Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Truth is: the ideas by which each of us decides to govern our lives. Hence truth is multiple.  I think of truth as comprised of Big Truths and little truths.  A Big Truth is the primary, or organizing, principle around which we organize our lives.  Little truths can be moral, ethical, or practical, but little truths are not the consuming passion of one's life; under the right circumstances little truths can easily be modified.  Particularly the little truths make it possible for us to live comfortably in community.  The Big Truths, however, divide us.
            Everyone does not hold the same Big Truth, and hence they often disrupt life in community.  The Big Truths are usually moral and ethical in the extreme and can be classed in the following categories: political, religious, economic, cultural, social, racial, etc.  Some examples of Big Truths are: that big government is bad for the economy—which leads in the extreme to sequestration and government shut down; or that there is only one true religion, which leads in the extreme to prejudice, persecution of minority religions, and pogroms; or that racial minorities are lesser human beings than persons in the dominant group, which leads in the extreme to economic exploitation of minorities, persecution, and pogroms.
Little truths have not escalated (and may not) into an all consuming Big Truth.  And to some extent they are negotiable depending on the circumstances.  For example, consider the little truth "honesty is the best policy": if you run a red light, you will be fined (but only if you get caught); or if you plagiarize the work of another, it will damage your reputation (but only if you get caught).  The little truth "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," if disregarded in London (where they drive on the left-hand side of the road) will result in an accident for Americans who disregard it (but not if they are lucky).  The moral truth "human life is precious" if interpreted against under Roe versus Wade, which is thought by most Americans to best consider the rights of all citizens, can result in harm to the fetus (but only if you choose that option).  All little truths and their applications are subject to change and modification; Big Truths are not so easily modified.
The Big Truth of whatever variety inevitably brings every other truth under the driving force of the belief that my Big Truth is absolutely True, and that person who has found this absolute Truth will judge all other truths, Big and little, in its light.  Some of those current cultural Big Truths in today's society are, for example: abortion is murder; marriage is between one man and one woman; homosexuality is a sin; sexual acts are only for the reproduction of the species.  Big Truth-finders are unable to appreciate the circumstances and truths of others who don't share their Big Truth.
            The poet, Wallace Stevens, expresses the idea of giving up the truth and discovering the diversity of the world like this:
It was when I said,
"There is no such thing as the truth,"
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
You . . . You said,
"There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth."
Then the tree, at night, began to change . . . . ("On the Road Home")
In short, we hold different truths in varying degrees!  But holders of a Big Truth will dismiss the value of every other truth if it conflicts with the prime insight that their Big Truth is absolutely true—hence the only way to find the diversity of truth is by giving up the Big Truth.  Big Truth-finders are myopic and cannot see the manifold nature of truth.
It does happen, however, that from time to time people give up their Big Truths.  Paul, the apostle of Christ, for example, gave up the Big Truth of Judaism only to replace it with the Big Truth of the Christ.  But, on the other hand, some also give up the Big Truth of Christianity for other truths.  Demas, the close companion of Paul (Philemon 24), is accused by a later writer of deserting Paul, "because he loved the present world" (2 Timothy 4:10).  The distinguished New Testament historian, Robert W. Funk, who held a Bachelor of Divinity and a Masters degree from the Disciples of Christ Butler University and its affiliated Christian Seminary gave up the Big Truth of the Christ for the practical truths of historical and literary criticism; and later founded the Jesus Seminar.
There is no one single Truth, no matter how Big, that can accommodate all truths by which people live.  The truth is we decide what truth is.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

There are some truths, but they do not seem to exist in some fields of interest, e.g. philosophy, politics, religion, etc. They do exist in nature e.g. energy, gravity, mass, etc. The best mechanism for determining these truths found to date is via the scientific process.-not mere thought, not religion, not politics, not philosophy. The scientific process accompanied by critical thinking are increasingly revealing the "true" nature of humans & the universe.
Thanks for the insights you have discovered by a lifetime of study & critical thinking, Charlie!


Roger Ray said...

Jim, while I am an advocate for evidence based faith, I do not belief that the path towards the most desirable life is going to come from the scientific method alone. You could, as a matter of scientific fact, come up with a way of cooking babies that was both nutritious and tasty but our sense of ethics, whether philosophically or spiritually, prevents us from going down that path.

As leading intellects have been siphoned off of the sciences to go into finance, placing our brightest minds at Wall Street computer terminals rather than in college classrooms or in research labs, we have seen a huge creation of wealth but the benefit accures only to those geniuses who create financial instruments that allow them to transfer wealth created by farmers and manufacturers into their own portfolios.

