How Can We Know What Is True?

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading comes from Plato’s Republic, 514a-515c, as translated by Francis Cornford. In this passage, the character of Socrates is speaking.

“‘Imagine the condition of [people] living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track with a parapet built along it, like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top. Now behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Naturally, some of these persons will be talking, others silent.’

“‘It is a strange picture,’ Glaucon said, ‘and a strange sort of prisoners.’

“‘Like ourselves,’ I replied….”

The second reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, Matthew 13:1-9. This is the translation by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

“That same day, Jesus left the house and sat beside the sea. Huge crowds gathered around him, so he climbed into a boat and sat down, while the entire crowd stood on the seashore. He told them many things in parables:

“‘This sower went out to sow [said Jesus]. While he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil, and it came up right away because the soil had no depth. When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it had no roots it withered. Still other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them. Other seed fell on good earth and started producing fruit: one part had a yield of one hundred, another a yield of sixty, and a third a yield of thirty. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!’”

Sermon: “How Can We Know What Is True?”

The question facing us this morning is how we can know what is true. In today’s divisive political climate here in the United States, this has become a most pressing question.

As one example of what I mean, consider the politics surrounding the teaching of systemic racism. There are now laws in several states that forbid teaching about systemic racism. The proponents of these laws say that teaching about systemic racism is divisive and destructive, because it turns white people into oppressors, and anyone else is a victim. The people who want us to teach about systemic racism in the schools say teaching about systemic racism shows that individuals are not responsible for structural racism, and thus it can empower people of all races to help end structural racism.

One side claims that teaching about systemic racism makes racism worse. One side claims that teaching about systemic racism will help end racism. How can we know which claim is true?

Probably many of you have strong opinions about this particular issue. If you have strong opinions about this issue, you’re probably thinking to yourself right now: “I know which claim is true! The other side is wrong! How can anyone possibly believe what the other side believes!” But the other side has equally strong opinions. Just like you, they are now thinking: “I know which claim is true! The other side is wrong! How can anyone possibly believe what the other side believes!”

How can we know what is true?

And this brings us to the first reading, the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In this allegory, the character of Socrates asks us to participate in a thought experiment. What if, says Socrates, we were chained in a cave? What if the only things we could see were shadows cast by puppets moving in front of a large fire that was behind us? We would think those shadows were real, because those would be the only things we knew.

Socrates went further with this thought experiment. What if you were one of those people chained in that cave, then you were removed from your chains, and caused to stand up, and stare at the fire? At first, your eyes would be dazzled, and you would not be able to see clearly. In fact, you would doubt the evidence of your eyes. You would be used to seeing the shadows cast on the wall of the cave, and you would be convinced those shadows were real. So you would believe that the fire was false.

And then, says Socrates, what if you were taken out of the cave, up into the sunlight? Your eyes, accustomed from birth to being in a cave, would be completely overwhelmed by the bright sunlight. You would not be able to see at all for an extended period of time. Again, you would believe in the reality of the shadows. You would doubt the evidence of your senses.

But if you are kept up in the sunlight long enough, you would learn how to see in that bright world. Eventually you would even be able to see the Sun, the ultimate source of light and life. Then if you went back down into the cave, and told what you saw to your friends who were still chained down there, they wouldn’t believe you. They’d think you were deluded.

This allegory is so much a part of Western culture that I think many of us believe it to be true, without even thinking about it. We actually believe there is just one truth, like the sun in Plato’s allegory. We think of ourselves as the ones who have gone up out of the cave to look at the sun. And then, if anyone disagrees with us… well, they must be the ones who are still chained in the cave.

In fact, this is how most Western religion works. Most religions in the West claim that theirs is the only truth. For example, many Western Christians say: We have the truth and all non-Christian religion is wrong. Different branches of Western Christianity look at each other and say: Our branch of Western Christianity has the truth, and everyone else is wrong. Then the Western atheists come along and say: No, WE have the truth, and all you Christians are wrong. Each group is quite convinced they are the only ones who have the truth. To use Plato’s allegory, each group is convinced they are the only ones who have left the cave and perceived the sun, the ultimate source of truth.

That’s not the way it works in other parts of the world. For example, in East Asia it is common for people to follow more than one religion. Thus in China one person might follow Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, and Chinese folk religion, all at the same time, or at different times of life. Contrast this with the West, where a multi-religious identity is still uncommon; you’re either one religion or another, or no religion at all; you only get to choose one religious category.

Here in the United States, we are particularly fond of this either/or thinking. You are either Christian or non-Christian. You either believe in God or you don’t. You are either Republican or Democrat. You are either liberal or conservative. You have either escaped from the cave and seen the sun, or you are still trapped in the darkness.

