Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Truth Carriers

If we are to discern the light within and discover there the truth, how then do we share that which we have discovered? How do we come together in community around shared experiences? How do we avoid sitting in our isolated bubbles on a Sunday morning?

Not for us relying on the ancient scriptures or the teachings of the Church or the wisdom of the elders - but what we can say for ourselves. This then illuminates the scriptures, teachings and words of the elders, but not necessarily as all good or true. We therefore need ways of communicating the truth that are adequate to the nature of the truth that we have discerned. I believe that there are three essential forms of 'truth carrier' in language - logical propositions to carry factual truth, metaphor and analogy to carry emotional truth or values and stories to carry relational truth.

It is important to realise that the propositions, metaphors and stories are not themselves the truth, but the carriers of the truth - a serious mistake made it seems almost universally, not least in asserting that the Bible is the 'Word of God' or the 'truth itself', but also very dangerously in confusing metaphors or models of scientific truth with the truth itself in many popular presentations of science - properly only esoteric mathematics can adequately describe scientific truth, and then mathematics itself is still only a 'truth carrier'.

Our western civilisation is very good at logical propositions and pretty good at metaphors or poetry, but lousy at stories. Possibly confusingly, novels and other forms of fiction - including the movies - are not 'stories' in this sense, though they may (and often do) contain stories - but are actually forms of emotional or value truth carriers.

Quakers have become very good at using the arts to illustrate the truth that we have discerned. Not just language in poetry, but visual arts and music. However, the metaphors and analogies in art still do not tell us everything. Art is very good at being a 'truth carrier' to ourselves as individuals, but it does not necessarily provide a sense of shared identity and common feeling in time and place. Art is very much about individual discernment - one person's beauty is another person's ugliness.

This is perhaps the important insight that the early Quakers had when they eschewed the arts. They were searching for a much deeper, shared integrity that binds together and perpetrates the community without reliance on scripture, ministers and dogma. And perhaps it is not surprising that as Quakers have become more and more caught up in western individualism, we have also promoted the arts more and more.

Unlike poetry and 'conventional' fiction, stories are independent of the language (or images) used to say them: 'There is, then, a particular kind of [fiction] which has a value in itself - a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work' (C.S. Lewis, 'An Experiment In Criticism' 1961, p41). This of course does not mean that stories cannot be well told - and should be well told - but: 'The story of Orpheus strikes and strikes very deep, of itself; the fact that Virgil and others have told it in good poetry is irrelevant.' (ibid.)

However, we confine stories to the nursery. We tell children bible stories and stories from the Greek and Norse myths, and stories of Arthur and 'The Matter of Britain', but we consider this something that we grow up out of. It is much more mature to be to able to understand scientific propositions and to appreciate art and poetry. But we have rejected that which binds us together, that which children instinctively recognise as the pearl of great price. Even worse, often when we do use stories, we make them into moral tales – they then contain the very dogma that we say should come from within.

Around the same time as Quakers emerged in Britain, Hasidic Judaism arose in eastern Europe. They realised that an important way of bringing the Kabbalah to ordinary people was through telling stories. The best stories stand on their own, without allusion to teaching or morality – their purpose is to go into us and find the truth that already resides in us, waiting for a means to be carried out and shared. Here is one:
A woman came to the Maggid of Koznitz asking him to pray for her that she have a child.
'My mother too was unhappy as you are,' said the Maggid. 'Then one day she met the Baal Shem Tov and presented him with a beautiful cape. One year later I was born.'
The woman's eyes brightened. 'I will make you the most beautiful cape in the world!' she said.
The Maggid smiled and shook his head. 'I am afraid that will not work,' he said.'You see, my mother did not know this story.'
And now these three remain: propositions, metaphors and stories. But the greatest of these is stories.