A Response to the Rev. John H. Snow

F. Earle Fox

The article below is posted on the ROAD to EMMAUS==>> in the STRATEGY library, and is an essential block in the working philosophy of the ROAD==>>.


     B.  The NATURE of TRUTH
     C. The MEANING of FAITH
     E. BEING and DOING



Compassion is being turned into an enemy of truth. It is being used to undermine the most fundamental of all obligations, the one we learn at (or over) mother's knee: "Tell the truth, Johnny." Whether or not the undermining is deliberate, the effect is the same, the erosion of all objective meaning and order in life.

But, "when truth wins, everybody wins". We must therefore come to an understanding of the nature of truth, and of how we relate to truth before we can understand true compassion.

The favorite ploy of the Enemy is divide and conquer. He has succeeded in driving a wedge into the Christian community which has fractured our ability to see compassion and truth as co-workers in the Lord's vineyard. John Snow in an article, "Introduction: a Statement of Theological Context", has helped bring this into focus by contrasting the adversarial, winner-take-all mentality which the "debate" model often takes with another model based on Luke 24: "while they were talking and discussing together, Jesus drew near...."  

[The article by the Rev. John Snow was received in a mailing from The Rev. Wayne Schwab, Episcopal Church Center, dated 6/30/92. Originally from LISTENING FOR THE SACRED IN THE FAITHFUL COMMUNITY, pp 1-3, Forum for Faith and the Future, Dioc of Mass, printed by Forward Movement 1987.]

The road to Emmaus to which Fr. Snow alludes, is, of course, THE THEME of our website. But Jesus was not holding a round-table discussion on the road to Emmaus. He did not ask the two disciples, "Well, fellows, how did you feel about my crucifixion?" He did not ask for their opinions about the meaning of the events or their relevance to Scripture. He taught with all the authority of the heavenly Father the truth about himself from the Old Testament Scripture.  That is not to say that there was no dialogue or discussion, questions from the two disciples.  But it is to say that Jesus was a good teacher, meeting them where they were. 

In order to make sense of this in our current context we must ask: What are we aiming for in all of this discussion and dialogue? What is the goal? And how will we know when we have arrived at that goal?

Clearly we are aiming at consensus and unity. But consensus and unity has two facets: truth and love (or compassion). And that is precisely where the matter has fractured for us. Conservatives tend to focus on truth, liberals on compassion. Yet in Scripture there is not a hint of such a fracture. Truth and love seem to walk down the path of life arm in arm, not as adversaries glowering at each other from the "left" and "right" sides of the path.

We would like to believe that everyone will win and everyone will get a prize. But both common sense and Scripture tell us that there are real choices we must make, that there is a real truth, and that violation of that truth will often lead to disastrous consequences. There are, that is, errors and sins which must be corrected and repented of -- if we are to remain on the path of life.

Both truth and compassion are necessary. As St. Paul points out, without love all truth is as a clanking symbol. On the other hand, if truth gets bent out of shape, love will not be sustained. Love cannot happen in confusion and chaos. Love is not amorphous, love has the structure of truth.

Most people would agree in theory that both love and truth are required. Putting it into practice is where we get divided.

So we ask: How can we attain that unity of truth and love which is necessary to any fruitful dialogue -- and at the same time avoid the adversarial mode into which we have fallen? How can we engage in an honest search for real truth and all come out winners? Or is that sentimentality? Will there be "winners and losers" no matter how we cut it?



Truth is simply "What is" as against "What isn't". (If someone named Pilate ever asks you, "What is truth?" that will stand up as a solid philosophical definition.) We appear to come into the world with an intuitive sense of that. Some things are just "there". We have to deal with them whether or not we like it. There is no way we can not deal with them. Those are objective truths.

That means that any person who believes contrary to an objective truth is believing a falsehood. And if he keeps on believing it contrary to all the evidence, he may come into painful contradiction with reality. Reality does not step out of the road for anyone. Reality IS the road.

If our search for consensus and unity is at all realistic and helpful, it must therefore include a search for whatever objective truths are relevant to the issue at hand.

