Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We take this literally for the words “way” and “life,” but what if we also took it literally for the word “truth”? In their book Who
What is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith, that is exactly what authors Jeffrey L. Thayne and Edwin E. Gantt encourage us to do, changing our way of thinking from truth as an idea (this turns out to be rooted in Greek philosophy) to truth as a person (Hebrew thought).
The chapter headings give a good summary of what is covered: “What if truth is a person?,” “The ancient roots of person-truth,” “Faith in ideas, or faithfulness to a Person?,” “Knowing God vs. believing ideas about Him,” “Person-truth does not give us control,” “Knowing person-truth through covenant,” “Our on-and-off relationship with person-truth,” “What it means to be an authority on truth,” “The archnemesis of person-truth,” “What is sin, if truth is a person?,” “Rethinking the atonement of Christ,” and “Person-truth in a world of science and reason.” There is also a conclusion chapter, a list of further readings, and appendixes with more on Greek and Hebrew thought and questions and answers.
I was initially skeptical when offered this book to review. But it claimed to offer help for those having a faith crisis, and to strengthen faith in Jesus Christ and the Restoration, so I thought it would be worth a look. I was pleasantly surprised, and found myself agreeing with the conclusions (the good fruit being brought forth), even as I am still processing the explanations that led up to them. The authors anticipated skepticism, and they addressed all the potential red flags that came up in my mind as I read.
For instance, “God guides His children within their contexts. What was prudent for one generation may no longer be prudent for another. His instructions are not the sort of universal, unchangeable abstractions that we privilege in the modern world” (page 47). This is followed up with a warning that “Some Latter-day Saints have used these very ideas to rationalize a wholesale rejection of prophetic teaching and warning…. They rightly point out that prophets are fallible and can make mistakes; they wrongly assert that this means we should reject their current teachings” (page 49).
The book is full of gems that address topics related to a crisis of faith, such as “some Latter-day Saints argue that faith cannot exist without doubt. They reject the certainty with which many Latter-day Saints express their testimonies of the restored gospel…. Some Latter-day thinkers have begun to use similar logic to valorize doubt and skepticism as a prerequisite to genuine faith…. In contrast, the person view of truth shifts our understanding of doubt. If we use marriage as our example, spouses are always and ever knowing each other better every day. But it would make little sense to say that each must question or doubt the existence or faithfulness of the other in order to have faith in him or her or to be truly faithful…. Similarly, our fidelity to God is not justified by rational inference or empirical evidence either” (page 56). It also covers topics such as so-called “bishop roulette,” how it’s OK that prophets sometimes seem to contradict each other or even themselves, why bad things happen even though we live the gospel but we should trust God anyway, and what is wrong with the idea of “being on the wrong side of history.”
There is a chapter on the temple that reframes the question, “If the sacred truths of the Holy Temple are really so important, why do we keep them a secret, rather than sharing them with everyone?” into “What must I do to prepare myself for the ritual communion with God that takes place in the Holy Temple, and how can I invite others to do the same.” It further explains, “The first question assumes that all truth should be verified in light of public scrutiny, whereas the second question assumes that our relationship with God can involve levels of familiarity and intimacy that are guarded by covenants” (page 77).
One observation I have made with those that lose their faith is that early in the process they can be helped, but they eventually reach a point where they have lost their trust and nothing can be said to help them. At this point, it seems that only God can turn them around, in His own time. This is explained: “[T]here may really be intellectual snares and traps that, once sprung, we cannot think our way out of. It is possible, from this view to be held captive by a lie or possessed by a false view of the world…. From a person view of truth, rational arguments may be insufficient. Divine rescue is often needed” (page 102). The question, “How can we convince someone who has been led astray by false ideas of the error of their beliefs and doctrinal understandings?” becomes “How can we invite someone who has been (or is being) led astray to obtain spiritual and intellectual confirmations through personal experiences with God?” (page 105).
At 185 pages, this would be a quick read, except that much of it is a completely different way of looking at things, which I am still digesting. I did enjoy reading it – it was actually hard to put down. I plan to read it again, and refer to it in the future as I discuss matters of faith with others and try to help those that are struggling. As the authors point out in a note in the beginning, others have written about these ideas, but Thayne and Gantt did a great job expressing them in a way that makes them accessible to the general reader.