Does the truth prosper among you? A question for our own time

By Jill Segger
September 7, 2018

“‘What is truth?’, said Jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.” Francis Bacon’s enduring comment on the frustrated Roman functionary, adjudicating the quarrels of a people he did not understand, and the recent words of Rudi Giuliani, Donald Trump’s attorney: “Truth isn’t the truth”, remind us that the struggle for integrity is as old as language itself.

The power of words and the nuances of their use are under scrutiny as never before. Social media and online media have amplified statements and opinions to a degree which would have seemed impossible, even in the early years of the 21st century. It is arguable that the increased spread has reduced the depth. It has certainly presented us with moral quicksands which we are tempted to navigate according to our own prejudices and within which, the spectre of Thoughtcrime is increasingly apparent. The atmosphere is mephitic, the consequences frightening and so often, firm ethical ground seems to be out of reach.

Some falsehoods with which politicians, parts of the media and varied outright scoundrels attempt to influence us are easily checked. Evidence-based exposure of the factually inaccurate may be ignored by those responsible, but deliberate perpetuation of what is unreliable eventually brings a reckoning and they know it. What is potentially far more dangerous is the idea that truth – and maybe here we need to make use of the measuring rods of trustworthiness and honest intent – is something which cannot be known. It is presented to us, in both proposition and rebuttal, as a wholly subjective set of notions (‘your truth/my truth’) in the guise of a disdainful tolerance. That is to miss entirely the likelihood that there will, beneath even apparently opposed beliefs, be a common ground of which the supporting stratum is conscience. Reduced to its barest bones, this – if we will be honest enough – can be summed up in the words of the Jewish sage Hillel who died around 10CE: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Without it, we are adrift in a sea of random and value-free events with neither compass nor sight of land.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, a time when many Quakers were unable to worship freely, and suffered imprisonment or confiscation of their property, they would visit each others’ gatherings in an effort to uphold and encourage persecuted communities. One of the questions they brought with them as an aid to reflection and solidarity was: “How does the truth prosper among you?” At that, time many Friends would have called themselves ‘Seekers in the truth’ – the preposition is significant. The presence of truth was understood as a given; it was not the object of their search.

It is a question we have to make our own in 2018. How much do we care about those aspects of truth which are under our own control? Do we stretch, or even abandon them to avoid embarrassment or seek advantage? Do we look simply for validation of our own inclinations, stepping round evidence which does not serve our cause? Do we search for facts that we can weaponise in pursuit of that cause? How much does it matter to us whether or not we are people who can be trusted?

The question those early Quakers posed to each other was about the use of a truthful habit of life. It does not fireproof us against making mistakes but it does offer a place to stand in the morass of untruth, misrepresentation and witch-hunting which is deforming our current political culture. Just and compassionate societies will not prosper without it.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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