Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Few Half-truths.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is often credited with the observation: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Of note, Mr. Clemens claimed he was quoting Benjamin Disraeli, although this appears to be a false attribution as well, and the phrase seems to be a reworking of another unsourced (or, rather, over sourced) quote popular in the early 1890s that there are three kinds of liars: liars, damned liars, and experts. All of this confusion over a statement about how one might be misled, it is a source of amusement to me, and I feel a fitting point of departure for me to ruminate upon truth, Truth, and the efforts to which we sometimes go to avoid confronting how limited what we can really know is.

Let me jump to the end, and then I’ll come back and fill in the middle in more detail. Obviously, when one embarks upon an exercise of doubt, “What is true?,” it is nearly impossible to avoid the legacy of Descartes. Je pense donc je suis, or the more commonly quoted Latin reworking: Cogito ergo sum, is perhaps the widest known philosophical statement in the modern West. Yet even this statement has been contested by the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, certainly not lightweight thinkers. Critiques question the validity of granting a self identity to the thinker, or to presupposing a condition of self, such items are very nuanced and weighty, and are not the focus of my thoughts here, rather, I wish to illustrate that even the very fact of the existence of self is not taken as being verifiably true without dispute. Therefore, at some level every truth we speak of carries with it an implicit disclaimer “According to the experiential reality which appears to have an ongoing manifestation to the thinker, which is labeled “I” for my own ease of reference.” Quite the mouthful, no wonder we never say it. Without seeking to provide a philosophic proof thereof, let me digress a moment to say that such doubts are indeed one of the reasons I find God to be such a blessing and comfort to me. To know that an outside being not only knows that I exist, but has in fact extended to me a personal relationship based on love, is of immense value, to known that that being is the necessary one, the it which must think, is staggering beyond my ability to fully comprehend, but is a matter of my faith, not pure unaided reason.

So, now that I have spoken of lies and truth, and pointed out the ultimate inability to self generate any element of truth, where am I going? Quite simply to the notion that we must use context, reason, and assumption in the assimilation of anything we learn, and that a black and white paradigm of Truth opposing Lies harms our ability to transcend our mortal limits, and alienates us from much that is true and valuable. All learning, and every statement ever made linguistically (obviously including these) is incomplete and falls short of providing a depth of detail and qualifiers to be True. Our best efforts to state fact are provisionally true, or true in specific cases (which may be quite common, even up to including all human experiences, but still not universal). I think that in this, many scientists have a clearer understanding than philosophers. I applaud the rigorous discipline of mind that works in a world conscribed by Theories, comfortable in the knowledge that the reality they understand is one they can trust, but simultaneously and without contradiction open and ready to accept newer knowledge and deeper understanding which could alter the very nature of everything they thought they understood. How much anger and hate could be avoided if we could all live with such openness?

To turn my focus, let us move from the consideration of the actual ability to express truth into a more concrete and grounded area of consideration, the phenomena I like to call “Lost In Non-translation.” Allow me to provide two examples, intentionally chosen to be well known so some readers are likely aware of the common errors, and a bit of commentary on the category as a whole. To begin with an example which is quoted often enough to be widely familiar, I turn to The Bard, and the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet… “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” despite having a contextual meaning made very explicit in the following lines, and dating from 1592, just over 400 years past, the word “wherefore” has virtually vanished from the language, but the related root “where” has not, leading to a wide variety of comedic retorts expressing that he is just over there, and even a game “Romeo Wherefore Art Thou?” based upon the location of the hero. Clearly many modern readers of Shakespeare are hearing the wrong question. They are, in effect, being lied to by a lack of translation.

For an example of the same principle in different garb, I will go to the Scriptures themselves, the Gospel of Luke; Chapter 10. I’m going to retell the familiar parable, but replacing certain key words. “30 …A Jewish man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A rabbi happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, an American tourist, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Palestinian Arab, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’…” It is more than a little ironic to me, that in the modern age, the only thing most people remember about Samaritans is that one was kind to a stranger in the Bible, this is the Scripture itself, and yet many readers learn from this the very false notion of Samaritans in the time of Christ, a notion in fact that was an untruth Christ hoped would come to pass, with mutual love and understanding. If you will excuse the use of language that is now hurtful, I wonder how the American Civil Rights movement might have gone differently if the Baptist,  Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other preachers in White Southern churches had given sermons on the Good Negro who helped the man along the road, a translation less literally accurate but far more spiritually honest than the academically correct words we teach today?

