A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on January 11, 2009
It is Hard To Believe a Man Is Telling the Truth When You Know that You Would Lie if You Were in His Place: A Reflection on Truth, Lies and Meaning
I called to the Lord in my distress, and he heard me –
Deliver me O Lord from a deceitful tongue and laying lips.
—Psalm 119 v 1-2
Today we’ll explore that notorious and difficult term truth. And so of course, as it follows truth like night follows day, we’ll reflect some on lying, as well. I’m deeply interested in that social contract which is critical to a gathering of people who hope to form community, and in how a certain fidelity in word and action is absolutely necessary for community to thrive. But also I’m drawn to what deeper intuition is involved in this enterprise. Now I believe there is one, and so I wonder about it, and what that intuition might mean for us on our spiritual quest for depth and meaning.
One thing I’m sure of. Lies wound individuals, and they tear at the fabric of community. We certainly know that here where our church has been roiled by a recent minister whose sermons, not only included lifting the intellectual product of others but also taking anecdotes from their lives and presenting them as his own. Such makes it pretty clear that although perhaps not an absolute, truth telling is an obvious good, and just plain should be the general rule of human relations.
Still, there are so many obvious exceptions to that general rule I hope it gives us pause. I recall journalist and critic H. L. Mencken’s adage, “It is hard to believe a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.” That contains so much of the inherent contradictions in the bare admonition: don’t lie. And I hope gives us some pause.
While my ego is such that I’m not a likely candidate for lifting another’s work, it doesn’t mean I don’t have some insight into the matter of that particular subset of untruthfulness that is plagiarism. I’ve mentioned this before, although I don’t think in a sermon. If you’ve heard this, please forgive my repetition. But I live with it and it haunts me and I think about it every time I consider truth and lying and these days particularly in the context of thinking about my predecessor.
My father had a rough life. It included almost no formal education, maybe up to, possibly through the third grade. Still he clearly was very intelligent, read a lot, and had an aptitude for both math and language. I know when he was in jail during my early teen years he tutored his fellow inmates in both basic English and arithmetic skills. At that time, learning what he was doing, I thought when he got out of jail he would become a schoolteacher, and our lives would change. There were many things I didn’t understand.
Mostly he made his living as a bartender. Some look at me and say I’m following in the old man’s footsteps. I’m not sure I like the implications of that suggestion. But more deeply, I do believe we inherit much from our parents, including wounds. And his never being able to do what he was capable of, I’m sure, seeps into the darker recesses of my heart. I know I could never have enough degrees, write enough books, or be in a high enough pulpit. Well, I guess I have achieved that…
Anyway, he loved science fiction. And through him, so did I. In fact I consider science fiction my first window on a larger world than the very constricted one in which we actually lived. At some point he started writing his own stories. He would make carbon copies and pass them around to friends, and to me. I was thrilled and would encourage him to send them off to the magazines we read, like Amazing Stories and Fantasy and Science Fiction. Then one day after reading a story he’d written, I was rummaging through the boxes of old magazines he kept and found one that contained the story I had just read. Not, of course, written by him.
For years I’ve brooded over the wounds in his heart that led to those fake stories. And, of course? Of course, I find myself thinking of my predecessor. And while I see the damage, and know the need for truthfulness, I feel sympathy for the wounds that led to the transgression.
And, that moment of sympathy allows me to see all sorts of reasons I might lie. For one, I know I’m capable of lying in a moment of embarrassment, such as when confronted with something I didn’t actually get around to doing, even though I said I would and thought I would, and will in a minute or two. Other lies are any number of small social encounters that really seem necessary for human relationships: yes, you look great. And, at the other end, I’ve seen people use truth as a club to simply beat others down, to no obvious good. I fear I’ve done that, as well. So lies sometimes even seem appropriate. And truth sometimes seems wrong. And that leaves hanging the whole question of when memory itself becomes a liar.
My friend and colleague Sam Trumbore raises the philosophical and spiritual concerns when he says “I hope we are all realistic enough to see that a belief in truth telling can, in (some) circumstances, get us or those close to us into a lot of trouble. The classic example ethics students like to debate is the case of answering your front door and being accosted by a visibly angry man shaking with rage and holding a loaded gun demanding to see your friend quietly reading a book on the back porch. Do you tell the honest truth? Do you lie? Do you evade the question? Do you collapse to the floor like a jabbering idiot? While we can heartily embrace the value of truth telling, it is relative to the life affirming and supporting context rather than an absolute commandment.”
