Over the last several decades our culture has moved from valuing fact to valuing experience. Along with this has come the relativization of truth, especially religious or spiritual truth. We see some examples of this in the commercials that are on TV and the internet today. Often times the commercials for a product don’t even show that product; they tell you nothing about that product.
What they are showing you is some type of positive experience or something that’s funny and the hope of course is that this memory associates with the product, because the brand or the product name is on the screen at the same time you’re having this positive encounter with the media. Then, when you go to the store, you think more positively of that product due to that previous association. What the commercials aren’t telling us a lot of times is that “such and such” works better than some other product or how much it works better or why it works better. Because today we’re much more moved by experience than we used to be but back in the 50’s and the 60’s.
Back then, commercials were more likely to discuss the merits of a product, like “This certain cleaner cleans ____ percent better than some other cleaner”. A lot of times this was presented by someone in a white lab coat or someone dressed like a scientist. Now, I’m not naive enough to think that this wasn’t also an appeal to experience. But, there was a different consideration, at least facts were attempted to be presented and it was the facts that were compelling. Now, we see that things are much more targeted at experience. This doesn’t just affect commercials, it doesn’t just affect media, it has also come to affect how people view the most important type of truth which is religious truth.
Often times today you might tell someone that, “Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. No man comes to the Father but by him,” like John says. That person might say, “Well, that’s true for you,” they’re not going to say, “No, that’s wrong,” depending on the person. They’re going to say, “That’s true for you.” What do you do with that? And, what’s behind that statement? Behind that statement is what’s called a subjective view of truth. Now, you’ll notice that the heart of the word subjective is “subject” and a subjective truth is a truth about a subject, or a person. This is a truth about that person, that person believes that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven… for them.
Since subjective truth is about a person, there can be as many different “truths” as there are people to believe them. Something could be wrong for you but right for me in the same circumstances or something could be right for you and wrong for me. “Jesus might not be the only way to heaven for you but maybe he just is for me.” At least that’s the type of reasoning that takes place when you view truth subjectively. Now, the other type or view of truth would be objective truth and just like subjective has subject as the main part of its word, objective has “object” as the main part of its word. An objective truth is a truth that is grounded in a thing or an object.
All of this sounds really stuffy and philosophical and it is philosophical but I hope you see, based on where we started this conversation, that at the heart of objections to the gospel, a lot of times our philosophical ideas, even if the person doesn’t recognize that they’re doing philosophy or doing it poorly. Nonetheless philosophy flows through and undergirds all of the thought that is out there today and by understanding a little bit about philosophy we can know better how to approach people with the gospel and deal with their objections.
Subjective truth is truth grounded in a subject, it’s about how someone feels; it’s what they think that’s all that matters. Objective truth is a truth grounded in an object and let me give you an example to make this clear.
As I sit here recording this podcast, I look out from my window and I see a street sign and that street sign is orange. Now, is it actually orange? If truth is just subjective then it could be orange to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s orange to you. However, on an objective view of truth, the sign is orange whether anyone looks at it, whether anyone thinks about it or not. If I look at it and I say, “Well, that looks yellow to me,” that doesn’t mean the sign is yellow (what that means is I’m colorblind). Because the sign is actually orange whether anyone thinks it’s orange or not. Because the orangeness – the color of the sign – is a property of the sign, it has nothing to do with how people think about it.
Now, how this does apply to religion? Christianity is a historical religion, it’s a historical faith, it is based on a historical claim that Jesus was a real guy, who lived a perfect life and died and rose from the dead. Now, that is the type of thing that is objective, it is true for everyone or it’s true for no one but it can’t just be true for one person and not true for another. Because, what would it mean to say something like, “Barack Obama is the President of the United States for me, but he may not be the President of the United States for you”? That makes no sense. Because who the president is has nothing to do with how any of us think about it. It is a statement of reality.
Objective truth is truth that matches reality. It corresponds with how the way the world really is. You could explain this to someone and point out that Jesus is either God for everyone or he’s God for no one. When he claimed to be the only way and died and rose again, that is the type of claim and type of event that isn’t just true because of how someone thinks about it or feels about it. It’s true because it actually happened in reality whether anyone thinks about it or has an opinion about it or not. This really gets into what makes something true: my thoughts or recognizing reality? Do I determine what’s true or do I recognize what’s true? On a subjective view of truth, I determine what’s true. On an objective view of truth, I recognize what’s true.
Now, when pointing this out to someone I’ve heard this reply, “Well, a subjective truth actually does exist. For instance, the best flavor of ice cream is vanilla,” and I might say, “No, the best flavor of ice cream is chocolate trinity from Publix,” and they might say, “No, to me the best flavor of ice cream is vanilla. See, subjective truth is a thing because we have different ‘bests’.” How do we deal with that? Does subjective truth actually exist?
