CathBlog - Talking about the truth


Recently I received a set of powerpoints which told a story of an exchange between former Franciscan priest, Leonardo Boff, and the current Dalai Lama.

The story begins with Boff’s question to the Dalai: “What is the best religion”? The Dali answers in some detail, following further questions, and eventually concludes with this sentence: “There is no higher religion than truth.”

This answer reminds me of Pontius Pilate’s question of Jesus Christ: “What is truth?”. Jesus had been explaining to Pilate that he was “witness to the truth”, among other things, and this comment of Jesus obviously provoked Pilate’s questioning search for meaning. 

I find it interesting that in today’s society and church, we have many ways of talking about the truth. We encourage young people to “tell” the truth; our legal system professes to “defend” the truth; we are upset by those whom we perceive to “distort” the truth. Our churches encourage us to “seek” the truth; our academic disciplines “contest” the truth; and our faith asks us to “imitate” the truth.

In the histories of countries and institutions, we have seen how the truth, or its manipulation, has played a significant role in the progression or regression of people. 

The Iroquois Confederacy in North America is one example, and the Third Reich in Germany is another. The former example is not well known. It was developed in the 1500s AD, by an American Indian, and is credited with influencing Benjamin Franklin to establish democracy as the basis for the American Republic. 

The Iroquois Confederacy was the work of one man, the Huron Indian, Deganawindah (pictured), who formulated The Twelve Cycles of Truth. Space only allows a one word summary of each Cycle. Thus we have: learning the truth; honouring the truth; accepting the truth; observing the truth; hearing the truth; presenting the truth; loving the truth; serving the truth; living the truth; working the truth; walking the truth; and being grateful for the truth.

From this rich collection of insights about the truth, what can Australian society and the churches learn? 

Interestingly, like Jesus and the Dalai Lama, the Cycles do not answer the question “What is truth?” The Twelve Cycles indicate that the truth is often a moving target, and that we must continuously “cycle” through various approaches to truth, rather than settle too readily into one expression of it. The truth manifests itself for a time until a larger and richer version appears as a result of our collective “cycling”. The answer of Jesus: “I am the Truth”, has presented a never-ending challenge to our “cycling” ever since he uttered it.

What does it mean to be “working the truth?” Basically, to work the truth is to test it at its limits. It is to remain open to the possibility that there are other modes of accounting for realities, other paradigms for explaining apparent mysteries. 

The work of Galileo and more recently that associated with “the God particle”, come to mind, as does the “hermeneutic of reception” in ecclesiology. “Working the truth” indicates that we should be restless about our current formulae for accounting for the truth. 

Of course, such a stance makes conservative societies and churches nervous. They do not feel happy about the new; they fear the axiom: “The new is elsewhere”. Conservatives often use words like “rebel” or “un-orthodox”, or “sinner” to label those who speak of the new. On the other hand, those testing the limits of truth have also been described as “visionary”, “hero,” and even “creative” (a God-like quality!). 

The struggle is clear when experiences of “mission” (the truth) and “vision” (the possible new) establish the dynamic forces of tension. It is an expression of the classic tension between hanging on and letting go.

When any significant issue emerges in a society or a church, how should we proceed? The Twelve Cycles of Truth teach us that we should take our time and be prepared to cycle through all twelve stages, and not be content to stay in one comfortable cycle. 

On the matter of gay marriage, for example, how should the truth manifest itself? What happens if society and church disagree? If there are differences within a given society or church? How are the prevailing norms to be understood and cycled through?

When we “honour the truth”, we are engaged in seeking a greater wholeness than currently exists. No single paradigm can explain the truth. We honour the more by not trying to funnel it through narrowing assumptions and teachings. We honour the truth by allowing it to do its transforming work unhindered. We cannot control the truth.

There is great value to be had in reflecting on Deganawidah’s contribution to truth. Australian society and our Christian churches should open our collective minds and hearts to this ancient wisdom.

Garry EverettGarry Everett is deputy chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland and a former Deputy Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission and previous chair of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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