“There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” So wrote Walter Lippman in his famous 1920 book, Liberty and the News. In recent weeks, I’ve seen several quotes in this vein resurface as we’ve been awash in a frenetic public discourse stirred up by political turmoil and augmented by “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Most of us realize that such phenomena aren’t new, but the combination of an exponentially increasing number of digital media outlets, the click-bait nature of our culture, and current political upheaval has eventuated in an unprecedented blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy. We’re able to believe what we want to believe, whether it’s true or not, and then have that belief reinforced with the click of a mouse. Within this context, we are tempted to focus on – and even obsess about – the falsehoods, lies, and untruths that are being perpetuated in the world “out there,” presumably by people other than “us.” The flip-side of this temptation is to throw up our hands in cynicism and forego the much-needed work of pursuing, demanding, and telling the truth in the public square.
But what if we embarked on our pursuit of truth by first telling the truth about ourselves?
Telling the truth about what’s “out there” can quickly become a distraction or a coping mechanism that prevents us from looking at ourselves with honesty, transparency, and a willingness to change. Faithful introspection often gets a bad rap because its frequently associated with notions like naval-gazing, egoism, or a shallow existentialism. Despite such criticisms, I would argue that the problem isn’t that we’re focused too much on ourselves, but that we haven’t focused on ourselves deeply enough.
Telling the truth about ourselves requires deep introspection on at least two levels. On one level is the mystery of our humanity, our being made in the image of God, our inextricable connection to the human community and to God incarnate, Jesus Christ. John Calvin put it this way: “Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God. Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” (Calvin, Institutes, I.1.i). Telling the truth about ourselves on this level means telling the truth about our being wonderfully made, about our struggles with sin, about our longing for the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s new creation, and about God’s deep love for each of us.
Another level is the truth about how our lives have been shaped by the people, places, narratives, and traditions of the world around us. When all has been stripped away, who am I? Why am I the way that I am? What role has my family played in my position in this world and how I see my life in it? What communities, traditions, and narratives have most profoundly shaped me? In what ways have these factors made me a better person? In what ways have they hindered me? What truth about my life and how it’s been shaped is hardest for me to admit? What truth about my life should I be more thankful? What needs to change? Am I willing to tell the whole truth about myself?
Probing these two levels of our lives will help us to more faithfully pursue the truth “out there.” And more importantly, it will help us to know what our unique role is in both our pursuit of truth and our proclamation of it. Parker Palmer calls this the integration of our soul and role. It’s at the heart of vocation, of calling.
My good friend Rev. Adam Mixon is a gifted pastor, preacher, and ardent pursuer of justice and righteousness in his community of Birmingham, AL. His recurring prophetic utterance, which I’ve heard him offer on numerous occasions is simple: “Tell. The. Truth.” Adam believes, as do I, that a vital component in God’s restorative justice in the world is the willingness of Holy Spirit-led people to tell the whole truth – the good, the bad, and the ugly – about their community, their churches, their family, and their own lives. And it begins with looking in the mirror. For many, this may be the hardest truth to face – the truth about ourselves. But the world requires it, because without authentic people giving authentic witness, we will all be “tossed to and fro like waves and blown about by every wind,” as the apostle Paul once wrote. By God’s grace, we can pursue and embrace the truth about ourselves with the assurance that God knows us more deeply than we know ourselves, and loves us more deeply still. Perhaps there is no greater truth than that.