Based on the statement it seems like it does, it seems like a subjective truth claim is something like, “Domino’s is the worst type of pizza,” or, “Pizza Hut is the best type of pizza,” that type of thing. Because we understand that there’s not really a wrong answer there, right?
If you say, “Vanilla is best,” and I say, “Chocolate trinity is best,” we don’t really fight about it. It doesn’t matter because we understand that what’s being said is vanilla is the best flavor to you and chocolate trinity is the best flavor to me. We are speaking subjectively about what we think the truth is. There is subjective truth in this. There is truth that is true for someone but it’s not truth of the same sort as saying, “The sign outside my window is orange.” What that is, is a statement about reality but – and this is something people don’t often realize – all subjective truth claims are actually objective truth claims; let me explain.
When I say that chocolate trinity is the best flavor of ice cream, it is objectively true that Brian thinks that the best flavor of ice cream is chocolate trinity. James can’t say it’s not true for Brian that the best flavor of ice cream is chocolate trinity. No, that would be incorrect. That is a statement about reality that is false because Brian thinks that the best flavor of ice cream is chocolate trinity. It is objectively true that that is what he thinks. Even the idea that there is subjective truth in the world, assumes objective truth.
In order for you to tell someone, “Something can be true for you and not for me,” there has to be the type of thing that could be true for everyone. Is it true for everyone that something can be true for you and not for me? See even the statement itself, “It’s true for you and not for me,” presupposes that there is a universal way that truth works, that it’s objective.
Now, this was a shorted episode and I’m going to stop it here because I understand this was more philosophical than quite a few others. The reason for this topic is that I heard on a podcast last week that I listen to that a caller had a question about truth. Some people were saying there’s subjective truth and he was trying to say, “No, it’s only objective.”
Sometimes we do need to be able to think through and talk through these issues. This is foundational; this is often times the part of apologetics or Christian training that people don’t like because it’s stuffy; it’s philosophy. We see that in the New Testament Paul tells us to be prepared to deal with the philosophies of the day, to be able to tear down arguments and anything that stands up against the gospel of Christ.
Sometimes we’re going to have to do something that’s a little uncomfortable, we’re going to have to stretch ourselves and learn a little philosophy. Because if we care enough about our neighbor and we care enough about sharing the gospel, we need to be able to meet people where they’re at and address the problems in their worldviews like this subjective-objective problem that sometimes people don’t even know they have.
I was teaching Sundays school on Sunday and one of my high school student said, “You’re talking about atheists and you’re saying these things that consistent atheists belief. My friends don’t believe this. They haven’t even thought about it, they just say God doesn’t exist, and that’s the end of the story.”
I said, “Well, sometimes we have to think for people.” She had very astutely pointed out that not all atheists believe the same thing. What she also saw was a lot of times people don’t realize that they hold positions that either don’t fit together or aren’t well thought out. Sometimes we’re going to have to show that to people, we’re going to have to tell them where their view leads. A lot of times people haven’t thought about the fact that subjective and objective truth are very different and they will determine very differently how people live.
The last example I’ll leave you with is this, from people who say, “What does it matter if I decide what’s right for me and you decide what’s wrong for you? That shouldn’t bother anyone, that shouldn’t scare anyone.” The best reply I’ve heard to this was by Ravi Zacharias, when he was asked this exact question, “Why does subjective morality scare you?” and he asked the person, “Do you lock your door at night?” and the guy said, “Yes.” He didn’t need to say anything after that, his point was made but he explained and I’ll explain a little too.
The guy was obviously bothered that some people would think certain things were right that he didn’t think were right. So, he felt the need to lock his door at night. You can’t live consistently (or at least without some fear in a world) where subjective truth is the prevailing thought of the day. If “anything goes” and I can just decide what’s right for myself, that would be a very scary world to live in. We need to understand that ideas have consequences that we need to think through our views and we need to be able to articulate the basics of subjective and objective truth.
Just quickly to recap, subjective truth is a view of truth where something is true because of how I see it or what I think about it or how I feel about it. Objective truth says we don’t determine what’s true, we recognize the truthfulness of something because it exist that way in reality, like the street sign. The last thing to point is that it is objectively true that something is subjectively true for a person.
It is objectively true (it’s a feature of reality) that Brian Seagraves thinks that chocolate trinity is the best flavor of ice cream. Why? Because it’s the trinity, it’s the flavor that’s most like God. At least that’s what I tell myself when I eat a lot of it.
I hope this episode has been helpful and I look forward to spending this time with you next week on Unapologetic.