By Cady Stanton
During each of A.C. and Jamie’s prior appearances on Rev. Jesse Peterson’s radio show, the question arose as to what “truth” the discussions on Waves of Gray will ultimately be measured against. As framed on Rev. Peterson’s show, an absolute truth is necessary in order to determine who is right and who is wrong, that a right-versus-wrong dichotomy is inherent in any discussion. Otherwise, the reasoning follows, truth itself is diminished as it is subsumed into the world of relativism.
It’s an intriguing question, to say the least.
For Rev. Peterson, the question is an easy one; truth rests in the Bible, its words form the standard to measure right and wrong. But doesn’t that beg the initial question? Muslims can just as easily assert that truth is found in the Koran, as can Jews with the Torah. Even within the general faith we call Christianity there are multiple denominations with diverging interpretations and versions of what each calls the Bible. Individual adherents to particular religions or faiths may denounce the others, but their truth is actually a subjective belief. Religion, by its nature and as evidenced by its history, will never give us an objective truth.
In their “Whose Truth Do You Believe?” post, A.C. and Jamie further demonstrate the subjectivity in describing truth. Jamie tends toward relativism and a rejection of the notion that there is a single, unifying truth. He takes people as he finds them. Jamie will dispute factual assertions and disagree with the opinions of others, but he doesn’t challenge the truths that are at the foundation of those opinions. A.C., on the other hand, tends toward self-contradiction. He is looking for objectivity, stating that truth consists of that which is verifiable or “in accordance with the actual state of affairs.” At the same time, he puts forth his own subjective beliefs and calls them the truth.
A.C.’s views are, I think, more representative of the ordinary folks that comprise the vast majority of our nation’s citizenry, myself included. We all have a tendency to blur the line between verifiable truth and our opinions about that truth. Going back to A.C.’s post as an example, he acknowledges that we’ve got an economic mess on our hands. The mess is verifiable and evidenced by data. He asserts with equal confidence, however, that he knows why we’re in a mess and how to prevent it from happening again. That’s not truth; it’s his opinion. I’ve done likewise (and I bet you have, too). I’ve formed my own opinions about causes, cures and prevention, and I think of them as being right, as truth. But being incapable of verification, my opinions are just that – opinions.
All this considered, perhaps we have erred in describing “truth” in the singular, that we fail to recognize the ambiguity that is inherent in the word. Truth, it seems, is accepted or rejected, on the one hand, by verification of the scientific variety and, on the other, by personal conviction.
In arriving at this conclusion, I have taken into account not just the views of A.C., Jamie and Rev. Peterson, but also the two most prominent uses of the word “truth” in our society. The first is testimony in legal proceedings, in which we ask people to swear or affirm that what they are about to say is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The person will be asked to relay what she saw, heard or knew about whatever incident is the subject of inquiry. The other side will attempt to refute or call into question the accuracy of that testimony. Isn’t this, then, a search for the verifiable truth premised on the witness’s promise to give an accurate portrayal of the facts that are known to her? And does this truth have any connection to biblical teachings or that the truth is to be found in God’s word? The answers to these questions are, of course, yes and no, respectively (although the latter is implicated at the swearing in stage because, apparently, it’s a bigger deal to lie to or before God than to people). The truth sought is whether the defendant is guilty or, in a civil proceeding, liable to the plaintiff. That search is premised on verifiable facts.
The second prominent use of “truth” is in one of the two most critical documents to our nation’s founding – the Declaration of Independence. Therein it is said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Constitution and its first ten amendments embody and give legal force to the principles laid down in the Declaration.
However, these “truths” are not verifiable. Rather, they represent a belief that freedom belongs to each of us simply by virtue of having been born. Indeed, what Thomas Jefferson and the signatories to the Declaration of Independence proclaimed was no different, in form, than Rev. Peterson’s recent (and, I’m guessing, frequent) proclamation that the Bible holds the absolute truth. Subjectivity is at the heart of both and each is sustained, ultimately, not by verification, but by faith and personal conviction.
Truth being thus understood as defining not one, but two concepts leads to the question of how this duality will, or should, play out on the Waves of Gray site or, as asked at the outset, by what standard of truth the discussions here should be measured. It would be nice to think that pure objectivity – in other words, the facts – could rule the discussions. But facts, standing alone, lack personality; it is our own subjective beliefs that give them life and spawn debate. Although we must always be on guard that we don’t allow subjectivity to blind us to reality, subjective truth is unavoidable and, moreover, relevant and desirable. On the other hand, too much subjectivity would cause the site to devolve into demagoguery.
Is there a subjective truth, something “absolute,” around which Waves of Gray might rally? If A.C. and Jamie must choose, should that choice not be those self-evident truths that are at the core of our nation’s founding as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? Especially within the latter, there is room for all views, including those of various religions. We find there the powers, duties and limits of the branches of government. We see that liberty must be vigilantly protected against tyranny from rulers and passion from citizen majorities. These documents represent the measure of truth for this site, or any other like it, because they hold the key to our ability to find common ground and, above all else, they are what bind us and give us our sense of pride as a nation, as a people. It is our adherence to these documents and the principles they enunciate that gives us our measure of right versus wrong.