How Does Truth Matter (in Religion)?

When I first visited The Church of The Holy Sepulcher in 2012, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was the place best known as the location of Christ’s Crucifixion as well as the location of his tomb. When I went inside I was surprised to find, immediately inside the cramped entrance, a large stone on the ground. Despite the readings I had done, I somehow overlooked this important artifact. What was it? From observing the reactions to other visitors when they saw it, it was something important indeed.


As I stood there watching I observed dozens of visitors pray at the stone (known as The Stone of Anointing, the place where the body of Jesus rested while he was prepared for burial). They crammed around it, their patience after a long journey finally at its end. They hurriedly kneeled down, finally seeing the thing they’d traveled so far to see. One woman unloaded several packages of candles, placing them quickly across the stone, kissing each package as she put it back into her bag. An older man to her left touched his scarf to the stone and then buried his face inside, crying. It was powerful just to watch them, not even knowing the story of what they were doing or why.

Unfamiliar with both the stone and these rituals, I wondered: how they knew what to do in front of it? There were no signs or instructions. In most churches and temples the relics are hidden behind glass or even fences, reflecting that the items are so precious no one is allowed to touch them. If no one was around I would have been afraid to get too close to it, as clearly it was an object of significance. But somehow here at the stone in was made accessible and everyone knew what to do. Many arrived with bags of objects, trinkets, crosses, candles and even pens, to place on the stone to bring back with them for friends and family.

Independent of my faith, or lack thereof, the first question on my mind was: how does anyone know this is the actual stone? I wasn’t asking this question as a way to question faith in Christianity itself. I was simply interested in the stone in front of me and where it came from, much as I’d be curious about any interesting object I found in a museum. I looked, but there was no label anywhere like you’d find in a history or science exhibit, listing who found it or even what it was (A mural on the wall behind the stone does show the story). There were no official guides or pamphlets nearby. It seemed everyone arrived at the stone, and the church, with their own guidebooks, their own stories and their own beliefs about what they saw.

Later than night I went to the official Church of the Holy Sephucler but it barely offered a paragraph about the object. I looked and looked for sources and details but found them hard to find. I discovered the first mention of the stone dates from the 13th century, 1200 years after the death of Christ. Twelve lifetimes of time. For the purposes of history that’s just a long time for an object to disappear and reappear. I couldn’t find another mention of the stone for another 600 years, when the stone was replaced as part of church’s reconstruction, yet there’s no mention of what was done with the old stone. Is it locked away? Was it lost? More frustrating is I’ve yet to find anyone who wrote a paper, book or research study specifically about the stone and its history. This mostly makes me think I haven’t done enough research. Someone must have studied this carefully in the 800 years that it’s been in perhaps the most important Christian church?

It made me wonder about the different kinds of faith we all have. No one questions everything, and no one questions nothing. In our daily lives we’re always sliding on different ends of the spectrum of what we assume and what we challenge, in each situation we find ourselves in and each relationship we have. Some people have faith they want to earn, through questions and raising doubts. Other people like their faiths to exist in another level of consciousness, where they accept things without any questions, and that perhaps is by itself part of the appeal of having trust in anything at all.


  • Have you found more precise records of the history of the stone? Please share a link or a reference
  • How does truth matter in faith? How do you decide what to question or what not to question?
  • We are all driven by stories and the stone fits the story visitors are interested in. Does it really matter that it’s not the actual stone? It’s representative of something very important to them and perhaps that’s enough.

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11 thoughts on “How Does Truth Matter (in Religion)?

  1. I’ve found myself asking similar questions about political artifacts. There are, I believe, various museums that claim to have “The Magna Carta” or “The U.S. Constitution” but in both cases multiple copies were made. There is no “THE”, as in singular, but it’s a slip of the truth every visitor, and every museum, is happy to overlook. Everyone wants to feel like they have, or saw, the singular, real thing.

    Taken another way, The book A People’s history of the United States takes some of the same facts I was taught in elementary school and tells an entirely different narrative, with different implications. Even with the same facts there is almost always more than one truth.


  2. Scott, I’m reminded of something you said in “Ghost of My Father”: our memories morph over time, until the “absolute truth” about a certain event or experience is really no more than what we remember.

