An Unexpected Ally

When I jettisoned my Christian faith at the age of nineteen, it was partly the fault of the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Late night debates with a fellow undergraduate who seemed to know all the arguments against God’s existence kicked down my faith’s door. Russell’s book Why I Am Not a Christian shattered the walls. The foundations collapsed when another acquaintance, whom I regarded as a mature Christian, could give me no better reason for being a Christian than that I just had to believe it as it was a matter of faith. My Christianity was a ruin for the following nine years. I defined myself as an agnostic but lived as if God did not exist.

There is one part of Russell’s writings though that I would recommend to all Christians: it is his discussion of the nature of truth which appears in the twelfth chapter of his book The Problems of Philosophy. In an age of religious relativism in which the multitude of competing and contradictory religious beliefs make them appear unverifiable and therefore best treated as expressions of personal preference rather than checkable truth claims, Russell’s exposition of the correspondence theory of truth is a healthy reminder that what is true is objectively true regardless of what people prefer to be true and that it is expressed in propositions that are checkable and conform with reality.

How does this connect with Christianity? Christians make an assortment of propositions as to what they regard as real. Some treat their beliefs as instructional myths and metaphors for natural realities. These non-realists might say that though Adam and Eve never existed, their story of disobedience is important for it provides an insight into the transgressive nature of human beings. The belief in Judgement Day is not about an actual day but is a metaphor for the conscience whose judgements feel final for those who take their consciences seriously. However, most Christians are realists in that what they assert is what they consider really to be the case. A kind of proposition that is essential to realist Christian faith is the historical proposition. Christianity is an historical faith not only because it has been around for two thousand years, but because it asserts certain truth claims about the past. One such proposition is that Jesus was crucified. As the crucifixion is so central to Christian belief, it is hard to see how most Christians’ belief can hold up if it were not true. The correspondence theory of truth as elucidated by Russell does not mean that Christian historical propositions are true, but it is a means of testing whether they are true and if found to be true, rule out other propositions such as Jesus never died, Jesus was never crucified, and Jesus did not exist in the first place. The correspondence theory of truth therefore provides an escape route out of the impasse of religious relativism. If found to be true, the historical propositions of Christianity also play their part in establishing Christianity as a realist faith. Russell himself tested Christian beliefs by asking whether they corresponded with reality, though he drew the conclusion that they were false.  

For Russell, truth and its correlative falsehood are properties of beliefs as expressed in propositions. For instance, if I say, “There is a black and white cat sitting on my lawn”, I could mean several things. I could be giving a password to get into a secret location. I could be telling the punchline of a joke. But if I mean that there is actually a black and white cat sitting on my lawn, then my sentence is a proposition and is either true or false.

The truth or falsity of this proposition about the cat and the lawn depends on something outside of the proposition. The proposition is true, not because of some truth property intrinsic to it, or because I like the idea, but because there is really a black and white cat sitting on my lawn. The truth of the proposition is therefore dependent upon its relationship to an external state of affairs.

Another thing Russell notices about truth is that it requires a mind to have beliefs which he calls the subject and things about which the mind has beliefs such as blackness and whiteness, a cat, and a lawn. These he calls objects. To make a truth claim, the subject organizes the objects into the correct order in his or her proposition. Therefore, if I say that there is a black and white cat sitting on my lawn, it is the cat that is sitting on the lawn, not the other way round. The lawn being referred to is mine. And it is the blackness and whiteness of the cat to which I am referring, even if I or the lawn am black and white. The subject, or the mind, therefore, does not create what is true or false; it creates beliefs which if they correspond with the relationship between the actually existing objects of those beliefs, they can be called true. This need for correspondence has given this theory of truth its name-the correspondence theory of truth.

Religious relativism, however, denies that religious beliefs can be, or ought to be, treated as objectively true for several reasons. First, because there are so many religious worldviews making competing claims that often appear unverifiable, it seems reasonable to deny that any claim is objectively true to the exclusion of the rest. Relativism is also seen to be an effective way of keeping the peace in religiously plural societies on the assumption that religious differences are a cause of conflict which sometimes can be very violent. Peace is maintained by treating religious beliefs as preferences. On this view, if N prefers to worship Christ rather than Allah, N is not asserting that Christ exists and Allah does not, which could be very offensive, but rather that N is simply saying what he likes to think, or feel is true. In other words, this is what is true for N, but no one else is obliged to accept what N thinks if what he thinks is just a personal preference. Religious relativism is also a handy psychological tool for protecting a person from considering other religious beliefs they do not feel comfortable with. Let us imagine that P has been told by a Christian that Jesus died for her sins. This notion of sin needing forgiveness by God deeply troubles P as she is ashamed of certain things she has done in the past. Her belief, however, is that the universe is God, and the universe accepts everyone regardless of what they have done, except for egregious people such as Stalin and Hitler. As she is no Stalin or Hitler, P feels no need therefore to ask for anyone’s forgiveness. To P this sounds a lot nicer and neater than a bloody crucifixion and weird gothic stories of an empty tomb and a dead man returning to life. This is what works for her and she will stick with it.      

