Monday, June 8, 2015

When Truths Collide

“The conflict dates from the day when one man, flying in the face of appearance, perceived that the forces of nature are no more unalterably fixed in their orbits than the stars themselves, but that their serene arrangement around us depicts the flow of a tremendous tide—the day on which a first voice rang out, crying to Mankind peacefully slumbering on the raft of Earth, ‘We are moving! We are going forward!’ . . . It is a pleasant and dramatic spectacle, that of Mankind divided to its depths into two irrevocably opposed camps—one looking toward the horizon and proclaiming with all its newfound faith, ‘We are moving,’ and the other, without shifting its position, obstinately maintaining, ‘Nothing changes. We are not moving at all.’”—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin1

The ultimate truth can’t be contained by anything we can say about it. Any definitive statement can be suspected of being in some way false, or at the very least replete with opportunities for misunderstanding.  That isn’t to say that this truth is something ambiguous. Anyone who’s tasted it knows that there’s nothing more certain.  But with this certainty comes the understanding that our discovery of it is an ongoing process and that our articulation of it will always be provisional.  Words fail in the face of it, yet, as words are what we have to use in bearing witness to it, we’re compelled to try to use them. And the best words we can come up with to describe it tend to sound confusing and contradictory.  Shunryu Suzuki’s famous statement, “The truth is always paradoxical,” seems to me a particularly concise expression of this.  Just about any statement made about truth of the ultimate kind can be shown to be false when pressed very far, and any such statement can usually be challenged by another true statement that seems antithetical to it.  The aspiration to honesty then compels us to a navigation between seemingly contradictory true statements. This navigation is not compromise--it’s not about trying to land on some sort of identifiable “true” point between the two truths.  It’s the lived experience between the extremes. To use this principle to speak of the experience of “God,” for example, one might say that God transcends anything we can comprehend. But that statement is false if one doesn’t also testify to the accompanying perception that God is at the same time deeply intimate with me, closer, I could say, than I am to myself.  The statements seem to contradict each other, even though we experience both to be true, and, most interesting of all, neither seems to be completely true without the other.  It could be said that truth is discovered in the navigation between the extremes of the two statements, but this navigation is a dynamic process that never lands on an identifiable spot between them that solves the paradox.  Anyone who identifies such a spot is lying.

I describe the above navigation between contradictory truths in order to distinguish it from the very different situation in which contradictory points of view are simply irreconcilable (where one is clearly true and the other false), because I see people, often people of good will, treating the latter situation as though it were a variant of the former—trying to find common ground between true and false as though they were navigating between contradictory statements of truth.  It doesn’t work.

Teilhard brilliantly analogizes the true-versus-false situation in his essay “A Note on Progress” from which my epigraph is taken. Compromise isn’t a possibility in the confrontation between the movers (as I’ll call the people whom he identifies as being aware of our being in motion) and non-movers (as I’ll call the others), and navigation between these irreconcilable truths is impossible. There’s no middle ground between true and false, no navigation possible when one of the shores you’re sailing between simply doesn’t exist.  This conflict between movers and non-movers seems to me to symbolize the two approaches one can take toward just about any of the ideas about truth we humans disagree about as soon as we start talking.  Once you’ve seen what I’m talking about, you’ll likely see the phenomenon all over the place--if you haven’t already—in art, religion, politics, or anything that matters much, or that points to ultimate reality.

As our honorable impulse to compromise is strong (and compromise certainly can be a worthy response to some situations), we try hard to imagine the movers and the non-movers  as in some way reconcilable.   As though they were two possibly equal “sides” that might find peace through compromise or mutual understanding or between which a point of agreement might be found. Those who aim to create such compromise can find themselves led into a lie, or at least into frustration.   We’re either moving, according to Teilhard’s analogy, or we’re not. There’s no middle ground.

The situation is complicated by the fact that, though the difference between the moving and non-moving positions is as plain as black and white, the people who hold those positions are full of nuance. The non-movers are sometimes willfully ignorant, it has to be said, but they’re also sometimes people of good will, who put a high value on such things as loyalty, tradition, or faithfulness, even sometimes to the point of self-sacrifice.  They can be stupid or quite intelligent. They can have Ph.D.s.   In the end it seems to me that what they’re faithful to is often an articulation of truth rather than the truth itself.  At their worst, they can actually refuse to acknowledge their own experience, as it can’t be trusted--though the logical step of determining why they originally accepted what they’re clinging to against experience is elided.  They’ll deflect the question if asked, or get angry.  That their acceptance of whatever form of non-movement they’re devoted to must have had a beginning can’t be pointed out to them. They have to come to this understanding on their own (and when they do, they suddenly find themselves in motion . . .).

