Column entry, “truths or Truth,” by Brandon Knight

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Column Title: In Search of Right Words: Saint Augustine, Rhetoric, and Preaching

By Brandon Knight, Ph.D.
William Carey University

September: “truths or Truth”

Column Description: Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in his work On Christian Doctrine, illustrates the important relationship between preaching and rhetoric. Even in his day, many questioned what use the church could possibly gain from the study of oratory. Nevertheless, Augustine saw something much deeper in communication that many Christians still miss centuries later. This column will be a personal journey through Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, through which he shows how God can, in fact, use rhetoric to help us see more clearly the beauty of scripture as well as find the right words when articulating gospel truths to others.

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truths or Truth

May 2024

We live in a very complex world with various cultural and religious understandings of right and wrong. I still remember one of my first experiences overseas. I was shopping at a local market during one of the busiest times of the day. One result was the long lines, or should I say, queues. I was in for a rude awakening.

Whereas our norms for lines are quite rigid at home in the Southeastern United States, order seemed to be merely a suggestion at the local market on the other side of the world. I remember feeling slighted as people simply kept “butting” or “skipping.” To me, it was rude. I felt the impersonal slight in the moral core of my being. However, I was informed later that this was a mere difference in cultural norms and that next time I should not take it personally but join in the festivities. Despite the advice, the dissonance of this moral quandary left me with more questions than answers.

How does such cultural complexity challenge our view of truth? Is there only one Truth, or are there many truths?

“My Truth is Not Your Truth”

You have probably experienced the common refrain “Well, that is your truth,” when holding a conversation on religious, culture, and or political discussions. Today, there is a heightened sense of the relative nature of truth due to the varying experiences, cultural differences, and ways of viewing the world. This philosophical framing is not necessarily new. In fact, we can even look back to Jesus’ private conversation with Pilate, in which Christ declares he came into the world to bear witness to the truth.

Pilate cynically responds by asking, “What is truth?”

We must place Pilate’s response contextually. He was caught between a political rock and a hard place. Although he saw no fault with Jesus, the local Jews demanded a guilty judgment. His truth clashed with the mob outside. To let Jesus go free, would have meant political suicide.

Are we like Pilate in that the best we can do is wash our hands of these complexities? Or, are we able to confidently lay claim to truth despite the varying moral and cultural differences?

Augustine, the 4th century bishop of Hippo, warned of the dangers of not processing the complexity of truth rightly when saying,

“But when men unacquainted with other modes of life than their own meet with the record of such actions . . .  And, distracted by this endless variety of customs, some who were half asleep . . . have thought that there was no such thing as absolute right, but that every nation took its own custom for right; and that, since every nation has a different custom, and right must remain unchangeable, it becomes manifest that there is no such thing as right at all.”

In other words, when we encounter the great cultural, religious, and even political complexities of the world, it is very possible for us to conclude absolute truth does not exist.

Augustine says this conclusion is faulty. Rather, using Jesus’ teachings, he shows how objectivity shines through even our cultural differences. Listen to what he says, “Such men did not perceive, to take only one example, that the precept, ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,’ cannot be altered by any diversity of national customs.”

What does Augustine mean here?

The command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” shines through the façade of cultural relativity (Lk 10:27). That is, all people see and treat themselves in high regard and possess a desire for others to also show them dignity, an objective truth lies at the base of our cultural complexities.

Augustine demonstrates that, despite the cultural nuances and subjectivity of the world, we all find objective truth in our shared human dignity: “For no one is willing to defile his own dwelling; he ought not, therefore, to defile the dwelling of God, that is, himself. And no one wishes an injury to be done him by another; he himself, therefore, ought not to do injury to another.”

Truth and truths

Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, authors of Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing Without Dividing the Church, identify Jesus’ teaching to “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a moral mandate which notably differs from other types of conviction. They argue that a moral mandate functions like the North Star giving us general direction without specifics: “Moral mandates are like the North Star: they help you know what direction to go but don’t provide a step-by-step map or even instructions as to whether you should travel by ship, land, or air.” (p. 40).

Muehlhoff and Langer (and Augustine) rightly demonstrate the instrumental nature of this particular command. Jesus’ teaching doesn’t eradicate our cultural differences even as it shines forth objective truth. Rather, it challenges us to be wise in various contexts in which we face unique norms and moral quandaries.

Paul’s wisdom to the Corinthians on whether to consume food that was sacrificed to pagan idols is a beautiful representation of how Truth shines through even amid cultural differences. To paraphrase, he argues that despite our “knowing” that idols are nothing, this understanding is not shared by all (1 Cor. 8:7). In fact, because some are influenced by this unique cultural context in which their conscience is harmed, Paul says he will not eat such meat. Why? Because to do so results in his breaking both the greatest commands in that he is sinning against neighbor and Christ (1 Cor. 8: 12).

Christ beautifully accommodates our cultural and moral complexities even as he shines forth absolute truth. After all, he did say that “all the law hangs on these two” (Mat. 22: 37-40).

By keeping our gaze on the North Star we fulfill a truth that speaks to the heart of all people, which means that even as we wait patiently in a chaotic line, we can fulfill the whole law.

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