Truth and Truthfulness
Order of Service Pottstown UUF
December 28, 2003
Welcome and Announcements
Chalice Lighting: #460
“The line in life, nature, science, philosophy, religion constantly returns into itself. The opposite poles become one when the circle is completed. All truth revolves about one center. All is a manifestation of one law.” Sarah Alden Ripley
Come, let us worship together: let us complete the year by affirming those things we know to be true and valuable; by casting out those things which are false and without virtue.
<Children may go to their classes>
Joys and Concerns
Reading: Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Divinity School Address
Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge, Sunday Evening, July 15, 1838
“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus, in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity, thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. A man in the view of absolute goodness, adores, with total humility. Every step so downward, is a step upward. The man who renounces himself, comes to himself."
See how this rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts. Its operation in life, though slow to the senses, is, at last, as sure as in the soul. By it, a man is made the Providence to himself, dispensing good to his goodness, and evil to his sin. Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie, — for example, the taint of vanity, the least attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance, — will instantly vitiate the effect. But speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness. See again the perfection of the Law as it applies itself to the affections, and becomes the law of society. As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into heaven, into hell.
Hymn: #58: Ring Out Wild Bells
Responsive Reading: #660: To Live Deliberately
(See Singing The Living Tradition for responsive text; original below)
Henry David Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods
Where I lived and What I lived for (1854)
 I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."
Silent Meditation – New Year’s Resolutions
Reading: Bernard Williams: Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton Univer.) Press, 2002
“Two currents of ideas are very prominent in modern thought and culture. On the one hand, there is an intense commitment to truthfulness – or at any rate, a pervasive suspiciousness, a readiness against being fooled, an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lie behind them.
…Together with this demand for truthfulness,…there is an equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing, whether it can be more than relative or subjective,…whether we should bother about it, in carrying on our activities or in giving an account of them.”
Sermon: Truth and Truthfulness – Jonathan Black
Truth in lending – don’t you just hate…?
Truth in preaching – most of what I will say today is true; your responsibility, as always, is to sort the truth from the non-truth, the sense from the nonsense.
By happy chance, your minister Greta Brown and I, unbeknownst to each other, choose to bookend this month with sermons informed by our 4th UUA covenantal principle:
“We covenant to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
A sermon in each: Greta, as I understand it, centered her thoughts and comments about the process, the search for truth, speaking about our joint endeavor to seek out and understand the truth as we move through life. Today, I will focus on truth itself: on its nature and on our ability to know the truth, which we call knowledge, the foundation upon which meaning and, eventually, wisdom must surely rest.
Bernard Williams, in our second reading, from his book entitled Truth and Truthfulness, points out two problems about truth which we seem currently to be afflicted with: We desire to be told the truth, to know the truth, to speak the truth but…at the same time…we have grave doubts about the solidity, the consistency, the very existence of truth as objective reality not merely subjective impression.
The questions are:
Will you tell me the truth?
How do I know it to be true?
Why do you tell the truth?
Before addressing how we know things to be truths, here are some ideas about truth, theories of the concept that lies behind the word:
Deflationary: “I have an apple!” means that I have an apple and the statement is true here, at this moment, if and only if this IS an apple. Thus, in the deflationary theory, a statement or, as philosophers would say, an assertion, has no nature or content beyond the substance of the assertion itself and may or may not be true at any particular moment.
This form of truth, which we use every day, is of limited usefulness. Politicians deliberately use such forms: saying what they wish us to understand to be universally true but which is true only in a limited, often subjective, usually fleeting sense. Williams recounts the famous story of St. Athanasius, who, when asked by pursuing persecutors who did not recognize him “Where is the traitor Athanasius?” replied “Not far away!” so as to avoid lying, or at least appearing to lie. We need look no further than the evening parade of talking heads, endlessly spinning the events of the day into their own subjective truths for more examples. We can think back to a president arguing about the meaning of the word “is.” This is without question a form of truth, despite its prevalence, to be disparaged, to be cast out.
Coherence: My assertion that “This is an apple!” is true because your senses tell you that it coheres with your ideas about apples: that they have a certain size, that they are, among other colors, red, that they have this shape and, often, a stem, etc. That is to say, since we hold in common ideas about apples, which we believe or accept are true, we are led individually to conclude, and can agree, that this is an apple.
This is our most common understanding of truth: we are only in contact with the world through our fallible senses and must of necessity depend upon them. Thus, when we see something that looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks, we conclude that it is a duck.
We understand the limits of our senses and enjoy being deceived in live performance or by images on the TV or movie screen: these give us such a frison of pleasure: we know that what we see cannot be so, cannot be true, but our unconscious acceptance of the principle of coherence produces a delightful apparent contradiction. This same disconnect between appearance and our ideas about what we see and experience brings us enjoyment when we see the biggest or the smallest examples of common objects; when we suspend disbelief at a magic show or in a casino and when we, at least some of us (!), allow ourselves to be scared nearly to death on theme park roller coasters.
