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Credo: The Nicene Creed

6. Interlude on Truth

This series on the Nicene Creed has so far presented five articles on words or phrases in the first article (paragraph) of the Creed. Now I am pausing between articles to consider why anyone who is searching for the truth should bother with the Creed—and why I haven’t addressed this matter earlier. This calls for an exploration of the question “What is truth?” The answer I propose is like a hypothesis and this essay is like an experiment, testing the hypothesis. The hypothesis is:

Truth is something that happens before it is a settled reality.


If the hypothesis is correct, then engaging the Creed, trying to interpret it, could be one way of nurturing an event of truth. Christians claim to be telling the truth when they meaningfully recite the Creed, but nothing is meaningful without interpretation. Truth first arises in a history of interpretations. Then it may settle into an establish form, but only provisionally. New interpretations are always possible.


This essay is not a demonstration of anything in the Creed but an attempt to show something essential to theology: that there is a kind of meaning that is neither scientifically true nor scientifically false and a quality of reality that science doesn't reveal. A different, but related, kind of thinking can reveal it.The difference is important, or religion is a waste of time. The relatedness is also important, or religion gives up any claim to being true. I take a long road through theory and history, so first here's a kind of roadmap:




PART 1, "Proof versus experience," offers some thoughts about proving the existence of God:


A. The impossibility and undesirability of proving that there is such a thing as a god. Any supposed proof only gives you the wrong god, and not just a mistake but an idol at the service of some dominant group.


B. Instead of proof, experiences and interpretations. We live in the midst of a history of interpreted experiences that we call tradition. Tradition includes all the ways we respond to experience, including  stories. Anyone, not just the rich and powerful, can tell stories.


PART 2 , "From the Middle Ages to Babb,Montana," tells a story about what happened when part of the world tried to cut free from tradition


C. Ancient science: A story world. Until the end of the Middle Ages science took ordinary experience at face value. Science and religion had enough in common that they could at least talk to each other.


D. The European Enlightenment, its rationalistic optimism, and its tragic collapse. The Enlightenment thinkers found in the new sciences that were developing a kind of reasoning power that they thought was common to all people. If people could shed all their biases, they would see the truth clearly as if through a window. Wars would cease and humankind would progress both materially and spiritually. But “reason” had its own prejudices. The Enlightenment ended with the opposite of the reasonable, humane world it sought.


E. Cultural imperialism in the New WorldOne of the last projects of Enlightenment thinking was the attempt to change the culture of native peoples so they would “fit in” with the dominant white society. I chronicle the effect of this experiment on the Indian community around BabbMontana.


PART 3, "Is There Such a Thing as Truth," starts with the pessimism resulting from the failure of the Enlightment experiment and looks at a new understanding of truth as something gradually revealed not through a window but in developoing patterns of thought, especially in dialogue with others.


F. Giving up on truth. The saying, “You have your truth and I have mine,” has become common. Some theorists claim that truth is a myth that masks the real motive for our actions, which is to exert whatever power I have to get what I want and avoid what I don't want.


G. A look at a new model of truth seen in the development of science through various paradigms, or patterns of thought. These paradigms look like features of reality until they are questioned as a new paradigm gradually or suddenly becomes active. Reality itself is never grasped except through some pattern of thought. In that sense completely objective truth is not available to us, but, in science at least, there are obvious signs of progress as one paradigm replaces another. So we can reasonably think of truth as a goal that we are approaching.


H. Truth as the goal of dialogue with the other. Paradigms, or patterns of thought, operate in every meaningful activity, not just science. They are what make it possible to have meaning. But we are not just stuck in our paradigms. We do talk to each other. Dialogue brings with it the possibility of changing or blending paradigms. In this way progress is made not only in the natural sciences but also in the search for goodness, beauty, and even God.


PART 4, "Hermeneutics, or Interpretation Theory," examines experiences that challenge accepted ways of thinking.


I. Limit experiences. Limit experiences challenge established patterns of thought, the habitual ways we interpret experience, and call for expression in new ways. The expression might be a new way of acting exemplified most strikingly by a hero, or it might be a classic of literature or some other art form. When we meet the challenge of the classic or the iconic individual, we see that we have always been interpreting; and that raises the possibility of change.


J. The three “worlds” of a classic. These three worlds are: (1) the world behind the classic—its historical context what it meant in that historical context; (2) the world of the classic—what the classic means as an independent entity not limited to the ideas of the author and original hearers; and (3) the world in front of the classic—the world that emerges when a person, with his or her own world, gets involved with, dialogues with, and interprets the classic. The truth of the classic arises with this last world. There is no final interpretation because the world of the interpreter never stops changing.


KFaith and suspicion. No more than science does a “limit,” or out-of-the-ordinary, experience come with a guarantee. Interpretation includes both faith and suspicion, with sometimes one and sometimes the other dominant.


PART 5, "Two Classics and my Interpretations," provides, besides two examples of the way interpretations can lead to broader ideas about what is true, the dubious privilege of listening to me recite a poem and sing a song.


L. “The Raven,” a poem by Edgar Allen Poe and its interpretation.


M. “You’ve Heard My Voice and You Know My Name,” a song and its interpretation.


A Conclusion gets at the point of all this.


N. . A new metaphor, the game of dialogue, replaces the metaphor of looking at reality through a window. The Creed and other classic Christian texts, symbols, and practices may claim to be defining but never final and always needing interpretation. They allow us to name ultimate reality, but only tentatively and with great humility.



PART 1: Proof Versus Experience


A. The impossibility and undesirability of proving that there is such a thing as God


Many more people than Christians believe in one God who is father (or mother), almighty, and creator, as described in the first paragraph of the Creed. Some even claim to be able to prove it. If I were going to prove anything in the Creed, it would surely have been something in that first paragraph; but I haven’t done that.  


In the seminary—ages ago—I was taught about “natural” theology. Supposedly you could use human reason to prove the existence of God and some of God’s qualities. Alongside that was revelation, the things God revealed that are beyond human reasoning—things like God’s choice of the Hebrew people, sending his only Son to save us, the Trinity, and the Church. That was standard Catholic teaching in seminaries then, although questioned by leading Catholic theologians. Now, however, starting out with a proof of God in general and then finding the right story, the right revelation, the right religion, to put God into seems wrong to me.


There are famous “proofs” for the existence of God, and I once thought I could make at least one of them work. Some theologians still claim to be able to prove God one way or another, but I think many more don’t. Some say the traditional “proofs” help explain what we believe about God, but faith has to be there first. That seems right to me, especially since, according to Christian belief, our minds cannot form a clear idea of who or what God is. How can you prove what you can’t even think clearly? And if you could think God clearly, wouldn’t that be like putting yourself, or the categories with which you think, above God? God would be just an instance of such and such an idea in my mind, and that doesn’t sound to me much like something to worship.


Moreover, it occurs to me that whenever you do imagine proving the existence of God, you end up with the wrong god, an idol. It would be a God that exemplified all the best things that we can think of, raised to an infinite degree. That would include, infinite power, infinite knowledge, and infinite value. Sounds great until you realize this God would feel just about right only for those of us who are convinced about our own value, who think we know a lot, and, especially, who have enough power to put that knowledge to our use. It feels good to have a share in all those god-like things. But then we’re just imagining a god that reinforces the place in the world we imagined is ours.


