Posts Tagged ‘truth’

Where Convictions and Friendship Collide

You’re talking with an old friend over coffee. At one point in the conversation, she uses a word that sets off every alarm bell in your head. Clearly she believes something you don’t believe at all. What do you do?

Bill and I have been discussing God for decades. He is a Calvinist, a deep and brilliant thinker, and takes the Bible literally (more or less). We see most things very differently from each other. I love him like a brother, but even more like a role model, because I have watched God’s grace flood his life for many years.

The other day we got to talking about the existence of truth, and as part of that conversation he brought up the idea of certainty. Is it possible to be certain about things in this life—certain about God, about what you read in sacred texts, about anything?

Now I do not like certainty. Not one little bit. Back in my teens and early twenties, I was certain about my beliefs; it wreaked havoc on my emotional life and separated me from people I love. I’ve seen this happen to others as well. From my perspective, less certainty—and more willingness to say, “I don’t know”—would make the world a better place.

So when Bill brought up the word, I had lots of good reasons to laser in on it and proclaim the dangers of certainty.

I didn’t do it.

Here’s why. Bill and I are getting on in years. Our worldviews are well established, and they’ve borne much fruit in our lives. If I start spouting about certainty, I’m doing so from my worldview. That likely won’t be any use to him.

On the other hand, I had no idea what he meant by certainty. So I asked him.

His answer surprised me. He spoke of that inner peace when life seems so good and everything just feels right. Paradoxically, what he meant by certainty was subjective.

Yes, here too I could have gone off on him: certainty can’t be subjective! It’s a logical contradiction! Instead, I took in his meaning and turned it over in my mind, grateful for having learned a little more about the issue at hand, and a little more about what makes Bill tick.

You might say I gave up on truth, or at least intellectual rigor, for relationship. You may be right. That’s what fascinates me. At this point in our friendship, this stage of our lives, this cycle of the universe, it seemed more fruitful to deepen a friendship (and to address the whole conversation) than to rant about a truth or, rather, a truth as I saw it.

What do you think of this choice? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not? Are there other situations where you’d have chosen the other way? (There are for me.) Feel free to share here or on Facebook.

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

Why I’m Not Inclined to Dialogue Right Now

Last week in this space, we discussed “a time for dialogue and a time to shut up.” In line with my contemplative nature, I’ve opted for the latter recently, sitting in silent prayer with the wreckage of the U.S. presidential election and seeing what bubbles to the surface.

What has bubbled to the surface is impatience.

I’ve had no use for rehashing the results or joining in the collective fury of many people on the left. I have turned my attention away from analysis, predictions, commentary, and punditry of all types. Weirdest of all, my colleagues are mobilizing for dialogue efforts, and I just can’t join them.

What I do want—what in fact I’m craving—are facts.

I have little interest in what Mr. Trump says at this point, but I want to know what he does. Right now, it’s all about who he appoints to his administration: their qualifications, their temperament. On January 21, it’ll be about the policies he pushes, the executive orders he signs, the treaties he abrogates (or doesn’t). Don’t tell me what it means; don’t tell me what you think about it; just give me the facts.

The other day, I realized that my hunger for “just the facts” is part of something bigger. It’s a craving for truth—or at the very least, an unblinking pursuit of truth.

I’m craving truth because I’ve barely heard any for more than a year now. Mr. Trump has built a history of chronic, continual lying. Secretary Clinton is hardly simon-pure herself. Social media is littered with memes and news stories with next to no truth value. Each side is armed with its own “facts,” to which it clings regardless of evidence to the contrary.

But here’s the thing: dialogue’s value is greatly diminished if we don’t care about truth.

Yes, we can still dialogue to understand one another, to glimpse another’s pain and struggles up close, to foster empathy. That’s still terribly important. But if the point is to work together on society’s problems—what professionals call deliberation—forget it. You can’t agree on what to do if you don’t agree on what’s happening.

Some people might raise objections at this point. No one can uncover absolute truth (if it even exists). My truth is different from your truth. What’s more important is common understanding. Etc. There’s merit in these points, to be sure.

But to dismiss the pursuit of truth entirely is wrongheaded. Consider: Gravity exists. Slavery is wrong. Smoking causes cancer. There was a point at which all of these points were not regarded as truth. Now they are. Over the eons, we have learned things about the cosmos, and we assert those things as true, because we have inquired into the truth of the matter.

This pursuit of truth energizes dialogue. Here’s what I wrote in my book:

The whole point of raising [the commitment to truth in a book on dialogue] is its power to bring us together. When we are passionate about truth—not truth as we see it, but truth in itself—we eagerly seek out anyone whose perspective might shed light on that truth. That draws us into an exploration of diverse ideas with other people. In other words, truth seeking as a habit of the heart draws us straight into dialogue.

So for now, for me, facts first. Pursuit of truth first. There’ll be plenty of time for the essential work of dialogue—later.

Dialogue, Damned Dialogue, and Statistics

Dialogue, especially on social and political issues, benefits greatly from a clear (and agreed-upon) grasp of the facts. But ferreting out honest-to-goodness facts can be wickedly tricky. Allow me, in the spirit of making a point, to look at what may be an absurd example.

