Giving Up Truth for Lent

Giving Up Truth for Lent February 9, 2016

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By this, I don’t mean actually giving up the Truth, but rather giving up one’s own parochial set of truths — the tendency to think that our way of viewing the world corresponds to an objective standard while the perspective of other people is basically just wrong.

The standard way that human beings approach disagreements, arguments, texts, ideas, and so forth is to basically assume that we are right, and those with whom we disagree are either ignorant, stupid, deluded, irrational, or outright evil. Of course, the flip-side of this is that when you are arguing with a deluded, malignant ignoramus they are, of course, equally convinced that you are a narrow-minded nincompoop.

So we argue in ways that are mostly non-productive, where the real goal is to score points and get likes from people who are on our side. We read sources that support our point of view, and when we venture out into enemy territory we do so with our intellectual shields up. The idea is not to understand what the other person is saying, but to suss out the weaknesses in their argumentation without having your own certainties compromised..

Yet, if we step back and think about it we all know that Truth is infinitely greater than anything our own intellects could possibly fathom. If you believe in God, then it’s just obvious that anything you think you know about Him and His creation is hideously simplistic — “childish” doesn’t even cover it. As the angel revealed to Augustine, the mind of a great theologian is like a small hole dug in the sand by a child in comparison to the ocean of truth. Thomas Aquinas, arguably one of the greatest intellects in all history, said after a mystical experience that all of his writings were “straw.” But we behave as though we are in firm possession of all of the relevant facts, and as though we have the only correct opinion every time that we encounter a contradictory view on FaceBook.

Even if you don’t believe in God, the sheer paltriness of your own knowledge and understanding ought to be obvious. The scientific philosophy of the past century has largely concerned itself with mapping the epistemological limitations of empirical study. Whether it’s the uncertainty principle, or Schrodinger’s cat, the problem of observing bodies receding from us at the speed of light, or the mystery of dark matter, the fact is that our knowledge is trivial, laughable even, in comparison with our ignorance. And if we assume that human truth is a social construct, then we’re confronted with the mind-boggling diversity of human opinion and experience — the contents of over six billion minds in the present engaged in complex discursive relationships in hundreds of different languages and in dialogue with tens of thousands of years of human history. Even if you limit the scope of your inquiries to the planet Earth, the idea that you are an educated person in possession of any significant percentage of the facts is self-evidently risible.

Giving up truth for lent means giving up the desire to always be right, and to see your own beliefs affirmed and vindicated. It means interiorizing the most basic and fundamental truth of philosophy: that a wise man is one who knows that he knows nothing.

All right, so how do you actually do this in practice?

Basically, you want to cultivate the discipline of listening, especially learning to listen when you disagree. A lot of people who struggle with contention will give up com-boxes or FaceBook for Lent so that they don’t get into controversies — and if that’s the best you can do, then fine. But I’m going to recommend a different approach. Don’t clock out; train yourself to engage differently. If someone says something that you don’t agree with, don’t post a correction or a snarky riposte. Instead, ask a question. Now, here’s the tricky bit: the question must be asked in good faith. The idea is not to play Socrates, pointing out the weaknesses in the other person’s argument by interrogating it. You want to ask a question where you genuinely do not know the answer, and where you have good reason to think that the other person does. Express interest in understanding their position, and ask for good resources explaining it. Don’t sealion. Ask one question, perhaps one or two follow ups to clarify points of confusion (that is, points where you are confused, not points where you think they are confused) and then thank them for taking the time to explain. If the other person is not willing to answer your questions, assume that they’re busy — not that they don’t have a good answer.

Avoid news sources, blogs, magazines, and books that expound your own beliefs. If an issue that you’re interested in comes up, try reading about it from a number of different perspectives. Patheos is a great place to do this, because you can literally get the perspectives of most of the major religions — including atheism. Read what people from other philosophical, political or religious traditions are saying, and don’t just read what they’re saying about the issues that you really care about. Also read what they’re saying about the issues that they really care about. A lot of the time another person’s approach to the issues of contention will make much more sense if you understand their core concerns.

Read as a loser.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, you probably want to start small — as with any ascetic practice, you want to grow by degrees, not burn yourself out in the first week. I would start off avoiding discussions that concern my most deeply held beliefs, or that centre around areas where I consider myself knowledgeable. Start off with things where it’s relatively easy for you to recognize that you don’t actually have most of the pertinent facts and then build up from there.

Finally, do not argue. If the correction of errors is your vocation, you can return to it after Easter. For Lent, let it lie dormant in the ground, watered by intellectual humility, so that when the forty days are done you have grown in wisdom and be better able to communicate your little sliver of the Truth amiably, with understanding and grace.

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