Truthism Axiom 9: No One Gets Everything Wrong

When I was running a Kung Fu school, I ran a number of promotions to get people to sign up for classes. Among them were programs where people could get their first three months of classes free if they bought their uniform. I also got to know some of my students personally, and we would discuss the things they were doing on the side, and often we would direct each other to free offers around town, as friends often do for each other. In all of these situations, I was known for a particular quote: “As a not-so-very-wise-man once said, ‘Free is a very good price.'” This was a reference to Tom Peterson, a well known salesman in Portland, Oregon. We were in St. Helens, which is a suburb of Portland and all of our television came out of Portland. Even though I didn’t take over teaching Kung Fu until after Tom Peterson was out of business and only a few years before his death, his history and advertising was at that time still fresh in the minds of most of my adult students and the parents of most of my children students.

Tom Peterson had gone bankrupt a few times running electronics stores despite having a magnetic personality and winning advertising campaigns. He brought people into his stores in untold numbers and still managed to run his business into the ground. He reopened with the condition set by his creditors that his wife, Gloria, be on the business deed as well. It again went under. The Petersons continued to work in advertising and management after that, but for other companies. He had skills, they just weren’t in business ownership.

No one ever questioned my evaluation of Tom Peterson as not-so-very-wise. A few objected that Tom Peterson was just not putting his skills to best use and needed to be middle management and advertising, not ownership. When pressed, everyone admitted that this only demonstrated his lack of wisdom at the time he was saying these things to a wide audience over the airways.

This did prompt a few people to question why I was quoting such an obviously not-so-very-wise source. My answer was simple: I respect the Truth regardless of its source. Experience and study has led many to conclude that free is, in point of fact, a very good price.

Tom Peterson is hardly the most egregious example of wisdom from un-wisdom though. Tom Peterson was honestly trying, he was just trying to do things that weren’t his natural skill set. Once he was into his natural skill set he did very well. This isn’t true for everyone.

In 1897, Dr. Edward Goodwin thought that he had found a way to square a circle. This was based on the assumption that Pi was exactly 3.2, an assumption that was incorrect. Now a good servant of Truth would recognize that better approximations of Pi exist, that the method discovered was not accepted by professional mathematicians, and that all of this strongly implied that his proof was in fact in error. That’s not the direction that Dr. Goodwin decided to go with his ideas. He helped to push through Indiana General Assembly Bill #246 requiring that his method be taught in schools as established fact. The Committee of Education saw this as a bill worthy of a vote by the whole committee. The only thing that prevented the bill from passing was the happenstance that Professor Clarence Waldo happened to be in town on a fundraising trip for Purdue University. Professor Waldo spoke to the assembly and assured them that Dr. Goodwin’s ideas were not grounded in mathematical reality.

It’s easy to see the difference between Mr. Peterson and Dr. Goodwin. Both made errors in judgement, but once Mr. Peterson found the place where his skills were best used he thrived. Dr. Goodwin wasn’t just wrong, he was wrong in a way that the top 70th percentile of teenagers cold explain why he’s wrong with a little prompting. When he was shown he was wrong, he didn’t accept it. Not only did he not accept it, he tried to push a law forbidding others to accept that he might be wrong. This is not a dedication to Truth. Although it’s impossible to judge Dr. Goodwin’s motives, from here it almost looks like he was trying to get these things wrong. I don’t know why that might be, but it’s clear that he wasn’t motivated by an earnest desire for Truth. He was wrong about Pi, the square root of two, the ratio between lines and arcs in circles, etc. Yet for all that, Dr. Goodwin was an accomplished physician, and you don’t become an accomplished physician by getting lots of things wrong about human anatomy. I have absolutely no doubt that if I were in a trivia game of human anatomy with Dr. Goodwin, he would undoubtedly win hands down. I’m less convinced that he would beat me in a math duel, even though math is hardly my best subject.

Dr. Goodwin does show all the signs of being a reliable source of error. If all you know about Mr. Peterson is his failure as a business owner, it’s tempting to group him in as another reliable source of error. Yet Truth still did find a way to make use of these vessels. Dr. Goodwin went on to be well respected in his community according to his obituary, and Mr. Peterson was successful in other business endeavors. There’s a lesson to be learned in all of this. When we’re listening to someone, we can’t simply dismiss them because they have been wrong, no matter how often. We have to consider their reasoning in everything they’ve said. We might be inclined to believe someone who has been right about a particular subject often rather than learn a whole new subject just to confirm an idea, but the reverse is never true. We can never dismiss someone simply because they’ve been wrong often before as a means to avoid serious study. We may defer to those who have studied in that field as to where the greatest evidence lies, but we can’t simply disregard them because they have been wrong before. As an example from biology, Lynn Margulis was an early proponent of endosymbiotic theory. Even though she proposed different ways that every kind of eukaryotic cell structure could have come from bacteria, the consensus is that she was wrong about many of them. If we focused on her errors, we would reject an entire branch of biology which has since become very strongly supported. Instead of focusing on heros and calling them right about everything, we should search for Truth wherever we find it, even if we are simply pulling golden specks of Truth that need to be carefully extracted from the gravel of error that surrounds it.

There’s another angle to the same lesson. We aren’t looking for heros. We are looking for Truth. Someone who has failed to deliver Truth often may be just the one to deliver the Truth we need right when we need it. When that happens, we need to remember that the Truth is alive and it has chosen this means and this time to reveal itself to us. This reminder can take us away from looking for heroic truth tellers, instead looking past them to the Truth they tell.

Truthism Axiom 8: Noone Gets Everything Right All The Time.

Dr. Albert Einstein was a physicist near the beginning of the twentieth century that helped revolutionize the deep study of physics. He was able to look at the way the planets moved and build thought experiments based on recent discoveries that changed the way everyone thought about physics. His ideas have become so ingrained in our collective thought that when Star Trek characters explain that their warp drive distorts space and time, even our middle schoolers just nod and say, “That makes sense.” In contrast, in Einstein’s time, even the most well studied physicists needed convincing that those words went together like that.

Einstein had a “miracle year” in which he produced an unprecedented thirteen academic papers, each of which revolutionized the way physicists thought about the world around us. His name has become a synonym for genius. His findings have been revolutionary in the advancement of technology ever since. The atomic bomb, radiometric cancer therapies, and even the touch screens on our phones are dependent in part on the discoveries he spearheaded or contributed to.

