As I was reviewing some notes about “truth,” two quotations caught my attention. The first is from the US American writer William Faulkner (1897- 1962): “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.” The other is from Colin Powell, United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005: “We have come to live in a society based on insults, on lies, and on things that just aren’t true. It creates an environment where deranged people feel empowered.”
My reflection this weekend is about the journey toward Truth.
Our contemporary world is experiencing a crisis in facts and truth, which also contributes to distrust in various political and religious institutions. The key question is how do we know what is true and what is not true when watching the news, listening to elected officials, listening to religious leaders, or using social media?
Just a few years ago, Edward, one of my seminary students in my contemporary theology class told his classmates I was a heretic. When I asked him to explain, he told the class that he had been reporting my lectures to “a theological expert” on the Internet. I asked who the “expert”was and Edward replied that he goes by the name of “Father Thomas.” Edward had no idea about the “expert’s” identity or background. “Father Thomas” made him feel good and told him to trust him, without questions. Today there are many Edwards following many a “Father Thomas.”
Sometimes I think the world is swimming in misinformation. Conflicting messages bombard us every day, about religion, politics, and of course Covid-19 and vaccinations. The daily newspaper, Internet news, websites, and social media all compete for our attention. Quite often each insists on a different version of “the facts.” They appear to suggest that truth is relative or simply a matter of personal opinion.
Nevertheless, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported recently that half of today’s US adults consider made-up news and information a very big problem. Made-up news and distorted information have a big impact on US Americans’ confidence in their government and their political leadership. Far-right religious polemicists create even more confusion and angry polarization. People on both sides of the spectrum complain about “fake news.” But absurd conspiracy theories are taken much too seriously.
Rather than making decisions on what is true or not true (the classic model), people today make decisions on what they feel or think is most probable. Narrow perspectives and narrow self-interest replace traditional law and order. So who is telling the truth? How can we know? What can we do? The Internet, of course can be a helpful tool, but it makes truth-finding ever more difficult. Once a lie is published online, it is difficult to trace, retrieve, or simply debunk it.
The simple and traditional answer about truth-seeking is that we know something is true if it is in accordance with measurable reality. In medieval times, however, people knew something was true because great authorities said it was true. Now that happens quite often today as well. In the Middle Ages, at the insistence of powerful institutions, like the Catholic Church, something was true because church authorities said it was true. No discussion. Case closed. This created problems of course. When, for example, Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) looked through his homemade telescope and saw mountains on the moon, objects orbiting around Jupiter, and the variations of lighting on Venus — all sights not in line with authoritative teaching — he decided to speak out. He was condemned by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, narrowly escaped being executed as a heretic, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo courageously argued for a new way of knowing, insisting that what mattered was not what the authorities said was true but what anyone with the right tools could discover and show was true. He made the case for modern science. Truth is found in the quest for facts not in dogmatic teaching.
All human beings, whether they realize it or not, are on a fact-finding truth journey. Our destination is Ultimate Truth. In the meantime, we pursue smaller truths. We observe, we make educated judgments, and then, like the courageous Galileo, we act and speak out.
Here, below, are some of my personal guidelines for truth-seeking:
(1) A helpful tool today, when checking the accuracy of what one finds on social media and news websites is “Snopes.com.” Founded in 1994, Snopes is a reliable resource to research and debunk urban legends, fake pictures, etc. I use it to check Facebook observations. Another helpful website is “FactCheck.org.” It is very helpful checking the news reports circulating on social media.
(2) We are not expected to have all the answers on our own. As we look for truth, we can turn to trusted sources for guidance. That may mean a trusted mentor, a well informed friend, an insightful public figure respected for her or his integrity, or a respected book using primary source material. (When he was a university student, my historian son commented: “If there are no footnotes, it can’t be a good book.”)
(3) It is helpful as well to evaluate new information against known truth. As one comes upon new information, it helps to contrast it with what one already knows. It is also helpful of course to look for consistency between what was held before and now, a golden thread, realizing that we do grow in our understandings.
(4) When truth becomes simply a personal or group fabrication, the understanding of reality is turned upside down. Discrimination and cruelty become the norm and compassion disappears. Extremist websites and groups gather more supporters. Self-advancement at any cost becomes the new virtue. History gets a new interpretation. Last week I read about a young Jewish university student who said that perhaps, given the socio-cultural situation at the time, Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews, unfortunately for them, could have been justifiable. Truth?
(5) When truth becomes simply a personal or group fabrication, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes a do-it-self deity who condones and blesses criminal and immoral behavior. God becomes a monster who condones the hateful and murderous behavior of the new “faithful.”
(6) In looking for trustworthy and truthful spokespersons, I find it impossible to respect or rely on the words of people who, like a former US president, are dishonest and immoral in their personal behavior and enjoy denigrating women, ethnic and racial minorities, and gays. Such people are not truth-seekers but deceptive manipulators of people working to advance their own selfish and sinister goals.
(7) People like “Father Thomas,” who hide their identity and reveal nothing about their personal backgrounds or the sources for their information cannot be trusted. They are dangerous deceivers.
(8) Remember the old saying “the proof is in the pudding.” Some ideas might sound wise, but, when examined more closely, prove to be deceptively hollow.
(9) Undocumented information or assertions are not immediately trustworthy and call for deeper and critical examination. In researching my family history (my genealogical hobby), for example, I have found a great many false assertions in family history accounts and recollections. One fellow told me that my wife and I have two children. No. In fact we have one but the ignorant fellow interpreted our son’s two first names as the names of two children. Crazy. Another self-proclaimed family historian – who is a bit arrogant — wrote that my paternal grandmother died in Indiana and is buried in Michigan City, Indiana. I wrote back that I was close by when grandmother died in Michigan not Indiana. I was at my grandmother’s funeral, and know for certain her remains are buried in Montpelier, Indiana. Not Michigan City. The “family historian” refused to believe me, so I sent a copy of grandmother’s death certificate and photos of the cemetery plot and name of the cemetery. The “family historian” thanked me for sharing my “opinion” about my grandmother’s death and burial. Unreal.
(10) As a longtime educator I really do have to stress the importance of quality education. Quality education equips students with the skills for critical thinking and analysis and enables them to observe, judge, and more fully understand what is true and what is false.
Evidence-based truth seeking is not just possible but absolutely necessary.