What’s the difference between truth and fact?
This question came up recently at my Bible Study group meeting, and it prompted an interesting discussion: one person put forward the idea that facts change, but the truth is constant. Another attendee suggested that facts are fixed, but truth is in the eye of the beholder.
‘But what is truth? Not easy to define. We both have truths … are yours the same as mine?’ – Pilate to Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar
The discussion quickly moved on to other topics, so we didn’t explore the truth-fact dichotomy much more than that. Still, the question has been at the back of my mind ever since, so I thought I might share some thoughts here – and thus end the debate for all time.
When I use these words, both truth and facts are constant and unalterable.
- Our interpretation of the truth may vary, but that doesn’t mean the truth itself changes depending on our perspective. Truth is truth. Period.
- Similarly, our perception of facts may change, but the facts themselves continue to be genuine regardless of how many people acknowledge them. Fact is fact. Period.
For my money, facts are mere data; bits of information that can be recorded in a series of ones and zeroes on a computer. Truth is knowledge and wisdom that couldn’t be fully captured in a thousand libraries. Facts are neutral. Truth takes sides. Facts can save a man, but truth makes him worth saving.
That’s why I find Indiana Jones‘ speech to an introductory archeology class so illuminating, and quoted it in my 2010 blog post, Truth:
“Archeology is the search for fact … not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”
– Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
I also find the Wiktionary definitions helpful in distinguishing between these similar concepts:
- The definitions for fact include the phrases ‘something actual as opposed to invented‘ and ‘something which is real‘.
- The entry for truth, on the other hand, includes words like ‘fidelity‘, ‘conformity to reality‘ and my personal favorite, ‘That which is real, in a deeper sense; spiritual or “genuine” reality‘.
Is it any wonder that in John 14:6, Jesus tells us He is the way, the truth and the life?
He didn’t say He’s the path, the facts and the metabolism, and for my money, the nuances that separate these synonyms are vital here.
But while this notion of Christ as Truth is prominent in Christianity, it’s easy to get bogged down in questions of fact about the actual life of the actual person called Jesus of Nazareth:
- Was He really born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem?
- Did He really walk on water and feed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish?
- Was He really transfigured into a heavenly version of Himself on a hill with Moses and Elijah in the presence of three of His disciples?
- Did he really die on a cross and literally experience a bodily resurrection two days later?
What if the answer to any of those questions (especially the last one) turned out to be no – that some of these ‘facts’ about Jesus are exaggerated, misremembered or not meant to be taken literally?
Does that change Who Jesus was and is for you?
If the answer is ‘yes’; if your connection with Jesus is dependent on the veracity of the ‘facts’ reported in the Gospels, are you limiting who God is, what She can do and how? If human science and scrutiny were to manage to knock down one or two of these trees, would the forest that is the Gospel no longer stand tall for you? Is there no room for transcendence in your spirituality?
And if the answer is ‘no’; if the Truth of the Gospel for you is completely detached from the facts of the Gospels; if your connection with Christ is independent of the accuracy of the stories about the person called Jesus of Nazareth, what is the basis by which you tether yourself to this Christ being in the first place? If you are prepared to view the events recorded in the four Gospels as little more than fable and legend, what is to stop you from viewing their depiction of the Sin Nature as poetic rather than literal, and their calls to action as mere suggestions? Do your spirituality give enough credence to the concrete?
The truth (and fact) is that it’s unlikely that any of the details of the Gospel story will be proven or disproven as fact in our lifetime, so the storm I’ve just whipped up with those questions is purely an academic exercise – a tempest in a teapot, as it were.
But this discussion does serve as an interesting reminder – for me, at least – that when it comes to faith, truth and fact may not be fully coterminous, but they definitely overlap, and both are vitally important. The trouble, for me, is to make sure I don’t hold either (or both) of them too tightly, or too loosely.
Which, in hindsight, is pretty bleating obvious.
In other words, Duh.
Peace be with you.