Working with temporary truths

A glossy, full-colour 52-page booklet landed in my mailbox the other day. It offered courses on everything from music appreciation to geology, from calculus to classical mythology.

A glossy, full-colour 52-page booklet landed in my mailbox the other day. It offered courses on everything from music appreciation to geology, from calculus to classical mythology.

Junk mail usually heads straight for the wastebasket, unread. The trouble with this particular mailing was that I’d like to take all of these courses. Well, perhaps not the History of Hitler’s Empire. But almost everything else.

I am, you see, what a friend once called “an information junkie.” I don’t want to be a specialist who knows more and more about less and less.

I have a conviction, deep inside, that all knowledge is connected. It all fits together, like a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle.

In such a puzzle, each piece matters. Each piece is true, in its own way. No single piece is The Whole Truth.

Except in religion.

Here the evangelical atheists – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and their ilk – may have done us a favour. Whether their attacks on religion are well founded or not, they have forced many people to consider religion’s exclusive claims.

Religion, because it claims to deal with ultimate truth, has difficulty dealing with partial truths and temporary understandings – the kind of thing that conventional sciences deal with constantly.

I think we might well learn from scientific practice. First, it allows theories to be disproved. When Copernicus showed that the planets, including the earth, orbited the sun, he excised 15 centuries of belief based on Ptolemy’s model of an earth-centred universe. Similarly, when William Harvey identified how blood circulates in the body, he eclipsed previous understandings that went back to the Greek surgeon Galen.

But when was the last time you heard of a religious faith formally discarding a historic doctrine?

Second, science allows temporary truths to be subsumed into larger truths.

When I was in school, we learned two inflexible laws – Conservation of Matter, and Conservation of Energy. Then Einstein and the Manhattan Project showed that matter and energy were related

Today, sub-atomic particles seem to behave in ways contrary to the laws of astronomy. So scientists search for a Grand Unified Theory of Everything that will somehow tie up all the loose ends (not a pun about String Theory).

Frankly, I strongly suspect that such an integrated theory will simply reveal new gaps in our knowledge.

Science teaches us that truths are always partial. They tell us something. They point us further down the road. But they are never final.

I wish religion and theology could recognize that principle. After all, Moses’ perception of God was not the same as Micah’s. Jesus’ God feels quite different from Joshua’s.

That’s obvious to anyone who actually reads the Bible. But it doesn’t square with official doctrines about a changeless God.

In religious matters, as in science, we need to be open to a host of partial truths. Some will replace previous truths. Others will connect with each other to reveal a pattern, a flow, a direction.

Wearing doctrinal blinders merely prevents us from seeing anything beyond our own preconceptions.

Jim Taylor welcomes comments. Send e-mails to

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