The “T” Word: A Response To John Meunier
In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth? – John Meunier, “Do We Have More Than ‘My Truth’?”, United Methodist Insight, July 17, 2015
Personally, I agree with Richard Rorty that questions of truth are not so much wrong-headed as uninteresting. Because “reality” is opaque to language – because many of our arguments over the truth-value of science are, in essence, arguments over wor’ds about reality, not reality itself – and because there is no meta-lingusitic judge to which all can appeal for the correctness of one’s view, we end up arguing over definitions. More interesting are the ways we figure out, through language, story, and our readings of various texts, how to live in the world. There is nothing special about “truth”, nothing talismanic, nothing final, nothing ultimate to the view that, if we grasp the truth, we have a hold of something that definitively addresses all sorts of matters. – Me, “On Truth”, March 17, 2007
Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ – John 14:6
I had made a resolution to myself that I wasn’t going to “go after” other writer’s expressed views. My goal was and is to be positive, to present a particular set of options that promote discussion, or at the very least thought. Reading John Meunier’s article at United Methodist Insight, however, seemed to offer me an opportunity to say – what turns out to be again – something that is central to how I live. My eight-year-old post, linked above, says much and it would probably be easiest to copy and paste it here. To be fair to Rev. Meunier, however, I need to deal with the specifics of what he wrote in order to make the points I wish to make. Furthermore, I’m not “going after” John at all. I am, rather, offering a different perspective, one I believe offers something fruitful for the Church in its struggles. And I will apologize here and now because some of what follows will be a bunch of philosophical and theological mumbo-jumbo. I do hope I can present what I want to say clearly and intelligibly. If I don’t, it isn’t because the concepts are difficult; it’s because I’m a lousy writer.
Meunier’s musings on the difference between truth and opinion cover familiar ground: Plato gets a shout-out, of course, as well as the United Methodist Articles of Religion. In the midst of his discussion, however, are assumptions that are both rarely spoken aloud as well as, lets be honest, pretty parochial. We in the West have multiple traditions regarding matters regarding “truth”, and while Plato certainly offered one answer, he was hardly the first and definitely not the last. In the mid-20th century, German philosopher Martin Heidegger taught a course in which he offered the view that, in fact, much of the western tradition of metaphysics is rooted in the distinct opinions of two men who taught centuries before Plato: Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus is remembered among philosophers for his dictum, “No one steps in the same river twice.” The only constants are change, which brings conflict. Nothing is ever settled, even human identity. Parmenides, however, insisted precisely the opposite is the case: all that is exists as a single, dimensionless whole. There is no distinction between things; there is only this singularity, both infinite and infinitesimal. This, for Parmenides, is “truth”. Our human inability either to perceive or understand this is the result of “opinion”. Thus, for Heidegger, was born our western obsession with “truth”.
Much of our tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not, follows Parmenides. The kind of unity of which he spoke was rooted in the assumption that, to all questions there is now and can only ever be a single correct answer. Pushing this assumption to its logical conclusion, then, Parmenides insisted that not just truth but existence itself is undifferentiated, a single Being that is indistinguishable within itself, yet also imperceptible, leading to differences of opinion and the (false) perception of movement and change.
Recently, however, the idea that some “thing” called “truth”, a property that inheres in particular words, sentences, and texts, has not so much been attacked as it has been set aside. This isn’t a matter of “relativism” as it is too often portrayed. Rather, it is a matter of people finding far more interesting questions to ask about how it is we human beings work out living in a world we now understand to be governed by the theories of quantum physics and general relativity as well as the theory of evolution. Philosophy no longer has dominion over questions that science addresses both more clearly and more definitively. That leaves philosophers wondering less about things like being and truth and more about how best to be human and negotiate our differences in ways that are fruitful for all of us.
Richard Rorty, the most prolific and clear proponent of this view, offered the following justification for his life-long philosophical project: In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant asked whether there was really something called “being” that humans could discern and understand. Did “being” add anything to our understanding of really existing things? Rorty asks the same question about “truth”: Does the idea that a sentence is “true” add anything to that sentence that wasn’t there before? Do human beings react differently to sentences that are “true” than to those that are not “true”? Like Kant, Rorty’s “No” didn’t so much end discussion as become fruitful for a completely different set of questions, questions about how human beings structure what Rorty called their webs of belief, adding and subtracting particular words and sentences to their stories over time. For Rorty, this offered fruitful thought and discussion about negotiating differences among stories, understanding different sentences as important to some while meaningless to others. Bridging that gap is the philosopher’s – and the poet’s, and the novelist’s – task.
For Meunier to set to one side centuries of skeptical discussion over the concept of “truth” – really from William Ockham through Hume up to the analytical philosophers and pragmatists – is misleading, to say the least. It is uncomfortable to assent to the idea that a word as important as “truth” should probably be set aside. All the same, particularly at a time in our United Methodist Church’s history when all sides in our conflicts brandish truth about like cudgels and swords, I think it would be far better for all of us if we accepted the emptiness of “truth” as a philosophical category worthy of any attention.
As for the theology of the matter, the famous quote from St. John’s gospel above is the starting point for any Christian attempt to define “Truth”. Truth is not a quality of facts or sentences. It isn’t something that inheres in things or words. It certainly isn’t something we human beings can “have”, or at least some of us can have and others can lack. Truth, for Christians, is the Person of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. Truth isn’t a thing. It isn’t something that exists within particular words or phrases. It most definitely is not something we sinful mortals can ever claim to have. On the contrary, truth is a Person, a distinct, specific, individual Person whose ministry, passion, and resurrection are not “truths” to which we assent. Rather this Person in and through these events grasps us in our lives and define us. The Christian churches are not truth-tellers. The Christian churches are those communities who believe themselves in the hold of Truth, a Truth to be shared with the world in word and deed in the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord.
To understand Christian truth in this way offers us a way forward through the morass of arguments and difference our Social Principles call us to recognize without allowing such differences to create barriers to community. To understand Christian truth as Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is to understand ourselves as sinners even while we declare ourselves redeemed. As such, the Truth bridges the gap within our lives, offering us the opportunity to share the Good News without worrying overmuch about whether or not our words are true.
Theological truth as an inherent quality of the words of our proclamation disappears in a puff of air when we understand our Truth is Jesus Christ who saves us. That is the basis of our Social Principles, as well as the acknowledgement of our many differences. It is the heart of who we are as Church, as the people called Methodist. It is how we will continue to live and move and have our being once our current worries and conflicts have passed.