Monday, October 4, 2010

How Do You Know If Something Is True?

     One of the first questions a thinking spiritual person needs to ask is: "How do I know if something is true?"
     It's important to ask because there are lots of different 'authorities' for truth.  Historically, people have known things were 'true' by the following reasons:
          1.  Because the community collectively agrees something is true.  The community agrees on a certain interpretation of events.  As in: we were liberated from slavery,  we experience that as an act of God, so from now on we when we tell the story of our liberation we will talk about it as an act of God.  It is the community's truth.  The community's truth becomes personal truth.

          2.  Because our religious leaders (i.e. the church)  tell us it is true.  In this scenario people defer to religious leaders.  The final authority on spiritual matters and biblical interpretation is the Church.  A good example of this is the Roman Catholic Church whose final authority lies with the Pope.

          3.  Because the Bible says it's true.  This understanding was revolutionary in its day.  No longer did people look to the Church as their authority for the 'truth'.  The advent of the printing press and the Reformation commitment that people (including women)  learn to read the Bible for themselves shifted the understanding of the Church as authority to the Bible as authority.  That is where many religious people are stuck today:  It's true because the Bible says so. And don't get me started with the ideas of truth and facts.  The rise of scientific inquiry set theological thinking on its ear.  As we began to value scientific fact we forgot to make the distinction between fact and truth.  Here's a thought: the Bible may be true and NOT factual.  But that is a whole other rant!

          4.  Because my experience says it is true.  This is where feminists weigh in.  If someone, anyone, any book, any thing, tells me that something is true that does not resonate with my experience then it is not true for me.  So what if it resonates for someone else?  Then it (whatever 'it' is) is true for them.  Which leads us to understand a world in which there are many truths.

     Clearly, I subscribe to the last idea of spiritual authority.  Are there problems inherent with this  perspective?  Yes.  But there are an equal number of safeguards.  The greatest one being that those who fall in this camp accept that there are many (often conflicting) truths.  But if your life experience is challenged by what another is saying is 'true', the onus is on you to trust yourself.  By the same token, it is incumbent on each of us to honor that what is true for me may not be true for another.

     Why is any of this important?  It is not to water down faith, as some claim but, rather, it deepens our own relationship with ourselves and with Godde.  It is important that we not try to shove ourselves into someone else's relational understanding of the Sacred like so many Cinderella stepsisters and find   ourselves trying to fit into some preconceived understanding of relationship with Godde.  Claiming the authority of our experience leaves the door open for growth and change, for our understandings to unfold as we experience life and love, tragedy and grief, spiritual events and Godde over time.   To whit:  it is not a static understanding of truth, but an organic understanding.

     How do you know something is true?  Or as my seminary professors would ask: what is your final authority?  Can you trust yourself?  Your experiences? Your integrity?  Your willingness and ability to grow and change?

     How do you know something is true?  The answer to that question really matters.


  1. How do I know something is true? Wow, this is a tricky one.

    As Christians*, we're in a quandry. Information on the historical Jesus is sparse and corrupted. The Gospels contradict each other, and the only non-canonical mention of him I can think of (Josephus) reads like it had some latter day editing. Thus it's not possible for faith to come purely from knowledge.

    On the other hand, sometimes the hand of God is a palpable thing, a presence as real and enfolding as the air I breathe. And some other days, it's really hard to catch that breath.

    I think we construct what is true, out of what we've been told, out of what we want to be, what we want not to be, and maybe a little bit of hardwired stuff way in the back of our reptile brain. And for it to remain true, we have to keep looking at it, pinching off a little piece to hold, and weigh, and just feel the warmth of, every now and then.

    *Actually, I'm calling myself a Jesusite from now on, because 1) the Christian brand has been devalued, and 2) maybe I can get a trademark on it.