The question of truth

How can we recognise truth as leading to freedom?

I've been following Peter Limberg's journal recently, and, as I write, his latest is called “Where Truth Is Found”. Read that, if you like, as a kind of philosophical and theological background, but I want to add my own flavour on top, and I think it stands alone. I ‘did’ philosophy as a student, so I became familiar with many philosophical ideas about truth, and I was certainly unimpressed by the correspondence theory, as it seems to miss completely any sense of post-modern insight.

I also share with Peter a Christian sensibility, and the key quote for me also comes from the gospel of John 8:31-32 (I'll join Peter in following the New King James version):

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Like many parts of the New Testament, the way I make sense of this is to turn it around. Not “there is an absolute truth, and if you find it that will somehow make you free”, but rather “it is the very nature of truth that it frees people: so what anyone needs to see as the truth is what makes them (genuinely) free.” This approach frees people up from trying to work out some abstract ideas about what ‘truth’ might mean, and instead puts the ball, or the question, in their court. What is genuine freedom, to you? I guess Peter and all of his readers would agree that the freedom that is genuine and valuable is not the ‘freedom’ merely to follow fast-thinking quick-response basic instinct, or conditioned patterns. Far from it. Surely, true freedom follows from the awareness of what it is that you really value – that is, how you really want to life your life. If you then have the choice, and make that choice, to act in a way that is consistent with what you really value, that is freedom. If you are free to do that, be happy, because so many people lack easy practical opportunities to make that choice – not least, in the work that they do to earn a living.

So, the truth, to me, is what sets me free to make the choices that are genuinely in line with what I value. But what is it that I value? Here, another dose of truth is needed: the truth about myself, about my history, about society, about what has conditioned me, perhaps, to think that I value things that on deeper reflection, or following wider experience, are hollow, empty, baseless, useless, destructive. Do I really value, say, money, social status, power, control? It's so easy to get sucked into the mindset where one acts as though one does value those things. So part of the truth setting us free is about the truth shedding light on what is really valuable. I mean, if I really valued money, say to have my own mansion, yacht, holiday villa or whatever, then I would be in danger of taking the truth to be what was purveyed by the likes of Ayn Rand. The ‘truth’ that life is an egotistic rat-race leads to a feeling of ‘freedom’ to walk over other people and amass more for oneself. If the ‘truth’ is that the meaning of life is to strive towards creating a super-race of world-leading winners, then we will be tempted by the ‘freedom’ to discriminate, to oppress, to kill, and ultimately to commit genocide.

I approach belief systems, ideologies, organised religions, in a similar way. If a set of beliefs frees you up to be a genuinely better person, then by all means take that as your truth. The risk here may be another case of mistaking the map for the territory: even if your truth frees you, individually, to be a better person, if it becomes ‘the truth’ then the danger is that it is set against other people's truth, and that has led the human race into all kinds of violent, deadly mistakes.

Peter refers to Ria's Collective Presencing sessions as “one of the best ways to experience, and get good at, expressing truth power”, where ‘truth power’ is “a certain type of speech where you speak what you believe to be true, and it is a truth that wants to be spoken.” My question is, can we be sure that will set us, or others, free to be better people? Often, I know, it does, and I'm grateful for the collective presence that allows me to sink down below (or rise up above) my own egotistical thoughts and desires, and to sense what is, as we say, ‘in the middle’ or ‘what is mine to do.’ Quakers, too, share this same sense, named differently. But the outward forms of a Quaker Meeting for Worship, of Circle practice, of Collective Presencing, guarantee nothing at all. Indeed, sometimes, when we have put too much faith in a certain practice, the way that truth comes to make us free is exactly by breaking the boundaries of that practice.

Knowing ‘the truth’ about this is hard. My take is that history is littered with the debris from people who really believed that they had ‘the truth’, not just in the sense of their own opinion, but in the sense of what needed to be said or done. There are prophets, and there are false prophets, and many false prophets genuinely believe they are true prophets. For sure, I go along with the view that truth power involves the speaker believing it to be true, but the speaker believing that it is a truth that wants to be spoken is not valid in itself. It may set the speaker free, in their own terms; but does it set others free? That is the acid test. What is the fruit of that truth? If we hold in our consciousness that it is everyone who has a stake in being freed, not just me, then I will not look inside myself for confirmation that what I spoke was truth, but outside myself: to those with me; to whatever collective I am present with; to the world.

The question of truth is, does it contribute to setting everyone free?

… be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.

— George Fox


Topics: Complex psychology


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