Absolute Truth in a Wikipedia World

Lewis Hine, Boy studying, ca. 1924
Not an actual portrait of the author!

As a boy, I was envious of some of my friends who had complete sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica in their homes. I remember being thrilled when my mother told me that she had purchased the first volume of an encyclopedia at the supermarket, and that she would be buying additional volumes each time she did our family’s weekly shopping. A book at a time, I watched my encyclopedia set grow until we had them all. Sure, it was no Encyclopedia Britannica, but I didn’t care. Our family library finally had it’s own reference section!

Let me be clear, I didn’t spend hours of my boyhood curled up on the sofa reading entry after entry. In fact, my strategy involved spending as little time with the encyclopedia as possible, so that I might have more time to invest in “important” things, like playing baseball and engaging in battlefield strategies with my friends and our G.I. Joes. Until my mom made that purchase, I had to spend time in the library doing research for every report that I had to write. That either meant giving up recess time for the school library or — worse yet — spending Saturday morning at the public library. My own household encyclopedia changed all that.

These days things have changed again, and not necessarily for the better. Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that it has printed its last edition. You probably know why. The world now runs to Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, when it needs to know anything, and I mean anything. Wikipedia is far broader than traditional encyclopedias are and it can be updated instantly. There is no such thing as an outdated edition.

[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″]In a larger sense, what we have come to accept as “fact” or “truth” is simply defined as that which most people agree on.[/quote]

This speed and breadth come at a price, though. Traditional encyclopedias were written by experts, men and women recognized in their respective fields who could write with authority on their subjects. Wikipedia, on the other hand, is the result of the work of thousands of “contributors” who may or may not be experts on anything. As the New York Times put it, “Wikipedia has moved a long way toward replacing the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds.” In a larger sense, what we have come to accept as “fact” or “truth” is simply defined as that which most people agree on. In fact, if we dig deep enough, we’ll find that most folks have given up on the idea of “truth” altogether and have determined that each one of us is free to live by the “truth” as we see it.

My philosophically-inclined friends would remind me that this relativism is a result of the post-modern society in which we live. Today, absolute truth… or truth of any kind… has been replaced with every man’s right to be his own authority. This shift has not only affected secular thought and humanistic thinking. Sadly, it has found its way into our churches as well.

How often have you been in a Sunday School class, or participating in a Bible study and heard someone say, “Well, what this verse means to me is…”? The next time you hear it, take note, then take cover. You are sliding into dangerous territory.

God did not give us His word so that we might have to fend for ourselves, trying to determine what it means to us, in our circumstance, based on our experience. God gave us His word because He wanted to reveal himself to us. He wanted to give us a message. He had something to say that he wanted us to understand.

Husbands, when your wife sends you a text, or leaves you a note that says “Please pick up a gallon of milk”, do you have to determine what it “means”? Of course not. The message is obvious. You know the meaning of each individual word. You understand the concept of “picking up” and you know where you can purchase “milk”. The note is from your wife, therefore you probably have some sense of the consequence if you fail in your responsibility. The note adequately communicates to you the message that your wife wanted to communicate.

When we read God’s word our response should be the same. We need to simply ask ourselves, “What did God say here?” If there are words or phrases that we do not understand, we need to study, so that we can accurately comprehend the Author’s intention. Then, and only then, we can ask ourselves what we need to do in order to comply, just as the husband will determine the best place to pick up that gallon of milk.

What the verse means is fairly simple. It means what it says, period. We read it literally, just as we read a note from a friend. How the verse applies to me may be different from how it applies to you.

There are many schools (and churches) today who are teaching that God’s message is entirely subjective. In fact, some would tell us that there may be no real message at all. They are placing the emphasis in the response of the reader to the Book, believing that the way it makes you “feel” is the only thing that is important. That may be acceptable in a Wikipedia world, but it is a far cry from a true understanding of “Thus saith the Lord.”

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