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Values to Build a Life On – Part V

Dedication to Truth as the Highest Value.

Who among us would want a friend like Jeremiah? He was a determined truth-teller who had the nerve to stand at the entrance of the Temple and declare the fragility of what Judah considered inviolable. In the days of Hezekiah, the Assyrians who had eliminated the Kingdom of Israel failed in their siege of Jerusalem. After the reforms of Josiah, the sanctity of the Temple was considered even safer. Yet Jeremiah saw folly in an alliance of Josiah’s son with Egypt against Babylon and assumptions of Temple safety.

Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these [buildings].’ No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt – then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time. See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail. (Jeremiah 7:4-8 JPS)

Jeremiah’s reward was a trial for sedition followed by offers of support by the Babylonian conquerors, which he refused as he escaped to Egypt.

I imagine Jeremiah as a dour, never humorous person, who made everyone uncomfortable by saying what no one wanted to admit out loud – and always doing it at the most awkward time and place. I have known such a person, a veritable modern American Jeremiah. His name was Will Campbell.

As a student at Mercer University 1961-1965, I was close to several faculty members who were close to Brother Will. His office was in Nashville near the Vanderbilt campus where I was a graduate student 1965-1968 and ate lunch in the cafeteria of the Divinity School with ministerial students. When in town, Will joined us several times a month. The New York Times obituary for Will quoted Jimmy Carter calling him “a minister and social activist in service to marginalized people of every race, creed and calling.” Those who ate lunch with us saw those convictions in action.

Members of Will’s inner circle talked of a humorous personality good at story-telling and singing. Being on the outside, I saw his dour and serious determination to pop the self-righteous balloons of those who were racists as well as those who proudly denounced red-neck racists. Later he took on capital punishment as a form of social oppression. If there was something that made you uncomfortable, some truth you tried to avoid facing, you could count on Will Campbell to sniff it out and confront it.

Serious dedication to truth-telling is more difficult than other values, yet it is the foundation on which the others depend. One of the more difficult tasks in life is to admit and face up to it when our assumptions, hopes, and security are based on illusions.

Distinguishing true and false sounds easy, but truth is complicated because reality is complex. Three points will make this clear. First, there are at least five kinds of truth, each of which corresponds to a mode of reality – yes, there are at least five modes of reality. Second, each type of reality and truth is falsifiable – and there are people who thrive on undermining truth. Third, reality and truth are always changing because our universe is built on cycles of birth, maturation, old age, and death – in other words, time is encoded into the fabric of space so that nothing within the universe is eternal.

Materialistic assumptions that emerged from the Enlightenment in Europe yoked science and matter as the legitimate basis for reality. All forms of religious expression, including the existence of gods, became cultural products of the human mind. The Christian God, like any other, was considered a projection of human thought upon the universe – a mere chimera expressing both fear and wishful thinking. Bishop Spong expresses the same view when he declares that if horses had gods they would look like horses. Darwinian evolution of life, and later cosmological evolution from chaotic products of a Big Bang to an ordered universe, became tarred with materialistic views of reality.

My view is that reality has at least five modes. Two of them involve the familiar terms non-fiction and fiction, which are closely linked to a third – hypothetical or interpretive realities.

As we know, non-fiction covers history, biography, and journalistic news stories. Legitimate forms of non-fiction recount factual information (whether in writing, photographs, movies, or other media) that is founded on verifiable evidence. Everything considered materialistic can fall under non-fiction. On the other hand, fiction represents imaginative realities, whether in novels, movies, poetry, paintings, metaphor, or mythology. Treating fiction as if it were non-fiction is a betrayal of its unique reality. Imagined prose, poetry, or graphic arts are a different order of reality that captures and expresses dimensions that surpass mere evidence-based descriptions.

Enlightenment thought, as exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, committed the error of eliminating fictional reality from scripture as transgressions against true or non-fictional reality. Removing miracles from accounts of Jesus produced rational and credible ethical teachings in line with non-fictional thought. The same line of thought was replicated in the 20th century as Christian fundamentalists insisted that all scripture had to be literal non-fiction. Denying the presence and importance of fictional dimensions of scripture impoverished Christian understanding of the complexity of the biblical heritage.

