The Truth Will Mess You Up

The Truth Will Mess You Up June 22, 2021

I’ve always been afraid of people in possession of what they believe to be the truth. Donna Leon

I love mysteries; a new-found favorite series is Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. There are close to thirty entries in the series to date–I’m currently finishing #12, but with some serious binge-reading this summer I will be caught up by the time school starts again at the end of August. Brunetti is not the brilliant mystery-solver that is standard fare in other mystery series. Rather, he’s an everyman who investigates crimes in a beautiful but corrupt city, seeking to preserve a shred of decency and avoid cynicism, and taking refuge in good food and his loving family.

Brunetti and his wife Paola, a professor of 19th century literature at a local university, frequently discuss which of their professions makes it more difficult to maintain any semblance of sanity. At least in English literature, Paola says,

The worst they can do is make us listen to all their idiotic theories about the meaning of literature or whether the text exists or not . . . But they can’t change the texts themselves. It’s not like what the people in power do when they remove embarrassing documents from the State Archives. They can’t do that to Dante or Manzoni, can they?

After a moment, Brunetti agrees.

No, but I suspect that’s only because there are standard editions of the basic texts. Otherwise, I’m sure they’d try, if they thought they could get away with it. I’ve always been afraid of people in possession of what they believe is the truth. They’ll do anything to see that the facts are changed and whipped into shape to agree with it.

Another of my favorite mystery writers is Jo Nesbø. He is an internationally bestselling author from Norway whose books have only started becoming available in the US in recent years. Harry Hole, Nesbø’s main character in his long running police mystery series, is complicated and well outside the boilerplate fictional detective. Toward the end of one of the early novels in the series, Harry has a conversation with an Australian detective about why police officers and detectives go into such a thankless profession. The Aussie sounds like the 60s Superman show I grew up with, suggesting that such public servants are motivated by a thirst for “truth and justice.” Harry isn’t buying it.

I’ve been a policeman all my life, but I still look at my colleagues around me and wonder what it is that makes them do it, fight other people’s wars. What drives them? Who wants to go through so much suffering for others to have what they perceive as justice? They’re the stupid ones. We are. We’re blessed with a stupidity so great that we believe we can achieve something.

I love it when my fictional detectives go below the surface of the current case and begin exploratory ruminations about the dark underbelly of human nature and motivation. And Harry’s not finished.

Truth is a relative business, and it’s flexible. We bend and twist it until it has space in our lives. Some of it, anyway. . . . The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

Truth is a slippery business, but everyone seems to have something to say about it. For instance, Jesus is memorably reported as having said that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” This is one of the many things I wish Jesus had never said, not because I think it is wrong but rather because it has been subject to all sorts of misinterpretation and co-opted by all sorts of agendas.

For instance, many suggest that the “truth” Jesus is referring to actually the “Truth.” The capital letter makes all the difference, as it signifies that the person making the proposal believes in such a thing as absolute truth, something that Harry Hole apparently does not believe in the existence of. Absolute Truths are universal, fixed, inflexible, and not subject to the subjective preferences of mere mortals such as ourselves. Sounds attractive—such Truths, if they exist, would provide an indispensable touchstone for adjudicating conflicts between mere truths, which as Harry suggests are often just projections of our own preferences and interests that we seek to implement to the greatest extent that our power and influence allows.

The problem with the idea of absolute Truths is at least twofold. First, many agree that such Truths exist but few agree on what they actually are. I believe that absolutes do exist, but discovering their content is far more difficult and complicated than many “True believers” want to admit. This leads to the second problem—True believers tend to cut corners on the search process, adopting what very well may be just provisional as if it is an absolute, then beating others over their heads, either virtually or actually, with their Truth pretenders.

I spent last spring semester with my students in two different courses studying the limitless ways in which human beings have used Truths they claim to be in possession of—religious, political, what have you—to justify violence against and killing of fellow human beings who happen to embrace different and incompatible Truths. The Crusades, various wars of religion, the Nazis—virtually any truth can be dressed up as a Truth and used as a weapon of mass destruction. The best comment on this dynamic I ever read came from the author of a letter to the editor in the local newspaper a number of years ago: Pursue the truth, and run like hell from anyone who claims to have it.

The fact of the matter concerning the truth was clearly expressed by one of my colloquium students who wrote the following in her intellectual notebook this past semester: The truth will not set you free, but it will definitely mess you up. This is because the truth about the truth for human beings is that it is a process rather than a thing. The truth is more like a continuing creative act than a treasure hunt that will hopefully stumble into the pot of gold at the end of an evanescent rainbow.

Harry Hole is right about one big thing—the truth is something that we make. This is not a surprise, because as a matter of fact all ways of seeing reality are human constructions. Truth is not an exception. Everything we believe is a product of a complex filtering and organizing process through any number of filters, from genetic to experiential. Harry is also correct in saying that truth is a relative business—relative to each human being since each of our filters are uniquely ours.

This does not mean, however, that just anything goes. It does not mean that we simply get to make truth up as we go along, as those who fear the ogre “relativism” would claim. Jesus said something else about truth that is directly applicable—“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Truth is not something we find at the end of a search—it is in fact the search itself, a search that in many traditions is connected directly to a way of life, a person. Harry is wrong when he concludes that the only motivations for the process of truth are self-interest and power. The “I am the way” alternative is that truth is a divine process in which we participate; our participation is energized positively by the things for which we hope and the things which we love.


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