I stood before a class of university journalism students in Mongolia to talk with them about journalism and truth. A smaller group, about five of them, stood at the front of the crowd to accept a challenge from me. I handed them two bills and asked them to tell me which one was real and which one was a counterfeit.
As I passed them the money I told my story. Shortly after coming to Mongolia I made friends with a police officer who was involved in busting a ring of counterfeiters. My police officer friend gave me one of the counterfeit bills as a gift.
The students diligently handled the money, looking at both sides trying to spot differences in the design work, ink, layout, etc. They held it up to the light. They rubbed the paper to see if the texture was the same on both bills. They even opened their wallets to compare the bills with their own. They questioned each other about their opinions. After a few minutes of back and forth I took the bills, held them up for everyone to see and ask the students to vote. Which bill was real? Which bill was fake?
All of the students gave their answer, choosing one bill or the other as real or fake. I held the bills high, pausing for dramatic effect, watching as the students sat, some on the edge of their seats, waiting to find out which bill was counterfeit. I made my announcement.
They were both real. My story was a lie.
Some in the crowd laughed, some awed that they had been fooled. A few shook their heads.
I faced the five students on whom I had played my prank and asked them, “How old are you? How long have you been handling money?” They all answered, with a little embarrassment. “You mean to tell me you’ve been handling money for almost 20 years and you can’t tell if a bill is real or fake?” There was some laughter around the room. I turned to the crowd and said the following, “Consider what we did today. We closely examined a claim, we handled the evidence in our hands, we compared it carefully, we took counsel with one another about what we were seeing, and we all chose wrongly.” Suddenly the whole room was quiet.
“When you are engaged in your future job as journalists, how will you know whether the person you are interviewing is lying? How will you know if the criminal case you are reporting really happened? How will you determine the truth claim made by someone you are interviewing is actually true or not?”
I continued, “We considered the claim. We examined the evidence. And we all got it wrong. You can go to school for 4-6 years and become an expert in something. If you’ve been handling money for 20 years why couldn’t you make a correct determination about my claim?”
“Every journalist,” I said, “needs to have a love affair with the truth. The truth isn’t just something that you take for granted. If you are going to be a good journalist then you need to passionately care about the truth and do everything in your power to ensure that you are not being fooled. It’s not going to be easy, but if you really love truth then you won’t rest or make easy assumptions until you’ve discovered the real truth about what you report.”
Knowing The Truth
Today’s lesson? It’s simply this: how do you know that what you believe is the truth? You may be an atheist, or a Buddhist, or Muslim, or a Christian, or even a Pastafarian. But is what you believe really true? Perhaps you’ve studied various religious writings. Perhaps you’ve talked with spiritual leaders, monks, pastors, or learned skeptics. Yet, with all of the competing truth claims in the world today, how do you know that you have picked a truth claim that comports with reality?
Let me give you five characteristics of truth that you can use to help you determine if a truth claim is the real deal.
(1) Genuine truth is transcendent, not dependent.
This means that something is true regardless if there is an observer or not. The actuality of something remains actual even if no one knows it or sees it. The universe is a great example. For centuries man did not know about other galaxies. Yet the truth that galaxies exist was still actual and not dependent upon whether or not we could see them. This is the same with all genuine truth. It remains true regardless of the existence or perspective of the observer.
(2) Truth is narrow, not broad.
When someone says that all religions are varying expressions of the same thing, then we can dismiss this claim as false. Religions teach different things, under different conceptual understandings. To say that all teach the same thing is to make truth broad when in fact, the concepts are all different and contrary. All cannot be true. Therefore, the truth of these religions or truth claims is narrow, not broad.
(3) Truth is clear, not confusing.
A truth claims that makes you jump through hoops and keeps you ignorant through concepts like “secret knowledge,” brings partial understanding and confusion. When something is actual it can be simply stated. There may be details to a truth claims that require some education or training to properly comprehend, but once understood the truth is clear and not confusing.
(4) Truth comports, not distorts.
This means that genuine truth aligns with reality. Here are examples where truth claims do not comport with reality.
Mormonism claims that Native American tribes are descendants of Israel. Genetic studies show this to be false, thus, the Mormon claim distorts reality and does not comport with reality and thus, is not true.
Buddhism claims that all people go through a process of rebirth over many centuries and lifetimes. Yet, there is no real world evidence for this. In fact, when evidence is offered, many Buddhist argue about who they were in a past life, with many claiming to be the same person. Without evidence, or with contrary claims within the same belief system, Buddhism’s philosophy can be dismissed as a distortion of reality.
(5) Truth is actual, not perspectival.
This is similar to my first point. We see this in how different cultures perspectivize reality. One culture interprets experience relationally while another interprets it situationally. In some cases the rightness or the wrongness of an action depends upon these cultural filters. The challenge is to communicate a consistent moral value that is actual regardless of its perspectival experience.
Truth is truth and will always remain so. The challenge for man is not the creation of truth, or even the discovery of truth. It is the revelation of truth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, in part, because Jesus meets all of these criteria for truth. His identity is transcendent. His identity claim is narrow and not broad. His teaching and identity are clear and not confusing. His claims comport with reality. He has demonstrated that his claims are actual, regardless of perspective. Thus, Jesus’ claims about himself are true, actual, and dependable.