Saturday, March 31, 2012

Quid Est Veritas? Part Four

And now we come to the core of the matter.

I've discussed the different types of knowledge, one building on the one before it. I've pointed out how, once we get past the raw physical sensations, we begin to use language to add dimension to our knowledge through narrative about our world and its parts. I've noted how language takes on a social or communal character, so it moves beyond an individualistic concept.

Now I want to look at truth, and how it fits into our Lenten meditations and reflections.

Truth is defined in a variety of ways, and is one of the fundamental concepts of philosophy. To say that it's been the subject of arguments would be a massive understatement. For my purpose, let's look at one definition I found on the internet:

Truth is the condition of being true.

There you have it - simple, direct, and to the point.

And almost useless.

I'd rather look back at what I've written about knowledge, and modify this, so it has more relevance for us.

Truth is the conviction or attitude that something is true.

I've introduced the additional - and I think, very necessary - idea that truth requires an observant mind. Truth may very well be a condition of something being true, but without a mind to think about that and come to that conclusion, this is almost a tautology.

Each of us carries around in our minds a model of the world. Some of us are able, from this model, to describe the way things and people will act in a variety of circumstances. If we encountered people or things in circumstances that matched our expectations, the predicted behavior would be seen. In this case, we could rightfully say that our model of the world - our conjectural knowledge - would be accurate, or more to the point, true.

Others of us carry around distorted models, models full of inaccurate prejudices, faulty judgments, and erroneous expectations. When we encounter circumstances for which we have mental analogs, we find that the people or things behave differently than we expected. We could say then that our model is faulty, or untrue.

Of course, this tense relationship between holding truths or untruths is actually the case - or true, to use the point I've been making - for each of us. None of us has a perfectly clear and accurate model of the world about us. We can see this to be the case in our whole life story, if we care to look. There have been situations where we had one expected outcome, and things worked out differently. The most public cases of this reality are the various prophets and seers who routinely fill check-out aisle tabloids with dire predictions of doomsday and catastrophe.

And what's the outcome for these prophets who continually get things wrong? Most of them go on making a good living, doling out the same kind of bogus nonsense year after year.

There's a whole industry of people who very publicly share their wrong-headed pronouncements of anticipation with the world, and nobody seems to care that they are consistently wrong. Astrologers, New Age seers, crystal believers, and religious prophets of all stripes.

Yes, I said religious prophets.

How can I, as a confessed Christian, include people acting on their religious inspiration among those who I brand as false prophets?

Actually, it's quite easy. History has been full of prophets over the ages. Some of them actually seemed to get it right. Others, maybe the majority, were off the beam a little or a lot, most of the time the latter.

So, how does this fit into Lent?

Very simply, we have to take on the character of g-d when we look at ourselves, and the people around us. We have to see just how fallible and wrong we are in our attitudes about others, how vengeful and judgmental we become when we think about the way that other people injure us, mistreat us, do evil to us. G-d extends grace to us, we believe, despite our flaws and failings, our sins. We need to acquaint ourselves with this same willingness to extend grace not only to others, but also to ourselves. We need to stop being so hard on ourselves for the manifold failures we secretly realize we have. We need to bring these faults out into the light of day, and acknowledge them, confess them. With this kind of exposure, we can begin to repent, to travel lightly through the world, both about ourselves and about others.

This traveling lightly is not an overnight conversion. No, as the Catholic church preaches, it's the work of a lifetime. We make progress haltingly, slowly, slipping back into old and outmoded habits again and again. That's why we celebrate Lent each year, to re-engage ourselves in the work of our salvation, with "fear and trembling."

We Christians have this formulation, this model of the world that we carry about to one degree of success or another. We preach that Jesus, a first-century prophet, was the Son of G-d and the Son of Man, a two-fold being who bridged the chasm between absolute holiness and absolute fallibility, manifesting the one and untainted by the other. He was the Christ, the Anointed One, who provides the one and only road for us to travel if we want to return to a state of innocence.

Does this formulation that we hold exclude other views of the world? Well, yes and no - it certainly prescribes one way to come to grips with our essential nature, and one way to deal with that if we seek to escape from the prison of our limitations. It doesn't preclude, though, the infinity of the paths that people may travel to arrive at that way. In other words, Jesus is The Way, but there are a million billion ways to Jesus.

We Christians have the most unlikely set of methods to accomplish this both for ourselves, and for the world as a whole. We pray. We fast. We give alms. We forgive. We bless. We deny ourselves and work for others. We become the least so that we may praise the greatest. We see Jesus all about us, in the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, the hurting, and we deal with that, here and now.

Oh, yeah, we also scandalize, we exploit, we misbehave badly. Think of the most horrific failure of Christianity you can name - there are dozens throughout history. But I'll also say that there are more incidents, large and small, where we were true - there's that word again - to our Savior's directions and commandments. Shall I name them? The abolition of slavery. The founding of the Red Cross. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Tsunami relief. Soup kitchens. Food banks. And the list goes on, and on, and on.

So, if you're reading this, and you wonder what the point of my philosophical ruminations has been, here's the short version. We have to look at the world around us, and we have to see what is actually there. We have to come to grips with The Way Things Are. Only then can we begin to see Truth, and begin to act on that Truth. If we've been paying close attention, we will begin celebrating Lent within ourselves. It may well last a lifetime.

Easter comes at the end of Lent. May each of us truly experience that Easter, now and forever.

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