world council of churches

Truth or Truths
Hans Ucko

When invited to lecture, give talks, present a paper, address groups visiting the Ecumenical Centre on interreligious dialogue, one runs almost as if by design into one issue: the interrelationship between the question of truth, our faith claims, the faith claims of others and how to deal with religious plurality. If you are right, people say, then we must be wrong. If you are right, if you theologically provide space for other faiths, then we must be wrong, our teaching, the basis of our faith and belief, yes, the very foundation of our salvation must be wrong.

Bishop Krister Stendahl, a Swedish-American theologian and New Testament scholar, once expressed this tension in the form of a question, "How can I sing my song of praise of Jesus without offending the other?" Christians want to praise Jesus and praising him means saying that he is the Saviour, he is the only one and there is no other next to him, not only for themselves but for everyone. And this is of course where the problem begins; i.e. the praise of Jesus seems to say that other ways of faith and praise are not valid ways. Stendahl says that praise of Jesus should not be understood to exclude the experiences of other relationships. Praise of Jesus belongs in the same category as love expressed between two human beings. Love language, or caressive language, as Stendahl calls it, is and remains an expression of a relationship between two, e.g. a man and woman in love with each other. It is a declaration, proclamation, announcement, yes an embrace of two people in love. It is a particular language. Blaise Pascalís words are helpful for our understanding, "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas" (We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart). This is not sentimental language. Nor is it the language of a timetable or government decree. Love language has its own logic and belongs to those in love, having made the experience of meeting someone in the depth of their being. It is a language of a special kind, which does not right away relate to anyone but the two in love. Is not this also our experience, when we find ourselves next to a couple busy telling each other how much they love each other? We feel that we are witnessing something that is private. And to be quite honest, isnít such love language quite boring to listen to for the outsider? It belongs only and is meaningful only to those who have a relationship with each other.

The same is applicable in the relation between a human being in his or her praise of God. Love language is also the language spoken in the relationship between God and human beings. When human beings speak love language with God, when they praise God, they pronounce their love for God and their feelings about God. There is a lot of love language in the Bible. People express how much they love God, how they have been saved by Godís grace, how they have been convinced that there is no one like God, that God is truly the only one for them. Let us read from Paulís Letter to the Romans (11,33-36). This is pure love language:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable
are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
Every word is true in Paulís praise of God. Paul is full of love and admiration for God. This is what Paul believes about God. When Paul thinks of God, this is what comes out of his heart and mouth. This is his belief and creed. It is interesting to remember that the Creeds used in the liturgies of the church in Greek are called doxologies. A doxology is a hymn or other prayer praising God.

Is what is said, sung, proclaimed in and through a doxology the truth? Salvation, in Christian understanding, is described as coming to the knowledge of truth. The church is said to be the very pillar and foundation of this truth. It is the guardian and guarantee of this truth. Paul says, "I am writing these instructions to you so that -- you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth." (1 Tim.3, 14) It goes without saying that the question of truth is of capital importance. People of other faiths have their own doxologies. The meeting with people of other faiths, the discovery that people outside the church also claim truth, leaves you with a dilemma. How is one, while praising Jesus, to look upon the faith claim of the other? If Christ is the only way and the only truth, then what do we do about other ways and are there other truths?

Responses to this dilemma have preoccupied and continue to preoccupy Christians of various confessions. The Office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue of the World Council of Churches (WCC) has taken some initiatives in an attempt to find a serious response to this dilemma. I would like to refer to a consultation in Baar, Switzerland in 1990, dealing with the issue of how Christians are to make sense of the religious plurality in which they live. The attempt was to move to a stage where Christians put into words that learning from other faiths is not only enriching our knowledge about people of other faiths but might also demand changing our self-understanding.

The meeting in Baar led to a ĎStatement on Religious Plurality: Theological Perspectives and Affirmations.' The crucial paragraphs in this document read like this:

We see the plurality of religious traditions as both the result of the manifold ways in which God has related to peoples and nations as well as a manifestation of the richness and diversity of humankind. We affirm that God has been with them in their seeking and finding, that where there is truth and wisdom in their teachings, and love and holiness in their living, this like any wisdom, insight, knowledge, love and holiness that is found among us is the gift of the Holy Spirit. (II para. 4).