Meanwhile, what about people who don’t have power, who don’t know what we know or who know differently, the people whom the world (that is, we) doesn’t value for what they are but thinks that they need to “develop”? Our god doesn’t do much for these others at all but just reinforces the divisions we (who have the power to do it) make between ourselves and others. If power and knowledge are the main things we know of God, then we who have these attributes are more godly than others, and therefore we belong where we are—and they don’t.


I’ve come around from trying to prove that God exists, to thinking that a god you can prove is both the wrong god and an oppressive idol—an ideological support for the systems of oppression that divide our world into haves and have-not's. This is a god for people who don’t want saving, who are saved already according to their own standards (which they impute to their god). It’s the only kind of god, it seems to me, that you would ever prove. Of course, that god doesn’t exist; or, if it does, you'd have to take sides against it. I don’t know how you would prove a different kind of god. Proving itself is an exercise of a kind of power.


B. Instead of proof, experiences and interpretations.


But if you started with a story—such as ones from the religious traditions I’m familiar with—of a god whose heart was moved by the plight of some slaves in Egypt or a god who took up existence on this earth as a helpless baby in a poor family among an oppressed people, you might find that the very idea of power gets transformed by the story. You’d have a god for people who know they need saving, a god who just might mix things up in this world and be OK with somebody else mixing things up. You wouldn’t be able to say, “Of course, this god exists”; but this god would never cease being an important question. Good stories are always questions.


Good stories are questions, or quests, that arise from experience, and anyone, not just the rich and powerful, can tell a story. Experience (not proof) and how that experience is interpreted through many means, including stories, is the starting point for much modern theology. I think just about anyone’s faith in God starts with experience and stories rather than proofs. We are historical beings in community, and our history, especially the history of our community’s interpretations of experience, which we call tradition, is the start—not necessarily the end—of each person’s individual story.


PART 2: From the Middle Ages to BabbMontana


C. Ancient science: a story world


One time when I was hiking a mountain trail in Montana's Glacier National Park I got to a point on a pass where a breathtaking view of a valley opened out before me. It felt like the setting for a story, and with just a few more steps I’d be in the story. (My experience may have been shaped by having read recently "The Ethics of Elfland" by G. K. Chesterton, who was finding in the fairy tales that he grew up with a reason for eventually turning to belief in God.) As I hesitated, the feeling passed into memory, and the story never materialized, or I missed it if it did.


A world ready for a story is exactly the way pre-modern science—I'm thinking of ancient Greek philosophy but it's more universal than that—interpreted people’s experience. Actually, it’s the world that anyone’s experience, even today, seems to give, but in ancient Greece it was validated by the era’s most sophisticated scientific thinking. Today’s science doesn’t do that.


The world as pre-modern science saw it is a world of shapes, colors, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, even values. You had a place in that world with a real up, down, and sideways. It wasn’t just a point on an arbitrarily arranged three-dimensional grid. You could move or stop, and there was a real difference between the two; motion wasn’t all relative. Anything that moved had a goal—to come to rest in the place where it belonged.


Stories made sense in that world, and there were many different kinds of stories. Some had many gods actively involved (like the ancient myths). Some had one divine being in a state of perfect rest and unconcern (like Aristotle’s Mind thinking only itself). The Christian story wasn’t a perfect fit for any of these stories, but then, if it had been, what would have been Christianity's point?


By the end of the Middle Ages all the things that make for a good story began to disappear from the scientific worldview until, in today’s scientific view, all these story elements are lost:

  • Setting: There is no up, down, and sideways apart from one’s point of view.
  • Plot: Motion is all relative, and there is no purpose, no place where things belong.
  • Character: Nothing is as it appears to be and we’re all made out of the same basic stuff—atoms and, below that, leptons, bosons, and quarks and such. Even these things don’t really have qualities; they just follow laws described by mathematics, which deals only with quantities.

Christianity could interact with a story like Plato’s or Aristotle’s and did quite respectably up through the Middle Ages. But there’s not much in the new scientific picture for the Christian story either to agree or to argue with. There’s not much story there. That moment when I was on the mountain and could almost feel a presence or an anticipation of a climax or major turning point in a story passed, and the real world that re-imposed itself seemed duller. In the Middle Ages and before, reality was not dull.


D. The European Enlightenment, its rationalistic optimism, and its tragic collapse


That Medieval reality may have been too exciting for the Enlightenment thinkers who followed. It was a product of experience, and everybody’s experience is different from everybody else’s. In particular, the common experience of one group, which leads to its particular culture and religion, is different from that of another group. History shows that cultural and religious wars resulted. The Enlightenment aimed at a more reasonable reality.


Reality as pictured by today’s science seems impressive, intricate, huge (whether more so than in some ancient visions is not at all certain). It’s also exciting, but in a different way from formerly. Science is an adventure of discovery. Technology is the adventure of conquering, being conquered by, or, hopefully, learning to live with beings and forces around us. I felt the excitement of this adventure as a child reading the quarterly supplements to our family encyclopedia. There was always something new going on in science. This new world started around the 17th century in Europe, an exciting age of rationalistic optimism spurred by the successes of the scientific enterprise and world conquest.


It was the new-found ability to describe reality mathematically that gave science its power. Of course a lot of what we normally take as real cannot be described mathematically, including our experiences of color, sound, taste, smell, and touch. (There are mathematical ways of describing what appears to us as color, sound, etc., but not our experience of these things. We don’t experience light or sound as waves that we can count and measure, for example.) Experience isn’t describable mathematically and so is considered subjective and possibly not even real.  The objective, real parts of things are their spatial dimensions, their mass, their movements, and the forces by which they interact with other things.


This new scientific reasoning was enthroned during the Enlightenment. It promised an unbiased view of reality, as if through a clear window—a popular metaphor up to today. In summer of 2012 after the long-awaited discovery of the sub-atomic particle the Higgs boson, a scientist commented, “Mathematics really does provide a window on reality.”


Reason also promised in those early days to be a friendlier ruler than anything tradition had to offer, including—especially—religion. Europe had been exhausted by a series of religious wars. Religion had led to these conflicts, Enlightenment thinkers reasoned, because religious movements were bound to the particular times, places, and cultural thought patterns of their founders. Different cultural origins inevitably pitted one religion or sect against another. But human reason, it was believed, was universal, the same for everybody. Reliance on reason would break down the barriers that religion had sustained between people. Reason seemed to hold the promise not only of technical, material advancement but also of harmony and spiritual progress. Progress was the theme of a new, very different kind of story.


The Enlightenment was an age of material and spiritual as well as rational optimism. Different thinkers held opposing views about God and reality. Various thinkers thought that by reason they could prove or disprove the existence of God; but, with or without God, they thought they could identify by reason alone just what makes for a good human life.


