Saturday, April 30, 2005

Helen Keller's Truth

Do not look for truth, and truth will find you out. Searching for truth, on the other hand, can be a lackluster affair that rivals hard-rock mining. Resolving to try always to speak the truth may be useful only if one is not very talkative; to attempt to know what is true in every situation that arises is to fail early on. Truths have, to complicate matters, many forms. For example Helen Keller, rendered deaf, blind and without speech as an infant was noted in later life for observations such as the following: “The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of it’s heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker”. This is, among other things, as close to a truism as ever there was, but is it based on coherence, or correlation, or something like intuitive logic?

As a truism, there is a certain intrinsic, cohesive accuracy about the statement that does not easily brook a quibbler’s messing with it. At any illustrative (correlation) level confirmation may be ready to hand. The astronaut hero is paid tribute together with the geeks and nerds who collectively made the shot possible. To quibble over the term “honest worker” is to bring forth empirical evidence from the early Ford plant, and all the similar industrial plants, factories, mines and fields that have sopped up working lives; the average wage earner is generally honest from the effect of an internal regulator, not just from the time-keeper’s green-shaded gaze. People who work day in and day out always, at some level, try to take pride in their capacities to perform work, and to that extent alone if no other, fit the model of Kant’s ethical moral man. A worthy gentleman of letters, Studs Terkel, said it all very well in his now famous books.

Within some eight or so theories of truth philosophers are far from agreement, except to agree there is probably no satisfactory theory to fit all cases they can dream up. One case in point is called the Liar Paradox; known for at least 2300 years, this still stumps theoreticians. Sigmund Freud, if and when he ever read the New Testament, noted the paradox from these words of Paul: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said the Cretans are always liars”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has it this way: “Experts in the field of philosophical logic have never agreed on the way out of the trouble… Here is the trouble – a sketch of the Liar Argument that reveals the contradiction: (1) the statement made by a Cretan that all Cretans are Liars. For example, if (1) is true, then (1) is false. On the other hand assume (1) is false. Because the Liar Sentence is saying precisely that (namely that it is false), the Liar Sentence is true, so (1) is true. We have now shown that (1) is true if and only if it is false. Since (1) is one or the other, it is both….The contradictory result throws us into the lion’s den of semantic incoherence.” Perhaps it is no great wonder that we look further for what is so rare – or clearly true.

While there have been some clever solutions proposed for the Liars dilemma since the 4th Century BC, it has become more of a game than a search for essentials; the Bible has other things to say about truth-telling than Paul’s remark about Cretans. “It is not Socrates or Kant or Nietzsche who made this question famous, but Pilate: What is Truth?” So states an article appearing in the Christ Community Church bulletin of 11/13/02. A dialogue is taken from John.18:37: “Pilate therefore said unto Him, ‘Are you a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice’. Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’

Here there seemed to be two sorts of truths: Pilate’s truth was that no matter what brought Jesus into this world, he was surely going to die. Pilate, in a rather postmodern stance, held sufficient worldly power to make it happen. Jesus indicated that those who hear his voice know the truth -- at that time and forever. As it happened, in a correlation sense both spoke truth but history shows that Pilate’s truth was short lived; in fact, Pilate testified by his own words that “I find no fault in him at all.” (John 18:38). The fact that truth can be elusive and contradictory is only too familiar to all those who most earnestly seek it. From an article in Frontline Ministries, Postmodern Truth Versus Biblical Truth by D. M. Lorenzini, it is clearly put forth that “Postmodern thought has greatly influenced contemporary culture. The hallmark of postmodern thought is the death of truth. Don Matzat noted, ‘The only absolute truth that exists in the postmodern mentality is that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and so far as the postmodern scholar is concerned, that is the absolute truth.”

Contradictory it is, but bear in mind that we are, or most of us are, living in an ontology or world view, according to “thinkers” since the1700s, when science began to offer to explain everything. It was about the time that Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra announced that God is dead, along with the death of truth. This work is thought to have already begun to herald the end of the new Modern period of Enlightenment lead by Rene Descartes. In the Modern period God was no longer seen as the center of the Universe – man had taken His place as the main force of cause and effect in the world. Unfortunately this left life without much meaning beyond itself; some bright and thoughtful writers saw the modern and post modern thinking as leading directly to Auschwitz and Hitler’s death-camps among other calamities. Older philosophers believed that there is an essential reality, it can be defined and yields objective truth. Idealists like Plato, Kant, Descartes and others considered objective truth to be verifiable. In our own time however, no longer are truths to be self evident, or even evident by logic. What “works” in the observable world and largely what you choose it to be is truth. James Sire noted, “There has been a movement from (1) a ‘premodern’ concern for a just society based on revelation from a just God to (2) a ‘modern’ attempt to use universal reason as the guide to justice to (3) a ‘postmodern’ despair of any universal standard for justice. Society then moves from medieval hierarchy to Enlightenment democracy to postmodern anarchy.”* From this it may appear to some that philosophically we are no closer to verifiable truth here than we are with the Liars Paradox. Why did not the famous Helen Keller seem to share such confusions? Surely input from the empirical world of the senses was even less for her than for others.