Yet there are also aspects to these discoveries that even he was embarrassed to admit. When he began his investigation into the nature of gravity, the assumption among physicists was that the universe was static and eternal. The historical details that we now call The Big Bang were then considered fantasy, not science. To accommodate the then-current understanding, Einstein included a constant called lambda in the equations for General Relativity. The value of lambda was whatever it took to ensure that the universe was static and eternal. Then Edwin Hubble tracked the movement of distant galaxies and demonstrated that the universe wasn’t static or eternal. The universe was expanding and had started from a very small, dense beginning. Einstein called lambda his biggest blunder. Except, maybe there was something to it. The discovery of some sort of  Dark Energy pushing galaxies apart caused physicists to revisit Einstein’s equations. One possible explanation for Dark Energy is that gravity works differently than Einstein envisioned. Amazingly, when you calculate what lambda was supposed to be based on our best available data, and then factor in what we’ve learned about Dark Matter, the value of lambda accounts for the movement attributed to Dark Energy. So Einstein was wrong. Lambda wasn’t his biggest blunder. It was borderline prophetic. Unfortunately, Einstein never knew.

The Truth is fickle. The Truth doesn’t owe us anything. Whatever portion of itself the Truth reveals to us is a gift. When we get that taste of Truth and pass it along, it gets us attention. We predict something or we build something or we defeat someone, and we’re the one on top for just a moment. It feels good, and we want that feeling of being on top again. So we look deep into those areas that Truth has hidden from us. We think that we can force Truth to reveal itself to us when we’re ready, not when it’s ready. Then we say what we think we have forced out of the Truth.

We can’t force the Truth to do our bidding. So when we try to force the Truth, we end up speaking out of turn. We say something honestly believing we’ve forced Truth to do our bidding. That’s where error comes from.

There is a vastness to Truth that we can’t comprehend. People spend a lifetime getting to know just a single corner of the Truth and are amazed and perplexed when the same skills don’t bring them to a greater understanding in another area of Truth. It’s not always clear where these lines are until you’ve crossed them. By then, it’s too late and you are in foreign territory speaking a foreign tongue thinking that what you say makes some kind of sense. We fail to recognize that Truth rules differently here, and once again try to force the Truth to conform to us instead of forcing ourselves to conform to it.

Instead of forcing Truth to serve us, we should stand back in humility. Truth will give us gifts we never appreciate, and then hide itself from us. We will have an opportunity to either pursue the Truth or to pursue error. A fundamental part of our inborn nature is our initial separation from the Truth. Innocence is not only a state of lacking guilt, it is also a state of not knowing the Truth. If someone knows the Truth and still lacks guilt, we call them righteous, not innocent. Unfortunately, our draw towards pride works faster than our draw towards Truth. So even the most intelligent among us will occasionally let our pride get ahead of us, and then we speak out of turn, and we never even realize it.

Most of us ever know when we are wrong. If we did, we would simply stop being wrong there. Yet there is an irony in that if we never speak up and never commit to an answer, we don’t serve the Truth. By being silent in those times when we think we have an answer but we are in error, we feed ignorance, not Truth. It is better to say what we mean and be corrected than to remain silent. Many profound truths have been discovered by putting suspected truths to the test and discovering that they were in error. This is how Copernicus discovered that the Earth orbits the Sun and not the other way around. At every point of inquiry, when you are confronted with another possibility, remind yourself that in the absence of other data, there’s a 50% chance that your established views are incorrect.

Truthism Axiom 7: Those Who Have Studied an Area in Great Depth Tend to be More Reliable in That Area Than Those Who Have Not Studied That Area

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Don Lincoln, Tim Mackie, or James Grime, but these are all world famous smart people. Dr. Lincoln is an astronomer and physicist, Dr. Mackie is a historian and theologian, and Dr. Grime is a mathematician and cryptologist. All three are known in their areas of study for their publications, discoveries, and teaching. They also have gained a popular following for their ability to connect to people outside of their area of study at the popular level.

It’s always fascinating to listen to these great speakers communicate in their subject. They have a knack for finding the way to communicate their concepts in great detail without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. They also happen to be some of my personal go-to sources when I want to see if an idea is compatible with the field of study. If I want to know if my understanding of a physics idea is accurate, one of the first things I run through Google is the concept followed by “Dr. Lincoln.” Since theology is my hobby, I have listened to hours heaped into days heaped into weeks of lectures, sermons, and discussions by or with Dr. Mackie. One of my not-so-guilty pleasures is watching the YouTube show Numberphile, especially when Dr. Grime is on to bestow his wisdom. I can honestly say that my understudying of the world would be far less complete without what I’ve learned from these great thinkers.

But none of these thinkers got there overnight. There wasn’t a moment when the intricacies of particle physics suddenly appeared in Dr. Lincoln’s head. Dr. Mackie wasn’t given the gift of tongues to understand the Bible. Dr. Grime didn’t just count really high to learn all the secrets that mathematics has to offer. There were years of study and practice that went into each of these degrees.

You definitely see something similar in the trades. My dad was a carpenter and worked as a foreman for several construction companies when I was young. It was always fascinating to hear my dad talk about building. He knew what the requirements were for all kinds of structures. Being the foreman, he worked really closely with tradesmen from all kinds of trades. Welders were often impressed with the welding machine that Dad had, but disappointed with his selection of welding rods. I had a welder explain the number system for welding rods once and just how much better the job he was finishing up for Dad would go if he had a particular rod that was only a few digits different than what was available.

Every so often, there’s that person you expect to be an expert that can’t seem to get anything right, though. Dad had hired a few people through the years that looked really professional on paper — worked in their field for more than a decade and through several projects with good recommendations — but they were lacking when they were actually put to the test. I remember once that Dad came home from a job with someone he had just hired and was very concerned. The new hire had looked good on paper, but Dad had sent him to the lumber yard with the instruction to get “two’s and better.” It’s not entirely clear what the confusion was, but the new hire had to have #2 lumber explained before he understood what Dad was saying. This being such an important part of construction, Dad was worried that he may have been buffaloed. It worked out. Apparently in that case the confusion had more to do with poor acoustics than deficient skills. Be that as it may, it was concerning for just a moment.

I’m not in a place to even begin to judge the skills of Dr. Lincoln or Dr. Grime. My skills in their particular areas of expertise are undeveloped. With Dr. Mackie I feel sufficient to say he’s superior to me and that’s substantial. I don’t think I could take him unprepared in a debate even on one of my pet projects such as Matthew in Hebrew or God as Love and justice.

It’s entirely possible, from where I stand, that Dr. Lincoln and Dr. Grime are both charletons. After all, the Truth doesn’t owe them in-depth knowledge because of their in-depth study. However, I think it’s clear that if they were, those who work in their field would have seen it by now. They could be wrong or even deceptive and I would never know, but their peers would and I trust that they would reveal it to the public. After all, they are competitive fields and eliminating competition would benefit them.

It’s important to remember that they don’t just hand out doctorates at most schools. Unions don’t just assign the rank of journeyman at random. Years of study and practice tend to help someone to hone their craft. When you’ve done something for years or read about and written about something for years, you start to pick up on things that just don’t make sense with the data that’s out there. It’s always possible when you’re dealing with someone that lacks the advanced study in a field has actually discovered something that no one else in their field has discovered. Many discoveries started out as a minority opinion until later the evidence overwhelmed the field of study completely. When this has happened, it has been those who study the subject most in depth that were the first to recognize the new way to see the area of study. For example, the transition from phlogiston to modern chemistry started out as a minority opinion, and then over the course of a generation reshaped the study of matter to such an extent that trained and practiced alchemists were almost completely unemployable. When that happened it was those that were studying the interactions between materials that were best able to recognize that this new way of studying their field was better.

