I often hear this phrase in academic circles: “You must follow the truth wherever it leads.” In a thoroughly post-enlightenment rationalist age where the life of the mind is considered the highest form of human activity, this statement makes perfect sense. From a thoroughly biblical perspective, however, it can be quite dangerous. The key question is what is meant by, “truth.”
The unstated assumption is that pursuing “truth” will always lead toward reality. But if postmodernity has taught us anything, it’s the fact that the idea of truth is value-laden. And I have watched far too many scholars, in the name of “pursuing the truth,” follow paths that clearly led them away from Jesus Christ, the One who declares Himself the truth (John 14:6) and reminds us that God’s word is truth (John 17:17).
In fact, our finitude greatly limits us, and sin infects every aspect of our being, including our intellectual capacity to find and discern truth. As a result, the pursuit of truth is never a neutral enterprise. We have unrecognized assumptions, vested interests, prior propensities, limited perspectives, and underlying commitments that skew our ability and desire to perceive, acquire, and properly apply truth. As James Spiegel puts it in The Making of an Atheist, “Sin corrupts cognition, which leads to more sin, which brings about a further corruption of the mind and so on. The overarching point [of Romans 1] is clear: immoral behavior undermines one’s ability to think straight, at least about certain issues.” As such, genuine truth-seeking requires more than intellectual capacity and curiosity. It also demands virtues of courage, rectitude, humility, and submission.
I have met some truly brilliant thinkers who think at a completely different intellectual level and with a far greater capacity than the rest of us. But the more I see truly brilliant people, the more grateful I am that God did not make me one of them. For all of its benefits and greatness, brilliance is also exceptionally dangerous. When you become convinced that you’re smarter than everyone else (even if it’s true), it’s a relatively small step to believe you are also smarter than God, or at least smart enough not to need or trust Him. Brilliance makes it easier to forget that you are not comparing yourself to other mere mortals but challenging the wisdom and knowledge of the omnipotent Maker, Sustainer, Lover, and Redeemer of the universe.
There comes a time in the life of every honest person when the ability to know is obviously outstripped by our sin-distorted perceptions of reality, our limited capacities of the mind, and the inherently complex and mysterious nature of a finite universe created by an infinite God. At this point, we would do well to demonstrate a certain level of humility and surrender to the incapacity of our finitude and the obfuscating influences of sin.
But like all other noble pursuits, we can make the pursuit of what we want to be true an end in itself, another idolatrous absolute detached from the One and only true source of truth: God made known through Jesus Christ. This detaches truth from its source, giving it an ambiguous independence that is grounded in nothing more than our perceptions of and desires about the way things really are. It essentially denies that truth is embodied in Jesus (Ephesians 4:21) and ignores the exceptionally distorting power of sin and the profoundly limited nature of our knowing. Instead, we desperately need the corrective aid of the incarnate Christ, God’s authoritative word, and His Holy Spirit who says He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
Enlightenment rationalism made an idol of human intellect. Postmodernism has made an idol of personal perceptions and desires. But this is nothing new. Back in the time of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul reminded us in Romans 1:18ff that we create idols whenever we suppress the truth in unrighteousness and refuse to give God the thanks and honor He warrants and deserves. We may deceive ourselves into believing we are following the truth wherever it leads when we are really only seeking after the things that we hope and want to be true.
As atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel once (in a refreshingly honest way) confessed in The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
In contrast, for Christians, “following the truth wherever it leads,” takes on an entirely new significance and meaning. It entails becoming a Spirit-empowered disciple of Jesus Christ, a faithful and diligent student and doer of God’s word, and a person who loves, thanks, and worships God in spirit and in truth. That’s the only journey worth taking no matter where it may lead and what it might cost.