My father-in-law used to say, “They don’t cut pants as full as they used to.” It didn’t seem to occur to him that he was taking up a bit more space inside those trousers than he did when he was a younger man.
This used to make me smile. Until I reached my sixties. That’s when my aging body forced me to reevaluate the youthful track-star self-image that I had been clinging to for several decades longer than biology and the life cycle warranted.
Let’s face it, the writer Anais Nin was on to something. She said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” This thought has actually been around for a long time. For instance, you’ll find it in the Babylonian Talmud (completed around 500 BC).
We will always see things from a perspective. Our personal stories, our education, our culture, our desires, our values, and our social context shape how we interpret our experience. And as I’ll explain in moment, this is crucial for what it means to say that our faith is true.
But first, let’s be clear about the role that assumptions play in what we believe.
Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t make assumptions. You should only believe what you’ve already proven.
But modern psychologists, neurologists, and philosophers have shown us that we always see the world and other people and ourselves through the lenses of the beliefs, values, and commitments we already have.
That we draw upon assumptions to make sense of reality does not mean that there is no such thing as Truth. On the contrary, psychologists, neurologists, and philosophers couldn’t very well be making truth claims about how the mind and the brain work if they were telling us that there is no such thing as truth.
Instead, we’ve learned that the pursuit of truth involves something in addition to observing reality. After all, those observations are interpretations we make from the limited perspective of the assumptions we carry.
These assumptions bring our world, our selves, and other people into focus for us. They are like the glasses I wear to correct my vision. I see through them without actually looking at them.
The pursuit of truth, then, requires not only looking through the lenses we have. We have to examine the lenses themselves to ask how they might distort what we’re trying to understand. Seeking the truth requires honest, rigorous, and above all humble self-reflection.
And this is why acknowledging truth can be such a profound struggle. To see what is true will sometimes mean letting go of previous patterns of thinking, acting, and feeling. Accepting the truth can be very hard because it requires changing our very selves.
For Christians this should come as no big surprise. After all, Jesus began his ministry echoing John the Baptist’s call to repentance. By that he meant for us to change our minds, change our hearts, change our very souls by entering into relationship with him.
Later on he made his point especially clear. On the night before his crucifixion he told his friends that he is the Truth. (John 14:6) To be a friend of Christ is forever to open ourselves to the Truth’s power in our lives.
That is to say, following Jesus here on earth comes down to learning to see the world, ourselves, and our neighbor with the loving eyes of Christ. In the process, we will have to examine and then discard all those assumptions—all those lenses we habitually use for seeing things—that rob us of compassion, drive us toward indifference, or rationalize our selfishness.
This is difficult, sometimes painful work. It takes time and effort. It doesn’t happen all at once. On the contrary, it’s a lifelong practice.
And this is crucial. No one can pursue the Truth for us. As Richard Rohr likes to say, nobody can do your spiritual homework for you. Jesus himself clearly illustrates this during his trial before Pilate. (John 18:33-37)
Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
I hear Jesus saying something like this to Pilate: Are you really ready to hear the truth? To let the truth stretch your soul, blow your mind, and shake up your world? Are you ready to let go of power and privilege, status and wealth, personal safety and reputation in order to let love be your center of gravity?
Famously, Pilate ends up saying, “Not so much.” Or, as the John’s Gospel records it, “What is truth?”
Being a person of faith is about more than clinging to this, that, or the other set of ideas. Faith is about committing ourselves to the lifelong struggle to accept the Truth. In the end, this is a struggle for freedom. Because it is only truth that will set us free.