Whatever Happened To Truth?
Television evangelist Jerry Falwell, minister of the gospel and founder of the Moral Majority and Liberty University, is now selling a $43 videotape that contains scathing attacks on President Clinton, charging that the president is involved in numerous murders as well as sexual indiscretions, and not only Bill but Hillary as well. Falwell himself admits he has no evidence, but, justifies his action by saying, "We’re simply saying these charges are being made...I am making no charges whatsoever." Whatever happened to truth?
In the name of "family values" and "moral leadership", a man convicted of lying to the United States government (a felony charge) is a popular well-paid lecturer and a candidate for the United States Senate from Virginia. Whatever happened to truth? Is truth no longer a "family value"?
Let’s look at truth this morning, and apply the method of theological thinking I have been proposing. Last week I explained the time-honored tradition of the Quadrilateral. When making a decision about what to believe, or the right course of action to take, seek input from four sources: Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, not necessarily in that order.
1) Experience. How important is truth in your personal relationships? In your experience, how long does a relationship last when either you or the other person lie? Can the relationship endure? Can the relationship ever ripen into true love? Have you experienced or have learned from other people’s experience the detrimental, destructive effects of lying, distorting, and flagrantly disregarding truth? Sometimes, in an attempt to keep peace, or not offend, or not confront, we sidestep the truth, water it down, and restrict ourselves to platitudes and innocuous drivel, rather than the truth, because the truth may hurt, offend, and make us uncomfortable. Doesn’t such cowardly behavior lead to shallow, ineffectual relationships?
2) Scripture. It is clear from studying the Bible that truth is fundamental, the cornerstone of human relationships, and the foundation of a society. Jesus said, John 8:31-32, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. A disciple pursues the truth; indeed, truth is the foundation of freedom. Titus 1:2, God never lies. The very essence of God, from whom all things have come into being, is truth.
The Scripture lesson for this morning contains the admonition, James 3:14, Do not be false to the truth. James teaches us that intellectual ability, when used rightly by a humble and devout mind, is a heaven-sent blessing; but, when used wrongly by a selfish egotist, it does indescribable damage. Distortion of the truth is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish or demonic. Devilish cleverness leads only to disorder and social chaos, says James, disorder and wickedness of every kind. The witness of the Bible is clear, Do not be false to the truth, for the truth will make you free, but lies will enslave you.
3) Tradition. What does tradition, history teach us? Truth was revered by our ancestors. Philosophy is a field of knowledge dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Science is devoted to the discovery of truth. A French proverb reads, Individuals may perish, but truth is eternal. And, Mark Twain advised, When in doubt, tell the truth! A noted witness to truth is Albert Einstein. He wrote, I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves--such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time and time again given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Einstein also observed, Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.
Whatever happened to truth? Truth is now dispensable, to be used only when beneficial. Practicing that ends justify the means is bad enough, where it is believed that as long as the goal is noble, it is okay to lie, cheat, and steal in order to get there. But, now, today, too many practice that the means justify themselves, provided they are dirty enough, like some TV political advertising.
From a historical perspective, perhaps truth is no worse off today than it has ever been. Political lying, slander and hypocrisy have long been part of American life, but what has happened to make things worse is the advent of the media. TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines spread the lies quickly, efficiently, and diabolically. The National Enquirer admits, even boasts, that its writers make up stories they present as facts in their newspaper. Because of the competition for readers, listeners, and viewers, the media highlights extremes, exaggerates and gives a disproportionate amount of attention to the sensational.
Radio talk shows profit from and exploit the discontent, fear and anger in the land. What makes talk shows dangerous is there is no restraint, no accountability. Unfounded rumors are called in with zest and enthusiasm. Rumors run wildly, out of control. To some it is entertainment, but to others, if you say something repeatedly, it becomes believable. How does the accused defend him/herself from talk show attacks? There is no arena for them. There is no recourse, no place for them to tell the truth. Of course, the attacked can call up as well, and become even more grist for the mill. In my childhood, gossip and rumor ran up and down the party line on the telephone. The rumors were largely confined to the neighborhood. Now, the radio waves are nation-wide. Millions of people can get in on the juicy tidbit, where truth is irrelevant, and defense is impossible.
The media has certainly aggravated truth’s dilemma, but social commentators today tell us that a fundamental change has taken place. David Wells has written a book, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, in which he charges there is no place for truth in the ranks of many popular evangelical preachers and teachers, journals, Christian bookstores, media ventures and mega-churches. Wells criticizes evangelicals because he is one, but his criticism also applies to the rest of us. Mainstream ecumenical denominations show as little interest in theological substance as the evangelicals. American society today is focused on self-fulfillment rather than truth, seeking health and wealth rather than truth, preoccupied with self-esteem and personal enrichment, and not the costly demands of truth.
Tradition and a short journey through history bring us to the realization that indeed, today, truth is in trouble.
4) Reason, which I expand to include theological thinking, is a serious expectation and demand of each Christian. Theological thinking leads me to the conclusion that we have a problem in our society and in our churches. The challenge to us is Speak the Truth, Seek the Truth, and Demand the Truth. Frank Szymanski, a center on the Notre Dame football team, was called as a witness in a trial. He swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The judge asked him, "Are you on the Notre Dame football team?"
"Yes, your honor."
"Center, Your Honor."
"How good a center?"
Szymanski squirmed in his seat, but said firmly, "Sir, I’m the best center Notre Dame has ever had."
Coach Frank Leahy, who was in the courtroom, was surprised. Szymanski always had been modest and unassuming. "I hated to do it, Coach," Symanzki confessed, "But, after all, I was under oath." Do not be false to the truth, wrote James.
It was a sunny afternoon and Dad took his two little boys to play miniature golf. He asked the young man selling tickets how much it cost. The young man replied, "$3 for you and $3 for any kid who is older than six. Six and under are free." Dad said, "My younger boy is three and the older is seven, so I guess I owe you $6." The young man was impressed, "You could have saved yourself three bucks. You could have told me the older one was six; I wouldn’t have known the difference." Dad replied, "Perhaps, but the kids would have known the difference."
Do not be false to the truth, said James; for the truth shall set you free, said Jesus; and lies will enslave you. Speak the truth. Seek the truth. Demand the truth.
ã 1994 Douglas I. Norris