This is why, for example, when people ask me to give a robust defense of my minority views, for example that Matthew was written in Hebrew and the Greek of the New Testament is best represented by the Byzantine text, I prefer to refer the curious reader to Dr. George Howard and Dr. Mourice Robinson. Their work has been peer reviewed and found to be robust and defensible. My blog has not.

Of course, I have other minority views which are based on my own research, and those I don’t get offended if others reject. After all, I’m just me and I could be wrong. I don’t think I am (or I would change my beliefs) but I could be. Since I’m an amateur, in the absence of other evidence I’m not more likely to be right than anyone who brings equal evidence for another theory.

So when I have encountered people who have made claims such as “The Greek Language was a divine language inspired directly by God and was unchanged for centuries before and after the writing of the New Testament,” I’ve been able to show that this isn’t how languages work. Similarly when I’ve come across those who claim that there are secret messages encoded in the paleo-Hebrew forms of the letters.

So I accept that there may be details that Dr. Lincoln or Dr. Grime get wrong about physics or mathematics. There may be some obscure point about their subject where they’ve adopted a minority view that will ultimately fizzle out, or there may be a consensus view they’ve accepted that’s just plain wrong. But there’s nothing they say that I’m qualified to comment on except to quote from them or to use them as a starting point to look up deeper sources. Often the humility to admit that all you’re qualified to do is reference the actual experts in a field is painful, but this is exactly why Pride is one of the principle adversaries of Truth in the competition for our hearts.

Truthism Axiom 6: Reliable Sources of Error Tend to be Reliable Across Scopes, Domains, and Styles

There are times when I’m speaking out of my depth, and then I get things wrong. I do alright when I’m discussing the history of science, but when we get into the math of science I don’t do nearly as well. I can tell you that Einstein explained the photoelectric effect, and that this demonstrated the nature of light was quantum, with both wave-like and particle-like properties. I can’t, however, tell you how much light striking on a specific piece of silicon for whatever length of time of which wavelengths will produce a particular voltage of electricity. Similarly, I can tell you that it was Niels Bohr who discovered that electrons seem to occupy energy states when they incorporate into an atom. I can tell you that this discovery was made, in part, by observing the wavelengths of light that were absorbed and released by various substances, and that after making some observations Niels Bohr and his followers were able to predict what wavelengths would be absorbed and emitted by compounds very accurately. I’m not the one to call into a room to calculate which wavelengths we expect to be absorbed and released by a particular compound that is under study, though.

There’s a certain kind of self-awareness that goes into knowing where I’m likely to get things right and where I’m likely to get things wrong. I know my skills, and I try really hard not to false-advertise my skills and knowledge. I’m actively trying to improve my skills with physics, but it is in an attempt to more deeply understand what Einstein and Bohr did when they revolutionized the study of physics rather than a belief that some day I will be the one called upon to actually do these calculations in some important or meaningful way. By observing how these individuals worked to discover more facets of Truth, maybe Truth will see how diligently I have worked and help me to find deeper facets of my own. Or not. Truth is in charge of that.

There is something that has always perplexed me, though: there are actually people out there that seem less interested in knowing what’s true and more interested in having power. Now, don’t misunderstand me, if I can have both, I’m all for it. If I can know all the true things and somehow get power too, I’m all for that. If I’m choosing, though, I’m going to choose to have clearer and easier access to Truth than power. If being a right king isn’t an option, I’d rather be a slave and be right than be a king and be wrong. Not everyone makes that choice. Often we see people who are willing to believe a lie that either gives them power, or makes them feel powerful. In recent months, we’ve seen this with a popular Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias.

I never actually followed Mr. Zacharias much. His speaking style wasn’t to my personal taste. Strong on rhetoric, short on external confirmation. That’s fine, that doesn’t make him automatically wrong, just means he’s using a different style than what I prefer. I think I can count the number of lectures or sermons or answers to questions that I heard from Mr. Zacharias on my fingers. So when it came out that Mr. Zacharias’s mistreatment of several women was in fact a reality, I hadn’t even heard about the accusations. I heard about the results of the investigation before I knew there was an investigation.

One of the few things that I remember hearing from Mr. Zacharias was an answer where a woman in the congregation confronted him regarding his anti-evolution position. The woman was a Christian who had some sort of degree in biology and worked in the field in some capacity and had come to the conclusion that there was no conflict between evolution and Christianity. (I’m sorry, the details are a bit foggy and a lot of places have taken down their videos of Mr. Zacharias. I’m not sure I could find the video again if I looked.) Mr. Zacharias admitted that he would have less knowledge relevant to the question than the woman. Then he went on to say that she wouldn’t be able to convince him. He explained that he had thrown his hand in with those who had seen a conflict and that he couldn’t just abandon that direction in his study without seriously impacting those who looked to him for guidance. Which sounded uncomfortably close to admitting that if he accepted that there was no contradiction there he would lose his following and therefore his influence. That didn’t sit well with me. I would rather be right and have no influence than maintain something that was questionable.

It turns out that Mr. Zacharias wasn’t just lying about his interactions with women. Mr. Zacharias also claimed to have advanced degrees in theology that he didn’t actually have. Calling himself “doctor” gave him the image of authority that he used to keep control of his fans, followers, staff, and the various women he took advantage of. Since his fall, I’ve listened to a few people who have commented on his work. It seems obvious to me that the few pieces of good advice that he had through the years were very general and came from other, more reliable sources. Everything original to Mr. Zacharias himself was questionable at best.

There’s a relevant question that I don’t even know how to approach answering: did the Truth obscure itself from Mr. Zacharias and he therefore sought error, or did Mr. Zacharias seek error and therefore Truth shunned him? This is a valuable question and I hope that someday someone will have the resources to answer it, but that doesn’t seem to be something Truth is keen to reveal to me any time soon.

In either case, we can see the attitude of preferring power to Truth play out in the answer I described above: when confronted by someone that he admitted would know more about the subject than he, someone more educated with a more nuanced understanding of the facts at play, he simply said that neither would be likely to convince the other of their correctness. He prefered to show strength and to say what he knew his followers wanted to hear rather than follow well studied and contemplated Truth.

Mr. Zacharias isn’t the first one to have done this, though. He certainly won’t be the last. There is a famous story in the history of Mathematics of Hippasus either discovering or spreading knowledge of irrational numbers among the Pythagoreans. Rather than admit that his proof that irrational numbers are a normal part of the number line, the Pythagorean elders either drown him or abandon him on an island. (They took him fishing and he didn’t come back and they didn’t talk about it for a few generations, so details are sketchy.) The Pythagorean philosophy and to some extent theology was directly connected to the idea of splitting numbers by whole numbers, so when a young upstart was able to say something that contradicted their fundamental proclamations it threatened their power. That couldn’t stand, and rather than adhere to the Truth, they cast out Truth’s messenger.

