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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Truth and Time

A couple days ago, something incredibly normal happened. As we were about to go to bed, my wife asked me whether I had locked the door. I responded in the affirmative (while glancing around most suspiciously), at which point she looked at the door and discovered I had, in fact, not locked the door yet. She promptly called me out on this, and I had a goofy response: "Well, it's about to be true!" What I didn't realize when I said this was that my response would spawn a convoluted path of thoughts and possibilities within my mind. I began to consider whether truth had a temporal dimension.

At first, it was kind of an exercise in language: In which tenses does truth exist? Obviously, truth can exist in the past and present tenses: "I locked the door," or "I am wearing pajamas." But can truth exist in the future tense? "I will finish my homework" can have two outcomes: completion or non-completion. The issue is whether the statement will become true, because it is neither true nor false at the moment of speaking. These were some of the initial thoughts, and they only got more complicated from there. (Feel free to skip a few paragraphs; it might be a while before I get to anything resembling a point.)

Next, I began to wonder how things are true. "This bag has 30 jelly beans left." The statement is true, until a jelly bean is added or removed. Does this mean once an addition or subtraction occurs that the previous statement is rendered false or that the truth has changed? This has become a question of assertions. The circumstances have changed, so the claim must change with it. This is a key element of scientific pursuit. Even if I believe there are actually only 12 jelly beans, that does not change how many jelly beans there are. Likewise, belief in a geocentric solar system or a flat earth does not alter reality. The issue with the jelly beans is an issue of quantitative truth.

But what about qualitative truth? If I claim, "God is ancient," the claim states a quality. In this case, the quality cannot change, because the quality is inherently time-bound and God does not become less ancient as time progresses. If we claim something is new, however, that claim can change. "This is my new book." The newness of the phone will decay over time, eventually leaving me with an old book. Again, this is a temporal quality, but the quality changes. If I claim an object is made of silver, a quality of material, can that quality change? The silver can become tarnished, be crushed and melted, frozen, or worn, but it has not stopped being silver. What about qualities such as "good" and "evil"? A good thing can become bad, and vice versa; so does the claim have to be revised with the circumstances?

As far as I could tell, it was possible for truth to change. But this seemed only to apply to verbal assertions: one could make a claim that, at that moment, was indeed true, but the factors contributing to the truthfulness of the assertion could be altered. So I considered whether there is actually such a thing as absolute truth, truth that does not change with circumstance. If all things can and do change, with change being the only constant, then why not truth? But this thought is bound up in words: the things which are believed to be either true or false are found in words. Whether observed or not, whether stated or not, the earth does not cease being spherical. It may in some point in the future become otherwise (pending some enormous disaster that breaks it apart), but the truth is not found in the words, but in the reality that shapes them. (And this all is by no means all that crossed my mind; it's simply all I could remember pondering.)

If you were skipping around, here's where you should pick back up. One of the key elements of the Christian faith is a future claim. We are told Jesus will come again, that bodies will be resurrected, that heaven and earth shall be remade and God's kingdom rightfully restored to the returning king. But is this truth? By faith we believe it to be true. But can it be called "truth" if it hasn't happened yet? At this point, it's an assertion. An assertion we believe to be true, but an assertion nonetheless. I'm not debating God's faithfulness; quite the contrary, I hope to affirm it. By saying, "God is faithful," I make a claim about the past and, through the past, about the present. While past evidence does not necessarily predict the future with absolute certainty, God does not appear to have given me reason to suppose he has been unfaithful. So, with the past in mind, I look to the future, however uncertain it may be. I continue searching for truth and its complicated dimensions, only to be reminded occasionally how simple the truth can be. Can truth exist in the future? Maybe, but if it does, it has not happened yet. Whatever future truths our world holds, may we encounter them with faith in God's faithfulness. For with uncertain apprehension and trust in that faithfulness may we step boldly into each new moment.

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