There were religious conservatives, especially in the Catholic Church but also in some Protestant groups, holding on to old orthodoxies. But a liberal Protestant movement advanced in a new direction. Older orthodoxy, sometimes called fundamentalism, still hangs on, but many of today’s most respected theologians, my favorites, are heirs to the new movement that began in the Enlightenment.


Early liberal Protestant theologians. A couple centuries back, some theologians recognized that Christianity’s old scientific partner in dialogue had disappeared. So they embraced the new rationalism and applied it to the study of the Bible. This was the beginning of the age of “quests for the historical Jesus.” Close analysis of Biblical texts showed a process of composition that was at least as much human as divine. The dependence of one text on another could be detected as well as the way one biblical author would alter an earlier text to speak to a different situation or from different point of view. The Jesus-questers believed they could dig through  layers in a text to find the earliest written and even oral sources for information about Jesus. From this they constructed new biographies of Jesus.


The quest with its rational methods—but not the original biographies—has remained an important part of modern theology. For the early practitioners Jesus turned out to be a figure very much in line with their own worldview—a teacher of modern (i.e. 18th and 19thcentury) moral ideals including freedom, equality, and the “family of man” (echoes of the French Revolution’s “libertÚ, ÚgalitÚ, fraternitÚ”). Jesus was not a wonder worker. The miracles stories that abound in the New Testament were all made out (incorrectly, we now know) to be late additions. Neither was Jesus a prophet of a new world, a Kingdom of God, to come about by a sudden divine intervention. Rather, Jesus looked forward to a steady, progressive realization of the human potential for good. Jesus was an early proponent of the philosophy of material and spiritual progress not by divine power but by a historically inevitable process in which people gradually learned to follow the way of reason and overcome traditional biases. Such a modern mindset existing in the first century, I think, would have been a greater miracle than anything Jesus is reported to have done.


The tyrannies of the French Revolution in the name of those reasonable ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity” had to be ignored for this story of moral progress to be believable. But maybe those were just an aberration in the march of history. (Across the Atlantic American patriots had already done things better, at least from some perspectives.) Ignored also, for a while, were the liberal Bible scholars’ own biases with which they interpreted the life of Jesus.


Albert Schweitzer dealt a blow to the latter ignorance. In a 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Using liberalism’s own techniques, he showed how un-modern, but rather first-century Jewish, Jesus really was. The history of the 20th century destroyed the former ignorance. Already with the First World War and definitely by the end of the Second, na´ve optimism about moral progress was no longer possible. In the 20th century the optimistic Age of the Enlightenment came crashing down in a series of “if only’s”:


┬Ě       If only it hadn’t been “enlightened” Germany initiating two world wars and undertaking the cleansing of the human race with the holocaust;

┬Ě       if only it hadn’t been civilized United States using nuclear weapons against civilian populations for the first two, and only two, times in history;

┬Ě       if only it hadn’t been the entire technologically, intellectually and supposedly spiritually advanced Western world bringing the world one ecological crisis after another;

┬Ě       if only these travesties (and more) could have been blamed on some benighted corner of the Southern or Eastern world…


If only all of these things, then, perhaps, we might believe whoever today is still saying, “Just give reason a chance to make a better world.” In the 20th century, while science was making its greatest conquests ever, confidence in reason’s ability to solve problems outside of the sphere of science fell. On the European continent Existentialism replaced rationalism in philosophy. Neo-orthodoxy replaced liberalism in religion. In Britain and America philosophy largely confined itself to analyzing language. All three of these were formidable intellectual endeavors. Still secular skepticism or religious fideism presided over an increasingly pessimistic intellectual scene. At least in some parts of the world, the Enlightenment story was over.


In some parts, but not all. So we bring the story around to Babb,Montana.


E. White cultural imperialism in the New World.


In North America’s dominant group, people of European descent, rationalistic optimism held on. The story of limitless, inevitable progress was still being told. The United States is the only country in the world whose life coincides with the Enlightenment faith in progress, so I imagine it was harder for us to give that up.


A big question was what to do about the indigenous peoples of “our” (speaking here from a white point of view) land. These people told different stories that had nothing to do with progress. Confident that our story was right, we embarked on another of the horrors of the 20th century. We began an experiment at “improving” those native cultures, replacing the various stories in which they found meaning with the American, or Enlightenment, story. I see the continuing consequences of this experiment in BabbMontana, and surrounding area, where I live in the summer; but, of course, it was the same all over, and not just in the U.S. but notably in Canada and Australia as well. The United States government decided to “Americanize” the Indian people by taking children away from their families, out of their culture, and raising them to be “Americans” in white-run boarding schools.


The assumption was that culture is something that you can take off and replace easily. In that same way the previous Enlightenment thinkers believed tradition could be replaced by reason. Another assumption: Anyone, by reason’s light, could see how superior the white culture was.


What this experiment left was:

  • parents, who knew how to raise children, but without any children to raise. Taken away from them was what almost anyone considers the primary purpose of life;
  • children without parents and therefore without the knowledge and traditions needed to raise their own children;
  • problems of alcohol, drug, and sexual abuse magnified beyond what other communities experience by the lack of coping mechanisms that culture, tradition, and intact families could have provided. (From stories that Indian women of Babb tell and from observing the sexual abuse that has occurred in the setting of an ordinary parish, I have to believe that sexual abuse was prevalent in those boarding schools, many of which were operated by religious institutions.)

We have since seen the error of our ways. From overconfidence in the power of reason, many went to the opposite extreme.


PART 3. Is there such a thing as Truth?


F. Giving up on truth


One of the few times I attempted to use my degree in philosophy in a classroom—in fact, the only class called Philosophy that I ever taught—was with a group of social workers in Great Falls, Montana. They needed continuing education credits and didn’t care much where they got them. All were middle aged women, older than I. None of them would you imagine as part of the avant guarde of radical thought.


I could not convince these women that there was such a thing as objective truth. “What’s true for me might not be true for you and vice versa,” they would say. They had somehow absorbed the lesson of the Enlightenment’s overreaching on behalf of reason and the awful things that have been done in the name of truth—to say nothing of religion. I could not convince them that they had overlearned it.


That was in the late 1970’s. A few years later I was in Minnesota taking a class for my elementary education degree in the Human Relations Department at St. Cloud State University. Here I was with folks who actually were, or thought they were, in that avant guarde of radical thought. One professor told his students that we must put power in place of the “fiction” of objective truth. Instead of right and wrong, there is only what I want and what I don’t want.


We had tried to make “good Americans” out of the native peoples of this land. Consciously or unconsciously, we “wanted” to turn them into good consumers like us. Maybe it wasn’t quite that cynical. Maybe we felt we needed (a euphemism for “wanted”) to carry what used to be called the “white man’s burden.” We felt obliged to assist less developed cultures progress to our advanced level. Less cynicism there was in that, perhaps, but certainly just as much pride, a whole lot of self-satisfaction, and just enough self-delusion. The things we want don’t necessarily have to be very practical. My St. Cloud State professor would have said the ideas of right, or better, or true, when it comes to these ways, these values, are only tools we use in the power games we play. He might have added that they work best when we ourselves don’t know that’s the game we’re playing.


