Pilgrims Navigating the Swamp of Truthiness

John 18:37-38
Jesus said, “My task is to bear witness to the truth.  For this was I born; for this I came into the world, and all who are not deaf to truth listen to my voice.”  Pilate said, “What is truth?”

I John 4:1
But do not trust any and every spirit, my friends; test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for among those who have gone into the world, there are many prophets falsely inspired.

Benjamin Franklin
Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of the soul in order to encounter it.  But error is endlessly diversified; it has no reality, but it is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it.

Sermonizing is, like most types of public speaking, a challenging and, I think, somewhat odd endeavor.  The challenging part is coming up with something meaningful to say.   The odd part is that preaching seems to place an inordinate amount of faith in the impact of words.

There have been numerous bits of research over the years to indicate that we are generally not very good listeners.  Within a short time after hearing someone speak the vast majority of us remember little of what was said.  Our minds are busy, after all, and tend to go chasing after random thoughts.  Even if we are mentally and emotionally engaged in what is being said we are likely to get caught up in thinking of how WE would say the same thing or in ways we would like to respond to what is being said and, quickly, we have missed a sentence, a key idea, a point that was being made.  And we are in an age where attention spans and the ability to patiently absorb lengthy presentations seem to be diminishing.  And just to prove my point I am willing to buy a dish of ice cream tonight for anyone who can tell me after church where in this sermon I mention anything that relates to our theme of Natural Wonders.

I spent some years, a long time ago, when preaching was more or less a weekly activity.  In that environment there was the ordinary pressure to come up with something meaningful to say but, at the same time, a person can feel a bit more relaxed—I say this only in hindsight–knowing that he or she is going to have many additional turns at bat in the future—strike out today and there is always a chance for a home run next week.  In that situation, there is less real pressure to say everything that needs to be said all at once.  Truth can be doled out in small doses and that is OK.  But for Fred Gregory last week, Dar Mikala a few months back, and for others who have given lay sermons and for me tonight, this is our big chance.  So we struggle to find important things to say–memorable stuff.

Pretty quickly in my planning for this service it occurred me that most everything that really needs to be said has already been said.  I am not likely to add much that is new.  We have all heard so very much—so many words–and, according to the research, we remember a smidgen of it.  None of that is likely to change this evening.

But words do sometimes inexplicably stick.  Perhaps you can identify some statement you heard at some point that has never fully left your consciousness.  It can be something trivial.  I have a very persistent mental recording of words spoken to me long ago when I was a youngster.  One morning when I was standing at the sink in our family bathroom brushing my teeth my dad walked by.  He was a person of strongly held opinions about many things, and he declared that I had not brushed long enough.  “Always brush for at least a full minute” he said, “sixty seconds”.  I don’t know where he picked up that bit of wisdom but 60 years later I still hear him while I brush my teeth.   His instructions play in my head like words delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai: “Thou shalt brush for 60 seconds!”

Why those words when I forget or ignore so many?  Surely they were not the most important ones he ever spoke.  Am I the only one for whom things like that happen?  Nod your heads if you can identify.  Help me out here!

I think words are, not often but sometimes, powerful and even life-changing.  Words that are spoken, read, sung can cling to our minds and spirits and shape how we understand ourselves and how we interact with the world and how we behave every day.  Can you think of words that have shaped you or stuck with you when so many have vanished as soon as they came; words that have somehow conveyed something more than vowels and consonants and sound?  And can you understand why it is so?  What is the connection between those memorable words and our sense of who we are and how we act?

Words, since the rise of language, I suppose, have flown about pretty freely.  Today, in our land, we are barraged daily with words spoken to convince, to enlighten, to distract, to justify, to falsify, to alienate, to alarm, to unite, to create doubt or certainty, to clarify or to obfuscate, to assert, to deny.  And those words are intended to reach us and to form our understanding of reality; of truth.
The words around us seem particularly intense just now.  And, perhaps, in a time of extreme partisanship and awareness that we are a divided people in some threatening ways, words seem to be a dangerous currency, especially when we are unable to predict which words will land, where they will take root and how they will shape our public life and national identity.

But there must be something that stands between words and our selves; something that enables people exposed to the same words to respond so very differently.  Not too long ago there was a March for Science here in Gainesville (did any of you attend?) as well as in other places around the country.  I understand it was a very good event.  But I remember someone telling me about a sign that was held by a march participant that read “You Can’t Just Make Stuff Up.”  I understand what that meant in the context of a march for science, but my reaction was, “of course you can.  We do it all the time.”  Have you seen the brain teasers in which words consisting totally of consonants with no vowels are put before you?  The challenge is to allow the brain to fill in the missing vowels.  It is amazing how often we can do that—get part of a picture and create the rest internally.  Perhaps that is one reason we are not good listeners; we only need a piece of something to build the rest in our minds.  We are familiar with how multiple witnesses of the same event can give equally sincere but significantly different accounts of what happened.   And many of us can sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between something we imagined and what really happened.  We can make things up, hear things that are not said, see things that are not there, ascribe truth where no truth exists.  We are adept at making things up.

