‘Like modern existentialists early Quakers emphasised that fullness of truth implies its inwardness’

Thought for the week: Neil Morgan has a truth ache

Martin Heidegger | Photo: by Willy Pragher, 1960 (CC BY SA 3.0)

In my local Meeting there are often discussions about truth, science and religion, revelation, and how we can know things with confidence.

What is truth? Does it reside in the object? In the subject? Or in the relationship between them? People argue that objective truth is set against the personal, the subjective. I would like to share ideas from twentieth-century thinkers that Friends could find useful.

There is a strand in existentialist thinking, from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), that says there is a primordial kind of truth that belongs to the concreteness of existence. But we are not accustomed to considering it. Heidegger underlined an essential difference between viewing truth as ‘correctness’ – as correspondence to the facts – and another sort of truth he called ‘unconcealment’ (aletheia). What did he mean? Heidegger wanted to convey a basic action by which the world is ‘opened up’, ‘disclosed’, and ‘made intelligible’ to a living person. This version of truth, he claimed, was the pre-Socratic one. It was taken over – and thus, for Heidegger, truth was sidetracked down a blind alley. He wanted to get us back to it. He thought the history of philosophy, and theology, emphasised a poorer secondary conception of truth to the exclusion of a primary conception of truth as disclosure of the very materials, the topics of thought and talk, that make up the thinkable. Truth as disclosure is prior to truth as correspondence. This disclosure is what gives content to experience. It ‘opens a clearing for thought’, he said.

There is a close connection between this and early Quaker testimonies. Those also talk about the principle of truth as unconcealement, and of things being unconcealed to them, in the most basic way. George Fox puts this in a shattering, raw way: ‘Now after I had received that opening… And this I knew experimentally’ (Quaker faith & practice 19.02). Like the modern existentialists, early Quakers emphasised that the fullness of truth implies its inwardness. Truth happens when concealments are stripped away, and when things emerge into openness. One way to describe this is in the idea of the necessity for light. To draw out the real (from concealed to unconcealed) requires a certain light – perhaps the kind in which Advices and queries suggests we hold ourselves. ‘It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.’ (Quaker faith & practice 2.12)

For Heidegger this light is an existential being-in-the-world. For Quakers the light is inside, immanent. George Fox saw it, very simply, as coming from God.

Jean-Luc Marion, the French philosopher, talks about how we have gotten truth the wrong way around. It is not we who get hold of the truth. Rather, something takes hold of us. That sounds like George Fox to me.

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