Seeking Truth is not enough

Going into this post, please be aware that I will indulge in the obnoxious habit of capitalizing Truth to distinguish the abstract concept of veritas from small-t truths that amount to individual factoids. I hope this will not distract you.

As a teenager I was once informed by a mentor that I was a “seeker of Truth.” This was a defining moment for me, not because it changed my behavior, but because it made me startlingly aware of this behavior. I have proudly owned that badge ever since, although I do generally try to keep it under my coat so as not to annoy people. This blog has been a workshop for me in my continuing mission to search for Truth, especially in places considered unlikely by others who shared my upbringing.

In the last year, however, something has changed. It’s not that I value Truth less; it’s just that I have behaved less and less as though it were my sacred calling to fight for Truth. One of the truths I have seen confirmed again and again over the last several years is that no one, not even inveterate Truth-seekers, have a monopoly on it. The greatest threat to Truth comes from those whose confidence that they have it lead them to root out everyone making a counter-claim. This conviction puts me on a collision course with heresy hunters, who in the name of defending the Truth of God have crammed it so tightly into a cage that I can scarcely imagine their having any real affection for it.

Here’s another lesson that I have been learning over the last several, quiet months, which I’ve just now figured out how to articulate: Truth doesn’t need my protection. It is larger than I am. I am not its steward; instead, I am responsible for my own character — my own actions and reactions. I can and should promote what I think is true and show what is false for what it is, with discretion and all due diligence in determining it, of course. But primarily, I am called to follow Christ, subjecting my will to the service of God and others. By far the best and most important way to serve Truth is by acting like we believe it, viz. through obedience to what we believe. I believe that the highest, most elusive truth of the universe is Love — so if my life is not characterized by Love-seeking, how can I pretend to be a Truth-seeker?

Watching the biblioblogosphere as closely as I have for the last couple of years, I’ve seen and participated in far too many ugly wars for Truth. Bitter, dismissive, and insulting diatribes put into defense of beliefs are not a bit more common among the heresy-hunting Fundamentalist types than they are among the enlightened who embrace doubt and uncertainty. Friends, Truth is a sword meant to hew through the brambles of untruths, not the people trapped behind them.

If I can’t act in love during my tousles for Truth, treating the other person as a child of God no matter how obviously, infuriatingly ignorant they are, then what I am upholding and defending is not Truth but my own pet truths, factoids that I cognitively assent to, at the expense of the greatest truth I know. There is nothing more false than conflating my truth with the Truth.

I forsee the objection that impassioned debates are often necessary to ferret out the facts; besides, didn’t Jesus himself use angry words and call his opponents on the carpet? Indeed he did. But he also told us, “Be angry, and sin not.” This tells me, until you’re righteous, don’t feign righteous anger. Righteous anger is so hard to distinguish from the unrighteous kind; this ambiguity is a caution against blowing up in defense of our rightness. We need to remember what we’re fighting for.

You see, fighting for Truth so often treats it as a trophy to be won, a public reward for our diligent Truth-seeking. I want to get out of this closed circuit of seeking Truth for seeking Truth’s sake. If we don’t live up to the light we do have – and I hope we can all agree that living a life characterized by loving humility qualifies – no matter how accurately and convincingly we argue for truths, we are not lovers of Truth.

The old meaning of the adjective true, seldom used these days, was faithful; actually, that meaning is still around in our usage of it in the sense of faithfulness to reality. The Truth I seek is a more robust form of faithfulness than that: faithfulness to God even more than faithfulness to reality, which we can hardly claim to know with any certainty anyway. I want to be much more than a Truth seeker; I want to be a Truth lover. Even if I miss truths here and there, and even though I recognize that I’ll never obtain certainty in this world, Truth will continue to be my ideal and the template I use to shape my character.

If I mistake, he will forgive me. I do not fear him; I fear only lest, able to see and write these things, I should fail of witnessing, and myself be, after all, a castaway—no king, but a talker; no disciple of Jesus, ready to go with him to the death, but an arguer about the truth; a hater of the lies men speak for God, and myself a truth-speaking liar, not a doer of the word.

