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Truth: Character In Context

December 20, 1987|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty, who teaches the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, is the author of "Pilgrims in Their Own Land."

CHICAGO — After 1987, this Year of the Lie, where can people turn for truth? Philosophers remember old Diogenes, who still symbolizes the search because he went around truth-seeking with a lantern in broad daylight. Yet in a contemporary eight-volume encyclopedia of philosophy, "Truth" has only three lines--theories on how to talk about it.

If philosophers are of only marginal help, people who tell poll-takers how spiritual they are may turn to religious leadership for truth. The pious will say, and the half-pious will agree, that talk about truth sooner or later focuses on God, but our need now is human truth. Which humans offer examples and guidance?

Some religious leaders do serve as models. Pope John Paul II came visiting, leaving plenty of disagreement behind, among Catholics as well as others. But the Pope also came through as a person of integrity. The hard times this year were for the religious prime-time characters. Some TV evangelists were unfaithful to their spouses and others doctored their autobiographies to cover past dissembling. The cynical public overlooks the model minister down the block and says to the celebrities, "Get your own act together and we might pay attention again."

Political leaders have trouble in the company of truth seekers because many citizens confuse politics, "the art of compromise" among various interests, with politics as the science of compromising oneself. There have been and are exceptions, from relatively "Honest Abe" Lincoln to people who sometimes do tell hard truths to an electorate often guilty of not wanting to hear them.

Politics, however, offered the most flagrant examples of lying in recent seasons. A bipartisan assault on truth reached the highest officers and office-seekers of the land who were not quite convincing when they "could not remember" hundreds of details that would have spread truth but would have hurt them. Television images of those who admitted that they lied--and proud of it for a noble cause--disqualify government officials as tour guides in the search for truth.

The world of business, despite many honorable businessmen, is not much better. Did my broker tell me the truth about the risks involved with "margins" and "options" before the October crash? Such questions typify public suspicion. Business schools begin to teach ethics but for now, most truth seekers look elsewhere.

Perhaps I assume too much about the public demand for--or expectation of--truth. Millions of Americans are not sure their spouses or friends tell them true; lying in the intimate circles of life is so common that it breeds even more suspicion and cynicism. Yet there are signs that the people are now saying "enough" to highly placed liars or twisters of truth. Well-educated Americans turned Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind" into a best seller. Whatever else that book did--critics suggest it did not argue the case for honesty as much as signal a hunger for the absolute--it proved that many people wanted more than mere relativism. At the same time, many citizens down the block welcomed the "character issue" in politics.

But why a premium on truth anyway? German philosopher Rudolf Hofmann, in a volume on Christian ethics, offered one answer: "Truth is the fundamental requirement of human life . . . . " Not food? Hofmann would say food is fundamental for the animal life that humans share but distinctively human existence relies on "interhuman relationships and encounters," and these have to rely on truth.

This fact is clear from the beginning. A child accepts food from a parent's hand certain that it is not poisoned because the parent says it is good; truth-telling at that level is a matter of life and death.

I am not free for choice unless you give me the truth about my option, and without freedom I am not a fulfilled human being. I cannot select leaders and place trust if they join the culture of the lie and I cannot be sure where they would lead me.

From such needs, the public search for truth is based on definitions that differ somewhat from most concepts of classic and modern philosophy. There is a modern clue for the present search from the language of the religion that dominates in the West, one based on biblical meanings. The ancient Hebrews and the authors of the Greek New Testament spoke little about truth in the abstract, about truth in the impersonal sense. Instead they connected "truth" with the character of a faithful God and then wanted to see that quality reflected in humans.

The biblical concept richer than "telling the truth" is expressed as "doing the truth." When someone "does" the truth, we can check that person out more readily than when talk about truth is only an intellectual game or tease.

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