Sunday, May 21, 2006

What is Truth?

"What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not wait for an answer."   I think I have quoted this some few times before in these posts.  However, it is worth repeating.  The author of this quotation was none other than Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) who was a famous British philosopher and politician. His theme was empiricism – that is, if one can prove it by experiment, then it must be true.  His refrain was along the lines of “knowledge is power.” Francis put everything to experiment and to the verification of human experience.  Indeed he died as a casualty of his own drive to scientific knowledge, or proof by evidence of the senses – he developed pneumonia after trying to freeze chickens on Hampstead Heath.

Bacon's well known quotation shows Pilate to be a busy and sensible administrator, who was aware of problems but who knew how to avoid unnecessary conflict most of the time. However, his washing of hands for the trial of Jesus had unexpected consequences. He realized that any discussion of truth awakens arguments, since people tend to select their facts to support their view.

We’re all captivated by the question as to what in fact truth is.  Or in a more problematic and possibly questionable formulation we might be captivated by the same word preceded by the definite article, what the truth is.  How often have we heard the well-known opening of the American Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident etc...” and other such well-worn phrases as “The truth of the matter is...,” “Tell the truth”, or “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Again what religious person or former religious being has never heard the formulaic “the truths of our faith?”

Having studied philosophy and theology at postgraduate level in the distant past I’m still intrigued by this simple and deceptive word “truth.”  I have long since disabused my mind of the term “The Truth”, and certainly of the phrase “The Ultimate Truth!”  As I grow older I grow more skeptical and questioning and more plural in my use of the word – “truths” are more acceptable to me now.  I am less likely to accept things blindly as self-evident as I did when I was a teenager or student at college.  However, in hindsight I was never a blind follower of anything, and I always loved questioning things and pushing against the not too sturdy defenses of badly-thought out answers.  Any religion which proclaims that it alone has the essential truth is sadly misled.  Sometimes it seems that some versions, even widely promulgated versions, of the World Religions proclaim themselves the sole custodians of Truth (in capitals) or of The Truth (also in capitals, but strengthened by the definite article).  Any philosopher (or even theologian) worth his/her salt can see that such a situation is untenable and quite simply contradictory.  Most modern theologians have watered down such blatantly foolish contentions to make their concept of their faith much more reasonable as it were and much less contradictory.  (However, it is a watering down, albeit an honest and sincere one on their part).  It is beyond my intention here to say anything much about say that famous book by that wonderfully modern theologian, John A.T. Robinson (Bishop of Wolwich and Lecturer in Theology and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge till his untimely death in 1983) entitled Honest To God (1963) or say those wonderfully modern documents of Vatican II that were never really put into action.  However, I will say this - they were wonderful (if at times ambiguous) attempts to come to grips with the modern age per se and with the sciences and arts and all the varieties of belief and non-belief of this age. Along with the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, Robinson founded that wonderful school of theology (my favourite) called “secular theology”.  Perhaps I may write a note on that in a forth-coming post.

As I have grown older I have lost my interest in religion, but have increased exponentially, if I may be permitted a mathematical metaphor, my interest in spirituality.  Religions that offer no spiritual sustenance to modern folk, to my mind, will cease in their relevance.  Religions which maintain some spiritual sustenance will remain more relevant.  I have ling since become an admirer of the sentiments of AA:  “Religion is for those who fear hell, spirituality for those who have been there!”  This is possibly a cliché now, I suppose, but I think there lies within it a kernel of truth.  I have for many years now become a lover of the psychology of religion or indeed in a psychology that replaces religion.  By this I mean that religion provides both a social and psychological function in society for individuals and groups of individuals.  It fulfills certain needs such as the need for belonging, the need for meaning, the need for direction in life etc.  However, if these psychological and social needs are fulfilled elsewhere, then I think religion becomes superfluous to the individual.  That, I feel, is my own case.  I feel that I have outgrown my need for religion in my personal life.  However, I will never downgrade it or adversely criticize it unless it is pointedly and patently wrong and unjust say in matters of sexual ethics like say the homophobic attitude of many religions to homosexuality etc.

Religion can and does provide a good social function namely in pointing to strong moral codes of behaviour.  The Catholic Church and other Churches no doubt are good at what the Irish journalist, John Waters, calls “hatching, matching and dispatching”, that is, good at baptisms, christenings, marriages and funerals – these are all beautiful ceremonies – high points or rites of passage in human life.  

However, I must now draw this rather long rambling post to an end.  One other point I must underscore here is the rather forbidding and negative and at times outrageous attitude to the mystics – those exemplary spiritual beings who sought to go their own way, to plough their own lonely furrow to God without the help of the institutional church or churches!  What a dreadful sin – to go one’s own way, to plough one’s own furrow!  Why?  Quite simply they were setting themselves up as, to quote some rather officious mandarin in the Roman Curia of The Catholic Church, as having “privileged access to the truth!”  

No one and no institution, I contend, have any privileged access to “The Truth” or “Truths” in capitals, with or without the definite article.  Those who proclaim these shibboleths are engaging in nothing short of power playing and in seeking to enslave others to their versions of “The Truth”  It is, to my mind, and to the minds of the great thinkers and spiritual guides of the ages and of modern times in the most all-embracing understanding of those terms, becoming more obvious to the committed thinker and committed pilgrim of self-knowledge that the individual’s “truth” is the only truth that matters to him or to her and that we each “see the world not as it is in itself, but rather as we are in ourselves,” and that truth is somehow found at the intersections of ourselves with others, in dialogue and in loving relationships which seek to build up the human community.  In so living and loving we do indeed create the truth or truths with or without the definite article or capitals.  Such truths are always enriching in all senses – moral, ethical, aesthetic, epistemological, ontic and ontological.


The picture above is one I took in Winter 2005 in Malahide castle.

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