|Photo: Lee Taylor|
Anyone who has studied social sciences, philosophy or literature in the last thirty years will have been taught the postmodernist orthodoxy that we cannot speak about objective truth. There are only ‘truth-claims’ that are justified according to the culturally-relative standards of certain audiences in certain contexts. We cannot say anything about ‘truth’ as such, only the particular 'truths' contained within specific cultural stories. Even the claims of modern astronomy and physics are no more true than medieval ideas about the nature of the universe. They are just different stories, justified according to culturally-relative criteria, and useful for particular culturally-specific purposes.
In his consistently fascinating blog, the Quaker theologian Ben Wood has recently attempted to build a bridge between traditional Quaker spirituality and the postmodernist ideas of some non-theist writers, by arguing that the Quaker way does not depend on claiming the truth of its stories about God. According to this view, it is not the truth of our words and actions that are important, but simply their consistency with our shared narratives:
"The knowledge-terrain changes from matters of ‘objective truth’ to the more complex arena of narrative consistency. The question is not, what can I say is ‘out there’? Rather, the issue is, what can I say which is consistent with the stories I hold dear?"
"According to this account, how do we know when we are speaking and acting coherently as Quakers? We know because our speech and consequent action are consistent with our story of ‘peace’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’."I find Ben's approach appealing and convincing in many ways; particularly his argument that Quakers should not try to justify our faith on the basis of philosophical theories of knowledge that are alien to our tradition. Instead, it is our shared language and stories, which are open to interpretation in a wide range of ways, that sustain a common tradition of Quaker practice. I also agree that it is the fruits of our practice in the lives we lead that are the final criteria of the authenticity of our faith.
But does this mean that truth is irrelevant to the Quaker way? Truth has played an important role in our tradition -‘Friends of the Truth’ was one of the earliest names adopted by the Quaker movement. It is difficult to imagine that Friends such as James Nayler and Mary Dyer, who were killed for proclaiming the Quaker message, would have been prepared to die purely for the sake of ‘narrative consistency’. They believed that their lives and actions testified to the truth of the nature and purposes of God, and this belief was central to the Quaker story that they inhabited:
"My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the truth."According to the Quaker tradition itself, truth is not a matter of abstract philosophical argument. It is the conformity of our words, actions and lives to the reality of God. This does not rely on any particular theory about the precise nature of the relationship between statements and reality, about which there are many flavours of philosophical opinion. But it does require a belief in a real world, apart from the stories we tell ourselves, for our words and actions to conform to.
(Mary Dyer, 1660)
To claim that there is something called ‘truth’ does not imply that the Quaker way is the only true story about the world, or that it includes the whole truth about reality. But the possibility of truthfulness does imply that our statements and actions can, to a greater or lesser extent, be in a right relationship to the world as it is. This relationship may always and inevitably be partial, because of the apparently infinite subtlety and complexity of the world. But a conviction of the possibility of truth is internal to the Quaker story. It cannot be jettisoned and replaced with an ‘ironic’, fictional reading of our religious tradition without rejecting something that is essential to Quaker faith and practice.
None of us can ever lay claim to possession of absolute truth, which will always be beyond any of our stories about it. But it is meaningful to aim at a greater rather than a lesser degree of truthfulness, of conformity between our lives and the order of the world. The test of that truthfulness does not lie in philosophical arguments, but in the degree to which our lives faithfully reflect the peace, justice and compassion of God.