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Viral Truth

Monday, Nov 23, 2020
Jim Sutton

Isn’t it great to have the ability to find needed information more readily than taking a trip to the local library or finding a person who has an accurate answer to a question? For instance, if you must repair something in the house or on the car, a YouTube video is waiting for you on your cell phone or laptop. If you need information on what government procedure is necessary to get a license/register to vote/file a permit/pay taxes … you get the idea, an internet connection is all you need. And if you are not internet savvy, a phone call to the right person or agency (possibly found by an internet search) will also do the trick.

But that is not true for everyone, as I have observed over the years. Some people only accept information from other people via conversation. Relationship is the key to understanding and interpreting the world around them. If their family/friends don’t talk about it, it just isn’t on the radar of things to think about. What’s wrong with that approach?

“The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs” is a line out of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, found in The Last Battle book. The idea Lewis powerfully illustrates in this Narnian tale is that there is a high cost to such an approach to life. It is a good strategy to minimize exposure to false ideas by having few sources of information and current thought, especially if one has trustworthy friends and accurate sources of information. But this misconstrues our job as free agents. The privilege with the gift of life is not just to minimize false beliefs, but also to maximize true beliefs. The “head in the sand” posture of the “Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs” will potentially keep one from discovering important truths that have at times been called “self-evident”, and at other times “hard to understand”.

Relationships are the go-to means of information for many people. Whether the information is true or not is another matter. For instance, does the person sharing have firsthand knowledge of the information? Is the person a reliable source of information, let alone the information in question? Does the person tend to jump to conclusions with information supporting their biases? The telephone game suggests that the more information is conveyed through oral methods, the greater potential for errors, omissions or exaggerations of the original message. Comparing the original message with downstream information can be an effective remedy for the problems inherent to oral communication.

I suggest that there are three pathways to discovering truth: revelation (an information source that transcends human thought), experience (which includes hearing and accepting another’s experiences), and reasoning (logical thought that follows the laws of non-contradiction).

But first, what is the definition I am using for truth? The definition herein means an idea or concept that is transcendently true regardless of what anyone might believe. Take for instance the idea that the earth is essentially round, instead of flat. There is enough reproducible data, human research based on assumptions and logical reasoning to attest that the earth is essentially round and rotates around the Sun.

Pythagoras, who lived around 500 BC believed that the earth was round. His reasoning articulated that the Moon must be round by observing the shape of the terminator (the line between the part of the Moon in light and the part of the Moon in the dark) as it moved through its orbital cycle. Before Pythagoras, the Jewish scriptures stated that the earth was a “sphere” (Hebrew word “khug”), found in the writings of Isaiah and Job, the oldest book in the Jewish and Christian bible. Where did that first belief come from without experience to provide the fuel for its assertion? I would say it came from revelation, others might say it came through reasoning; particularly with those who have a predisposition to understanding truth exclusively through reason and experience.

There are some that currently believe the earth is not round. The understanding of the earth being round, however, has provided a framework to design navigation systems, transportation systems, weather prediction algorithms, food production policies and a host of other benefits to humanity. The belief that the earth is geocentric to my understanding has provided no practical benefit to humanity. Indeed, the legacy of that belief has tragic results as attested by history, not the least the trial of Galileo by the Catholic church. To me this is evidence that logic/reasoning does not necessarily lead one to Truth, even when exercised by those who are considered the intellectuals of their day. With the written evidence of “khug” in ancient writings, the idea that revelation was the source of this truth cannot be easily dismissed.

I believe truth is something that provides benefit to humanity, and certainly an individual, helping them to interpret the reality behind what their senses tell them about the environment they live in. I believe this because of the nature of God revealed through the Jewish and Christian scriptures. If truth can only be approached experientially or through relationships, even if those relationships are ostensibly based on a common faith in something which is true, then a critical flaw potentially exists. What if those few relationships do not accurately understand the truth of a matter? This could easily be the case when relevant information is missing from the members of a communal/familial group. Is it possible that our experiences such as suffering, pain or loss could lead us further from understanding the truth of our circumstances due to our self-imposed limitations on how we ascertain and assimilate information?

To expand the potential to assimilate truth about the world, people typically read newspapers and books, attend universities and conventions, have multiple friendships with people of different perspectives and proactively attempt to reach conclusions about what to believe is true. Yet expanding our sources of information does not necessarily improve our means of assessing or discovering truth if the sources are based on false premises. In that case, information we do have can potentially diminish our chances at seeing the Truth when our assumptions are also inherently flawed. In that case, information that could lead us away from our self-imposed prejudice is typically discarded before it is carefully evaluated. Revelation of the sort that confronted Saul on the road to Damascus can re-orient our self-imposed prejudices. If Saul had a self-imposed limitation on this type of revelation, however, there would most likely would not have been a Paul that contributed so much truth content to the Christian New Testament.

Information that does not fit our moral compass/worldview is typically discarded for most people, which can include a major pathway to truth, revelation. For instance, the person who believes that there is no afterlife, no eternal judgement for one’s actions will not be moved by information that could lead one to believe in a God of this nature however it is revealed to them. Consequently, another who believes that there is a God who will punish every evil doer may not be moved by information of a revelatory, experience or logical means that shows they have a part in redeeming the world by acts of sacrifice and service.

A posture of genuine openness to truth’s nature and reality and a corresponding aversion to non-truth enhances our chance of discovering truth that lends purpose and meaning to life. If our openness only extends to understanding truth from those who are living today whether close to our circle of acquaintances or not, we have consequently limited our ability to discover truth from an experience and reasoning perspective. The idea of limiting one’s exposure to ideas exclusively to the living is called “chronological snobbery”, a term spoken by C.S. Lewis regarding the reading of books exclusively written by living authors. I think it also applies to those who never acquire the discipline of reading books in general or refusing to engage with those who have different perspectives when there is an open door for dialogue. It does not, however, affect our potential to receive truth from revelation if we are not pre-disposed to this method of discerning truth.

Truth does set us free as the Scripture tells us from the book of John. Our earthly task is to become an effective “filter” against those ideas that work against discerning truth, while maximizing our ability to ingest and assimilate truth that sustains and enhances the life we have been entrusted with, and to make that truth “viral” amongst our fellow earth travelers as much as possible. If we are eternal beings, made in the image of God, this should be our reasonable duty.