Acton Institute Powerblog

The Truth Will Set Us Free

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God is rational, and the universe is governed by unchanging natural laws instituted by Him. The Bible tells us in the Book of Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth.” God is not arbitrary; the Bible also tells us that He is just and that He keeps promises to His people. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God has established “ordinances of heaven and earth.” Since they come from a perfect lawgiver, we know that these laws do not change on a whim.

These beliefs were radical, and given historical trends in philosophy, they remain so. Pagans argued that truth exists, but that it is dependent on the will of the gods. Since these gods were capricious rulers of the universe, there were no unchanging laws that could be discovered by humans. In our own day, postmodern constructivist philosophers like Giambattista Vico also argue that objective truth is unknowable. For them, this is because truth is only accessible to humans insofar as we agree with something we have manufactured and labeled as the truth. As Vico put it, “the norm of the truth is to have made it.” If pure naturalism is correct and there is no role for God, then Vico can reasonably argue “the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself and since it does not make itself, it does not know the genus or mode by which it makes itself.” After all, our ability to understand things as they truly are is difficult to argue in the absence of any reason to think that human reason itself is reliable.

Christianity offers just that reason by asserting two main points: that God has made the universe according to natural laws and that He has given humanity the means to understand them. As God asks Job, “Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?” God gives understanding to the mind so that we may know Who has made the world and the universe as it is.

God intends for us to exercise our reason and seek to know reality. Jesus says that He is the Truth, and He promises His followers that “the truth will set you free.” The truth that Jesus speaks of is not, of course, purely scientific and rationalistic. It is the truth of the universe and of humanity. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates this in Caritas in Veritate, where he writes, “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things.”

Since truth is objective, reason can discern it. Reason is the universal nature of humans, regardless of our race, culture, language, class, or religion. We all have access to the truth. In a world where subjective truths compete, humanity can no longer find common ground and rise above struggles for power and influence. The truth about humanity and natural reality becomes “Nordic,” “bourgeois,” “imperialist,” or “chauvinist.” The idea that truth is subjective does not set us free. It pits us against each other and fails to let us seek the truth.

Caritas in Veritate points out the dire social consequences: “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.” If we are to seek true solidarity and the creation of a humane world, we must commit ourselves to pursuing the truth. Otherwise, humanity’s divisions will only grow.

By choosing instead to follow constructivism, fundamentalism, fideism, and the consensus view of the truth, we are enslaving ourselves to error and cutting off the truth that unites us. We are also rejecting the duty that God has given us to use the gift of reason to seek Him out. Since this sin only gives us error in place of the truth about us and the universe we inhabit, it results in suffering, tyranny, and conflict.

The truth will set us free in the measure that we are willing to seek it as God commands us to, and in the measure that we reject anything less than the full, universal, reasonable nature that it has.

Matt Cavedon


  • It is interesting and troublesome to try and frame the world in a purely rational way, or describe God as a wholly rational being. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Therefore, pure rationalism fetters God, because it presupposes that humans can fathom His reasoning, albeit with meditation, prayer, etc.

    This sentiment is echoed by Christ in Luke 18:17 when He says, “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” Faith in Christ’s love, then, is not rational, nor should it be considered thus, and I reject evangelism based off of appealing to rationality. Rationality will not set you free, blind faith shall. What hope can we put into our rational minds that so often lead us astray?

    Love, then, is irrational, and the truly irrational idea is that God would consider us, we fallen sheep, worth saving. That is the redemptive message of Christ that makes Christianity unique. It is not because of what we have done or who we are, but because of who He is, and His grace for us. Following rationalism merely leads to either Universalism (because then there is nothing unique about the Christian faith) or agnosticism/atheism (because what rational God would create such a screwed up world?). All paths to God become equal (or meaningless/non-existent) when God’s love is rational. But it isn’t, nor can it be.

    Call it a difference of theological opinion, but I think this issue is at the core of of a Christian’s relationship with Christ, never mind theology. Theology is merely an attempt to interpret the uninterpretable, and as such I have little use for it. I don’t need an intermediary between me and the revealed word of God, nor do I need a frame of reference for understanding Christ’s love, and what that means to me in my life and in my relationship with others.

  • “In our own day, postmodern constructivist philosophers like Giambattista Vico”

    That is a very dry jest indeed.

    (Good article.)

  • Matt Cavedon

    Michael – you are right in that we can never use our reason to fully know God, nor can rationalism explain His ways to us in matters of the soul. His love is indeed beyond all knowing, and the ways that He chooses to mercifully save us are things that can’t be reduced to intellectual knowledge.

    My point is that He is rational and that His universe is governed by laws that we can know with the use of reason. The truth of the physical universe and of human nature (unknowable in the fullest sense because of free will and human action) can be known reasonably. God gives us the ability to have scientific inquiry because we are assured that there are laws to be found, principles to be uncovered, and minds that can do it.

    That said, reason can never be divorced from love. The Pope named his newest encyclical Caritas in Veritate, which means Love in Truth. Truth is God, and God is Love. To separate out rationality as some sort of value in itself without reference to the truth is an error, too. Thank you for re-emphasizing this and drawing out its Biblical basis.

  • Matt Cavedon

    Lexington – fair enough, he died before the nineteenth century. Amazing how the newest errors are old, isn’t it?

  • Matt

    Michael again –

    Pure emotionalism without an effort to find intellectual truth is also weak, though. God is not entirely uninterpretable; Jesus teaches the Apostles to understand what Scripture means and what the nuances of the Law exist for. The revealed Word of God is not always apparent; Jesus Himself tells the Apostles that they can understand more of His parables because of their experience and the instruction that they have received than can the crowds. Theology and the authority of the Church exist precisely because we need to have right ideas of where our love belongs and how to act.

    It, too, is founded on the idea that God calls us to use our reason to know Him, because we are made in His image of reason and truth. We cannot know everything, or even close to it, and we need revelation and grace, but we can understand them and their implications better through reasoned inquiry than we could get by pure reading and emotional commitment. Like the mind, the heart can be disoriented, too. Both need to correct the other for the sake of a full love and faith for God.

  • MaryAnn

    Intellectuals kill me. Always trying to make the simplest truths so difficult and complicated. Approach Jesus the way any child approaches his father- in trust and love. Seems to me, that’s what at the core of a Christian’s relationship with God. The matter becomes complicated when people try to do God’s work, instead of doing the work He gave us to do- that is to transform our own lives to resemble Jesus’ life. That’s also the main point I took from the Pope’s encyclical. Governments cannot cure the world of it’s ills. Only God can do that, and He does it one person at a time- in Truth and Charity.

  • Becky Hahn

    What I’ve noticed is that people’s faith is tried most when there is a discrepancy between what they have been taught and what they see in the world around them or what they have experienced. Our rational minds can’t reconcile it and that causes a problem. I see it a lot in the people that have bought into the Health and Wealth preaching. They have faith in what they are being told, but when it doesn’t pan out they are left confused, and some even stop believing. In addition, their eye has been moved off target: health and wealth instead of conformity to Christ. This is one of the reasons why the truth is so important to faith.