    In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether the Stone of Anointing is the actual stone on which Christ’s body was laid. To the pilgrims who visit, it’s the actual stone — and that’s what counts.

    That said, I can’t imagine a world with no absolute truth at all. The bigger questions — Was Christ the son of God? Did he rise from the dead? — demand absolute answers. Yet even for these big questions, each of us gets to decide for ourself. To make our own truth.

    You asked “how do you decide what to question or what not to question?” Even for that question, each of us gets to decide for ourself. Maybe we believe because our saintly mother or grandmother believed. Maybe we refuse to believe because we see so much evil in the world. For me, a test of faith is whether something resonates in both my heart and my head.


    • Thanks Larry. It’s clear for many people for visit any place that has any meaning to them some of this is true. It’s what they feel when they’re there, or hope they’ll feel, that explains why they took the trip in the first place. As I hinted at in my other comment, many historic places in any country suffer from some of the same unknowns about what really happened, or where someone is really buried and there are reasons visitors and the people who own the places have for sharing the same belief about it, regardless of the facts or lack of facts.

      I’m fascinated by the compact of society – that in the case of shared laws, or driving on the highway, we agree to what is true and not true. It’s the basis for tribes and civilizations, the finding of a compact – but when the beliefs diverge all the troubles begin.


  3. There’s a lot that can be discussed and challenged about many orthodox religious beliefs and practices. But there is not much that can be done about it – nor the emotional responses that are part of these belief systems. Being blessed with a hypothetical thousand kisses daily over centuries is enough to legitimize the veneration of a Stone as “true.” At the very least, persons who see a connection to the divine as their way of life hold on to particular truths in support of their religion. The belief does not have to have any real legs to stand on except in the minds of believers.

    Even when cultures evolve, many of these truths lag behind new values, perceptions within a culture. This may be “ok” when considering that we all have the license to practice our beliefs to the extent that we do not harm others.

    So Scott – getting to your question re: conflict arising from divergent beliefs within the compact of society – if we harm others through religion then we may find something wrong with something about the religion(s). We may be forced to question origins, practice and belief. I honestly don’t mind the veneration of a stone. I do have a problem when we grind our “truth axes” in such a way that much blood-letting takes place on the way to heaven, in the name of the divine.


    • Good thoughts. Thanks.

      Here is perhaps a better statement of my question. If this particular stone isn’t the real one, why do people need to come to Jerusalem to engage with it?

      I’m really not interested in asking questions about Jesus or if he was placed on a stone and it happens to be somewhere else on the planet (say, in a secret basement at the church). But there is some magic formula every person has for what they will question and need verification for and what they don’t. THAT’s what fascinates me. How do we come up with that formula? What does it mean that some of us have questions when some of us don’t?

      In the large I find epistemology, how we think we know what we know, supremely fascinating and religion, and religious places raises all kinds of great questions about it, even among the faithful.


  4. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity it is not unusual to be touching and kissing religious artifacts. Often worshippers use icons of Jesus, Mary or various saints to come closer to the presence of heaven. In greeting the icon one pays respect to the holy person and receives the blessing of proximity to God. Like the icons the stone of anointing is a “gateway to heaven” and so the ritual act of placing objects on the stone allows a bit of the blessings of heaven to rub off on them.
    A ritual act is always a representative acts designed to change or maintain its object; representative because while in real life no physical change takes place in the object placed on the stone, in the ritual space the object changes from profane to sacred. The efficacy of the ritual is what makes it meaningful to the participant, who is trying to gain or achieve something. The use of religious objects can be either artifactual or hermeneutical. While objects used hermeneutically are subject to constant interpretation which encourages users to either reject or appropriate its proposed worldview (for example when the meaning of a specific Mishnah is discussed in a Jewish forum), the objects used artifactually relies on the symbolic aspects of the object, such as the handling of the object with the caution, fascination and awe that characterizes any handling of a holy object during rituals (as for example when the Torah is brought out during service in the Synagogue). Thus the object is not understood by its content, but by the personal and cultural representations it communicates between the individuals. As Harris mentions above, the knowledge that worshippers have venerated the place of the Holy Sepulchre for centuries and that millions of worshippers have pressed their lips to the stone of anointing have long ago made the stone an artifact, which communicates the shared culture of the Christians, the belief in the death and resurrection of Christ. Whether the stone of anointing is the actual stone, or the Church is even in the place of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus, is irrelevant to the efficacy of the ritual. As worshippers take part in the ritual of kissing the stone they inscribe themselves into the cultural memory of the Christian community and simultaneously reinforce that memory. For every pilgrim who kisses the stone, the “true” origin of the stone becomes less and less important… except of course to us stubborn historians and archeologists who insist on picking things apart.