I think about that, a lot. I am not calling for Pilate’s washing his hands while asking, “what is truth?” Rather, I suggest we approach this matter in another way. As Frederick Buechner wrote, “In Shakespeare’s King Lear which is one of the mightiest of all preachments, terrible as well as wonderful things happen… it is the ‘poor naked wretches’ of the world, as Lear call them, who somehow survive in spirit and the rich and powerful who are finally brought down by their own power.
“It is the madmen and fools who turn out to be wise and the wise and worldly who turn out to be fools. Foolish old Gloucester has his eyes put out but then suddenly, for the first time, sees the truth about himself and his sons. Mad old Lear loses his crown and his kingdom but at the last becomes for the first time truly a king. The villainy of the bad sisters is unmasked at last, and the purity of the good sister shines out in all its splendor.
“But then catastrophe occurs, and, in the last act, the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, all die alike, and the stage is so littered with corpses that there is nobody much left except Edgar to stammer the curtain down as best he can. What he says is this:
“’The weight of this sad time we must obey/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’”
I suggest somewhere in our feeling lives, somewhere below the reason, there is a call to truth. But it is contained within such a mess, that mess of flesh and blood, that mess of living contradiction, all haunted by our mortality. Buechner paints that picture of Shakespeare’s play then says something else that drives me and drives this reflection. Genuine good news, the deep good news, he tells us, is bad news before it is good.
I’m much taken with Alfred Whitehead’s observation that all truths are half-truths. We do see through that glass darkly. Certainly as I consider the nature of truth, I see all the bad news of it, or at least the astonishing complexity of it. I see the practical effect of truth telling, even without appeal to special revelation. And at the same time it is inescapably relative and situational. But I also think there is something deeper here, something very important, a compass, a sense that informs the situation.
I’m deeply informed by the dynamic I’ve observed in life of our human ability to see how the world is made of distinct things, the you as distinct from me, and yet at the very same time having this astonishing intuition which transcends cultures and religions, glimpsed in moments, but completely transforming lives; that we are also in some profound sense truly one. It is my belief that sense of oneness is the secret. The Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida frames how this works in his observation our "knowledge of things in the world begins with the differentiation of unitary consciousness into knower and known and ends with self and things becoming one again.”
Kitaro goes from there to suggest how our sense of unity informs our sense of value, and that sense gives us a sympathetic focus to the other, which itself gives rise to our desire to act in this world of differentiation toward a larger good. This seems roughly right to me. If you will, this is the truth.
Lies then are how we deceive ourselves about our essential unity. For a short moment or a whole lifetime we deny ourselves our connection with others, and from that fundamental lie, all the little ones flow. Some of those lies, actually, not all that little, as we know. With each lie small or large, comes hurt. Perhaps there’s a short-term gain, that’s almost always the motive; but it involves diminishment of ourselves as well reinforcing a false view of the world around us.
So, there we are, here we are. As seems to be the case in most of those rules of thumb in life like not killing and not stealing and not lying, there are at least three ways we need to engage the matter. First, there are the plain rules of it. Don’t lie. Second, there is also a place where all ideas collapse and truth and lies fall apart, and all that is left is the vastness itself. And third, where these things return in a dance, a dynamic, in our actual lived lives: we find that deeper reality to which the rule not lying points, when we see we are one even as we are multiple, and when I lie to you I am lying to myself.
At one moment one aspect is paramount, at another, another. But like life itself, in the great play of things, on this stage we share together where each takes a part, there is a wholeness that is bigger, that allows us to see what is happening, and that draws us to rewrite the script.
Because of this dynamic, there is hope.
We can let go of the lies in our hearts, particularly that worst of all lies, that we are separate. And informed by a spirit of truthfulness, we can find each moment created anew, and possibility waiting, the world pregnant with hope.
This is a new world awaiting birth within us, you and me.
That I think is the truthfulness we seek, and which awaits our turned hearts.