Nothing But the Truth

Blurbs are the way of the future. It is so much easier to read something brief than to have to wade through an entire article. Is that the way the future’s going? I read the blurbs for Christian Century’s round-up page when it lands on my desk at work, and I find plenty of interesting things there. For example, a recent issue suggested that truth may be getting harder to find. It began: “George Johnson [New York Times was the source] says modern culture is reaching the point at which there are no longer any incontrovertible truths, just competing ideologies and narratives.” It goes on to describe how issues like creationism are less concerned with “truth” than with fitting the world into their view. Likewise, those who object to putting telescopes on Mauna Kea see science as cultural hegemony. In a post-modern world there is no objective truth. Even as a college student I remember learning that if I found the Truth, with a capital T, there was no way to know it was actually the truth. “All truth is God’s true” some professors used to say tritely.

That doesn’t stop those of us who’ve been motivated our entire lives by the search for the truth. But how will we know when we get there? I first learned about post-modernism in my teaching days. Some of its ideas are perfectly logical: we can’t completely share an author’s meaning; words have no meanings, only usages; when we read we bring our own meaning to the text; an author’s intention is not definitive for what a text means. These ideas are deeply disturbing when we look at them closely. Then I began to read that scientists recognize that our brains did not evolve to discern the truth. Our brains evolved to survive, and even a dim approximation of the truth will help us get to reproductive age. In fact, dim approximations of the truth might explain much of our dating behavior. So, we’re led to conclude, there’s no Truth after all. Just “competing ideologies and narratives.”

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I studied a fair amount of philosophy in my time, and I do believe in Truth. That’s not the same as saying I’ve found it, since no one can honestly make that claim. All that we can admit is that we believe we’ve found it. Those who object to evolution say they know the Truth and it is special creation. All the evidence points against it, but all the evidence doesn’t fit the worldview. We lose something that can’t be replaced when we jettison the truth. As soon as I learned about existentialism I realized that it had long been my philosophy—making our own meaning in a world where certainty is unknown. Even those who claim that science will give us the answers have to admit that if faced with ultimate Truth we might not like what we find. We can only believe that it will be good. And hope that we are right.

Shooting Stars

One of the professions I used to consider as a child, before I had any real concept of the way the world works, was a scientist. I wasn’t sure what scientists did, beyond a broad idea of learning about the world though close observation. I was too young to see that it would likely conflict with the Fundamentalism in which I was being raised, and I suspect the same is true of many who become scientists and never stop to question the religion in which they were reared. Although religion, as a profession, won out in my case, I was, I recognize now, motivated by a deep and undying desire to know the truth. I still am, although you couldn’t tell that from my career path. In fact, rationally, it is the most important thing to me. What is truth?

Science has become extremely complex. The average citizen can’t afford the kinds of equipment needed to unravel the fabric of reality. A cyclotron wouldn’t fit in my backyard, and, besides, I rent. When I sat outside this morning looking for the Perseid meteor shower, I didn’t see a thing due to the ambient light. Even looking through a telescope, I know I don’t have the calculus to explain the things I see. Given all this, the average person requires a scientist to explain. But scientists are only human. We know that we haven’t evolved to discover the truth. Evolution favors survival, not philosophy. We also know that we don’t perceive everything. Some animals have senses that we humans lack. Still, we suppose through our use of our five—obviously the best—we can come up with an explanation of everything. The truth will be ours! Or will it? Even thinkers of such stature as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking make mistakes. They’re only human. When we idolize them, we make them gods.

Back in seminary I learned about the three-legged stool. The basis of authority, in the church, rests on three legs (four if you were Methodist): Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Methodists added Experience. There were checks and balances here. Well, Scripture seems to have fallen out of the running with the Enlightenment, and nones don’t much value Tradition. Experience is subjective, so we’re left with Reason alone. And yet, reason leads to paradoxes such as if the universe is infinite, how can it be expanding? In classical theological terms: can God make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it? Add to that the fact that some neuroscientists are now suggesting that emotion may be the seat of thinking rather than reason and you might begin to wish you had some tradition to guide you. In my experience, I’ve seen, I suppose, my fair share of shooting stars. I sat outside in the predawn hours this morning and saw nothing. Perhaps I should have had a three-legged stool upon which to sit.