You can guess I disagree with these pessimists. I call them pessimists because I can’t think of worse situation than for everyone to accept the idea that power is the only factor in relations among people. What hope would there be for those without power then? But there’s a kernel of truth and a moral intensity in this rejection of truth. The fact is that the idea of an objective truth or an objective standard has often been used, just as my professor said, as a tool to justify those who are in a position to say, “We have it; we know what’s right and wrong, and we’ll hand it on to you, by force if necessary.” It’s even more powerful if we can say it and sincerely believe it—which is exactly what success inclines us to do. Of all the world’s people, the rich and powerful have the greatest interest in deceiving themselves about right and wrong.


“I have my truth and you have yours” is a response to this misuse of the concept of truth. It recognizes—correctly—that there is no truth, idea, fact, or belief that is not part of a system or pattern of thought; that these patterns are not the same for everybody; that we have our various perspectives on reality in part defined by our different patterns of thought. What is missing in this response is the fact that we do talk to each other and the sense that it is possible, even obligatory, to take the perspective of another, as best we can.


This is actually happening in much theology today: feminist theology for the perspective of women; black and Native American theology for their different perspectives; and the whole movement toward dialogue among various Christian denominations and between Christians and other major faiths such as Islam and Buddhism. “Liberation” theology, one of the earliest and most influential of these movements, took the perspective of—and tried to learn from—the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. It began in Latin America and spread to the rest of the world. It is now a powerful influence not only in other poor regions but also in the major theology centers in Europe and North America. Slowly we are discovering the lives, the struggles, the hopes, and the sense of integrity—in short, the stories—of the poor and are finding there important keys to understanding ourselves, our world, and God.


Are we just changing perspectives or are we also getting closer to the truth about ourselves and how we relate to the world and God (if God exists)? Is there perhaps no such thing as truth? Or is truth something other than what we naively imagine? I propose to answer this last question “Yes. Truth is very different from a fact that is out there to be seen as if through a window.” That, I believe, makes it possible to give, at least sometimes, an affirmative and non-oppressive answer to the first question: Are we getting closer to the truth?


I’ll first look at truth operating in the natural sciences. We might think it’s the business of science to look very intensely at the world around us and, if we manage to get an optimum view, a clear enough window, then we have the truth. It’s not as simple as that. What we find when we look at how science actually operates will turn out to be applicable, with some modifications, to any way of dealing meaningfully with the world, ourselves, each other, and God.


G. The story of the development of science through various paradigms, or patterns of thought.


The idea that truth (or any belief) involves some perspective or other seems odd if applied to modern science, a discipline that tries very hard to be free of any particular person’s perspective. Science, with its scientific method, is a European, first-world invention that has spread to the rest of the world much more effectively than liberation theology has been able to move in the other direction. But how objective is science’s “truth”?


I would have thought this to be an odd question if I had heard it when I was devouring books on science as a youngster. Surely the science I was reading told me the way reality is. I was what is called a na´ve realist. I imagined that between an idea and its counterpart in the world there’s a pretty straightforward relation, like a sign or an arrow pointing from one to the other, like looking at the world through a window. But a look at science’s own story gives a different picture.

Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science, has shown that science proceeds in two different ways. There is normal development and there are more fundamental changes that he calls revolutions. People have argued about how revolutionary these latter changes are, but there’s no doubt that some of the changes that science has undergone amount to fundamental revisions in the sorts of things we take for granted about our world. These revisions are sometimes called “paradigm changes.” A paradigm is a pattern of thinking that seems so obvious that we don’t realize it’s a way of thinking at all but merely assume that that’s the way the world is. Here are a few such paradigms and key proponents of each:

  • Aristotle—The world is a hierarchy. Lower, less perfect parts here on earth seek to imitate the greater perfection of the higher parts in the heavens by their cyclic movements, the "circle of life.". Stars and planets move in perfect circles through the sky, imitating the even greater perfection of the unmoving God. Aristotle’s image for reality is the organism functioning purposefully.
  • Newton—The world is a system governed by laws that operate the same way everywhere. There is no hierarchy, no up or down. Space is a three-dimensional grid that can be oriented any way we choose. Space is a featureless container for Earth, other planets, and stars, all of which are made of the same kinds of stuff. Newton’s image for reality is the machine functioning unconsciously.
  • The Theory of Relativity (Einstein)—Space and time, which Newton and all previous thinkers thought of as absolute and independent, interact with the things that move in space and time. Space can be squeezed and stretched. Time flows at different rates for different observers. The speed of light is the only absolute. Einstein’s image of reality is a flexible four-dimensional space-time field.
  • Quantum Mechanics (Max Planck and others)—There is a fundamental uncertainty in reality and not just in our knowledge. For example, there is a 50% chance that a uranium atom will decay into something else in 4 billion years. These uncertainties average out into near certainties in the world that we can see so that, to use the same example, beyond any reasonable doubt, if you have a gram of uranium today, you'll have one-half gram left in 4 billion years (if you can keep it that long!). The image of reality is a field of probabilities.

 It’s interesting to speculate about what a “truth” in one of these systems would mean it you transposed it to an earlier one. Let’s see . . . .

  • Galileo says the earth moves. In Aristotle’s perspective this would have meant the end of the world or at least a very earth-shaking experience.
  • Einstein says moving objects get shorter in the direction of their motion as they approach the speed of light. When I did a report on Einstein for a high school physics class, I looked up relativity in the public library in Kaukauna (my Wisconsin home town) and found a book that tried to put this phenomenon into the older non-relativistic framework. The author proposed that space is a kind of material medium that squeezes objects when they start moving really fast.
  • Quantum Mechanics’ probability fields looked to Einstein—as he famously said before he came around to the idea—like God playing dice with the universe.

In every case there’s an element of “your truth” not fitting with “my truth” so I have to reject it or change it.  But science moves on. When it’s impossible or unreasonable to fit new observations into old systems, the paradigms change. What didn’t even make sense before seems normal now. This “seeming normal,” though, is really the way we have of forgetting that a paradigm is a pattern of thought. We assume it’s a pattern of reality.

What this little history shows is that knowing the world is not much like looking out a window to see what’s there. We are active partners in the scientific results that we and the world bring about. The questions we ask and the procedures with which we investigate affect the answers we get.  Even with the methods that modern science has given us, methods designed to eliminate as much as possible the subjective element in our investigations, we are still investing the world with our patterns of thought; and those patterns have not shown any sign that they will ever stop changing.

That these patterns are changing for the better seems obvious. Newer theories cover more observations than older ones, and they definitely give us more power. Now we can imagine a new concept of truth—truth as a goal that may never be reached; but we can tell when we’re getting closer.

H. Truth as the goal of dialogue with the other.

When we try to understand ourselves, our relationships with others, the world, and God, we are also dealing with patterns of thought, with paradigms. The things we believe make sense because and only because they fit into certain thought patterns. Thought patterns are not the same for everybody everywhere. A particular belief either gets misinterpreted or makes no sense at all in a different thought pattern. Transmigration of souls (Hindu and other cultures), dream time (Australian Aborigine), third eye (Hopi)—all of these, I think, are simply wrong as typically understood when New-Age popularizers take them over into our modern American or Western culture. I hesitate to accuse a Hindu, an Aborigine, or a Hopi of being wrong, though. I would have to do some serious paradigm work first.

