Archives For Truth

Convocation Speech

February 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

“Broadening to Narrow: University’s Paradox”

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Last week, I presented the following speech at Wake Forest’s Convocation:

Children, for all their naiveté, are particularly astute. They are credulous when it comes to certain matters, yet they ask very difficult and honest questions. Above all, children ask questions that begin with the pesky word why. “Why is the sky blue?” they think. “Why do trees lose their leaves in the fall?” they wonder. Or, a much more typical one in my household, “Why do you always burn the frozen pizza,ma?” Anyways, children’s demands for causal knowledge—and their restlessness in the pursuit of it—never cease to catch us off guard.

But now, there comes a day when children fail to receive a satisfying answer to one of their questions or when they are given two seemingly mutually exclusive answers to the same question. At this point they begin to get a feel for the meaning of the word truth. Something inside tells children, perhaps now teenagers, that certain ideas are more intellectually satisfying than others. After some such experience, these older children start to look for not just any answer, but for theright answer. They don’t cease to seek information per se, and in that sense they are expanding; but they do cease to acknowledge the validity of everything they hear, and in that sense they are contracting. Notice that this process of expansion and contraction is not arbitrary. Actually, it has a purpose: the apprehending of what is true.

This idea is a bit of a paradox. Like a beating heart, we expand in order to contract. Without the expansion, there would be no contraction. We broaden our knowledge precisely in order to narrow it. It is as if we are sifting through the vast array of possible explanations available to us, but only certain explanations make it through the pores of our rational filter. This paradox is the very essence of a liberal arts education. For the rest of this speech, I’d like to share with you a few stories I’ve picked up from my time at Wake Forest that demonstrate this insight.

Let’s start way back with Socrates and the dialectical method of reasoning. Socrates is one of my personal heroes, not necessarily because he was right about everything but rather because of his approach to life. He was a rigorous pursuer of wisdom. His most famous ideas, written down by Plato, were not (like this one) expressed in long monologues or meditations: they were conversations. Socrates loved talking to people. He discussed philosophy with others in order to chip away at preconceived notions. Most of his conversations ended in confusion, without absolute certainty, but because of the perseverance of his disciple Plato, a handful of these dialogues did reach acceptable conclusions. Plato and Socrates knew all the arguments presented to them, but they only believed that certain ones were correct. They planted many seeds, but only a few of these seeds produced fruit. I hold that these two thinkers were college students par excellence: they aimed to move from many competing notions to one, to the type of notion that we commonly call “truth.” They expanded to contract.

Now consider the genius Rene Descartes, whose journey may more aptly be explained as a movement from expansion to contraction to expansion. Descartes, like Socrates, had a thirst for wisdom. As a young student, he took in the numerous possible explanations of reality that his scholastic professors offered him. However, these manifold accounts were not sufficient for him. Descartes wanted clear and distinct premises, indubitable premises. His expanding mind occasioned an abrupt narrowing. He questioned everything he had ever been instructed, but he did not question solely to question. He questioned for truth’s sake. His doubtful mentality constricted him at first, but he would later build upon the scant indubitable certainties with which he was left by the end of his skepticism to construct a formidable mathematical and philosophical methodology. Like the aforementioned child, Descartes was not content with dissonance: he wanted absolute clarity.

For a more contemporary example from my major, religion, let me share with you the ideas of Stephen Prothero, who came to speak to Wake Forest during my sophomore year. Arguably this scholar’s most famous work is God Is Not One, which, as the title implies, explains that the so-called eight major religions are, in fact, different. Dr. Prothero challenges the reader as if by saying, “Read this book, and you will see that these religions are not different paths up the same mountain. No. They are different paths up different mountains.” To the spiritual seeker, Dr. Prothero is the modern Socrates. He encourages the confused and the sure-footed alike to come to real conclusions, if there are any conclusions, by putting these major religions into conversation with each other. Dr. Prothero asks students to expand their views so that they can come to know what they may have formerly only believed. For brilliant minds, vagaries are not enough.

Now I’d like to share something more personal. Most of my research while at Wake Forest has consisted of analysis of competing models of economic development in Central America. At first for me these competing models were like the beliefs of children: vague and indiscriminate. My situation was similar to a statement by Juan Luis Segundo, a prominent liberation theologian: “I had many ideologies in front of me, as available in a shop window, and I could choose the one I liked.” And isn’t there a great temptation to be like a child who chooses the flashiest shoes in the shop only to later find that they don’t fit?  And isn’t there a great temptation to blindly trust the appealing preference of a well-known public figure, perhaps a certain successful basketball player from the 1990s? And isn’t there a great temptation to walk out of the shop without any shoes at all, as one who finds comfort in indecision? Without a doubt, all these temptations weighed upon me. And without a doubt, I pondered these forbidden fruits in awe of their apparent splendor. But! Taking a hint from the likes of Plato, Descartes, and Prothero, I broadened to narrow, for I have never been satisfied until pillars of truth are built in the midst of the rubble.

