The other day, I re-read the Declaration of Independence. Its most famous phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” jumped out at me. I suspect that King George didn’t think the colonists’ “self-evident” truths were self-evident to him.
His view of facts weren’t quite the same as their view of the facts. So does that mean facts don’t always add up to “the truth”? I think it does. When Jesus appeared before Pilate prior to his crucifixion, John 18: 28-38 tells the story of their verbal exchange about truth. Each man’s view of the facts seemed to add up to different kinds of truth. In that instance, Pilate capitulated to the crowd’s third opinion about truth.
What I observe in so many arenas today, from international examples to very local examples, is this: Truth is currently taking a beating from certainty! Whatever the multiple reasons, truth is being trumped by a fast-and-loose form of certainty.
The original meaning of certainty has to do with sifting and separating fact from opinion, then arriving at what is true. Today, I see so many of us who are so absolutely certain of something that we dismiss – often quite disrespectfully – regardless of the facts. Maybe our biggest challenge is to admit to ourselves that we have only a piece of the truth. Absolute truth may exist in so-called natural laws, like the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But when it comes to human relationships, truth is most always relative to life-experiences.
As I write that, it seems bold, even arrogant. But my own truth-piece tells me that we never have all the facts. Plus, we can never separate our own egos or life-experiences from interpreting the facts we have to come up with to capture the whole truth.
Every person alive is inflicted to some degree with the Tyranny of Certainty. Tyranny comes from Greek words that mean absolute power,master. It’s like we are addicted to – tyrannized by – our own need for certainty when we project our certainty on others as the only worthy way to think.
My current struggle with that tyranny comes when I listen to persons whose view of religion effectively excludes anyone who isn’t like they are. My truth-piece about Christianity is that Jesus’ life and message included all people, even those he disagreed with.
He challenged those who tried to separate themselves from others for sake of religious/political purity. I see efforts to exclude anyone in the church – and anyone in general society – as our failure to live out Jesus’ desire that we grow up and into the fuller humanity he exhibited.
I shared this truth story from Sister Joan Chittister before. It bears repeating today.
“Once upon a time a visitor came to the monastery looking for the purpose and meaning of life. The Teacher said to the visitor, ‘If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else.’
“ ‘I know,’ the visitor said. ‘To find Truth I must have an overwhelming passion for it.’ ‘No,’ the Teacher said. ‘In order to find Truth, you must have an unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong.’ ”
The teacher’s truth-piece is rejected by too many people in our culture today – both within our various faith traditions and in our general society. The visitor’s limited view was challenged to turn from his own tyranny of certainty to embrace the humility each of us needs.
Humility, certainty: Which comes first for you?
The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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