Is it True the Truth Will Set Us Free?
Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the world famous oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, has an urgent message for all earth-dwellers: the ocean is our “primary life support system.”
“The truth, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, is that our planet would more appropriately be called Ocean, not Earth. Without our water, Earth would be just one of billions of lifeless rocks floating in the inky-black void of space.”
(“Our Oceans, Our Future,” NYT, Dec. 9, 2020)
A friend made a statement recently that went something like: “If people follow astrology or anything that makes sense of their place in the world and it works for them, I think that’s good.” I shook my head and responded: “Well, you know, don’t you, that for a system like astrology to work, the universe has to revolve around earth, us?” I liken this to the Copernican revolution, when Nicolaus Copernicus presented evidence that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the known universe. That of course was blasphemy because we all know that God put the earth, us, smack dab in the center of everything.
In my way of thinking, one of the wisest things Jesus ever said was: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Sounds “true,” doesn’t it? And even as we ask the essential follow up questions: “What is truth?” and “Free from what?,” I would hope we can admit that no one holds all the truth in their hand or head. We can then move forward with an important caveat to the ancient instruction, and this relates to my friend’s statement that essentially everything goes as long as it “works for them”: What about nonsense? What if there is no “truth” to what people say, or believe or build their worldview around? Is nonsense truth? And, what if a claim to truth does not rest on freedom at all—it does not set us free in any meaningful way? (free to be stupid doesn’t count).
As skeptic Michael Shermer and others have noted, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Critical thinking is, in fact, critically important in these matters. All we need to do is look at the lack of evidence-based thinking and wild claims all around us today to sense the urgency. I think we’re free to call much of what we see and hear “wacky,” “nuts” or (fill in the blank).
Personally I have to draw some kind of line in the sand here, and sure, sand can shift with time.
But I think Jesus was correct: truth sets us free—not free to make things up or base our beliefs on things that cannot be sustained with evidence.
Once we say, and I’m not sure this is what my friend was saying at all: “Anything can pass for truth,” my reaction is pure and precise skepticism. I would even suspect, and assert, that Jesus might just agree with me on that.
I will however need to respectfully disagree with the Teacher from Nazareth on one point: we cannot “know the truth” in any final way, and frankly, who would want to? Could any mind hold every true thing in the universe? Even when a gospel writer had Jesus say, “I am the truth” we have to wonder what on earth that would mean. If I said “I am the truth,” what would you conclude? Anything that is true is me? Forget searching any longer for any knowledge, anything factual, just ask me? And certainly some would question my sanity, as they should.
One natural response to all this is to turn to Nature. The truth is, Cousteau the aquanaut claims, Earth is the name we give to Planet Ocean. This shifts our perspective, alters our worldview. Water makes all the difference, which is not only a scientific fact, but an undeniable reality for creatures that consist of mostly water. In other words, a person can’t call this nonsense, unless they are willing to be drained of their high percentage of moisture to prove otherwise. We may have crawled from the salty sea but that salt water still flows in our veins and makes us who we are. We are well-seasoned-and-salty critters, truth be told.
You see, when someone says they “have” the truth, it immediately evaporates (like salt) on their tongue.
Truth is not something to own, control, handle or embody without it burning a hole in your pocket (or brain), as my mother used to say about money. Truth sets us free because it is free, freedom incarnate and yet disembodied. What is true in the here and the now is what is verified by more than one, in fact by a whole community, IF they are critical, skeptical thinkers. When we are free to let go of “truth”—an imaginary concept “The Truth” (i.e., what we have been told is true, believed as truth)—only then will we “know” it and it can free us. Though there is no “it” to know, only countless “its”—myriad truths that never add up to some fictitious ultimate Truth.
This brings to mind the concept of “mindfulness.” I still appreciate what I learned of mental awakening from Buddhists. It can be a very helpful practice of conscious awareness. Faith or no faith, a person can be mindful. The evangelical outfit, Focus on the Family, says opening the mind can lead to “demonic influences.” What believers really need, they say, is “the mind of Christ.” In other words, to know the truth you must be an evangelical, “biblically-based” Christian who (somehow) thinks like Jesus. A nice easy package for truth.
Funny thing about it, truth abhors a package, a box, a belief. It (and all the little its) will crawl out of any cage we construct.
Cousteau says we have only explored about 5 percent of the earth’s oceans. We have so much to learn from discovering the “ocean’s secrets.” Don’t you wish more “spiritual teachers” would startle us with truths like this? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a sense of wonder was taught in our religions and holy books, inspiring the search for uncovering the secrets of the universe?
There is no Truth. There is no Absolute Fact. Therein lies freedom. This is what finally, thankfully sets us free.
Recommended: “Why Do We Believe Lies?” (Podcast with Rashida Jones and Bill Gates, interview with Sapiens author Yuval Harari)