by Walt Hearn
My professor of organic chemistry in college was named George Holmes Richter. He was tall, bald, and always signed his name “G. H.” He seemed to beam down on students from above, so we referred to him as “God Himself” (though not to his face). After all, he had written our textbook, and his lectures seemed to flow from a fount of great wisdom. Eventually I developed some doubts about his omniscience, but many things I learned from God Himself turned out to be true.
One truth was that there are only three basic ways to find out what we want to know. We can 1) do the experiment or make the observation ourselves; 2) go ask someone who has already done it and knows the answer; or 3) look it up in an account written by such an expert. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, and most of us have used all of them. The first way is most convincing; the second, most sociable; the third, fastest and cheapest.
Information, Knowledge, and . . .
As I understand it, information is all around us, including what can be found in books and research papers and on the Internet. Information is inert and essentially useless until we pick it up and put it to use, thereby turning it into knowledge. I think of wisdom as another step up. Wisdom is what helps us decide what to do with our knowledge.
Scientists are notoriously “bottom-uppers,” generating knowledge inductively from many careful observations. Although few get credit for coming up with a new principle or “law” (preferably bearing the researcher's name), developing grand ideas remains a scientific goal. Yet verifying any grand idea requires going “top-down.” Starting with tentative acceptance of an idea's consequences (in the form of predictions, say), scientists try to deduce observations or experiments that might punch a hole in it. Philosopher David Hull summed up the way science works as a process of “curiosity, credit, and checking”(Science as a Process, U. of Chicago Press, 1988).
Christians are generally regarded as “top-downers.” True (as charged) when we start with what we consider to be absolute truth, on a par with the philosophical ideals of beauty and goodness. We deduce theories about how that truth should work out in our lives. Then we “get real” by testing it against experience. Thus, like scientists, we move in both directions. Bottom-up, one difference is that Christians include the Bible as a valid source of information. On the way up, what we “know” from personal experience leads to a reverent awe of the Creator, an outlook the Bible calls “the beginning of wisdom.”
In a sense, theories and laws established by science can be seen as wisdom, too, but most scientific work gets us no farther than reliable knowledge. Truth, anyone? “Not in my lab, if you mean absolute truth!" Of course scientists believe strongly in "telling the truth." Lying (by fudging data, say) is as forbidden in a lab as it is in the Ten Commandments. Yet many researchers hesitate to speak of “truth with a small t" to avoid any impression that they're claiming to know “Truth with a capital T." No matter how a journalist might describe their work, few scientists say that they're “seeking truth.”
My wife Virginia and I were once caught up in a libel trial, having edited the book for the publisher being sued. The plaintiff's team of high-powered male lawyers deposed Ginny first, possibly thinking they could more easily intimidate a woman. They misjudged her. She's an accomplished editor to whom words matter. First, she refused to swear an oath, citing Jesus' admonition in Matthew 5:33-37. After some consternation, the lawyers said she could "affirm" that her testimony would be "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Another snag: Ginny objected, "I can't do that. I don't know the whole truth." They found a way to get around that, too, but they couldn't put the words they wanted to hear into Ginny's mouth. After two days, they gave up on her and didn't bother to depose me. As I recall, the plaintiff won anyway--without calling either of us as witnesses.
Christians should talk about truth and about "seeking truth"―without implying that we can fully grasp it. Many of us turn that expression around, saying we've been "sought by the Truth" or "grasped by the Truth." That's because we think of Truth as personified in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had his troubles with lawyers, too, and became the defendant in a famous criminal trial. Christians would say that when the judge, Pontius Pilate, asked "What is truth?"―the real Truth was standing silently before him.
Over the entrance to the high school in Berkeley, California, where I live, are carved the words, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Probably only a few students passing through those doors recognize the inscription as a quotation from the New Testament. In fact it's from a serious conversation in John 8 about knowledge and truth. When Jesus spoke those words, many of his hearers got angry. What was the big idea, they said, of implying that Abraham's descendants needed freedom? The apostle John had introduced his account of Jesus' life this way:
The law was indeed given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made Him known.
I once had a colleague who was a direct descendant of Abraham but who had been completely estranged from religious belief since his Bar Mitzvah. One day he got upset because his young son had poured ketchup over himself to look like blood and nearly given his mother a heart attack. The father, a successful researcher, was at a loss, torn between punishing the boy and trying to heal real wounds in the family. He surprised me by saying, "Well, Walt, if I believed in the Bible the way you do, I'd have it made." I said something like, "Yes, the Bible is about justice and mercy, but it might not tell you exactly what to do in your situation. What it tells me is that God forgives my failures, so it's easier for me to forgive others. Would it be O.K. if I pray for your family and ask God to give you wisdom?" I think he appreciated that, maybe from a residual nostalgia for something absolute.
