“Let me ask you a challenging question.”
All right, I nod, wondering where he was headed.
“Do you think there is such a thing as Truth?” I knew he wasn’t just talking about any old regular truth. He was talking about The Truth. Capital T truth. A little heavy for a conversation with someone I’ve just met, but I figure I’d play along.
“To be honest,” I say, “I don’t really know how I would answer that. I’ve actually thought about that question a lot.” I wanted him to know I wasn’t being flippant. My slowness to respond does not come from lack of thought, but rather from a serious consideration of possible responses and their implications. “I took a graduate seminar once that centered on that very question and we spent the whole quarter on two philosophers who debated it. On the one side was Leo Strauss – who is very famous, from the University of Chicago – who argues that there is indeed a universal, fundamental truth. On the other side was Richard Rorty, who argues that there are only different cultural perspectives and we see things differently, have different worldviews because of the lenses our cultures give us. But Strauss argues that cultural relativism is nothing more than nihilism. I guess if I had to come down on one side or the other, I’d say I do believe there is such a thing as Truth…. But it’s kind of like the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. Each man comes up to the elephant. One says, “It’s like a snake!” He has grabbed the tail. The other man says, “No, it’s like a wall” for he has grabbed the elephant’s side. And…I forget what the third man said, but the point is, each man perceived the elephant differently for he only could know the part of the elephant he touched.* And I think it’s really only through dialogue and dialectic that we can even begin to know what “elephant” actually is. But it’s a very big elephant and we are so very small.”
He nods and by now I can read him well enough to know he isn’t quite pleased with my answer, for we had been involved in a polite but nonetheless intense verbal sparring session for nearly an hour, in which, though we hadn’t said so in so many words, we knew we came from very different ideological positions.
He says, “Well, you know, I went to grad school for a little while hoping to find Truth, but ach!” he waves his hand dismissively. I nod agreeably, though I suspect my reason for agreeing is a very different one. “But then,” he says, “I finally found it in the Bible.”
Ah, here is the crux of the biscuit, I think to myself, wondering if this whole long dance around politics and beliefs has been an extended lassoing to “bring me into the fold”. I brace for the proselytizing, which thankfully, does not come. My family and friends come from a wide variety of faiths and I’m always curious to learn about different beliefs. I think it’s beautiful when people share their faith; it’s not offensive or threatening. So in that sense, I enjoy talking with people who also feel comfortable discussing religion. And I’m perfectly content to shut the door on the conversation if people don’t feel comfortable discussing it with others outside their faiths. But I am not a fan of unbidden proselytizing. While I understand the good intentions behind it, I find it ultimately disrespectful. I mean, it’s kind of like you trying to be the best mother you can be to your children, instilling in them all the values you hold dear, (or like cleaning house, and you look around and it’s all clean and bright inside and you’re feeling good) and then someone comes to your house and says “No, no, no, dear. You’re doing it all wrong. Let me show you the right way.”
I’m not sure what to say in response to this man. I am struck by how sincerely afraid he seems to be of uncertainty. I want to tell him not to fear not knowing the truth. I want to tell him what the Buddha teaches about truth and what he said about even his own path to enlightenment. But I hesitate, maybe because I don’t want to offend. But more likely because I haven’t yet told him I am Buddhist. And somehow, with him, I get the sense I should refrain from sharing this. I find that with some people (not all) of Abrahamic faiths, they can reconcile themselves to others within the Abrahamic tradition, despite their differences, but they don’t know how to act around Buddhists – as if the heathenism is clearly frightful and somehow contagious.
Thinking I have found a safe answer, I nod, acknowledging his capacity to find Truth in the Bible, and I say with a conciliatory smile, “But the journey is rewarding too.”
He gives me a look like he doesn’t quite know what to make of my response, but the conversation draws to a close shortly after that.
Only later does it occur to me: what I said was actually quite a Buddhist response after all. So much for trying to escape the lens through which we see the world.
*Now that I write this, I remember that one man thought the elephant was like a snake, for he had grabbed the trunk. Another thought it was like a wall, for he had grabbed the side. And the third man thought it was like a rope, for he had grabbed the tail.