Photo credit: Nerijp, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Nerijp, Wikimedia Commons

God’s Wormhole

Can God and science mix? I suppose that the third season of Through the Wormhole would be the place to look. The entire season has a distinctly metaphysical feel to it, so it is no surprise that the final episode is entitled “Did We Invent God?” It’s also no surprise that, like the other metaphysical issues explored, no resolution is really offered. Interviewing psychologists and neurologists, the show attempts to parse how scientists might address the question of God’s reality. God, of course, being immaterial, is normally understood not to be a subject discerned by science. So instead of putting God under the microscope, human perceptions of God will have to do. Everything from theory of mind to magical beliefs are probed to find hints of whence this strange idea of God might have come. The answer: we don’t know.

The more I pondered this, the more the same result reflected on science itself. When I was growing up I thought science was the truth. If science “proved” something, there was no arguing the point. I have come to realize, however, that science must be falsifiable to be science. That means it is potentially wrong. Not that it goes as far as Creationists take it to say that something is “only a theory,” but rather that science is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Future discoveries could falsify what we now know and the science textbooks would have to be rewritten. The difference here with religion is that most belief systems do not admit of this possibility. The truth has already been revealed, and there is no adding to or taking from it. God is not falsifiable. As stated above, God is not subject to science.

I don’t expect these observations of mind to change anybody’s ideas of the world. I do hope, however, that they make clear that science and metaphysics find themselves in similar situations. Both strive to know the truth. Neither can know if they’ve arrived. Both can believe it. The final episode of the season raises this point starkly. People are hardwired to believe. What they believe in is open to many possibilities, but believe they will. From my earliest days I have taken belief very seriously. What I have believed has changed over the decades, but at each step along the way I believed it was the truth at that time. I don’t know the truth. Nobody does. We all, whether scientist or religious, believe that we have found it. At the moment.

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Sects for You

Oxford University Press has a religion blog. (Well, who doesn’t these days?) Apart from being jealous about their numbers, I find some of the posts fascinating. A recent entry by Linda Woodhead on the approval of women bishops in the Church of England was particularly well done. Woodhead is known for her in-depth knowledge of religiosity in Britain, and she begins her post with a distinction between two types of churches that I find most helpful. She mentions the “church type” that embraces society and tends to have less trouble keeping up with social changes, and the “sect type” that insists on keeping a long distance from the evils of society. She points out how the Church of England went from the former to the latter and how its numbers have subsequently declined. Her article made me realize that for much of my life I’ve found myself among the “sect type” believers. Fundamentalists, among whom I grew up, are naturally suspicious of the world. Grove City College, where I cut my critical teeth, was dead-set against change. And Nashotah House—need I utter more than its very name?

Sects are indeed concerned about being right. Not only being right, but being the only ones who are right. I recall a New Testament class in seminary at Boston University where an unnamed professor said, “If anyone can join, what’s the draw? Barriers are important.” Christianity, he claimed, grew strong by excluding others. This professor would have a difficult time being retained by many seminaries today. The “church type” church realizes that without embracing society it will embrace empty collection plates. Unless, of course, you court conservative political causes, for which there seem to be bottomless pockets of money available. Sects thrive on the feeling of superiority. Knowing that we got it right and everyone else got it wrong is cause for great rejoicing. Others are encouraged to join, just as long as they jettison their point of view. We are the Borg.

It is no wonder that religions struggle in a world with the Internet. Too much information, 24/7. Religions you’ve never heard of are suddenly right there at your fingertips, and the believers are sincere and convinced. Some are sects and some are churches. Some are open to any belief system while others have just what the (church) doctors prescribed. To me this raises a fundamental question of religion: what is its purpose? Is it to seek the truth, or is it to exclude others and make members feel special? Truth is an expensive commodity. Indeed, nobody has a universally accepted version of it yet. While some religious believers will not rest while the search continues, others made up their minds centuries ago. And those believers use sects to get what they want.

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

Cave In

The conversation began, as conversations often do, with Plato’s allegory of the cave. The nature of reality was the topic of a chat I had with a very intelligent undergrad the other day. Plato believed in a realm of ideal forms. What we experience in life is not the actual forms themselves, but a reflection of them sufficient to alert us to what it is we encounter. Humans are sitting, as it were, in a cave. We are chained so that we face the inside wall of the cave and can’t look around. Behind us there is a fire and the ideal forms pass between the fire and people, throwing their shadows on the wall. Not having ever been outside the cave, we suppose the shadows are reality. We are, however, deceived. This led, naturally enough, to a discussion of Aristotle’s counter-argument that the “essence,” or entelechy, of things is something inherently within it. No need for an alternate realm of reality. And so, I asked, what is reality? What is truth?

