I had an experience this past weekend which gave me a new window into the curious phenomenon of different people being absolutely convinced of diametrically opposed opinions. This experience underscored for me just how much our assumptions and biases color our opinions, how much we really do not know with certainty no matter how insistently we proclaim certainty, and how important it is to recognize all this if we want to uncover real truth—including the truth we Course students believe is contained in A Course in Miracles.
It all started when I attended a Friday and Saturday workshop presented by two members of the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars devoted to the task of discerning through historical study what Jesus really said and did, and sharing their findings with the public. They are part of an umbrella organization called the Westar Institute, whose goal is increasing “religious literacy”: educating the public, especially Christians, about the modern understanding of Jesus and Christian origins that has been taught at seminaries for years, but for the most part not shared with the people in the pews on Sundays.
The workshop was on Jesus’ parables, and I enjoyed it immensely. Since this workshop took place in a liberal Christian church, mixed in with the discussion of the parables was a lively discussion of a larger issue: the future of Christianity in light of modern scholarship and other trends. Both workshop presenters expressed with real passion their view of the matter, which could be broadly summed up this way: That old time religion is dead. Given what has been revealed by science, cultural studies, and historical-critical examination of the Bible, the old-style Christianity—with its myths of seven-day creation, virgin births, Jesus dying for our sins and rising bodily from the dead, a literal Armageddon in the End Times, and the promise of eternal life in a Heaven “above”—cannot be taken seriously any longer by intelligent people. Christianity may survive (though one presenter said he didn’t think it would), but only if believers no longer take literally ideas that are not credible for modern people.
As the Monty Python show used to say, “And now for something completely different.” The next morning, I took one of my home care clients to a Southern Baptist Sunday School class he wanted to attend. The pastor took the podium, and to my amazement, he used words strikingly similar to the words used by the Jesus Seminar representatives—only to passionately proclaim the exact opposite conclusion. That old time religion is alive and well. Given the obvious truths of Scripture and the many flaws of modern science and values, things like the theory of evolution and the idea that homosexuality is acceptable cannot be taken seriously by intelligent people who really examine the evidence. Christianity will flourish if we get back to basics and take the Bible literally; it is the only fully credible source of truth there is.
What a bizarre situation! In the course of a single weekend, I had heard two different proclamations that could be summed up in this way: “My viewpoint is so patently obvious that it is the only one intelligent and truly unbiased people can accept.” There was just one small difference: The two proclamations were expressing completely opposite points of view. The whole thing struck me as surreal. How can human beings do this? How can different people be so certain about completely opposite things? Obviously, in cases like this where the conclusions are so starkly opposed, at least one of them has to be wrong. So at least one of the two proclaimers has to be doing quite a feat of mental gymnastics to be so certain about something that is completely wrong. There’s some massively false certainty going on here.
It may sound like I’m picking on these people, but nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, this has led me to reflect on all of the false certainties I myself carry around. A Course in Miracles, in fact, claims that all of us are engaging in this to a much larger degree than we realize. Why? According to the Course, it is a show of bravado aimed at concealing from ourselves the fact that we are actually wracked with doubts. Speaking of our conviction that the physical senses show us reality (and thereby prove that we are frail sinners being punished by the physical world), the Course says that this apparent conviction stems from “underlying doubt, which you would hide with show of certainty” (W-pI.151.2:6). Sure, we have the “evidence” of the senses, but this is cooked evidence. The case we present for the reality of the physical world “seems strong, convincing, and without a doubt because of all the doubting underneath” (W-pI.151.1:6).
I think we do the same thing with all sorts of other ideas. Deep down, all of us feel “helpless and afraid…apprehensive of just punishment…black with sin…wretched in [our] guilt” (W-pI.151.4:5). We walk around looking over our shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, certain that any day now we will be revealed as the frauds we are and get what’s really coming to us. To push these feelings away, we trumpet our certainties, the self-assured convictions that seem to bring sanity and order to our uncertain existence. But underneath, something in us knows we’re just kidding ourselves. The very vehemence with which we proclaim our truths betrays our hidden uncertainty. It is a classic case of “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
All the metaphysics behind our false certainty aside, this weekend has caused me to reflect on the huge gap between how sure we are of ourselves and how little we truly know with certainty. How can we deal with the fact that our own assumptions and biases and agendas have such a strong tendency to color our view of things? How do we come to terms with this seemingly ever-present filter between us and the truth? Is there a way out of the echo chamber of our own minds?
