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The Need for Truth

October 22, 20236 min read

The Need for Truth

A young man was told about a holy man who lived in seclusion on an Asian mountain, a sage who had the truth, the meaning of life.   Exhausting all his finances, the young man—desperate for answers—flew to Asia, took a crowded train to a crowded city, waited all night for a rickety bus to take him to an impoverished village, and then trekked up the mountain for two days.

Finally, despite cuts, aches, blisters and a sore back, he reached the mountaintop, and saw the holy man sitting cross-legged outside a cave.  Humbly, reverently, the seeker fell before him and asked, “Master, I have come from a far away place to reach you.  Please, tell me—what is the truth about life?”

The holy man looked at him and said, “The truth about life?  Well . . . let’s see.  Ah, the truth about life is that . . . ah, yes, life is a cup of tea.”

“What?” the young man exclaimed.  “I’ve come all the way around the world, trekked up this treacherous mountain, and you tell me the truth of life is a cup of tea!”

“Ok,” the wise man responded, shrugging, “maybe it isn’t a cup of tea.”  Not too satisfactory an answer, was it?

In his book A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote about a super computer named Deep Thought, which was asked to answer the ultimate question: What is the meaning of life?

The computer went to work and—after 7.5 million years of hard computing—it finally spit out the answer.  What was the meaning of life?  Forty-two.  Maybe that’s better than a cup of tea, maybe not?

What's it all about?

Though both stories are fiction, both reflect a stark and harsh reality: Our desire for answers in an existence that doesn’t readily give them.  Our world, which taunts us with intimations of meaning and purpose yet—spinning at more than 1,000 miles per hour—seems to move too fast for us to grasp them.  After all, for thousands of years, most humans thought the sunrise and sunset were just that, the sun rising and setting around a motionless earth.  In other words, if for most of history we were wrong about something as basic as this, what other grand truths are we missing?

And the fact is, as human beings, as rational beings, we want answers: What are we doing here?  Why are we here? What is the purpose of our lives?   Life is hard, life is tough; it takes effort to survive.  Shouldn’t we at least know what it’s all about, know why we go through the struggles, the pain, the hassles of living?  As novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky put in the mouth of a character: “life is pain, life is terror, and man is unhappy.”  And yet, despite it all, we want to live.  But why?  For what purpose, what aim, what goal?  In short, we are looking for truth, looking for answers to these important questions.

The Dismal Ratio

Literary critic James Wood wrote about a convinced atheist who sometimes awakes in the middle of the night and asks herself questions like:  “How can it be that this world is the result of an accidental big bang? How could there be no design, no metaphysical purpose? Can it be that every life—beginning with my own, my husband’s, my child’s, and spreading outward—is cosmically irrelevant?”

In many ways, our dilemma, our “cosmic irrelevancy,” can be boiled down to a simple fact: We die.  Of course, chickens, mice, and oysters do as well.  But there’s a fundamental difference: Sure, like mice, chicken and oysters, we die, but unlike them—we know it.   As human beings, we can conceive of concepts like transcendence, infinity, eternity--realities way beyond ourselves and way beyond our reach as well.

And it’s this distressing comparison, this dismal ratio between what we are—tiny beings (in contrast to infinity) who live a very short  time (in contrast to eternity) that presents us with a powerful dilemma, this “burden of meaninglessness” in beings who (unlike chickens, mice, and oysters) cry out for meaning.  But what meaning can be found in small packets of flesh carrying within them their own fecal matter and (about a foot or so way) their own minds, a couple of pounds of carbon-based organic material closer in composition to a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken than to a hard-drive?  What can such a small, self-contained packet of flesh mean in contrast to the infinity that surrounds it, especially when it exists for just a flash in contrast to the eternity that follows it?

Landry's Lament

Hence, the dilemma: Our minds—which can contemplate the eternal—are composed of matter that isn’t eternal and, worst of all, knows it. And it’s this uncomfortable realization that poisons everything we do, accomplish, or strive for.

Tom Landry, the famous coach of the Dallas Cowboys, once expressed it like this: “Even after you’ve won the Super Bowl—especially after you’ve just won the Super Bowl—there’s always next year.  If ‘winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,’ then ‘the only thing’ is nothing—emptiness, the nightmare of a life without meaning.”

If that’s Landry’s lament, a lament of life’s meaninglessness from a famous and wealthy man who has won two Super Bowl titles (VI, XII), 5 NFC titles, 13 Divisional titles, and compiled a 270-178-6 record, the 3rd most wins of all time for an NFL coach—what about the rest of us poor schnooks who will go to the grave without such an impressive résumé?   

Rolling Stone Magazine had an article on the 40th year of the break up of the Beatles. And it quoted Paul McCartney saying, at the height of their success. “We’ve been the Beatles, which was marvelous . . .but I think generally there was this feeling of ‘Yeah, well, it’s great to be famous, it’s great to be rich—but what’s it all for?”

The Search for Truth

But what’s it all for?  Good question, is it not?  Is it not a question that we all, at one time or another ask?  How could we, as logical, rational beings, constantly faced with our mortality, not?

Thus, the quest for answers, or the answer, comes down to the quest for truth.  Not the truth about what is gravity, or who killed JFK. But the truth as it relates to us, as human beings and the question, What’s it all about?

Today, the secular world-view leaves us pretty much nothing: We’re merely the chance confluence of matter and energy that created what physicist Stephen Hawking called “a chemical scum” on the surface of the earth.  Thus, with such a perspective, one can understand Frenchman Albert Camus’ struggle with the question of, basically, How does one live a life that is meaningless?  Or, even more frighteningly, Should one even bother to live it?

Others, though, aren’t ready to accept that, for they intuit, even perhaps rationally conclude, that their lives—so full of little meanings and little purposes—don’t culminate into meaninglessness and purposelessness, that such a conclusion doesn’t make sense, and thus can’t be right, can’t be the truth.

And so, the quest for answers, for truth, must continue because, despite the questions, one thing seems sure: Whatever else life is, it’s certainly not a “cup of tea.”

Part one of three. Part two: "The Truth About Relativism"

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