by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
The power of truth is compelling, inescapable and omnipresent. To the extent that truth is earnestly sought after, is the outcome determined. Without it, walks of life are obstructed, the journey impracticable. When men and women practice the lie, justice can never be done, love cannot thrive.
The search for truth is, of course, primordial in science. Science has come to such prominence in the twentieth century, not only because it has directly transformed our lives in so many ways, but also because the ratio of science to truth is high. But the facts of science are by nature purely descriptive. Human beings require prescriptive values. Science may tell us how smoking tobacco injures the body, but it cannot tell us to stop smoking. Life meanings, ultimate questions are ultra vires (out of bounds) for science. They belong primarily to the domain of religion and philosophy.
The search for truth in religion and spiritual life must be just as compelling as it is in science, its research carried out in the laboratory of human experience. Subjectivities notwithstanding, the spiritual seeker’s degree of certitude should aim to be as high as the scientist’s. Ultimately, — and the new physics juxtaposed to the ancient cosmologies are clearly pointing in this direction — the truths of science and religion are complimentary, rather than antagonistic.
In a spiritual perspective, truth-talk raises at least two fundamental questions: (1) What is it? (2) How do we find it? First, I find spiritual truth primarily in the holy books of the world’s great religions. My pragmatic definition for spiritual truth is “what the teachings of the higher prophets of both East and West reveal.” Second, the search must be arduous to be fulfilling but carried out without prejudice. We must remain open and constantly be willing to question with new eyes and new ears, to make fresh discoveries. For truth is an never-ending, ongoing transformative Reality, full of surprises, disappointments and delights. In religious investigation especially, unexamined beliefs of inheritance do not serve. If I am a Hindu simply because my parents were Hindus, then I am no-good Hindu. I must be a Hindu by conviction and that conviction must involve a process of search and discovery.
And what about contradictions and relativities for they abound in religion? Contradictions are often only apparent but where they do really exist, we must seek to eliminate them by looking at context, at time and place, at social circumstance, theological presupposition, by applying allegory, myth and story. Moreover, we have to always distinguish between then niceties of diverse and obscure man made philosophies and theologies on the one hand, and the eternal, living truths spoken by the Divine Word on the other. It is paradoxical that truth by definition is absolute, timeless and unchanging, but also relative to our ability to understand it. Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit sketch also demonstrates that truth is perspectival, being duck or rabbit depending on point of view.
One of the hardest but inescapable tests of truth is truth about oneself. Socrates saying “Gnothi sauton” (“Know thyself.”) was so highly cherished by the ancient Greeks that they wrote it over the portico of Apollo’s temple at Delphi. Simone Weil said in her Lectures on Philosophy that this saying was “the ultimate end of all thought.” In spiritual perspective, if we come to really know ourselves, then, in some sense, we come to know God. But it is very hard for subjectivity to know itself. Mysteries abound. An Islamic tradition, speaking in the voice of God, states: “Man is My mystery, and I am his mystery.” Humans need mirror figures, souls who stand outside and reflect the inner beauty and self-worth that both see. Our occasional warts too often become the focus.
I suppose ultimately that the truth of knowing self means endeavouring to envision self as an embodied soul, as a divine image (Gen. 1:26-27) that reflects the names and attributes of God. Truth about self also means facing self as self is and taking a fearless inventory of both one’s strengths and foibles and reliving those experiences that makes us feel worthwhile, and even noble. Perhaps the hardest thing in facing self is divesting the imagination of those romantic dreams, those deceptive “idle fancies” and “vain imaginings” that we take for truth. It is good that we crave the flight of poetry and happy endings but we also have to be grounded in Reality.
The truth is much greater than a mere series of rarefied intellectual propositions existing in a coherent relationship. Truth is the ground of life, an immense metaphysical force field that has the potential for transforming lives and riding society of the burden of its sorry past. Finally, truth-speaking means sharing with others the truths we have found, being witnesses and disciples, whatever our background.