One thing I think we should not do is decide that the echo chamber is all there is. We can’t just throw up our hands and say, “It’s all subjective opinion; there is no truth.” This, I think, is postmodernism run amok; what transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber calls “aperspectival madness.” Unfortunately, this attitude is all too common these days. I see it, for instance, in all those news stories on contentious political issues which consist entirely of summarizing opposing viewpoints—”One side says this; the other side says that”—without ever investigating the crucial question of what in each side’s view is actually true. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman quips that if a representative of one of our political parties announced one day that the earth is flat, the headline in the paper would be “Opinions on shape of earth differ.”
I don’t for a second buy the idea that there is no truth. Just saying there is no truth is self-contradictory, because this statement itself claims to be the truth—oops! Let’s face it: There really are facts. There really are positions that have a great deal more genuine evidence supporting them than others. (Regarding the points of view presented this past weekend, I of course see a lot more evidence in favor of the Jesus Seminar guys, though I don’t agree with them on everything. For instance, I actually agree with the conservative Christians that Jesus literally rose from the dead.) There are actually plenty of things that we can be reasonably certain about—I hope we can all agree on the shape of the earth. In my opinion, to declare there is no truth is not only wrong, but it leads to disaster on a practical level. Without the standard of objective truth, the people who will carry the day are those who are loudest, angriest, and most powerful. Might truly will make “right.”
So, the issue in my mind is: In a world so fraught with false certainty, both our own and others, how can we uncover real truth—both everyday earthly truth and the ultimate truths the Course is proclaiming, if indeed they are true? First, I think we simply need to acknowledge the fact that there’s so much we really don’t know. This is actually a major Course theme (a theme usually paired with the theme of asking the Holy Spirit for guidance, since in the Course’s system He is the One who does know). I used a Course line reflecting this theme as the title of this piece: “Let me remember all I do not know” (W-pII.358.1:5). In the Manual, we are told that the Course beginner simply needs to “accept the idea that what he knows is not necessarily all there is to learn” (M-24.5:9). And the Course is constantly giving us practices like these:
I do not know what anything, including this, means. And so I do not know how to respond to it. And I will not use my own past learning as the light to guide me now. (T-14.XI.6:7-9)
I do not know the thing I am, and therefore do not know what I am doing, where I am, or how to look upon the world or on myself. (T-31.V.17:7)
The Course’s teachings on this theme focus on our lack of knowledge regarding key issues pertinent to salvation: who we really are, how to perceive the world, our purpose for being here, etc. But I think we would do well to recognize that in every area of life—including Jesus scholarship, the validity of the Bible, and for that matter the validity of the Course itself—we don’t know anywhere near as much as we think we do. Even in areas where we have genuine expertise, what we know “is not necessarily all there is to learn”—not even close. A little humility would go a long way.
Second, with this humble and open mindset, I think we need to unabashedly wade into the challenging task of examining the evidence together to move our understanding closer and closer what is true. (I’m speaking here of evidence of all kinds: logical, intellectual, textual, emotional, experiential—you name it.) There really is no substitute for getting our hands dirty in the garden of honest critical inquiry. The Course itself is constantly calling upon us to engage in this task with the Holy Spirit’s help: to set aside our preconceptions, to ask real questions, to weigh evidence fairly, etc. We see references to this process of reasoning in lines like these:
Either God or the ego is insane. If you will examine the evidence on both sides fairly, you will realize this must be true. (T-11.In.1:1-2)
If the meaning of the Last Judgment is objectively examined, it is quite apparent that it is really the doorway to life. (T-2.VIII.5:3)
No one can judge on partial evidence. That is not judgment. It is merely an opinion based on ignorance and doubt. (W-pI.151.1:1-2)
Heaven is chosen consciously. The choice cannot be made until alternatives are accurately seen and understood. (W-pI.138.9:1-2)
Again, these passages and others like them are speaking specifically about applying our reason to issues directly relevant to salvation. But again, I think we would do well to learn how to apply these skills to all areas of our lives.
