Last week in this space I began looking at the miracle of the Virgin Birth. I would like to continue laying some ground work so that we can (hopefully) come to a deeper appreciation of this miracle. It is more than just a marvel, but a deep mystery that reveals something to us about God and about ourselves.
We need to distinguish between truths and facts. Facts are about what is. It is a description of reality. 1 + 1 = 2, and e = mc2. That is just the way it is. While 2 and 1 and e are numerical values, they are not human values in any sense. No matter how holy or wicked you are, 1 + 1 still is going to come out to 2. It is just the facts. The distance from Austin to San Antonio is the same for all people, regardless of their politics, immigration status, or their virtue. It is just what it is, with no moral or ethical component to it.
Truths, on the other hand, are deeper, richer, and fuller of meaning. Truths can operate simultaneously at several levels of meaning. They are “multi-valent.” Really big or rich truths can even be inexhaustible. Some events or realities have aspects of both fact and truth, such as the Crucifixion of Jesus. It is a historical fact (“crucified under Pontius Pilate….”) and also a religious truth (the cause of our salvation). It sometimes is difficult to pick these apart.
One way I think about the difference between truths and facts occurred to me when I was working at the Washington University library as an undergraduate. I came across a book listing the absolute number and percentage change of each county of Oklahoma for each year of the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. There, in rows of numbers, were the facts. But the facts explained very little. On the other hand, John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath gives a much fuller and truer picture of what the Dust Bowl was really all about. The work of fiction is much truer than the mere statement of the facts. If you want to understand the Dust Bowl as a human phenomenon, read the novel, not the book of statistics. The facts are correct but not in any deep sense “true.”
As modern Americans we are used to looking for the facts. We tend to be pragmatic and want to get things done. We don’t spend much time with poetry or other ways of perceiving reality other than just the bare facts. We pretty much want to know just what is. And we are very successful at that and have learned to control and manipulate our surroundings far beyond any generation before us.
The trouble is that the Scriptures are not modern textbooks. They are ancient writings composed between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. They don’t share our assumptions about the facts of reality or even what is most important. We approach them like they are a newspaper report, when they are actually more like poetry. So next week I hope to look at what kind of writings the Scripture are and what kind of questions we can ask.