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Message 18, What is Truth, 4-18-10
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Billy Wilder, the famous twentieth century filmmaker, once said that if one is going to tell people the truth, you had better be funny or they will kill you! And, as if to prove that point while adding a just a bit of morality, Mark Twain commented that a real gentleman would never tell the naked truth in the presence of ladies!
The implicit point each of these commentators make, though, is that determining what is truth, and speaking it, is not easy. Humans have tried for thousands of years to answer the question, “what is truth?” How do we arrive at what any one of us can agree is true? And the greater question is, where do we look for what is considered ultimate truth – the Latin axis mundi? Religion was likely invented in order to address that question and then provide an answer. Many religions and belief systems base themselves on revealed truth – their particular version of written or spoken scripture – the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Veda or the Sutra.
As Jesus faced trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Israel, he declared in his defense that his purpose was to bear witness of the truth and that everyone who knows truth, follows him. Posing a question intended by the Biblical author John to be ironic, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” The implied point is that as Pilate stood in front of the one who claimed to embody truth, he could not recognize it.
Here at the Gathering, as progressive Christians who see the Bible as just one source of wisdom, I believe we understand and relate with Pilate’s question. Jesus was a great man and a prophetic figure but his exclusive claim to be the very source of all universal truth is one some of us question. Indeed, has any person shown he or she has the key to eternal truth? And that question sets up the dual competition we face between seeking truth in scriptures and the supernatural realm or in science, reason and the power of the human mind. Whichever we choose to follow and seek determines our world view and how we guide our lives.
For conservative Christians, the Bible is the Divine word of God. Indeed, as the book of John says, the very Bible is the embodiment of Logos, of Truth and of God himself or herself. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Every phrase and every word of the Bible is God breathed, as many Christians sincerely believe.
And Christians are not the only ones who look to scripture as the source of revealed truth. For Jews, God consulted the Torah and then made the world. To Buddhists, there is one source of wisdom which is Nirvana and it is not derived from intellect. Allah created heaven and earth with truth, according to Muslims. And, for Hindus, the earth was made from the bosom of the Sacred Word.
Each major world religion finds a revealed sacred truth or Logos as the foundation of all creation. And this form of truth is not found by science or empirical evidence. It is revealed in written words that speak of a supernatural god as the origin of all things. God created. God is truth.
But from Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and others from the enlightenment like Descartes and John Locke, we are offered a different alternative. Truth, for these philosophers, is an objective reality found through reason and observation. This correspondence theory holds that what is true must relate to what we can logically construct from situations and facts. Rational thinking determines truth. It is not by faith but by our minds that it is found. The ninth century Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas even said that, “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.”
And so we have essentially two competing views and answers to the question of, “what is Truth?” People of sincere religious belief perceive that, for them, the source of ultimate Truth is found by faith. Since we as humans cannot answer by intellect or by fact some of life’s most vexing questions, they believe it is found in mystery and in the Divine realm of the supernatural. But equally sincere people find such an answer inconsistent and unsatisfying. Scriptures have wise observations and excellent insights but they do not offer objective proof of ultimate Truth. Indeed, the progression of western thought like the enlightenment and post-modern theology have led these people to assert that notions of God and religion are not relevant in any search for ultimate reality.
So often in life we set up difficult questions as a competition between just two competing answers. We tend to see everything as being either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. Instead, I often believe that most answers lie somewhere in the middle – in the grey zone. And that, unfortunately, assaults our sensibilities. We want definitive answers. We don’t want wishy-washy conclusions. For the question, “What is Truth?” we want a final answer. This is truth! Now my life is complete and I can go about arranging it according to that truth. Everything becomes so simple and easy. This is right. That is wrong. Wonderful!
With all due respect to fundamentalists and to hardcore atheists, that is exactly their approach to life. They have found an answer and are living their lives accordingly. And, I am happy for them and I must respect their choices – so long as they are tolerant of others and equally respect their choices.
What I want to propose as a possible solution to the question of what is truth, is that truth may be found not in what we discover, but in our willingness to seek and to search. Truth, as this topic relates to what I have proposed over the last two weeks, is in our courage to understand ourselves and then to change both our own flaws and those of the world. Fredrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who is famously known as declaring that God is dead, proposed that the very question of “what is truth?” is not the one to ask. Instead of trying to judge everything within the context of God or no God, he proposed we ask whether something is life enhancing or life diminishing. And it is surprising that most religions agree. A variation of the golden rule is offered by most of them. As Hindus claim, “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality.” Is this not an essential truth on which we can all agree? Truth is in the innate goodness – that which enhances life – found in ourselves, in others and in the world. We must search for what is true in us – to find the beauty and the demon – so that we might ever change and work to love and heal our world.