We are clear, therefore, that a positive answer must be given to the question raised in the Guidelines on Dialogue (1979 ) "is it right and helpful to understand the work of God outside the Church in terms of the Holy Spirit" (para. 23). We affirm unequivocally that God the Holy Spirit has been at work in the life and traditions of peoples of living faiths.

Further we affirm that it is within the realm of the Holy Spirit that we may be able to interpret the truth and goodness of other religions and distinguish "the things that differ" so that our "love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment" (Phil. 1: 9-10).

We also affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Interpreter of Christ and of our own Scriptures (Jn. 14:26) will lead us to understand afresh the deposit of the faith already given to us, and into fresh and unexpected discovery of new wisdom and insight, as we learn more from our neighbours of other faiths. (IV. paras. 2.3 and 4).

This statement was a bold statement. Those signing it said that that they could no longer, in making theological claims, eclipse the presence and vitality of other faiths. They could not disregard what they perceived with their eyes and hearts. These experiences, they said, could not be eclipsed from their belief in a God leading them to this perception of truth.

A statement such as the one from Baar does not mean that the church considers the truth claims of other religious traditions or opens the possibility for other saviours or other salvific ways. Kenneth Cracknell comments in an article on the WCC and interfaith dialogue: "In both its theology and its policy it (WCC) has operated, I believe, with two diverse sets of values, the one quite negative and exclusive, the other open to dialogue and co-operation". He continues with reference to the Declaration from Baar, "The loss almost without trace in WCC thinking of the Baar Declaration on 'Religious Plurality: Theological Perspectives and Affirmations'. It is deeply regrettable that no attention was paid to the Baar Declaration by the four thousand or so Christians gathered in Canberra. Furthermore I find no reference to the Baar Declaration in the Minutes of the Central Committee Meetings since 1991. It is almost as though it had never been."1

The church is uneasy about providing space for theological findings made in and through interreligious dialogue. In general one is more willing to affirm dialogue and accept the various kinds of dialogue taking place today. There is a dialogue of life, where people of different faiths live together. There is a social dialogue, where people of different faiths agree on a common goal. There is an intellectual dialogue, where people of different faiths discuss issues of common concern. There is a contemplative dialogue, where people of different faiths come together in spiritual practice and meditation, the latter being perhaps the most controversial. But it is a compartmentalisation of dialogue as an exercise of its own and on its own. There are few, if any, explicit links to a changed self-understanding as a consequence of the dialogue. There are quite a few Christians, who will speak with conviction about a strong focus on dialogue of life. They may be quite sincere about it, but they are equally sincere about making sure that interreligious dialogue and theology are not brought together. The truth claims of faith must be protected from the implications of dialogue of life!

There have been efforts to address the interrelationship of religious plurality and Christian mission. The San Antonio mission conference of the WCC (1989) articulated the interrelationship as a positive tension, saying: "In reaffirming the "evangelistic mandate" of the ecumenical movement, we would like to emphasise that we may never claim to have a full understanding of God's truth. ... We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time, we cannot set limits to the saving power of God. ... We are well aware that these convictions and the ministry of witness stand in tension with what we have affirmed about God being present in and at work in people of other faiths; we appreciate this tension, and do not attempt to resolve it."2

The quotation earlier by Krister Stendahl keeps the opposition between faith claims and religious plurality as a disturbing question, positively addressed as a relationship of love. Saying that Jesus is the only way is a statement of love and has its own truth. The San Antonio statement on mission and religious plurality portrays the dilemma as at best a creative tension. But one remains in a tension. Where do we go from here?

In and through interreligious dialogue we have realised that there are many similarities between people of different faiths, that we share much in our religious traditions, and that we also can achieve a great deal together. The understanding of interreligious dialogue has as we have seen grown during the last decades and almost everyone realises that there is no other option than dialogue. Interreligious dialogue is solicited, not only by religionists themselves but also by representatives of civil society, by representatives of world governance, by representatives of business and finance, etc. There is a hope that world religions could creatively contribute to solving some of the conflicts facing humanity instead of being an instrument fuelling conflicts. While many of these efforts are good and should be encouraged, there is the remaining question of what we are to each other. While respecting each otherís differences, what are Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists to Christians and vice versa and in different constellations? When push comes to shove, does not religious plurality e.g. question the Christian claim of Jesus being the only one, challenge the teaching of the only truth?

Addressing religious plurality, we prefer to avoid the question of truth.

