Posted by: jennlay | April 18, 2009

Is Truth Necessary for Faith?

While writing and reflecting on my paper that uses the mystical tradition to bring about peace and liberation, I find myself constantly confronting this idea of Truth. Each religion claims to have The Truth, not so much a truth. Adherents to a certain religion usually belong to it because that is where they find the Truth that they want to dedicate their lives to. Maybe this idea isn’t strong for some people, and rather they call themselves Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, or Hindus simply because that is the culture and tradition they have grown up with. Maybe for some it isn’t because it is the best or only way to live and believe, but its just what they are used to, what is accepted. However, as we have seen in our readings of the New Atheists and discussion on religious extremism, there is a very real group of people who think they alone have the Truth, and this Truth is what they are willing to die for and kill for.

The mystical tradition from what I have read and how I understand it, would argue against a solid, unchanging, absolute Truth. Because God cannot be contained by any word, idea, or image, no truth claim is adequate to fully understand and describe the infinite mystery of God. To establish one of these absolute truth claims within our own limited human understanding seems to create an idol, something that is no longer God but becomes a god that is worshiped instead of the true living God. We are always on a journey toward the infinite. This means we should always be growing and changing. Constantly moving toward the divine, we never come to a point where we have reached the end and fully understand who God is. We have ideas; we can name towards the reality of God. We can speak in metaphors, symbols, and other creative expressions to try and some how move past our own limited language and understanding into the realm of infinite mystery. We have experiences that often words cannot describe, and we have faith to continue on our journey toward the divine from these experiences. Mystics have deep faith and connection to the divine.

So what about Truth? I wonder if Truth is necessary for faith? And I think it depends on what is meant by Truth. I have faith, but it is my own. It is not an absolute Truth that I want to impose on others or think everyone else should adopt as their own. I think many of my beliefs are beneficial to the well being of society and would help bring about peace, respect, and justice. I try to share my beliefs with others and invite them to see the potential benefits these beliefs might have to offer their own lives. But I am also open to many of the beliefs and practices of others. We are never done learning. There is always more. That is part of the infinite mystery. We are in constant process, never arriving at a final destination. Maybe this scares people and that is why they want to cling to some kind of absolute Truth. I recognize that change and uncertainty can be scary. But it is also part of living. When we let go of Truth we are more open to the mystery.

So can one believe without the object of their belief being True?  Why do I believe in something if I don’t think it is True?  Well, its true for me right now, but I don’t think it extends to everyone for all of time.  I think there can be truths, as long as those truths remain open. I believe that Love is Good and God exists as a testimony to this truth. This truth does not impose or condemn, but it invites. My understanding of what these words mean and the experiences I can place with them changes, but there is an aspect that remains true. I think it is not only possible, but also better, to have faith in a presence that you can admit and recognize is beyond your full understanding. I think an authentic faith is in constant process and needs to be open to changing old truths, receiving new ones, and eliminating ones that are no longer consistent with your experience and understanding.

I end with the words of Anthony de Mello, S.J.:

The moment

you cease

to change

you cease

to live.

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Responses

  1. This is a very interesting question. It is hard to answer because the nature of faith is that it does not demand proof in the sense of concrete physical evidence. However, people are not likely to put their faith in something that they do not believe to be true. For this reason, I would say that faith does require truth. But this truth is not an objectively verifiable truth. So when you ask can one believe without the object of their belief being true, I think the answer is both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that subjectively, another might not consider their belief to be based on truth. And the answer is no in the sense that you do not really truly and fully have faith if you do not believe in the truth of your convictions. I think the latter is why we are able to successfully spread religion to those who do not know it, and convert those who are part of another religious tradition. If convictions are backed by faith in their legitimacy then others can see that legitimacy. But if we are wishy-washy, thinking well maybe this isn’t true but I guess I will subscribe to it, then we would never succeed in getting others to follow.

    I do agree with you Jen, when you talk about the convictions of feeling faith is true at a certain time for a certain individual, and this feeling of truth has a learning curve. That is what is so tricky about faith and why so many people question theirs. I often find myself wishing that I had a solid and unchanging answer to these questions.

  2. Jen, if I may ask, would you be open to the beliefs and practices of a male supremacist (is that the right label? someone who believes men are great and women are worthless) or is the dignity of women a “Truth”? If so, would the concept of the dignity of women be an idol for you, preventing you from changing and exploring certain paths of thought?

    Or are there Truths which cannot be confined to the paradigm of “idol”? And if there are universal Truths, who is to say that the dignity of women is a Truth, whereas Confucianism or Islam isn’t a Truth but only true?

  3. This is a great reflection on the significance of claiming something as one’s “truth”. In my paper, I discuss the faith development theory of James Fowler. Your final paragraph is reminiscent of what he describes as the higher faith stages. In particular, Stage 5, known as Conjunctive faith is when an individual feels called to self reflection. Contradictions in the surrounding environment persuade them to move away from dichotomous thinking and seek to view the world from a variety of perspectives. Fowler himself has difficulty describing this stage, but he says, “Conjunctive faith suspects that things are organically related to each other; it attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mind set.” In his other book, Faithful Change, Fowler links this stage to postmodern thinkers, who lean away from defining the world in terms of a single truth. In this stage, truth is not necessarily subjective, but rather multidimensional.

  4. this is a question I’ve often asked myself during my research because many scholars want to blame violent, suicidal acts on the claims of absolute truth made by Islamic fundamentalism. I think the absolute part of a truth claim is where we can run into problems or the belief that your truth is the only truth, that is best for everyone.

    I was going to incorporate Alan Watts into my paper but had difficulty finding the passage I was looking for, originally I’d listened to him on an audio tape. His observation involved wars that are waged on moral grounds, or abstract philosophical ideas i.e. freedom, democracy, reason can only be won by converting the “other”, if this doesn’t succeed they must be destroyed completely. Thus these absolute and certain ideologies prove more destructive than wars to secure oil, annex land, or other resources.

    On a separate note, Anthony de Mello also published this little anecdote:

    The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the ground.

    “What did that man find?” asked the friend.

    “A piece of truth,” said the devil.

    “Doesn’t that disturb you?” asked the friend.

    “No,” said the devil, “I shall let him make a belief out of it.”


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