Thursday, September 6, 2012

In search of a modest truth

What we say: "We're #1!"  The Truth: "We're 2-8."
One of my favorite theologians, Miroslav Volf, writes, “The belief in an all-knowing God should inspire the search for truth; the awareness of our human limitations should make us modest about the claims that we have found it, however.”* In the heat of the political season, humility in our speech and modesty in our claims are about as rare as football fans cheering honestly, “We’re #56!,” instead of the obligatory, “We’re #1!” The truth, whether in football or politics, doesn’t seem to carry enough weight or enthusiasm for our taste, so we often resort to exaggeration. I mean, could you imagine a politician getting up and saying, “We know that my opponent is not totally at fault for the ills that plague our society. The causes of our troubles are complex and multifaceted. We also know that electing me will in no way be a miracle solution to these problems. After all, it will take lots of people and groups working together for an extended period of time to find even moderate solutions to what ails us. But, I do believe that my approach moves us in a better direction than my opponent’s. So I’m asking you to vote for me.” Such a person would not be allowed to even run for office, even though, he would be speaking something much nearer to the truth than the normal round of political exaggerations: “My opponent is to blame for everything! I have all the answers!”

In a world as complex as ours, the truth often presents itself modestly. As result, we distrust the truth, for we don’t think that a modest truth will win the day. The truth appears understated, weak, and even indecisive. We think we have to build up the truth by resorting to hyperbole and overstatement which attempt to bolster the truth by mixing it ever so slightly (or sometimes not so slightly!) with falsehood. Over four hundred years ago, Sir Francis Bacon explained the trouble with this approach, noting that truth “is the honor of man's nature; and that mixture of falsehoods, is like alloy in coin of gold and silver, which may make the metal work the better, but it embaseth it.” In other words, a little nickel in your gold may make it more functional, but it also makes it less valuable.

Exaggerating the truth, bending the truth, or omitting part of the truth may serve one’s political or even personal purposes, but it does so at the expense of the truth, itself. And if we believe Jesus’ assertion that only the truth can set us free, the truth, and not political or personal victory, is what we’ll seek. So this election season, be engaged. Seek the truth. Engage in robust discussions about what course of action is best for our country. The Lord knows we need thoughtful consideration to the challenges our country and our world face. But in service to the Lord, do your best to seek truth instead of victory. Resist the urge to say more than you know. Stay humble in your debating by admitting that you might be wrong. Be willing to change your mind. Avoid exaggerations. Be modest in your political claims. You may not win the election but you just might find yourself a step closer to the truth that will set you free.

*Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 243.

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