Peter Jonkers on “Religious Truth from a Comparative Perspective”

Peter Jonkers is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has
published extensively on questions regarding religion in the public space, in particular religious truth,
pluralism and identity, religious violence and tolerance, and wisdom, as well as on classical German
philosophy. Since 2018, he is a member of the Steering Committee of the International Federation of
Philosophical Societies. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the perennial questions of philosophy of religion is the idea of religious truth. It plays an all-important role, not only in Christianity, but also in other world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism (insofar as it can be qualified as a religion), Judaism, and Islam.1 All of them claim that believing in their creeds and following their moral commandments and rituals leads to a true, blissful way of life. Obviously, not only does the content of these truth claims differ substantially among these religions but their approach to religious truth also differs. From a comparative perspective, these approaches can be classified into five different clusters. First, a religious tradition can focus on its doctrina, which serves as an introduction to its most important truth claims, in principle accessible to everyone. According to the second approach to religious truth, the faithful not only know these teachings but also profess and accept them; these are the veritates of a religion. A third approach emphasizes that the faithful practice their religious profession and live the truth of the doctrina and the veritates because a person cannot truly know the nature of the divine unless she testifies to it in her everyday activities; this is called vera religio. Fourthly, religious truth can be experienced by spiritually contemplating the transcendent Truth; this is the intellectus verus, the mystical experience of divine salvation and redemption. Finally, and most importantly, God or the divine is the ultimate and absolute truth: true insight, true being, and truthful acting (veritas). Individual religions differ as to the relative importance of these approaches to religious truth: the importance attached to intellectual knowledge and the profession of the objective truth (the veritates), as phrased in the creed and the catechism and further developed by Christian theology, shows the prominent role of the doctrina in Christian faith; while Judaism, classical Hinduism, and Islam emphasize the vera religio, living faithfully in accordance with God’s commandments and ritual laws. Zen Buddhism and some archaic religions focus instead on acquiring a true insight into the transcendent truth through meditation and contemplation (the intellectus verus), that is, through means of knowledge that are inaccessible to discursive reason. Finally, all monotheistic religions worship God as the ultimate truth (the veritas).2 According to Thomas Aquinas, truth is a transcendental property of being that, in turn, is dependent on God, the ultimate intellectual cause.3

In my view, comparative philosophy of religion can help Christian faith to rebalance its traditional focus on a doctrinal approach to religious truth. Doctrinal statements and their profession in the veritates have the advantage of laying down a long-standing and dynamic tradition and of giving a clear-cut and unambiguous identity to a community of faith. Yet, putting too much emphasis on doctrinal issues risks marginalizing a more existential approach to religious truth. Typically, a doctrinal approach rests on a propositional and ontological understanding of religious truth. The former qualifies certain factual propositions and theoretical statements as true; the opposite ones are disqualified as error, lie, or heresy.4 An ontological understanding of religious truth qualifies a whole religious belief system as true; its opposite is false religion, unbelief, faithlessness, apostasy, blindness, or hardness of heart.5 This shows the basic problem of a purely doctrinal approach: it is binary, resulting in either a positive or a negative truth value. Thus, it does not allow for a plurality of truth claims to be considered equally and potentially leads to religious exclusivism. In sum, a purely doctrinal approach to religious truth is an impoverishment of the very idea of religious truth, since it reduces its transcendent, divine nature to discursive reason and mundane concepts.

Therefore, for the sake of the truth of Christian faith it is necessary to integrate its doctrinal approach into the existential approach of the vera religio, thus relating the believer as a concrete, living person to the transcendent ground of being, the veritas.6 The crucial role of the doctrina (in a Christian terminology: fides quae creditur) is to put religious life into a set of teachings, thus giving it consistency, unity, and an objective identity that can be professed by the faithful and handed down to subsequent generations. However, because the doctrina is limited to the objective and intellectual aspect of religious truth, members of a community of faith also need to commit themselves subjectively and existentially to this truth and realize it in their lives (in Christian terminology: fides qua creditur).7 In other words, an integral view of religious truth connects the objective doctrine with the particular, cultural existence of a community and the charism of individual believers, and asks at the same time that this living, existential faith is articulated in doctrinal statements, rationally reflected upon and communicated with others. It goes without saying that this is not a once-only occasion, but a permanent, dynamic, and bi-directional process, aimed at making theological assertions transparent for lived faith. In my view, Christian faith should integrate its doctrina into the vera religio to get a more complete idea of religious truth. By comparing a doctrinal approach with other approaches to religious truth, comparative philosophy of religion can help Christianity develop a richer conception of religious truth.

1. Frederick J. Streng, “Truth,” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Second Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale), 9368-9376.
2. Henk Vroom, Religions and the Truth. Philosophical Reflections and Perspectives (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 302ff. See also Streng, “Truth,” 9368-9376.
3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1.16.5 and Idem, Questiones disputatae de veritate 1.7.
4. Reinhold Bernhardt, “Truth and Theology of Religions. A Relational Interpretation,” in Faithful Interpretations: Islam and Truth in Catholic Theology of Religions, eds. Philip Geister SJ and Gösta Hallonsten (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 59-62.
5. Idem, 59, 63-66.
6. Idem, 66.
7. Vroom, Religions and the Truth, 311-14. See also Bernhardt, “Truth and Theology of Religions,” 67-71.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *