“What is truth?”

So, are you sick of the arguments yet? You know the arguments – Romney vs Obama. “Job Creators” vs Inequality. Creationism vs Evolution. Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life. Old Fashioned vs New Fangled. Text Speak vs Grammar Nazi’s. Toilet Seat Up vs Toilet Seat Down. Whatever it is, if we can figure out two ways of looking at an issue to divide ourselves into, we do it. And then we argue and argue and argue. We refine our arguments and wonder what the hell is wrong with the people who don’t agree with us. But aren’t you sick of it?

I remember years ago an older, wiser friend told me, “arguments don’t work. You never change someone’s mind through arguments.” At the time I was a bit flabbergasted. If we didn’t argue, how would the other person know they were wrong? And if we can’t get everyone pretty much on board, how do we keep the world from going to hell in a hand basket? I mean, what was the alternative?

Of course, today we have reams of research and endless gigabytes of internet conversations to prove that what my friend told me was true: arguments don’t work. They rarely change anyone’s mind. And I think all but the most die-hard believers are starting to get sick of them.

So what is the alternative to argument? Do we just agree to disagree – you have your opinions and I’ll have mine? And what about truth? Aren’t some things just true and shouldn’t we stand up for and advocate for them? If we can’t argue and persuade our way into some consensus about what’s true how can we function together to get anything done? The live and let live concept sounds fine until we need policies to get the economy going or fix serious social problems. Then what?

In the old days we didn’t have these problems. We pretty much agreed on things. But the reality was that we agreed not because we had given serious consideration to matters and come to the same conclusions. We agreed mostly because we didn’t give serious consideration to matters and come to our own conclusions. There were just things that were true which we learned from proper authority figures – the church, our parents, schools, social norms, etc. Only those days are long gone.

Now we’re all free to think what we want. Authority has mostly discredited itself. And we can’t convince each other of our own point of view. So are we doomed to live in perpetual conflict, chafing at the places where our beliefs haven’t won the day? Just put right and wrong up for a popular vote and let the chips fall where they may? Do we give up our putative search for truth? Well, no. I don’t think so. But I do think we’re going to have to shift our thinking. Let go of our attachment to the idea of right and wrong.

Whoops – I bet I lost some of you there. That’s a very post-modern idea, isn’t it? Let go of the idea of right and wrong. It’s not that I don’t believe in right and wrong. It’s not even that I don’t think we’re capable of knowing right and wrong. It’s just that I don’t think battling over right and wrong is ever going to get us anywhere.

The problems with the old “this is what’s right and what’s wrong, now get in line with it” way of dealing with issues are many. First of all, we’re all really, really good at coming up with reasons to continue believing that we’re right. Look at political arguments. If your guy does something it’s justified and acceptable, but if the other guy does essentially the same thing, well, you can always think of some reason that it’s not actually the same thing at all but something totally different. And of course, your opponent is busy weighting the scales in favor of their opponent the exact same way. We’re complete geniuses that way, in fact.

It’s not that we’re just idiots. We keep hitting stalemates because there are many plausible ways of looking at anything. Life can be like an optical illusion – is it a vase or two faces in the picture? You see this a lot with arguments among Christians. I can make a killer argument for equality between men and women based on scripture or I can use some rather explicit bible verses to make the case that there’s a God ordained hierarchy which puts men on top. Both arguments have legitimate evidence to back them up, so how do we know which one is “right”? Well, pretty much we just argue back and forth until we win or die out. Or we could make a choice. Believe it or not, we’re allowed to do that.

I think that we Christians in particular have this idea that there is a “right” way for everything to function which has been predetermined (or ordained) by God and our only part is to chose to get in line with that or not. But look back at the creation story. God allowed Adam to name the animals. That’s a fair amount of control for Adam to have over God’s creation. Words are powerful. And God allowed Adam not just to name the animals but to come to his own conclusion that none of them was a suitable mate for him. In other words, God quite deliberately gave Adam a say and allowed him to learn things himself. Surely God knew that none of the animals was going to be a suitable mate for Adam. He could have just said, “none of the animals is right for you” and expected Adam to accept that. But he didn’t. I really believe that it is God’s desire and has always been God’s desire for us to be much more empowered than we normally think of ourselves as being.*

So what if instead of arguments, we offered invitations: I want to live in a world of love, so I’m willing to suffer if that’s what it takes to be a loving person. Want to join me? I choose to see each person as made in the image of God and treat them as such. Would you like to do that? I want to live in a world where the broken get a chance to heal rather than suffering a life of poverty or imprisonment, so I’ve made friends with and tend to someone in prison or poverty or scandal. But there are so many. Can you help out as well? When things go really wrong, I want someone to come to my aid, so I try to offer what I have to help when things go really wrong for someone else. Wouldn’t you want someone to help you out if your world was coming apart? Do you think that if we Christians stopped arguing for what we believe is right and simply started making choices that reflect what we believe is right it might make a difference? Do you think that maybe if we did that our invitation might carry more weight than our arguments ever could?

We have more freedom today than at any time in known human history. And freedom is good. Jesus said that he came to set us free. But now that we’re free, we don’t know what to do with it. So we argue. But what if instead of arguing over what is right or wrong or what’s going to work, we started choosing: this is the sort of world I want to live in. This is the sort of life I want to have. These are the ways I want to relate with other people. This is how I’m going to view myself.

Of course, even if we say, “yes! I’m going to be the change I want to see in the world” (to steal a phrase from Gandhi), we’re still going to disagree. The unity which Jesus prayed for us to have isn’t just going to appear. After all, we are starting from a place marred by intense disagreements. But that’s fine. Remember? God allows us to figure things out for ourselves and learn. Which means mistakes will be made. Some of what we do won’t work. Some of it might even be a disaster. For all we know, Adam made a few mistakes himself on the way to deciding that none of the animals was a suitable mate for him. Or maybe not. But we’re clearly post-fall here anyways. Mistakes are inevitable. So we learn. Once we stop worrying so much about being wrong and more about making right choices, it almost certainly won’t be so hard to do. Besides, as much as we have enjoyed fighting over tax policy and abortion laws and welfare, there’s not much any of us can do about those anyways. Pretty much out of necessity most of us will have to start small. Choosing how to deal with our families. Choosing how to spend our money. How many resources to consume. How to spend our time. Who to associate with. Just working through these choices deliberately ought to be enough to keep most people plenty busy.

Of course, this all sounds rather naive. More than a little foolish even. We argue so much in part because there are huge forces at play with enormous power. Governments, economies, legal systems, schools. If we’re busy tending to the small details, aren’t we ceding power? I mean, how many people are really going to stop arguing and just start doing? And how many of them will d o it the Christian way? Don’t we need to get people on board first? Start a movement? Maybe get a facebook page going? Well, here’s the thing; we’ve been trying to influence governments and economies and policies and the rest. And we keep losing. And even corrupting ourselves and our witness in the process. So maybe it’s time to do it like Jesus did – step outside the power structures. Build relationships with a few close friends. Deal directly with people. And yes, it could be that you can do very little and no one else seems to be joining you. But remember, Jesus called us salt, light and yeast. It only takes a little salt to season the dish. One lamp to light the table. A little yeast to make the whole loaf rise.

Besides, I’d rather not argue with you over it. Either you’ll choose to join in or you won’t. It’s up to you. 😉

* If you haven’t yet checked out my study on The Book of Job, you should go read it. This issue of human empowerment  shows up there as well, believe it or not. Don’t worry – I skipped the boring parts.

7 thoughts on ““What is truth?”

  1. An interesting post. You say “Besides, I’d rather not argue with you over it. Either you’ll choose to join in or you won’t. It’s up to you.”

    And I ask ‘why do I need a god?’

    1. I would say that whether you need one or not, there’s one there. Here’s what I really believe – God is love. So to whatever extent you are devoted to love, you are devoted to God. Whether you know, recognize or accept that or not. So, if your an atheist who chooses to live a life devoted to love, then all I can say is hello to a fellow traveler.

      Of course, different people with different ideas and beliefs are going to have different ideas about what love is, what it looks like and how it acts. Similar, but different. The Christian faith offers a particular vision of love and Jesus a particular model for how it’s done. Because I believe Christianity is true, I also believe that this is the vision of love which is going to work for us – bear good fruit, if you will. In my estimation, only God/Love knows what God/Love really is. So if I want to be devoted to love, then getting to know God makes a good deal of sense to me.

      Of course, you can rightly point out that the good fruit from Christianity is often shockingly lacking and ask if that doesn’t discredit my claims anyways. But all I can do is my part and bear my own “good fruit”. I make no claims of perfection, but I’ve been faithful and for my part, I’m willing to offer myself as an example of how it works.

  2. Well, everyone likes to have love in their life, so that might be one reason. The god of the Christian bible is also vengeful, jealous, and genocidal … among other things. The influence of such a god would (I should think) make us not full of love, but full of all the stuff that makes us humans in the first place. That is to say that such influence by a deity gives us the properties of the deity should give us the qualities of that deity. If by believing in this god I am to get more love in my life wouldn’t I also get more genocidal tendencies? More jealousy? More vengefulness? Sure, as you suggest I would also get more love but do I need jealousy, vengefulness, and genocidal tendencies? How is it that I’d only get the good stuff?

    Maybe the shocking lack you speak of is because those folk also got more of the other qualities? Or maybe believing in god doesn’t give you anything? Perhaps it is your personal take on it that makes you feel that god gives you more love?

    1. Well, what Carol said below. Getting people to change paradigms was no easier several thousand years ago than it is today. It was probably much harder, in fact. So as much as we’ve tended to engage in the fairy tale thinking that God works by fiat – he just comes down, makes a declaration and then it is so – that just isn’t how it works. If we say that we have free will, then we have to choose to change. And we’re not very inclined to change. So God was always going to have to engage in a good deal of persuasion and working with us where we were. ‘Tis the way of things.

      And the truth is that not only have things changed a great deal in the last few thousand years, God’s work has been the catalyst. I don’t think it’s any co-incidence that the places in the world with the most freedom, tolerance, equality, etc are places where Christianity took hold. If you look around the world, you can see this process at work even today.

      As for myself, I think that the difference between me and some of my louder, more obnoxious brethren is that I’m taking advantage of the benefits of living in an age of freedom. I don’t follow authority of man, I study deeply (including taking the time to figure out all that angry God stuff), when presented with two conclusions, I choose based on love, not just a wooden literalism. One of the interesting things about Jesus is that pretty much everything he is recorded as saying in scripture comes directly from the OT. The same scripture the pharisees read. But the pharisees read scripture and took away rules, condemnation. The other stuff was there, but just like today, they choose to preserve the parts that fit their own understanding rather than being challenged by all the rest. Jesus, coming from a place of love read the same text and took away a completely different set of teachings. Both were present, if you wanted or were willing to see them. Same as today. I’m just trying to follow Jesus’ example.

  3. The people of God in the Bible often thought that their God was vengeful, jealous, etc.

    Sacrificing their children to their god was a common practice in OT times. We have the story of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his son and heir to God. Just as Abraham raised his knife to kill his son, God stopped him and proided a sheep caught in thethicket for the sacrifice. Do you think that changed Abraham’s idea of what God desired of him?

    In a later text God tells his people that he wants mercy, not sacrifice.

    Don’t blame God because we, his people, are such slow learners.

    “When religion is in the hands of the mere natural man, he is always the worse for it; it adds a bad heat to his own dark fire and helps to inflame his four elements of selfishness, envy, pride, and wrath. And hence it is that worse passions, or a worse degree of them are to be found in persons of great religious zeal than in others that made no pretenses to it.” –William Law

    “Once ‘the religious hypothesis’ is disengaged from the opportunity to inflict humiliation and pain on people who do not profess the correct creed, it loses interest for many people.”
    –Richard Rorty, Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance

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