Opinion, Fact, and Truth

See, hear, and speak no evil - monkeys that refuse to look at the truth

Truth from Out of the Void

At a Recovery Church circle a few months ago, someone asked, “What is truth?”

“Truth is core; it’s how everything starts,” came the first answer.

According to the Hebrew Scriptures, everything started with chaos. Over the deep spread “a formless void and darkness” (Gen 1:2). That chaotic vastness still thrums in the background of space. [1] Like the swirl of emotions that allows us to nurture bonds and love our children, this primal music is part of our being. We are stardust; we are the incipient chaos.

Does truth reside in that wildness, in those feelings? Vital and compelling, they can lead us to wisdom, yet they also leave us prone to illusion, cognitive thinking errors, Fake News. Within our human hearts lie passions and longings from which we derive personal truths. Our beliefs come less from facts and more from feelings and stories.

This is one truth, one core view of reality, one opinion, one beginning.

One Essence, Two Beings

Another opinion about the start of everything and the core of truth comes from the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word,” wrote John (John 1:1). Initially no more than a singularity, this Word separated itself into two beings, becoming not just the Word, but also God. According to Sherri Brown and Frances J. Maloney, the Word was “an independent being of the same essence as God.” [2]

Is this fact, opinion, truth, nonsense?

Some insist the biblical description of creation is true because it’s a fact described in a sacred and infallible text. These people, however, are in the minority.

Most of us would say the story is true not because a god literally formed the universe in that way, but because the metaphor teaches us something about who we are and what matters, such as the meaning of relationship or the way in which we are not separate individuals, but one with our neighbor, the stranger, the cosmos. John’s words reveal a truth that can guide our days.

That’s how another of our church members defined truth, as something that helps us live according to purpose and value.

“Truth,” she said, “gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.” If we can live according to the values we glean from the truths we learn, if we can find meaning from a wisdom larger than ourselves, we will be content with our lives.

“Then,” she said, “when I die, I’ll be okay with it.”

At times, it seems, truth brings us not only freedom, but also peace.

See, hear, and speak no evil - monkeys that refuse to look at the truth

Truth Versus Opinion

But it’s not that simple. As the first woman said at the Recovery Church meeting, truth “gets all mixed up with everyone’s opinion.”

We have trouble telling the two apart. Though they seem similar, they’re not. We can form opinions from any stray bit of fact or falsehood, from feelings or hunches. Politicians, corporate leaders, revolutionaries, and eager bloggers throw opinions around with abandon, as if they were facts. If wound around a compelling enough story, a popular opinion, true or not, can start a rebellion.

Unlike opinion, truth is real whether we believe it or not. Truth doesn’t need us in order to survive. Like facts, it simply exists. If God is real, for instance, it’s not because a devotee called Her name, nor does She disappear when an atheist denies Her.

In a perfect world, we would never use faulty logic or fraudulent information to bolster our opinions. Unfortunately, it is common for us to trust the “facts” that comfort us and dismiss the others.

But if we can’t trust our guts in this matter, how do we know which facts are real?

What Is Truth?

Take the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Are they factual? Was there literally a “deep” at the beginning of existence, or did the speaking of a word create all that is? This is one view of reality.

For others, these texts reveal something about oneness and separation and loneliness and relationship, but only as metaphors.

Still others don’t read these scripture at all. For them, holy books are baseless opinions, not even worth using to help us understand what it means to be alive and to be mortal.

Yet if we reject scripture, we lose a huge reservoir of story and myth. Without them, we’re left with fact or opinion, neither of which provides meaning. Only truth does that.

To find truth, we must seek out stories, because good stories raise questions. They force us to wonder about who we are, why we’re here, and how we should treat one another. In the questions, and in the wrestling with them, we find truth. Real answers are never simple. They include contradictions, imperfections, inconsistencies, paradoxes. They are complex.

That’s why truth can be found in our stories, because good ones are rich, dense, fluid, and even confusing. Unfortunately, stories are not always good. They can contain lies.

Rewriting Our Stories

Recently, a patient shared with me her childhood filled with shame and pain and the lies that parents tell, the ones that make us think we are worthless, ugly, hopeless, stupid, incompetent. These are the kind of stories that wound us.

All is not hopeless, though. For instance, if our parents failed to tell us we were mean or didn’t call us selfish, then we can become known for being kind or generous. We will be allowed to sacrifice ourselves for others, hoping that one day someone will notice how good and giving we are.

Sometimes this happens. Sometimes people call us “sweet” or praise us by saying, “He’d give you the shirt off his back.” If we hear such things often enough, our internal story will shift. We will start to believe we have some value, but only if we squash our every self-centered or selfish instinct. For when we label one another, no matter how pretty the label is, we restrict the range of our choices. When defined by any adjective, we cannot be full, complete, contradictory human beings.