The story of the Bible is a long list of people failing to follow Truth in exactly this way. Even when the priests and prophets of the royal court called out the right divine name, they would use it to say what the king or queen wanted to hear rather than what was true. 1 Kings 22 tells the story of the prophet Micaiah and how King Jehoshaphat couldn’t stand his accurate but unflattering prophecies. Even though there were other prophets such as Zedekiah there calling the name Yahweh, they did so only in a hope of flattering the king.

There’s a fairly popular atheist debater named Matt Dillahunty. He has debated Michael Jones from Inspiring Philosophy, Dr. Braxton Hunt from Trinity Theological Seminary, and Tent Horn from Catholic Answers Magazine, among others. Mr.  every case, Mr. Dillahunty’s only tactic is to say that he personally is unconvinced by the evidence offered by the opponent. He doesn’t provide any replies to their arguments. He shows the same inclination to saving face in front of his followers even if it means ignoring valuable and important truths that Mr. Zacharias did. Neither have really added anything to the conversation except what made their followers feel better about following them.

It’s important to remember that sometimes the Truth is uncomfortable, and if your leader or pastor or boss never says anything that makes you uncomfortable, that’s a warning sign that you’re not getting the Truth.

Truthism Axiom 5: Reliable Sources of Truth Tend to be Reliably True Within Their Scope, Domain, and Style

I’m going to start by saying something that is going to seem contrary to my thesis: no one says more incorrect things about physics than physicists, no one says more incorrect things about biology than biologists, and no one says more incorrect things about theology than theologians. Let that sit for a moment. Now, add this: no one says more correct things about physics than physicists, no one says more correct things about biology than biologists, and no one says more correct things about theology than theologians. It turns out that those who are paid to talk about something for eight hours a day say more on their subject than those who have other jobs. Often they enjoy their subject and even discuss it in their off hours. When they talk about their work with their friends and family, they’re talking about their subject.

A strange thing happens when you have all those thoughts from different people floating around about a subject: some of them conflict with each other. You’ll get two physicists that disagree, one prefers M Theory and the other Loop Quantum Gravity. They lay out their reasons. Then someone listens to their debates and hears one make a point and uses it in engineering a new device or tool or toy. If it works, the credibility of the one who made the discovery increases. Or a biologist will suspect that genetically modified crops are dangerous to consume, another that they are perfectly healthy. They conduct tests on the food and people, and the results. Or a theologian proposes that miracles ended in the first century, another that they continue today. Stories of miracles happening today are examined, and the results of these comparisons give credibility to one over the other. In each case, one or both are wrong, but they only know enough to say their wrong things intelligently after years of study in the field.

Have you ever noticed that these areas tend to have relatively small numbers of names in their field at any one time? Einstein, Planck, Dirac, Schrödinger, and a handful of others at the turn of the nineteenth century revolutionized physics. Pasteur, Snow, Jenner, Fleming, and a handful of others brought biology to the microcosmos and changed the way we approach disease. Whether you agree or disagree with their conclusions, it’s nearly impossible to contribute to theology without at least referencing Augustine, Cyril, Leo, Athanasius, and a handful of other great thinkers from the fifth century. These are the heavy hitters. It’s important to note that not all the great discoverers or teaching in their fields come from these individuals, but rather that these individuals recognized what in their predecessors was actually worth pursuing. On a smaller level I’ve seen the same things happen over and over. People who read a lot of comic books almost always give accurate information on comic books, at least when I’ve bothered to double check. People I’ve known who read a lot of economics tend to be right on their predictions of ongoing economic activity. People I’ve known that immerse themselves in physics lectures and textbooks are correct on everything I check about their physics predictions. It goes further. Builders I know build better structures than non-builders. This gets even more focused. I’ve seen drywallers finish a room in minutes, where an electrician trying to finish off a similar room on their own took days. There’s a wisdom in seeing this and it even has a name: The Wisdom of Socrates.

As someone who reads a fair amount of theology and philosophy, I’ve been amazed. Several years ago, Bill Nye (once known as “The Science Guy“) released a video where he ridiculed philosophy. I was not familiar with Bill Nye before that. (I was more into Beakman’s World as a kid. That channel came in where I lived, Bill Nye’s channel didn’t always come in clearly.) I had friends that directed me to Bill Nye’s video though. Not knowing who I was responding to, when I was asked about my opinion I replied, “This is obviously someone who isn’t very educated. Everything he says is wrong on the face of it.” Then I went through the video point by point to show his errors. When it was explained to me who this was, I was very unimpressed. If this had been shown to demonstrate Bill Nye’s intelligence, it backfired.

Since then I’ve been a little more aware of Bill Nye. I’ve watched his comments on other issues. I’ve found that when he’s discussing science he’s actually very nuanced and careful. It’s only when he speaks outside his subject that he’s clueless, and that’s to be expected.

I’ve found the same thing in myself as well. I do alright when discussing philosophy and theology. I’ve got my little corners where I’ve carved out quite a little library. When I discuss these, it’s rare for someone to catch me in a factual error or to inconsistency in speculation. I know where I’m weak and able to guard when I’m not entirely sure on the details of a point. However when I’m researching sources for my blog posts, I often like to make analogies to other areas of study. When I do that, more than half the time my first draft will include a reference that I could swear I heard once but upon further investigation I discover I was factually incorrect, or I’ll discover that my speculation is full of well known inconsistencies. (Or at least, they’re well known to those that spend any amount of time in that particular field.) 

So we see two things at play. First, those who get things right in a subject tend to keep getting things right in that subject. Second, people who consistently get things wrong in a subject tend to keep getting things wrong in that subject. Yet I’ve already talked about how the Truth reveals itself to us in unexpected ways. So there’s something else at play here. All of this is to say nothing of known prophetic individuals such as the John Hendrix or Joan de Arc. These cases show us that sometimes those who keep on getting things right aren’t just discussing well worn paths of logic. Feelings are a source of Truth also. (For some people. Not me. My feelings are very unreliable, but I’ve known people that get better than random results from their feelings. For me, well studied logic and reasoning leads me to more reliable results than my feelings.)

This feels strange to those of us who have gotten to know the Truth well. If there’s only one ultimate Truth, then how can it compartmentalize itself so well? How can my ventures into theology and philosophy and metaphysics so often come out consistent and accurate, yet so often my explorations into the math based hard sciences are so disastrously and woefully inaccurate?