Christians must be honest about what we don't know and about how we came to know what we do know. Faith in Christ connects us to Absolute Truth, but we can't say that we “know” Truth in any absolute way. “Speaking the Truth” to scientists (who may resist the whole concept) is probably done best in quiet conversations after word gets out that we're followers of Jesus. Curiosity about why I identified myself that way opened up many discussions with colleagues about what each of us believed to be ultimately true. Sometimes the conversation went beyond that.
In my experience, Christian professors in secular universities who are open about their faith can count on a certain amount of attention and even respect from students. It can be a different story when we speak to our colleagues in public. I once had a chance to do that, at a Faculty Forum sponsored by the YMCA at my university. The chosen topic for four consecutive weekly luncheon talks was "What is Truth?" The speakers were two philosophers, a physicist, and I. We were free to respond to Pilate's question in our own way. I was the final speaker so I got to hear the others before presenting "A Christian View of Truth."
The first speaker was a rational idealist. He said that since human systems come and go, truth must lie beyond our imperfect concepts in some ideal structure. We may come closer and closer to that ideal, but truth will always elude us.
The second speaker, an existentialist, disagreed completely. He said the idealism of the first speaker could not be true, since it had no real existence. "Existence precedes essence," he insisted. Truth is only what we can experience in the present moment of our conscious existence.
Speaker number three was a materialist, an outspokenly atheistic scientist. He took an empirical approach, shredding the positions of both philosophers. To him, rationalism produced pipe dreams unrelated to reality, and existentialism clouded the picture by its subjectivity. Only science gives us a reliable way to test both rational schemes and subjective experiences. Thus we can arrive at an objective definition of truth as "what corresponds most closely to the real world.”
Gulp. Now it was my turn. I began by admitting that I had a serious problem: I identified with all three positions—even though they flat-out contradicted each other. What they had in common seemed to me to be the idea that truth is what endures. The idealist was concerned with “the truth” as eternal perfection; I could agree, thinking of Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the ultimate Logos. Yet I also saw in Jesus “the life” so essential to the existentialist, enabling me to live out each red-hot moment without sham or pretense. The existentialist had spoken of a kind of "eternal now" in which all falsehood and inadequacy are stripped away and truth is what remains on which to "bet our lives." Addressing the empiricist's argument, I noted that as “the way,” Jesus issued an invitation to experiment with our relationship to him, testing it empirically to see if he keeps his promises.
So to me, Jesus personified "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6). Truth about the ineffable had become accessible to me. After trusting Jesus for many years, I felt confident that his claims would continue to hold up to investigation. Thus I could affirm the views expressed by each of the other speakers because, to me, "Jesus Christ IS the Truth." By then the tension in that roomful of professors was palpable. To ease the tension, I ended my talk with a lighthearted story about seeing both the forest and the trees. That occasion was a rare and challenging opportunity.
Do you see what I've done? By writing this column, I've turned some of my personal knowledge, with maybe a smidgen of wisdom, into information. That information was destined to languish in cyberspace unless a living person, like you, took it in, converting it back into knowledge. The question is, What will you do with it? Could it lead to more wisdom, perhaps bring us closer to truth?
Walter R. Hearn grew up in Houston and majored in chemistry at Rice University. He received a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Illinois in 1951. After doing research for a year at Yale Medical School and for three years at Baylor College of Medicine, he spent 17 years on the biochemistry faculty at Iowa State University. His research interests included peptide chemistry, hypothalamic hormones, and bacterial pigment biosynthesis.
For five years he was a Visiting Biologist to Colleges for the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He is a Fellow and Life Member of AAAS and an Emeritus member of the American Chemical Society. In 1972 he switched professions and moved to Berkeley to do free-lance editorial work with his wife Virginia. They have edited periodicals and some 200 books, largely for Christian publishers.
Walt joined ASA while he was in grad school and served on the Council in the 1960s. From 1969 to 1993 he edited the ASA newsletter. He was a coauthor of the widely distributed publication, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy (ASA, 1986) and author of Being a Christian in Science (IVP, 1997).
He has also contributed chapters to a number of books, the latest being "Creation Matters" in Darwin and the Bible: The Cultural Confrontation (Penguin Academic, 2009), edited by anthropologists Richard Robbins and Mark Cohen. His articles, reviews, and poems have appeared in such publications as Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith and the Berkeley publication Radix, for which Ginny has been copy editor for over 40 years. Walt was once "poetry rejection editor" for Radix magazine. Walt and Ginny have strong IVCF backgrounds, helped to launch New College for Advanced Christian Studies in the 1980s, and are members of Berkeley's First Presbyterian Church.