Our subject is an innocent-looking sentence in “School aid reductions won’t harm students,” a recent op-ed from New York’s lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy. Discussing a state school system that he calls “large, expensive and underperforming,” Duffy writes:

It is the most expensive system in the country and the 34th in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas, according to the Census Bureau.

Usually I read sentences like that without blinking an eye. Why did this one set my truth antennae to tingling?

Let’s unpack the sentence a bit. A strict reading doesn’t make sense, if you think about it. No school system contains adults with high school diplomas—not as students, anyway. Students in high schools are teenagers, generally, and they don’t have high school diplomas because they’re there to earn high school diplomas.

Now that’s clearly not what Duffy means. But what exactly does he mean? Perhaps he’s referring to graduation or dropout rates, in which case his statement makes sense as legitimate evidence. But maybe he meant that New York State itself—not the school system—ranks 34th in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas. Now we’re on shaky ground, because all kinds of factors might influence that statistic. Does New York’s large population of immigrants skew the ranking? Do the data count immigrants’ diplomas, if earned in another country, as “high school diplomas”?  The answers to these questions might help us understand whether the “34” statistic really proves Duffy’s point.

OK, maybe I’m tilting at windmills here. But the point stands. People who debate an issue (as in op-ed pieces) naturally use statistics to bolster their case. There’s nothing wrong with that when it’s done in good faith, as Duffy (I believe) is doing here. Dialogue, however, is not debate. The spirit of dialogue, with its commitment to ferreting out the truth above making a case, demands that we weigh such statistics carefully, consider who is using them, and evaluate their relevance to the issue at hand.

This is extraordinarily hard work in today’s world, with reams of information cascading toward us every minute.  Our 24/7 information cycle requires us to have finely tuned truth antennae, so we can pick out strange fact usage quickly. Try this exercise: Next time you read an article, watch a video, or scan a blog, and you run across something cited as fact, take five seconds to weigh it. Does it make sense? Is it self-evident? Or is something just a little bit off—something that sets off your truth antennae?

Have you already run across things that fit into that “something off” category? Feel free to share them here.

Who Cares About the Truth? The Sequel

Last week I wrote a column about “truth indifference,” which has pervaded the public square of late. In the last U.S. elections alone, candidates and pundits on both sides made claims without any regard for fact, let alone nuance.

That very day, Thomas Friedman wrote a column on a classic example of truth indifference: a report that the president’s recent trip to Asia cost $200 million a day. After Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.; no relation) cited the statistic as fact on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, Cooper did some digging—and found only the flimsiest of sources for the story. Nonetheless, the “fact” had made its way into talk radio and the blogosphere.

Friedman’s column is invaluable (and great) reading all by itself, so I won’t try to summarize further. However, a few sentences in his final paragraph are worth repeating, because they eloquently capture the stakes involved in truth indifference: 

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues—deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate—let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together.

The truth can be extremely difficult to ferret out. But only if we agree on the quest for truth—the commitment to stay open-minded, to separate fact from opinion, whatever the results—can we have any basis for dialogue across divides. 

Have you run across examples of truth indifference? Feel free to share them here.

Dialogue, Truth, and Its More Obnoxious Fans

Uncle Sam wants YOU

to learn English

—bumper sticker

I saw this bumper sticker while driving up the interstate yesterday, and after the automatic cringe, it got me thinking about a much larger question than the wrangle over English speaking.

To get to that question, however, let’s probe the bumper sticker a bit more. It seems self-evident that learning the language of the country where you live carries many advantages. If I moved to France (please, O Lord), I could get a job, buy stamps, and find a good dentist way more easily by knowing and speaking French. On a broader level, I could contribute more of myself to my new community—through volunteering, writing, promoting political candidates, etc.—by knowing and speaking French.

So in the United States, learning English enables you to transact your business and make a difference in ways that not learning English can’t. Because of this, you might even say that Uncle Sam would be delighted if non-English-speakers learned English, so they can bring their whole selves to the public square.

None of that changes the fact that the bumper sticker is aggressive and cringeworthy. So here comes the larger question:

How on earth can we hear truth—even a grain of it—in an opinion expressed so offensively?

In an ideal world, of course, the people who express opinions this way would become more civil in their speech and their inner lives. In our imperfect world, there’s a strong temptation to simply ignore these folks. And to ignore any hint of what they express.

Maybe that’s the right thing to do. But here’s why it might not be.

I remember a cartoon in which one fellow at a bar said to another, “All I know is, if you’re against pollution, it can’t be all bad.” See the problem? As we dismiss someone we find obnoxious, we also dismiss his perspective—lock, stock, and barrel—and wind up in a place where we don’t want to be.

Examples? Here’s one to start us off: I’m very worried about the growth of the national debt. Have been since long before it became the cause célèbre of the right wing. But I find it very hard to express that opinion when the more rabid wing of the Tea Party has shouted it—and various distortions of it—from the housetops. I feel almost squeezed into the position of “If you’re against the national debt, it can’t be all bad.”

I’ll bet you can think of a hundred other examples. Go for it. Write about them in the Comments section below.