Truth is objectivity; truth is subjectivity. A deep personal investment in honest scientific research weds subjective truth and objective truth. Einstein’s embrace of Relativity coupled his embrace of objective truth with his witness to subjective truth, so tightly was his identity coiled around it. And some truths are perhaps neither one nor the other. I have a true taste for Camembert and Richter has a true touch for Schubert, but these truths are neither the outcome of reliable, verifiable reporting nor a responsible witness to a personal investment. And there’s the subtle point that an ear for BS is something other than an ear for the absence of objective truth. It’s closer to having an ear for the betrayal of the subjective truth that truth matters to me. We learn to sort the sham from the real, the true from the false, the deep from the shallow. We learn to sort the objective from the subjective and the instances of neither and both. To sort is to have a knack for attune-ment to the varied landscapes I pass through. Learning music is getting the gist of its spirit, the gist of true pitch, true expression, true regard for a composer and for one’s fellow performers.
Religious truth, or truths in religion
It’s best to think of religions on the street rather than seek them and their truths sequestered in heavenly raptures. Does the rubber hit the road when we look for religious truths? It’s best to steer away from the hopeless question “Which religion is true?”—and away from the presumption that Pilate’s question makes sense, and away from the illusion that if we only knew the answer, we could adjudicate other people’s lives in light of that answer. There is no such light or answer. What we can do is to steer for an insider’s knack. We need a knack for the truth, not of a bulk item, “religion,” but for the tactile truth of the singular lilt of a Haiku, of the feel of a prayer shawl, of the taste of communion bread and wine, of the ornate patterns of tile work in a cathedral in Byzantium.
Little is gained philosophically by a fixation on the spectacular clashes of one so-called religion with another. And to minimize the debilitating fallout from such clashes, we need to stay in the trenches, work harder for the tactile feel of ways of singing, praying, burying, wedding, blessing, forgiving, praising, meditating, walking, dressing, eating—and how these weave in and out of things holy and sacred, polluted and corrupt. Staying in trenches means learning aspects of Quaker quiet and of Orthodox iconography and of Staretz Silouan on Hell and Despair. It’s to have a feel for Buddha on the afflictions of age and wealth. It’s being able to smile with a hermit as he confides, with a twinkle, “My Lord told me a joke. And seeing him laugh has done more for me than any scripture I will ever read.”
If I’m worried about religious sensibilities or truths that seem strange or threatening to me, it wouldn’t help to ask, “What is truth?” It wouldn’t help to head off on a NEH-funded research program. I’d ask, at street level, from the trenches, “May I listen in?” “May I sit with you?” That might lessen the chasms between my sensibilities and yours, letting me get some small knack of your sense of true friends, true prayer, true blessing, true dance. That won’t close all the gaps between us; nothing can, and probably nothing should.
At the level of institutional conflict, it’s doubtful that having a more intimate sense of another’s religious truths will eliminate violence, though it might bring the level down a notch, for a moment. But we should no more expect theories of truth or immersion in another’s ways of life to bring contesting religions together, than we should expect theories of truth or immersion in other’s ways to bring warfare or hatred or greed to a quick end.
Let me close with two instances where I’ve had small but important glimmers of hope—places where rubber hits the road, and one knows one has hit something significant.
A recent graduate of Duke, Peter Dula now has a book, on Cavell and theology. A pacifist, he served a year in neighborhood shelters in Iraq with the war going full tilt. We’d learn more from his tactile sense of truths—truths of hope and faith under fire—than we would, I suspect, from reading a thousand essays on truth and pluralism. The truths he can witness to resonate with the cry of Starets Silouan: “Keep your mind in Hell, and Despair not!” His witness is Gandhi’s or Simone Weil’s.
Now I think of a woman wearing a Muslim scarf. She sits quietly in a summer class I lead at a local Catholic College. She’ll teach me something without uttering a word. I have no theory of truth or handbook for negotiating religious difference. I’ll be alert to an assigned Melville text in new ways. I’ll linger with the delight Ishmael and Queequeg take in each other in their room at the Spouter-Inn. One celebrates Ramadan, the other Christmas, one shyly covers his feet, the other shyly covers up other parts. One sleeps with a knife, the other doesn’t. One drapes his arm comfortably over his bedmate; the other is terrified. They become best of friends.
Queequeg invites Ishmael to join in his pagan ritual. Without batting an eye, Ishmael thinks: “I would do as I would have done to me—I would have Queequeg join me in prayer; I will join him in prayer.” He arrives at a tactile truth, not unlike that of our good Lutheran pastor, and all for the good. My scarfed student listens.
No doubt I’d have a sixth sense working as I get students thinking of this scene—a sixth sense, to monitor my scarfed student’s response, revealed, perhaps overtly, perhaps in a subtlety—in her face or eyes, in a stiffening or relaxing of her posture. At another point I might bring up Muslims opening their Mosque as shelter for persecuted Christians in thirteenth-century Spain—one Christian rabble fleeing another. The persecuted were saved, for a moment, hidden. There was nowhere to go. Muslims opened their doors.
To knit one’s brow and worry the question “What is truth?” is to try to think from a supra-celestial nowhere, surveying all time and eternity. It’s to try to think oneself into divinity. More ornately, to ask The Big Question is to beg a release from Dasein, a release from Heidegger’s “there-ness.” It’s to presume exemption from the only field from which sensible questions about truth can be safely launched.
“What is truth?” Overall, in general? This is a rootless, slightly inane question. It flutters weightlessly in gossip and chatter. Emerson anticipates wonderfully. “We are place,” he announces. That is, we are not gods, not disembodied consciousness, not exempt from placement, not detached from the street or the village or the trenches. Thoreau would agree—from a pond not far from the village of Concord.
If we are place, what is our place? Our place is the place that addresses us, and the place that addresses us (me) enjoins a regard for truth. It will have no truck with lies and falsehoods. The oak or the neighbor or the sunset have no use for dissimulation; they require my frank response. If I am the context, the place of my friend’s address, that friend can insist that I be true. We hope persons with religious sensibilities admire true human beings outside the circle of their practice, and if we are outsiders to each other, we might still ponder the true aims of prayer, confession, or prophecy. It is our place to be moved by gestures of true friendship or true solidarity, to acknowledge the true magnificence of granite walls, or of a truly ripe Camembert. It’s truly our place to respect the quiet of another’s prayer and listen to chants in languages we don’t understand.
The moral is that I know many of these truths of appreciation and comportment like the back of my hand. Might I be wrong? Of course! Might I be right, some, or most of the time? I’d better believe it.