G. MacDonald

The subtle, silent epiphany of the last several months has been that what I must seek first is not truths – disembodied facts and undeceptions – but righteousness. One of the most profound undeceptions I’ve undergone is the realization that righteousness is not some legal decree that magically covers and converts my own rancid attitudes and actions. It’s not that simple at all. Being a true Christian in the deepest sense of that word (maybe I should capitalize it) is hard work. But the real dirty work of Christianity is not in controlling our actions, but our re-actions: how we respond to problems such as getting cut off in traffic, how we deal with those who are hurting those we love, and how we treat defenders of patent falsehoods. Seeking Truth is not enough; we must be true.

God give me a true heart.

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  • This is the most heartfelt and thoughtful blog post I’ve read in the biblioblogosphere for a long (long) time. The ‘quest for truth’ can so easily become dry and overly intellectual and de-personalised, when in ‘truth’ it should be vibrant and something that challenges and changes us.

    I’ll find a way to link to this tomorrow one way or the other.

    Thanks for sharing this Steve.

    • Thanks, Stuart. I’m really glad it resonated with you.

  • Pingback: Friday pondering and question: The quest for truth | eChurch Blog()

  • If you’re interested Steve I blogged it here:

    I hope you don’t mind that I used your text and hope I haven’t misrepresented you in any way.

  • Very interesting and thought provoking (and I have added some thoughts on Stuart’s blog before even visiting yours.)

    However, what strikes me is that what we seek is not Truth as a set of propositions, but Truth Himself.  It is having a relationship with Him that will transform us to be righteous (again, I am wary of seeking righteousness as a goal in itself).

    Which leads to some interesting elaborations of your thinking: the question becomes not how do we defend the Truth? but how do we defend Him?  And it is worth remembering His command to Peter to put the sword away.  So how does He want us to defend Him?  Whenever you did as much to one of these little ones…

    The conclusions I draw are not far from yours at all, of course.

    • Hi Ben,

      I would certainly not say that the greatest threat to Truth comes from those who seek it/Him (another reason I capitalize “Truth” is because I recognize it as a person, thank you Henry Blackaby!). Instead, it comes from those who maintain that they already have it and are its guardians. I think it comes from idolizing propositions rather than from knowing the One who will transform us.

      Jesus taught us to seek righteousness as a goal. It’s just that the kind of righteousness we seek cannot be mistaken for judgmental moralism often associated with quests for holiness. We are to conform ourselves into the likeness of Truth, to make ourselves more true to it. That’s the Kingdom of God that I’m seeking. I’m just not aware of any way to have a relationship with God in a meaningful sense apart from the emulative relationship prescribed by Jesus. I think that getting to know the Truth Himself in practice will be indistinguishable from subjugating the base instincts and sinful desires that oppose God’s nature. Yes?

  • Perhaps when Paul wrote of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), he was thinking of just such an approach.  As mercy triumphs over judgment, so kindness is the best wrapping for truth.  How blessed we are who know Jesus Christ, because we could not truly know this way unless He had demonstrated it to us, and that in such trying circumstances.  Because of Him, this way is not merely a hoped-for ideal – it is reality.  That is, it is truth.  Blessed be His name.

  • Caral

    Thanks for a super post, the below comment nailed it for me  “One of the most profound undeceptions I’ve undergone is the realization that righteousness is not some legal decree that magically covers and converts my own rancid attitudes and actions.”Having participated on forums for a number of years, this realisation for myself was totally mind blowing, and was partly due to the reactions of a lovely Catholic poster. He would share sound doctrine in a most gentle and humble manner, even after the most horrific vitriol and abuse had been hurled at him.   Whereas I, would react in a quite horrid way, with a superior tone, as obviously other’s knowledge of doctrine was totally incorrect, and it was paramount to correct them. I would then to justify myself, as I was defending the ‘Truth’!  On occasions I could end conversations with “I am telling you this in love, for your benefit”  In love!!  I could facepalm right now.     Looking back I can only say that I feel Fremdschamen about myself and my actions.I do wonder if pride is intermingled with those wishing to be a defenders of the Truth?  As you say He doesn’t need defending. Although called to give an apologetic for what and why we believe, whilst desperately trying to remember that all are made in Imago Dei.  Perhaps the wisdom of the Benedictines has much to teach us, in treating all as if they are were Christ Himself. A high calling indeed, but a worthy one.