I trust that these movements of expansion and contraction are familiar to all, especially to those of us who have an inexhaustible hunger for wisdom. We continue to struggle for more knowledge so that we can dismiss the fallacies and accept the truths. The human mind is like unrefined gold, good in essence yet indefinite in form. A goldsmith passes it through fire. It stretches and hardens. Once a dull heap of rock, it is now a wedding ring to be given to the beloved. We are the same. Although full of potential and grounded in our goodness as dignified human beings, we remain dull until we pass through the fire of expansion and the cooling of contraction. We allow ourselves to be molded into who we are. It is a dynamic process, and it makes for challenging and restless nights as we seek that to which we are oriented. Despite these trials, we become like the wedding ring, a gift to be shared. But this gift is not any gift. It must be tested, and it must be true.

Truth and Descartes

January 17, 2014 — 2 Comments

Truth and Descartes

“The power of judging aright and of distinguishing truth from error, which is properly what is called good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men; and the diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.” –Rene Descartes

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There is nothing more intellectually dissatisfying than bracketing the truth in an academic discussion, yet the American Academy of Religion continues to mandate this limited, relativistic, empirical, polarizing, and totalitarian agenda. Why? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I have a hunch. Truth is scary for two reasons: (1) truth necessitates the rigorous and time-consuming task of logical reasoning, and (2) truth may necessitate the partaker of that truth to change his or her life in accordance with the truth. There may be a third reason that has to do with the influence of postmodern philosophy, but I am not entirely sure that anyone, in good faith, can thoroughly adhere to postmodern doctrine given its internal incoherence and its logical implications. After all, by saying, “There is no truth,” one is admitting a truth–namely, that there is no truth. I challenge a postmodern feminist to live in a culture that practices female, adolescent genital mutilation and to raise her children, if she has any, in that cultural context, which naturally, is just as valid a construction of society as our own. No one has taken me up on that offer yet. Morals are not mere preferences, as if choosing to kill a man were equivalent to selecting a flavor of ice cream at a local Baskin Robbins. Innately, humanity is not relativistic, so the imposition of relativism is the imposition of a system akin to the systems that relativists expressly condemn. Irony. (If you reject my claim that humanity is not innately relativistic, then I encourage you to find a place where it is common practice for one to commit mass murder for fun with no retribution.) It is no wonder that Pope Benedict XVI spoke against the dictatorship of relativism, a tyranny in which the adherents of moral absolutism and objectivity are systematically silenced for their desire to pursue truth, even within the context of a university. We could use a dosage of Descartes, who correctly maintained that a commitment to reason–the distinction of truth from error–is necessary for the thriving of humankind. We are in bondage to relativism. Only the truth can set us free.

Error

October 19, 2013 — Leave a comment

 

 

 

Error: On the Deceit of Falsehood

“Error never shows itself in its naked reality, in order not to be discovered. On the contrary, it dresses elegantly, so that the unwary may be led to believe that it is more truthful than truth itself” (St. Irenaeus of Lyon).

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Throughout the centuries of Christianity’s existence, God has called the Church to defend the truths of the gospel against heresy. Heresy is a problem because it divides the unity of our Lord’s body. It creates schism, and it promotes the dissemination of misunderstanding. Heresy gives non-believers the impression (perhaps the truthful impression) that Christians do not have the necessary humility to cooperate with each other. In sum, heresy destroys the justice and the peace of God’s kingdom. 

How are we to counteract the heresies of our day? I have a few suggestions, and I’d love to hear what you think, too.

1) “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Before we even begin to critically question the beliefs of others, we must examine our own beliefs and our own intentions. For instance, I ask myself, “Am I arguing for the sake of argument, for my own sake, or for Christ’s sake?” An honest answer to this question may reveal that we need to speak to Christ about a given situation before we take action. If it is not God’s will for us to intervene, then we should not intervene. However, it may be the case that our Lord is telling us to stand up for our beliefs, in which case we should prepare ourselves in prayer and then respond according to God’s intentions for us. 

2) “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1). Many times, adherents to heresy will disguise their false teachings beneath a web of eloquent speech or sentimentalism. Typically, the opposing argument will run in one of these two directions. If the other person uses big words or subtle arguments, then try to lead that person to deconstruct his or her argument to its roots. In this manner the bare fallacies will reveal themselves. One way of facilitating this deconstruction is by asking lots of questions. These questions may prompt him or her to reconsider a given premise. Additionally, a thorough round of questioning will demonstrate whether or not the “opposition” truly understands the issue at hand. If the other person resorts to a sentimental interpretation to support his or her false beliefs, then remind that person that religious truths are not dependent on feelings. Whether I feel God or whether I do not, God is present with me. Whether I feel justified or whether I do not, God alone will decide whether or not I am justified. Feelings are not enough. Truth transcends our feelings. 

3) “Love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4). Reaching a resolution or a conversion may take time. Do not lose heart. Seek knowledge in the faith, pray for humility and for the other person, and persevere in the hope that comes from God. Heresy is a serious problem, so it requires a serious plan of action. In time, the truth of God will prevail, but we must trust that he will do the heavy lifting in his own good time. 

May God bless all who defend the faith. May he ignite a passion for truth within the hearts of his chosen people.

Best wishes,
David