I don’t want to focus exclusively on this angle, and so limit myself to two reasonable well known and documented cases of statements which were never made with intent to lie, but which have lost important elements of their truth over the passage of time and the changes in language and culture beyond the written page. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to consider how many other parables, essays, stories, and lessons you have read or been taught whose fullness of truth is obscured from you by cultural or linguistic curtains you do not even know are there.

As I move to my next thought, I must confess to another level of motive behind my two examples above. As already granted that both were recorded with no intent to deceive, and yet to a legal minded nitpicker, both could in fairness be referred to as untrue, indeed as falsehoods, and yet I am sure that Christ was not trying to provide a bad lesson, or Shakespeare to convince his audience of his possession of some secret knowledge. Indeed, we are all conditioned to accept a family of untruths with open arms and even gratitude; fiction. Jesus taught in parable, poets write symbolically, we tell ghost stories and “whoppers” around a campfire, and we pick up the latest novels from our favorite writers with good reason to suspect that we are about to be told things which are not so. Yet we do not cry for the sorry state of these feckless liars, we do not feel the same sense of betrayal and violation that wrenches us when a lie has informed our world view and guided us into beliefs and actions we might have otherwise avoided. We do not feel a need to assume that Christ spoke to the innkeeper about this mystery Samaritan, or indeed even to accept that this specific Samaritan existed in order to accept what Christ is telling us is true. The content of a lesson, a statement, an action may or may not be the same as the content of the statement or display which contains it. In this sense, anything and everything we ever learn or observe is a Koan, an incomplete paradox which is true even if it is incorrect. We always learn from fragments, for the whole is beyond us to observe or encapsulate.

I am reminded of the Zen Buddhist teaching of the monk who played a beautiful song which moved the lord of the city to tears. The ruler then asked the monk what his composition meant, to which the monk calmly sat back down and played the song again from beginning to end. The only true explanation of anything is the thing itself; no truth we ever seek to capture and express to others will ever be as complete to them as it was for us. Information is lost and gained with each transmission. To stay with our Zen observations, it is said that one must confuse the finger pointing with the moon. No matter how inspired, well meaning, and in possession of true understanding any teacher is, all they can do is point to the moon. To express the meaning of the Universe would be to express the universe in all its glory and detail again, anything less will fall short of the whole truth, even if somehow the teacher is in possession of that truth.

So, where am I going with all of this? I suspect I will return and revisit this topic and closely related topics in future thoughts, and wanted to get some foundation work in place to be able to build upon. I also suppose I wanted to chew on this topic after my thoughts on Sola Scriptura; that all teaching being inherently limited makes accepting a fixed written word as complete, literal, and wholly accurate in all things is a dangerous way to train your mind, leaving you woefully unprepared for when deeper meaning are uncovered, or more complete understanding of the context of a biblical story or event is learned. I also wanted to put forward that at some level, all teaching and all learning is a parable, and that we may learn best by asking ourselves of any lesson, what is the meaning of this tale? And not allowing ourselves to focus on details outside the moral which may be beyond the scope of the lesson, and beyond the scope of hard fact. Christ taught us of laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew; Chapter 20... Do we reject the lesson of full Salvation for all who seek him out when we realize that there is no such Vineyard and he made it all up? Of course not, that would be absurd. Likewise those who read the Chronicles of Narnia are not likely to reject the lessons of Christian Virtue learned from the tales when they realize that Narnia is not a land which Christ is ever recorded to have visited in his ministry, and certainly not as a talking lion. We already possess innately the tools to learn from allegory, and God has granted us reason enough to take from fanciful accounts lessons of great value in our actual lives without being caught up in the false details.

I suppose, what I am getting to with these wonderings is if we have not placed the focus on the wrong lesson? Might it be that it is not the telling of only facts which is a virtue; but the sharing of deeper truths? Might it be that it is not the telling of a falsehood that is a sin, but the desire to mislead or corrupt others? If it is so; then what is virtue and what is vice is within our hearts, which is beyond our mortal eyes to see, and must be reckoned ultimately between an individual and God, who does know all Truth. Yet another reason to pay good heed to Christ’s call to us all; forgive those who trespass against us.

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