  5. I don’t think there is any one formula… or if there is one, then you might be asking how do we apply faith in general, and secondly, by what means does faith differ from religion to religion, & person to person.

    One way to answer this might be that perhaps faith bonds the spirit and soul to physical acts – as in kissing stones, the cross etc. through extremely defined religious performances; the formula is set by the particular religion. On the other hand faith could also be the subjective expression of individuals to maintain hope; in that sense, doesn’t it become a system of knowledge for the dispossessed to attain a particular material or psychological goal – or to survive the severe challenges of a particular moment?

    Alternatively, couldn’t it be a system for maintaining certain religions within cultural groups and structures? Some of the less convicted will doubt because they’re very human –– but they are not supposed to, as faith is intended to offer hope and optimism; anything else is a betrayal of the belief. The fact that the “faithful” might not question how they arrived at their practice, or might only question it inside the limits of their own religion or system of belief is not always something we can answer with any clarity.

    In the Holy of Holies for example, if the High priest ever expressed doubt about his faith it was believed to have been revealed through unanswered prayers; that revelation was shown through physical manifestation; the priest was then punished… for not having faith…

    It seems like faith can be a feeling without a physical act or it’s the belief/ trust that some benefit will result through a symbolic act… that there is a great reward waiting at the end. The formula is perhaps the prescribed rules of a religion; but could also be a personal strategy for resilience while working towards the spiritual or other goal.


  6. How many of us have heirlooms in our families? What truths do they represent? Does the true truth of them matter? If I have Grandpa’s old car out back and sit in it comforted that he drove it every day, would it matter if Grandpa actually hated it but could never afford something different? What if I want to drive the car but I have to have it restored to do so? It will not be truly Grandpa’s car, yet that will be my truth.

    Of course truth matters, but there are varieties and degrees of truth. We act on the truths that we choose, even if we are not fully aware of making the choice. Even when confronted by evidence that the truth isn’t true. But the fact that we act gives the “truth” power, so in some very pragmatic ways, it becomes true truth.

    Christianity teaches that at some point all the really, really true truth will be revealed. If that is true, many of us will be wearing a dumbfounded look for eons. Short of that, or something similar, truth is whatever we need it to be in order to keep going.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m interested in exploring those degrees you mention. I find the idea of truth and who and what we chose to trust in all matters of life, religion and otherwise, fascinating.

      One particular thread I’ve studied, although I’m no expert, is how different factions of different religions place different emphasis on sorting things out for yourself (including what to believe) vs. ones that dictate everything. The Protestant reformation is an example of this moving with one religion (from only chosen people can read the bible vs everyone should be able to read it) and how profoundly the shifting of the idea of what trust was divided, and still divides, a faith.


  7. >>
    How does truth matter in faith? How do you decide what to question or what not to question?

    As someone who likes to think reason was the agent that lead me to believe Jesus was more than a good teacher of noble principles, shrines and artifacts have never played into my story.

    What is striking to me is that, without knowing it, you are working through the same questions Paul did around 49 A.D. ( when he entered the Areopagus in Athens.

    The passage describing that is from Acts 17:22-32 (ESV ).

    There are quite a number of interesting things going on in this passage that relate to this post and the questions you pose.

    To break it down –

    Paul opens by pointing to a relic in a sacred place – a physical object in a setting – an altar with the inscription, “to an unknown god”.

    So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said:

    “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.”

    The story of this altar (or perhaps altars) is interesting in its subtle references to Epimenides – Tradition has it that, hundreds of years before Paul, Epimenides was summoned from Crete by Athens to help with a plague that had beset the city.

