The concept of truth is closely related to knowledge. Most of us wouldn't want to go around confidently claiming to 'know' something, only to find out that we are wrong. Knowledge and truth, then, both relate to what we commonly call facts. Knowledge is only valid – and truth only true – insofar as each corresponds to facts.
But have you ever wondered how we can be sure we know what we know? As a child, I remember delighting in getting my mind all tied up in knots wondering if the maple tree leaves that I called 'green' looked the same to other people who looked at the same trees and also called them 'green.' We can't get outside of ourselves to verify that what we see or experience is the same for anyone else as it is for us. Besides, if I succeeded in becoming someone else, would I still be able to remember what green was like when I was me? (Welcome to the mind of me as a 10-year-old.)
As it turns out, there is an entire sub-discipline of philosophy that deals with the question of how we know what we know – and whether we can even know that we know anything. This branch of philosophy is called epistemology. The root of that long word is 'pist', (from the Greek epistasthai), the same root as in the words dealing with faith/faithful/faithfulness, belief/disbelief/believe and trust/trustworthy. This is much more interesting than it might appear at first glance.*
For centuries now, the dominant view (in Western culture, anyway) has been that valid knowledge comes from observable facts (meaning: measurable and provable by scientific instruments and processes–processes that can repeated with the same results). We peer into space with telescopes, into atoms with microscopes, into cats with, well... scalpels. When different people using the same tools and processes agree that the same things are there–or that the same reactions happen–we call the results facts, knowledge.
It wasn't until the last century or so that people really began to realize that we weren't taking into account the primary tool involved in all scientific observation–the most basic instrument of contact with reality: us. The microscope doesn't tell anyone anything if there is nobody looking through it. And as much as a telescope has a lens, you are a lens.
This focus on detached observation and the corresponding blindness to participatory experience relate to each other in a mutually reinforcing way. The resulting blindness is so profound, in fact, that we end up living at a level of ignorance that would be humorous if it wasn't so embarrassing–perhaps tragic, even. Follow along with me here...
Our obsession with observable and provable facts has been adopted by leading Christian thinkers, translating into a skepticism toward 'religious' experience (disapprovingly referred to as 'enthusiasm', in response to which I offer the observation that many people find Christianity unappealing precisely because believers don't seem to be very enthusiastic about their faith). Experience, so the experts say, is not to be considered a reliable source of knowledge of or about God. Imagine that you're interviewing for a position as a software programmer, and the interviewer asks you, "So... what kind of experience do you have?" You answer, "Well, honestly I don't believe that experience is a reliable source of knowledge." Interview over. Or you climb onboard the Airbus A330 flying from San Francisco to Honolulu operated by Hawaiian Airlines. As you walk through the cabin door, the pilot happens to be standing there. It's your first time on a plane, and you're a little bit nervous about flying over 2,400 miles of open, shark-infested ocean, so you ask her, "How many hours of flying experience do you have?" How reassured are you going to be when she tells you that she's never flown before, but there's no need to worry! – she has the flight manual and plane schematics memorized?
I would like to suggest that if we accept, and even insist, that experience is a reliable source of knowledge in some areas (that it is a valid epistemic faculty, to put it in philosophical terms) then it is glaringly inconsistent to exclude it as a reliable source of knowledge when it comes to God. As it would happen, Jesus agrees. He said, "If you hold to my teaching, then you will know the truth" (italics mine). 'Doing' is by nature an experience. Just like practice time in the cockpit of an airplane, you know about flying in a way that was impossible for you to know beforehand, without ever having had the experience of controlling an aircraft. Jesus draws this exact same type of parallel between obeying His teaching, and knowing the truth. Correct me if I'm guilty of faulty logic (logic being another major sub-discipline of philosophy), but I'm pretty sure that Jesus said that it is only by the experience you build up when you obey Him, that you arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
Just one more example from the Bible, and then I'll get back to why the fact that we have to remind ourselves of this is humorous/tragic. God, speaking about Josiah (one of Judah's kings in the 8th Century B.C.), says, "He did what was right and just... he took up the cause of the poor and needy... is that not what it means to know me?" (Jeremiah 22:15-16). Doing what is right and just, and defending the cause of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the foreigners just happen to be behaviors that God repeatedly commands in the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, Josiah knew God–knew the Truth–by means of his experience of obeying.
Back to my childhood: my neighbor, Dan Michowski, used to say to me, "Don't knock it 'til you try it." The slightly less obnoxious version of this that is still no less understandable to a child is: you'll never know until you try. As a third-grade Spanish student, presented for the first time with guacamole made by Señora Cangelosi, I understood that I would never know what it tasted like until I had the experience of putting it in my mouth. (It's probably no coincidence that the Bible says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good" Psalm 34:8.) Yet somehow, the journey from Grade 3 to Ph.D. has earned some of our most brilliant thinkers a degree in forgetfulness. With all of their applied disciplines of academic rigor and analytical precision, they have arrived at the authoritative evaluation: 'invalid' with respect to a principle so basic that we have to be reminded that we knew it before we knew what guacamole tasted like. Again, Jesus' words come to mind: "I thank You Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, for hiding these things from the 'wise' and revealing them to little children" (Matthew 11:25).
What is Truth? According to Jesus, it is Him (see Part I below). How can I know the Truth? Through the lived experience of following His instructions. "If you keep my teaching, then you will know the truth...
...and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).
*It will take another post to explore the connections between faith and knowledge.