I have been reading more in This Strange and Sacred Scripture by Matthew Schlimm. Ben Spackman recommended it and I’ve found it interesting—especially as I’ve borrowed it back from my daughter (she borrowed it and I borrowed it back).
Last week’s morning’s reading was on the dynamic nature of Law in the Old Testament. For example, consider the law of Tithing. It turns out that Tithing might go to God, to the Levites, or the Temple, or even to the person paying it. The application of the law was dynamic. For an example:
“23 And thou shalt eat before the Lord thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the Lord thy God always.”
(In that example, tithing is consumed by the giver in a feast like Thanksgiving is for us).
In looking at that example, and some others, it hit me that dynamic law (a law that changes in application depending on circumstances and did not have a fixed meaning) builds on the concept that there can be one truth that exists at an abstract level, but that might have very different applications and so looks different from the outside (e.g. tithing consumed in a Thanksgiving feast looks different to us than tithing paid to the Levites for their support or tithing that goes to furnish Temples).
Given that all truth, of course, takes meaning in application, it also leads to the surprising conclusion that perhaps an application doesn’t tell us as much as we might think about truth (or doctrine or policy or programs).
This does mean, of course, that it is very possibly correct: the idea that there can be one truth, at an abstract level, that has meaning in application, and that has many applications. Without application, “truth” just remains an abstract that doesn’t have import or purpose.
Of course I look at truth that way because my natural mode of thinking is very abstract, almost inchoate. That has played out in a number of ways. For example, I have very few concrete memories. As a result of a study I was part of, I’ve been working on being concrete enough to have more than fragments of visual memories. Even my strongest visual memories are only fragments.
In addition, I’ve found that while I think in abstract patterns, being very abstract does not stop me from concrete application. I’m a practicing lawyer. For fifteen years, each year I’ve usually generated over half the summary judgments granted for our area consisting of 4-5 offices of lawyers. While I hold law in my head in a very abstract way, it doesn’t stop me from meaningful application. As a result, I believe that we can have things that are very abstract and yet find meaning in application and that being very abstract does not make them incapable of concrete application.
So that while the general criticism of treating the truth as an abstract is that in order to be abstract enough to be universal, truth must lack any meaning, that isn’t my experience in my day to day life as a lawyer. I’ve had a lifetime of experience where things were different.
In the same way as things work for me with the law, I see religion and spiritual truth that way. That is, that the core truth is very abstract, and takes form in concrete applications that are subject to dynamic application that changes depending on context.
Seeing the truth in its raw form is at a very abstract level does not stop it from being meaningful. Nor does the fact that most expressions of the truth are mediated by culture, context and the fragility of human language stop them from being true. It just means that the language we have to express truth is fragile and incomplete.
In many ways, my view is almost the flip side of cultural relativity. It isn’t that truth is relative, it is that we are limited by culture (and all the things that make it up, such as experience, world view, language and other things) in how we can understand and apply the truth. As a result, what we see changes, but the truth behind it does not.
A good example is that what you might see using blue light might differ from what you see using ultraviolet light and that might differ from what you might see with infrared light or sonar.
Different light sources doesn’t change the nature of what you are seeing, and it doesn’t make ultraviolet light or sonar “right” and the other “wrong” it just makes them an influence on what you see, though at a quantum level the way you see might change what you see, at our level it just changes what you can see.
That also means that as to my understanding of truth, conclusions about the truth should be embraced with a good deal of humility. If your background is different from mine, the same abstract truth may well find application and expression in your life in ways far different from mine.
That would not make the truth any less true, it would only reflect the limits of my understanding.
Questions for our readers:
- Have you ever had something you knew to be true that changed with changes in perspective?
- Have you ever had a situation where someone else’s understanding of the truth turned out to be more accurate than yours because of differences in your backgrounds?
- Did it surprise you to realize that historically, tithing might go to the priests, to the temples, to specific priests or might even go back to the giver to be consumed in a community feast?
- What other things do you think have a dynamic application?
- What have you learned about truth?
Images from wikimedia commons. E.g. By Lbeaumont – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54783353