What is Truth?)
I have spent quite a while examining different reasons for why one should live in accordance with the truth, and I have been calling out the ways that we try to excuse ourselves from doing so. Hopefully each one of us will be convinced at some point that we must live in harmony with fundamental truth, aligning ourselves to the universal good.
But, even if we do come to this conviction, we may find a new question that takes its place. It is the same question that Pilate famously posed to Christ: “What is truth?” It seems that the answer to that should be obvious, but any serious examination on the matter will soon uncover a few issues. Most particularly, we will likely find it difficult to distinguish what is THE TRUTH from merely “my truth.”
Consider that many of us hold different principles inside of us that we identify with the truth. Two men confronted by the same injustice might be stirred by their conscience to two different actions. One of them might feel called to meekly endure the offense, remaining patient and longsuffering. On the other hand, the other man might feel compelled to stand up for what is right and challenge the oppressor. Frankly, neither of these reactions feels fundamentally wrong to me. Perhaps towards less severe injustices the passive response seems more fitting, and towards grievous injustices the bold response, but there is a great deal of overlap where either seem entirely appropriate, and I would not call any person wrong for behaving one way or the other. But at the same time, in a single person each response is mutually exclusive to the other. So which way is actually correct?
Furthermore, two men acting in sincere accordance with their conscience is one thing, but what about the issue of us misidentifying our wants with our conscience? I’m sure we can all call out social movements that claim to be based in truth and conscience, but which are clearly just justification for selfish and immoral practices. Making matters even more complicated, while sometimes we know in our hearts that we are being dishonest, most often we really do delude ourselves into thinking that our own personal wants just happen to align with what is cosmically right. How can I recognize what is actually true, and what is just me trying to get my own way?
A Point of Reference)
Both of the issues that I have presented are a result of defining the truth locally. If each person is let alone to define their “own truth,” then there will be as many distinct truths as there are people. We will probably each settle on some genuine pieces of conscience, but also much that is colored by personality or selfish desire. Aligning ourselves with “our truth” will therefore disappoint us, both on a personal and universal level. On the personal level, it will disappoint us because we will come out looking very much the same as who we already are. We will not have any sense of transcendence, of having been called up and made into something new and better. On the universal level, we will never have unity and common purpose. We will remain entrenched in embittered battles against one another, everyone convinced of their own rightness above all others.
If this enterprise of humanity is to move forward, then there absolutely has to be some underlying, fundamental truth established outside of all of us that we can each defer to. There has to be an external truth that is real and consistent, so that we may all come into union when we separately align ourselves to it. If the truth is defined by a person, or if it is shifting in its nature, then we will never find harmony with either conscience or community.
If, however, we do settle upon a universal truth that exists outside of us all, then both of the issues mentioned above are resolved. Now we have a standard that all other “self-truths” can be compared against. Selfish desires, misinterpreted as truth, are immediately recognized as such and discarded. Also, in the example of the two men choosing differently, but according to their genuine conscience, it is possible that the universal truth is broad enough to harmonize with both decisions. While the universal truth will certainly never contradict itself, it does seem reasonable to me that it could allow some range of individual, moral choice within its domain.
Is it any wonder, then, that the bedrock of every civilization has been religion? Be it the Bible, or the Quran, or the Torah, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the words of Buddha, each culture has composed itself around words that are said to have descended from on high. They might have come through the mouths of prophets and sages, but they are not interpreted as the words of those prophets and sages. They are understood to be the words of the external, of the divine, of God in some form or another.
Cultures that detach themselves from sacred truth do not remain cultures for long. As a society they break apart and become an anarchy. As individuals they become stunted and cease to improve their situation. They lag behind the rest of the world, both technologically and ethically, and they are soon destroyed by the whims of the world.
So, going back to our idea that only the life founded upon the truth is free, even after we accept this fact we still have to identify what the truth really is. And in order to do this, we’re going to have to find a source outside of ourselves, and outside of any other person. At some point we’re going to have to find God and discover THE TRUTH for ourselves. Choosing to found ourselves upon the truth is therefore no mere decision that we make once in our current place and then have the matter resolved. Choosing to be founded upon the truth means deciding to go on a great journey. It is a quest of exploration, discovery, and refinement, and it will last us the rest of our lives and then some!