Correspondence: “This is an apple!” simply because IT IS!: that is, this is what apples are and we recognize it as one of the group of things we call apples. And, thus agreeing that it is an apple, we can learn more about apples by studying this example.
The correspondence theory asserts that truths do exist objectively in the world.
This is what Jefferson alluded to when he wrote that the Declaration of Independence did not assert self-evident truths but simply discovered them.
Thomas Paine in his great essay on rational religion, the Age of Reason (1794), wrote eloquently thus about the natural world, as part of the interdependent web of existence:
“The Creation speaketh a universal language, independently of human speech or human language, multiplied and various as they may be. It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other.”
Thus truth, in Paine’s view, is its own authority and derives simply from our observation of the world and discovery of truths within it. Truth is!
For this reason the 19th cen. Transcendentalists delighted in nature, in being within, and instructed by, the natural world. This led Thoreau into the relative seclusion of a cabin on Walden Pond, where he wished to live deliberately, to drive life, by which he meant the web of existence itself, into a corner and find out if it was, in itself, mean or sublime. Thoreau and his contemporaries and we today have an innate sense that, through the principle of correspondence, the creation is a source of irrefutable, uncounterfeitable truths. This sense informs and drives many if not all branches of scientific investigation
Early Unitarians, such as Theodore Parker, recognized and reinforced this view of truth in rejecting human authority, authority of position and power, when it came to truth:
Here are the words of Parker, writing about the role of human authority in the determination of religious truth, from his powerful 1841 sermon, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity:
“Almost every sect, that has ever been, makes Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, and not the immutable truth of the doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent him into the world. Yet it seems difficult to conceive any reason why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science on that of him who makes them known first or most clearly. It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority.”
How can we know what is true?
Over the eons, theologians and philosophers, from Augustine and Plato forwards, have wrestled with this question and have evolved some principles, some practical approaches:
There is …
Deductive reasoning: from things which we universally accept, which we call axioms or laws of nature, we can deduce truth: If I say that I will give you an apple and then give you another one, you truly know, that if I were to do so, you would have two apples!
There is …
Inductive reasoning: from what we have experienced and recognize as recurring events in our surroundings, we can be lead to the truth: I cannot know definitely that the sun will rise tomorrow but all of my experience assures me that it is far more likely to than not to. Therefore, for all useful purposes, I can say that the sun will rise tomorrow and know that I am speaking the truth.
And then there is the most difficult, especially for the rational humanists, to accept…
Intuition: beyond those things that we can deduce or infer, lie realms of truth, which abide within: those things, which we simply KNOW to be true. For within ourselves, unmasked by our fallible senses, lies our own reality, our own inner life. Within that life, that consciousness, we plumb the great questions, which defy deductive or inductive inquiry: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Whither do I go? Whom do I love? How should I live? And we can surely know answers to these questions, as subjective truths, without reference to external experience or authority.
Giordano Bruno, while having the scientific testimony of Galileo, Kepler and others that the earth revolved about the sun rather than vice versa, surely possessed this inner truth, for, as he was being pressed to death for heresy, his last words were, “Se movere” – it moves.
There is a further important consideration about these three approaches to truth. The nature of faith claims, as made by various religious adherents and their churches, is such that there can be neither deductive nor inductive proof of them. They can only become true for us, as individuals, through intuition, by an opening to the light, by a personal sense of knowing that they are true. It is this self-knowledge which is central to the Christian experience of being “born again.”
Such spiritual, intuitive knowledge, because it is at its root subjective, cannot be fixed or settled. Thus, I agree with Greta Brown: in this sense, in pursuing an understanding of our relationship to the cosmos, the journey towards truth goes ever onward; it is never ending nor is the destination knowable.
George Will, the conservative commentator, once wrote that over the door to every church, synagogue and mosque in America should be written these words: “Important if True.”
I would paraphrase his somewhat sarcastic remark by saying that for each of us, religious and spiritual conclusions are important WHEN true, when we know them intuitively to be true for ourselves.
Thus, beyond seeking out those who possess the authority of knowledge rather than that of position, relationship, rank or power, we have a continuing duty of discernment of truth for ourselves from observation, from experimentation and from intuition.
Knowing the truth, why should we speak the truth?
Well, as a colleague of mine used to say, it is the easiest version to remember!
But more seriously, Bernard Williams recounts what he calls the State of Nature Story: Briefly, as community developed, as individuals began to cooperate and collaborate, as our species began to gain the benefits of living together and specializing, even in such simple tasks as hunting game and gathering plants, there came to be a need to communicate what one knew to another. And, from the very beginning, there was a practical value in truth: for falsehoods were literally misleading, deceiving, time consuming. Thus, Williams argues that truth telling was the natural or primitive state of communication and falsehood, deceit, arose only later as a tool for exerting power over others. Truthfulness, being more fundamental than deceit, is thus closer to true human nature and should represent the default basis for social interaction.