    To deal with the plague, Epimenides “took sheep, some black and others white, and brought them to the Areopagus; and there he let them go whither they pleased, instructing those who followed them to mark the spot where each sheep lay down and offer a sacrifice to the local divinity.” (See 1.109 of Diogenes Laërtius “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers” at compiled around 200-250 C.E. )

    So Paul opens his talk in what can be considered Athen’s philosopher’s square by pointing to commonly understood story of these physical altars he’s walked past while en route to the Areopagus.

    And then Paul does something very interesting – He intentionally reframes the story of these altars as part of an incomplete story that he has come to make complete.

    “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

    To note the significant points going on here –

    1) Paul has pointed to these altars as significant, but part of an incomplete story. This is what some Christian philosophers call progressive revelation (see ) – which is a kind of dramatic story aha reveal that reframes previous parts of the narrative in significantly new light (not as sinister as a Keyser Söze Usual Suspects reveal, but dramatic nonetheless).

    2) Paul conveys the deep Jewish and Christian tradition that the “Lord of heaven and earth” is not bound to/by physical places/relics.

    This is the significant point of Jewish/Christian theology I thought of when I started reflecting on your questions and what I believe about the usefulness of religious relics and sacred places. (See note below on “Steven on the idea of ‘Temples not made by Hands'” for another example with deeper Jewish background on this idea)

    3) Paul then takes it up to 11 by noting that the actual temple that God moves in is epic – encompassing all mankind, all life, all creation – and goes on to this Interstellar multidimensional omnipresent twist on things –

    “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for –

    The philosophical poetry of what Paul does there has always moved me.

    Having started with the idea of altars as a touch point to distant god/gods, by expanding the definition of the dwelling place of God to everything, everywhere, he then points out that God is not far from any of us – bringing what started for Paul as a shadow of truth into what he believes is a sharper, fuller light –

    “‘In him we live and move and have our being’, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”

    Curious enough, this is a possible 2nd allusion to Epimenides and a 1st to Aratus – In that these are Greek poets talking about Zeus, and not Christian or Jewish scripture (see and )

    If true, this takes Paul’s line of reasoning much further, in a really interesting way – The passage has the audacity to say that God’s temple is so big, that He has, at least partially, inhabited even Greek pagan altars and Greek pagan poetry – which is a much bigger temple than Judaism or Christianity was commonly associated with.

    Paul then concludes by explicitly talking about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and his supposition that, if any of what he said is true, it matters in an “all creation is God’s dwelling place” kind of way –

    Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

    The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

    Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”

    It’s hard to say why this passage resonates with me so much.

    My guess is that, as someone who experiences life through the suppositions of Western philosophy (e.g. platonic ideals and their shadows), I have an affinity for the thing behind the things – ergo, the passage seems more true to me.

    If the idea of a loving, restoring, rescuing God is true, it seems to me it would be true in the way Paul describes – Not limited to physical franchise locations, but, instead, inhabiting every atom and dimension that exists.

    C.S. Lewis wrote about this notion while describing his journey from materialist atheism to Christianity in his autobiography – From “XV. The Beginning” in ‘Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life’ (1955), C. S. Lewis writes –

    But though I liked clergymen as I liked bears, I had as little wish to be in the Church as in the zoo. It was, to begin with, a kind of collective; a wearisome “get-together” affair.

    I couldn’t yet see how a concern of that sort should have anything to do with one’s spiritual life.

    To me, religion ought to have been a matter of good men praying alone and meeting by twos and threes to talk of spiritual matters.

    There, again, is the westerner (at that point a skeptic) who finds himself most at home in existential conversations of meaning – and goes so far as to equate the foreignness of being in “church” as being on display in exhibits at the zoo (which I find to be a pretty great analogy!)

    We see this embodied as Lewis wrestled with his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson over this very concept of idealist forms and shadows – but, instead of holy places and relics as shadows of truth coming into full light, they were wrestling over the implications of this bigger idea Paul had touched on – that the recurring patterns of myths and art throughout history may well be shadows cast from a capital “T”, capital “S”, True Story.