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My young interlocutor said that reality is what we perceive. It is different for every person, and therefore there are a multitude of realities. Truth is simply the term we apply to our experience of reality. I began to feel as old as Plato. When I was young I believed, not exactly in a realm of ideal forms, but in a universe that contained abstracts. Abstract concepts objectively existed, and in a kind of neo-Platonism, we recognized them when we encountered them. Love, for instance. We may not be able to define it precisely (although materialists claim it is just a pretense to get sex), but we sure know it when we feel it. Or consciousness. What is it? No one reading this doubts, however, that it exists. And truth. I had always assumed that there was Truth with a capital T, objectively floating around out there. Perhaps, if the undergrad is right, there are multiple truths around. We chose the one that fits our experience of reality. Q.E.D.

C.Q.D.! C.Q.D.! Worldviews are in the process of changing. I tend to think the internet has democratized truth. Religions have tended to play their trump card—revelation—at this point. The unambiguous input from the divine should end all questions. But it only requires a moment’s reflection to realize that there are multiple religions and multiple revelations. Which one are we to believe? Some scientists claim there is no need for philosophy, religion, or the humanities. Objective facts, however, are interpreted subjectively. To privilege one reality above others is a kind of intellectual fascism. Perhaps my reality is different. We all sit in the same cave watching the same shadows play in front of us. We then decide what is real. Perhaps we need to get outside for a breath of fresh air. Even Plato knew, however, that that is against the rules.

Tempting Truth

Recently I was discussing the internet with friends. Real ones, I mean, physically in the room with me. One asked if the internet made conspiracy theories more believable. My response was that the internet has changed truth. That probably seems like a bold statement, I know. Truth, however, is an abstract very difficult to pin down. Science, for starters, does not deliver truth. Science is theoretical, and since it is falsifiable, a scientific theory, while based on facts, is always contingent; it is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Scientists generally know not to conflate this with truth, deferring the latter to the realm of philosophy. The average person probably conceives of truth as that which is literally real. Reality itself is, however, a very slippery concept—quantum physics reveals realities where many are not comfortable going, and which very few truly understand. Truth is a philosophical concept that reflects what humanity collectively accepts to be reality. It is in this sense that the internet has changed truth. It is the Wikipedification of the mind.

People, for as long as they’ve had the luxury to consider abstracts, have struggled with the question of truth. For a few centuries—almost a couple of millennia—in much of the western world, the Bible was considered a source of truth. If it was in there, it was true. The source of authority here was that of a deity who oversaw the writing of the Bible, word by sacred word. When science began to demonstrate that this Weltanschuung was untenable, people realized that truth was a bit more complex. When westerners came into contact with other religions, the complexity grew. Large swaths of humanity believed things completely different from the rest of us. What was the truth? A rear-guard action was often the result. Those who had the Bible had the truth already, and since truth doesn’t change, what more was there to be said.

Truth or dare?

Truth or dare?

The internet is not yet a mature adult, but an entire generation has now grown to a kind of maturity with it. It is the first line of recourse for true information. Who has a phonebook in their house anymore? When is the last time you opened a physical dictionary? Some of us routinely look up Bible verses online, since the internet is the ultimate concordance. Instead of turning to the Bible, or any other source, we turn to the collective “wisdom” of humanity as the measure of what is true. Snopes aside, we plow ahead with what we read online, confident that with all those millions of users, we just can’t be wrong. How strange a concept to unplug and look at the actual reality behind the screen. We might be surprised to learn that there are great and terrible wizards back there after all.

Whose Reality?

It was a groggy, foggy morning when I stepped off the bus in St Andrews. I’d been here before, but it had been over two decades ago, and with my wife, who is my navigator. I knew the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting was here, but I didn’t know where. Instinctively, I headed toward the medieval part of town. A religion conference, I reasoned, would best fit there. Seeing no signs of the inimitable professorate that I associate with the Society, I finally stopped into a university office where a dubious-looking receptionist peered at the conference letter and shook her head. The she spied a familiar address on the letterhead. “Ach, that’ll be doon this way, past the second roond-aboot.” Having lived in Scotland for over three years, I understood. I suppose if I’d just read the materials sent ahead more closely, I would’ve known that we were meeting in the newest part of Scotland’s oldest university.

