Pondering Fact Versus Truth

My friend and sister in Christ, Karen White, is a John Maxwell-trained life coach.  Her blog on “fact versus Truth” this week has me thinking…..


The difference between “fact” and “truth” is a bit like the difference between “happiness” and “joy”……the former is subjective, dependent upon one’s personal perspective, the circumstances in which one finds herself, and is “subject to change on short notice”, as one might say.  “Truth”, however, is unchangeable.  No matter the lens through which one views it, it is the same. It is independent of the subjective view, the bias, the narrow perspective of any one individual or group. 

First, a standard or a conclusion that is based on “fact” is influenced by one’s culture, bias, preference, desire, felt need, and other factors.  However, in defining the other standard, “truth”, there is no loss of the reality of it no matter what one brings of her own self and the circumstances of her life to the perspective.  Truth is both foundational to and supersedes all influences of culture, bias, preference, desire, felt need, or other individual factors.  There is no such thing as “relative truth”….such relativity, in fact, assures that it is NOT truth.  It is a subjective “fact” only.   On the other hand, subjectivity that is inherent in one’s perception doesn’t negate the reality of the fact, as one has observed it.  Facts are presumed to be real, at least from the perspective of the individual observing them.  Can one misperceive or misinterpret facts?  Of course.

Consider the difference between “hypothesis”, “theory” and “law”.  An hypothesis is an educated guess, based on observation and can be formulated by a single observer. It’s a presumption of or prediction of a relationship between cause and effect. Usually, an hypothesis can be sustained or refuted through additional observations or tested by experimentation. An hypothesis can only be disproven, however.  It cannot be proven to be true.   

A theory is observed facts gathered from many sources and multiple observations that are generally viewed as “true”.  A theory summarizes an hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories, too, can be disproven, but not proven.  Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of an observed phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say it’s an accepted hypothesis. But until it is proven to stand up under the test of all relevant facts and circumstances, it continues to simply be a theory.  A theory may be disproven as many individuals test and test and test it again and again through the lens of many facts and circumstances.  It can be disproven if, at any time, the facts that have been presumed prove not to be universally applicable in all circumstances from the view of all observers.  Or as that famous criminal defense line goes, “If the glove does not fit, you must acquit.”   If all facts that have been discovered and that are considered relevant to the case don’t match up, one cannot say that it is unequivocably true.  It does not stand the prosecutorial requirement of “beyond the shadow of a doubt”.  It is simply a theory.

“Law” generalizes a body of observations. At the time it is instituted, no exceptions have been found to a law. Laws explain things that are observed and what one can expect through continued observation and testing, but they do not describe the reason it is so. One way to tell a law and a theory apart is to ask if the description gives you a means to explain ‘why’.   For example, in Titus 2’s list of rules (law) one knows what is expected and what is observed in how the program works, but it does not explain why the rules (law) exist.  The more fundamental reason for why the rules (law) exists actually lies in the underlying values on which the ministry was founded. Multiple observations over time and within a defined set of circumstances, result in the development of a law, “if this, then that.”  And although the law summarizes what we can observe and expect, the law itself does not explain why it happens. 

There is no ‘proof’ of absolute ‘truth’ in science. The closest one can get is with certain facts that are gleaned through consistently repeated observations.  And “law” summarizes and explains the facts.  Many assume that “law” and “truth” are one and the same.  They assume that truth is like law in that it has been developed through a process of establishing proof that has been arrived at as a logical conclusion, based on the evidence.  But the fundamental proof of truth is not that it explains the facts or that it even gives one reasons for why certain observations exists, but that it can never be proven to be wrong.  Truth stands as truth regardless of what additional facts come to light.  “Law” changes as one argues the relevance of the facts on which it has been established or as one introduces new facts that result in adjusting the summary of the law.  What is important is to realize hypothesis, theory, and law don’t all mean the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably.  Neither can fact and truth.  Fact is the contribution to the development of hypothesis, theory, and law.  Truth is what is discovered as a result of the growing body of evidence that arises as theory is practiced and the body of law mounts for the Truth of the theory.   But once Truth is “discovered”, it is actually seen to have been the underlying foundation about which the facts were observed, but perhaps only partially so.