The basic technique for that paradigm work is dialogue. In dialogue, with a person or a book, perspectives can change. I have in mind some examples that show what paradigm changes might look like:

1. Ecology. People of good will necessarily see that we should take care of the natural environment, but there is a paradigm shift going on concerning the reason why. The old paradigm is represented in our society abundantly and well, even from a personage as high as our previous pope with his “green” reputation. Benedict XVI wrote much about care for creation “from within an older anthropocentric paradigm; the ecological issues are treated almost entirely in terms of present-day human concerns.” So says Fr. Donal Dorr in a largely favorable review of the pope’s thinking. He continues:

What is needed today, however, is a kind of Copernican revolution leading to a major paradigm shift. We need to locate all our human concerns—and especially our approach to economics—within the far wider context of an ecological and cosmic vision. (quoted by Sean McDonagh in “Church’s Teaching on Ecology Still Light Green,” National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 2031.http://ncronline.org/blogs/eco-catholic/churchs-teaching-ecology-still-light-green)


My impression of the new Pope Francis, who mentioned care for creation four times in one sermon, is that he may have turned to this new paradigm. 

2. Charity and justice. This example shows how my thinking about an important issue changed. I was helped by the American Catholic Bishops and their pastoral letter “…And Justice for All,”  marking the U.S.bicentennial. I’ll describe someone else's more recent experience of the same change. An interreligious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists ended with each participant telling what new thought or way of thinking he or she gained from the encounter with another perspective. Here is the contribution of Abe Maseo, a Japanese Buddhist, as David Tracy, my favorite theologian, told it (edited by me; his sentences were even longer!):

As a Buddhist living in Japan, a very homogeneous society, which on the whole does not accept even pre-Japanese indigenous people, the Ainu, and does not accept particularly well the Korean people, who have lived there for even three and four generations, I always tried to have compassion for any Ainu person I met, or any Korean, and tried to help them. What Christians have taught me is that maybe the Buddhist virtue of compassion isn’t enough on its own; maybe, like Christian liberation theologians worrying about how love works through justice, as a Japanese, I also have to work to change the unjust structures of Japanese culture that cause this suffering. (Speech by David Tracy at Sacred Heart University,  FairfieldConnecticut, March 24, 2010, on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_fu1bp25Y4)


If I operate with Buddhist compassion or Christian charity, I can easily be acting like a superior toward an inferior. I happen to have more, and I choose to be generous to someone who happens to have less. I can feel good about performing a meritorious work beyond what moral rules require. Justice, on the other hand, in the newer paradigm, sees that I am part of a system of past and present oppression, causing and intensifying the inequalities between people. These don’t just happen (and they aren’t the fault of the oppressed). I am morally bound to take sides with the other. It's not an option for the "do-gooder" anymore.

3. History, past and dead or alive in the present. This final example of a paradigm change is from my own experience. It was my high school freshman year, and the spring musical extravaganza was a blackface minstrel show. Every year there was a spring musical, and every few years the musical was blackface. The choir was made up to be “Negroes.” There were three main characters—Amos, Andy, and Mr. Interlocutor. Mr. Interlocutor was the only white character. Not long after this performance, school leaders told us there would be no more blackface shows. The growing civil rights movement was raising consciousnesses in the country. It was 1961.

I was disappointed. I could not see any disrespect toward black people in the show. After all, two of the three main characters were black, and they were the most likable. With their foolish antics they continually perplexed Mr. Interlocutor. I don’t think anyone in the show or the audience thought it was anything but fun.

Eventually I did come to see whites in blackface as offensive. It was a paradigm shift. What was right or at least OK in one way of thinking was wrong in another. The difference between the two paradigms isn’t just the sensitivity or lack of it toward the stereotyping of the Black characters. You can still see on the internet people complaining: If it’s OK to stereotype whites, why is it politically incorrect to do the same to blacks. It misses the most important point—the role that historical and current discrimination plays in the appreciation of what we call entertainment. One paradigm says that a show just is what it is; forget everything else. The other paradigm says we take our current situation and our history with us into the auditorium. One says each day is a new beginning; the sins of the past are past. The other says we carry our past into our future. The past of the black people in this country includes the blackface minstrel as part of the oppression they experienced. No such past exists for whites.

In that audience and cast together there were no blacks. Probably most of the whites there would have disapproved of racial discrimination. Yet we were all engaged in a kind of entertainment that no blacks could have enjoyed. It would have said to them wordlessly but as effectively as a sign in bold letters:


But that’s looking at it from a black person’s point of view. We didn’t know we were shouting "Keep out!" because, to the extent that we had gotten beyond conscious prejudice, skin color did not take a meaningful place in our perceived reality. We couldn’t grasp the thought that a different color would have a different perspective. When it did dawn on us—whether in confrontation with the Black Power movement or reading Black Like Me or in some other encounter—that’s when paradigms changed.

I would say that’s when my world was enriched. In all three of these examples I see progress toward what I would call truth. It’s not as clear as in science (and even in science it’s not perfectly clear). There’s always disagreement. Some Internet bloggers still say there’s nothing wrong with blackface. Some can’t or won’t see current social and economic systems as unjust and oppressive. Some ridicule environmentalist “tree huggers.” In our lazy moments or just to end an argument, we might say, “You have your truth and I have mine”; but the discussion never really does end. In our better moments we recognize the other as other and give him or her a respectful distance, but in our best moments we don’t leave it at that. We engage the other. We put ourselves at risk. We want to know, even though it means we might have to change our minds on a particular topic or even change our whole way of looking at the world, of perceiving goodness and beauty, of thinking about God.

PART 4. Hermeneutics, or Interpretation Theory

I. Limit experiences

Back in 1974 I titled my philosophy dissertation “The Critique of the Given.” That may be the only valuable phrase in all of its hundreds of pages. It means there is no firm foundation for the edifice of knowledge that we have built up. We don’t experience a "given" first and then interpret it. We’re interpreting all the while. Nothing is simply given without our doing something. Experience is always interpreted experience.

For the most part we cruise along on automatic pilot, experiencing our world along the lines of well-established categories, patterns of thinking—paradigms—like the scientist doing normal science. We have names for some of the major concepts of our paradigm, names like freedom, justice, individual, progress, rights, duties, and many others, some of which we seldom or never think of. All of these have their standard interpretations, which, since we’re on automatic pilot and not running into any obstacles, we take not as patterns of thought but as patterns of reality.

But some experiences jolt us out of automatic pilot. These are limit experiences, so-called because they force us to recognize as possible things we would have thought impossible before; attitudes, ways of being in the world, that would have been unthinkable or ridiculous before now make sense and maybe are even commanded. The memory of a figure hanging on a cross makes sense of another memory of what he once said: “Love your enemy.” An encounter with Native American culture reveals a world of harmony rather than competition; and a life in, not above, nature becomes a possibility. A tragedy is endured or barely avoided, and a rich person discovers that the beauty that one has without cost means more than possessions earned.

