The Truth of Religion

Most often we hear “Are any religions true?” I’m changing that to “Is any religion true?” There’s at least a slight difference between the two questions. But I won’t go any deeper into that here, now.

The question has to be parsed out carefully by defining the words. What does “religion” mean? What does “true” mean?

Here, by “religion” I mean a religious system of beliefs. I realize, of course, that religions include more than beliefs, but the question of truth arises mostly around the beliefs a religion promulgates. A religious system of beliefs usually has to do with realities normally not experienced by the five senses alone. A religious system of beliefs usually includes belief in realities not amenable to modern scientific investigation or proof.

Here, by “true” I mean correspondence with reality although coherence among beliefs is also a valid test of truth.

Most religions claim to be true. That is not their only claim, but it is probably the most controversial claim made by most religions and that because their truth claims compete with each other and with many non-religious beliefs.

I am a Christian partly because I believe basic Christian beliefs are truer than alternative beliefs. I will not claim that is the only reason I’m a Christian; I only claim it is part of the reason. However, it’s an important part because, were I to become convinced that basic Christian beliefs are untrue I would stop being a Christian.

But do I believe that Christianity as a religion, as a system of religious beliefs, is true? That takes me back to the definition of “true.” Do Christian beliefs correspond to reality? Actually, most informed and thoughtful Christians have never claimed that; we have claimed and do claim only that there is an analogous relationship between Christian beliefs, formulated in propositions, and reality. In other words, we do not claim that our words about reality are univocal. However, neither do we believe that our words about reality are equivocal. For example, we believe that God is “our Father” and that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Outsiders to Christianity, and many Christians, often misunderstand these beliefs so that, for example, God is male and we are his literal, biological offspring. That is not what “God is our Father” means, at least not in Christian theological discourse.

Few, if any, religions claim that their beliefs, formulated in words (propositional language) are true in the sense of univocally—exact equivalence between words and realities. Most people who speak of “truth,” however, mean exact correspondence between words and realities. Many philosophers of language have argued that such exact correspondence does not exist, that all language has a symbolic, metaphorical, analogical element.

Is any religion “true,” then? Yes, possibly, and no, depending on what “true” means. “True” is an extremely complex concept—especially outside of what philosopher David Hume called the analytical sphere (having to do with definitions of terms). In the “synthetic” sphere, having to do with realities outside the dictionary, the subject-object “gulf” complicates the concept of “truth.” Perhaps we should only talk about beliefs being “truer” or “less true” rather than true in any absolute sense of perfect correspondence between words and realities.

This view of religion can avoid the problems of totalizing and triumphalism. And Christ-centered Christianity ought to avoid those errors. A big problem with empirical “Christianity” has been Christians making a totalizing and triumphalistic ideology out of Christianity. That is against the spirit of Christ and therefore anti-Christian. The spirit of Christ is one of humility and servanthood, not one of mastery over as in “We Christians are totally right and you others are totally wrong.”

I know whereof I speak. I attended a Bible college dominated by a spirit of “mastery over” that treated Christianity as a totalizing and triumphalistic ideology with which we were justified in praying that God would drive the Unitarian congregation next to our campus out of its building so that we could own it and attach it to our campus.

Christianity is not an “-ism.” Nor, however, is it merely a set of symbols that transform. It does include beliefs, but its beliefs do not make up an ideology. They are, in spirit, anti-totalizing and anti-triumphalistic.

Roger Olson

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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