CAN WE EVER KNOW THE TRUTH? or, alternatively, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHANNES CLIMACUS
Can we ever know the truth?
Perhaps. Maybe it depends on what the particular truth is about.
Can we ever seek the truth?
If we knew what to look for, what to seek, then we would already know it -so maybe it’s not possible to actually seek the truth. Ooo, a paradox.
This second question and problematic answer is raised by Socrates in the Platonic dialogue Meno. Socrates solves the problem of us paradoxically never being able to seek the truth by concluding that learners ‘recollect’ truths they already latently know in themselves from their eternity as pre-existent souls.
The problems with this Socratic model of understanding the truth, you could say, are that (1) The moment of time at which the truth is acquired is only an incidental occasion of no particular importance and (2) The teacher is only a kind of ‘midwife’ to the truth, and not all that important either.
Let’as do a thought experiment and come up with an alternative model of learning the truth: What if there were a truth so important, glorious and transcendent that prior to knowing it we are in a state of utter untruth relative to it, a truth that does not originate in us at all (as Socrates understands things), so that the moment of time at which it is learned acquires decisive significance?
On this model:
–The teacher does not help the learner to recollect the truth, but the teacher gives the truth to the learner.
-Because the learner starts out in untruth, the teacher must not only give the truth, but also the condition for understanding it to the learner.
-Because the learner must be given the condition for understanding the truth, it is not that untruth is raised to the level of truth, but that truth ‘comes down’ into untruth and transforms it. Incidentally, this a bit like a king disguising himself as a pauper to woo a maiden, as opposed to arbitrarily promoting her to the level of a princes before their romance has occurred:
-The idea of the truth entering into untruth is, naturally, an offence to reason, it is an absolute paradox, a metaphysical caprice if you will. How can the truth enter into, identify with and transform untruth? It doesn’t make sense.
-You might be offended by this idea, but if we start out in untruth, the truth entering into untruth is always potentially going to seem offensive and unreasonable, unless we accept the condition for understanding it. So there is always going to be the possibility of offence at the absolute paradox.
-Others, however, will accept the absolute paradox, the truth, and the condition for understanding it. Now, maybe this is not just an abstract philosophical concept but maybe truth has actually entered into untruth and transformed it at a decisive point in history. Someone who witnessed this we could call a contemporary follower -someone who has been face to face with the absolute paradox. Actually, such a person has just as much reason to accept the absolute paradox as someone who hears their report and testimony of the absolute paradox, who we call a follower at second hand, because they too are in exactly the same position of needing to receive the condition for understanding the truth. So in effect the distinction between the two is pointless, and there is really no such thing as ‘a follower at second hand’.
So, concluding our thought experiment, there’s a new model for understanding how we can seek and come to know the truth. Oh, except wait, it also seems to correspond very well at every point to the terms of one of the most popular of the world’s faiths…! Let me go through all the important terms and show how.
“Truth” = There is a perfect, beautiful, transcendent, trinitarian God of love
What could be a more wonderful, lofty truth to insert into our new model for understanding? This God is not only true in his existence, perfection, beauty, transcendence, trinitarian nature and love, but he is himself “the truth”.
“Untruth” = Sin
Before this perfect, beautiful, transcendent, trinitarian God of love, in the most do-goodingest of do-gooders’ best efforts look like dirty rags in comparison. Relative to this “truth”, we are all in a state of “untruth”, or to use Christianity’s word for this, “sin”.
“The decisively significant moment of time” = The moment of repentance, conversion
Unlike for the Socratic model, the decisive moment of time of the acceptance of this truth is highly important, and involves a whole turn and change in the human being, a repentance and a conversion, or rebirth.
“The teacher” = The saviour
This teacher who effects the fruit of repentance and conversion actually transforms our state of untruth or sin, and so is rightly called a saviour.
The teacher gives the truth = the saviour reconciles, delivers, saves
The saviour’s transformation of our state of untruth or sin is justly called a reconciliation to the truth, a delivery or a saving action.
The condition for understanding the truth = faith
The condition for understanding or accepting this truth which is given to us by the saviour is called, in Christianity, “faith”.
Truth ‘comes down’ into untruth, identifies with it and transforms it = The incarnation [and crucifixion, resurrection]
The God who is the truth entered into our sinful humanity, identified with it and transformed it by becoming incarnate as a human being [and dying for us as a sacrifice for our sins, and rising from the dead.]
The absolute paradox = Jesus Christ, the God-man
This absolutely paradoxical event in history took place in Jesus Christ, the truth-entering-into-untruth, the God-man.
Offence at the paradox = Offence at Jesus Christ
Being offended by the absolute paradox is therefore the same as being offended by Jesus Christ.
A contemporary follower = a disciple of Christ
Someone who saw the absolute paradox face to face is therefore one of the disciples of Christ.
A follower at second hand = a disciple of Christ
Someone who believes in the absolute paradox based on the report of a contemporary follower is therefore in the same epistemological position as the contemporary follower, because they still have to have the condition for understanding it (faith) in order to accept it. So a follower at second hand it also a disciple of Christ.
This new model goes beyond the Socratic model at every point. But whether it is therefore more true than the Socratic is an altogether different question.
All of this is a very brief summary of the content of Philosophical Fragments, by Johannes Climacus, a pseudonym of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Whether Kierkegaard actually thought all of this to reason is another (hotly debated) discussion, but this is the argument he presents under the name Johannes Climacus in that book, arguably as a way of indirectly getting his readers to think about Christianity in a different way and show them how it can have internal coherence, beauty and appeal.
Do you find it convincing? What reasons do you have to be offended by or not accept Christ and his message? Are they really reasons or is rejection just as a-rational as acceptance? For those who disagree with Climacus on this point, what do you think are the reasons that people who do believe in Christ have for accepting him? Why do you disagree with them?
This article was originally presented to the Magdalen College School Philosophy Society on 8th November 2013 as a talk entitled ‘Can we ever know the truth?: Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments‘.