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03/24/2004 Archived Entry: "Truth: A long, immoderate rant"
QUESTING FOR TRUTH. A long, immoderate rant for people who care about such things.
I was talking the other day with a Jewish friend who insists that the main cultural difference between Christians and Jews is that Christians are expected to take all the big truths on faith, while Jews are constantly encouraged to examine and question everything - even God and God's motives.
I realize there are some forms of Christianity (for instance, very high-church Anglicanism and Catholicism) that do encourage questioning. But basically, my friend is right. I was raised in the all-too-common "believe it or else" tradition of Christianity. Question authority and the All-Loving, All-Merciful God will condemn you to hell, where you'll scream in anguish for countless trillions of years as demons rip your toenails off with red-hot pincers, and it will be entirely your own fault. In my experience, even the Christian denominations that say they encourage questioning mostly encourage it only if you end up coming to their set of pre-approved conclusions.
I was born to question. If all I knew of Judiasm was what my Jewish friend described to me, I'd be tempted to sign up. But I've seen enough of Talmudic scholarship to know that, when it comes to the quest for Eternal Truths, asking questions won't get you any further than faith will. Jewish religious scholarship is full of tortuous attempts to wring meaning out of indeciperable biblical passages, plus endless recursive appeals to the authority of this or that other religious scholar who did the same useless thing 500 years ago. Bottom line: Those folks don't know anything more than I know about the nature of God, but they've created 2,000 years of literature that makes the IRS code look like EZ reading.
So Christianity hinders the quest for truth by declaring (on the shakiest evidence) that X and Y are Eternally True and Don't Ask Questions. And Judiasm hinders the quest for truth by turning it into a bureaucratic-historic-scholarly search for rules and regulations. And I'm sure every other religion has its own charming way of getting between an individual and her quest for God.
Which has always bothered me a lot. But it doesn't bother me any more because the quest for truth is about the most useless quest any human being can ever undertake, anyway.
As I admit this, I essentially blow away the whole purpose of my life up to now. Ouch.
Knowing the truth and stating the truth has been a passion since childhood - when it got me in an endless lot of trouble. Which is not to say I've never lied. I can lie like a rug when I need to, though I try to avoid it. I'm thinking more of the difference between truth and illusion:
Our family is happy.
Our family would be happy if only you would ...
God will protect you.
God will condemn your enemies to hell.
This war will end all wars.
I will love you forever.
Homeland security ensures freedom.
Police officers are heroes.
Mother has your best interests at heart.
This hurts me more than it hurts you.
If I had a million dollars, I'd be happy.
Jesus loves you.
Of course my husband is faithful.
The Civil War was fought to end slavery.
The income tax will only affect the rich.
My political party is more fair than your political party
It's for the children.
You can trust your leaders.
I spent the first 18 years or so of my life getting in trouble for questioning family verities - for constantly poking at the illusions that enabled my parents and siblings to cope with each other. And thus I made it impossible for them to cope with me. The only thing I achieved was to make myself a target - to give that disagreeing bunch one thing they could all agree on: the fact that I was a nuisance and a troublemaker. Never, ever was there one moment of a chance in which anyone in the family would have said, "By golly. You know, that little s**t's actually right about something." But I was adamant and proud of myself for insisting on truth vs. illusion. They saw me as a devil of disruption. I saw them as foolish or pernicious self-deluders.
Really, it was all just a game and I was playing my role in it.
As an adult, I've demanded the same sort of truth from government. Actually, from almost any arbitrary "authority" that ever got set up where I could aim at it. And the results? They've been exactly as good as when I sought the Eternal Truth of God or tried to point out some obvious, but inconvenient, fact to family members. Nada, zip, zilch. But maybe a hard smack or a lot of frustration for the effort.
He who dares to point out the problem is the problem That's the only Eternal Verity of dysfunctional institutions. For that matter, it may be the one Eternal Verity of being human, right down to the core. He who rocks the boat will be the first tossed overboard. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is burned as a heretic.
And all that trouble -- for what?
The simple, terrible, sad small-l truth is that it's impossible ever to even approach the Truth - the Big Truth, that is -- about anything. And even if you could, nobody but a few other weirdo truth-seekers would want to hear it.
A trio of articles linked from LewRockwell.com yesterday make it painfully clear that ordinary, mundane truths are no easier to come by than Eternal Verities - especially (though not exclusively) where government's involved.
These articles don't have much in common, except that each shows that the truth isn't what we believe it to be. History, even at its very best, is just somebody's well-researched viewpoint (no surprise). At its worst, it's nothing but a pack of patriotic illusions designed to keep politicians in power by keeping the masses shouting "Rah rah for our beloved leaders! Rah rah for our country, the noblest and freest on earth!"
The truth challenges our assumptions and makes us squirm a little. It busts our precious illusions and defies our tidy categories. It makes us distrustful - which is of course why politicians avoid it at all cost.
For more decades than I care to admit to, I've believed that Finding Truth was the main quest of a useful human life. I've believed that only by dealing with facts and evidence can we arrive at real, workable solutions to problems or have genuinely healthy relationships. I've sneered at people who deliberately chose illusions over hard realities. (We all get caught in illusions involuntarily, at times.) I've looked down my nose at the "sheeple" and the TV Babies and other tit-suckers and illusion-dwellers. A couple of years ago I told a nun I'd rather stand at the edge of an eternal abyss, staring into the bleakest possible future - if that was the reality -- than to comfort myself with beliefs that I couldn't verify either by hard evidence or personal experience.
I still feel that way. I expect I always will.
But I no longer think there's the slightest virtue in it. I no longer think it's healthy to shatter people's comforting illusions. Maybe illusions are all that keep most people alive.
Clinging to illusions might end up hurting you, if something manages to shatter the shield you've put up around yourself. But being a Believer (whether in the All-Merciful God, the safety of rules, the wholesomeness of families, or the good intentions of leaders) also makes it a lot easier to get along. And heck, if you're that sort of person, then if your favorite illusion should happen to get painfully busted it's usually plenty easy to rush to wrap yourself securely in the comfort of another illusion. If socialism betrays you, there's always fascism. If God fails, you can embrace rabid atheism. If alcohol pickles your liver, then eternal "recovery" can become your new addiction. If the Democrats betray your illusion, the Republicans are waiting take you in. If love leaves you sorrowful, then pharmaceuticals will grant you bliss. If the Moonies turn out to be skunks, the Scientologists will be just as glad to fleece you. If TV becomes boring, then video games are as good a way to escape your dreary life.
Seeking Truth (anywhere outside of the realm of the scientific laboratory - and in many cases there, as well) results only in personal head-banging, social annoyance, and in the worst cases getting burned at the stake or tossed into the gulag.
The one thing it never results in is Finding Truth.
Which of course isn't going to stop us fools who are bent that way. Like the scorpion, we're going to do it because it's our nature.
Posted by Claire @ 11:35 AM CST