Religions are good at valuing truth, so long as it is old truth.
When I was a kid, I delivered The Indianapolis News to 26 customers on the southside of Danville. It was the smallest paper route in town, due to my unwillingness to sign on new subscribers. Having only 26 customers allowed me to provide custom newspaper delivery to each client. I saw it as a kind of boutique newspaper service. I would stop at each house, personally hand-delivering the daily edition, while offering commentary on the latest news. From 1972-1976, I was considered by many to be the Walter Cronkite of Danville during those tenuous and tragic Watergate years.
Well, maybe not considered to be the Walter Cronkite by many, but at least by myself. At the masthead of the paper was a Bible verse, John 8:32—“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It gave the paper the appearance of respectability, honesty, and integrity, even when they endorsed Richard Nixon for the presidency, causing one of my customers, Charlie Clark, to say, “The Indianapolis News wouldn’t know the truth if it slapped them in the head.” This shocked me and being a Republican I expected God to strike Charlie Clark dead then and there, and when God didn’t, I could only conclude God agreed with Charlie Clark, and was secretly a Democrat and pulling for George McGovern.
Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. Oh, if it were only that simple. A few weeks ago, I was volunteering at a food pantry and asked for masks to give to the children I delivered food to in Brownsburg, whose schools now mandate masks. A man standing near me began yelling at me, saying Covid was a hoax and no more dangerous than the common cold. He told me he knew the truth about Covid, that it was nothing more than the common cold, and that I should be ashamed for giving masks to children, that it was abusive. Then he said, “What I’m telling you is God’s truth.”
Here is what I’ve noticed about truth. The more I hear someone making claims about truth, the more someone tells me how important truth is to them (implying it is obviously less important to me), the more someone claims to always tell the truth and follow the truth and embrace the truth, the more I grow leery. They are to me the quintessential carnival barker, distracting the rest of us with empty noise so we will not examine too closely their empty claims. The only truth they value is their truth. Not the truth of science. Not the truth of reason. Not the truth of wisdom. Not the truth of hard-won knowledge or experience. They believe only in the truth of their tired and half-baked creeds, which serve always to place them on top and others beneath them.
Truth is quiet. It is not measured by its volume, intensity, or repetition, but by the simple beauty of its observable and obvious integrity. Truth is quiet.
Truth is modest, never claiming for itself absolute power or authority, but willing always to hear the other out, to correct itself when presented with evidence, to evolve and grow as people evolve and grow. Truth never assumes our ancestors possessed a deeper insight and intelligence than is unavailable to us. It does not believe time magically consecrates bad thoughts. Truth is wary of the mob, knowing the more often, the more vociferously, a thing is shouted, the closer it should be examined.
Religions and religious people, claiming to love truth, have too often rejected new discoveries of truth. It seems they were not committed to truth at all, but to tired cliches that served their specific and selfish interests, all the while safeguarding their prejudices, power, and privilege. When presented with new evidence, religionists dismiss it as New Age, or heresy, a wonderful little word derived from the Greek word heretokos, meaning to think differently, which to me is the point of religion, to help us look at the world, and those in it, differently, more hopefully, more graciously. Alas, religions are good at valuing truth, so long as it is old truth.
Does this mean old truth is bad? No, not all of it. Sometimes truths stand the test of time, so are cherished and embraced generation after generation. Read the book of Proverbs, if you never have, and you’ll discover in many of those sayings a reservoir of wisdom as true today as they were 3,000 years ago. And you’ll find on others of them the moss of tired thought.
Truth is not something we teach, it is something we learn. Truth is not a hard and fast set of propositions, handed to us by our ancestors, never to be challenged or changed. Truth is the best summation of what we’ve learned so far, so is always open to new light. Truth is shaped and reshaped by science, moral evolution, and for the person of faith, revelation, by which I mean God’s effort to bring light from darkness, and clarity from confusion.
Truth is learned. We must find the light and life for ourselves, while never forgetting our vision of the truth will, again and again, be rewritten by those who come after us. Quakers call this continuing revelation, believing that when we have lived up to the light we’ve been given, God will give us more.
For example, the term critical race theory is just now making its way into popular culture, but I was first exposed to the concept while studying sociology. This is the observation that systems and cultures, not just individuals, can be intrinsically racist. When I first heard this, I resisted it mightily, believing racism was an individual trait, not a communal characteristic. I believed this because it allowed me to ignore the benefits of being white in an unjust society and therefore ignore my participation in racism. So long as my heart was pure from the stain of bigotry, I had no responsibility to correct the institutional and cultural injustices people of color have suffered for centuries.
This was light and truth I needed to see and hear, but was unable and unwilling to see and hear. I was content with old truth, wholly rejecting any new truth God might have for me. This was odd, because I was simultaneously studying the Bible, which brims with critical race theory. The prophets of Israel regularly and explicitly called out entire nations for their communal injustice. When the prophet Amos said, “Hear this word, people of Samaria, you who oppress the weak and abuse the needy…you will be cast out.” What is that but critical race theory, the recognition that while sin can be individual, it can also be collective, rooted in historic patterns of bigotry, ignorance, and hatred in which we all participate.
I was happy to accept the old truth about individual sin, but far less willing to accept a newer truth of communal evil. But is it new, or just an indication of our biblical and historical ignorance?
I have believed and stopped believing many things I’ve been taught about God. But I have always believed God is eager for us to learn, that God is eager to bring us new light and truth as we are able to hear it, and sometimes even before. The greatest and profoundest truths cannot be found in an idolatrous fascination with the past, but in our expectant and eager search for truth in all its future fullness.