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Toward Wholeness Blog

How do you “Know” something is true - Part 1

As fires torch California and Los Angeles, and fire specialists speak of the fire season having grown two months longer than it was thirty years ago, my social media feed still contains stories that lay the blame for all this on the Sierra Club, the Spotted Owl, and a failure to “clean the forest floor.” I know first-hand that forest management matters when it comes to fire. I own a tiny piece of forest, and our local fire chief was just visiting to chat about a project on our property so we discussed managing the forest floor. But embedded in these limited assessments of the problem is an intentional neglect of climate change and the factors that cause it, at least according to the overwhelming majority of scientists. You know there’s a fire. But how do you KNOW what factors caused it?

“Truth Lives!” I can close my eyes and see the Ghost of Christmas Past repeating her mantra in one movie version of "A Christmas Carol," as Scrooge tries to silence the truth by crushing the light emanating from her hat. She knows that, try though we might to douse the light of truth, St. John was right when he said, “the darkness cannot overcome it.”

Darkness can try to kill truth, though, and does try, has always tried...

Jeremiah’s articulation of truth offered up on a scroll, is sliced in pieces and added to the fire by the king, who preferred the warmth of lies to the searing yet healing power of truth.

Jesus, on trial for insurrection and inciting the populace, speaks of truth to Pilate. You can see Pilate’s wry, cynical smile as his “what is truth?” retort implies that the very notion that truth exists, let alone is knowable, is a joke.

Perhaps Pilate knew a bit about what we now know so well - that ‘fake news’ not only exists, but is believed to be truth on a regular basis by big chunks of any populace. As a result both sides on any issue know that the poor folks on the other side have been duped and are heading down a gullible path of destruction. “That’s OK for them” you say, “but they’re not taking me, or my country, down with them” so you offer up some sort of post to confirm your position in hopes that those stuck in the darkness will move to the light.

The subject of “how truth can be known” or “how you decide which version of truth to believe” has been talked about a lot, so I hesitate to offer up more. I do so, though, because we are about to be overwhelmed with the greatest avalanche of half-truths and misinformation any of us have seen in our lifetime, and the Bible is clear that a foundational hallmark of a mature person is that they have discernment, which means they have the ability to distinguish between truth and error. There are six principles in my declaration. Here’s the first one:

  1. Post Modernity is right about some things

One of the things I said often as a young pastor was “truth is absolute.” It was a way of declaring that there was to be no movement on my part when it came to truth. I and my seminary friends would say, “when it comes to ‘2+2’, the answer isn’t ‘it all depends on how you look at it’. There’s only one right answer!” I’d then go on to dish up that right answer, not for math problems, but for all kinds of theological and existential questions. I was taught that you can study this stuff and eventually develop a bomb-proof certainty that your answer was the right one.

The problem, for me at least, was that the evidence presented to lead me to these ‘absolute truths’ always seemed one-sided, propagandistic, and even a bit dishonest. I was taught that the Bible was 100% clear: women shouldn’t teach men. The same group of leaders who taught me that then invited a woman to come and speak on a Sunday in their church (ironically, about how women shouldn’t speak). To get around their own glaring hypocrisy and double-standard, they removed the pulpit and put a music stand up front instead, declaring that “she’s not teaching - she’s sharing.” They give me no answers to my questions about the Junia/Junias debate, no answers to more egalitarian readings of this and other passages, no convincing answers to the authority women exercised over men when prophesying publicly, as this was declared normal in this passage.

I came to see, in part because of their irrationally confident level of dogma, that there were other ways of looking at the text. The same thing happened to me when it came to studying ‘the rapture’ and the big question of whether miracles still happened, the atonement, election, and dozens of other big questions. I found myself surrounded by people who came across as confident, but at the same time saying, “don’t bother me with any questions that will upset my carefully constructed view of the world.” Rather than buying into the package, their unwillingness to listen to questions or consider other views led me to a dramatically post-modern conclusion.

I now tell people: “I believe in absolute truth. I just don’t believe that you or I have perfect knowledge, so I don’t think we see, receive, or declare truth perfectly.” Even those with good intentions carry a mixture of motives. Our ego, reputation, and in some cases our positions, wealth, and power, are all wrapped in the world view we espouse, a view which encompasses politics, ethics, economics, and faith questions. As a result, none of us ‘fully gets it’, even if we’re really trying.

Some, of course, aren’t even trying. When Herod tells the Magi to let him know about the baby Jesus’ location so that he “too may go and worship him,” he’s lying. He’s a leader, ostensibly holding power in order to care for people, and he’s lying. Imagine that. The challenge of finding truth is made exponentially more difficult when people declare things to be true without a shred of concern over the veracity of their statement because they’re speaking with an agenda, speaking in order to sell something, or preserve their status and power, or incite fear. I’ve seen preachers and politicians both do it, along with parents, journalists, teachers, and business leaders. I’ve never seen it, though, in the world of marketing and advertising (kidding).

Post-Modernity acknowledges these biases, and offers a level of skepticism regarding truth claims. Too much skepticism leads to a sense of post-modern despair, so that’s not good. Too little skepticism though, creates echo chambers of zealotry where people only listen to those who think, believe, and behave in ways that reinforce their already existing biases. That feels good, surely, but that’s how colonialism, slavery, redlining, and lots of other unhealthy ethical practices continued unchecked, often in God’s name, for centuries. It would have been better had people been a bit more skeptical regarding truth claims.

Still to come...

2. Most decisions have an element of faith

3. Almost no decisions depend on blind faith

4. You place your faith where the evidence points

5. The evidence depends on credibility and knowledge you don’t have

6. Credibility and Knowledge are tied to TWO THINGS:

  1. character/references

  2. evidence

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