“Relational truth” explained

What is “relational” truth?

Several posts ago I argued that the Bible is mainly concerned with relational truth (as opposed to mathematical, physical, or logical truth). Today I want to expand on the notion of relational truth and connect it with the need for Christians to understand in order to believe, rather than “simply believing.”

Relational truth comprises both factual and relational knowledge of entities. On the one hand, it is information about someone as understood more objectively: knowledge of past deeds, situations, and other facts that can be itemized or listed. On the other hand, it is the intimate knowledge that one only gains through ongoing relationship with that individual. This type of information is always personal (though it need not be individual).

To clarify this last point, relational knowledge is information derived from personal involvement and that reveals not just what someone did, who that person is. Yet this information could come via someone else, who has had close involvement with the person in question—someone who “testifies” about this person on the basis of his or her personal experiences.

So relational truth is comprised of factual and relational knowledge. Yet because these words seem overly similar I tend to use French verbs instead, savoir and connaître, in place of “factual knowledge” and “relational knowledge.” Savoir refers to information about someone (date of birth, passport number, employment record, etc.) and connaître refers to knowing someone through relationship (understanding personality, character, preferences, etc.).1

Savoir is knowing details about someone’s life; connaître is actually being a part of that life.

An important characteristic when evaluating savoir and connaître knowledge is what I will call “relational symmetry.” Relational symmetry exists where the the outward characteristics and markings (the factual, savoir knowledge about the individual) are mirrored by the inner qualities that one perceives through the connaître experience of relating with the individual—where the external and visible is consistent and consonant with the inner and private.

Examining this notion more deeply, relational truth must necessarily be attuned to the nature of the parties involved in the relationship: those to whom this truth pertains. In the case of Christianity, we are first dealing with relationship between humans and God. As a result, relational truth is also related to / comprised of anthropological truth (or human-related truth) and theological truth (or God-related truth).

Now one of the reasons that Christians are meant to understand in order to believe (rather than “simply believing”) is that the very nature of Christian faith, as a relationship between human beings and God, requires assessment that is both related to and distinct from how we might assess a human-to-human relationship. In other words, understanding the Bible’s truth claims (and validating them, by determining their truth value) is a process similar to everyday human activities and yet also different.

A couple things bear mentioning here.

On the one hand, this tension between what is similar and what is different is normal and good. More specifically, human beings make use of this sort of tension all the time: we learn how to do new things on the basis of having done other, similar things in the past. And most times the dissimilarities are small or easily accommodated, so on most occasions humans integrate the differences without need to attend to them overly (or even without paying conscious attention to them).

On the other hand, when people “simply believe” Christian truth claims without validating them this has a negative effect both on them and on those with whom they interact. For example, if I “simply believe” that Jesus is God then my belief lacks the complexity and internal structure needed to stand up to evil and despair, nor have I developed the intellectual and emotional acumen to engage well with people who have experienced such. Further, because I have not understood how Christianity integrates with real life I will actually have understood Christianity, and so my presentation of the Christian God will typically be flimsy and uncompelling.

Thus Christians both short-change themselves and others by not engaging with the process of understanding themselves, God, and the relationship between the two, both through the biblical portrayals and through other, valid, information sources.

How we validate the Bible’s truth claims in terms of relational truth must await my next post. Instead I will finish by summarizing two key points.

First, relational truth in comprised of factual and relational knowledge (or what I have called savoir and connaître) and requires a good understanding of both parties within the relationship both (including anthropology and psychology, as the study of humanity, and theology as the study of God).

Second, a key component to relational truth is the alignment of savoir and connaître: relational symmetry. This is crucial to Christianity, both because the biblical text claims that God is good and is involved with humanity for their good / flourishing, and because human beings require consistency within relationships in order to maximize their ability to flourish.

Show 1 footnote

  1. The German kennen and wissen would do similarly.

8 thoughts on ““Relational truth” explained

  1. Good, I like the presentation of the terms from French to help us understand relational truth better. I have also heard it taught that the Jewish, or Eastern understanding of Truth is also experiential. Unless truth is applied and lived out, it hasn’t really become truth to us. As Donald Miller says in Blue Like Jazz, “What I believe is not what I say I believe, What I believe is what I do.”

    • Hi Chad,

      I’m glad that this post helped clarify what I’m aiming at with the concept of “relational” truth. Maybe in contrast to Donald Miller, I do think that their is great (and necessary) value in theoretical understandings, and that mathematical, logical, physical, etc., truths are essential for my existence as a human being. And also, that such things are / remain true whether I experience them (or even know them) or not.

