What is the Truth?

A buddy asked me this question today and my head has been spinning thinking about how to answer. Not him, specifically – he’s one of those sojourner types who’s better to listen to than to answer – but for myself, in my own heart, for my own life. This question seems important in a number of lights. Every day in the United States, 115 people die from overdosing on opioids,  teen suicide is soaring, and there’s been an average of one school shooting a week in 2018. Michael Foucault suggested that there is a “truth of living.” Through experience, we discover what the truth is. Don’t these realities suggest that whatever Americas believe in isn’t the truth? Yet, it is in this society that I am raising four children. Don’t I owe it to them to give – if not an answer – something to build off for their own lives?

It seems clear to me that most philosophies, most worldviews agree that whatever truth is, it is not an objective reality. Truth is not an object sitting somewhere that everyone agrees upon. In fact, whenever a people have reached a consensus on what the truth is, atrocities have happened. The Crusades, the Inquisition, Manifest Destiny, Hitler, Stalin, Mao have all shown that the more solid and stable ideas of truth are, the easier it is to punish those who disagree. Truth, then, is always something we perceive in a subjective manner. Not because that’s the nature of truth, but because that’s the nature of being human. We always understand from a vantage point. We live in a particular place, in a particular time, in a particular culture and while this does not fully determine our perspective, it strongly influences it.

How are we to respond to this reality. (Can we call it a truth?) For some the fact that we don’t have access to anything objective is discouraging, deflating…even depressing. What’s the point, they wonder, of pursuing anything but pleasure since it doesn’t really matter what we do with our lives. Others, try to turn this subjectivity into objectivity. Phrases like “Live your truth” or “That’s true for you” attempt to relativize truth – everyone has access to objective truth in their own way. These people often content themselves with over simplified answers to life’s difficult questions. Still others, sequester themselves to their particular group. In their enclave, they substitute their beliefs for the truth. Since they never live with anyone who disagrees with them, they have no doubt to get in the way of pursuing their idea of truth passionately. As mentioned above the atrocities in human history have usually come from this group. A final option of how to deal with the relative nature of our relationship to truth – the option I have adopted –  is to know that although we cannot raise above the rest of humanity to prove without doubt that our way is right, our pursuit of truth is still important. In my view, this perspective takes the humility of the first option, the respect for others from the second option, the conviction from the third option and adds passion, creativity and freedom to them to form a manner of living centered around answering this central question. Our lives are both relative and important.

This is the starting place for the lesson for my students, my children, myself. How I chose to live matters, if I am willing to listen, serve other people, have the courage to face difficult questions over and over again, live with the uncomfortablness of not knowing, repent when I’m wrong, properly value my own opinions, eliminate some of my bias, think rationally, etc. I can grow closer to the truth. There is a choice in front of me today, and if I choose to live well, it matters.

 

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