Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Do you know the truth?

"Truth" is something we hear quite about often in religion – including in an ultra-liberal one such as Unitarianism.

As part of its seven principles, the American Unitarian Universalist association’s congregations pledge to affirm and promote “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”

The truth is that we mention truth a lot. I went looking through our two current British Unitarian hymnbooks. 88 of our hymns mention truth!

So, throwing caution to the wind and showing a complete absence of good sense, I thought today would be a good day to take on “The Truth.”

What is it?

I have a feeling that truth can be rather overrated.  Some truths are not so helpful at all… The answer to “do I look fat in this outfit” is always “no”! I don’t care what else is going on – the answer is “no.”

But of course, the kind of truth we are talking about today is not simply the one that is the opposite of the falsehood. This truth speaks to the true, more essential nature of things – the deeper reality behind what is apparent.

Our culture is steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and whether we recognize it or not and whatever we may believe, much of what just seems like part of the secular culture originates in that tradition.

In the Gospel according to John we find this passage:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

That phrase – “the truth will make you free” is shot throughout our culture. And that Christian truth – for Christians, the truth, is the truth of Jesus’ identity with God the father and his role in bringing salvation to believers. So, believing the Christian truth brings freedom from sin and freedom from death.

I rather like Gloria Steinem’s turn on this oft-quoted Christian phrase. Her version: “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” Isn’t that the truth?

The Christian Truth is the Christian path to salvation, accomplished by belief. If you believe this truth – the one and only truth, then you will be saved.

I think you will immediately recognize that this approach is not exactly a great fit with a faith like Unitarianism. If we accept a diversity of beliefs, we can’t very well do that with the attitude “well, we accept your belief even though you are just dead wrong and headed for hell!”

As Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet: “Say not, 'I have found the truth,' but rather, 'I have found a truth.'”

A few billion people in the world follow religions that offer up different essential, cosmic truths. At Buddhism’s core are the “Four Noble Truths”, which acknowledge life’s suffering, explain its cause, and offer a way in which to eliminate that misery.

In Judaism and Islam, truth centres on the word of God as revealed in the bible or the Quran, but rather more like Buddhism than Christianity, the path has more to do with how to live than specifically what to believe.

A little quiz for you:
True or false: Today is Sunday
True or false: You are in the UK
True or false: It is the afternoon
True or false: You are sitting comfortably
True or false: The purpose of life is to love
True or false: There is a single absolute truth to be found
I wonder how that last question would have been answered here 50 or 100 years ago. I suspect that more people would have said ‘true.’

We have changed tremendously as a society. We have moved from the modernistic impression that there is a truth to be found and – if only we can find it – life will make sense. With that truth in our hearts, we will be united, heaven with come to earth and all will be well.

The post-modern view says… well, I suppose it says ‘it depends.’ Post-modernism acknowledges the existence of many truths. Truth is no longer a simple matter of matching understanding to a single kind of reality and having it right or wrong… Truth is complicated.

As Unitarians – as people committed to worrying less about what we believe than how we live our lives – we have a real challenge before us when confronting the issue of truth.

We must accept that there are different truths, even though those truths are in conflict with one another. If you have found your truth or your truths, what does it mean if mine are different? Does that mean that at least one of us is wrong? How do we manage that?

Perhaps some light is shed on the question by Andre Gide’s comment: “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”

Philosophers have wrestled with the question of truth for millennia now. And ultimately – each of us needs to do a bit of wrestling on our own as well.

For some, truth is simply an accurate correspondence between what we understand and what is actual. There is a real truth and other notions are simply false. It is sunny or it is not. There is only one answer.

Others see truth not as an absolute, but as a property determined by some larger system. The truth may simply be determined by what most of us believe. Is this England – well, yes. It’s England because that’s what we’ve all agreed to call it. If we changed the name tomorrow, the answer would instantly be different.