Trying to psychoanalyze a metaphysical being seems difficult at best, but there is a sense in which I see what Truth is doing here. How many people do we know at work or through a club or as family only to discover that they are completely different in another context? The quiet guy at work is loud and boisterous at home, the family member that’s the life of every party keeps to himself at work, etc. How often do people have a friend that we call when they want to relax and another friend that they call when they want to party? Isn’t it possible for Truth to be like this? It certainly feels more than possible. Truth in ethics is often expressed in poetry and riddles where Truth in hard sciences is often expressed in math and models. Maybe this means that we won’t ever know all of the Truth the way we would like, but we can get to know whatever Truth wants to reveal to us individually. This means that the Truth isn’t just talking to us because it has to, it talks to us because it wants to. It wants to spend time with us and get to know us where we are. Let’s do that. Let’s let the Truth show us what it wants to reveal to us and then follow it to whatever depths it will willing reveal to us. Let’s thank Truth for coming into our lives however it may decide to do so. Then let’s join with others who have found it in the same or similar ways and those who have found it in entirely different ways and start working towards knowing the Truth better as a community. Maybe when you get down to it, that’s the reason. Maybe it wants us to put aside our differences and learn to trust Truth more.

Truthism Axiom 4: True Things are Often True Even When You Don’t Want Them To Be

One of the things that I hear often that never made any sense to me is, “I don’t believe in God because I’ve had a series of unexplained bad things happen to me.” It’s one of the reasons why I never really pursued apologetics: often when I’ve encountered atheists the thing they don’t believe in is very specific and tied to an event that they wish had gone differently. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of people losing their faith when their ninety nine year old grandparent died peacefully in their sleep, or their dog had to be put down after only fifteen years as their pet, or their power went out just before they were ready to cram for a test they hadn’t studied for. In every case, there was no miracle to save them even though they prayed and prayed and prayed. Their grandparent didn’t live forever, their pet wasn’t reborn, and their power wasn’t restored.

As a Truthist, I always have to ask, “What is the relevance?” To be clear, I’m not denying the pain they feel. I can see their pain in their face and I can hear their pain in their voice. That doesn’t change the realities. Why deny God existence? Why not deny blackouts existing, or old age, or death? If you can simply will something out of existence by not believing in it, aiming at God seems kind of foolish. There are much more immediate and direct dangers. If you’re going to stop believing in something in order to make it go away, stop believing in poverty or war or racism.

There’s a strange reality here, though: it’s not those that fail to believe in a thing that make it go away, it’s those who really do believe in it and recognize evil things that are able to make them go away. Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t diminish racism by not believing in it. Dr. Edward Jenner didn’t make smallpox go away by not believing in it. John Snow didn’t stop cholera by not believing in it. These evils were stopped by believing in them and studying them for what they really are, even when that true belief was unpopular or inconvenient.

So often I’ve watched people try to disbelieve something inconvenient out of existence: their debt, their illness, their enemies. It doesn’t work. Disbelieving doesn’t make something untrue. Telling me you’re unconvinced only tells me that you haven’t been listening, not that there’s actually a reason to disbelieve.

It’s been my casual observation that those who deny small inconvenient truths will also deny the bigger truths when they become inconvenient. By denying these truths, they end up doing more harm in the long run. By denying that their child is sick, they put off necessary treatment that could relieve suffering later. Then later, when the child develops complications, they continue to deny the complications, staying one step behind the progressive series of problems.

The Truth is your ally if you can keep it. If you really search, you can find the right help for your child. But it begins at the first signs of problems. Instead of thinking they’re exceptional and immune to problems, you evaluate their condition on the data. You focus on getting them help where they need it. When they get sick and what they need changes, you give them their new needs because the Truth has revealed itself to you in a new way.

In my experience, it’s rarely comfortable. Finding out that you’ve been wrong is bad enough, but finding out that the Truth is actually going to hurt is the kicker that makes it so difficult for so many. Not only do you have to admit that your child is sick, you also have to admit that care will be expensive. You don’t just have to admit that you’ve spent your hard earned money on a video game, but also that you’re going hungry.

This is the part where, if I were preaching any other religion, I would promise that if you just stick to the Truth you will eventually be rewarded with wealth and fame and healthy children and easy living. I would make sure that this “eventually” is always just ahead so that you never reach it but always believe you will. The true Truth doesn’t work like that, though. The Truth doesn’t owe you a happy life or comfort. Sometimes you’ll dedicate your relationship with your child to the Truth, and the Truth will dash your relationship to pieces. Sometimes you will face the Truth, and then you will tuck your child in for the last time. Sometimes you will face the Truth that your child will never outgrow being tucked in. Sometimes, you won’t know which prospect scares you more, but either way you’ll know that you face a scary future. Following the Truth is often scary and lonely and hard because the Truth is true even if it’s inconvenient, even if it goes against your gut, even if your prayers are unanswered, even if no one else sees it. Sometimes the Truth will reveal itself to you in a way that benefits others greatly, but doesn’t do anything for you.

The Truth is true even when all you know is that it’s hiding from you. Even when you’re not sure what the Truth is today, it’s still true. Even when all you know is that whatever you believed yesterday wasn’t the truth, whatever is the Truth is still true. Even if what you believed yesterday was comforting and made you rich and gave you friends, if it’s not true then you are called to a higher Truth.

But I’ve already shown that Truth has unexpected advantages. While I can’t promise wealth or security or popularity (because those would be expected advantages) I can say that if you make a friend of Truth, it will be advantageous in unexpected ways.

Truthism Axiom 3: True Things Often Have Unanticipated Applications

There is an apocryphal story about Michael Faraday being frustrated with the prime minister of England’s questions regarding the usefulness of his electromagnetic discoveries. The story goes that finally Faraday replied, “Maybe someday you’ll find a way to tax it.” At that point, the electromagnetic properties of various materials were largely seen as curiosities without real practical applications. Yet today life would be much more difficult without the discoveries that have flowed directly from them.

Similarly, when NASA first started researching how to best facilitate humanity in space, they weren’t imagining a global network of satellites that would provide instantaneous geolocation services to almost everyone in America. As I sit here just for experimentation purposes I looked up my exact longitude and latitude on the same phone I’m writing this article on. This is just one among many improvements to our lives from the space program.

Polyvinyl Chloride was invented by accident. The discovery of penicillin is also connected to arbitrary observations parallel to but not identical with the subject of the investigator. The idea behind the microwave oven was stumbled upon because someone couldn’t be bothered to keep their snacks in the fridge. Over and over again, investigation into the deeper things of one area aids study in another. Even in more abstract areas of study, the geometry of General Relativity was discovered by Bernhard Riemann decades before Einstein started his investigations.

Sometimes we begin an exploration of the truth with a very clear goal in mind. We need to compare several methods of achieving some goal to determine which is cheapest, strongest, or quickest. Other times we explore just to discover more about Truth itself. When we do this, we are often rewarded in previously unforeseen ways. That is the very thought behind the quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

There is a danger in seeing the Truth this way, though. Very quickly, one might fall into the trap of only seeing the Truth as the source by which we can improve our own lives. We start asking, “Truth, what good thing are you going to give me today?” Haven’t we all had that “friend” who treated us that way, though? They show up when they think we have something to offer as if that’s the only reason they are friends with us at all. How do you feel when you realize that this is what they’re doing? I know that I’m never happy when this is the case. Why should we expect the Truth to feel any different about it?