A religion and science reunion came in the form of the physics and maths building where the meetings were being held. Science grad students, somewhat bewildered by so many biblical scholars, pushed open their lab doors with a sense of wonder—and perhaps disbelief. Could so many educated people seriously spend their time on the Bible? Science, after all, now has cornered the market on truth, hasn’t it? What hath Jerusalem to do with St Andrews? Ancient universities were generally founded to study theology. In 1413, when St Andrews opened its academic doors, God was the undisputed arbiter of truth. Now high-tech fighter jets scream overhead in nearby Leuchars, and we are secure in the ability of science to save us. And still biblical scholars, like the horseshoe crabs, come together in huge numbers on the beachhead of the human psyche every year.

To the student trained in the sciences, I have no doubt that we appear superfluous. Nevertheless, without religious belief, or the Bible, our society would not be where it is today. Although now it seems that science and religion bear deep hostility to one another, they actually grew from the same root and have a similar goal—to discover the truth. Science finds no evidence beyond the material, but religion declares the material as the perennial under-achiever. Scholars of the Bible from around the world, many of them not religious believers, expend their limited resources to come to one of the more inaccessible tourist destinations of Scotland and meet in a clean, modern, comfortable sciences building. Across town, in the heart of the old, medieval district, stand the remains of a once grand cathedral. Still majestic in its glorious decay, the church towers over a town once ruled by religion where now science and golf define the new reality.

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Wolves and Sheep

A state of the university address might not be a bad exercise.  If I might be so bold, as an inveterate outsider who nonetheless has tried to play by the rules, I have been cast in a supporting role—I think a few of my observations might be valid.  Some of my more pastoral colleagues try to reassure me that editors influence more people than professors, but in fact, the professors are the ones with the luxury to write books.  I get to sit on the bus and read them.  I do read many proposals before they become full-fledged books, and, interestingly, I get to discern how someone becomes an “expert.”  I worry a little about this latter point.  When it comes to religion, there are a few too many experts and dreadfully too few places for them to find gainful employment.  This is a volatile mix. I often run across religion experts who have professorships because they are of the right brand.  In a way that is almost inconceivable in any other profession, schools where religion is taught are actually allowed to discriminate.  This fact may even stretch out, in the case of some religions, to more objective fields.  Some religions teach that illness is spiritual rather than physical.  Some of them have medical schools, staffed by believers.

This comes back to the privileging of belief.  We all believe things, and most of us (if not all of us, when the lights are out) include some irrational things in that realm.  Beliefs can change, but not easily.  In the case of religions, most often we are taught our beliefs.  Sitting back and thinking about those truisms is the ultimate of academic enterprises, and yet few matters have a greater impact on society as a whole than the belief structures of people.  If you want to start a university for your brand of religion, after all, the law protects you if you keep your biases on your sleeve.  These people get to write books with the credibility that pathetic posers, like the current blogger, are doomed to lack.  You see, if someone is an expert, they have to have an institution to prove it.  That’s the way higher education works.

I read lots of stuff.  I sometimes think maybe I read a little too much because the ideas begin to affect my beliefs.  Nevertheless, it is a risk I’m willing to take.  It seems to me that if a religion is really as secure as they all pretend to be, you’d be willing to invite a few interlopers in your doors—a few wolves in wolves’ pelts.  If the sheep have to run, think of it as a chance to test their belief systems.  If the sheep overcome the wolves, then they will have earned the stars in their crowns.  Sometimes I am criticized for my liberal approach to things.  One thing my training has taught me, however, is that systems carefully reasoned through don’t shy away from challenges.  That’s a major difference on many belief-based structures.  Beliefs do not appreciate being challenged.  They want to be right.  But then, don’t we all?  It seems to me that the time for allowing prejudice against other religious views has outlived its usefulness.  If the truth is the truth, after all, it will be able to stand any fright that the wolves might bring.

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Grounds for Sculpture

Few people would deny that religion and art share a common heritage. Some of the earliest human art was religiously motivated (I would contend that cave paintings and Paleolithic figurines were religious objects), and much of the contemporary art scene derives its inspiration from religious motifs and constructs. Not all art is religious, however, and not all religions are friendly toward art. Nevertheless, there is a tangible connection.

This weekend was uncharacteristically warm and sunny for a New Jersey March. This led us to take our visiting family to Grounds for Sculpture, one of New Jersey’s often overlooked treasures. Built on the remains of the old State Fair grounds in Hamilton, this park houses an impressive array of outdoor sculpture that is contemplative, innovative, puckishly funny, and even a little weird. It reflects the human experience. My family and I have been there multiple times, appreciating the sculpture from new angles, discovering new pieces, and seeing it all through the eyes of others.