I learned the TRUTH of this distinction between the two……fact versus truth….. this week in a discussion that brought what I observed as “facts” into question when I was challenged to think about additional facts.  What I had thought was truth, may actually have simply been an accumulation of related facts from the perspective of my posture in relationship to a bigger reality about which I had been denied access to other facts that widened the perspective I had been allowed to see.  At one point even when some additional facts had been added by others to the body of evidence I had, they only helped confirm in my mind that the facts that I had were true.  In fact, I simply moved from hypothesis to theory with the accumulation of what seemed to be confirming facts from other people.  It was only when additional  facts were added from even more sources that the theory I believed to be truth was challenged.

The funny thing was that I had sought additional facts from the perspective of others who were in positions to have trustworthy facts in order to test the facts that I had observed.   But having failed to secure access to those facts from others, not due to anyone intentionally withholding them perhaps, but certainly through neglect and others failing to see how important it was for me to have more facts in order to adjust my perspective, I was stuck with the perspective that I had based only on my own experience and reason and the facts of just a handful of others’ facts that seemed to confirm what I had observed.  While I’m a fairly smart cookie, if I don’t have all, or even sufficient facts and the opportunity to test them against the truth that I DO KNOW……the principles, promises, prohibitions, and proclamations of God’s Word, then I can be as wrong about the truth of reality as any other person who only sees circumstances through the lens of her own perspective.   In other words, I can be short-sighted, or even blind to the TRUTH, given nothing more than my observation and the observations of only a few others whose observations seem to confirm and certainly do not challenge or disprove the facts on which I have relied.    

I had been struggling with how to articulate what I experienced in the sudden revelation of the difference between the facts as I observed them and the facts that began to emerge as additional perspectives of others brought more facts to light.  It was difficult to describe the impact of relying on “facts” when the facts are too uni-dimensional to provide an adequate view of the larger reality revealed by having more facts that include the perspective of others.  Karen White’s “aha” that was viewed as an exercise in semantics by some, provided the framework for me to begin working out how to express what I had observed about relying on the facts of one’s own experience, or even the experiences of a group of individuals with similar experiences, to define truth.  In seeking more facts, as witnessed to by the broader experience of others, especially the experiences of others that are different from one’s self, one is able to gain a larger, more cogent and understandable view of the truth that emerges.

In other times and conversations we might have called such work in seeking out the facts of others’ perspective “benchmarking” or “seeking common ground”.  In some quarters within the faith tradition that Karen and I share, we might call it “holy conferencing”.  Those practices, however, seem to have been short circuited or even entirely shoved aside by the way in which our culture has elevated the stature of one’s right to define truth exclusively from her own experience, her perspective, and her feelings about it.   Subjective truth, very narrowly defined by experience, is not truth.   It is perceived facts, the basis for a theory, but not truth.   The truth is found in those things that are universal and eternal.  Truth stands firmly on the fact that it does not change, no matter how chafing it might be to some who would want it to be otherwise.  Discovering and agreeing on those things that are universal and eternal can be very difficult.  To do so in any universe that contains more than one person, we must give up clinging to our personal experience and perspective on that experience and look to that of others, as well.   And even then, we must have confidence and security in what little bit of experience with truth we do have and the courage to bring it to the table where others’ experience with their own facts, believed to be truth, may be different.  That is the point at which we are called to test what we think of as our view of truth and make sure it really is truth and not simply facts that support our bias, preference, desires, or felt needs.   Truth can be a hard thing to find in the midst of many people relying  exclusively upon their own experience of subjective facts.

In Karen’s weblog, she observes,  “One of the things I learned was the difference between “facts” and “truth”.  I confess that prior to TP (the Turning Point retreat), I had never thought much about whether there was a difference, and had used the terms interchangeably.  My new awareness of the difference between fact and truth was really amazing.  I learned that what I was calling “truth” wasn’t “truth” at all….but merely “fact”.  Let me give you an example of what I mean…..if I’m holding a $100 bill in my hand, the “fact” is that I have possession of $100.  However, I can easily change that “fact” by spending part of that $100 or investing it and either of those actions changes the amount of money I have.  So, “facts” can change….. and I’m often the cause of the change…to the positive or the negative effect.  What is the “truth” about that same $100 bill?  The truth is that the $100 bill, and every other thing that I have, came from one source….God.  No matter what I do, there is nothing that changes that truth!”