I think there’s a more accurate way to approach these realities. It stands to reason that when the Truth makes friends, the Truth will want to help those friends. The Truth isn’t going to leave its friends hurting and confused when it can just give a little bit of itself over to relieve that suffering. Instead of seeing the Truth as a tool, we should see the Truth as a trusted friend. Then it’s impossible to say what surprising ways the Truth will reveal more of itself to us.

There is a danger in another direction as well. It’s possible to see the Truth as so holy and powerful that using the secrets we are given feels profane. We don’t want the Truth to think that we’re ungrateful or that we only show up to get good gifts, so instead of sharing what our pursuit of truth has revealed, we close off. We know that “those people” won’t appreciate Truth the way we do. We fall into the trap of saying that these truths are too important to actually put to use. History seems to reveal a Truth that has exactly the opposite attitude, though. Truth knows that those to whom it reveals itself have imperfect friends that will abuse whatever portion is handed out. It doesn’t seem to want those abusive friends to suffer as if it were jealous or afraid. It just prefers not to hang out with them for a lot of its time. The more we use the truths we have been given, the more truths are revealed to us, and the more surprising and diverse they seem to become. The more friends of Truth that are gathered in one place, the more of itself it gives to them and the more time it spends there.

This reveals something else that is interesting and profound about Truth. Something that might otherwise have been unexpected. The Truth isn’t just the factual Truths we’ve become accustomed to in the Post-Enlightenment West. Truth is something personal, but this isn’t a cold and unfeeling person. Truth doesn’t want to be used selfishly, but it does want to give itself away to those who are giving it away.

I think every culture in every time and every place has struggled to find the right word for giving yourself over to another. At one time, I wanted to call this “honor.” That caused confusion, because so often people use “honor” to mean saving face. Then I thought “love” would be the right word. Too often, “love” is used to express a desire to possess another rather than to give yourself, though. It occurs to me that any word we try to coin to express this thought will be co-opted by those who are enemies of Truth. That’s why it’s important to get to the substance rather than focusing on the form of the word. “Self-sacrificial love” seems to be sufficient for those who intend to understand my meaning. This is where it becomes clear that Truth is very loving. Truth is so loving, in fact, that if it is not identical with self-sacrificial love, then it’s so close as to be indistinguishable from where we are.

Truthism Axiom 2: True Things are Consistent with Each Other

I once worked for a technical support firm on a contract that provided email based technical support. The email system that we used didn’t have spell check built into it, so we all composed our emails in a word processor, spell checked, then copied and pasted into the email.

A new supervisor was promoted and took over the email team. He timed us and determined that we could save fifteen seconds per email if we didn’t copy and paste from a word processor. We all objected that we benefited from spell check, but he insisted that with a few basic English spelling rules, such as “I before E except after C,” there was no reason to be concerned. So one of my co-workers went to Kinko’s and custom made a poster that was eleven by seventeen inches. The top half of the poster said in large type, “I before E except after C and when…” and the bottom half of the poster was a list of words in twelve point type in several columns that violated the rule. It turns out that the actual list of rules for I and E is ten stanzas of unrhymed non-poetry, not just the two that many learn in grade school. Even after ten stanzas there are still a few exceptions. My co-worker came to a point of beginning every meeting by saying, “I before E except after C and when it’s not.” What good is a rule that has so many exceptions that you can more than triple the length trying to account for exceptions and still miss a few?

This is how we know that the I before E “rule” isn’t true. We can make a list of inconsistencies that’s almost as long as the consistencies. If you don’t already have prior knowledge and I say, “I’m thinking of a word that has an E and an I next to each other, what order are they in?” then following the rule will not yield consistent results.

On the other end of the spectrum are consistencies that feel surprising. The fifteenth episode in the seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is told from the perspective of ensigns on board the Enterprise. The episode title is Lower Decks. In it, the senior crew is preparing to send an undercover agent into enemy territory, and need to make a convincing backstory for the undercover agent’s escape. Part of this includes damaging a shuttlecraft in such a way as to simulate a nearly failed escape. The junior crew wasn’t told this, though. They were told that they were testing the hull integrity of the shuttlecraft. While simulating the damage, Ensign Turuik started to catch on to the damage pattern. When Lt. Commander LaForge gave new instructions for the new “test,” Ensign Turuik was able to reply, “That would be consistent.”

Similar things happen in real life. I remember at one time, I had two friends who both had a particular verbal tic. I didn’t hang out with them in similar contexts and so I never really gave any thought to it until one day I learned that they were cousins. It was a moment where I was surprised for a moment, and then said, “No, that tracks, actually.”

We see similar things in all areas of truth seeking. It is noticing these patterns that is the beginning of almost all universal discoveries. The development of chemistry, the establishment of geometry, the study of history, everything, no matter how diverse, is based on finding truths that are consistent with each other. Using this, chemists determined that the atomic weights and atomic number of Cobalt and Nickel are reverse what is expected. Using this, mathematicians were able to determine the formula for the sum of the interior angles of polygons long before they could prove that formula correct. Using this, historians have determined that the Historia Augusta is not a reliable source of information. All of this from the basic assumption that true things are consistent with other true things.

In day to day life we use this all the time to catch each other in little white lies. Does your child ever tell you that they did their chores, and then you feel inclined to ask, “If your room was cleaned this morning, why is it still dirty now?” Does your friend ever make a claim to have been somewhere, but not be able to provide details about it? We all know that the past leads to the present, and whatever is true will be consistent with whatever else is true.

There are sometimes when we can get carried away with this. We can start to see inconsistencies everywhere. This is why a careful study is important. What seems consistent at first may, upon closer inspection, turn out not to be. The reverse is also true, with what seems inconsistent later turns out not to be. Yesterday you were told to turn at the yellow house, now you’re told to turn at the blue house. This feels inconsistent, until you learn that the house was painted late in the afternoon yesterday. Your spouse claims to have stopped at the grocery store on the way home yesterday, which feels inconsistent with the fact that there’s no milk, until you learn that they didn’t buy anything perishable because they had several other stops to make as well. Expecting a mixture of milk and lemon juice to taste good feels consistent when you know you like both of them, until you learn that their chemical properties will cause them to react in a strange way. And so on and so forth.