    Recounting the conversations surrounding his transition from materialism, Lewis notes how he’d been shaken by the comment of a hardened atheist colleague (likely T.D. Weldon according to the April 1926 diary entries by Lewis collected in “All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927”)

    From “XIV. Checkmate” in ‘Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life’ (1955), C. S. Lewis writes about that comment –

    …I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me.

    Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good.

    “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.”

    To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity).

    If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—“safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?

    Five years later, in 1931, during an after dinner existentialist ‘walk and talk’ Tolkien and Lewis picked this idea up with another friend/colleague, Hugo Dyson – From “Chapter IV: Jack” in the authorized biography ‘J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography’ by Humphrey Carpenter (1977) –

    As the night wore on, Tolkien and Dyson showed him that he was here making a totally unnecessary demand.

    When he encountered the idea of sacrifice in the mythology of a pagan religion he admired it and was moved by it; indeed the idea of the dying and reviving deity had always touched his imagination since he had read the story of the Norse god Balder.

    But from the Gospels (they said) he was requiring something more, a clear meaning beyond the myth. Could he not transfer his comparatively unquestioning appreciation of sacrifice from the myth to the true story?

    But, said Lewis, myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.

    No, said Tolkien, they are not. And, indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out a different line of argument.

    You call a tree a tree, he said, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course.

    But that is merely how you see it.

    By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them.

    And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth… inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.

    …Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour…

    …You mean, asked Lewis, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened?

    In that case, he said, I begin to understand.

    Lewis elaborates on how “the perplexing multiplicity of ‘religions’ began to sort itself out” to him – From “XV. The Beginning” in ‘Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life’ (1955), he writes –

    In my mind… the perplexing multiplicity of “religions” began to sort itself out.

    The real clue had been put into my hand by that hard-boiled Atheist when he said, “Rum thing, all that about the Dying God. Seems to have really happened once”; by him and by Barfield’s encouragement of a more respectful, if not more delighted, attitude to Pagan myth.

    The question was no longer to find the one simply true religion among a thousand religions simply false.

    It was rather, “Where has religion reached its true maturity? Where, if anywhere, have the hints of all Paganism been fulfilled?”

    …I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste.

    And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion—those narrow, unattractive Jews, too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them — was precisely the matter of the great myths.

    If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

    Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

    And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates or Boswell’s Johnson (ten times more so than Ecker-mann’s Goethe or Lockhart’s Scott), yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god. But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God.

    Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man.

    This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.”

    It is the summing up and actuality of them all.

    These are the conversations/ideas that I have never been able to dismiss in my existential explorations.

    Tolkien and Lewis (et. al.) were educated well beyond what I will ever have time (or calling) to investigate first-hand.

    Experts in philology ( ) and myth coming to the conclusion that these idyllic shadows we encounter in life actually point to something real and true has always resonated with me.

    I supposed what I’ve noted above is my long winded answer to your original question of “How does truth matter in faith? How do you decide what to question or what not to question?”

    While it’s possible that my perception that life is meaningfully good (as opposed to nonsense) could be confirmation bias, it’s also struck me as very possible that it could be reasonably and meaningfully true.


    — Steven on the idea of ‘Temples not made by Hands’ —

    The story of Steven in Acts 7:39-50 before his stoning in Jerusalem also touches significantly on this idea of God transcending ‘temples not made by hands’. Steven elaborates even more on the significance of this idea in the backstory of Jewish history. See the passage at )

    “…Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:”

    “‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
    You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
    and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.'”

    “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 4who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says:”

    “‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
    What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
    or what is the place of my rest?
    Did not my hand make all these things?’”


  8. Scott, great piece. I specifically liked your point that no one questions everything, and no one questions nothing.

    In my own quest and research of things of this sort, I have found that most of these artifacts date back to a time when folks didn’t really write many things down, so records are few. They also date back from a time when people were crazy about relics, and if fakes were used, chances are there would be many of them. Sometimes the fact that only one relic is claimed to be true is good evidence that it is, or the lack of a relic can be evidence for something that wasn’t. For example, the belief that Mary went to heaven with body and soul could be corroborated by the lack of anyone claiming to have her bones somewhere. It’s a fascinating topic, and I was pleasantly surprised to see you talk about it.

    If you’d like to be really entertained, look up the Shroud of Turin, especially this documentary:

    Amazing stuff.


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