From Moral Loneliness to Moral Companionship: Community of Truth

Truth-telling is related to our understanding of the common realm of human existence, our ability to appear in the world and share our experiences with one another. The modern age has taught us that rational truth is produced by the human mind; that we should be skeptical, cynical, and suspicious, and not trust our senses – so much so that we can no longer rely on our own ability to make meaning from our experiences. The cost has been the common fabric of reality, the sense from which we take our bearings in the world.

Samantha Rose Hill

Over the course of the last few years, the public debate over truth- especially in the political context- has risen to a level of intensity greater than any I can remember. From the incessant fact checking of former President Trump to the constant accusations of a biased and dishonest media from conservatives; the question of what is true has dominated many conversations around the United States. Behind this question lies other, equally consequential questions regarding who can (or can’t) be trusted and what is the true nature of our shared social reality. I am not sure ‘debate’ is a truly accurate word; while many people have questioned the truthfulness of certain statements from the media or political figures they are most likely to express this opinion in the safety of company who already share their opinions. The tribalistic atmosphere that I have discussed in my previous posts is deeply connected to the disagreement on what is true. Facts and information from sources we fear or distrust are discounted with little if any investigation as to their veracity. On the other hand, we tend accept without reservations information coming from sources whom we know to already align with our perspective on the world. When we cannot agree on what is true, then we are not perceiving the same reality which leads to a dysfunctional and divided society. If we as Christians hope to forge deep, diverse communities that can shine a light of healing and hope into our society, then those church communities must be communities of truth. 

Listen with the Heart

I imagine that when some people hear the idea of a ‘community of truth’ they instantly start imagining conversations they would love to have with a few individuals who are in need of having some flawed or outlandish ideas corrected. But to become a community of truth, we must start not by correcting others but by listening more profoundly to those around us. We are living in a society where few people really seem to want to listen to anyone else. No where is this more apparent than social media, where public debate takes the shape of an endless stream of factually inaccurate and logically flawed memes backed by a few choice insults to those who dare express a differing opinion. Many of these social media posts have taken a statement (usually made by a politician) completely out of context with the intention of making the other side look as stupid as possible. Not surprisingly, this method of civil discourse has the affect of creating lingering feelings of hurt and anger that serve to only deepen the mistrust already felt between groups. The reality is we take to social media not to learn from others, but to reassure ourselves that we are not alone in our values and perspectives concerning life and society. Learning to truly listen is the first step in breaking down some of the barriers between people. 

Listening requires more than hearing words; it means we intentionally desire to understand someone else’s heart. We have to put aside, at least for a moment, our own dreams, worries, fears and insecurities so that we can begin to see these qualities in others. We have to have the humility to value another’s view of the world, regardless of whether or not we agree with them. Each of us have a basic desire to be known by others on our deepest levels; and when this need is not met we feel isolated and unloved. It is true that only God can ever truly know us fully and completely, but when we at least attempt to listen to others on a heart level, we are allowing God’s love to be reflected through us. Dismissing those we disagree with out of hand not only diminishes our ability to effectively communicate with them, but it is an attack on the image of God in them. Truly listening to others is not just about communication, but a demonstration of their worth to God. 

Listening will not, in itself, help us to discern truth. What it does is to allow us to understand each other on a deeper level; to create the kind of trust that allows for disagreement without broken relationship. This is why I think it is critical to listen with the heart, to the heart. We can try to inundate our friends and family with a slew of facts, attempt to mercilessly pound them into submission with our social media memes, ostracize them from our social circle, or we can try to demonstrate our love for them them by listening to their hearts in order to hear what is important to them, and then invite them to listen to our hearts. 

Before moving on, I want to close this section with a quote from Pastor Richard R. Dunn from his book ‘Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students’. While addressed to those working with teenagers I think the insights can be applied more broadly.

“Listening has to be learned. Creating a relational environment of genuine understanding is costly. Affirming, reflecting, clarifying, pausing, and respecting the process require spiritual caregivers to empty themselves. We must empty ourselves of the need to be right, to feel in control, to demand internal conformity, to be successful at fixing adolescents and their problems, to elevate our own categories and assumptions, and to stay comfortable by using default responses as a substitute for listening well. Moreover, spiritual caregivers are asked to embrace the process as God’s, and not their own. We are never called to do God’s work. We are rather privileged to be called to join God’s work.”

