Saint Thomas could still say that it was ethical to do good and avoid evil. His ideas about good and evil are derived from the maxims of Christian theology. But does the good manifest itself in God, and does evil manifest itself in the devil? Or can we see a parallel to the linguistic turn, where good and evil emerge out of our thoughts, words and actions, where they are shaped by the totality of our experiences?

In both cases, the majority of readers will probably respond intuitively that this is not the case. Impressive personalities have derived their persuasive powers from values that they regarded as having divine origins -- Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa are just a few prominent examples. And it is also absurd to think that good and evil cannot be properly distinguished and defined just because we lack an objective and exterior frame of reference. After all, substantive differences exist between the two categories.

How do we resolve that tension? Some concepts exist that are larger than individual lives, if only because they outlast our finite human existences. As discursive agents, we can agree on a codex of actions and values that guide our interactions and co-existence and help to define what is good and what is evil. And there will always be individuals whose cognitive and empathic powers allow them to articulate ideas that inspire others and serve as guiding lights for our own lives.

Should we give up on the idea of eternal truth? Sometimes it might be sufficient to arrive at a justified opinion.