Probably the most common response to such limit experiences is to change one’s way of living, but the response may also come in symbolic form, images, metaphors, poems, stories, myths. Just as one can’t change one’s life without being noticed, so these symbols beg to be shared publicly, whether with a small or a large public—maybe only a story around a campfire or maybe a scroll or a book that endures for ages. Whoever that public is then shares in the experience—shares in by interpreting, of course.

Can we interpret all the way back to the originating experience expressed in that moving scroll or book or way of acting. To answer that question the science of interpretation, named “hermeneutics” after the Greek messenger god Hermes, was born.

There are two answers to the question. The first answer is: “No. There is no way to recover precisely someone else’s experience.” The quest for the historical Jesus was one of the first projects of this science of interpretation. In its original form it failed miserably because of the biases of the early Enlightenment scholars. The 20th century saw greater success in understanding Jesus in his own first-century, Mediterranean, Jewish context. But questions about how Jesus actually understood himself and his mission remain and will always remain. We will never completely understand another person’s psyche, especially not one who lived 2000 years ago.

The second answer is: “There are two other things that we can do that are more important than a mere repetition of another’s experience or insight.” First, we can separate the communication from the communicator. Here the insight is that the things we say by words or actions often mean more than we ourselves know. Second, we can bring ourselves, our experience, and our insights to the encounter—now turned into a dialogue—and risk the creation of something really new.

J. The three worlds of a classic

The word “classic" is much abused lately. It’s liable to be used to label just about anything from Coke-a-Cola to early rock music. I think of a real classic as anything that I can respond to appropriately only with some kind of change—in attitude, behavior, or way of seeing myself and the world. It doesn’t have to be recognized by the rest of the world, though that kind of recognition, especially if it’s lasting, is a good clue.

When you interpret, or dialogue with, a text—so say the experts on hermeneutics—there are three “worlds” to consider: the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world in front of the text.

The world behind a text is the world of the author. To understand this world we have to set aside our biases and look as objectively as we can at a world that may be very different from ours, especially if it’s an ancient text. For a few centuries now Bible scholars have worked hard at this task. Though it can’t be done perfectly, scholars, especially in the later 20th century and on, have in fact made a lot of progress at getting rid of misinterpretations. The goal is to discover what the text probably meant for the author of the text and its original hearers and readers. We can’t discern this world perfectly, but what we can find out serves as a useful control over the guesses we make concerning the next two worlds.

The world of a text is simply the story it tells. Paul Ricoeur, a leading theorist in hermeneutics, says the act of expressing something puts a distance between an author and the thing expressed, sets it free on a career of its own. A text is independent from its historical conditions and even from the author’s own ideas about it. It has a meaning that can be reconstructed and appreciated in any age. To understand this world we have to know the meanings of words and phrases as used by the author and the literary forms and genres that the author uses. Historical background can be helpful. For example, Jesus says, “No one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:39) It helps to know that in Jesus’ day no one would ever say old wine is good because old wine usually soured. Jesus must have been speaking ironically (a very ancient literary form). Probably he was criticizing those who were so used to their old ways that they could not accept the new way that Jesus in Luke’s gospel presents. This is what Luke wrote; it's part of the world of the text. Why he wrote it may be an interesting historical investigation. Did Luke’s readers also have a problem accepting Jesus’ new way? But for the world of the text, we don’t need to know that. As we read, we imagine an author without knowing these historical details; and we imagine hearers of the story. These are called “implied author”  and “implied hearer.” These, but not the real historical figures, are an important part of our understanding of the world of the text.

The world in front of the text is not just “our” world, the world as the modern reader sees it. The whole point of a classic is that it is able to change our perception of the world. The world in front of the text is the world as shaped by the encounter of the text with its modern interpreter. It’s a mutual give and take between text and interpreter, where each contributes to a new whole. It is this world, a formerly impossible but now possible way of being for the world and the self, that is the primary referent of a classic. This is what a classic is about. There are huge implications for the interpretation of classic religious texts like the Bible and the Creed. Because history never stops, the meaning of a classic text, one that is able to speak to many worlds, is inexhaustible and to some extent fluid. You never get to the end of interpreting a classic.

K. Faith and suspicion

A scientific theory does not come with a guarantee; neither does an experience, not even a limit experience, and neither does any interpretation. In both science and experience-with-interpretation there can be progress toward truth, but such progress is not guaranteed. Science can come closer to a guarantee because a scientist can see more phenomena being explained and measurably more power made available. Even so, scientific progress is not completely objective. Non-objective considerations, like aesthetics, come into play: Theories have an abstract kind of beauty (to a scientist, anyway), and scientists tend toward theories that seem to them more beautiful.

In the interpretation of a literary classic, a work of art, or a person’s way of acting, there are criteria, but they lean much more toward the non-objective side. Here are some examples of reasoning in the values area:

  •        She doesn’t really care about the environment; she just wants to make a name for herself.
  •        The Civil War wasn’t fought over the issue of slavery; it was all economics.
  •        This isn’t literature; it’s propaganda. 

These three are examples of hermeneutics of suspicion. Sometimes hermeneutics of suspicion is exactly right. It’s a valid tool even when interpreting religion. There are sections of the Bible that one needs to suspect if one wants to stay decently human. For example, there are stories of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, where the author claims that at the command of God whole cities were slain. On the other hand, some sections are more acceptable to contemporary attitudes than they sound. Paul, expecting an imminent end of the world, told slaves not to try to change their state. Before criticizing Paul for this, try this hermeneutic of suspicion on what the text seems to mean to us: It wasn’t because Paul approved of slavery but because he thought Jesus would return soon and inaugurate God’s reign, so slavery wouldn’t last very long anyway.

Hermeneutics of suspicion digs into the world of the author, the world behind the text, to see why the author wrote in such a way. There can always be disagreement. Some people love Ayn Rand’s Foundation Trilogy. I would apply hermeneutics of suspicion and call it pure right-wing propaganda.

Interpretation includes faith and suspicion with sometimes one and sometimes the other predominant. Hermeneutics of faith might go like this: 

  •      Something in my experience resonates with what I see, hear, or read here.
  •      I can’t judge a person’s motives for writing this, painting that, or acting in such and such a way. I just know I have to wrestle with what I find here.

PART 5. Two classics and my interpretations

The texts that I want to interpret now are not religious classics. My purposes are broader than religion—to illustrate the idea that truth is not an object of seeing but a goal approached in the encounter of different perspectives; to show that this kind of search is carried on in other areas of life besides science; and to affirm again that here too there is progress. I chose texts about which I can feel I’m contributing something original. That would be much harder for me if I chose a selection from the Bible. Of that I’ve read perhaps too much of others’ interpretations. But if it's possible to approach the truth by interpreting texts like these two, then the same is possible with the Bible, the Christian Creed, or any classic religious text.  

