This is the fourth in a series of articles about the relevance and application of the Quaker testimonies.
“What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer”. These words from Francis Bacon's Essays of 1597 remind me that ambivalence about truth was as live an issue four centuries ago as it is today. The undertone of weary scepticism in Pilate's question speaks to our morally uncertain and relativist age.
It is possible to feel a certain sympathy for the pragmatic and hard pressed Roman administrator of Bacon's vignette: a man who has all but given up on the claims of justice as he tries to hold the ring between his far away Imperial masters and the factious, spiritually zealous people over whom he has been placed. This is such an impossible task, his tone appears to suggest, and truth so subjective and elusive, that a rhetorical sneer is the only realistic response.
But moral relativism, confusion and cynical resignation to the pressures of realpolitik (in all its forms), bring apathy in their train. As a society, we too are little disposed to “stay for an answer”. Indeed, many will claim that there is no answer; that truth is a relative concept, something which may be bent and fashioned according to our situation and desires.
The Quaker Testimony of truth directly challenges that rootless tendency towards expediency. It insists upon a habit of life which strives to be true to God, to self and to others, whatever the cost in personal advantage or peace of mind. When exercised as integrity, it requires consistency in ethics, honest relationships and fair dealing. It is not simply a matter of avoiding lies of tongue and pen: it is about searching for and applying the truth in all situations of life.
Friends do not seek to pin truth down in definitions and doctrines. They believe that its outward usages can only flow from that inner integrity which necessitates placing God – the origin and upholder of all truth - in the centre of one's being and in remaining ever attentive to the leading of the divine spirit. Writing in 1904, John Rowntree offered this insight to his co-religionists: “Creeds are millstones, doctrines are interpretations: Truth, as George Fox was continually asserting, is a seed with the power of growth, not a fixed crystal, be its facets never so beautiful”.
Striving to live in the truth is therefore part of an evolving relationship predicated upon the moral responsibility and co-operative growing towards maturity of each individual soul. Consequently, there can be no one-size-fits-all set of rules, although there are recognisable and enduring practices which have come to be seen as characteristically Quakerly.
Amongst these are the refusal to take an oath because it implies a double standard of truthfulness; always telling the truth even though it may be to one's disadvantage; meeting commitments and taking responsibility for actions and words; challenging lapses of integrity in oneself and in others; plain speaking and honest dealing in business.
These practices may, at different times and in diverse situations, cause Friends to appear contrary, priggish or brusque. Taking inspiration from the way of Jesus is not a short cut to popularity, nor does it make for an easy life. But neither does finding oneself in a minority provide an infallible indicator of integrity. The pursuit of truth demands constant vigilance, humility and a spirit-led willingness to read the signs of our times.
And in our times, this care for truth, with its essential concomitant of discernment and reflection, is in conflict with the dominant ethos of rapid and frequently shallow reaction. Nor does it sit comfortably with the urge to appear cool or to present a marketable image. But in an increasingly mistrustful society which perceives being taken for a mug as the ultimate insult, the concept of truth as the shared keystone upon which we may build the habitation of trust and co-operation, has never been more urgently needed. Wherever the fear of being ripped off leads to the destructive response of getting your aggressive and “savvy” cynicism in first, we are all impoverished and diminished.
In the same essay in which he depicts Pilate reduced to petulance and negativity in the presence of the very embodiment of Truth, Francis Bacon also offers us this vision: “Certainly it is heaven upon earth to have a man's mind move in charity, rest in providence and turn upon the poles of truth.” The search for those poles may be as demanding and costly as the expeditions for the physical poles of our planet have been, but the bringing together of love and trust, which Bacon places alongside truth, are guideposts for the journey.
Truth, taken as the fourth of the Quaker Testimonies, is both the source and the end of that journey. The introduction to Friends' much loved and consulted 'Advices and Queries' points to the circular and seamless relationship of this testimony with those of peace, equality and simplicity.
It also serves as a reminder of the responsibility of humble attentiveness which is entrusted to us: “As Friends we commit ourselves to a way of worship which allows God to reach and transform us. We have found corporately that the Spirit, if rightly followed, will lead us into truth, unity and love: all our testimonies grow from this leading”.
© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger
More from Jill Segger on Ekklesia here: http://ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/Jill+Segger
The first article in this series is called 'Cultivating the discipline of peace' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/10356
The second is on 'How equality can re-shape society' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10428
The third is called 'Simplicity is about appropriate living' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/10574