‘Are there universal truths and, if so, what is their basis?’

If Truth be told: Bob Lovett’s thought for the week

'If we lose confidence in the reliability of public truth, what is the effect on our processes of discernment?' | Photo: by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

After twelve weeks of shielding, protecting myself and the NHS from the consequences of this pandemic, I welcomed the gradual easing of restrictions. But the messages from the government have become increasingly confusing and at times contradictory. I have been led to reflect on the extent to which my confidence in the reliability of what purported to be the truth has become eroded. Information has increasingly been manipulated, ridiculed or dismissed as fake, and subjected to political and media interference. Normally reliable scientific methods have been questioned, not only in respect of Covid-19 but in other areas of public concern.

In the face of such confusion I looked for clarification within our tradition of being Friends of the Truth. There is much of Truth in Quaker faith & practice, but the more I reflected on my Quaker experiences, the more I came to the conclusion that, of our testimonies, Truth was the one we discussed and explored least. It was as though there was a tacit understanding that Friends know intuitively what Truth is and how it is to be discovered.

I subsequently penned something of a heretical rant, questioning the extent to which our discernment of the Truth had moved on from our early days. I asked whether it was informed by our cultural experiences, and might be a matter of personal perception. My Truth might not be yours. Truths in one culture might not be so perceived in another. Previous cultural experiences may cause us to anticipate certain outcomes in particular situations.

Are there universal truths and, if so, what is their basis and are they constrained by our limited understanding? If we lose confidence in the reliability of public truth, what is the effect on our processes of discernment? I suggested in my rant that we needed to talk about these things.

I shared this initial piece with a number of local Friends respected for their spiritual understanding. To my surprise they responded positively and with valuable insights of their own. They agreed that we needed to talk about these things. In the present circumstances this is difficult. These are sensitive and personal matters which may not lend themselves to Zoom meetings or correspondence. But recent pieces in the Friend by Piers Maddox and Barbara Mark (16 October) brought me to revisit this concern. I hang on in there because I have experienced something beyond myself, but whether it is the same something which others experience I have no idea. Piers says: ‘There’s a sense of connection with others working for a better world… not done with the expectation of reward in heaven… but simply because it’s the right thing to do… the only thing of value you can do, to be a Friend of Truth. The alternative is fakery.’ None of us would wish to be accused of that, but altruism is not the sole preserve of Quakers. Let us be clear in our hearts and minds about what it is that is unique to us as members of the Religious Society of Friends.

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