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Three score and ten or more

Saturday, December 10, 2005



I have been somewhat struck by the confidence that so many in the blogosphere have in their own feelings. There are repeated posts that imply that “anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.” As a crusty old conservative curmudgeon, I have to confess to the occasional expression of such a feeling. I do feel, however, that sometimes, picking blogs that agree with us, and, if we read those with which we disagree, attacking with passion (My latest memory of an example in one blog that I enjoy, without frequent agreement, was the comment “Bullshit” in response to a relatively informed and gentle comment made about the Iraq war and the soldiers who fight therein.) can result in our failure to really inform ourselves about many things that happen that can affect our lives.

To those who don’t care for religious references that follow, I apologize. The following is a revision of a column which I wrote some years ago for a listserve which dealt with writings by and about Mormons and their religion. In a discussion of a particular issue, there was a really frequent use of the sentiment “Bullshit” without really using the word. Strong feelings showed themselves on both sides of that issue. There are scriptural and religious references in the text which do not require acceptance in order to get the point of the column. I could have re-written this thing to substitute political or literary references for the religious ones but frankly I am too dang tired and lazy to do that job.(three score and ten plus). If you can read this, and consider the religious references only as examples to make my point, I think you can get something out of this. If the mere mention of religion, Jesus, or Pilate, fills you with such a rage that you can’t read more, then don’t (You will fall into the category identified at the end of the column as folks who defend their own paradigm through selective perception or, probably more accurately through selective exposure.)

WELL HERE IT IS: (note that I have inserted a few “capitalized” current references or comments just for this blog)

The Mormon hymn book contains a hymn that presents us with a repeated question. “Oh Say What is Truth?” The question was originally presented, in a somewhat sarcastic way, by Pilate in John 18: 38. The question was asked in reply to Jesus statement that he was born into the world to bear witness unto the truth, and to His further assertion that “Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”


There are several considerations here, not the least of which is Christ’s statement that everyone that is of the truth heareth my voice. Somehow we must identify who those are who are “of the truth” for it is they to hear the word of the Risen Lord.

There is no clue in the quoted passage of scripture. The next occurrence in John is Pilate’s offer to free one prisoner in honor of Passover, and the only conclusion that can be drawn from the crowd’s preference for Barabus is that, at least, those present are not among those who are “of the truth” and who therefore would hear the voice of the Lord.

We can look at the hymn for clues as to nature of truth, and who those are who are “of it”, but the evidence is sparse. We learn of broad general conclusions about truth, but of very few of the characteristics that might help us to identify the truth or those who are of it. In the first stanza we are told that truth is “the fairest gem that the riches of earth can produce”, and that the priceless value of truth will only be identified when the Crown Jewels of kings become “dross and refuse”. In the second stanza we learn that it is a bright prize which we all should pursue to the utmost, but again are not given any real identifying characteristics. The third, following the same vein tells us that the pillar of truth will outlast earthly ambitions and rulers. The fourth stanza tells us that it is important and eternal, and then gives us the first clear characteristics: That truth is the sum of existence, Eternal, Unchanged Evermore. But if we use these as identifiers, what is left is the concept that truth will not be recognizable until we see what is left after everything else is destroyed. Most of us would prefer to identify truth soon enough to be those of whom He speaks when he says that “He bears witness to the truth and everyone who is “Of the truth” heareth My voice. Unfortunately the responses of some of those who profess to hear His voice cast doubt on the final words of the hymn- “Eternal, Unchanged, Evermore.

A study of language and of psychology tends to indicate that though the Lord’s truth may be eternal and unchanged, OUR truth is very individual and frequently changes from “holder” to “holder” and time to time, at least in the minds of those who think they know what “it” is. This has been vividly impressed upon me as I listened to friends and read their comments. An example: Not long ago, someone in a congregation where I attended expressed his hesitation at contributing to the discussions in his church class because those who contributed used such long and complicated words. Try as a would, I couldn’t think of any “long and complicated words’ used commonly in that class, that day, but then this discussion took place at a time when I was spending a good bit of my time at work each day reading articles in professional journals. In the journals of my field (paradoxically, Communication) if the language in an article has any clear relationship to the everyday English of a normal person, the editors send it back to the author for re-complicating. As a result, my concept of long and complicated words is bound to be totally different from that of this average member who was a day laborer and spent his time DOING things rather than reading about them and trying to sort out clear meanings from complex language.

A second clue regarding the difficulty in sorting truth from– whatever else is out there- came when I read an essay, posted on computer list in which the author poignantly described some of the difficulties and problems he faced in his local congregation for having been publicly identified as an “intellectual” by some of his fellow members of the church. The difficulties he encountered struck such a true bell with me that I had tears in my eyes as I finished the essay. Rejoinders flooded into the discussion list almost immediately. I was struck, in particular by one that said “Oh Boo Hoo. You guys are breaking my heart. Stop whining and just get busy and fulfil your callings (offices in the church).” How could any thing be so true to me and be seen as a sample of pure whining and complaining to someone else?

Part of the explanation lies within the structure of language itself. Scholars of language, students of semantics and semiotics have long been attempting to point out the ambiguous relationship of word to meaning. Whether one approaches the language by the semantics of Hayakawa or Korzibski, or though semiotics such as the analysis by Post Modernist language scholars (I’m a classic example, the term Post Modern is, to me, such an oxymoron that I have trouble paying close attention to anyone with that label), the universal conclusion is that there is little or no linear, direct of absolute connection between word and meaning.

