We often, those of us who believe in freedom of thought, say that we know what we don’t believe, but aren’t at all sure what we do believe. I’m afraid this will always be true. What we believe is a moving target. If we believe the same thing today as we did twenty or even ten years ago, we probably haven’t been thinking about it much. Besides, given the nature of the search for truth what we do believe must remain tentative, while we can be very sure of what we don’t. And there are snares in the way even of thinkers who base their beliefs on evidence, as we do.
A very long time ago I read a story with the title I have given this sermon. It was a science fiction sketch by Robert Nathan, written in the ‘50s. The sketch purported to be the report of the findings of an archeological research group. They had discovered a rich site of a former civilization, and the story described many of their finds and gave plausible explanations of their meaning. It was only halfway through the story that you realized that the dig was
I imagine you all know about deconstructionism in history and literature courses in universities as a part of post-modern (horrible term) understandings. I understand it is declining in favor because of the shocking abuses by some of its proponents, but it was at first a useful tool for research. It began as simple critical thinking. The winners write the histories; the people in power have certain biases of power, and they are the ones who get published. No argument there. There is no question that the culture in which we live and the past that has shaped us gives a certain slant to how we will interpret facts and ideas. There is even a further question about the possibility of complete understanding in the simple limitations of our faculties. We cannot grasp anything that is completely outside our frame of reference. If there are dimensions beyond the four that we recognize, we cannot know them, and even the fourth gets misty enough that physicists of a mystical bent can do some odd things with it. Nevertheless, there is more than one way to look at the acceptance of our inability to know and understand all the truth in a case.
Understanding that the history we have is biased, some people have thought it was okay to entirely rewrite it, with no attention to the facts to prove the points they wanted to prove. This was most blatant among feminist scholars who rewrote prehistory based on no evidence at all. Even though it has been shown to be false, there are many who still believe it. It seems to me a whole world away to say on the one hand that history is biased, seen in its own milieu, clearly written by the winners, and therefore needs to be understood with those things in mind, and deciding on the other that since it’s fake anyway, you might as well write it to suit yourself, building another complex, elaborate structure on evidence so slim as to be essentially non-existent. It’s like saying that if things ought to have been a certain way they were a certain way, even though the preponderance of the evidence shows something entirely different.
Reinterpretations, biased interpretations, the facts that are obsessed upon or conveniently forgotten in history can cause continuing tragedy as we have seen in the Middle East, in the Balkans, in tribal wars in certain countries in
There is a book by Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things. It is excellent. Shermer says that most people who make extraordinary claims “are not hoaxers, flim-flam artists or lunatics. Most are normal people whose thinking has gone wrong in some way.” There are all kinds of such beliefs: people who believe in alien abductions, that they can make contact with dead relatives, that the Holocaust never happened, that psychic hotlines advance their lives, that the moon landing was faked and filmed in a movie studio, and that the Air Force is storing bodies of extraterrestrials killed when a flying saucer crashed in New Mexico. There are other weird beliefs, some with a shard of broken pottery for base, some with nothing at all.
It reminds me sometimes of the way certain sophomore English majors interpret poetry. It used to amaze and mystify me to hear the monstrous edifices that could be built around or upon a line of poetry, a line that the poet probably meant exactly as he or she wrote it. It is not that I do not believe in the potency and significance of metaphor in the attempt to glimpse the transcendent, or honor the multiple layers of meaning which make the language of poetry the only language able to pierce, however fleetingly, the curtain that shadows the dimension of the holy. There is, however, reason in all things, and to twist something away from its real meaning or to invent something new and justify it as interpretation, may be harmless enough as a student exercise, but leads to danger when it becomes a polemicist’s idea of the truth, and even more when people who should know better deny that truth can be ascertained, and therefore accept the weird ideas as revisionist history, as legitimate as any other, or reject what is good and worthwhile in the past because it was a product of its cultural milieu.
Of course, because of its nature, the writings and doctrines of religion suffer the most from this kind of inventive thinking which considers itself the real, if hidden, truth. This is not new. Look at the way the Catholic Church, for example, came up with the doctrine of the immaculate conception, for which there is not a scintilla of evidence in the Bible. Nor would there be any need for it, were it not for the belief that original sin is acquired through sexual reproduction, a doctrine built on the smallest shard ever discovered. The mother of Jesus was required to be without sin, and therefore her conception had to be somehow magically made non-sin-producing. Well, it is weird, and would be totally unnecessary were it not built on the other weird idea of the origin of sin. A little more elaboration, and they’ll have to make every sexual contact back to Ruth and Boaz as aseptic and joyless as possible.
