What Zen Taught Me about Truth

I had been a Christian for two years, but I was losing my belief in absolute truth – the view that truth reflects an objective reality which can be known. I was spending a lot of time researching Zen Buddhism for my Senior project. I began to question if there were objective realities which could be known, regardless of whether anyone believed them. Ironically, it was a conversation with a Buddhist that completely convinced me absolute truths do exist.

We Act as if Absolutes Exist

My Buddhist friend was expressing his anger and judgment toward people who do believe in absolute truth. I found the notion of arguing that people who believe in absolutes are wrong or bad to be, well, what everyone does! We all disagree with someone about something, right? How to treat others, how you want to be treated, politics, religion, values, and favorite sports teams. Why do we desire others to adopt our point of view if we really believe there is no objective point of view or truth?

The Imaginary Conflict Between Tolerance & Truth

I think one motivation to view truth as relative is to live out the virtues of love, acceptance, and tolerance. On the surface it makes sense: if we all have an absolute right to our own point of view, no one is wrong. So we can all chill out and allow others their equally valid opinions and live in harmony. In theory this sounds wonderful (sign me up!), but in reality and practice we continue to judge each other.

The Real Conflict is Between Love & Pride

I don’t believe absolute truth conflicts with tolerance and love; I believe pride does. We can disagree with someone strongly and yet value them and seek their well-being. I love hanging out with humble people, no matter what they believe.

Absolute truth allows us to identify and fight against injustice without fear we are a part of one tribe exerting our will on another. It also allows us to forgive those who have deeply hurt us without questioning whether they were right to hurt us from their perspective. Imagine telling someone who had been raped, “I’m sorry that happened to you, but I’m sure the rapist must have had a good reason, for themselves.”

Absolute truth gives protecting the vulnerable, forgiveness, justice, and loving our enemies a foundation to stand on. They can be done with humility as we understand it is only God who can give us worth. Feelings of worth and superiority must not come from being right or better than others – that’s called self-righteousness.

Relative Truth Doesn’t Avoid Pride

We are all guilty of intolerance and pride, whether we believe truth is absolute or relative. When advocating for relative truth, it’s often done in one of three ways:

  • We believe everyone’s beliefs are true. Therefore, we are right and those who believe in absolute truths are wrong.
  • We believe truth is unknowable. Therefore, we are right to know this truth and those who believe truth is knowable are wrong.
  • We believe no one knows truth. Therefore, we are right to know this truth and those who believe they know truth are wrong.

These beliefs reveal a commitment to one’s own superior insight. If we say there is no absolute truth, we make an absolute statement centered around ourselves as the absolute authority and judge. Can this be the foundation of a life of humility, love, and tolerance?

Then Who is to Judge What is True?

If truth can’t be defined or created by individuals, communities, or societies – then where does it come from? Christians believe that what’s true about the big questions of life can’t be defined by limited humanity. Truth can only be defined by a God who has the authentic authority and ability to know all truth.

Explore Your Perspective:

  • Where have your ideas about truth come from?
  • Honestly, what motivates you to believe in relative or absolute truth?
  • What do you find easy or difficult to believe about absolute truth?

To learn more about the Christian view of this supreme being, read God is Not a Dude. To learn more about how Christians view God’s truth revealed to us, read Why I don’t Hate the Bible Anymore.

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