The most obvious examples would be in attempts to communicate using different languages, but even in the same language the most common words almost certainly have at least slightly different meanings to all the individuals who use them. These differences in meaning are affected the differences in age, by regional influence, by ethnic difference, by education, by political affiliation, and by the context in which they are spoken. Such context has to take into account the relationship of speaker and listener (or sender and receiver, since much communication is non- verbal), the time, the place and the objectives of the speaker(s) and the listener(s), as well as the emotions that are shared, the variety of shared experiences, etc. etc. etc.

Other problems are created by the variations in speaking or listening skills or even the willingness to listen at all. Many of us “turn of” if the subject conflicts with our own deeper feelings, our political tendencies or a variety of other social sensitivities. (I include in the listening in the broadest possible context for the same problems are included in all means of sending and receiving messages; hearing, reading, seeing, etc.)

So many times we are locked into paradigms or patterns of thinking that lead not only to selective perception (unconscious distortion of ideas) but to selective exposure (refusal to listen to that which opposes - How many Democrats tune into a Rush Limbaugh program, or how many Republicans rush out to listen to Al Franken or Nancy Pelosi?. As these paradigms lock us into behavior patterns, we tend, when do expose ourselves to someone outside our paradigm to engage in what is sometimes called the monologue, or dialogue of the deaf. In this situation, listening is not an active attempt to receive or interpret the concepts involved but is only active to the extent that we can use the time to build counter arguments for the conclusions we already have drawn.. (Assuming that OUR time will come). At such times, our egos or self images have become so dependent on maintaining our own current paradigm that we lay ourselves on the line to prove to ourselves and to others that we are “right” in our own minds.

Is it any wonder that one person hears a particular sermon and finds it inspiring while another finds it wordy and irritating. A relative once expressed to me the feeling that he hated maudlin church meetings where people think that tears are an indication of sincerity. Carefully avoiding the possibility that he would ever hear me speak in church meetings (I weep a lot ), I expressed a differing opinion which led to him turning and stomping out of the room. We can only understand within the boundaries of our own experience, unless, of course, we are willing to expand our experience to try to or our imaginations to try to understand how a message fits into a broader context or another’s paradigm.

How does this all relate to the initial question; Oh Say, What is Truth? It should be clear that we are not going to clearly discern truth, or become those who are of the truth just by reading, or listening to others with whom we agree, or contending with others with whom we instinctively disagree.. How can we become those who hear His voice? (OR WHO HAVE A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF “TRUTH”?)

In the first chapter of John, John the Baptist states that “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” In the 856h Psalm it states that mercy and truth are met together. That is, showing and receiving mercy joins us with truth. In John 7 : 21 It tells us that he that doeth truth cometh to the light, but if we are still trying to figure out What is truth, how can we do it? John 7:17 basically tells us that we shall know the doctrine if we do his will. I have always felt that this means that if one has a question of the validity of a doctrine, living it will tell whether it is true or not. Finally in John 15:26 -27 it tells us that the spirit, the comforter will testify the truth unto us if we open ourselves to him. Stepping out of the scriptural, find out the truth of all things (both those with which one agrees and with which one disagrees) by putting them to a fair test -by living them or making a real effort to really understand those who ARE living them.

I consider that to be the ultimate opening of a paradigm. All the communication skills of listening, trying to examine through a variety of experiences, opening ourselves to others, treating others with mercy and accepting mercy will bring us to the stage that we may not always be able to demonstrate the truth but we will be able to answer for our selves the question What is Truth” and that we may be “of truth” that we may hear Him. (or, again stepping out of the scripture, that we may put “truth”, with all it’s ramifications in effect in our lives.)


At 3:14 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I've had many a battle over the word "truth" with atheistic moral relativists as well as Biblical literalists.

The concept of truth implies first of all honesty and sincerity. To me, if I am honest and sincere, then I can see clearly. Telling lies, being duplicitous and generally playing insincere games is what the real problem is.

If you tell the truth and keep a clean conscience, then everything becomes clear - including realizing that God sees and knows everything.

The kind of "truth" (which metaphysicians argue over) and simple human truth both can only be known if you have the heart of a child wihtout cheat or deceit.

At 8:18 PM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

Wise statements Patrick. My concern in this column is not to be relativistic, but to realize that those who consider the truth to be different than what I consider the truth may be as honest in their conclusions as I am, since they see "facts" (evidence really) through a different paradigm (a different set of life experiences if you will). I just think that life goes beyond anger and reaction if we realize that honorable people can disagree about "truth". And I am glad that somebody read my thoughts. By the way, I haven't been commenting, but I have really enjoyed your poetic posts.

At 6:46 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I don't expect comments, Richard but of course it's nice to get them. You know I read your blog "religiously" because you're a wise old coot. But we will have to agree to disagree that different folks have different interpretations of truth. May we should talk about it more because it is all about learning each others' semantics and agreeing to a paradigm in good faith.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

Well, one of the things I used to tell my semantics classes at the beginning of each quarter was that, as much as anything else the class was aimed at keeping the students away from the "Don't confuse me with the facts, I've made up my mind" syndrome. Another purpose was to avoid forcing others into the same syndrome.


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