“To know the truth is to enter with our whole persons into relations of mutuality with the entire creation—relations in which we not only know, but allow ourselves to be known.”
Parker J. Palmer in To Know as We Are Known
Twice each month, for more than eight years now, I have participated in a “Socrates Café”—a space where a small group explores what we have come to know and how is it we came to know what we know…our individual and collective epistemologies. During our time together, we try to remain “in the question.” Even sentences ending in periods, extend, rather than end, inquiry and exploration.
A path we have traversed many times over the eight years wends its way around the meaning of truth. In virtually any Socratic journey related to truth we inevitably come to a fork in the road. Is truth, we ask, objective or subjective? Objective truths do not depend on cultural or even individual journeys and experiences. They are universal…shared and honored by all of humanity. To follow the path upon which truth is subjective is to accept that truth can diverge in different parts of the world, in different cultures or even in different people. “Well, that’s my truth” we exclaim, as if that closing salvo wins the day in an argument.
In more than eight years, 200 sessions and 400 hours, we have yet to decide if either or both paths to truth are valid.
I have loved Parker Palmer’s work, wisdom and insights since discovering his book The Courage to Teach more than ten years ago. In an earlier, recently discovered, work To Know as We Are Known, Parker offers a fascinating insight into truth. We mislabel truth, perhaps even do it violence, he suggests, if we use either moniker: objective or subjective.
When we view truth as objective, we build a wall between it and humanity. Objective truth stands alone and apart. We lay claim to truth as an aspect of the Universe outside of us as participants in the play. It is what the scientific method has asked us to believe is the only valid truth. It is a truth outside of, and unchanged by, humanity.
When we see truth as subjective, we may keep our personal relationship to the way we see the Universe, but we separate ourselves from each other. Each of us, bearing our own truth, becomes a beacon unto our individual self. My truth is mine, yours is yours and neither need interfere or intertwine with the other. “Well, that’s my truth” draws a wall between us that may never be pierced.
So if sliding truth gently into either envelope—objective or subjective—serves to separate us, either from the world or each other, what then? It is from this place of confusion that Parker reminds us that the word truth has the same Germanic root as the word troth. As in betrothal, troth is a covenant we make with another in which we understand that our futures together shall be forever intertwined.
So truth, Parker suggests is not an objective or subjective set of facts or opinions. It is instead a covenant we make with each other, and with knowing itself, to explore the world together…opening ourselves to many perspectives…and allowing the possibility of being rendered anew each and every moment as we encounter the world with open minds and hearts. It is to “enter with our whole persons into relations of mutuality with the entire creation.”
If this troth is to be true and honest, the search for truth requires obedience and vigilance—obedience to the covenant into which we have entered and vigilance in our commitment to both know and be known. As with all of life, truth is an often messy, confusing journey…not a clean, well-manicured destination.