Community of Truth 

Recently I had a conversation with a good friend of mine discussing the difficulty of convincing other Christians to critically evaluate their political beliefs in the light of Jesus character. He is a pastor, and he expressed his frustration that during face to face conversations people will agree with him when he challenges some the “ridiculous things” they post on social media, but afterwards they “go back to their echo chambers” and continue posting the same sort of items they were posting before. Why is it so hard to get people to truly change their views, especially when given convincing reasons they are wrong? 

My friend’s reference to “echo chambers” gives a clue.  Author James Clear provides some insight into this;

“Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.

 The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially.”

I think Clear has articulated one the biggest mistakes we as a society have been making for a very long time, and that is to view debate and discussion as a purely intellectual, rationalistic matter and ignoring or even denigrating the social impulse to truth seeking. We long not for truth in the abstract, but for moral companionship, for someone else to see and value the truth we see and value. This impulse would be fine in a world where truth was never in doubt. But in this world of confusion and misinformation our choice of community will have a major impact on our perception of truth. For this reason it is of vital importance that the church be more than a place where truth is preached, but a place where a community of truth can be found. 

No community should be more interested in truth than a Christ-centered community. Truth is connected directly to Jesus. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) ” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Paul links truth with love. “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:6) And John places both truth and love in the context of Christ-centered community. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 16-18) 

We must make sure that our pursuit of truth is inseparable from our pursuit of our relationship with Jesus. Truth only makes sense in the light of God’s character. It is there we touch, ever so faintly, with genuine reality. This is the anchor we as Christians can hold on to during the upheaval of our world; an anchor that much of society seems to be distinctly lacking in the current moment. And we must always pursue truth with humility, humility, and more humility. Simply because we have grown up in church and think we know the Bible well does not mean we have all the answers (sometimes it is quite the contrary). There is always more to learn and other people we will meet who will point out the fallacies of what we think we know; which is one more reason why community is essential to pursuing truth. 

I came across a phrase a few years ago, “Belonging precedes believing”. I believe it was from a Pew Research Poll, but I can’t remember for certain. It has stuck with me as an constant reminder of how to approach people with differing perspectives. I remember several years ago talking with a teenager who had been a part of my church for a while. He confessed to me that he did not believe in Christianity, and was actually looking to Norse Mythology for spiritual insight. He asked me if he would still be accepted at church. I responded to him that, yes he was still accepted, not because I had embraced a relativistic view of truth, but because I wanted him to remain in the community of truth that was our church. By his own admission he had no positive influences in his life outside our church, and I wanted to give him the space to go on a spiritual journey at his pace, not mine, and allow the Holy Spirit to work in his life through the church community. If I would have responded to him that he would not be accepted, or if I would have launched into a long explanation as to why Christianity was right and Norse Mythology was wrong, he may never have stepped foot in our church again. I wanted to convey to him him that he belonged in hopes he may someday believe. 

This is been the core of my approach not just on spiritual issues, but on other controversial subjects as well. I certainly am not advocating that we do not present facts in our arguments and discussions, but I have had little luck changing anyone’s mind through factual or logical arguments alone. The few people I feel I have been able influence are people with whom I have longstanding friendships. And when these individuals know other friends of mine who share my views, the impact is magnified. People need to be able to imagine themselves as part of the group before they can really convert to a new perspective. That holds true for political as well as spiritual conversions. My experience with church has been that we emphasize changing people’s minds and have neglected the work of creating a church community that people can imagine themselves joining if they do, in fact, change their minds.  As James Clear said, we have to give them somewhere to go.

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3 thoughts on “From Moral Loneliness to Moral Companionship: Community of Truth”

  1. I liked the quotes in this blog. “We must empty ourselves of the need to be right, to feel in control, to demand internal conformity, to be successful at fixing adolescents and their problems, to elevate our own categories and assumptions, and to stay comfortable by using default responses as a substitute for listening well.” That convicted me. I am probably more guilty of this with my family than I am others, but still to know that some of these apply to me makes me aware of the need to be conscious of these in all my interactions with others.
    “The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially.” I liked this as well. We must break down our barriers with others we don’t see eye to eye with and be genuine friends with them. “Let love be genuine.” Romans 12:9.

    Liked by 1 person

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