One day at a time.

One day at a time.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Truth: A Plea for Pluralism and the Spirit of Democracy

There's a lot going around now about the truth.  Perhaps, because it's election season folks feel compelled to find the truth.  Commercials, news stories, civic leaders all promising to tell us the truth.  Heck, even us religious folks weigh in on this elusive and supposedly apparent quality of the good life.

But is the search for truth all that useful?  Well, it depends.  If we are talking about facts such as the number of working poor in our community, then yes.  But if we are seeking an absolute moral truth about God's favor or disfavor of the working poor, then I would say no.  If we are searching for the cure to a disease, then yes.  But if we are seeking a moral reason why people have that disease, then no.  If we are seeking facts about our neighbor's religious practices, then yes.  But if we are seeking to prove our neighbor's beliefs about a higher power to be good or bad, then no.  Here's why:

In searching for THE TRUTH we narrow our scope.  We tend to ignore paradox, mystery, and diversity.  If there is one answer, then suddenly we have no use for pluralism and the diversity of human experience, which are, as near as I can tell, qualities of reality.  We live in a diverse, multifaceted, pluralistic world.  And persons who would try to eradicate such diversity largely become proponents of violence in one form or another.

But, can you not lay claim to THE TRUTH and still live a moral life?  Sure.  We've done it for ages in democratic societies.  I can believe in one god.  You can believe in no god.  Our neighbor can believe in many gods.  And we can still eat at the same table agreeing on moral principles apart from religious beliefs.  This isn't new.  We've lived this way for centuries.  Even the Roman Empire recognized some pluralism.  Shouldn't we be able to do better in the 21st century?  I hope so.

But the current veracity of morally dualistic thinking would seem to suggest otherwise.  We are constantly choosing between what is presented as "right and wrong."  In this framework, we become morally constricted.  Creative problem solving and moral reflection is deadened.  This is a frightening trend in a contemporary world so desperately in need of thoughtful, expansive moral reasoning.

In the words of Holly Near,

Rise up to your higher power
Free up from fear, it will devour you
Watch out for the ego of the hour
The ones who say they know it
Are the ones who will impose it on you.


The "it" in this case would be THE TRUTH; absolute, unchanging, invisible and imposable.  I am not saying we shouldn't stop believing and speaking from our truths (notice small t ) but that this endless goose chase for THE TRUTH tends to divide, harm and devour.


We recognize this as Unitarian Universalists when we affirm in our principles, "the right of conscience and the use of democratic process."  It's not just about voting for our Board, calling our ministers, or holding annual meetings like General Assembly.  The democratic process is also about a spiritual yearning for pluralism and a religious belief that without such diversity, we would be morally impoverished.

So, please, let's stop slinging THE TRUTH at each other because it really only distracts us from sitting together at the table.  This is the only way we can possibly begin the ministry of alleviating the world's suffering and bringing about a compassionate, equitable and just world.

5 comments:

Sam Treadaway said...

Wow, Robin, what a terrific posting... both graceful and insightful in so many ways. As a parishioner, I have been blessed by two sermons this week.

Thank you!

Bill Van Fleet said...

Robin,

Though you and I would agree on much, I do find that we diverge in our beliefs in certain areas, and since it seems that way to me, it would be of value to me, and hopefully to you, to see where and why we diverge.

You write:
[Heck, even us religious folks weigh in on this elusive and supposedly apparent quality of the good life.]

I don’t think the quality of the good life is so elusive or unapparent. It is true that there is no official definition, but we surely have an idea of what constitutes it that is not so vague as to be non-useful. I define it as “as much joy, contentment, and appreciation as possible and as little pain, suffering, disability, and early death as possible.” As a Humanian, I believe we should do whatever we can to promote this good life for all of us, now and in the future (as well as promoting the survival of our species).” This is my ultimate ethical principle that I live by and advocate for others.

You write:
[But if we are seeking to prove our neighbor's beliefs about a higher power to be good or bad, then no. Here's why:]

See, I would like to prove that the beliefs of those that thought that God wanted them to fly into the WTC are bad beliefs. I wish we had had a chance to enter into debate with them.

You write:
[In searching for THE TRUTH we narrow our scope. We tend to ignore paradox, mystery, and diversity.]

I don’t see how that is true. If we are really searching for truth, then we are struggling with and therefore quite aware of paradox and mystery, and diversity is of great value in avoiding missing an opportunity to get even closer to truth. By truth, I would mean something like what Charles Sanders Peirce meant, something (from memory) close to, “Truth is that opinion toward which all opinion would tend if it tended indefinitely toward fixity.”

You write:
[If there is one answer, then suddenly we have no use for pluralism and the diversity of human experience, which are, as near as I can tell, qualities of reality. We live in a diverse, multifaceted, pluralistic world.]

On the contrary, if there is one answer, then our search for it is important, and pluralism and diversity will help us in that search. But I think what you may really be referring to, and I would then agree with you completely, is that the thing that cuts us off from truth and causes much PSDED is closure of the mind, that is, behavior that specifically promotes avoidance of exposure to difference of opinion and to the challenge of one’s own currently held beliefs.

You write:
[And persons who would try to eradicate such diversity largely become proponents of violence in one form or another.]

