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Thought for the Week
Reflections on truths and Truth
Quakers call themselves ‘Friends in the Truth’ and a Quaker poster exhorts us to investigate this – but what does it mean?
Truth, like us, can be complex and multilayered. Some people have said that Quakers believe that truth is provisional. Going further, one could say that truth is functional: it’s what works. What works is what solves problems. Problems, by definition, are contextual. Thus, truth is contextual – which is not to say that it’s flexible or contrived – our context being our environment, both social and physical, and this determines our beliefs and, so, our behaviour.
An important message of Christianity (and all humane religions, shorn of decorative trappings) is that we should be kind to each other. Being good makes sense. The biggest problems facing us, as ever, concern how we live with each other and with finite resources. If Christianity or any other belief system effectively addresses these issues, then, accordingly, it’s true. The rest is embroidery.
Our truths are not out there – fixed and absolute. Sometimes, in our conceit and insecurity, we may fondly imagine they are. They develop as we do and as our experience increases (Quaker faith & practice 26.39). They’re not to be discovered or even created. Truths grow with us. Beliefs that work (are true) when we’re four, for example, in response to the need for simplicity and consistency, don’t usually work when we’re forty. Truths fulfil needs that we can outgrow. We can help this growth process. Our brains, like all biological entities, have evolved to adapt their possessors to survive environmental challenges in order to propagate. This is nature. Prayer, like various similar techniques, especially if disciplined, systematic and sustained, can change brain biochemistry and neural structures, promoting their rewiring and reconfiguration, thereby altering brain function. By challenging the existing mindset (an often stultifying product of early programming), prayer can expand awareness and facilitate receptivity. Ideally, this tunes the mind and adapts the pray-er to circumstances that would otherwise adversely affect the mind/brain and so the wellbeing of the entire organism. Hence praying for guidance and relief from personal suffering may work, whereas praying for rain doesn’t – even if we delude ourselves that it does. It might solve the problem of needing to feel good but it won’t solve the problem of drought.
It might sound postmodern and circular, but any truth in the above is only such if it fits with our understanding of what we are and how our brains work – as problem-solving organs, generating beliefs and behaviours in response to environmental stimuli.
However, there are ‘experiences’ (for want of a better word) that are beyond belief, beyond all of our relative, partial truths. This Truth, deeper than truth – with facets of love and beauty and wonder, is beyond anything that can be conceived or articulated, no matter how clever or sublime we try to be, for it’s noncerebral.
Searching for Truth is hazardous – and claims to possess it are dangerous delusions. The search itself is Truth, for Truth is to be lived (John 14:6) and radical surrender in prayer without fixed beliefs, as may happen in Quaker Meetings, can be a valuable tool to help us realise this. More difficult is the integration of our truths with Truth, the rational with the mystical, for such integrity is ever-receding – so I remain restless and thirsty, as in the poster.
Dave Dight Oxford Meeting the Friend, 23 March 2012