As I'm putting the finishing touches on numerous Spring 2017 national meeting reports, I thought I'd share with you my article "Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, Kinder," which was published today on Bishop John Shelby Spong's website, and share a few words about why I wrote it. Ever since the rise of words like "alt-fact" and "post-truth," I've been undergoing a bit of a crisis of faith in stable knowledge: given that my role at Westar over the past six years has been generally to ensure that the content of our non-profit research on religion is made available to the public, what do I personally have to say about the nature of truth?
So I wracked my memory of every book I've ever read and my life experiences for answers to that question, and - perhaps unsurprisingly - I found the best anchor in the radically life-altering first year of my family's adoption of two children. As I say in my article,
I think we get truth backwards. Truth is not the root from which we grow but the fragrance from the bloom. In a sense, truth can be acknowledged only after an experience awakens our sense of it. The root is relationship—with others, with the world, with God. This is a difficult but important outcry at a time when we’re all wondering what it means to live in a society suddenly flooded with phrases like “post-truth” and “alt fact.”
... Relationships make security—truth, understanding—possible for the adoptive child, for us, for God. I sometimes also imagine God as the weave of all those relationships, and yet I think we have to appreciate that God is a living idea. I find it helpful to maintain the tension between God as a candle waiting to be lighted and as the light itself.
There's a lot more to the article than that, but in the context of Westar's work, that's one important message I want to amplify for us to consider collectively. It's all too easy to forget that human language and scientific knowledge is (quite literally) rooted in our world and an only barely understood universe. This doesn't make "truth" a hopeless cause, but it's a reality check. Believe it or not, the relationships we cultivate are important to our ability to tell truth from falsehood. I love, for example, that in Zen Buddhism, practitioners are encouraged to question what their teachers tell them, anchored by their experience and observation of the world. It's one thing to be "head smart," quite another to be rooted at the gut level in the world, speaking out of experience of the world. In Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, Katsuki Sekida uses the Japanese word tanden to describe that rooted awareness, which he places in the lower abdomen (as anyone who has practiced meditation can readily understand):
There is a Zen phrase - we have already quoted it - "silver mountains and iron cliffs." They are a solemn wall, like the snow-clad Himalayas. The Zen student pushes against this wall, pressing it back a millimeter, a tenth of a millimeter, a hundredth of a millimeter at a time. The spiritual power to do this comes from the tension in the tanden. the head is helpless: it can only give orders to gaze into the tanden. The action of gazing itself is maintained by the effort of the tanden, and it is the effort of the tanden that has brought the silver mountains and the iron cliffs into being. When we find ourselves confronting them, we feel as if they stood before us as something external. In fact, they are nothing but ourselves, and when the time comes we find ourselves standing as the silver mountains and the iron cliffs themselves. While I am dashing myself in imagination against the wall, the wall was the silver mountains and iron cliffs. In the end, I become them myself. I am the sovereign being between the heavens and the earth. I am on the throne of existence. This solemn feeling has come from the power of the tanden. (89)
Now I'm sure that sounds very mystical to some of you, maybe even a little kooky, but if we slow down and think about what Sekida is prioritizing in his comments, we can see that he is dissolving the confident lines we tend to draw between self and other, self and world, self and God. This gives him the exhilarating feeling of being "the sovereign being between the heavens and the earth" and yet he is not stating that as the individual person Katsuki Sekida. Rather, that's at precisely the moment he has relinquished his attachment to being an individual and is experiencing himself as everything and nothing at once. In the same way, it's possible to look at whoever it is we think we are and realize that we are more like a hub of criss-crossing relationships than some kind of solid, walled-off object.
I shared Time magazine's triptych of their "Is God dead" and "Is Truth dead" covers because what is hidden behind the stark red letters and black backdrop are specific communities asking this question of themselves. The answers are not infinite in the sense that "anything goes," however. In relationship with the world and others, these questions can take us on many different paths while still starting from the spot we currently stand. Truth has not dissolved into "anything goes," but it has reminded us that the West's individualistic, Enlightenment mentality has its faults. It's one thing to say, "I can't believe anyone voted for X candidate," and quite another to say, "My grandparents voted for that candidate, even though he says and does things that make me fearful for the sake of my family. What am I missing? What are they missing? Why can't we talk about this?" That takes the conversation and injects it into real, intimate problems.
We are not post-truth; we're at a loss for how to live with less entitlement and more responsibility and perhaps courage in our relationships. The phrase "bigger, stronger, wiser, kinder" was the shorthand tip our foster parent trainer taught us as a way to check our behavior: am I being the bigger person right now? The stronger person? Wiser? Kinder? Can I be all four?
And that's where I hope/wish Westar's work will make real inroads. How can we empower those intimate conversations to actually go somewhere rather than dissolving into fear of offense or worse, pain? We still live in a country where many people are uncomfortable or afraid to disavow beliefs they find morally repulsive or nonsensical. And we still live in a country where, all too often, a hard line is drawn between spiritual and intellectual life, even though I firmly believe it's possible to have both.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.
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