Science based search for truth must also be married to ethical deliberation if we seek the greatest good for the largest number of people but the choice to seek the greatest good for the largest number of people, while a staple of philosophical ethics, is, at its root, a faith statement..... a faith statement most of us would want to choose but it is not currently a consideration on Wall Street nor, it seems, on Pensylvannia Ave.

People of faith need to be able to move beyond magical thinking and embrace scientific evidence epistomologically but not with Darwinian detachment. We need to be smart religious people, liberated from the limitations of superstitious thinking and empowered by factual information to seek the greatest good for the largest number of people.

Anonymous said...

Charlie and Roger,

I appreciate Roger Ray's comments about my previous comments as I am an admirer of Roger's knowledge, experience, and enlightened understanding of man's "predicament" in the universe in which we are born and, by the way by no choice of our own.

Roger seems to initially disagree with my belief in critical thinking and the scientific method for "identifying the path toward the most desirable life". Then in his last paragraph he seems to believe that they are at least indispensable. I wish I had been both wise and poetic enough to have included the thoughts in Roger's last paragraph in my initial comments.


Charles Hedrick said...

My last couple of years at the university there was something of a struggle between the faculty and administration over consideration given to the research of discovery and that given to applied research. Applied research was strongly encouraged by the administration, while in the eyes of many faculty the research of discovery "played only second fiddle." Applied research naturally resulted in some sort of practical application that improved the quality of life in Missouri and, of course, that "plus" played well in the legislature, for the state was then reaping dividends from its investment in the university (MSU is a state assisted public institution), which was a plus for the university administration when the legislature considered the university's annual budget..
As I read your third paragraph, Roger, you seem to be coming down on the applied research side of this issue I described above. In other words, as I read you, scientific research for the sheer joy of discovering something new unless guided by ethical and humane constraints is dangerous, for it might lead to "new ways of cooking babies," as you put it. Jim's response to your post seems to be in agreement. Here is a question for both of you: would you say that the pursuit of scientific knowledge for the sheer joy of discovery is not worthwhile, or runs the risk of being dangerous to humanity, if it is not restrained by ethical and humane considerations?

Anonymous said...

Posed: The pursuit of scientific knowledge for the sheer joy of discovery is not worthwhile and runs the risk of being dangerous to humanity if it is not restrained by ethical and humane considerations?

Charlie, You would not be asking this question if your background was strongly in science, as the answer from any secular scientist would be yes. In fact, it would be yes regardless of the ethics and humane considerations. The ethics of scientific discovery is to seek out truth, period. It would be left to other elements of society to determine what to do with the truth once discovered. Sadly, much of western society deny the truth once determined if it conflicts with their previous belief. A good example would be the discovery of atomic energy that revealed both fantastic potential benefit and harm to mankind. Another interesting example is the discovery of Earth's life forms, e.g. human evolution or the age of the universe. Both of these scientific discoveries challenge the historical understanding of the accuracy of the Bible and provide welcomed perception of it's place in human knowledge. On the other hand, these truth continue to be denied by many.
I might add that secular scientists are among the most ethical humans. Their discoveries have been utilized by other elements of society in various harmful and helpful manners.

So, what does Roger think?


Charles Hedrick said...

I agree with you up to a point. There is one exception for me in the field of medical research. Human subjects should never be used against their will and the scientist should not deliberately plan to inflict physical harm to their subjects in the course of their investigation. But after saying that I can imagine that under certain conditions even that limitation to research arguably might not apply in the scientist's mind--although the researcher would be held responsible for the harm done to the few in the pursuit of what the researcher conceived as the greater good.
In my own field I have no such limitation, even though much of what I do thoroughly disillusions, emotionally frightens, and destroys the inherited religious constructs of some traditionally religious folk. I do not set out deliberately to cause such an experience but it is simply a natural corollary to research in religion without confessional boundaries. Hopefully, the "grapes will seem fatter" on the other side of the disillusionment.

Ozark Uncle said...

Thanks, Charlie. Earlier this year, I might have shared this with my Facebook horde of diverse friends. But I've been hiding away from any attempt to battle the "Big Truth" fire storms out there--it seems like a useless effort.

I foresee a time coming (perhaps not in our lifetimes) that some of the Big Truths you mention will be blown into little truths. Right now, too many aspects of our society feast off the Big Truths.

I benefited from your piece and I also learned a new word (to me)--pogrom. Charlie, I've been watching the news out of the Vatican with considerable interest all year. Any thoughts about how Pope Francis might affect the length of time in which some of the Big Truths survive?

Charles Hedrick said...

Ken, I have no special insights into Vatican affairs. I do know that Popes have the power to make changes, as witness the changes initiated by Pope John the 23rd. The last Pope had only begun his tenure before ill health forced him to retire (the first Pope to do so), but early on it did not appear that he would make any revolutionary changes in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis already gives indications that more than just changes in how the church is perceived are coming--but what?