One may tend to get uneasy at this point, if only to recall words we hear used every day: tricky, shrewd, wily, designing, sly, deceitful, crafty, guileful, sneaky, shifty and the like without even saying “liar”. These are real concerns because their opposites, verifiable truths, are being disregarded. Without turning the clock back, we may ask, “What is Biblical Truth?” John, in several verses, saw truth as the opposite of falsehood and lies. John is given credit for the perception that truth is theocentric, absolute – “rooted in God”. The two virtues: Truth is theocentric and absolute, and truth is correspondent to reality. Among American Evangelical theories correspondence theory is the most prevalent. Thus truth is opposite to falsehood and lies, and corresponds to things as they really are. “Truth finds its absoluteness in God, that is, because God is absolute, truth is absolute. Because God is authentic, real, genuine, perfect reality, all truth corresponds to reality.”

As evidence of the strength of Grace, brave and persistent individuals push back against the tide of worldly, cultural philosophy (of the beast) in both word and way of life -- in word and deed. Very few of us have had to cope with anything like the dark, silent, remote life of Helen Keller, and fewer still have left a legacy so emblazoned on an even darker universe. She amazingly came to the Lord at age sixteen and never faltered in her efforts at bringing faith and loving-kindness to a large part of the rest of the unseeing world; many of whom suffered their own form of “blindness”. She said of her religious convictions, “It has given color and reality and unity to my thought of the life to come; it has exalted my ideas of love, truth, and usefulness; it has been my strongest incitement to overcome limitations.” This from a woman who refused to accept her handicaps and who at twenty four graduated from Radcliffe College cum laude. For herself she made only a modest living, but raised millions of dollars for those with impaired sight and hearing around the world. She traveled the globe six times over, visited dignitaries from every land and spoke of the plight of the sense-deprived but also their promise and potential – their unrecognized ability to render service to society.

Helen Keller was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Harvard University, she met and spoke with world leaders – Churchill, Nehru, Einstein, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy – she touched the hands of soldiers blinded in war, she embraced children. From a six year old “untamed little creature’ who kicked, pinched, scratched, smashed dishes, and ate with her hands, she was described by her biographers as “made of the strong and shining stuff that the Lord saves for his saints”. Her benefactor William Wade called her “the embodiment of purity”, and writer Lawrence Hutton said of first meeting Keller: “We felt as though we were looking into a perfectly clear, fresh soul … who absolutely knows no guile and no sorrow; from whom all that was impure and unpleasant had been kept”. It is also written however, that “Keller’s fight was waged on an interior battleground – the field of the human spirit. It was a lifelong battle against despair and disillusionment, the inner enemies to which she refused to yield. ‘Truly I have looked into the heart of darkness,’ she wrote’ and refused to yield to its paralyzing influence, but in spirit I am one of those who walk in the morning.” In fact she even piloted an open-cockpit airplane; when asked if she had been frightened during her plane flight, she responded, “How could fear hold back my spirit, long accustomed to soar?” Eleanor Roosevelt called her “the embodiment of courage”, Keller said “Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing”.

She was not always in so positive a mood, she admitted doubts and periods of loneliness: Writing in a mood of sadness, she once said, “What earthly consolation is there for one like me, whom fate has denied a husband and the joy of motherhood? At the moment my loneliness seems a void that will always be immense.” She also wrote at another time, “No one knows – no one can know – the bitter denials of limitation better than I do. I am not deceived about my situation. It is not true that I am never sad or rebellious. But long ago I determined not to complain. The mortally wounded must strive to live out their days cheerfully for the sake of others. That is what religion is for – to keep the heart brave to fight it out to the end with a smiling face. This may not be a very lofty ambition. But it is a far cry from surrendering to fate. But to get the better of fate, even to this extent, one must have the work and solace of friendship, and an unwavering faith in God’s plan of good”.

It is said by students of Keller that her religion was larger than any organized church – “her Lord was Jesus Christ, the gentle, forgiving Nazarene, who rose above sorrow and crucifixion. In Him, she saw the great smiling God of all souls, encompassing multitudes and showering all with unceasing love, wisdom, and power. Keller knew that God’s true church – the Kingdom of Heaven – is not here or there, but within each person. And that is why she could rise above all theological language and philosophical systems to proclaim: “ I believe that life is given us so that we may grow in love, and I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of a flower – the Light in my darkness, the voice in my silence.”

Why then, we ask, do wise men and savants find truth so difficult, when clearly those who, like Helen Keller, have “heard the truth” and live it every day? (Quotes are from current literature).

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