L. “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe and its interpretation 

My first text is “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. A high school classmate recited this poem in class, and it has been a favorite of mine ever since. I heard a professional recording of “The Raven” at some time or other. Later when I came to write a book on oral reading (Read the Way You Talk: A Guide for Lectors), the memory of that reading (actually the first 2 lines are all I remembered then) convinced me that even poetry ought to be read “like talk.”

You can listen to my recitation of “The Raven” HERE.

You might think that the best way to uncover the meaning of a poem like “The Raven” is to investigate what it meant for the author. So you would delve into Poe’s private life and his circumstances, his broader world and how he must have felt about all these things. According to the theory of interpretation outlined above, that would be an interesting historical investigation, but it would not give us the meaning of the poem. It would be the “world behind the text.” The poem also has its own world, the story that it tells. But the truth of the poem is found in the “world in front of the text,” the meanings and possibilities that it opens up for the reader or hearer. A person's response is most important. 

The world of the text. As I approach “The Raven” I do imagine an author—the “implied author.” The implied author of “The Raven” is a person who has experienced the loss of a loved one and tries to cope by busying himself with other things, with “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.” (It doesn’t matter if the real Poe actually went through this experience or not.)

We can dig deeper into the world of the text. Think about how often names and naming come up in the poem. “Poe” (I’ll put the name in quotation marks when I mean the implied author) calls his love Lenore, but that‘s the name angels have given her, not the name he knew her by. He has no name of his own for her. She’s “nameless here [on earth] forever more.” Near the end of the poem, as “Poe” gets more and more desperate, he repeats twice this strange fact about the name—“whom the angels name Lenore.”

The first thing “Poe” demands of the raven in the poem is to know its name, and the bird responds, “Nevermore.”. Here there’s a strange ambiguity. It’s not clear whether the bird is revealing the name “Nevermore” or saying, “I will never give you my name.” That same ambiguity recurs every time “Poe” asks the raven a question—which is never phrased exactly as a question but always as a command or a plea:

- “Tell me what thy lordly name is.

- “Is there balm in Gilead [i.e. this life]?—Tell me, tell me, I implore.

- “Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aiden [the next life], it shall clasp a sainted maiden….

Every time the raven says, “Nevermore.” Is it answering or refusing to answer?

Now it’s useful to know some literary history about naming. Moses in the Bible asked for God’s name and got a mysterious response, in one translation: “I am that I am” or, as I understand it: “Don’t ask such an impertinent question.” In the ancient world knowing a name meant having control over the thing or person. Jews were forbidden to say the proper name of God except once a year when that year's high priest whispered it alone in the solitude of the Holy of Holies. (Well, that’s the tradition. It’s a mystery to me how the priest knew the pronunciation of God’s name when nobody was allowed to tell it to him and when, out of reverence, the whole name was never even set down in writing—only the consonants, not the vowels.) Some cultures give their children more than one name, including a private name and one for public consumption. There’s something holy about someone’s name; you ought to keep your distance, not try to grasp it.

Clearly the “Poe” of the poem is tormenting himself as the poem goes on. He has stopped ignoring his grief. He tries to deny it, imagining that “within the distant Aiden” he will have his love again. But he knows he won’t; that is, he knows what the raven will say. “Nevermore” is “his only stock and store.” Ignoring the ambiguity of this “Nevermore, “Poe” takes it as an answer; and that answer is one he compulsively seeks and cannot tolerate.

“Poe” had assumed he had his loved one within his grasp; he thought he knew her name. He finds that he did not, and he seems to hear that he never will. He cannot get a grip on his grief either (by naming the raven) to force it “back into the tempest and the night’s plutonian shore." The raven hasn’t really given him its name. He is stuck with his grief:  “And my soul from out that shadow shall be lifted … nevermore.”

Here’s another poem by Poe that expresses more clearly a world like that above: 

A Dream Within a Dream

I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand—

How few! Yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep—while I weep!

O God! Can I not grasp

Them with a tighter clasp?

O God! Can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?

The world in front of the text. This long analysis of the world of “The Raven” has for its main purpose to throw light on the world in front of the text,” the reader’s (my) response and my possibilities for being-in-the-world. What world, what possibilities are opened up by my encounter with this poem?

The first thing to note is the genre: poetry. Part of the meaning of the poem is the beauty with which it captivates the reader and listener. There’s the complicated rhyme scheme with repetitions both within and between lines and the dark recurrence of “nevermore” and its rhyming partners. There’s also the strong rhythm, part of the beauty of a good poem that doesn't have to bore the listener or obscure the meaning.

So the poem with its dark subject matter and matching dark beauty gives much pleasure, and that pleasure emphasizes the distance of the reader from the despair of the implied author. My response is not “That’s the way I must feel,” though I recognize that as a possibility and maybe even one that has been tempting at times. The response is, rather:

“Poe’s” obsession with grasping his loved one through knowing her name is his sin. It’s also the reason for his despair. But there are healthier ways to view the world and one’s place in it. It’s possible to be devastated by the loss of a loved one and still not despair. I don’t have to either ignore or wrestle with my grief. I can give up the control of my world that I sometimes think I need. It’s OK if I don’t even know my own name.

There’s a place in the Bible, which I can’t find right now, that talks about a stone on which will be written a person’s new name. Here’s a request that I hope is remembered when the time comes: When I die, I would like to be buried with a smooth white stone. I don’t care if I’m a corpse or a pot of ashes. I would like to have this stone with my remains. I like to imagine that God will write on it my true name, the one that God knows and grasps me by.

M. “You’ve Heard My Voice and You Know My Name,” a song and its interpretation

My second text is a song that has a curious history with me. It goes back to college days when I came across a book of songs sung by Harry Belafonte. As soon as I started sight reading, it seemed to me that I had heard this song before, but I had no idea when. Its haunting melody and lyrics have stayed with me ever since, though I couldn’t remember its exact title. Lately I googled and found out that it’s called “You’ve Heard my Voice and You Know my Name.” It was composed by W. Shorr and A. Podell and popularized by Glenn Yarbrough. It has also been sung as part of a concert on world music by the St. Olaf College choirs, so somebody besides me thinks that it’s a classic.

You can listen to me singing it HERE

This song has a completely different feel from the poem “The Raven.” We are constantly affirmed and reassured in this song. But the song accomplishes that without giving any solid information. We’re never told what the name is. We don’t even know whose name it is. We can’t imagine the composer of the song saying such grandiose things about himself or herself. The implied author of the poem is, rather, someone just like ourselves; and we’re also the implied hearers, people who have heard the voice and know the name—this voice that doesn’t have to be identified; this name that probably can’t be spoken. We might guess it’s God’s name, if we believed in God, or “Nature” if we believed in some kind of spirit in the natural world; but that’s wandering from the actual text. It illustrates one of the dangers present whenever we respond to a text. What should be a dialogue with a text turns into a monologue featuring only thoughts we’ve already thought.

To justify telling us that we’ve heard the voice and know the name, the song gives us several snapshots of ordinary things, some of them very pleasant, some sad, but most of them ambiguous, combinations of pleasant and unpleasant things or things that could go either way. This is the way the song places the burden of interpretation on the listener. But the song also gives a lot of help. It’s a song, after all, a thing of some beauty.

