Honesty Isn't Our Policy (Part 1)

Honesty, as the saying goes, is always the best policy.  If we believe that, the question is: Do we practice it?  Do we live our lives truthfully?  Now, someone might object that telling the truth and living the truth are two different animals.  That is to say, the question of telling the truth without living that truth begs the question about whether it is possible to be Charles Manson (i.e., a complete schmuck) and still speak something approximating the truth, inasmuch as it is argued that the truth is not contingent on anything outside itself to be true.  In other words, one account of the truth maintains that there is something that exists independently, objectively “out there” that is called the “Truth.”  What one needs to do when there exists competing truth claims, goes the thinking, is to appeal to the “objective standard” of “Truth.” This formula works serviceably well when the question has to do with whether or not 2 + 2 = 4 or whether the population of Louisville is larger than that of Lexington.  If, however, the question raised is whether or not University of Louisville fans are less dedicated fans than University of Kentucky fans or whether or not Christianity is true, to what uncontestable “objective standard” does one appeal?

Absolutism, or the belief, not merely that there is an “absolute truth” but that that “absolute truth” can be apprehended by human beings—if they only “try hard enough”—is a difficult argument to sustain, just to the extent that it is possible to have two reasonably intelligent, reasonably passionate, reasonably sincere individuals disagree on where to go to find the absolute truth that will settle their argument.  Should they look in the Bible?  The Koran?  The Bhagavad-Gita?  The DaVinci Code?  Dr. Phil?  The periodic table of elements? Who gets to decide what’s true?  Or where do we expect to find the true account of truth to which everyone will defer?  Absolutism runs the risk in the end of only being able to communicate by monologue.

“Does that mean,” as many will quickly ask, “that everything is relative?  That there are no standards of truth to which we may appeal?  Do we throw our hands up in the air because there is finally no way to adjudicate between competing truth claims?”  No.  Relativism, as a set of truth claims, collapses under its own weight.  As James McClendon has pointed out: “As a general theory [relativism] seems to ask us to believe (a) that it is (in general) true, and (b) that nothing is (in general) true—and both can’t be the case” (Ethics: Systematic Theology, Abingdon, 1986, 350). Relativism as a theory of knowledge is logically absurd—or should we say, it’s only relatively true—whatever that means.

Therefore, to assert that honesty is the best policy is only to have begun the discussion, not to have settled it.  If absolutism is problematic and relativism is logically indefensible, how are we supposed to talk about truth?  Or as Pilate put the question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

When asked “What is truth?” how did Jesus respond?  We are left to assume that Jesus said nothing, because Pilate immediately left Jesus and went outside to address the Jews.  Why didn’t Jesus say, “The truth is x, y, and z, and you would know that if you only studied your _______?”  Or why didn’t Jesus say, “Truth is such a slippery subject, I’m not sure we ought to waste time trying to nail it down to a single definition.  After all, all definitions are ultimately equal?”  In fact Jesus let the silence hang in the air, as if to say, “If you want to know what truth is, look at me.  I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

In a world in which we seem incapable of sustaining a conversation about truth between faith systems, perhaps the only way we have of judging their truthfulness is by observing the kinds of people they produce.  It seems to me that the only way we have of judging the truthfulness of a particular set of truth claims is by examining whether, and to what extent, there exists a people capable of embodying those claims.  That is to say, are the people named by a particular truth claim living the truth to which they appeal, or more to the point, are they living truthfully?  Do people who claim to follow Jesus, for example, live in ways that honor Jesus’ commitments?  Or, as Samuel Wells remarks: “Pragmatic tests of Christianity focus on Christian tradition and the ‘richness of moral character’ it produces in much the same way that science judges its theories by the fruitfulness of the activities they generate, and significant works of art become so in the light of the interpretation and criticism that surround them” (Transforming Fate into Destiny, Cascade Books, 1998, 86).

If I am right that the only real way to decide between two truth-claims from competing systems of belief is to look to the sorts of communities of character they produce, and if the only way to judge communities of character is by whether they produce people capable of living the claims they espouse, then living truthfully is the only way to establish the truth of those claims.  Put another way, brick-layers lay brick, cooks cook, and Christians live like Jesus.  Clearly, not everyone who wears the name has mastered all the practices necessary to be named a master craftsman in these crafts, but the shape of one’s life is determined by one’s commitment to living faithfully with the name—brick-layer, cook, Christian.  It is, after all, possible to take any of those names in vain by failing to practice, or practicing poorly, the disciplines of each craft.

However, when practiced well the very product of the craft (i.e., the wall, the cake, the life) stands as legitimating evidence of the value and veracity of the craft.  Consequently, for Christians, living truthfully isn’t only a matter of practicing the craft of Christianity well; it is the very means by which the truthfulness of Christianity is judged in a world where truth claims abound and compete.  In other words, speaking the truth is the product of a truthful life.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

(The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.)