There are some truths that are subjective, such as my liking fried chicken. One cannot infer that therefore everyone else ought to like fried chicken. On the other hand, if God says that we should not commit adultery, then it becomes an obligation for all of us to avoid adultery. My preference for fried chicken has no objective moral content, whereas God's command does. It is around those objective moral and spiritual realities that we must come into unity and consensus.

If there are such objective truths, then approaching issues as though truth were all relative will simply not work. It will lead to deeper frustration and division. It will also remove any reasonableness from the discussion because there can be no common ground of objective reality about which the discussion is held. The discussion will dissolve necessarily into pitting one's own desires against someone else's -- because our opinions and desires are the only reality. And then all discussion and dialogue becomes a power struggle and mutual manipulation.

In other words, it is precisely the objectivity of truth which saves discussion from falling into power struggle. There is a real truth "out there" to which both sides must submit. And if both sides can admit that they are fallible and could just possibly be wrong, and that the other side just might possibly have something to offer in the discussion, then an honest discussion can be held.

The act of submitting my opinions to objective truth means that I have freed my ego from "having to be right" and instead commit myself to "telling the truth", two quite different things.

If truth is objective, then there can be objectively agreed upon methods for getting at that truth. And that, of course, is what we mean by "science". A body of knowledge becomes a science when it can establish reasonable rules for telling the difference between truth and falsehood in a given area. That is just as true of theology or morality as of physics. Theology used to be called the "queen of sciences" on precisely that basis. It still is.



Faith is perhaps the most misunderstood commodity in the already vastly misunderstood field of religion. Without a proper understanding of faith, there is no hope of understanding much else about life at any deep level. The following understanding of faith undergirds the whole of everything else published on The ROAD to EMMAUS. So get this under your belt before going further. We will often echo these thoughts in other contexts.

All knowledge of reality comes through experience and through reasoning about that experience. That is true of our knowledge of God as of the physical world.

Suppose then we take the following as the meaning of 'faith':

Faith then means something like 'openness to truth -- whatever it is'. Faith is a commitment to truth, to whatever is real.  That is the primal decision we must all make, hopefully at mother's knee.  If we take the above as faith #1, we can suggest at least three other common meanings also:

If we are living our lives according to faith #1, openness to truth, then as we continue, we will have the greatest chance of discovering (#2) who really is trustworthy, and (#3) what really is true about life.

But being finite creatures, we will never have all the evidence in, there will always be some unanswered questions, so life will always be open ended. That means that any decision we make, any belief we have, will to some extent, however small, be a blind leap. But as we continue to live faith #1, openness to truth, faith #4 will diminish because we will begin to "find our way around" in reality. The leap will become increasingly into the light rather than into the dark.  That is just as true of the spiritual life as of our geographical lives. 

This model for faith will hold for any kind of truth seeking, whether in the natural sciences or in religion. It is a model for faith that will, I believe, help us overcome the disastrous split between "reason" and "revelation" which has paralyzed Christendom. We are all equally bound by our finitude and contingency. We all have to deal with objective reality, and with the fact that none of us has it all "taped".

The two basic rules of objective truth-seeking are:

  1. the rule of non-contradiction: a statement cannot be true if it contradicts itself;
  2. the rule of sufficient cause: any event must have a cause sufficient to explain the event.

We all understand these rules intuitively, but they are nevertheless often violated. A fruitful dialogue will pay specific attention to these two rules, and will be agreed that the object is to get the real truth about the matter, and that each side will submit its viewpoint to the judgement of objective reality via the rules of honest dialogue.

The rules of honest dialogue are simply the rules of "science" for that particular subject. If there are no such rules, then there cannot be a meaningful dialogue because without them there can be no meaningful universe and no meaningful knowledge. Everything will again dissolve into guessing and trying to manipulate the other side to agree with one's own view.

Dialogue on Snow's model does not have this clear sense of objective reality about it. Dialogue appears to be defined by opinions and energies within the group, not by the nature of a reality which stands objectively beyond the opinions of the group, and to aim at a kind of jockeying with each other to find a mutual balancing of energies and desires such that none contradicts the other.

That may be a kind of consensus, but it would be very fragile because it is based in the subjective and tenuous agreement of all the constituent parts, not on submission of one's viewpoint to an objective reality which is beyond either party in the dialogue.