Many encounters in dialogue begin and end in a descriptive mode. There is an intention to get to know the other or increase the awareness about the other, but it all remains descriptive. What are your spiritual resources, which are our spiritual resources, what is your view on women, what is our view on women, what is your view on peace, what is our view on peace, etc? One can add to the list. One stays all the same in the descriptive. When we want to grow deeper in relations and begin exploring whether our truth claims of faith can really endure the reality of religious plurality, there seems to be uneasiness. The important dimension of dialogue as an encounter also with oneself is shunned. Dialogue is asking questions into the very heart of my own faith. If you are you, then who am I? These questions may be disturbing but are necessary for a self-understanding that can be at ease in a world of religious plurality.

While it is certainly important that we should find ways of co-operation in response to the global threats to our life as human beings, this cannot be the only reason for our interaction. If we could imagine that we could feed all the hungry, clothe all the naked, liberate all the oppressed, we would at the end of that glorious day still be asking ourselves questions of who we are, alone and in relation to each other. We are thrown back at each other and need to make sense of each other. We are back to the question and tension: Could Christians, and in case it is relevant, people in the other religious traditions, be truly committed to their faith and at the same time without any difficulty and any hidden agenda be open to the other and his/her religious tradition? Alternatively, do we need to keep a filter between dialogue of life and our theological stance and truth claims?

We need to explore the perception of truth. The following reflections do not attempt to give solutions but serve as a discussion starter on the perception of truth in our religious traditions and in the encounter with the other.

We are accustomed to talking about the word "truth" in the singular. We speak of the "truth" as though it were unitary, indivisible, and monolithic. Our monotheistic point of view is probably one of the reasons for this. If divinity is singular, then, we reason, truth must be singular as well. Secondly, we prefer something objective to hold on to. The orientation is "objectivist". We want objective norms in morality, objective truth in science and knowledge of an objectively real God in religion. We build up around ourselves an unchanging framework of religious objects, timeless truths, moral and physical laws, immortal souls. We seem unconscious of the fact that every idea of objective reality and unchanging truth contains the temptation of an idol, a fetish, and an illusion.3

The view that truth is one is not limited to a Western or Christian understanding. The Hindu saying, Ekam sat vipraha bahuda vadanti, "Truth is One; sages call it many" corresponds in a way with what Christ said, "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14,6). There are many ways, but I am the way. Statements like these lead us to believe that there is only one truth with a capital T. Other truth claims are either simply untrue or vague and imperfect reflections of the Truth.

The question is whether the concept truth is the best way to use in relation to our religious convictions. The Bible itself portrays truth in more than one way. There are differences between the languages of the Bible in relation to truth. The Hebrew word for truth is emeth, which denotes a reality, which is firm, solid, valid and binding. The emphasis is not so much on truth as being as on truth as truthfulness, trustworthiness, and dependability. God is truthful. One can rely on God. The Greek word aletheia, says that Christ is the answer to the question of true being in an absolute sense. Traditional Christian theology oscillates at best between these two understandings. It would be important to keep this in mind when seeking to come to terms with the question of truth in a religiously plural world.

One needs in relation to truth as in so many other cases make a distinction between the Absolute and the relative. Truth is always, irrespective of origin, received in earthen vessels. Philosophers and theologians are in disagreement between themselves about the nature of truth. Does truth have a nature? Is there one truth behind and beyond everything that we say or think? Is there an eternal Truth, irrespective of facts, irrespective of beliefs or propositions? Or is truth the ideal outcome of rational inquiry? What is actually added to the property of truth by my ascribing truth to a thought or conviction? Questions like these remain questions with no obvious answer. The words of Pilate describe the enigma of all times, "What is truth?" We are not likely to find an answer but our questions should hopefully prevent us from giving up continued probing.

Truth is as much as a semantic notion, and therefore takes its place along with other semantic notions, such as reference, meaning, and content. I think Gandhi in his explanation of the term Satyagraha puts the question of truth into a context, which puts "holding on to truth" into an environment of "righteousness", when he says, "I have also called Satyagraha love force or soul force. In the application of Satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not permit violence being inflicted on one's opponent, but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For what appears truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by the infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one's self."

