It’s still here. We just got lost in lies.
Everybody takes a shot at defining Truth (capital T) at one time or another: Philosophers, poets, politicians, pundits, priests, and other people whose names begin with “p”. Also artists, scientists, and bloggers, your auntie who knows why you’re not married, and that guy on the bus with whom you accidentally made eye contact.
The quest to define Truth is one of the top three mental wormholes that smart people willingly fall into, the other two being defining God and explaining love. Or doing quantum physics, which some people think will replace all three.
When you meet someone who says they know the Truth, keep your hand on your wallet. Or look pointedly at your cell phone and say you really need to take this call. Never mind that the phone didn’t ring. No one questions the summons of a cell phone nowadays.
Of course, this caveat does not apply to the Rev Dr Sparky. I have no idea what Truth is. You are quite safe in reading what I have written here.
Everything I have ever told you is a lie.
A War on Truth? No. Just common sense held hostage.
Lately, pundits and ideologues have announced that we hapless people are under siege in an unprecedented “War on Truth” being waged by everyone who disagrees with us.
Those disagreeables have weaponized the media to send us cowering into foxholes (or, sorry, MSNBC-holes). They broadcast a nonstop carnival of hucksters trying to sell a brand while comically ignoring important things like climate change, wealth inequality, or basic facts. Also events that just happened and were recorded on video.
This is a War on Truth? No, it is a war on reason; an ongoing onslaught against the remnants of our intelligence.
But why do we blame our current toxic ideological divide on the politicians, the moneyed interests, and the media and their “alternative facts”? When did “facts” ever have anything to do with beliefs?
Think about someone you know who firmly believes something that you firmly know is wrong. For that person, that belief is The Truth. Full stop. Now recall when you tried to change their belief by presenting them with facts.
How’d that work out? You may not even be speaking to them by now. That’s because, even though we all know plenty of facts, at some point our experiences, traumas, emotional freight, losses, or illusions have imposed an organic layer of meaning upon those facts. Adding new facts won’t disturb that layer of meaning at all.
Moreover, our most cherished beliefs are primarily supported by that irrational, non-conscious, non-factual layer, and it is those beliefs that comprise our Truth. We often call these beliefs our “personality.” Only the most brutal self-honesty will reveal these beliefs to ourselves, although others can usually spot them a mile away. These people are called “friends.”
I say it again: Truth does not depend upon facts, and facts are not Truth. We can spend all our time correcting the lies that surround us — and certainly there are many that must be corrected — but that’s like standing in a swamp swatting mosquitoes when we really should be getting to higher ground.
So let’s climb.
Facts are a new invention, after all.
The ancients learned some impressive things. For example, with no light pollution and no television to binge on, they spent countless hours precisely charting the heavens, so that they could navigate accurately and explain why I, a Scorpio, am so moody and prefer the color black.
But most of the ancients’ everyday knowledge was wrong and has been replaced by what science has defined, for all practical purposes, as facts.
Still, if you’re looking for Truth, those ancients have yet to be surpassed. In fact, most contemporary wisdom peddlers simply update and repackage the most accessible aspects of Greek Stoicism, Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, Hindu polytheism, Native American spirituality, and ancient Cynicism (who might have resurfaced as The Church of the Apathetic Agnostic — Motto: “We Don’t Know if There’s a God and We Don’t Care”).
In addition, billions of seekers worldwide — believers and non-believers alike — turn to the Judeo-Christian Bible for its wealth of wisdom: spiritual guidance for the believer; and, for the non-believer, an understanding of the cultural foundation of much of Western thought and the cussedness of humanity.
But the transcendent Truths encoded in those texts were all discerned through inspiration or intuition long before anyone knew the earth is round and revolves around the sun.
Sometimes, though, the poetry was uncannily prescient. You don’t have to know what happened milliseconds after the Big Bang to appreciate this image from Genesis 1:
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep”
Most importantly, every single one of those texts told a Truth about people. Most people crave an encounter greater than our earthbound reality, and we describe these experiences in a dizzying variety of ways. (Except, perhaps, for the Apathetic Agnostics. I don’t know what they’re after — maybe the simple, rare, transcendent joy of being left the hell alone just to be themselves.)
“You can’t handle the truth”
Poets and prophets know that we can’t prepare for the Truth by learning a million facts, even if the facts themselves are true (little “t”). No matter how much information we have, or how many degrees we obtain, the Truth is simply too much to experience all at once.
Only those who are savvy enough to approach with creativity and humility have a chance to get through the walls we all build around our cherished ideals. Here’s Emily Dickinson on that point:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Poetry is one circuitous way of truth-telling; other ways are stories and myths and parables and fables and works of art. They have nothing to do with facts but speak instead to that richer layer of our selves: the messy foundation of beliefs and trauma and feelings and experiences.