Either/or thinking makes it hard to have productive arguments. If someone says you are wrong, you are liable to reply: You may think I’m wrong, but I know I’m right. I’M the one who has climbed out the cave and seen the sun. Maybe you climbed up far enough to see the fire that casts the shadows, but you didn’t get all the way out to see the sun. I’M the one who has climbed out the cave and seen the sun. I’M the one who is right.

Either/or thinking makes us rigid. Either/or thinking can make us oblivious to complexity. We become so sure we’re correct that we may no longer be aware when we’re actually wrong.

Now some people try to get out of the bind of either/or thinking by claiming that there is more than one truth, that you may have your truth but I have my truth. There are “alternative facts.” Or as Rudy Guiliani put it: “Truth isn’t truth.” This is what’s known as postmodern thinking.

I don’t want to go down that path. I’m reasonably convinced out there somewhere is Truth-with-a-capital-T. I don’t want to do away with Truth, I simply want to answer the question: How can we know what is true?

This brings us to the parable reportedly told by Jesus of Nazareth. In the parable, a person goes out to sow some seed. Depending on where the seed falls, it either gets eaten by birds, or it sprouts and quickly dies, or it gets choked out by weeds, or or it sprouts and produces fruit in large amounts.

Many contemporary Western Christians are quite sure they know what this parable means. It means that there are some people who know what the truth really is, and others who don’t. And of course the people who know what the truth really is are the ones who are telling the story.

I have a different interpretation of this parable.Jesus does NOT say the seed grows in one place but not in another. Jesus does NOT say only only a few people know Christian truth, and the others are ignorant and miguided.

In this parable, Jesus is not talking about Chrisianity — there was no such thing while he was alive. Instead, he is talking about what he called the Kingdom of Heaven. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of Heaven is some kind of ideal state of being, where all people recognize their interdependence; or, to use Jesus’ words, all persons love their neighbors as they love themselves. All people, indeed all of life, is bound together in an interdependent web of existence.

To explain his idea of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus used an ecological metaphor. Jesus asked us to imagine seeds being sown. Plants produce more seeds than than are needed to keep the species alive. Plants produce enough extra seeds so that birds and other animals may feed on them. They produce enough extra seeds so it doesn’t matter if some seeds don’t reach maturity. Even if some of the young plants are out-competed by other plants, there will still be more than enough to produce seeds for the next generation. This is how ecological systems work.

Jesus added another layer of complexity to this short parable. In the parable, the seeds which do not sprout can be understood as Jesus’ analogy for the people who don’t perceive the Kingdom of Heaven. As I understand the philosophy of Jesus, he felt that the Kingdom of Heaven is always present — the interdependent web of all existence is always present — though often we fail to perceive it. First, there are the people who have lost all understanding of the interdependent web. Second, there are the people who, for the sake of short-term profit, deliberately ignore the interdependent web. Third, there are the people whose understanding of the interdependent web gets choked out by competing trivial concerns.

Finally, there are the people who fully realize that we are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We are bound to all other human life. We are bound to all non-human life. We are interdependent.

Despite what popular culture believes about the teaching of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is NOT pie in the sky, bye and bye, after you die. To quote Joe Hill, that’s a lie. Jesus tried to tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven — the interdependent web of life — exists right here and right now. Jesus also tried to teach us how to know that truth. He continued the ecological metaphor. We can know the truth in relationship to one another. Truth happens in community.

Community, by the way, is the power of the scientific method. Scientific method is a communal approach to finding truth. Science does not happen without the scientific community. It is the community which tests and refines new concepts. It is the community as a whole that slowly works its way towards the truth. Mind you, I am NOT saying that Jesus was some kind of proto-scientist. The questions which interested Jesus differ from those which interest today’s scientific community. But in both cases, to know the truth requires being in community.

Community is also why we come to Sunday services. We are a community which seeks after truth and goodness together. No, we have not yet reached ultimate truth here on Sunday morning. Reaching the truth is a process. By participating in various communities that seek to know Truth, we can over the course of our lives make significant progress towards the Truth.

You will notice that a communal search for truth differs from the way most people interpret Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the common interpretation of the allegory of the cave, one individual at a time escapes from the cave, sees the sun, and so knows the Truth. Although I don’t think that’s what Plato intended, that’s the way our highly individualistic society interprets this allegory. Unfortunately, that’s also the way many people interpret Jesus’ allegory: you have an individualistic relationship with a personal God, and you know the truth through that one-on-one individualistic relationship.

That individualistic way of knowing truth is not working well for us right now. In politics and in social media, you’ll find little pockets of people who are quite sure they’ve found the ultimate truth, and they shut themselves off from any dissenting views. If you gently challenge these little pockets of people by suggesting that they might not have the final and complete truth, you are liable to find yourself on the receiving end of vitriol.

How can we know what is true?

We know the truth in relationship to other people, and in relationship to other beings. We know the truth by being in community, by being in relationship to all other people. We know the truth by recognizing that we and all other beings are part of the interdependent web of life.