So when we think of (perhaps remember?) a kiss in the rain, it’s all about the kiss. The rain, which otherwise might be a problem, just adds to the sweetness.

What about sleeping where wind and snows have lain? Is that because we’re homeless and have nowhere else to sleep or is it a free choice? Do I hear the voice and know the name either way? As one who enjoys camping, I think it's a free choice; but I can see the ambiguity increasing. It's the ambiguity of the camper, who lives temporarily shorn of all but a few possessions--and enjoys it.

Then there’s the lonely train heard in the distance. Here the ambiguity leans more toward the darker, sadder side. I hear echoes of the loneliness inside me. I have to search awhile to find the positive; but it’s there. I feel like I want to be on this train, to embrace my loneliness. There’s a purpose to it. The train is going somewhere.

When the train gets somewhere, when I achieve some small part of my purpose in life, what emotions follow? Pride, of course. But that’s ambiguous, and dangerous. I have to “bow my head when I’m filled with pride” in order to hear the voice. It’s not about me and there are so many things going on that aren’t about me—birds dying, children crying. And I’m tasting tears.

Then the song rises to a climax: The winds of spring, roses clinging, the warm rains and the driving rains, summer here and gone, day ending in night. The little ambiguity that is here is swallowed up in the restful images of petals falling and night birds calling.

It seems a long way from Poe in “The Raven.” But think: I can say the names of all of these lovely, perplexing things; but these are only their public names, names that leave me with ambiguity and uncertainty. I can’t say their real names even though I somehow know them. The things themselves are beyond my grasp, beyond my control. By releasing them to be neither more nor less than they are, I can hear the voice and know implicitly the name behind them all.

Having also heard and dialogued with “The Raven,” I see a possibility of trying to hold on to the beautiful, pleasing things of the world by their public names, to use them, keep them, and perhaps abuse them. Then I will never hear—or having heard, will forget—the voice and the real name. The world offers the possibility of having nothing at all worth having in my grasp and only grasping for more.

So I end up in the same place as Poe in “The Raven,” but with this difference: There the despair was expressed and the hope implied; I have to search for the hope that lies in relaxing at least a little my grip on what isn’t really mine. Here the hope is expressed and the despair implied; there’s always the chance that I will lose the reality that possesses me by trying to possess it.

I chose to interpret these two “classics” because both have been with me for a long time. I wrote these interpretations almost at the beginning of my work on this essay, when I had only a vague clue how it would go. They still seem appropriate as the work draws to a close. I see in them, among other things, a commentary on human reason and its sometimes exaggerated role. Here is a quote from a German theologian I read recently:

In several European languages, understanding a thing means ‘grasping’ it. [I hear the idea of capture in our English word concept, knowing the Latin root for both: captus, taken.] We grasp a thing when ‘we’ve got it.’ If we have grasped something, we take it into our possession. If we possess something we can do with it what we want. The motive that impels modern reason to know must be described as the desire to conquer and to dominate. (Jűrgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 9)

There is a kind of knowing that is not dominating, that must necessarily oppose the urge to dominate. Something like it happens in science when paradigms change. But it happens also when a limit experience—of another person, an event or some classic such as a poem or song—opens one up to change. My interpretation of these two classics (and your struggling with my interpretation) may or may not have been an instance of this kind of opening up. It's enough if I have shown what such a knowing might look like.

N. Conclusion. The point of all this

It may seem like a huge distraction from anything in the Creed to be analyzing songs and poems that aren’t about God. What I hope I’ve done is demonstrate a kind of thinking that:

  •        has similarities to the thinking that is done sometimes in science, too—when paradigms change,
  •        but is different enough to be a complement, not saying the same thing in a different way,
  •        and like science can result in progress toward truth.

This is a thinking that directs us to what we can know without being able to grasp. It’s a thinking that takes us out of our grasping, controlling selves. The truth of the mythical concept of the muses is seen here. Neither the producer nor the consumer of a classic is in control of the experience. The experience is ecstatic; you are outside of yourself, that self that you seem to know when you only think about yourself.

Philosophers have suggested some metaphors for this experience to replace the na´ve realist’s metaphor of looking through a window. The one that appeals most to me was introduced by Hans Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher, theologian, tennis player, and lover of puns. When he came to Catholic University as a visiting professor and revealed some of his likable traits to us students, he was quite old. He walked then with a limp but was as agile of mind as a tennis player on the court. His metaphor, adopted by Tracy among others, is "playing a game."

I remember games, or rather fleeting moments in a game, when I was completely lost in the task at hand. In this state, sometimes called being “in the zone,” the moves just happen, and they work in surprising ways. To an outside observer you seem to be in complete control, but the inner experience is one of being carried along. Gadamer says it’s not you playing the game but the game playing you. Similarly, in an honest, open-minded dialogue with another person or text, you don't control the moves. The conversation takes its own path.

In that kind of thinking truth is revealed in the possibility of something new. You could also say truth arises in the game of dialogue, the game that plays you or else you're not really playing but just scoring points. Truth is nurtured into being along with a new possible way of being in the world. This possibility is not something that was always there and we just now learned how to do it. (Hooray for us!) Remember it's the game playing us. It’s a possibility that the world offers now that it didn’t before. It’s a way the world is that it wasn’t before. This truth is an event before it is a thing that we hold in our minds.

To play the game of dialogue well doesn’t require abandoning traditional orthodoxies. In fact, better knowledge of one’s own heritage makes for more useful engagement with another tradition. Likewise, the more in tune one is with modern experience, including the sciences and the experience of other cultures, the better one is positioned to dialogue with one’s own tradition’s time-honored expressions. When it comes to the Christian Creed or the Bible or any other parts of the Christian heritage, a better understanding of modernity—and we are all moderns—makes it all the more likely that dialogue with that heritage will bring forth what Christians call revelation.

To speak in Christian theological terms, revelation is inspired by the Spirit. Revelation is not ideas caught in ancient words or symbols but is their reception in faith and suspicion guided by the Spirit within the individual and the community. Possibly the reception of the Creed’s first paragraph in one or more of the five essays that preceded this one helped foster something like revelation.

The Creed, to which I will turn again in the next essays, claims to be a defining, but not ultimate, word. It’s one of the many classics of Christianity, which one encounters and needs to interpret. Perhaps a world arises in that encounter of two worlds, a world in front of both oneself and the text, a world that one can name, but only hesitantly, humbly, and inconclusively, with a public name that reveals something, but only imperfectly, concealing as much as it reveals, about ultimate reality. Out of a list of such imperfect names from my own and other stories -- names like “Great Spirit,” “The Void,” “The One,” “Being,” “The No-thing,” “The Ground,” -- I would choose the name “God” or even “God of my fathers and mothers.” That's the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Ruth and Boaz, and Jesus, and ... Rose Mary and Dave, who handed on the story to me. It doesn’t mean necessarily rejecting other names, but it does put me within a particular story, wherein faith as a relationship of trust, faithfulness, and a new vision of reality makes sense and worship is possible.

On to Stories of Jesus and the Characteer of God