And the final approach is the philosophical school called Pragmatism. This is perhaps the most radical view of truth – maybe it’s no coincidence then that this is the one I find myself most attracted to. Pragmatism’s view of truth is revealed in these words written just over 100 years ago by William James:
“Pragmatism asks its usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?’”
Pragmatism judges the truth of a belief or idea by its effect.

The notion that there is no absolute truth does not mean that we should not search. I tend to stand with Clarence Darrow – the famous American civil rights lawyer who said:
“Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coattails.”
I don’t necessarily recommend pragmatism as a guide to truth suitable for a University exam, but in our religious and spiritual lives, I submit that it is the only guide we need.

Any belief that makes us more loving, more kind, more compassionate, more ready to go out and help others and help to make a better world – that belief is true. Beliefs that turn us inward, close us to love, close our hearts – those beliefs are false.

Ours must be a religion that accepts and honours all truth – even those truths that are in conflict, one with the other. This is our great challenge: to embrace the contradictions, to live in the ambiguity, to accept our differences, to teach and learn from one another, as we find the truths that lead us toward wholeness.

Let’s close with the words of one of my Unitarian heroes - the 19th century’s Rev. Theodore Parker – he who wrote his sermons with a pistol in his desk and a sword by his side in case he should need to defend the fugitive slaves he sheltered in his own home. His wish and mine:
Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere,
its temple all space,
its shrine the good heart,
its creed all truth,
its ritual works of love.


  1. I like the Pragmatic approach, and I think I advocated something similar in a post about good and bad theology. Also, I rather like the saying, "Unitarianism - where all your answers are questioned".

  2. I do not accept that one has to subscribe to the "many truths" philosophical school of thought, to be truly tolerant and inclusive of different beliefs. I, like many Unitarians in the past and present, do actually believe that there is an objective truth about God, life, humanity and many things in between. I try and live my life in pursuit and realisation of that truth. I most certainly don't think for one moment that I am in possession of the entirety of that truth, far from it, and I continue to seek greater understanding of truth and attempt to learn from all those around me. I also value people. And I understand that ultimately we stand before God alone. I can not and must not impose what I believe is truth on anyone else. I can teach what I believe is truth and if people accept it that is fine, if not, that too is fine. I respect the beliefs of others, even if I think them incorrect, because I respect people and the value of their own freedom of thought and belief. Their relationship with God must be one that unites their heart and mind with their Creator. All should be free to search for God. Previously many Unitarians were united by a shared set of beliefs, even if that belief was only the Unity of God and the centrality of Jesus' teachings. While this view did not embrace all beliefs as true, it made room for a wide range of beliefs and understandings, and remained respectful and tolerant to all, while maintaining a cogent and clear focus of religious life.

  3. "What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."

    It could be argued that Pilate was the ultimate pragmatist - by sacrificing a troublesome prophet he ensured a certain harmony for the time-being.

    Although I largely agree with your sentiments Andy, I fear the lies we humans tell ourselves can be shaped in any which way to justify the loving cause of which you speak - tough love, for example!

    Didn't Tony Blair the Iraqis so much he thought the loss of 100,000 lives a reasonable price to pay for their freedom?

    Personally I find a line from the Gospel of Thomas quite helpful in this regard - the Kingdom is inside you and it is outside you - certainly we have to establish the truth within ourselves (because each of us will have a unique experience of it) but remember too that our individual truth is a tiny part of a universal whole (that is "outside" of us as we are a part of it). This can help us place our personal "revelation" within a wider context and can perhaps help us separate the wheat of genuine understanding from the chaff of mere vanity?

  4. I believe that there is an absolute reality (or 'Truth'), but that we subjective beings cannot know it objectively. Therefore, we find what small-t truths we can that resonate within our being, and they guide us onward. It's the "many paths, one mountain" approach, and it works for me.

    Recently, during a service on Science and Truth, I spoke on my personal understanding of "facts" and "truth". This blog posting called it to mind. I hope it adds to the conversation.

    Peace, from the USA.