And this fits well with the assertion that it is in the seeking and in the self-discovery that we find reality. What flaws within us diminish our lives and those of others? What injustices and suffering exist in the world which we must discover and correct? We will never fully understand ourselves or solve all of the world’s problems but there is truth in us.
We find, therefore, that virtually all world religions are in agreement in terms of how we must act. And the golden rule is one axis mundi, one universal truth, which we can accept. I propose, as I have said in previous messages, that loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, is the ethic and the moral force at work in the world. It is truth in us. If we wish to understand how we must behave in life – whether or not we believe in Divine revelation and a supernatural god – the golden rule is the perfect guide. All historic and religious prophets – from Abraham, to Jesus, to Mohammad to Buddha – agree.
If both the atheist and the person of deep faith can agree in the truth of how humans should act, is there another universal truth upon which we might all accept? I believe there is an answer to that question which exists somewhere between faith and reason.
And so I turn to a current writer who is much in vogue lately. Karen Armstrong, in her books on Islam and the History of God, proposes a solution that I find intriguing. As much as I seek to rely on reason and on a human focused spirituality, I find a certain emptiness and void. While we do have the power within us to understand problems and fix them, I believe there are mysterious forces also at work in the universe which we have not yet explained.
And Karen Armstrong agrees. A single-minded focus on logos, on science and on reason is incomplete, empty and dry. We all know and we have all experienced transcendent moments in our lives and hopefully here at the Gathering when the unknowable and the mysterious affect us. How do we explain the mystery of what unites us? How do we understand our need and our calling to love and care for complete strangers? What emotional chords are struck when we ponder eternity? What force is it that causes us to feel one with all creation? How and why am I struck with awe when I see a mountain, a newborn baby, a majestic sunset or a simple flower? How do I explain love? In what book or science laboratory are these things dissected and revealed by reason and intelligence? None that I can find.
We cannot and must not let go of these mysteries and the mythos in our lives which I just described. There are forces at work in us and in the universe which we cannot explain by reason or science yet which we know are real because we experience them. By faith we know that mystery and transcendence and the unknown are all around us.
Reason and faith therefore, I believe, combine in some further unknowable way. Armstrong’s argument is that both extremes taken by themselves – an excessive reliance on science and reason or a retreat into fundamentalist faith and mythos – neither lead to an understanding of truth. I believe that truth exists in both the seen AND the unseen, in both science AND in faith, and we must be willing to examine both. Is this assertion an additional universal truth on which we can agree.
And examination of all ways to understand truth is where I believe we must end. Albert Einstein said that the pursuit of truth is better than its possession. Clarence Darrow, the famous attorney who defended evolution in the Scopes monkey trial, said that the pursuit of truth will set us free, even if we never catch up with it. The search for truth is exactly what we do here. Since our mission is to seek personal renewal and salvation each and every Sunday, the essence of that effort is a pursuit of truth – about ourselves and about our world.
Many of us have found peace and solace in answers found in faith. Others have found that peace in no faith. My appeal, though, is to open our minds and free ourselves to continually embark on a journey seeking truth. Just as we are to let go of ego and pride, let us also let go of our rigid beliefs and continue to explore many pathways to enlightenment. In all matters, dogmatic beliefs constrain us and prevent us from growth and learning. Of greatest importance, I believe, are open minds and open hearts to other opinions and thoughts. We all have beliefs, but we owe it to ourselves and to the human dignity of all people to respect and listen to each other. Many say that in order to hold a civil conversation, we must avoid talking about the topics of religion and politics. This, unfortunately, only highlights our unwillingness to listen and seek greater understanding.
Nobody has absolute ownership of truth. Nobody. As ironic as it might be, I believe this is a universal truth. In matters relating to religion, politics and the search for what is true, let us be informed, let us have the dignity of our own beliefs and let us be open to the possibility that others have valid insights.
Truth, dear Gathering friends, is not a destination but a journey. It is a journey into the self. It is a journey to heal the world. It is a journey to listen and to understand. It is a journey to love others as much as we want others journey in love for us. Until we reach the end of our travels, let us seek small victories in the search for what is truth. Let us explore, let us question, let us believe and let us doubt but, I pray, may we never, ever cease the pursuit.