Taste in art is highly personal and individualistic. Just like religious sensibilities. Both art and religion seek to make the human soul accessible to others through profound expression. Several of the sculptures in this unique garden bear biblical titles or suggestions, but they may be enjoyed as secular pieces of expression as well. Here is where art is superior to religion: it does not insist on any single way of expressing the truth. Sometimes, it seems, art may actually attain what religion only aspires toward.

Monet listens attentively to a dilettante

Is the Truth Under There?

Each semester I introduce my Hebrew Bible students to the dangers of “biblical archaeology.” Not that there is any wrong-headedness in excavating sites of importance to ancient Israel, but I warn them of requiring proof for religious beliefs. Early archaeologists digging in the lands of the Bible were open about their agendas — “proving” the Bible to be “true.” The problem is proof is certain only in mathematics, not in matters of faith. Truth cannot be known, but must be believed. When archaeologists excavate the unknown, they cannot know in advance what they might find.

As a young academic wannabe, I volunteered at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987. Before the introductory orientation sessions Dor was only a shadow of a reference to one of King Solomon’s administrative cities mentioned in 1 Kings; I knew nothing of its location or importance. I’d had enough of seminary to be skeptical of many truth claims even then, and the irreverent outlook of many of my fellow diggers underscored the secular nature of the venture. We were digging for the truth, but we might not recognize it when we found it. Apart from the scorpions and tarantulas, we unearthed many mute trinkets from Israelites silenced by time. My square team was assigned to the city gate; we were seeking the coveted fourth chamber to place the city in a Solomonic context.

To the best of my knowledge, our humble efforts did not prove the Bible was true. After manually hauling out tons of dirt, we found what appeared to be a gate chamber and perhaps even a rubbish heap. Of these two features the rubbish heap was the more interesting to me. Here it was that the cast-offs of ancient life had been consigned to oblivion only to be rescued by bewildered strangers far in the future. Truth is often in what we hide. It may not be glamorous or worthy of biblical paeans, but it is that part of our lives that we discard. Finding “Solomon’s” gate proved nothing, but what “his” people threw away contained nuggets of the truth.

Is the Truth Under There? Tel Dor 1987

Ortho-right or Ortho-wrong?

As a child reared in a seriously religious household far, far away from anything with even a whiff of orthodoxy about it, my first encounter with this traditional form of Christianity involved more curiosity than fear. What was this religion that claimed to go back to the very earliest apostles? Did Jesus wear one of those unusual hats? I never recalled seeing paintings of Peter, or Mark, or even Thomas wearing a medallion of the theotokos. Apparently I’d been routinely misinformed. The haunted, deeply spiritual grimaces on the faces of orthodox students my age were almost intoxicating. It was all new and exotic to me.

Several years later I find myself having been subjected to a variety of orthodoxies and the only thing they seem to have in common is the conviction that all the others are wrong. I once had a boss who was enamored of Greek Orthodoxy. (I later learned that this is the gateway orthodoxy, leading to more foreign strains.) Presently his interest shifted to the Russian variety and I eventually found myself cowering in the glare of the Coptic Pope Shenouda III’s eminence. How had a kid from humble beginnings come so far? A couple jobs and a few hundred miles later, my new boss turned out to be Syriac Orthodox. Phone calls to the office would come in languages I’d never even heard before. Being a northern European mutt, maybe I was simply jealous of the pride of ethnic purity. No fancy traditional dress to haul out for exotic dances at annual celebrations of mutthood (Lederhosen and stuffy tweed, anyone?)

Basking in the eminence of the Coptic Pope

Basking in the eminence of the Coptic Pope

All of this exposure to orthodoxy has led to heterodox thoughts in my heretical brain. It seems that the basic premise of orthodoxy is that the final truth was revealed just once, up front, and it left no room for growth. The expectation that Jesus would shortly be back didn’t leave much space to consider what complications would set in once people developed nuclear weapons, landed themselves on the moon, or devised genetic engineering. Complexities and complications that early Christianity could never have foreseen chaw like ravenous beavers on the stilts propping up this edifice. I am a firm believer in religious freedom and have never urged anyone to change her or his personal faith. But I do seriously wonder how any religious system, in the light of our limited brains, could ever expect anyone to believe that it had comprehended the whole of all truth for all time. It is all too wonderful for one condemned by a birth outside of ethnic Christianity.