Truth in splendid isolation, separate and unattached to the complexity of life, risks becoming abusive, dominating, excluding, denigrating. Not only does holding on to a truth by itself risk becoming idolatrous, it also entails a devaluation of responsibility. There is a risk that we hide behind the truth with capital T, refusing the obligation to be responsible. There is quite a lot of sense in the words by the Chinese philosopher and essayist Hu Shih, "Only when we realise that there is no eternal, unchanging truth or absolute truth can we arouse in ourselves a sense of intellectual responsibility." Let me illustrate. One important theme in the Jewish-Christian dialogue has been the question of mission to Jews. Jews and Christians in the Jewish-Christian dialogue have been saying that the credibility of the church and thus of Christian mission to Jews is seriously and maybe irreparably damaged by the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. Discussing this issue with a zealous missionary to Jews, I asked whether the church in its relation with Jews should not take into consideration what had transpired in the Shoah, the Holocaust. The man looked at me and said, "Of course the Holocaust is absolutely horrendous and must never be forgotten. But it doesnít change a thing. Because the Bible is the living truth and the Bible says that all Jews must become Christians, holocaust or no holocaust." To me, this is a clear illustration of what happens when truth is made absolute and is de-linked from life, reality, our situation, in danger of becoming a legitimisation for anything. Hiding behind it, we can allow ourselves anything. "Deus lo vult", God wants it, said the Crusaders. Nietzscheís hyperbole is worth recalling, 'Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.'

Alan Race in an article deals with a particular dimension of the church relating faith and truth and truth perceived as an inert depository in the pristine church. Throughout history the church seeks correct belief in the past and the past decides on the validity of faith. There is an appeal to the authority of the past. Nearest to God in the Christian view was the period of the Apostles. Therefore that which is in agreement with the apostles must be real Christian truth. It is this fixation on the past that has determined the shape of Christian truth down the ages. When in later years the Church would split into its three main branches of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, all three made appeal to the past in order to legitimate their particular claims. The Catholics looked to the western Fathers, and later created the churchís teaching office as a guarantor of the apostles teaching; the Orthodox looked to the eastern Fathers and supplemented this with addiction to an unchanging Liturgy as the embodiment of Christian truth in doxological (worship) form; the Protestants gave birth to Ďbiblical theologyí, a species of theology which holds that the Bible somehow supplies its own controls for true Christian believing in every generation. Each of Christianityís three main branches is very different in style and content, but all share the platonic ideal of the past being nearer to the gods.

There is more to the platonic ideal. Not only the past, but the past as unchanging was the really important point. Theologians therefore battled to find the unchanging Christian truth. As this was hard to come by, church councils had to be called from time to time to settle disputes. From these arrangements the place of Creeds assumed importance in Christian identity. Signing on the dotted line of belief is what counted, and continues to demarcate Christian affiliation. Unchanging essence, purity of form, single truth, all this was held in Godís eternal store, and in Jesus and the apostles it was given to earth. The first versions of Christian history were written to reassure believers and sceptics alike that this eternal truth had indeed been preserved. Henceforth history would be written as a contest between the orthodox good guys and the heretical bad guys, the true believers versus the enemies of pristine truth. For a long time, the history of Christianity was written as the history of doctrinal truth.4

Looking for correct belief in the past is normative and is often referred to as the hope for the church today. Referring to the condition of Christianity in Europe today, there are many that say that we are reliving the first centuries of the church. What happens now happened then. Going back to the church of the Apostles provides the true solution to our problems of today. Is this really true? The first church was a minority sect of Judaism. It is today a world religion. The pristine church may have had many other sects and movements to relate to but they were very different from the world religions and the new religious movements that the church encounters today. Political circumstances were completely different. Looking for the truth in the past may be pleasant, walking down memory lane but it is like looking for the snow of last winter. We need something else.

Our time is different from previous times. It is neither better nor worse. It is just different. Although generalisations are always a blunt instrument, I think it is correct to say that our time has difficulties with eternal truths and is more inclined towards open-endedness. Some would say that this is an obvious consequence of the reign of a post-modern mind. Had we had something to hold on to, we would not have ended up in nihilism questioning the Truth with capital T. Whatever we call it, we live in a time, where there is a definite appreciation of plasticity and the constant change of reality and knowledge. Today we give priority to concrete experience over fixed abstract principles. We ask ourselves seriously whether any a priori thought system should govern belief or decide on that which is considered to be correct belief.

This does not mean that we concede to indifferentism, saying that everything is relative or an illusion, our perception of truth included. Such a claim may sound radical, enlightened and liberal, worthy of independent people in the third millennium. But making an absolute of saying that we cannot perceive truth is claiming absolute validity for the relative. Secondly, a relativism, which makes no room for commitment, undermines the basis of religious life. If all religions are equally true what is the necessity of dialogue?

