People seek “the truth.” Religions claim to know it. Philosophies seek it. Spiritual persons think they have reached it or will reach it. Some people of course think truth in this absolute way is impossible to find. Even so, the average person assumes we can comprehend truth. They trust doctors to know the brain; engineers to build a safe building; and against the narrative of a post-truth age, people frequently affirm they can know the truth—even if they call it “my truth.”
But we cannot comprehend truth. No one can. More specifically, no human can comprehend truth, but we can apprehend the truth when we receive it as a gift.
We Cannot Comprehend Truth
We cannot construct, discover, or formulate total truth. We would have to know everything about everything. We cannot. I know only a sliver of life. You know only a tiny instance of life in this massive cosmos. I can barely know the depths of my spouse! She tells me how she feels. I see her face. I can barely scratch the surface of her inner-life—her unconscious thoughts and feelings and movements as well as her conscious ones.
When I speak with a friend, I cannot fully grasp what he thinks and feels. I do not directly experience their day, their well-being, their slight muscle soreness, their previous conversations, their sleep level, and their past experiences. I cannot fathom someone’s daily experience of work, family, friends, medicine, pain, happiness, and much more besides.
I do not know how he cares for his sister and regrets treating his father unkindly. I do not know the thousand experiences that made him what he is today. He cannot either. Our limits are such that we cannot even know ourselves fully. In other words, we are often not conscious of many basic things about ourselves.
I cannot comprehend myself if that means knowing every fact of myself, how each fact relates to another, and the depths of what it is to be a human being. We are a fathomless mystery of experience, a world of wonder.
We Can Apprehend Truth
For the most part, we however overestimate our abilities. We think we can use reason or evidence to understand everything. We can barely know how reality works (quantum physics). We can barely know anything in our tiny experience of the cosmos.
We are emotionally broken people—our feelings often vie against reason. We are willfully errant, choosing what we know is wrong. We are intellectually finite, but think we can create and shape reality around us.
At this level, we should be radically skeptical about human nature and our ability to know truth. Yet experience shows us that people do know truth. A farmer knows how to work the land and harvest fruit from it. A society orders itself around justice and peace (at least many attempt to). People can share in the grief of another person, and we have no deep reason to deny that some sense of real sharing happens here.
We Must Accept Truth as Gift
Something is happening here that shows that we know something or rather know somehow. How is the question. So here I want to introduce something particularly Christian. We receive being, truth, and life as gift.
I ask again: how does the farmer know how to farm? Answer: “For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him” (Isa 28:26). In the language of Paul, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor 4:7). Or again the apostle says: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Jesus too says, “I am … the truth” (John 14:6). And he gives the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26), Jesus’s Spirit, his Presence to us: “It is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:33). Jesus gave being to all (John 1:3). And he illuminates every human being (John 1:9; πάντα ἄνθρωπον).
The Father sends the Son; the Father and Son give the Spirit. As given, the Spirit is the Gift of Father and Son. He is the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the Father. As our spirit is in us and yet us, so is the Spirit in the Father and Son and yet one with Father and Son.
Let me get back on track. Truth, Life, Being, Existence are all gift. We cannot construct our reality, name all truth, know everything. We are finite, weak, limited. We have one created capacity to make up for that lack, however.
We can receive.
God by nature is Goodness overflowing. In creation, he overflows in Goodness to make the cosmos “very good” (Gen 1:31). In the Incarnation, God overflows in Love. The Father, because he so loved the world, sent his only begotten Son into it in order to save it (John 3:16). And the Spirit of recreates us into one new humanity (e.g. Eph 2:15; Titus 3:5). From creation, to redemption, up to new creation—God gives of himself to us.
We receive everything. We cannot comprehend it since that requires we know everything. Only God is infinite and can know without limit. We cannot.
But we can receive the Truth. We can apprehend (know truly) without comprehending (knowing as only God can) the truth. We must receive truth and life as gift, without the pride of thinking we can know it all; without thinking that we can unite our loves and our mind; without thinking we can will to do what we know is truth perfectly. Every faculty we have is broken.
Theologians call this total depravity. We are broken people. We know this because we often let anger cloud what we know is true; we lust when we should not. We harm ourselves because our reason and emotions fight each other. Something is not right in us.
And that wrongness tells us we can know “our truth” or even “the truth” apart from receiving it as a gift from Giver. But we are creatures, and it is in our nature to receive from our Creator. Christianity particularly then denies the secular narrative of modernism that we can know truth independently and fully through scientific research.
It puts our capacity in its place. It makes us rely on the whole human being (every person) since we each have slivers of knowledge. That natural good, built into us, to make us rely on one another. We must have a doctor, a scientist, a farmer, and so on. We cannot do it on our own. We cannot “do research” online and become an expert (usually). We are limited, finite. And that is how God made us.
We are created to receive. We are not created to be gods as God is God. We are to be like him, for sure, as creatures can be. But the idea that we can know all is a fool’s errand. We cannot comprehend even our own heart: “who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). Why do we think we can understand something external to us comprehensively?
We receive. We apprehend. We cannot comprehend. So we cannot know truth absolutely as only God can. But we can trust God who does know truth absolutely. We can receive from him. We can stand on the only solid rock we have since only God knows all and infinitely. We don’t. We are creatures. We are not created to. We are created to accept from our Creator.