The charge of inconsistency is a problem that we instinctively recognize. This is so true that marketing firms will use our aversion to cognitive dissonance against us. They will put common sense arguments out there that are in apparent conflict and expect us to resolve that conflict in the way that’s most beneficial to themselves. I remember buying my first dishwasher. We were in a tight place financially, so I saved up and went in on Black Friday to take the biggest advantage of the deals. I had $600, and asked to see the cheapest dishwasher. With all the discounts and deals, it was only $200. So I asked to see the next best dishwasher, then the next best, then the next best. At that point, the dishwashers looked nearly identical inside and out, so I asked the sales representative what the difference was. There were two differences: the rotating arm of the more expensive one had a more advanced spinning spout that cleaned a larger area, and the more expensive one was seven decibels quieter. The sales rep really leaned into the seven decibels. He insisted that we wouldn’t get anything done because of how loud it would be. “Don’t you hate the sound of a loud dishwasher?” he asked. He wanted to build a sense of being a person who preferred a quiet house. I did, but I hated an empty bank account even more.

My parents were there to help me transport it home and install it. When we got it home I had an emergency come up and returned home after the emergency to find that my wife and father had finished installing it while I was out. I asked my Dad, “Should we load it up and see how it works?”

“It’s running right now,” he told me. As I looked confused, my Dad leaned in and added, “Makes you wonder what seven decibels quieter sounds like, doesn’t it?” 

When we combine the liveliness of truth with the consistency of truth, we find that the object of our pursuit is more than just a mere study. We are seeking out a “someone,” not a “something.” We are seeking out someone who can be a faithful and consistent friend. We are, in fact, seeking out the most faithful friend that anyone could ever hope to find. At least, they are if you yourself are truthful and consistent. If you are not, then this can turn out to be your most bitter enemy.

Truthism Axiom 1: The Truth is Alive

Supernatural entities are characterized in popular culture in both benevolent and malevolent forms. Some supernatural entities even flip between them. The leprechaun from Irish folklore started out as a particular fairy that was grumpy but good hearted, and then became a species of fairy that were tricky but not evil, then a clade of fairies with species of both good and bad species within. In the Ghostbusters franchise, ghosts interact with the physical world through a substance called ectoplasm. In the television series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel most demons seem to be some sort of animal with magical powers. Bigfoot sightings are fairly common in the Pacific Northwest, where I live.

Some people would argue with me about Bigfoot being supernatural. They would say that Bigfoot is either real or fake, but if it’s real it is a physical animal somewhere between an ape and a human. Wouldn’t that somewhat apply to the ghosts in Ghostbusters, though? Couldn’t you put ectoplasm into a mass spectrometer and find out what it’s made from and use that to understand what the substance of a ghost really is? In fact, isn’t that essentially what Egon and Ray did in the first Ghostbusters movie?

If that’s true of Ghostbusters and Bigfoot, isn’t it kind of true of the leprechaun as well? The original leprechaun was a shoe maker that tapped on tiny shoes with his tiny hammer because other fairies needed shoes. The leprechaun and fairies had physical feet that left physical footprints and became physically damaged without shoes.

For these reasons and more, I don’t generally like the word “supernatural” unless we work to give it a better operational definition. However, there is something about the word itself that speaks to me: “super” or above, “nature” or our common experience. Originally this was used to designate the stars, which are far above our common experience. However as I’ve grown older two convictions have grown in me: first, that the materials of stars is not fundamentally different from the material on Earth, and that there really is something above our beyond or parallel to or supporting our physical reality. Something about the word “supernatural” feels appropriate for this, but a lot of the things I’m going to discuss don’t fall under the traditional heading of “supernatural.” So for this article, I’m going to call this state the Metaphysical Realm.

The Metaphysical Realm is the place where all the real things which don’t have physical locality exist. The most obvious to me are numbers. Mathematical investigations of numbers have been independently studied in ancient times in areas as far flung as modern China, Greece, and Mexico. Even the number zero and negative numbers were ultimately decided to be objective realities in these places even before the cultures here started communicating complex thoughts back and forth.

Numbers are great for getting your toes wet in the Metaphysical Realm, but they seem to be inanimate. No one is sitting down and having a conversation with the number Two to decide how best to deal with it. No secrets come out of a number at random when you’re least expecting it. There are members of the Metaphysical Realm which don’t seem quite so passive, though.

Did you know that those who experience abuse as a child are more likely to experience abuse as an adult? There are various explanations put forward to account for this. Some people think that once you’ve been abused you end up looking for those traits, for example. This doesn’t make much sense to me. Every time you hear about how an abusive relationship got started, it didn’t start abusive. The abuser goes out of their way to not seem abusive. So how do repeat abusers and repeat victims keep finding each other?

This doesn’t make sense if we think of “abuse” as an inanimate member of the Metaphysical Realm. It makes more sense if we imagine that abuse is, in fact, animate and makes some kind of decision in how it will act in our world. It leaves a lot of good “how?” questions unanswered. That’s a deeper study than what I want to get into here. Let’s just say that we know for a fact that if we count up the tiles in a floor that has seven tiles across and ten tiles abroad, we know we will get seventy, and whatever the mechanism is that seven and ten and tiles and floors are interacting with each other, that is the same as the mechanism that Abuse uses to bring abusers and victims together.

So if Abuse is a thing that makes decisions, chooses people, and then abuses them (because, really, what else would you expect Abuse to do?) that opens up a bunch of other possibilities. Is Death alive? (I would find a strange irony in that.) How about Life? (That would seem to track, but remains to be demonstrated beyond the scope of this article.) Certainly we can be sure that some other members of the Metaphysical Realm are inanimate. Colors are a prime example: Red never seemed to just impose itself on a flower all willy nilly. If a flower is red, it’s because the molecules interact with electromagnetic radiation in such a way as to emit, reflect, or scatter photons with a wavelength near 650 nanometers. Red does seem to be a real thing. Excited neon always emits red light, for example. So it seems a real thing, but a very passive real thing. The Metaphysical equivalent to dirt.

Other members of the Metaphysical Realm really do feel like they’re really making decisions on their own. Have you ever considered Rot? Get a piece of lumber or a wooden garden stake and just lay it on the ground. Lean another on a wall right next to it. The one laying on the ground will start to rot, and the one leaning against the wall won’t. (At least, not as quickly.) Now you want to blow your mind? Place the now-rotten one on the leaning one, and the rot will start to move into the leaning one. Carpenters don’t drive rusty nails into new boards because it will cause rot. Then consider wet clothing. If you throw wet clothing into a pile, it will get moldy and start to rot. If you hang wet clothing to dry, it will carry away some volatile molecules and actually prevent rot. Unless you place a moldy, rotting piece of cloth on it. Then the rot will migrate. There’s something there — some sort of something metaphysical — that says rot begets rot. Whatever kind of metaphysical entity Rot is, it’s barely animated. Not even the metaphysical equivalent of a plant. More like a fungus.

There’s another metaphysical entity that definitely feels much more alive, though. Truth. Have you ever wondered why we discovered the things we did when we did? So often the reality of a thing was right in front of us and yet we never made the leap — nay, the hop — to put it to use.

One obvious example is the wheel in the New World. They had children with round toys for centuries. Kids were building little model carts and such, but no one in all the Americas ever seems to have had the idea to build a full scale cart. Why?