In our current national situation we can observe, probably not with strict objectivity, the shaky relationship that exists between truth and facts and beliefs and convictions.  By definition, facts are true; if they are not true they are not facts.  Yet facts are not enough to tell the truth.  Facts, like words, get filtered into truth “as I see it.”  I have a dear relative who, immediately after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, said to me, “Well what did they expect, living in such a place!”  The fact of the devastation was undeniable but, for her, the filter was one of the personal responsibility borne by people who were exposed to the tragedy.  After all, God helps those who help themselves rather than those who build their houses on the sand or below levees.  That filter, at least in the moment, gave the truth “as she saw it.”  To be fair, this woman is not, by nature, a cruel or heartless person.  She is, however, the product a context or sub-culture that holds that people can make choices that will save them from hardship and bad outcomes and that failure to make those choices is on their shoulders.  There is truth there, but I reject it as THE truth.

There are always facts beyond facts.  You have probably already voiced within your mind factual inadequacies in this woman’s reaction to a hurricane.  People do not always have power, on their own, to avoid tragic circumstances.  That is a fact.  But do we not realize that the very choosing of facts to consider is a result of filters we already have in place as much as it is the facts themselves?

The author of I John advises the hearers of his message—it was likely read aloud to them sort of like a sermon—to “not trust any and every spirit” but to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”  The warning rings out ominously.  “There are many prophets falsely inspired.”  There is fake news.  The writer trusts these hearers to have the capacity to discern, to differentiate, between truth and falsehood.  I wonder if it is true that everyone trusts his or her own ability to differentiate between the real truth and it’s opposite.  And, if we all trust ourselves to do that and if we are all capable of doing it, why are we in the current situation in America?

I can’t help but empathize with poor Pilate before whom Jesus was brought to be judged.  In response to the words of Jesus “all who are not deaf to the truth listen to my voice” Pilate asks “What is truth?”  It appears that Pilate either did not trust himself to differentiate between competing assertions or, perhaps more likely, the truth as he saw it was that it didn’t make sense to get involved in the Jesus controversy.  It is risky business, sometimes, to look deeply for truth.

If my memory serves me, I believe that the first time I heard the assertion that all truth is narrow was in a speech given by Barry Goldwater at the time of his acceptance of the nomination of his party as its presidential candidate.  Maybe over ice cream someone will correct me.  When I googled the phrase I was surprised to find that the words were echoes of Benjamin Franklin.  And when I found his words they brought me up short.  The assertion that truth is narrow strangely began to make sense to me.  After all, Benjamin Franklin stands, in my mind, as one less tainted and more to be trusted.  Truth exists, he declared (an assertion that is sometimes in question) and it is apprehended in a “passive aptitude of the soul.”  I have no idea what he meant by that, but I like to think of it as a capability of persons to filter facts and words that are written and spoken to them in ways that discover and preserve real truth.  The filters we adopt for doing that become like a prism refracting the constant stimuli of information into a focus that becomes the truth “as we see it.”  The filters we use are the source of our ability to test the spirts to see if they are of God.  The filters we use are the “passive aptitude of the soul” that allow us to meet the challenge of disinformation, hoax and fakery.

But, of course, there are other questions.  Where do we get our filters and how do we trust them?  Are we able to have confidence that our filters will lead us into light?  Everyone filters words and facts but not everyone agrees about what is true.

These are hard questions and I don’t have adequate answers–just a couple of observations.
First, it seems that we are born with some filters already in place that we need to protect.  I heard recently of research with newborns who, when studied, exhibited at extremely early ages, empathy toward other newborns who were crying or in distress.  I heard of another study in which infants exhibited attraction to smiles before they could possibly understand the meaning of smiling.  Perhaps these studies point us toward what is sometimes called “original blessing”–an innate movement toward empathy and appreciation of positivity.  Others know a lot more than I do about that but nature as well as nurture seems to be at work.

I am also interested in filters that are more a matter of choice or personal development.  If you had early exposure to Bible study then there may be those one or two tidbits out of all the words that you read and heard (many of which you either came to reject or not remember at all) that resonate deeply even today.  Words like “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” or “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Others of us may have words burned into their hearts from other sacred texts and traditions, from songs, from connections with wise and loving people and from embracing communities.  The filters may become crystallized within United Tribes, or summer camp or from confirmation classes or even from gaming nights online with friends hashing over deep issues while destroying one another’s imaginary armies.  They may come from the preamble to the constitution or Maya Angelo or, who knows, even sometimes from sermons.

We choose, consciously or not, some underlying truths or assumptions or values that we make a part of our very selves; that become truth beyond truth and filters through which facts are organized and prioritized.  These chosen filters provide the leverage for lifting life from confusion to conviction and from conviction to behavior in the world and to taking better care of our teeth by brushing for 60 seconds.  Thank God for filters that guide our path.

As one final thought, it may be that if we can learn to talk more clearly and articulate more explicitly those chosen filters that are behind truth “as we see it”, and, in return, openly and with humility encourage folks of different political and social opinions to talk with us about the filters that are instructive for them we will be in a better position to find common ground and to be peacemakers for a world in need.  Then, perhaps, as a culture the eyes of our seeing and the ears of our hearing will be open to truths we have not yet imagined, truths that can set us free.
May it be so.  Amen.

Tony Miller