I am studying for a test on Presbyterian Polity that is coming up in about a week, which explains why I was reading the Book of Order and ran across this “Historic Principle of Church Order” (F-3.01):
Truth and Goodness
That truth is in order to goodness, and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s [sic] opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it. (F-3.0104)
When I first ran across this particular principle, over 20 years ago, I was stunned, because it clearly subordinated the value of truth to something else. It wasn’t until I experienced that shock that I realized I had spent a long time thinking of truth as THE highest value. I had to struggle with whether I could actually accept the idea of truth being in order to anything – even goodness.
Over time, however, it dawned on me that there are indeed some empirical investigations that we cannot really want to undertake. To understand the mind of a sociopathic serial killer, for instance, to know “why he did that,” would entail such intimate experiential knowledge of and meditation on evil that it would harm the investigator, by shifting the investigator’s diligent focus away from what it is good to meditate on and to know intimately, and steeping it in evil instead. A person might be curious to know what the Medusa looked like, but a rational person wouldn’t try to satisfy that curiosity, since seeing it would turn her to stone. Pursuing the value of truth in that instance would nullify every value, including, tragically, the value of truth. From this perspective, there is, indeed, a rational limit to the search for truth.
Re-reading F-3.0104, however, reminded me that truth is only in order to goodness. If it’s not true to say there’s no higher value than truth, it’s also not true to say there are many higher values. Truth and falsehood are not on a level, and it’s clear which of those we are encouraged to embrace; since our opinions are a matter of consequence, we should take care to make them sound. Which inclines me to point out that despite what some people and some billboards and some museum in Kentucky say, truth is not something a person has to give up to “be Christian.” Data and doctrine are not enemies – or rather, if they are, something is deeply amiss with at least one of those.
As Augustine said,
… For we ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them; nor because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and prefer to worship in the form of stones things that ought to have their place in the heart, ought we on that account to forsake justice and virtue. Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master … (On Christian Doctrine, II.18.28)