"T" – For Truth

Tonight’s insomnia is brought to you by the letter “T”. Not “t” for “trouble” – though I’m sure I could find plenty of that. Tonight, “T” is for truth.

In my journey through deconstruction and rebuilding my faith, I’m constantly looking for checks and balances that will keep me grounded in my pursuit. One direction I frequently look is to my understanding of concepts such as “reality”, “knowledge”, “wisdom” and “truth.” A meme popped up on a facebook group tonight with a quote from philosopher and Christian teacher, Dr. Dallas Willard. The quote simply says, “Reality is what you run into when you are wrong”.

willard quote

My first reaction was to think that the opposite must be true – people in the “right” then are just wandering aimlessly in some fantasy. But I know of Dr. Willard. I remember reading his book, The Divine Conspiracy (note that I remember reading the book – not particularly anything that I read. It was a long time ago). I remember enough to give him the benefit of the doubt that there is more to the quote than a social media meme would really capture. I found the quote in its original context and needless to say I was not disappointed.

What I found was a wonderful lecture on the nature of “truth” given right here in Dallas in 1999. Not only did I find the context of the meme, but several other observations of truth that were quite noteworthy. I don’t know where Dr. Williard would have stood in the modern discussion of GSRM inclusion in the church, but regardless his understanding of the importance of truth is incredibly relevant to those of us on this journey of spiritual discovery. Below are a few quotes I pulled and my thoughts on them. (His quotes on in blocks and any emphasis in them I have added.)

Truth is so important that we must not fail to understand that it is unyielding in the face of beliefs. A mass movement will not change truths…

This is a challenging concept in our contemporary religious thought. After all, what we believe about God and about scripture is what we stand on. We have fought so hard for so long to maintain a freedom in this country to believe as we see fit. And rightfully so. But we can’t confuse our belief for truth. As Dr. Willard goes on to point out, there is no amount of belief that will alter and undeniable truth. If my gas tank is empty, believing there is gas in the tank will not allow me to drive the car to the gas station. Truth is independent of belief.

Sometimes I will half jokingly say to [my students] as they hand me their tests after an exam, “Did you believe what you wrote?” And they all smile. Because they know that the important thing is not to believe what you write but to write the “right answers.” … When we lose truth, there’s nothing left but conformity…What my students are actually giving to me is the power to enforce what the right answer is, whether that answer is true or not. But of course the “right” answer might be false, might it not? You’ve probably had some experience with right answers that turned out to be false. And we can think of reality as what you run into when you are wrong. And if you do, you’ll recognize that most of us have some first hand acquaintance with reality and truth, which are so vital and so important for human life…

I grabbed this longer quote to give context to the meme that started his whole thought trail. The assumption that “truth” and “right” are always congruent is a major pitfall of most religion. “Right”, as in the answer on a test, implies conformity to an existing idea or thought. Truth has no need of conformity. So the idea that wrongness leads to reality has nothing to do with my conformity to a specific ideology, but rather with the concept that reality – the perception of the world when filtered through truth – will become clear as we seek truth – sometimes especially when we are “wrong”.

Truth is a part of what God has put in creation to help us deal with reality.

As just stated, truth is a filter though which we comprehend reality. The idea of reality is much more than one insomnic binge is going tackle (for that matter, so is truth – but that doesn’t seem to be stopping me). But the connection of reality and truth seems to be built into the fabric of creation. Remember the dress that was an internet buzz about a year ago. Two people could look at the same picture of a dress and either see white and gold or blue and black. Which color scheme was “right”? According to the perception of color in an individual’s eye, either could be right! But the truth, a specific spectrum of light reflecting off the picture, was built into the physics of how light works. The reality was revealed in the truth told by the breakdown of the light, not in our interpretation of the light as it bounces off our retinas and into our brains.

We have a long tradition of political and religious tolerance in our country… But that idea of tolerance was based upon the idea that tolerance is good. It was based upon the idea that there is moral truth, that there is a right and wrong way to treat other people; and in the absence of that, tolerance itself is without foundation. The only basis of tolerance is truth. Tolerance has suffered a great deal recently in our religious and political and educational areas. And tolerance, because truth has been pulled away from it, has slipped over into the idea that everything is equally right. No longer is tolerance a matter of saying, “I disagree with you and I believe you’re wrong, but I accept you and I extend to you the right to be wrong.”

This is a powerful statement – and bear in mind that we have separated the concepts of “truth” and “right”. The challenge of this expression of tolerance is that church people use the words “wrong” and “sin” interchangeably. When most Christians tell me that I am “wrong” about what I believe about gender and sexuality, it is not with a willingness to maintain fellowship, but it comes that with implied belief (and sometimes outright stated thought) that my “wrongness” is equivalent to un-repented sin. And while I may be “welcome” or “accepted” in their presence, it is with the understanding that I will be limited in my capacity and will be under constant encouragement to change. Based only on this one paragraph giving his thoughts on tolerance, I don’t see what I have experienced in our conservative church culture to be lining up with what Dr. Williard describes as tolerance, not do I see it having the same spiritual, social, emotional or academic value that the tolerance Dr. Willard is proposing would accomplish.

It is so important to realize that what we accept as the truth is going to determine our action and that the finding of the truth is not just sort of a “nice” thing. It is essential to our lives.

This is the basis for the epidemic of deconstruction in Christian circles. I, and those who have been down similar paths, came to a point where the “truth” I was being asked to accept was demanding action that I could no longer tolerate (see previous point). Finding and understanding truth that was consistent with both revelation in scripture and actual life experience became essential. Just as Galileo had to reconcile what he saw in his telescope with what he read in scripture, so have I had to understand what was happening in my mind and body both in terms of being subject to the universal consequence of separation from God and in being completely made in God’s image. And like Galileo, that require stepping away from the religious academy and seeking God in Spirit and …wait for it…truth.

Reason and truth cannot support themselves. They will fall victim to the drive of the human heart to do what is wrong and the truth will then be twisted. And reasoning will be turned into rationalization unless there is a moral foundation to guide life and support the dedication to truth.

I had a discussion recently with someone who did not support my affirmation of the GSRM in the context of our faith. What he presented as arguments were the beliefs of generations of straight, white, males that shaped and molded the doctrine of the church for the past 1500 years or so. What he never presented where his own understandings of the various scriptures that addressed this issues a hand. I have nothing against straight white men, but in light of the above quote from Dr. Willard, I have to allow for the idea that reason and truth, as they have been handed down in the context of religion, have at various points along the way been twisted to serve the ideals of a given culture. It’s why Galileo faced the opposition he did. It’s why the church’s stance on slavery up until the mid 19th century would today be considered appalling. It’s why we have divisions on music, clothing, head coverings, liturgy, and the roles that women may take as teachers and leaders among us.

While I have no intention of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, my desire to act on truth in a manor consistent with my experience of reality demands that I take this journey of reframing my belief.

All truth is God’s truth. All scripture is true. Not all truth is in scripture.

The sun is nearly rising (truth – my spot on the earth is reaching a point in its rotation that the sun is becoming visible). And with that, I press on.

You can find the entire transcribed lecture here.

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