Truth testimony, promptings of love and truth, truth and Truth… Quakers use this word a lot. We aim to let our yea be yea and our nay be nay (Matthew 5:37), and on the grounds that we always speak truthfully will, for example, refuse to take an oath in court, preferring to affirm. It’s not always easy to tell this kind of daily truth in the world – if the truth is embarrassing, or involves something taboo, or would upset someone, etc. – but it’s usually clear to us what it is, and whether we know something or not. Religious truth is a bit harder.
Sometimes we contrast small-t truth, the everyday kind, with capital-T Truth, the ultimate or transcendent kind. The universalists among us are inclined to say, for example, that all religions contain some truth but none have a monopoly on the Truth. (I think this is a quotation from somewhere, although maybe I’m misremembering it; Google isn’t finding it and I can’t think where I read it.) The first generation of Friends are sometimes called the First Publishers of Truth. William Penn wrote to the first generation of ‘cradle Quakers’, children born to those first convinced Friends, that they would “be possessors as well as professors of the truth, embracing it, not only by education, but judgment and conviction; from a sense begotten in your souls, through the operation of the eternal Spirit and power of God in your hearts … that, as I said before, a generation you may be to God, holding up the profession of the blessed truth in the life and power of it.”
His words resonate today because the key questions – how do we come into the possession of truth, and once we’ve got it, how do we profess it? – are still standing. His suggestions, namely that education, judgement, and conviction all matter and that the Spirit is also at work in such bringing us into the Truth, all seem relevant today, too.
(I’m a bit more dubious about some of the rest of that quotation from Penn – I know that if I looked to the rock of my father, it would include a lot of scepticism around language like “there is no other God but him, no other Light but his, no other grace but his, nor Spirit but his, to convince you, quicken, and comfort you; to lead, guide, and preserve you to God’s everlasting kingdom” – although I agree that it does not suffice for us “that you are the children of the people of the Lord”. Anyway, that’s gone off-topic quite a long way.)
It seems to me that learning the Truth is, by necessity, an ongoing project in any person’s life. It’s not the kind of truth which can be learnt as a list of facts, like the periodic table or the dates of kings and queens. It might be like making a map, which you can draw at different scales and refine and change after a flood, but perhaps it’s also like knowing a garden, not just a matter of remembering which seeds went in where but also about going out regularly and looking at what grew where and what got eaten and noting the weeds and the volunteers. Like cooking, it doesn’t always lend itself to precise measurements but needs to be adapted to what’s in your fridge. Just possibly, it’s like a strange metaphor, encouraging you to look at things in new ways and tending to shift and change if you think about it too hard.
(I didn’t remember until after I wrote this that I did ‘T is for Truth‘ last year as well. It came out quite differently, though.)