This isn’t to say that the non-movers are bad and that the movers are good or anything so simplistic.  Movers can be foolish. They are more prone to make mistakes, even really stupid ones, than non-movers.    Movement inclines one to error, and movers are error-prone. Their big temptation is to cast off received knowledge in favor of experience, rather than balancing the two—avoiding the non-movers’ delusion of ignoring experience in favor of letting experience be the only thing that guides them. The understanding that we are in motion doesn’t make us perfect or all-seeing, nor does commitment to stasis take away every bit of insight, nor does it necessarily turn people into monsters. This is important to understand as soon as one acknowledges, as one ultimately must, that movers and non-movers are irreconcilable.

The frustration is compounded by the fact that the non-movers are generally very sure of themselves, while the movers aren’t. Movers are convinced of the fact that movement is happening, but, being in motion, they can’t land in a comfortable experience of surety. Their honest uncertainty isn’t a place from which they can argue effectively against people who are utterly sure of themselves.  The non-movers take their surety as a sign of correctness vis-à-vis the uncertainty of their in-motion opponents. The movers are indeed less sure of themselves. The only thing they’re often really sure of is that the certainty of the non-movers is false.  But, being in motion, they don’t have a bunker from which to engage in the fight. They understand that there aren’t two equal “sides” in this argument, while the non-movers proceed as though there are.

I think of the irreconcilability in terms of another analogy.  Imagine an archer with an arrow in his bow, the bowstring drawn back ready to shoot.  From the movers’ point of view the arrow must be shot. That’s the point.  All of his equipment, training, special gear, and the whole history of archery is for nothing other than shooting the arrow. It’s his calling.  To refuse to let go of the bowstring is absurd.  But from the non-movers point of view, letting go of the arrow is risky, and they’re right of course. One can’t be sure where it will land.  Maybe someplace inappropriate.  Maybe you’ll kill someone. You’ll risk losing the arrow, and, especially if it’s the only arrow you’ve got, what does the whole history of archery matter in that case anyway?  Maybe we’re not worthy of letting go of the bowstring, which is a privilege of spiritual adepts only, or of revered figures of the past, or of some worthy yet to be born. And so forth.

Regardless of all the mitigating circumstances, those who understand that the archer must shoot can’t find common ground with those who are convinced he must just stand there.   You can’t let go of the arrow just a little.  Shooting it only a few feet misses the point of arrows. You can strike a pose of dialogue with the movers, but a pose is all it will be, as you can’t give in an inch without risking losing that arrow.  And any true dialogue will challenge your view.

Conversely, the non-movers can’t compromise without lying. Once you’ve seen the purpose of archery, the necessity of shooting the arrow and the absurdity of not doing it, going back isn’t a possibility. Once you’ve seen the movement, you have to blind yourself in order to go back to being a non-mover. It can happen, but it doesn’t happen often.

Thus, true dialogue—which requires each side to take the other seriously—is difficult between movers and non-movers, maybe even impossible.  The situation has been described pretty well for two and a half millennia in Plato’s Republic by his analogy of the cave.  And for only about half a millennium less, Christ has stood as the ultimate model for the response: bearing witness.  Bearing witness is the movers’ only reasonable response to the non-movers intractability.

This bearing of witness is seldom, maybe never, easy.  At best, one becomes the subject of ridicule or eye-rolling.   When the threat your bearing witness presents to stasis is realized, you can expect personal attack.   You can even, depending upon the particular circumstances, expect to be sacrificed.  You have to expect to be a christ--that is, one anointed to speak a word of truth in the world confused about what truth is. The anointing, the calling to bear witness, comes with the seeing itself, and once you’ve recognized it, there’s no going back. You may be  surprised that the various levels of suffering required are actually preferable to avoiding the bearing of witness, even if you’re not the sort of person who’s inclined to die for a cause. But it turns out that even death is better than the delusive alternative. Christ’s resurrection can be taken to be a sign of the fact that the delusion never triumphs, even if it seems to, as it usually does. And if you bear witness, you’re in wonderful company with the glorious assembly of those who’ve done so throughout the history of the world.

Teilhard says that the spectacle even ends up pleasant and dramatic. I’m not sure he’s right about that. It’s sometimes dramatic, sometimes not. It may be “pleasant” to an outside observer, but none of us are outside observers to this spectacle.  The bearing of witness is seldom pleasant, always inevitable, always right. It always points away from self-defense and toward self-emptying. If you seem to be moving in that direction, you may be on the right track.

1. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, translated by Norman Denny (New York:  Image Books, 1964), p. 1.


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