To heal and become whole requires stories that hold the complexity of truth.

Reframing a Life

Now experiencing severe physical pain, the patient shared her insecurity and hopelessness. Why bother living? She couldn’t help others any more, couldn’t serve or nurture them. She had nothing left to give, so had lost all worth.

This was her story and the truth she derived from it. Every parable in the Bible can be interpreted in many ways. So can the stories of our lives. Together, she and I examined her story in a different light. I started to point out where she’d shown courage, compassion, resilience, and wit. Before I could say much, though, she started to cry.

I’d said enough. She heard me, and she took it in. For perhaps the first time in her life, she understood that she mattered.

It’s important to stress that I didn’t call her courageous or compassionate or resilient or smart. These are opinions, labels, judgments. Just because they sound positive and nice doesn’t make them helpful. They say nothing more about who the woman is at the core of her being than did the abusive opinions of her parents, and they are no more true.

The woman showed courage at times in her life. That was a fact I could point to because I listened to the story she told. I didn’t make those things up. Now maybe she got her facts wrong here and there, but that doesn’t matter, because the story was real and true and hers.

Nor did I pat her knee and say, “Oh, don’t believe what your parents told you. You’re a great person.” That would have been supercilious, offensive, and unconvincing.

Instead, I reframed her story, helping her to create a new one. Hopefully, her new story will be based less on opinion and more on truth.

The Power of Stories

Stories are powerful. They touch us deeply, beneath our consciousness, and they engage our emotions. Thus they influence us in ways facts can’t. Of course, there’s a lot of Fake News thrown about as fact these days. Many lies are used to support untruths. People of all political persuasion, education level, race, gender, and ability do this. With the utmost sincerity, we can spread memes that have no basis in reality. This is hard to avoid. Many lies are skillfully wrought and hard to resist, and the stories that support them make them much more believable.

Yet it is possible to seek facts, to research and reflect. It doesn’t often feel good to do so. We don’t like to read arguments against our passionately-held beliefs, but we can do it if we choose. We can question ourselves and others. This isn’t rude or thoughtless or threatening. If our democracy is going to recover from the assault against reason and compassion that has shaken its foundation, we must slow down, reconsider, and learn, once again, how to dialogue with one another. We need less fighting and more collaborating. We need less opinion and more truth.

So we must be careful what stories we tell; what stories we believe. Hitler told stories; Machiavelli told stories. Anyone who starts a movement, engages a crowd, uses stories, but stories are not always true.

Yet without stories, peace and justice would never prevail. Stories give life to the resistance of the people. They fuel hope and happiness in spite of suffering. When used against dictators, they can crush regimes. When used to dismantle lies, they can heal.

Together, Not Apart

So much is wrong with our society today. The distance between rich and poor, white and black, liberal and conservative has become so wide we can barely see one another across the chasm. Daily, we are assaulted by grandiosity and baseless opinions. We crave stimulation that leaves us breathless, until we have no space to process our emotions and no silence in which to think. Tales of fear and hatred fill our hearts, so we refuse to listen to those who don’t agree with all that we believe.

When I was in my twenties, feminist separatism was popular. I had a circle of separatist friends. One day while we were hanging out together, I admitted I also was friends with a few men. Some of the women in our circle pushed their chairs back, away from me. All of them rejected me. This is extreme, yet we are becoming that extreme again.

I don’t want to take away anyone’s story. Where there is pain, there is truth. Truth also lives in stories of joy and celebration.

Truth is the core. It’s where everything starts. It’s what exists. We can see truth if we look carefully enough, but sometimes it eludes us.

If, in the beginning, was the Word, then our task is to listen to what that Word might have to tell us. This requires stillness, openness, humility. Truth is not fact. We cannot prove it, and it does shift and change. Others will understand truths differently than we, whether we’re talking about religious beliefs, political ones, or social ones. Yet that’s part of truth’s power. It is richer when we seek it together.

Making a Choice

We each have a unique way to understand the world, to see reality. If we come together and share these viewpoints, if we listen with interest to the frame of the other, we might come close to the truth that lies at the core of the universe. We might create beloved community.

If, on the other hand, we insist on defending our truth against all others, if we remain secluded in our separatist groups, fighting against those whose worldviews are not our own, our democracy will fail, and all of us will suffer.

“I have set before you blessings and curses, life and death” (Deut 30:19).

Which shall we choose?

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. NASA, “Sounds of the Ancient Universe,” March 21, 2013, https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA16881, accessed 9/14/2019.
  2. Brown, Sherri and Frances J. Maloney, Interpreting the Gospel and Letters of John: An Introduction, William B. Eerdmans, 2017, 174.

Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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