And we are always delighted when we “interpret” these tales and “discover” a new Truth in them. How clever we then feel, when a story or a thing of beauty changes our perspective and open our minds!
It’s adorable. It’s like being surprised to “discover” inside the Amazon box the very item we ordered two days ago — every single time. And we never realize that the Amazon box is designed for exactly this purpose: to bring to us the item we were hoping we’d get in the first place.
Maybe I’m being unfair because sometimes we don’t get what we wanted, or it’s broken, or the box is empty. But still.
Dickinson’s instructions continue:
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind…
Jesus explains lightning to us kids.
Jesus was probably the best teacher ever, using parables and riddles and stories that captivated and mystified and aggravated people in equal proportions.
To this day, scholars and study groups and children in Sunday School spend hours energetically interpreting and re-interpreting what they believe Jesus taught.
It doesn’t always go smoothly. Everyone loves the story of the Prodigal Son when it’s all about pious forgiveness — but then some kid upsets the whole class when he pipes up, “Wait, teacher, that don’t seem fair! That one dude was way better than the other dude!”.
But arguments about “what Jesus meant” are, in a way, arguments about facts that can never be settled. No one living can verify those details about events that happened in human time. No one alive heard his tone of voice or saw his face. There is no video, that we know of. And our Truths are not based on facts, remember?
But still, the arguments never stop. Everyone has an opinion about things that matter not at all except that they keep our institutions funded and alive.
As Steven Wright says:
Why is it a penny for your thoughts, but you have to put your two cents in? Somebody’s making a penny.
Much more important than these “facts” is the Christian meta-narrative that leads to Truth in the just the way Dickinson’s poem prescribes. The gospel story transcends what we think we know because it circles around assumptions, teaches in tangents, interrogates central biases, softens the centers of hardened hearts, and prepares searching souls for miracles far too great to explain with facts.
Those who follow that path will faithfully arrive at Easter dazzled but intact:
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Here, Dickinson sees blindness not as a moral failing (like the regrettable trope in “Amazing Grace”) but as damage done to tender eyes. For me, Truth feels more like a stab in the chest, but it doesn’t hurt. It just wakes me up completely for a time.
But if it’s too much all at once, I break a little. For instance, I’ve got a vulnerable spot right between the happy image of my soul living on somehow, through faith or mystery or grace — and the impossible image of how full the Universe must be with all souls that have ever lived anywhere, at any time, through infinity. No wonder I hear the Universe singing.
Dizzied and exhausted at such a time, I usually withdraw with the vapors and take to my bed until equilibrium returns.
Truth in parable; Truth in paradox
Christians who are in church on Good Friday (April 19 this year) are likely to hear a reading that includes John 18:37–38. This passage contains the enigmatic dialogue in which Pontius Pilate questions Jesus about his mission. Jesus wearily tries to explain it in simple words:
I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
For once, he’s not “telling it slant.” No parable; no paradox. And yet, Pilate still complicates things with his next question:
“What is truth?”
It appears Pilate has asked a question everyone fears the answer to, for Jesus gets hustled out of the room right after that.
Scholars disagree about what it all means, and I don’t know the answer, either. But I’ll bet, if they had let him, Jesus would have told another story, or a parable, or riddle. Because that’s how you really get past the pride and the selfishness of every human being, ever.
“Whom you would change, you must first love.”
So that’s why we “tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.” Those who are struggling to grow their Truth will not appreciate it if we dump a truckload of dessicated factoids on their hearts and call it Truth.
Rather, our conversations, our relationships, our lives, and humanity’s gradual evolution toward wisdom can be transformed if we follow the Emily Dickinson approach, which is also, coincidentally enough, the Jesus approach.
When we seek to tell the Truth…
- Let’s tell stories that surprise others with a gentle flanking maneuver they didn’t expect.
- Let’s dance at weddings and sing songs that draw laughter and maybe tears they can’t explain. And let’s not try to explain those songs, either, but simply let the music linger in the air and then go and get more wine.
- Let’s pose riddles that make people put down the stones they are about to throw.
- Let’s rack our brains for similes and metaphors and analogies and illustrations to share what we mean. Let’s even squat down and draw pictures in the dirt with a stick if that’s what it takes to show something true and good.
- Let’s speak in poetry that sidles up to lonely folks like a shy schoolchild, making its way into their hearts before they know it.
- Let’s tell them jokes. They laugh before they even think about it. Then they blush, a little. Then they get a little angry. Then they get quiet. Then they think about something inexplicable that happened, or a person they knew that moved them somehow, or a pain that was suddenly eased, and then…