Biblical interpretation can be downright amazing. I had a friendly acquaintance not long ago who assured me that the ancient Hebrews were not Semitic at all, but black, and cited chapter and verse for me. I read it — it was in Leviticus — and essentially it seemed very clear to me that it was simply a complaint of the tanning consequences of a long sojourn in the desert. Anybody can play. It’s an ancient sport. I sometimes feel as if I am the last person in the world who reads the Bible literally. I don’t read it to say what I think it ought to mean, or what I want it to mean. I just figure that the authors meant what they said. (Given, of course, the difficulties of translation and the differences in understanding of things both when the parts of it were originally written and when they were translated.) The comfort of that approach is that you don’t need to interpret it to make it agree with what you think. If you disagree with any of it, you can just say so. It makes it a whole lot easier to understand.
Our western faiths are not the only ones with this tendency. A whole new branch of Buddhism was built on the necessity of making the Buddha’s teachings compatible with believers’ different understandings of what life’s meaning really is. There is nothing really wrong with coming up with a new faith based on a heritage of belief but differing from it. It happens all the time. After all, that’s what the Buddha did with Hinduism, what Jesus did with Judaism, what Mohammed did with Christianity, Judaism, and the pagan faiths of his culture, what Lao-Tzu did with Taoism. There is something wrong, though, it seems to me, with taking a word, a phrase, a doctrine, an event, a tiny shard of pottery, building a whole new erection on its flimsy base out of speculation and unfounded interpretation, and saying that that was the truth all along.
Given the realities of our limitations and our biases, however, how do we know that weird beliefs are weird rather than true, that some histories are more fake than others? We can look carefully at the evidence; we can even decide to assume that just because we disagree with something that they really must have meant something else; we can look for conflicting evidence or contradictions; we can refuse to speculate beyond common sense except with a determined willingness to be shown to be wrong. We can accept the unpalatable truth that contradiction (as opposed to paradox) needs either to be resolved, or indicates error. We can learn the scientific lesson that the simplest answer is the most likely to be the true one. The two most important things we can do, however, is realize that if everyone else, or at least the great majority of people disagree with us, we must be triply sure of our facts and have a lot more evidence before we can believe something; and most of all we must place those same constraints upon ourselves if it is something that we really want to believe.
That, after all, was the original virtue of deconstructionism. It pointed out the places in which bias had led to distortion, where evidence had been suppressed, where truth had been ignored for the sake of a pleasant lie — that is, pleasant to those for whom the culture is pleasant. How odd that the search for truth with integrity laid the groundwork for revisionism and the invention and imposition of a different set of pleasant lies. If all history is fake, why not just pick the fake you like best? If, given our limitations of understanding, truth is unattainable, and different people seem to believe different things with equal conviction and lack of evidence, why not just believe whatever seems to promise the best outcome or makes you happiest? Or even, and this is harder to answer, why not believe whatever seems to lead to more justice, freedom, opportunity, goodness and beauty, whether it be true or false?
Truth itself is, unattainable or not, the highest goal. If you can discover, by evidence, by reason and reflection, by testing ideas, what is, if not absolutely true, at least closer to the truth, it doesn’t matter how unpleasant the truth may be, it compels belief. If you deny it or suppress it for the sake of a better outcome, you have lost any pretense of integrity. If you distort evidence or exaggerate it to build a new structure of meaning, however convinced or well-intentioned you may be, it is just as false as if you had no evidence at all.
The great and simple truths of justice, beauty and goodness cannot be discovered through falsehood or achieved through lies or careless error. Weird beliefs and false interpretations will not forward the quest. They are in an absolute sense as unattainable as absolute truth. But though they can be only glimpsed and worked toward, rather than achieved, their reality is patent. So is that of truth. We are taught to believe nowadays that since absolute truth is unattainable it doesn’t matter what we call truth. Since all ideas are equally false we need not — cannot — judge among them except insofar as they may further goals that we may value. That is the greatest falsehood of all. Untruths cannot further the goals of truth any more than injustice can achieve justice or ugliness beauty. We cannot, in our finiteness, always know or recognize the truth. We can be in error, but let us never settle for untruths, however pleasant or serviceable, that we know are untruths. Let us dedicate ourselves again to the free and responsible search for truth and for its practice in our lives. Only thus can meaning be founded in reality.