The correspondence theory of truth, however, gives Christians philosophical warrant to treat their historical beliefs as potentially true and worthy of inspection. An historical proposition such as Jesus was crucified on Pontius Pilate’s order is as much a truth claim as the proposition that there is a black and white cat sitting on my lawn. To propose that Pilate ordered Jesus’ crucifixion is to propose that there is a relationship between the objects of Pilate, giving an order, Jesus and crucifixion in that Pilate gave the order and Jesus was crucified. There is a mind or subject also which is ordering these objects into that relationship. The difference is that the proposition that Jesus was crucified on Pontius Pilate’s orders is a proposition about the past and is verifiable through the analysis of available historical sources. It is my contention that such historical sources exist such as the Gospels and extra-biblical sources such as Tacitus. The proposition that a black and white cat is sitting on my lawn is a proposition about the present and may be verified by my looking out of the window and by others doing the same thing (assuming our sensory and recognizing faculties are working properly and adequate light conditions).  

As both propositions can be checked against reality, they can be shown to be either true or false. If Jesus was not crucified, then whatever people prefer to believe, he was not crucified.    If it is the case that historical evidence supports the proposition that Jesus was crucified, then the propositions that he was not crucified, and he did not exist cannot be true regardless of how people feel.

Some might object to my criticism of religious pluralism and non-realist Christianity by using an atheist’s work. But that would be to fall into the genetic fallacy, for the source of an argument has no bearing on its truth. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the greatest of Christian thinkers, would agree. It was his view that truthful philosophical ideas could be divorced from their pagan origins and associations and used for the Gospel’s propagation. In our case, we can separate Russell’s lucidity about truth from his atheism.

Augustine also argued that truthful ideas are God’s anyway and so by using them, we are reclaiming them for proper use. This is true of the correspondence theory of truth which can be derived from Scripture’s myriad of propositions. I have already used the statement that Jesus was crucified on Pilate’s order as an example of a proposition that claims to correspond to a relationship of objects. This is certainly how the Gospel writers used it when they described Jesus’s death and that is how Christians ought to use it today. There are a multitude of other such propositions in Scripture. Take for example Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman as she comes to draw water. He tells her that she has had five husbands and that the man she is living with now is not her husband (John 4:17, 18). For Jesus’ statement to be true, there would have to be a number of objects in a certain relationship. The objects are the states of being married to, no longer being married to, and living with another person in a sexual/romantic way, and a woman and six men. These are related in the following way: the woman has been married to five men and she is now living with the sixth. The woman affirms these uncomfortable truths by declaring Jesus to be a prophet (v. 19).

Ultimately therefore, the correspondence theory of truth is not Russell’s idea, but a Christian one and indeed a religious one before it ever became a secular one. The unifying force of a healthy plural society is not religious relativism which seeks to paper over the stark differences between religions at the cost of logical integrity, but the underlying commonality of religions which is their desire truly to state objectively what is the case. Therefore, what has been taken to be the cause of interreligious conflict could well function as a culturally homogenous attribute that holds religions together in the face of what some have called a post-truth age. Moreover, rather than promoting religious sensibilities, relativism turns out to be a form of irreligionism for it collapses the distinctive features of each religion’s god or gods into an illogical ecumenism. It is also a form of atheism as it denies theism’s truth claim that there is one God. Ironically, it is an atheist’s elucidation of objective truth that is one of the best weapons against it.    

 

 

Dr Peter Harris is the author of two books: The Rage Against the Light: Why Christopher Hitchens Was Wrong and Do You Believe It? A Guide to a Reasonable Christian Faith. He graduated with a history degree from the University of Cambridge and holds two master’s degrees and two doctorates: one from Trinity College and Seminary (USA) for a thesis in Christian philosophy and the other from De Montfort University (UK) for a thesis about the history of the First World War. He also holds a certificate in apologetics from Biola University. Peter is a freelance writer who has been published in publications such as Christianity Magazine and online for Patheos. He also is the creator of the course in the history of Christianity for Lucent University and organises apologetics conferences at his local church. At the moment he is training to be a lay preacher with the Anglican Church. He is married to Hasina and has been blessed with two children, Joel and Chloe.

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