      The issue that I encounter is the wholesale application of the above to Christianity, such that many Christians insist that God’s “Truth” (which many would call absolute truth, though I think we’d be better to call full truth) must be objective to my experience, and thus my interactions with and assessment of it are essentially unimportant (my posts entitled “Taunts about Truth” and “Truths about Truth” illustrate this point).

      My claim in the linked post above (and in these more recent posts about relational truth) is the notion that the Bible’s core orientation, and as such God’s core orientation, is to convey truth that is necessarily self-involving (even as its ultimate aim is self-transformation). Yet relational truth relies upon mathematical, logical, and physical truths (and others) because human existence is necessarily larger than simply being in relationship with ourselves and with God—we are also in relationship with (and embedded within) the natural, created world. Thanks again for your comment.

      • Excellent thoughts, and very good articles about truth that you referenced. Yes, truth is definitely truth, regardless of my understanding of it. However, our growth in it and understanding of it is truly understood relationally and experientially. We cannot just know facts about God, but God’s interactions with us and the world around us are experienced. The comment from Donald Miller is not meant to rule out theoretical knowledge. It is meant to show that many Christian’s practice and outworking does not always line up with our beliefs. The alignment of our outward behavior with our inner beliefs is important.

        • Hi Chad,

          I’m glad that these posts made sense to you and that the posts I referenced weren’t off-putting: when folks are are big fans of a particular Christian author, such as Os Guiness, then reading something that “cuts back” against that author’s views often seems to short-circuit the discussion.

          And I see what you’re aiming at with the reference to Miller (and I agree). I think my sense of where Donald Miller is coming from is somewhat coloured by a blog post of his a bit back, where he seemed almost to be suggesting that Christians need to detach their beliefs from their thinking, or simply understand our beliefs experientially, even if those experiences seem to make little sense. So while I believe that beliefs / experiences of our beliefs versus our rationality / rational understanding of our beliefs are distinct (they work in different ways, with different inputs, to different ends) they are also quite related.

          In the event that it is of interest, the interaction with Miller’s blog can be found here and our follow-up discussion of these notions (and my comment to Miller) is on episode #64.

          Once again, I really value your feedback. I’ve had my podcast partner John to act as a sounding board for some time, but he also has the benefit of a long relationship with me to give context to my writing. So knowing that some of my writing not only makes sense to you but seems to be helpful is really important information. Thank you.

          • Interesting blog post from Donald Miller you referenced. I see the place he is coming from, and I also see the points you were making in your responses to the article. Yes, God does want to help us understand, and Yes, He does want us to follow Him blindly sometimes – even though we don’t always understand where he is leading us. Did Abraham fully understand where God was leading him before He left Ur? Did Matthew fully understand where Jesus was leading him when he said, “Follow Me”? Of course, we don’t follow blindly – we trust in his character and nature insofar as we have revelation of it. However, the details aren’t always figured out yet.

            I do see why you took issue with the article – and I am not necessarily a “fan” of Donald Miller so it doesn’t offend me in the least, but I have been tremendously helped by some of his materials. His “Storyline” book was extremely helpful to me to facilitate taking more responsibility. I also credit the storyline process with giving me the tools I needed to have the courage to step out in faith, stop making excuses, and write the book the Lord had been prompting my wife and I to write.

          • Hi Chad,

            Great thoughts! Yes, I agree that God engages us / we find ourselves in contexts with God in ways that are uncomfortable, and sometimes this is because we lack the information to assess (a task, situation, or relationship) as we would normally do. In other words, we can’t take the steps toward understanding something—what is involved, by whom, when, for what purpose, etc.—in order to determine if and how we will act: whether we “buy in” or not.

            This topic is rather broad, and so I decided to present my response as a separate post. I would appreciate any feedback. I have also notified the Untangling Christianity FaceBook group, so hopefully others will chime in as well.

            Lastly, I wanted to mention that I do acknowledge how your second comment adds context to your first: “Yes, God does want to help us understand, and Yes, He does want us to follow Him blindly sometimes – even though we don’t always understand where he is leading us,” and “of course, we don’t follow blindly – we trust in his character and nature insofar as we have revelation of it.” I simply believe that while this is true, there is actually more involved. And my point is not pedantic but personal: I have seen (and I think the Bible speaks to) harm done where “faith” is divorced from our interaction with the world around us and our best understandings of it and ourselves, in addition to our understandings about God.

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