The bottom line here is that we can only discern the truth by looking for God’s role in the facts. What is revealed about God in the subjective facts as we see them that is consistent with God’s self-revelation in Scripture and in the life of Christ?  How did the facts that we’ve observed come about? Are these facts we have observed and believe to be reliable consistent with what we know about God? What additional facts need to be known and tested in relationship to what we know about God? How well do we know and trust God’s power and willingness to reveal new facts that change the way we understand the summary of facts that we have gathered, tested, and understood up this point?  Always, we must look to God’s role in the matter and assure that God’s role, which we discover through God’s own revelation of the divine character, attributes, names, decrees, desires, and expressed will that we learn from Scripture, is recognized and understood.  For those of us who look to Scripture first as our source of Truth, to rely on anything else as self-embodied truth without checking its foundational relationship to Scripture is to risk losing sight of and connection to Truth altogether.

Jesus’ conversation with Pilot before his crucifixion gives some insight to this.  in John 18:37-38 we see this exchange:

“Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king.  For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.”

It appears that Pilot is simply seeking to clarify and validate what the religious leaders are claiming as Christ’s own words, the facts of the situation as they have been reported to him by the religious leaders. He is not there to prove or disprove Christ’s claim to be a king.  What difference does what Jesus calls himself among the Jews make to the Roman Empire?  The Romans have conquered and rule over many kings.  What’s one more?  All kings whom they encountered were brought under the authority of the Roman Empire, because they were the masters of the physical realm kingdoms.  All such kings and kingdoms became part of the kingdom of the Roman Empire through the power of their force.  Jesus represents no threat to the Roman Empire.  Pilot can see that and reports his finding.  “I find no guilt in him.”  Pilot’s view of Jesus is from the perspective of evaluating him as a military or political threat that might arise due to a political posture that is in opposition to the Roman Empire. The fact that the Jewish leaders themselves are demanding that Pilot try him is proof that Jesus lacks the following and favor among the Jews to create any serious problem for the political status quo of the Romans.  Christ made no such claims for political or military ambitions and, in fact, repeatedly denied any interest in such action in describing the nature of his kingdom.  It is only the religious leaders who attempted to assert to Roman authorities that he was a threat.  But Jesus is not a threat to Roman military or political order and authority or even to the collusion of the religious leaders with the political authority of Rome.  He is only perceived as a threat to the Jewish religious leaders because of his obvious spiritual authority.  And in reality, it is the offense they felt at having been exposed as inadequate in their spiritual leadership, for not understanding the truth of the Scriptures, for hypocrisy in failing to lead the people rightly that is the reason for their lies to Pilot and their insistence that Jesus’ death  be ordered by Pilot.  Pilot sees through it, but, since changing their religious culture is not Pilot’s concern, but rather to benefit from what he and the Empire can get from it, he turns it back over to them and gives them their way in this matter, since it does not impact the Empire one way or the other, he thinks.  It is a peacekeeping move……giving the majority, or at least the loud and influential few who claim to represent the majority, their way…..sacrificing one dumb, delusional religious nut for the sake of shutting them all up, washing his hands of the matter, as it were.   That is Pilot’s default mode.  “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” When one chooses what is expedient and peacekeeping or that maintains the status quo instead of what is true and just, truth may lie unrevealed or even denied.    Yet, in God’s wonderful, majestic, incomprehensible ability to redeem even the most egregious wrong, the Truth is ultimately revealed and God’s will is ultimately done on such a scale that it often cannot even be seen from the perspective of those who are major players in the drama.  It takes time and revelation of and testing of the facts to reveal the Truth. Truth is never proven, it is only revealed, and even then, only in God’s perfect timing.

Fact versus Truth.  They are not the same thing.  Thank you, Karen.  You were the second person in two days who has brought this to my attention.  It will make me more careful about relying on personal experience that I perceive as “fact” to be the revelation of “truth.”  It will also make me more discerning about others’ expressions of their perception of “fact” and question whether what they believe is, in fact, compatible with what they assert is “truth.”   And all through the lens of what God’s role is in what has been called “truth” not merely others’ observation of “fact.”