While it may be historically reasonable in Williams’ view and even virtuous, from a theological view, to speak the truth, there is a deeper reason to do so. Emerson, in writing about this reason, pointed out our possession of moral intuition or, as some would say, conscience. He noted the instant self-gratification which truthfulness brings: “…(S)peak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.”
I do not know if conscience, is inherent or acquired, whether we should credit nature or nurture for it, but I believe that we all possess it to some degree. I certainly experience the cleansing uplift when I speak the truth, even if it should have been obvious to others, and the sense of being soiled, of loosing something valuable, when I am not fully truthful.
Not being fully truthful, why that means lying, either by omission, by omitting part of the truth or by actually uttering falsehoods!
Sissela Bok, in her splendid book entitled Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, examines many of the situations in which we may feel justified in being untruthful: in crises, when confronted by liars or enemies, when attempting to prevent hurt feelings or to protect the vulnerable, the young, the old, the infirm; in matters of state and during times of war.
She argues that in a democracy, we should only allow ourselves to be lied to about such matters as we agree, in advance, to be lied to about. But this is an impossible situation: If we know that we are to be lied to about matters of fidelity or of war and peace, why then the best lie to tell is the truth, since none would believe it!
Reluctantly, she concludes that: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.” That is to say, she can find no simple rule or rules to justify deceit in the place of truthfulness.
Does a foundational respect for veracity, for seeking the truth and speaking it, still work to the benefit of individuals and societies, as Bernard Williams suggests it originally did in our more primitive state?
We have only to look to the experience of our nearest religious confreres, the Society of Friends or as we more commonly refer to them, the Quakers, those who quake in the presence of God’s righteous judgment, for an answer.
We are all familiar with the Quaker peace testimony, but Barbour and Frost in their splendid historical and biographical work on the Quakers point out that this is just one of four testimonies: the other three are honesty, equality and simplicity, and all have there foundation on an unflinching adherence to truth and truthfulness.
We can see in the historical record that cleaving to these testimonies, these principled truths, benefited the Quakers greatly, both individually and as a social group. Beyond leading to moral lives of service and fulfillment, they led also to great fortunes, achieved through simple, plain, straightforward dealing. From the Darbys of Coalbrookdale, the first iron making dynasty of industrializing England, through the age of manufacturing to great modern banks, such as Barclays and Lloyds which still bear the names of their Quaker founders, truth has proven to be a valuable business tool: binding oral contracts, such as used in the stock market; dependable, graded quality of goods; firm prices, including that Quaker invention, the price tag, and other innovations all contributed to great wealth and realization of possibilities for charity and relief of the less well off. In this age of Enron and WorldCom, we can only wish for the return to Quaker business principles of truth and fair dealing.
We live in what was originally a Quaker Commonwealth: William Penn, the Great Proprietor, and his Quaker contemporaries, left their mark on our everyday lives in many ways. Today, for instance, we can affirm statements rather than swear oaths, because Quakers rejected the implication of non-sworn statements being less truthful that those invoking God’s witness.
But how can you know when others are speaking truthfully?
Here are some practical guidelines:
Sincerity: Much can be gained from the manner in which one speaks;
Simplicity: Truth needs no embroidery, but deceit is an endless layering of fabrications;
Authenticity: Those with specific relevant experience are more likely to know and value the truth;
Completeness: As we affirm in serious matters, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth;
Coherence: Truth usually seems more reasonable, less outlandish, in the context of what we already know, than do falsehoods;
Corroboration: When two or more agree, the result is more likely truthful than deceitful and, finally;
Continuity: Those who we know from experience to be truth tellers, who have earned our trust, are more likely than not to remain so.
A nearly final idea about truth:
“Speak truth to power”: This was a popular maxim of the’60s and now is making a resurgence among the liberal left.
But it is simple nonsense! The powerful know the truth, and, even without lying, merely by making selective use of it, can deceive and control the powerless. Thus, our great commandment should be to speak truth to all, especially the powerless.
Truth is a simple habit! But good habits should start and must start at home:
Shakespeare wrote: – Hamlet Act I, Scene iii
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must surely follow, as the night the day: thou canst not then be false to any man.”
To not be false to any man (or woman) means:
To seek and know the truth.
To speak the truth to all, great or small.
To be complete in the truth, to neither omit nor embroider it, to allow no taint or admixture of vanity or deceit.
And these rules apply equally within one’s inner life, in one’s family, here in community and outside in the larger world.
For if we can each but know the truth and speak truthfully, this will, in Emerson’s words, become the law of society.
I hope that you have resolved some, or at least one, new beginning for the opening year. Here, from my friend Shelly Denham Jackson, are some resolutions, for every day, which we can all share, in the form of a hymn.
Hymn: #86: Blessed Spirit of My Life
Closing Words (read together): #167: Nothing But Peace Is Enough
Nothing but peace is enough for me.
Nothing but peace is enough.
Nothing but peace is enough.
Nothing but peace is enough for me.