Truth and Illusion, Part II: What Is Truth?
Long ago, Jesus expressed that the truth will “make us free.” The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, responded to Jesus’ references to truth with the infamous, seemingly jaded and rhetorical question, “What is truth?”
Along with Pilate, we might believe that truth is at best often elusive, and that attempting to get a majority of humans to agree on any given truth may be utterly futile, especially when it comes to either politics or spirituality. I would like to suggest that we have, for the most part, been operating with limited models for how to access and verify truth. The kinds of truths we need to understand are scientific as well as spiritual, political, communal, and global. We need to understand ourselves, one another, and this universe.
In order to access truth, we need to combine both Eastern and Western worldviews along with engaging both our left brains and our right brains. We also need to combine northern and southern hemispheric views of truth on this earth, since many northern cultures have been dominating, exploiting, and wiping out the cultures and cultural values of so many southern cultures around the globe. Combining these triple hemispheric views is the only way we will be able to understand each other, let alone the universe.
From any one hemisphere of the brain or of the earth – north/south and east/west, our understanding of truth can be fantastic, comprehensive on some level, and instructive for life. Yet, until we combine this triple-hemisphere duality into a unified quest for truth, we will continually tend to portray life, the universe, humanity, and spiritual truths in somewhat limited, and therefore potentially distorted and potentially destructive ways.
I would like to add fourth duality to consider when contemplating truth. The fourth duality is the duality of masculine and feminine, because androcentrism and patriarchy have dominated our portrayals of history and politics while defining reality in ways that have neglected more feminine, nurturing, and cooperative values that are nonetheless inherently part of being human.
This fourth one-sided view has neglected feminine ways of being, doing, perceiving, and valuing, and so has also skewed our understanding of “truth.” For about 5,000 years, patriarchy and patriarchal religions have dominated the worldview of most of humanity. The time to shift this balance is now, so that we can attain more holistic understandings of truth.
While this fourth duality, masculine and feminine, may seem separate from the two-hemisphere split of the brain and of human culture on the earth, in many ways, the right brain invites more feminine ways of knowing and experiencing reality. Moreover, women tend to process information more holistically, engaging both sides of the brain through the corpus callosum.
(So, maybe women tend to get closer to the truth automatically! That is, in part, a joke, of course. The part that is not a joke is the importance of using both sides of the brain to process information.)
Before we further discuss how we access truth, let us ask, like Pilate, but hopefully with a less jaded attitude: what is truth?
Of course, we can all begin by agreeing that there are facts that are objectively verifiable, and the measurement of those facts is replicable by others, and that certain events, sometimes even mental ones, now with CT scans and MRI’s, are observable and quantifiable, from the quantum level to the universal level of gravitational waves, the speed of light, and so on.
There are also relative truths. Einstein did teach us about relativity, so that we know that sounds have different pitches, and galaxies shine different colors, depending on whether they are approaching us or moving away from us. These are relative truths based on the relativity of the curve of space-time. Two trees that appear small and spaced together for someone at a far distance will appear big and spaced far apart to someone standing much closer. Both perspectives are true, based on the physical realities of space-time.
There are also personal truths that are relative. From the very basic sorts of physical truths such as peanuts can kill one person to peanuts can provide a good source of protein and other nutrients for another person, to a certain statement sounding hostile to one person while sounding neutral to another person, we all have varying senses and experiences of the “truth” outside ourselves, as well as inside ourselves.
Then, there is denial.
Denial certainly blocks our awareness of truth. Denial is a common human escape from truth caused by inward emotional pain that we have not yet learned how to handle. Usually, such immense emotional pain develops from repeated emotional pain through childhood and on up. Denial is like an addiction, in that it creates an escape from having to deal with some aspect of truth, or “reality.”
Denial also happens when we are presented with a truth that causes cognitive dissonance because it conflicts with the beliefs and understandings we already have. This started to happen with me in the example I gave in the introduction, so that I began from a place of denial about the possibility of miracles, even as recounted by a very holy and reliable witness, because they seemed to defy the logic with which I viewed the world at the time. However, the thought of changing my worldview to include miracles was not extremely painful to me either emotionally or mentally, so I decided to open myself to the idea that miracles might be possible.
Denial happens when a new idea causes not only conflict with our existing understandings and beliefs, but also creates very strong or even severe emotional pain when we contemplate changing our original understandings and beliefs. If the inner emotional pain and cognitive dissonance combined are really strong, we go into denial, even in the face of solid evidence for the truth.
One example of this that I have actually encountered was with a clergy colleague. While I now lead an interfaith community, I used to serve traditional churches. As an ordained minister formerly serving in a Christian denomination that values freedom of belief, church members and ministers alike can have varying and even conflicting beliefs and understandings of the Christian faith, of God, the Bible, and the universe itself.
I once had a discussion with a clergy colleague who had been theologically trained in a very conservative school, and who believed the Bible is literally true and inerrant. This means that, despite conflicting statements in the Bible, and despite the scientific and historical underpinnings for many claims, every statement in the Bible is seen as somehow “true.”
In this discussion, I discovered that my colleague believed that the Bible shows that the earth (and the universe as well), is only some 6,000 years old. I objected that this could not possibly be true, because we can see stars that are more than 6,000 light years away. My colleague claimed that God had created the universe in a way that the light was already reaching us.
Now, this claim makes no sense to me in any way, scientifically or spiritually speaking. But apparently, to my colleague, it would have been more painful to perceive Biblical teachings as primarily metaphorical rather than literal, and therefore to be able to question the Bible’s lack of scientific knowledge when it was written, so that one can cherish more metaphorical understandings of Biblical statements rather than needing them to mean some literal event more than teaching a spiritual truth. As one of my former professors at Vanderbilt University Divinity School explains, “all religious language is metaphorical language.”
We just looked at denial as an obstacle to truth when it arises out of a degree of inner emotional pain. Let us look at another underlying root of denial: fear. I find this fascinating that fear and emotional pain can cause denial, because long ago in some of my studies (possibly pastoral care), I learned that underneath all anger lies either fear or hurt.
Anger and denial seem to go together. At the very least, when we are in a state of denial, our sense of truth can cause pain to others, and lead to others feeling angry, frustrated, or powerless. We quite naturally also feel angry more easily when we are out of alignment with truth. Denial gives rise to anger because we are hurting our own selves by denying the truth. The cycle of pain continues to spread outward with denial, blocking access to truth between and among human beings in families, communities, nations, as well as around the globe.
Considering fear as an element of blocking our access to truth leads us to the recognition that a fifth duality must be considered in our quest for truth over illusion. This duality is that of fear vs. love. Fear and love are energetic opposites: we cannot simultaneously be feeling fear and unconditional love.
Clearly, love is associated with the Divine. Fear has also been, in some religious understandings, associated with the Divine, but when has fear ever led to truth?
With love and light, please watch for my upcoming book,
 One of the most important books I believe I have ever read, and which helped me understand human ways of knowing, is entitled Women’s Ways of Knowing, by Belenky, et al, . In this book, I learned about human ways of knowing, and found an understanding of human knowing which, I believe, explains how Jesus Christ related to other human beings, i.e., as a “connected knower,” and as a “principled knower,” which ways of knowing very much balance feminine and masculine ways of knowing.
 For this concept, I am indebted to Dr. Sallie McFague, her courses, and her book, Metaphorical Theology.