For millennia, philosophers have wrestled with the question, “What is truth?” The question itself presumes that truth is a thing (a “what”). Most of us see truth as a series of ideas that we can grasp with our minds and store in our memory. From this view, we know truth when we have the right set of ideas about the world. The right ideas are those that no longer change when we have new experiences. In other words, truth describes the universal, unchanging order of things. This is the idea view of truth, or what we call “idea-truth.” The idea view of truth saturates modern thought, and most of us accept it unquestioningly.

Nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ challenged this notion of truth. One day, his followers asked, “How can we know the way?” Christ’s reply was simple and profound: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Christ did not say, “I know the truth,” or “What I teach is the truth.” He said, “I am the truth.” Many will say that this is poetic metaphor. But what happens when we take this literally? This means that truth is not a set of ideas, but a divine person. In this book, we explore this person view of truth, or what we call “person-truth.”

Some might say that we read a whole worldview into a single verse of scripture, but other passages use similar language. The Apostle John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He continued, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This passage was originally written in Greek. The Greek word he used for “word” was logos, which is also used to refer to the natural, unchangeable order behind the world. John taught that the natural order behind the world became flesh and dwelt with us.

In the Book of Mormon, Alma taught his son Shiblon, “There is no other way or means whereby man can be saved, only in and through Christ. Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness” (Alma 38:9, emphasis added). In this passage, Christ is again referred to as being truth.

We are not the first to interpret these passages literally. James Faulconer, a philosopher at Brigham Young University (BYU), wrote: “Suppose we take that claim [that Christ is the truth made flesh] quite seriously, not immediately dismissing it as metaphor. Then the path and the truth and the force of life are the same thing in Jesus.”[1] Richard N. Williams, a psychologist at BYU, said something similar: “The truth, the word, the understanding, the message from God comes to us not as a [set of ideas], but as a person.”[2]

The person view of truth also has roots in the differences between ancient Greek and Hebrew thought. We will explore this more in Chapter Two. For now, let’s explore some of the differences between idea-truth and person-truth.

Idea-truth is abstract, while person-truth is concrete

Idea-truth is best expressed as a set of abstract ideas. We cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch the underlying order of the universe, so we can only talk about it abstractly. Abstract statements often describe a pattern we observe in the world. For example, “It is always wrong to kill innocent people,” is an abstract statement. “The circumference of a circle is always twice the radius times π,” is another. These abstract statements make claims about the underlying order of the universe. They can be a moral principle, a mathematical theorem, or a law of nature. We can write them on paper or store them in memory.

In contrast, person-truth is concrete. You can see truth, hear truth, and even touch truth. Shortly after Christ’s resurrection, His apostles gathered together in Jerusalem. Christ appeared to them. Here is Luke’s account of what happened:

But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.

And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them. (Luke 24:37-43)

Christ embraced His apostles, spoke with them, touched them, and then ate a meal with them. If Christ really is the “truth made flesh,” then truth cannot be reduced to an abstract idea or stored away in memory. Even before His incarnation in the flesh, Christ could still be present in a way that an abstract idea cannot. For example, a thousand years before Christ’s mortal ministry, the Brother of Jared spoke with the Savior face to face (as a spiritual being).

This can be quite terrifying. Idea-truth, explained C. S. Lewis, “would never come ‘here,’ never (to be blunt) make a nuisance of itself.”[3] But person-truth can (and does) intrude upon our lives and make demands of us. Person-truth can look you in the eye and ask you why you lied to your mother or deprioritized the things of God. Moroni wrote, “I have seen Jesus, and … he hath talked with me face to face, and that he told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own language, concerning these things” (Ether 12:39). That is not something the Pythagorean Theorem can do.

From an idea view of truth, we can discover scientific laws or universal moral maxims and admire their intellectual elegance. But we could never call them friends, except perhaps metaphorically. In contrast, person-truth can love you, embrace you, and even weep with you. In other words, we can form a relationship with person-truth. Conversely, this implies that we could also be enemies of truth, in a literal way.

Idea-truth is universal, while person-truth is contextual

Idea-truth is seen as universal. From this view, not all facts are “truth”—truth consists only of facts that transcend the particularities of history, culture, and experience. Idea-truth cannot just be true for us here and now—it must be true anywhere and everywhere, as well as anytime and every time. Statements that fall short of this standard are merely facts to be explained by truths that do transcend context. Further, when we write what we know about the law of gravity on paper, our expression of the truth exists in a specific time and place. But the law of gravity itself has no time or place. It is everywhere and yet nowhere at all.

In contrast, person-truth (the resurrected Jesus Christ) visited a young man named Saul one morning on the side of a road between Jerusalem and Damascus. In this example, truth was in a particular place at a particular time, saying and doing particular things with a particular person. The implications of this are far-reaching: Truth can exist within our context, and address the particulars of our place and time.

