Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Truth and Lies (A Catholic's Perspective)

 It was 2003 when we learned the news that would uproot us once again from our church home. We had only just recently begun feeling like we belonged in the Episcopal Church.  After a great deal of church shopping around our area, we had hoped to be able to finally settle down.  It was the ordination of a practicing homosexual named Vicky Gene Robinson to the position of bishop within the Episcopal denomination that spiritually sent us reeling.  According to what we understood, Vicky Gene Robinson of New Hampshire set the tone of his new relationship with the abandonment of his wife Isabella and their child.  To me, it seemed like there was a clear disregard for Biblical truth there.

 

Having become somewhat accustomed over the preceding years to speaking our minds regarding issues with which we disagreed, my wife and I sent a letter of concern to the bishop of the Episcopal Churches of Western Oregon.  I remember mentioning the writings of Saint Paul in my correspondence, and, despite the issue making me sick to my stomach, I was careful to keep it courteous and respectful.  I may have also made a reference to C.S. Lewis’ essay “Fern Seed and the Elephants,” but I don’t recall for certain.  When the response arrived, the bishop’s assistant dismissed Pauline theology outright and took an unusually vitriolic tone with me.  It was abundantly clear that it was time to prepare for some more church shopping…all because of that thing called truth.

 

Because of the preceding example I chose, I should hasten to add that I am not selecting the sin of homosexuality for some kind of mortal sin extraordinaire, compared to which other sins pale in wrongdoing. I am also not espousing a view where we treat homosexuals with derision or rudeness; I have good friends who have chosen this lifestyle. It’s a common Christian teaching, however, that the teacher or leader within the faith needs to be exceedingly careful “because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1) That Episcopal bishop’s new role becomes a particularly public embrace of a watered-down and misunderstood version of the Bible, one where truth becomes subservient to warm feelings and “good will,” divorced from their underlying meaning. For more information, see paragraph 2357 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for a discussion of “Chastity and homosexuality.”

To a paraphrase one of my favorite Catholic authors, a good truth is hard to find.  In a similar way to how the Book of Wisdom describes its namesake, truth shares similar reflections of the divine.  It’s worth remembering that in Inferno, Dante saves the eighth circle of hell for fraudsters and liars.  Each is eternally sentenced to suffer in these pits within the inferno as punishment for their crimes against God and man.  These days, we might describe Truth like a tired refugee who is denied shelter again and again; no room at the inn.  The evidence of this is all around us.  We have politicians as well as elected officials who seem to lie with the same ease with which they breathe.  On the international stage, we see Russia deceiving her own people (not to mention our own) concerning the carnage being wrought upon the innocents of Ukraine.  We have the former Chief of Police for Uvalde Schools, Pete Arredondo, who appears to have done his best to shield the truth from the public’s eyes.  Then, speaking of a school shooting, there’s Alex Jones, who tormented parents who had lost their children so tragically.  And don’t forget the entertainment industry, Big Pharma, and, of course, Big Tech.  There are too many to name.  

If you have ever read Nicholas Carr or perhaps listened to his thought-provoking debate “Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb” on Intelligence Squared Debates, you have been introduced to his idea that technology may be fundamentally changing the way our brains function.  We are more distracted than ever, and the contention is that our ability for deep thought is being eroded by these constant interruptions.  Like I have written elsewhere, there is also a sense in which social media itself pushes us apart as much as it brings some of us closer together.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church so eloquently puts it, “The means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers of what is said or shown. Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences.”

We are all familiar with classic dystopian literature like a Brave New World or 1984.  Many in our culture seem to have withdrawn with suspicion and scorn from mainstream news sources or dialogue upon current events.  They may identify all such reputable media as “fake news,” for instance.  They focus on highly questionable sources of information for their daily sources of news, and this leads to obvious problems of isolation.  While I’ve tried recently to reason with some of these individuals, the responses I receive are usually along the lines that the Ukraine war atrocities are faked, or that the videos have been re-purposed from previous conflicts.  The denial of reality is sadly reminiscent of cult members.  I can almost understand where this media cynicism grew from; we have all witnessed bias in broadcast and print news.  Their answer, however, is to embrace a lie, a particularly dangerous lie.  In an article entitled “Clarity of Vision,” which appeared on Catholic365 last year, I said of conspiracy theories that they “seem particularly sinful for the Christian, since it’s taking the worst of gossip and melding it with characteristics of false witness, then running one’s view of the world through this inherently defective (subjective) lens. We shouldn’t cling to information that is beyond our reasonable knowing. Matthew 7:5 comes to mind here.”

 


Novelists such as George Orwell have repeatedly warned readers of the prospect of state and media manipulation; it’s a valid concern.  The following passage from 1984 also touches on a vocabulary and language deterioration in a way that seems to echo some of Nicholas Carr’s thoughts as well. 

 

‘Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in “The Times” occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?’ Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on: ‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller…

 

Orwell, George. 1984 (Deluxe Hardbound Edition) (pp. 58-59). SHJBOOX. Kindle Edition.