I believe I know what you really mean, but the statement as it stands would characterize me as a violent person, which I am not. I believe that agreement among us humans is absolutely essential, but it must be agreement to that which is accurate. We can accomplish nothing without some degree of agreement. If we can agree on nothing, then we die. But if we agree to that which is inaccurate, then we risk bringing on PSDED, even to a tragic extent. This issue hinges on your meaning of “eradicate.” I think you are referring to closure of the mind, rather than seeking agreement with regard to what is accurate. So much of breakdown in communication is due to naturally occurring linguistic ambiguity.

(Continued in the next post)

Bill Van Fleet said...

(Continued from the previous post)

You write:
[And we can still eat at the same table agreeing on moral principles apart from religious beliefs. This isn't new. We've lived this way for centuries.]

I think this is overlooking that many of the ethical beliefs that we have had that have led to enormous amounts of PSDED have been those arising from and promoted by religious beliefs, including slavery, denial of feminine rights, ethnic cleansing, torture and execution, and discrimination regarding sexual orientation, to mention a few. I would suggest that sitting at the same table, metaphoric for in-depth friendly debate, has been extremely difficult for us. Sitting at that table has generally required that we avoid certain subjects.

You write:
[But the current veracity of morally dualistic thinking would seem to suggest otherwise. We are constantly choosing between what is presented as "right and wrong." In this framework, we become morally constricted. Creative problem solving and moral reflection is deadened. This is a frightening trend in a contemporary world so desperately in need of thoughtful, expansive moral reasoning.]

Again, I think you are really writing about closure of the mind. We absolutely should be choosing between what is presented as “right and wrong.” That is what is involved in living an ethically driven life. That effort to understand and choose does not morally (ethically) constrict us. It is the blind acceptance of a proposed ethical position with avoidance of understanding what the debate is about that is constricting.

You write:
[“The ones who say they know it
Are the ones who will impose it on you.”]

If they believe it, they should indeed advocate for it. Doing so through openness to friendly debate is not what this is referring to.

You write:
[The "it" in this case would be THE TRUTH; absolute, unchanging, invisible and imposable. I am not saying we shouldn't stop believing and speaking from our truths (notice small t ) but that this endless goose chase for THE TRUTH tends to divide, harm and devour.]

I don’t agree. Science is involved in this “chase,” but it obviously is not a goose chase. I don’t believe postmodernism if the ultimate, best answer to the problem that we tend to impose rather than advocate. It allows us to sit at that table, but it does not promote what we need most, agreement about that which is accurate.

You write:
[The democratic process is also about a spiritual yearning for pluralism and a religious belief that without such diversity, we would be morally impoverished.]

The sharing and comparing of ideas in the search for increasing accuracy is a part of the democratic process (or at least should be). Diversity is enriching because there is “truth” in all efforts to achieve it, and we can thus learn from diversity and become morally (ethically) enriched.

You write:
[So, please, let's stop slinging THE TRUTH at each other because it really only distracts us from sitting together at the table. This is the only way we can possibly begin the ministry of alleviating the world's suffering and bringing about a compassionate, equitable and just world.]

Characterizing the process as “slinging” turns us away from what is really needed, advocating and listening to those who differ, with the effort to understand the causes of the differences. I understand that the church has to be careful, because the ability to engage in friendly debate is quite limited and fragile. But I hope that you do advocate to the extent you can this absolutely crucial activity for our species.

Thank you for offering us this opportunity for dialogue with you. I hope that my comments are of some help, and of course would welcome dialogue and feedback.

Bill Van Fleet

Bill Van Fleet said...

Sorry, thought I had put PSDED in parentheses after "pain, suffering, disability, and early death."

Rev. Robin said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your reflections and comments on truth and pluralism. It's taken me a bit to respond because of some travel, but I have a few general thoughts of divergence.

I do have some questions about Humanian beliefs, which I must confess a limited familiarity with in my life. In particular, I've been wondering about avoiding an early death and limiting suffering. Of course, I can relate to these needs! Yet in some ways, I wonder how one defines the "early" part of death. Is it time specific, relative, or defined subjectively? I also wonder if suffering can ultimately be limited or if some suffering in life lends itself to compassion, understanding and awareness. Perhaps, suffering is unavoidable in a world filled with the finite, and fallible. And is it truly within human hands to limit it? What of natural disaster, accident and disease?

For me, a significant point of difference between my beliefs and yours is in your definition of truth. I believe there are different kinds of truth depending upon the type of information we are discussing. For example, many mathematical truths would be quite fixed and absolute according to the laws of logic. But then there are truths about the nature of existence. In this case, truth for me is multifaceted, moving, and relative. I believe there could be concepts beyond human cognition. Truth beyond a binary classification. In this case, I worry about binary classification in regard to the latter kind of truth I mention (that is the relative, moving, multifaceted kind).

I would agree that difference of opinion and dialogue in the midst of difference are important experiences in order to deepen our understanding of ourselves and each other. I am not sure I engage in such dialogue to find a fixed, truth however but rather to broaden my heart and spirit. Since for me I see the world through the eyes of process theology, I find truth to be an evolving changing thing not an absolute, external, fixed reality. This does not in any way neglect the importance of ethical explorations which help foster a world of compassion and love that resists violence in its many forms.

So in short, I agree we have much we share and perhaps some divergences on how we see truth. Thank you again for responding. I welcome continued dialogue.

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