Truth Value

cave mural of Avalokiteshvara, other bodhisattvas and mendicant
Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, presents an appealing aspect of unseen reality

Class is all over but the grading, which needs to be done a little more quickly than usual because the university’s Moodle site, where all my students’ work will be, is going to be shut down for maintenance two days before grades are due. Did anyone actually think that was a good idea? I have to assume that for some reason the technical types who would normally watch out for that kind of obvious conflict had no choice in the matter. I haven’t tried to check that assumption out … there are some things that, if I could know them, I might not want to.

As part of the final discussion yesterday, we took up some of the overarching themes of the course: what do we think religion “is,” [and how satisfied are we with the working definition in the book, what would we change in that definition to come closer to what we think we mean when we use the term “religion” ourselves, …], what are the positive contributions it makes to human life, what are the negatives, are the positives and negatives different, or the same, for the different religious traditions we’ve studied … that kind of thing. The students got into the discussion and had plenty to say, and as final discussions go it was above average.

Still, in the course of the discussion I realized that the students and I are farther apart than ever before on the topic of truth.

When I first started teaching religion, about fifteen years ago now, I never talked about truth. For one thing, I was at a state school, so we took a carefully objectivist line to avoid promoting one religion over another: “this is what Hindus believe,” “this is the primary teaching of Buddhism,” “that wouldn’t be normative Confucianism,” etc. But I wasn’t that comfortable with the basic idea of assessing their truth claims, either, or acknowledging that it would matter. I was very much in a “that’s really up to you and what you’re comfortable with” place.

Over the years, I’ve changed my tune pretty completely. These days I always bring up the issue of truth, not to tell the students how to decide it, but to get it on the agenda explicitly, and to point out that the religions make truth claims, make competing and in some important cases incompatible truth claims, and to point out that people have to come to terms with how they are going to think about those, what kind of assessments they are going to allow and disallow, and what standards they are going to insist on for the truth claims they accept for themselves. The religions themselves – religious people, if we want to be that way – insist on the truth of their truth claims. Ignoring that is ignoring something vital about the religions, about what it means to be religious; and it ignores some of what makes religion powerful, for good when it does have some power for good, and for evil when it exerts its power for evil. People have the idea that their religion tells them something about how things really are, and that idea matters, for what people think and for what people do. Not always as much as we might think it matters – people do things they believe to be wrong, for instance, even when they believe they may suffer for it later – but still, it matters.

So this semester, when the issue of truth came up, the usual issues of relativism (“well, different people think different things;” “if you accept it for yourself, then it’s true for you”) surfaced, but also something I hadn’t actually heard before: who even cares? What difference does it make whether it’s true or not true? Really? Because the chances of getting the whole story of “reality” all correct are so small, and we don’t even really think that way … as long as we are getting along day to day, we are getting through school, we have an idea of what we are going to do afterwards … then those bigger questions, like whether or not Brahman and Atman are ultimately in union with one another and if we realize it we will attain release from samsara, are not that important to us. Those are matters for people who like to think philosophically.

That surprised me, honestly. Not only are we living without a meta-narrative, we don’t miss it, is what I got from that. I could sort of understand it, although I couldn’t really relate to it.

But then yesterday, one of the students identified “truths” as one of the advantages of religion: people like to know things, like to have answers to their questions, and the religions give you those answers, so that would let you feel a nice sense of certainty. So I asked, “well, does it make a difference whether the truths are, in fact, true, or whether the truths are not true, are mistaken?” And a general chorus went up: how would you know? And I said … well … whether you can know it is a different question from whether the things you believe are true; but let’s say, even if you couldn’t know, perfectly, would this benefit of religion be a benefit if you were accepting truths that weren’t true? Or is this only a real benefit if you are accepting actual truths; true truths?

There was a lot of heart for it being a benefit even if the truths were false. As long as they didn’t make you hurt other people.

Of course I pushed back on this. And to be fair, I think some of this has to do with the students’ implicit premise that we were talking about things like whether Avalokiteshvara is real or pretend. So – say you believe in Avalokiteshvara, and it makes you feel better, who cares, in the end, whether Avalokiteshvara is really there, helping out all the sentient beings, or not? I think perhaps if we had specified a different set of examples – that Sita’s behavior ought to be expected of ordinary wives; that I ought to choose the occupation my father chooses for me as an expression of filial piety – then maybe there would have been less heart for this “truths, whether or not true” idea.

But I think it also goes back to their willingness to do without a meta-narrative that had surfaced earlier in the semester. For these students there seem to be a lot of “optional” ideas; you can fill in the account of “how things are” in all kinds of ways, and all those ways seem equally fanciful and also equally inconsequential, ultimately. The only real test of the adequacy of a set of ideas is how it affects your living of your life locally, here and now. If whatever you believe helps you get through the day, makes it easier for you to act like a decent human being, keeps you feeling like you have a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, then … great. For you. I’m not going to interfere … although I also won’t feel compelled to share your affection for Avalokiteshvara, or Lao-Tsu, or whatever. And then, if we scratched the surface, I think we’d find they do have a kind of meta-narrative, actually; it’s physics/chemistry/biology.

So I am mulling over how to raise the truth issues more effectively next time — I’m teaching Asian religions again in the fall, so I have a few weeks to give it some additional thought.

Honestly, what really bothers me is that the students don’t already share my conviction that “no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s [sic] opinions are. … Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.” (PCUSA Book of Order F-3.0104) It may not be my job to persuade them of that particular philosophical position – although I’m not certain it’s not – but I think it’s at least my job to give the idea that we ought to try to believe what’s true a fighting chance.

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