Some may be responding to that important warning, however, in an impulsive rather than thoughtful or reasoned way.  Technology and particularly social media are the perfect mediums with which to instantly share valuable news around the world.  While that’s a powerful good, one lie clothed within a half-truth can speed around our planet at the same hypersonic speed.  The only remedy against the lies swirling around us is to counter them with truth, full disclosure.  Of course, we can also convince ourselves of our own lies over weeks, months, or years.  Lies can also lead to pride over time.  When someone believes they are privy to information known only to a select few—e.g. those listening to a particular radio, television, or podcast episode—shared viewpoints between listeners can be acknowledged with a knowing wink or other subtle sign.  When we are imagining conspiratorial insights far beyond the ability of our direct knowledge, there may be a tendency to call those on the other side “sheep,” for instance.  C.S. Lewis addresses the nature of pride most eloquently in “A Case for Christianity.”

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others. 

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison. It was through pride that the Devil became the Devil: Pride leads to every other vice. It is the complete anti-God state of mind.

Of course, there are times when truth may not help one’s larger argument, may even jeopardize one’s job, but one still needs to share the necessary words of accountability.  While the stated objectives of the Russian Federation, for example, concerning the allegations of Nazism in Ukraine are ludicrous, it must be conceded that the Azov Special Operations Detachment, a right-wing militia, has served for some time.  We need not paint the Ukrainian government as pure as the new fallen snow to establish that what Russia is doing to the country is a reprehensible war crime.  The following passage concerning the nature of truth and lies is taken again from the section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church concerning bearing false witness.


2485 By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray. 

2486 Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships.


When we were faced with leaving the Episcopal Church over its ordination to bishop of a practicing homosexual, we were attempting to discern the truth or mission of an organization, but we are all called upon to make determinations on truth or veracity throughout each and every day of our lives.  How we arrive at our decisions, and how we communicate those decisions to others, can become terribly important.  Critical thinking techniques can help us discern the truth.  For a church, for instance, you might have many litmus tests that are required before you are truly at home.  While it is a little different for a Catholic, the Nicene Creed might still serve as an important anchoring point for a new parish.  For new religious traditions with which you may not be so familiar, issues such as homosexuality or abortion may shine a light for you on the overall legitimacy or truth of the denomination in question.  Are they in support of the Culture of Life or the Culture of Death?




 

Let’s change gears a bit and try approaching this issue of truth from an entirely different direction.  My wife and I were recently in Florence, Italy on a wonderful vacation. In Tuscany, one thing you must do is try a true Florentine Steak.  The locals will warn you, though, if your steak is under a pound and a half or not meeting other listed requirements, it is a fraud.  Calling a steak Florentine in Italy when it is not, is apparently quite a big deal. At any rate, the local advice is that a restaurant that misrepresents steaks as Florentine should not be considered trustworthy in anything else; they’ve forfeited the diners’ trust with their deception in this single area.  It’s entirely possible to apply a similar standard of trustworthiness and logic to both organizations and individuals. 

One thing in particular about conspiracy theories is that they usually read more like a story than real life.  If you’re familiar with the clich√© pattern of urban legends and conspiracy theories, they become easier to pick out; you almost can start to smell them.  If you’re reading an account, and it sounds just too good to be true, try Googling a few lines of the account within quotes.  You can also use the “-“ sign to help fine-tune your search results.  This is a simple version of what is called a Boolean Search, and it can be particularly useful for spotting repurposed urban legends or conspiracy stories that have no root in truth. Sites like Snopes.com can also prove of some benefit.  Another suggestion when it comes to testing information’s veracity is careful review of its original source.   See, for instance, what others have written in the way of criticism of the particular account that has caught your eye.

In the fourth chapter of 1 John, we are urged to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”  A similar method can be employed to assess something’s reliability.  There are many tools available to discover the truth of a questionable assertion.  As a matter of fact, if you overhear a legal phrase such as neutralizing the credibility of the witness or false in one thing, false in everything, you are getting warmer; these techniques are already all around us.  Among the tools available to us, then, are direct examination of the assertion itself using critical methods previously highlighted, credibility review of the source—e.g. has the organization or individual taken positions in opposition to the Bible, Church teaching, or other tried and true standards—and finally seeking the input of others whom you trust.  Of course, your own skills at spotting deception should quickly improve as you make a more conscious effort to fact-check claims and not assume the information you are being given is correct.  If we all do this, committing to stop spreading misinformation, imagine the clearer world we could begin to create.  This allows us to focus more on the truly meaningful things.

If we distill all of this down to its essence, we see a need for renewed emphasis upon living truth in all that we say, do, and believe—whether in-person or in the anonymous world of online communications.  If lies, half-truths, fabrications, and exaggerations are coming at us all day long, requiring us to mentally filter the content, our duty as Catholics should be to stand for truth in word and deed.  People should know that we are different, that we can be trusted.  This kind of adult accountability is sorely lacking in today’s world.  As Saint Augustine wrote in On Choice and Free Will, “If there is something more excellent than the truth, then that is God; if not, then Truth itself is God.”  If people see calm reason and truth reflected in our lives and hearts, perhaps it will point them in the direction of divine Truth.  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  In embracing this one at the door called Truth, we may jeopardize relationships, damage connections with political parties, and lose friends, but we will gain something so much more real, substantive, and eternal in return: Truth.

 

This article is adapted from Catholic365.

 

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