The search for truth today is however different from yesterday. Ambiguity, pluralism and that which is relative rather than absolute or certain are important factors in our search for truth. Reality is not a solid, self-contained given but a fluid, unfolding process. One cannot regard reality as a removed spectator against a fixed object; one is always engaged in reality, transforming it while being transformed oneself. Our time is characterised also by a sympathetic attitude towards repressed or unorthodox perspectives and a more self-critical view of currently established ones. There is a realisation that the world does not exist as a thing-in-itself, independent of interpretation. The world comes into being only and through interpretation. The nature of truth and reality, in science, philosophy and religion, is ambiguous. All human understanding is interpretation and no interpretation is final. Does this mean that we live in and with a relativised and relativising critical empiricism? Are we advocating an indifferent relativism? I donít think so. Krister Stendahl puts it in a challenging way. Playing scrabble, you will note that the word relativise could as well be revitalise!

Language is a cage, said Wittgenstein. The analysis of language, that has been a quite important feature of philosophy in the 20th century, has emphasised that there is a problematic relation of language to reality. Language itself, when articulating a claim to a sovereign, unchanging or enduring truth beyond interpretation imprisons the very idea of the truth claim and thwarts the message intended. The truth claim when claimed devours itself and becomes its own worst enemy.

The characteristics of our time: pluralism, complexity, ambiguity are perhaps rather the characteristics necessary for another vision than looking for Paradise lost. It may be difficult to assimilate with ourselves, but it is probably something that we have to live with, "we cannot go home again" as Thomas Wolfe said it. We live in a time of many truths and insights, with possibilities for cross-fertilisation, in a space for open conversation between different understandings, different vocabularies, and different paradigms. Could this not help us towards a more authentic experience of the numinous, a larger sense of deity, in which the personal encounter with God, the caressive love language of Krister Stendahl finds its proper place?

There is today through globalisation a process of universalisation of a value system, which by some is defined as yet another Christian attempt to conquer the world as in the days of colonisation and world mission. Globalisation is changing the world. There is a threatened reaction and response to globalisation, which is the reinforcement of our own as a protection against the other. Our reaction should not be a reaction of each one withdrawing into the confines of each religion on its own, each one behind walls of separation. It is no longer possible. No religion is an island. An affirmation of diversity is a counter witness to universalisation. This would mean to open ourselves to the possibility of many truths, to "risk having our own faith shaken and to discover that there are other ways to state the truth than we have yet learned ourselves."5 A response would be to incorporate pluralism into the very notion of our religious tradition (intrinsic pluralism), realising that a new relationship with people of other religious traditions is not simply a sociological necessity, not simply a desirable option but part of the practice of oneís own religious conviction.

This might be the beginnings of something else, a culture of cultures, and a unity of diversity. If so, it will not be on the basis of any new orthodoxy, either religious or scientific. Such a new integration will be based on the rejection of all univocal understandings of reality, of all identifications of one conception of reality with reality itself. It will recognise the multiplicity of the human spirit, and the necessity to translate constantly between scientific and imaginative vocabularies. It will recognise the human proclivity to fall comfortably into some single literal interpretation of the world and therefore the necessity to be continuously open to rebirth in a new heaven and a new earth. It will recognise that in both scientific and religious culture all we have finally are symbols, but that there is an enormous difference between the dead letter and the living word.6


  1. Kenneth Cracknell, "Ambivalent Theology and Ambivalent Policy: The World Council of Churches and Interfaith Dialogue 1938-1999"
  2. Eugene Stockwell, "Mission issues for today and tomorrow, The San Antonio Conference", Reports of the sections: IV Witness among people of other living faiths IRM, vol. LXXVIII Nos.311/312, (July-October 1989): 25-29.
  3. Don Cupitt, The Last Philosophy, (London: SCM Press, 1995).
  4. Alan Race: "Christianity: 2000 years of Inventiveness", Fourth Geza Vermes Lecture, Centre for the History of Religions, Inter-faith Dialogue and Pluralism, University of Leicester,
  5. Sharing in One Hope: Commission on Faith and Order, Bangalore 1978, Faith and Order Paper No. 92, p. 10.
  6. Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

Go to Towards Communal Harmony -- Report of the National Convention on Communal Harmony in Kanyakumari
Return to Current Dialogue (37), June 2001

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