Disagreements and the 3 Kinds of Truth

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Do you remember this dress?

What colors do you see here? Some people see white and gold. Others see blue and black. That’s crazy to me.

 

How about this sound?

What did you hear? I hear Yanny.

Some of our disagreements just come down to the way we see things, or hear things.  And there are things like the dress and the audio clip, that just don’t really matter, and it’s funny, and we can just appreciate how different we are. 

But there are some things we disagree about with people that we can’t just dismiss as a difference of opinion. They matter far more than what color a dress is.

But at the same time, the way that we have been talking about these important matters just isn’t working. 

So how are we supposed to disagree when it’s about morality, or science or religion?

There Ain’t No Good Guys…

I love the song above, but…it doesn’t feel as true as it used to feel.

I don’t know if we were ever good at disagreeing with each other, but it’s pretty obvious that now, we’re REALLY bad at it. 

There are lots of explanations for why that might be, but in this post, I want to look at just one of them. 

3 Kinds of Truth

Here it is: There are three kinds of truth. And we get messed up because we confuse them with each other. We also get messed up when we act like there is only one kind. 

And when we, especially we church-going types, act like there is only one kind of truth, we’re usually assuming the only kind of truth is the first kind of truth. 

  1. Spiritual Truth (But there are actually two more kinds of truth. )
  2. Historical Truth This is the kind of truth that helps us sort out what happened yesterday, or twenty years ago, or one thousand years ago.
  3. Observational Truth This is the kind of truth that science is based on. 

So Spiritual, Historical, and Observational. Three kinds of truth. Not one, not two. Three. 

We use all three, all the time. But we get really messed up when we are using one and think we’re using another. Because at their core, these three kinds of truth help us answer the two most vital questions, when it comes to truth. 

What do I think I know? 

& How do I think I know it? 

What do I think I know and How do I think I know it? 

Well, when we are utilizing Spiritual Truth, we answer those two questions pretty simply. We say:

I just know. 

I just know! I can’t really explain it. I don’t completely understand it, but I know. I feel it deep down in my heart and I know. That’s the how of spiritual truth. That’s what it feels like. 

And some of the greatest truths in the world are spiritual truths.

Like, God is love. There’s no proof for that. You can’t argue your way into believing that is true.

As Presbyterians one of our unique beliefs within the whole spectrum of Christianity is that we think that God gives faith as a gift. I believe that God is love because God’s spirit showed me that was true. It’s a beautiful thing. 

But spiritual truth as a kind of truth isn’t always so beautiful.

Like if I believe that someone is spitting in my food, not because I saw it, or someone said they were, but because “I just know” they are, that also fits this definition of spiritual truth. And it probably means there’s something wrong with me. 

So “I just know” is how we know things as spiritual truth.

Historical Truth

Historical truth is another matter. We know things to be true historically because of evidence. 

Evidence

There are lots of kinds of evidence. There are the testimonies of witnesses. Both in a court case, or like Megan wrote about earlier, in making the case for faith.

There are letters and documents. There are memories. 

For example, we’ve all heard the name “The War of 1812” right? But how do we know there was a war of 1812?

Because of evidence.

Because of the letters the generals wrote.

Because of the declaration of war that Congress made.

Because of evidence. 

And one of the really cool things about our Christian faith is that it is based on historical truth too. For example, the gospel writers don’t say that Jesus lived once upon a time, but that Jesus lived in a particular historical time and place. And they even mention who the governors were at the time.

“Under Pontius Pilate” isn’t just in the Apostle’s Creed. Pontius Pilate’s name was found engraved on a piece of limestone, in the ruins of a sports stadium in Caesarea, beside the sea. We don’t have a faith of the sweet by and by. We practice a faith that claims God entered into history. 

So historical truth is important. And how we know things using it is through evidence.

Observational Truth

The last kind of truth is observational truth. And we know observational truth by using our senses. 

Senses

When we use observational truth, we are saying something is true because I can see it and so can you. I can hear it, and so can you.

We might disagree about whether it says Yanny or Laurel, but we can observe it together, and it’s a voice saying two syllables. We can all see the dress. We know that it’s either white gold or blue and black. No one thinks it’s a pink frog.

And even more important with observational truth, is that we can make predictions because of it. If I let go of my glasses, we all know what’s going to happen. They’ll fall. Every time. 

So there are three kinds of truth. Are you with me on that? It’s kind of a weird thing to say “Can I get an amen about.” But there it is. 


Now here’s our problem.

Disagreements that should be based on observational truth, like about climate change, are instead framed along tribal lines. Our group believes this. The enemy believes something else.

Disagreements that should be had over historical truth aren’t argued by considering the same evidence, but by deflection and “Whataboutism”s. 

This is something we’ve touched on every week that we’ve talked about truth. Because we’re all still operating with caveman brains, our default state is trust our group, and distrust everyone else. And it’s really easy to frame everything as spiritual truth, even when it’s not. 

We are not the first to do this. 

John 7:40-52

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.”  Others said, “This is the Messiah.” 

But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?  

Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?”  

So there was a division in the crowd because of him.  Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

The thing here is that the religious leaders weren’t wrong about this prophecy about the Messiah. They were just wrong about Jesus. They were so certain that they were right about him being wrong that they didn’t bother to check. 

Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?”  The police answered, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” Then the Pharisees replied, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?  Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?  But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.” 

And then Nicodemus, who was a secret believer chimes in and gives us a great example of how to disagree with an angry mob. 

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked,  “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” 

Nicodemus tries to get them to see for themselves. He appeals to their shared values and history to try and motivate them to do some first hand research. And let’s see how well it worked for him. 

They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.”

So the Pharisees answered the two vital questions in ignorance. They thought that what they knew was all there was to know. (Jesus just came from Galilee so that must be where he is from)

But Nicodemus gets it right. “Let us hear him for ourselves” (v. 51)


So… what do we do with that? How are we supposed to disagree? 

How to Disagree

First, determine if the person you disagree with is really interested in the truth, or if they just want to feel right. Sometimes people are really forthright about this and will outright say, “Don’t challenge me on this!” So listen to that. 

Then determine what kind of truth you are dealing with, and disagree with them accordingly. 

How to Disagree with: 

Spiritual Truth: I have experienced…

If you’re dealing with someone’s spiritual truth, whether it’s truly spiritual, or they just treat everything as something they just know, it’s best to frame your disagreement using “I” language.

Spiritual truth is known immediately by the knower. So the only thing that can change it, if it can be changed, is experience. 

And this is a good principle to follow any time you are talking to someone about spiritual truth, even if it’s not a disagreement. When we share the things we’ve experienced, especially if they truly are spiritual, with other people who have had similar experiences, amazing connections can be made. 

Historical : Citation needed

Now when you are disagreeing with someone about historical truth, if you think they have their facts wrong, all you have to do is say “Citation needed”. But be prepared to have your citations ready too!

I’m really bad about this. I make points all the time by saying “I read somewhere that…” Or “I heard last week that…” And that’s okay when the stakes are low. But when the claims being made matter, the citations matter even more. 

Observational: Don’t debate.

And when it comes to debating science or claims that involve observational truth, just don’t.

Help them see for themselves. 

We need to think more like teachers. The best teachers help their students discover things for themselves. Self education is the only true education. 


About the Author

David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins


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