The good news I see in these passages and others like them is that, at least according to the Course, we really can do this. We aren’t hopelessly trapped in our biases and false certainties. We really can set aside our assumptions to a significant extent, objectively examine the evidence, and allow that evidence to change our minds. Indeed, this happens all the time. For example, in the Jesus Seminar workshop I attended, the presenters noted that many people who entered seminaries as traditional conservative Christians had their minds changed by engaging with the extensive evidence for a very different view of Jesus and Christian origins. We really can escape the echo chamber.
But doing so is not easy, for as the Course says, “No evidence will convince you of the truth of what you do not want” (T-16.II.6:1). I’ve learned through hard experience just how true this statement is. I used to think that if I just presented sufficient evidence for my positions in a clear enough way, I could convince anyone of the truth of what I was saying. Alas, it isn’t so. I’ve found that while evidence can be a powerful agent of mind change, it will bounce right off of anyone who doesn’t want his or her mind changed. There has to be some receptivity to the new information. Otherwise, it just becomes another instance of “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Therefore, the third thing I think we need to uncover real truth is to remind ourselves that truth is what we really want. I think this is the case even with hard truths — though they may be bitter medicine going down, they end up curing the disease of false certainty. We need to realize that truth is in our best interests, so we will be motivated to seek it. If we are motivated to seek it, in the Course’s view we will inevitably find it, because motivation is everything:
Strengthening motivation for change is [teachers’] first and foremost goal. It is also their last and final one. Increasing motivation for change in the learner is all that a teacher need do to guarantee change. (T-6.V.B.2:2-4)
There are lots of good motivations to find and accept the truth, of course, but one that really jumped out for me this weekend was simply love. What do I mean by that? Let me give a couple of examples. Both at the workshop I attended and in a conversation with a friend on Saturday evening, I heard moving stories that illustrated the power of love as a motivation to change one’s mind to what is in my opinion a truer and healthier position. In the workshop, a former Southern Baptist described how he left behind the fire-and-brimstone God who condemned homosexuals to hell when he discovered his own son was gay. In the later conversation, my friend described how a someone she knew let go of Catholic teachings against homosexuality, also because of discovering a gay relative.
These examples are very telling to me. I would guess that prior to these people’s discoveries, no amount of evidence from the Bible or psychology or anything else would have convinced them to accept homosexuality. My biweekly forays into conservative churches have shown me just how entrenched the anti-gay point of view is. But when they discovered someone they loved dearly was gay, they now had a powerful motivation to change their minds. How could they condemn to hell people they loved? How could God love these gay relatives any less than they did? This motivation changed their minds in a way that I suspect no amount of conventional evidence, in and of itself, ever would have. (Notice that I said “conventional evidence.” Actually, this love is itself a form of evidence. It is experiential evidence which leads to logical evidence: Logically, a truly loving God couldn’t possibly condemn these people to hell; He could only love them.)
I think another way we motivate the search for truth through love is simply through engaging in that mutual search for truth in a loving spirit. It seems to me that people are more polarized than ever these days. Whether the topic is religion or politics or anything else, my impression is that people have really dug into their trenches and are lobbing grenades at each other. Open-mindedness and civility seem to be on the wane.
The no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach that seems so popular these days leads naturally to defensiveness. Attack motivates people to remain entrenched in their positions. But to the degree that we can learn to set aside our rancor and discuss our differences in a spirit of love and goodwill, I think we can create an environment where people are much more motivated to seek and find the truth in each other’s perspectives. As we learn how to see our dialogues with one another as a mutually beneficial quest for truth instead of a battle to the death, I think we can come closer to setting aside our false certainty and creating a healthy environment for truth to blossom.
The Course’s promise is that if we will remember all we do not know and open our minds to all there is to know, truth will come. I think this can work on the level of issues like the ones that currently divide the Jesus Seminar and Southern Baptists. But if the Course is right, our reward is much greater than merely resolving theological differences. A mind truly free of false certainty and completely open to the Voice for God will discover the truth that matters most, the truth that will set us free:
It is to this unsealed and open mind that truth returns, unhindered and unbound. Where concepts of the self have been laid by is truth revealed exactly as it is. When every concept has been raised to doubt and question, and been recognized as made on no assumptions that would stand the light, then is the truth left free to enter in its sanctuary….And What you are will tell you of Itself. (T-31.V.17:3-5, 9)