What is compassion, then, in such a world of objective reality? If there really is a structure to life, if there really is a given human nature with which we tinker only at great risk, then compassion must include knowing and communicating the truth about that.

Suppose I arrive with a suitcase full of penicilllin at a primitive village which is plagued with pneumonia. I may find the people to be very offended if I recommend my penicillin over their voodoo witch doctor. Some might consider it lacking in compassion were I to tell them that their voodoo will not be nearly as effective as my penicillin. But if compassion includes saving lives even at the risk of hurting some feelings, I will risk offending, perhaps risk my own life, and tell them nevertheless about my penicillin.

In that sense, compassion must operate within the objective realities. Penicillin will cure pneumonia, voodoo will not. It is false compassion that withholds truthful information in order to make some people feel good.



I mentioned above that we must separate our ego from "having to be right" and instead commit ourselves to "telling the truth". This identification of ego with "being right" is very similar to the identification of our ego with "what I do".

A current situation dramatically illustrates this dilemma. Homosexual persons were told in the early 1980's that if they persisted in certain kinds of behavior, they would get AIDS and die. Normally such a warning would scare anyone away from the dangerous behavior. But their response was, often, "You are attacking who I am! My homosexuality is my very nature and being." And so they persisted in their lethal behavior. Today hundreds of thousands of people are dead of AIDS, with hundreds of thousands infected and certain to die. That is clearly compulsive and irrational behavior. But precisely because they identified their being with what they were doing, they could not stop.

And so compassion came to be associated with this identity of being and doing, "who I am" is "what I do". It is now thought to be lacking in compassion to tell a homosexual person that condoms have a terrible failure rate, that there is no safe sex outside of marriage, and that his or her behavior is not a part of his or her being. And so AIDS has the astonishing honor of becoming the world's first legally protected disease. All this is done in the name of compassion for the homosexual.

And to defend this indefensible position, gay activists, supported by the media, tried desperately to find some genetic or biological link to show that "they cannot help what they are doing, it is a biological given."  The alleged biological case has collapsed because no alleged evidence has withstood the test of open examination to support such a claim. And if it turned out to be true, it would not change the moral issue. Behavior does not become morally right by being biologically predisposed (e.g. schizophrenia, dyslexia, or alcoholism).

Once I identify my behavior or my political cause with my very being, I will be compulsively unable to admit that I could be wrong because admission of error will feel like suicide.

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Browning was quoted in The Living Church: "The gay and lesbian community is tired of being treated as an issue. They want to be treated as people."

And indeed, who would not want to be treated as people? But the homosexual people have brought the negative treatment largely upon themselves by refusing to distinguish between who they are and the issues they promote. In effect, they hide their behavior behind claims about their being or their nature, so that critiquing their behavior was seen as critiquing their identity. 



Until we can separate our positions and our behavior from our being, there will be no possibility of honest dialogue.  Who we are is different from what we believe and what we do.  Only in that clear distinction are we ever free to make an honest search for the truth, and to enter into an honest dialogue with others who are also searching for the truth.

Truth is not pluralistic, but proposals and opinions are. Proposals and opinions must submit to truth, whatever it may be.  I do not (contrary to popular opinion) have a "right to my opinion".  Rather, I have an obligation to express the truth, and therefore an obligation to discipline myself to honest truth-seeking and truth-telling.  And to change my opinion accordingly.

Positions and proposals and opinions will win or lose.  But people can all win if the truth is discovered in the testing of positions and opinions.  People cannot win if they are unalterably wedded to their opinions, only if they are willing to submit opinions to open truth-testing.

Compassion is necessarily committed to truth. And truth is necessarily supportive of compassion. At least they are in God's world.  Truth is the structure of love.

The winners are not those who "get their way", but those who find the truth, even when it was not their way.   Winners, those who are set free, are those open to correction.  And the terms of correction are the legitimate terms of the debate and dialogue, the rules of truth-seeking, evidence-gathering, of searching in the context of objective reality for the right, and just, and compassionate conclusion.

** When truth wins, everybody wins. **


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[ Copyright 1996, F. Earle Fox]