Terryl Givens, a noted LDS scholar, wrote, “In the Book of Mormon, prayer frequently—and dramatically—evokes an answer that is impossible to mistake as anything other than an individualized, dialogic response to a highly particularized question.”[4] Because of this, God’s instructions cannot always be reduced to universal maxims. God can institute different laws for different dispensations, and even within the same dispensation. Indeed, the prophet Joseph Smith taught:

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.[5]

C.S. Lewis expressed this idea through a fictional character in his book Perelandra: “There can, then, be different laws in different worlds,”[6] and also in different times and eras. Similarly, Latter-day Saints are comfortable with a God who might command them to marry multiple women in one generation, and then forbid the practice in the next. In one historical context the God of Israel may command, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13). But in another context He may direct His prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Horeb (Genesis 22:1-2). And in yet another context, he may tell young Nephi to slay a drunken and defenseless Laban (1 Nephi 4:7-18).

This is not to say that God’s instructions are arbitrary or random—context is important, and God has reasons. In one case, God told Nephi the reasons: it was vital that Nephi and his family have the records of God’s covenant with Israel (see 1 Nephi 4:13-17). However, this reasoning works only within Nephi’s unique context. This rationale would not justify similar actions today, unless we have also received direct revelation from God.

These sorts of changes make no sense from the perspective of idea-truth, especially when they cannot be reduced to a universal principle. But they make perfect sense if we see truth as a person who communicates contextualized instructions to his people, and acts in response to changing social, historical and personal contexts. Our trust lies not in universal, abstract principles that we apply to differing contexts, but in a Living Truth that dwells with us intimately in the here-and-now.

The rituals and ordinances of the Church are rich with symbolism that finds meaning in our historical context. But they could be different in a parallel universe, and still be rich with meaning within the historical context of that universe. For example, God could have not rescinded animal sacrifice, or He could require us to use wine instead of water for the sacrament (see D&C 27:2). Or He could have chosen a different symbol of cleansing and rebirth than baptism. What matters is that these ordinances are given to us from God through revelation, not that they cannot be different than what they are.

Idea-truth is unchangeable, while person-truth is a moral agent

From the idea view of truth, truth cannot be different than it is. It represents not just what is the case, but what must be the case. In other words, ultimate truth is not just unchanging, it is unchangeable. This is what makes truth universal. From this view, if we show that something could be different (under different circumstances), then it is not fundamental truth. Idea-truth has no agency and no possibilities.

In contrast, person-truth is a moral agent, just like we are. God chooses to do what He does. Anything that God does, He could also not do (or do differently). This is important if we want to form a relationship with Him. It is impossible to form meaningful relationships with things that have no agency. What would it mean to say that God loves us, if cosmic, impersonal forces compelled Him to? God’s love is meaningful because He does not have to love us, but chooses to anyways.

Despite this—or perhaps because of this—God is unchangingly reliable. Person-truth is reliable not because it cannot change, but because of God’s commitment to us. “Another way to put this,” psychologist Brent Slife wrote, “is that the trustworthiness of God and Christ is unchanging, because these divine beings will always choose to be trustworthy, not because They are made to be trustworthy out of necessity.”[7] God is reliable because He has made covenants with us, not because His instructions cannot change across time and place.

In this way, God’s reliability is a matter of His character—that is, who He is and who He chooses to be. God is trustworthy because of who He is, has been, and continues to be. To be God just is to be unceasingly reliable and trustworthy. As the Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony put it, in Hebrew thought, truth—that is, person-truth or God—is “that which proves, through time and circumstance, to be what it ought.”[8] In other words, we know God is reliable and trustworthy because of the way He conducts Himself with us throughout time.

Idea-truth is passive, while person-truth is active.

Idea-truth is passive. For example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics cannot come looking for us—it can only wait for us to discover it. It cannot communicate with us, speak to us, or reveal itself to us. Idea-truth simply exists as it must, unconcerned about our lives, the world, or, indeed, anything at all. In our relationship with idea-truth, we are the only active and deciding agents.

In contrast, person-truth is active. It is not some idea waiting “out there” for us to come and find it. Instead, person-truth interacts with human beings on its (His) own initiative, and even interrupts us when we are on other errands. A classic example is the story of Saul of Tarsus when he was on the road to Damascus seeking to arrest Christians:

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And he said, Who art thou, Lord?

And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? (Acts 9:3-6)

Christ’s personal visit surprised Saul, as well as the news that he (a relentless and dreaded persecutor of Christians) was to be an apostolic spokesman for Christ. The scriptures are as much about the activity of God as they are about the activity of man. Consider the experience of the prophet Enoch. While we presume that Enoch was living a righteous life, he was not seeking a special commission from God:

And it came to pass that Enoch journeyed in the land, among the people; and as he journeyed, the Spirit of God descended out of heaven, and abode upon him. And he heard a voice from heaven, saying: Enoch, my son prophesy unto this people, and say unto them—Repent, for thus saith the Lord. …

And when Enoch had heard these words, he bowed himself to the earth, before the Lord, and spake before the Lord, saying: Why is it that I have found favor in thy sight, and am but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech; wherefore am I thy servant? (Moses 6:26-27, 31)

God’s response is simply: “I will do as seemeth me good” (Moses 6:32). God is as much an actor in this story as Enoch. The scriptures are full of such stories, such as those of Moses, Noah, Samuel, Alma, and others. In these stories, God actively teaches, warns, and counsels His children. In contrast, it is hard to imagine Einstein having these sorts of conversations with his special theory of relativity.