Then we need to ask, why didn’t the Chinese and Japanese invent guns? They had gunpowder for centuries, and the idea of making guns didn’t come about until the Europeans got a hold of it.

Europeans don’t get off much better, though. Did you know that the Aztecs basically skipped scrolls and jumped right into the codex, which in the Old World was the direct predecessor to the modern book? And the Aztec Calendar is much more precise than the Julian or Gregorian calendars. How could Europeans have missed that?

Then I’m going to get a little bit personal: why did America discover the secret to the nuclear bomb first in World War II? The Germans was working on it sooner, putting more money into it, and much more interested in actually using such a device.

There are other strange coincidences in history. It’s not a surprise that Newton and Leibniz developed calculus at nearly the same time. They were both answering the same common questions and had access to the same data. That same logic doesn’t explain why both Egypt and China developed writing at about 3000 BC. 

If you consider the idea that Truth is an animated being, all of this (and much more) becomes plausible. The Germans didn’t get the Truth about how to build a bomb because they made themselves enemies of the Truth. Dmitriy Mendeleev predicted the properties of scandium only ten years before it was actually isolated because he made peace with Truth.

Then there are even more profound ironies. The similarities between the Titan and the Titanic are breathtaking, other than the fact that the Titan was a fictional ship from 1898 and the Titanic was a real ship launched in 1912. There are interesting parallels between the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.

When the Truth and other metaphysical entities act in these sorts of ways, exposing themselves and pushing their non-temporal, non-physical selves into our temporal and physical world, it’s hard to miss the parallels to supernatural beings in traditions from around the world. This might help to explain some of the origins of religious ideas around the world: if Truth and Abuse and Rot act like they’re alive, maybe they can be reasoned with sometimes. Maybe we can give Abuse a victim and it will leave us alone. Maybe not. After all, wouldn’t that be just like an abuser to promise that and then take back the promise? On the other extreme, wouldn’t it be just like an honest teacher to give us what we’re ready for just the moment we’re ready for it? And what would Truth be if not honest and a teacher?

The implications for this are profound. If this is true, then Truth discovery can’t be mechanized. We will find more truth when we seek more Truth and make friends with the Truth. We aren’t engaging in an excavation when we search for Truth. We’re engaging in a partnership and a conversation with Truth. And since Truth obviously knows more about this than we do, I suggest we let Truth be in charge.

This is a part one of a twelve part investigation into my Truthist beliefs.

Intro to my Truthism: Am I a Liberal Christian?

One of the theologians that I deeply respect, Matt Wittman, has recently been investigating the wordEvangelical” on his YouTube channel, The Ten Minute Bible Hour. Matt does an excellent job of avoiding what I call magical thinking in linguistics. Too many people fall into the trap of thinking that a word has a meaning that is set in stone and unable to change. That’s not true. Even in the Bible, we see evidence of languages evolving. (Judges 12:6, 1 Samuel 9:9) Languages change over time. Words get new meanings, new words are made, and old words get retired.

So when Mr. Wittman investigated the common usage of the word “Evangelical,” he discovered that there are several different meanings associated with the word and it’s very difficult to ensure that two interoculators are using compatible definitions of the word.

There’s a similar word that gets thrown around Christian circles: “Liberal.” “Evangelical” is used to throw shade on someone sticking too closely to the traditional understanding of the Christian religion, and “liberal” is meant to throw shade at those who don’t hold close enough to the traditional understanding of the Christian religion. Both are, of course, from the perspective of the one throwing shade. Not only is this measured by how far one might stray or adhere to the traditional understanding of scripture as a whole, but particular traditional points. Some people have told me I’m a liberal for saying I trust biologists to know what they’re talking about when they discuss biology and evolution but say that since my understanding of how faith and salvation is text based it’s fine. Others say that my stance on faith and salvation is too liberal to be forgiven but my trust in experts for biology and evolution is no big deal. On the other end, for some my belief that Jesus physically rose from the dead makes me an evil evangelical and too conservative to be reasoned with, but the belief that the text of the Bible has been reliably transmitted is fine. For others, trusting that the text is preserved by God is conservative beyond credulity, but believing that Christ physically raised is fine. And since I don’t typically take political positions, my lack of stance on this or that political issue is always taken as a sign that I’m on the other side and beyond all reason.

With the various ways the words evangelical and liberal have been used to describe me, I have reached a point where I need to conduct a half hour interview before I can decide if it’s a legitimate insult or a strawman or an accurate description when someone assigns me the label. With such a wide range of usages, I think that it’s time to retire these terms, particularly when used as an insult.

So what am I?

I’ve never been a fan of the self-identification movement. It has been my observation that most often when people are assigning terms to themselves, they’re very often not helpful. Sometimes they’re self-deluded. Sometimes they’re coining a new phrase that doesn’t have any well established meaning. To that end, I’m more likely to ask someone which distinctions are important to them in any particular conversation and then point to moments in my history which clearly connect me with this side or that side of whatever divide they’re interested in. (Or the sidelines of that issue.)

That’s not always practical, though. Oftentimes I’m filling out a survey or answering a quick answer and a bunch of back and forth isn’t practical.

Sometimes something very broad is fine: Christian, Protestant, and non-Denominational are go-to answers in such cases. Pushing deeper, one of my favorite answers was assigned by a pastor friend and co-worker that took some time to get to know me before declaring that I’m an Augustinian Neo-Platonist. By which it is meant that if you would call St. Augustine a Neo-Platonist (and many have) then you would very likely say the same about me.

But there’s a bigger, broader definition of my beliefs: I’m a Truthist. My goal is to find the truth and to believe that for which the evidence is greatest. This means breaking down compound beliefs and evaluating them to the best of my abilities. This means being willing to leave as many presuppositions behind as possible. This means that if there’s an area where Christianity is in error, I don’t just keep saying that thing because I’m a Christian.

Over the years, in a consistent search for the Truth, I’ve noticed the following twelve things:

  1. The Truth is alive.
  2. True things are consistent with each other.
  3. True things often have unanticipated applications.
  4. True things are often true even when you don’t want them to be.
  5. Reliable sources of Truth tend to be reliably true within their scope, domain, and style.
  6. Reliable sources of error tend to be reliable across scopes, domains, and styles.
  7. Those who have studied an area in great depth tend to be more reliable in that area than those who have not studied that area.
  8. No one gets everything right all the time.
  9. No one gets everything wrong all the time. (I’ve known a few people who seem to have worked very hard to disprove this one.)
  10. When sources of Truth in unrelated fields disagree, over time their positions tend to move closer together.
  11. True Love and True Truth are ultimately identical.
  12. Truth seeking in a subject requires placing the subject at the center of the conversation, not individuals.

This means that I’m not beholden to any system which cannot be independently maintained.

Over the next twelve weeks I am going to explore what I mean when I call myself a Truthist by examining each of these twelve elements in more detail.