My brother-in-law, a thoughtful and deeply spiritual conservative, has a gift for raising provocative questions. Like this one, which he asked me during an author event for my new book: "Do you believe in absolute truth?"
Perhaps I should have seen this coming, but it caught me off guard. It's a minefield for a former fundamentalist like me, who learned never to question such a thing. So I had to think fast, and what came to mind surprised me:
Yes, there is absolute truth. But it is far less accessible than we might think.
This is unlikely to be a popular perspective. The first part alone seems out-of-place in 2013, amid our pervasive relativism. After all, who are we to judge what is right or wrong? On the other hand, millions of people would take issue with the second part: they are certain, not only that absolute truth exists, but that it has been clearly revealed in sources like the Bible.
In one way, it is hard to argue with relativism. As a species, we encompass so many faith traditions, so many political beliefs, so many approaches to living out our lives. Thanks in part to the Internet, we can see for ourselves that most of these myriad viewpoints are just as reasonable -- and the lives they produce just as effective -- as our own. At the same time, the traditional arbiters of truth, like religious institutions, have lost their influence over many. It is an easy step, under these conditions, to dismiss the notion of truth altogether.
Yet we do regard some truths as indisputable. Few, for instance, would seriously dispute the effects of gravity on Earth. Gravity is proven to us every minute of every day. In the context of the natural, sentient world, it is as close to absolute as we can get.
I see the status of absolute truth extending into the moral sphere as well. To take just one example, the world has come to consensus that the purchase of a human being by another human being -- in slavery, sex trafficking, and similar acts -- is profoundly immoral and must not be tolerated.
Curiously, both of these examples add fuel to the second assertion: that absolute truth is far less accessible than we might think. Gravity on Earth may be indisputable, but what gravity is remains a mystery, still to be solved. Slavery may be intolerable, but it is only in the past 175 years that the consensus has emerged.
In the latter case, surely, the world is a better place for discovering that truth. And perhaps that is the deeper lesson here: the best attitude toward truth is not possession, but pursuit.
This attitude can have profound effects on our world and our deepest selves. By definition, if our orientation is toward pursuing truth rather than possessing it, we are admitting that we don't know, that there is a great deal left to learn and discover. That understanding fosters a virtue that our world could use a lot more of humility -- defined not as self-deprecation, but simply as a crystal clear understanding of oneself and one's place in the universe.
Moreover, the pursuit of truth drives us toward one another. If I realize how much I don't know, I am more inclined to find out what you know in a spirit of inquiry and curiosity. I am not approaching you in possession of a truth to be defended at all costs; I am approaching you in pursuit of a truth for which I need your help. Dialogue, mutual understanding, and peace are generally the fruit of such an approach.
And when truth does emerge, it comes from dialogue and collaboration. It is no accident that scientific research is so often interdisciplinary, with the names of so many contributors on the final paper. Most likely, whatever truth emerges from the research could not have been uncovered any other way.
I see the pursuit of truth happening in the realm of faith as well. Among other objectives, interfaith gatherings explore the common ground among faith traditions as well as the ways in which other worldviews can inform our own. That common ground includes several core values that seem to reside at the heart of faith: compassion, relationship, a concern for justice, the impulse toward unity rather than division, a quest for the Absolute. It is, I think, a reasonable step to imagine that these values might hold absolute truth about the way we are called to live in the world.
Reasonable people can disagree on the extent to which absolute truth can be known. Whatever one's stance, however, there seems to be an imperative to at least pursue truth. And pursuing the truth, particularly on the moral and spiritual plane, is part of pursuing the ultimate reality, which many of us know as God.