Furthermore, Truth does not just reach out to prophets, but also to each of us. He gently invites us to deeper and more intimate relationship with Him. C. S. Lewis described his conversion experience in these terms. As an atheist, he did not want to answer to any Divine Being, especially one he felt had done a lousy job governing the world. However, he wrote:

You must picture me in that room … night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. … I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.[9]

Most of us have felt God’s hand gently tug us away from forbidden paths and back into His fold. In the book of Psalms, King David poetically describes the Lord’s activity in our lives: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalms 23:1-3). Certainly there are things we do to invite God into our lives, but He can step over the threshold at the door just as eagerly and actively.

Perhaps this is why uneducated people can have a strong relationship with God. Unlike idea-truth, our access to person-truth is not dependent on our education. This may be one reason Latter-day Saints embrace a lay ministry. Bishops, fathers, mothers, and ministering brothers and sisters do not need a university education to receive guidance from God. Our receptiveness to God does not depend on the detail of our field notes or the replicability of our research methods. God can compensate for the inexperience of a new convert or the imprecise language of an unschooled disciple.

Idea-truth can be discovered, while person-truth must be revealed.

Finally, the modern world assumes that idea-truth is comprehensible. We may have a hard time understanding it—most people, for example, struggle to understand quantum mechanics. But from this view, we will eventually figure out the fundamental truths of the universe, with enough study, observation, and thinking. Our methods may not be precise enough yet. But from this view, there are no truths that we cannot discover, if we have enough time, resources, and intelligent man-power.

The same is not true of person-truth. The scriptures raise the question: “Canst thou by searching … find out the Almighty unto perfection?” (Job 11:7). In other words, can we know God perfectly, through our own efforts? The answer is no. Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught during a BYU devotional, “God is and can be known only by revelation; he stands revealed or he remains forever unknown.”[10] The First Presidency also stated, “Man, by searching, cannot find out God. … The Lord must reveal Himself or remain unrevealed.”[11] Similarly, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob declared:

Behold, great and marvelous are the works of the Lord. How unsearchable are the depths of the mysteries of him; and it is impossible that man should find out all his ways. And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him; wherefore, brethren, despise not the revelations of God. (Jacob 4:8)

Consider the ramifications of Jacob’s statement: this implies that reason, observation, or any other human strategy can never get at God unless God decides to reveal Himself to us. We learn about God on His terms and at His discretion. To draw again from the wisdom of C. S. Lewis: “When you come to know God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find him.”[12]

This means is that the truth of God is always a revealed truth. For example, when the Savior asked Peter, “But whom say ye that I am?” Peter fervently responded: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15-16). No doubt, Peter reflected over the years of his association with this man of Galilee. But Peter’s knowledge was grounded in revelation from God Himself. As Christ said, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17).

Not only is person-truth grounded in revelation, it sometimes violates the expectations of reason. As God taught Isaiah: “[M]y thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). The ideas we form of God through our own reason and observation are always insufficient. “My idea of God,” C. S. Lewis explained, “is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?”[13] To know God, we must seek direct revelation, and we must be willing to relinquish our expectations.

References   [ + ]

1. James Faulconer, “Truth, Virtue, and Perspectivism,” in Virtue and the Abundant Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 80.
2. Richard N. Williams, “Faithful Knowing and Virtuous Acts,” in Virtue and the Abundant Life (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2012), 62, emphasis added.
3. C. S. Lewis, Essential C. S. Lewis (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 40.
4. Terryl L. Givens, “The Book of Mormon and Dialogic Revelation.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 10, no. 2 (2001): 20.
5. Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:134-135.
6. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 1996), 64. The entire exchange between these characters is fascinating and may highlight some of the central contrasts between a Greek and Hebrew way of thinking.
7. Brent D. Slife, “C.S. Lewis: Drawn by the Truth Made Flesh,” in C.S. Lewis, the Man and His Message: An LDS Perspective, ed. Andrew C. Skinner and Robert L. Millett (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990), 20-37.
8. Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 201.
9. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1955), 228-229.
10. Bruce R. McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord” (devotional address given at Brigham Young University, March 2, 1982).
11. First Presidency, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era, November, 1909, 75–81; reprinted in Ensign, February, 2002.
12. Brent Slife and Jeff Reber, “Comparing the Practical Implications of Secular and Christian Truth in Psychotherapy,” in Turning Freud Upside Down, ed. Aaron P. Jackson, Lane Fischer, and Doris R. Dant (Provo: BYU Press, 2005).
13. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1961), 78.