Sunday Sermon – 18 August 2019

What Is Truth?

When I was a boy, our daily newspaper was the Manchester Guardian, a title subsequently changed to its current title, The Guardian. From childhood onwards I have been fond of reading. In boyhood, I read our daily paper, not so much for the general news, but turned to the sports pages. In particular, I devoured the cricket match descriptions of the writer, Neville Cardus.

His articles were much more than a record of a sporting occasion. They brought to life the atmosphere in the ground, the drama of the contest, the various idiosyncrasies of the participants, the humorous comments made by the crowd. The match itself was almost incidental; the character of the players took precedence.

He wrote, particularly of Lancashire Cricket Club, in beautiful descriptive prose. His accounts of play were interspersed with amusing anecdotes about the players, of their quirks and their conversations on the field. Some years later, I listened to Neville Cardus being interviewed on the radio, or wireless as it then was. He was challenged about whether some of the incidents and conversations concerning cricketers had actually happened, for he had described in great detail conversations on the field of play taking place some distance from where he sat. He replied to the effect that regardless of whether they had happened or not, all were truthful to both the men and the occasion.

What is truth? As a child I was shocked to be told that Robinson Crusoe was not an account of the day-to-day life of an actual person, but a work of fiction. I believed as I read it that every word was true. Everything had actually happened as the narrative portrayed. Yet I now understand that, like all good novels, it was a truthful unfolding of human emotions and behaviour. All great literature, whether drama, poetry, descriptive prose or storytelling, is surely truthful, even though it be concerned with fictional events.

The scriptwriters of soap operas strive for realism in character and plot. At their most successful, an audience grieves or rejoices as a character succeeds or suffers, many forgetting that they watch a work of fiction. Is truth only to be found in fact, and not in fiction?

“It’s written in the Bible. It must be true”, I overheard some-one say the other day. There are those, perhaps a minority, who would affirm that every word in the Bible is factual and accurate. I must confess that I am not of that school of thought. But it is not the case that factual accuracy and truth is one and the same thing.

In a wider context, factual accuracy is surely less important than accounts where the truth unfolds through the lives of men and women. Joseph’s multi-coloured coat, his exile, his elevation to high rank makes an enthralling story. But whether or not it is an accurate, detailed account of historical fact is not of first importance. What is important is that, as one reads it, the story has the ring of truth. Jealousy, anger, vengeance, forgiveness and reconciliation are human attributes to which we relate. We recognise anger and jealousy can lead men and women to commit dreadful deeds. We have witnessed in our own time the ability of men and women, some famous, some ordinary humble folk, to forgive and to seek reconciliation.

To quote Francis Bacon “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Is there a time and date that can be attached to the occasion when a man on the road to Jericho was set upon by thieves? Did a priest pass by and ignore the victim some time later, and what was his name? Is it just a story with no historical basis in fact?

None of that matters when one is seeking to ascertain the truth encapsulated in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is authentic because it accurately portrays human behaviour both at its best and at its worst. The actual characters are incidental; the story is a true picture of different ways that human beings behave. We would wish to be a Samaritan but know we are capable of crossing over to the other side of the road. Sometimes we judge and jump to hasty conclusions; sometimes we show kindness and compassion, on other occasions we don’t want to get involved. A work of fiction may be uncomfortably a true reflection of the reader himself.

Does it matter, other than to scholars, whether or not David was the author of the psalms? Is not the message, the meaning, the inspiration that flows from them, and the comfort derived from them, of infinitely more moment than the authorship? Are they less valid because a hand other than David the Shepherd Boy’s originally transcribed them? The twenty-third psalm has brought comfort to many because it speaks in simple language of spiritual support on the journey through life. It is a message to which many can relate. It is insight into life that is significant, more so than the author’s name.

Like so many of the words in the English language, “true” and “truth” have more than one meaning. True may mean accurate, alternatively it can be used in the sense of a faithful account.

Philosophers have speculated upon, argued about, the nature of truth, over years numbered in thousands. They speak of relative truth as opposed to absolute truth, the nature of truth and even question if truth exists at all. Theologians speak of the search for truth as a religious journey. Even definitions of truth are uncertain. Francis Bacon once more, “What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

A two-minute search turned up the following statements on truth.

It is the opposite of lies; it differs from person to person; what is truth is what we believe to be true; I don’t believe there is one truth for there are so many different people, and there are so many ways you can look at things that I don’t see how there could be only one truth.

These are just a few of many, many different thoughts spoken by ordinary folk, a small sample from a huge range of opinions about the nature of truth.

From time to time I have pondered another question, “What is the purpose of the sermon in a service of worship?” In mediaeval times it was often a means by which the learned informed the ignorant; the speaker seeking to impress the congregation with his own intellectual superiority perhaps. Some preachers seek to terrify the wayward into joining the ranks of the repentant, others to contrast their own saintliness with the wickedness of the unbeliever, or the superiority of the particular sect to which they belong over the adherents to an alternative faith.

Today the occupant of the pulpit will more often place the events and experiences of everyday life into the framework of religious teachings of the faith to which he or she subscribes. For my own part I find listening to a sermon that poses questions more satisfying than one that purports to provide answers, or one that challenges rather than cushions.

So this morning I come with no suggestions to offer to the question “What is truth” I have just some quotations from other people’s opinions, along with my own somewhat rambling thoughts. But the question of truth is one with which all who claim a religious faith have to wrestle.

Worship is frequently defined as a search for truth. The creative being is seen as a metaphor for absolute, all encompassing truth. There are, of course, those who claim to have access to that truth, whatever it may be; but for many of us the journey is one of searching for the truth, catching glimpses of a part of it, and trying to interpret and understand.

Gandhi once said, “God is, though the whole world deny him. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained. I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him, but am seeking after Him. I am prepared to sacrifice the things dearest to me in pursuit of this quest. Even if the sacrifice demanded my very life, I hope I may be prepared to give it.”

My own belief, for what it is worth, is that we frequently yearn to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even though experience teaches us that the whole truth is as elusive as a rainbow. We know it is there but as we approach it moves on. The pot of gold at its foot escapes our grasp.

So I come today with no answers, only questions. Not really a very satisfactory sermon at all, I confess, more like a child exasperating everyone with what Rudyard Kipling said the Elephant Child suffered from, “’satiable curiosity”.“If only we knew the truth”, we moan. But we don’t. Perhaps one day we will. Meantime, it is there to be found. A religious faith involves an endless search for an elusive treasure

As Elvis Presley said, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away”. So we keep going back in hope of uncovering it, even though we may not be sure what it is for which we search.

C.J. Rosling 8 December 2006

Hucklow December 2006

Footnote:  69 years ago today, Chris and Marie got married at Crookesmoor Unity Church in Sheffield.

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