Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

True, true

I often hesitate to describe myself as a "spiritual" person, simply because of the monumental potential for being completely misunderstood. The label has lost almost all meaning at this point. Some people think it means not going to church on Sunday but still believing that you take God seriously. Some think it means collecting crystals, drinking funny-smelling tea, and believing in the direct intervention of angels. I can live with people not understanding what I'm about . . . but being mis-understood, and taken for one of the funny-smelling-tea crowd, is almost unbearable. So when I try to describe what I mean by spiritual work, I try to find the characteristics that are most distinctive, that most differentiate it from other notions people have.

One of the those key differentiators could be stated like this:
"The Truth is more important than anything else."

By "truth", I mean "correctly discerning the way things really are." Most people think knowing the truth is good, but they don't put it at the top of the list. I suspect that if you poll most people, knowing the truth isn't even in the top three. If you asked them what the most important thing is, they would probably give some variation of: "Being good is the most important thing." And I wouldn't argue with that, either . . . except that you have to know what's true, before you can know what's good.

For instance, some serious-minded, truly compassionate people are standing on the sidewalks, screaming at me that I am doomed to an eternity of hell-fire. I don't doubt their good intentions. I think they really mean the best for me, much more than the average stranger. They are risking all kinds of public attention and scorn, for the sake of trying to save me from an eternity of suffering. The only problem is: as near as I can tell, they're wrong. Wanting the best for people is worth exactly squat if their perception of what's true is totally off kilter.

You could expand on this in almost any direction. The world is full of well-intentioned idiots. No, let's not say "idiots," because that implies they're not smart. You can be plenty smart and still be totally, dead wrong.

This was the message that Augie Turak put out that first got my attention: there can be no good without the truth. So, before you go out to save the world, you'd better make sure you've got true discernment. It still boggles my mind that people can say, "What good is all this spiritual knowledge?" What good? Better to say, "What good could you possibly have without it?"


Blogger Kenny Felder said...

The counter-argument comes from Descartes.

I'm a big fan of Descartes. (The philosophy I most often espouse is refered to--always with a note of contempt--as "Cartesian dualism." But I digress.) Descartes wanted to find the absolute, certain, incontrovertible truth. He considered the possibility that a demon was deliberately trying to deceive him, and this demon could manipulate all his senses and perceptions, and wanted to find the truth anyway: how much more rigorous can you get?

But--and this is less often remembered--he also distinguished between the truth-standard used in philosophy, and the standard used in real life. In real life, he understood, we rarely have that kind of certainty, but we must never use our lack of certainty as an excuse for inaction. We have to make the best bet we can, and act on it.

So, given the possibility (probability, even) that our whole lives will never yield certain truth, I have a lot more respect than I used to for people who dedicate themselves to the good, as they perceive it: still trying all the time to find more truth, but not letting it slow them down.

8:10 AM  
Blogger The Thin Man said...

Ah . . . you are only anticipating my next point, which is, paradoxically, "Only by acting for greatest good can you discover the truth." I never sought to use the quest for truth as an excuse for apathy or inaction. Kierkegaard's greatest contribution to philosophy was the recognition of the "great leap" -- no amount of reflection alone can liberate a person from "paralysis of analysis." At some point, you have to "go for it," acting with the best knowledge that you have.

That still doesn't contradict my first principle: that any good depends on the truth. Personally, my own desire for the truth comes from a desire for the good. I want to know, for certain, that my time here was not wasted.

9:58 AM  

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