I learned a long time ago that a story can be truthful without being true. I can’t remember where I came up with that, but I’m sure I read it somewhere. I’m just not deep enough to think of something like that without help. But, since I can’t remember where or when I might have seen it. (and I’m too lazy to Google it), I’m claiming it as my own.
At first glance, the idea seems to imply a conflict between what is true and what is truthful, but that’s not necessarily the case. Now, when most of us think of the word true, the definition that springs to mind is usually tied up with facts and reality. When we hear truthful, we think of something or someone being true. While most definitions of the word truthful don’t really vary, true is a little different. The meaning of true that best fits what I have in mind is conformable to an essential reality. So, can you conform to reality without being factually true? I think so.
Throughout history, wise people have used stories that aren’t based in fact to help society come to grips with complex ideas. Things like allegory, myths, parables, fables, fairy tales, etc have become a part of the collective wisdom we all rely on. There are plenty of stories that are truthful without being actually true; even in the Bible.
Take the creation story, for example. The Bible tells us that the earth was created by God in 7 days, and while it doesn’t say how long ago, some folks have determined that it happened sometime between 6000 and 10,000 years ago (I’m not exactly sure how they came up with that, however). Science, on the other hand, says that the earth evolved from a singularity over the course of billions of years, starting with the Big Bang. Of course, since none of us was there when all this happened, we can’t know how it went down; but the evidence weighs heavily on the side of science. So, the scientific explanation of how the universe was created is true in that it fits the known facts and reality. The Genesis story, however, conforms to a different set of facts and reality.
The biblical creation story may not be factually true, but is truthful by conforming to the reality that we were created for more than eating, sleeping and screwing our way through life. It says that the world and everything in it is more than the sum of its parts and that we humans were made to take care of each other and every bit of this world we live in. In other words, science tells the story of how we got here, while Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) tells the story of why we’re here. And, that means you can believe both are true stories.