Hypothetical or interpretive truth is a sort of hybrid between fiction and non-fiction. News stories, for example, aren’t just descriptions of events and comments. They start with a lead, a main point or thesis, which is backed up by a selection of fact-based information to demonstrate the viewpoint of the writer. Scientific experiments begin with a hypothesis to be demonstrated and are successful when fact-based experiments verify the interpretation. Interpretations are exploratory or heuristic, leading to ongoing discovery as contestants pursue rival explanations.

Therefore, fiction, non-fiction, and interpretation represent different manifestations of truth. Non-fiction emphasizes description of evidence; fiction is about imagination and insight; and interpretation orders evidence to bring understanding of points of view. Furthermore, human agility in using modes of truth in the appropriate situations becomes important.

Two more aspects of truth turn complication into complexity. There are phenomena that exist first in the human mind and then may or may not be brought to life in the first three modes of reality. Yuval Noah Harari used the term fictive for these items.  For example, the sensory world of normal existence provides no direct evidence for God, justice, human equality, or the dignity of life. Mathematics, morality, reason, logic, and meaning also fall into this category. These begin as realizations, insights, inventions, projections, or possibly discoveries within human brains and are imposed or correlated to the world outside human thought. Their origin within human thought doesn’t make them unreal or automatically untrue even though they are not detectable by our senses.

Finally, revelation exists as reality and truth. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James described four characteristics of individual mystical stories that were experienced as an intervention by a force beyond human understanding. The experiences themselves reflect cultural environment and provide no uniform formula for the content of revelation. Most of the time the stories are meaningful only to the person having them, but religions and cults have begun as groups identified with someone’s claims of revelation.

James refers to the notion that revelatory experiences point to a reality beyond our normal world as the “pragmatic view of religion.” In the last paragraph of his chapter on conclusions, James describes his preference for the pragmatic option and makes an astonishing personal confession.

I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes its claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not. But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist. The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in.

Juggling five types of reality and their truth becomes harder when we understand that each of the five can be falsified. All five can be imagined as existing on individual spectra extending from “entirely authentic” to “completely false.” Understanding how to live in a time of accelerating change is difficult enough without having to defend against human actions that undermine one or more types of truth. Traditional historical interpretations have also overlooked human venality behind inherited views. For example, professional historians have built interpretations of the past on written records as the preferred form of evidence. Only recently have we acknowledged the extent to which records were distorted by elites who sponsored the scribes and artists producing records as propaganda in service to their masters. Today wealthy lobbying elites, extremist and terrorist organizations, and “niche” news services are flooding the internet with untrustworthy news, photographs, videos, and audio recordings. Propaganda has even become the open mission a media empire, thus satisfying the preferences of a President and those who are determined to believe anything he says.

My third point about the modes of reality is that they are always changing. This is a particularly difficult issue for the Judeo-Christian tradition because it has wanted to understand revelatory truth as eternal and immutable. Creation stories in the first three chapters of Genesis illustrate this tendency. The majestic creation of the universe in six days led to finished products representing a static order underwritten by an all-powerful God. The creation of humanity and life in the Eden version also shows a finished order with human beings exercising delegated authority from God over animal life. Creation by fiat happened in both accounts, culminating in humanity exercising a divinely commissioned role on earth.

The paradoxical fact of existence in our universe is that it involves ongoing creation guided by the forces of entropy. According to the second law of thermodynamics, the universe is running down and resolving into chaos. Yet everything began in ultimate chaos through a gigantic explosion putting everything in motion. The explosion brought into existence space encoded with time along with all the contents of the universe. Over billions of years, complexity began emerging from disorder so that stars, galaxies, and planetary systems emerged. The same processes brought about life on earth. With humanity came the novelty of cultural evolution to the extent of reshaping the planet and endangering future life on earth.

The virtues of dedication to religion, citizenship, and compassion emerged with culture and are continually revised as cultures evolve. The transition from agricultural to industrial-capitalist society that began three hundred years ago has challenged thousands of years of authoritarian values as participatory and democratic values became dominant. A world governmental system is emerging that pits authoritarian/totalitarian vestiges against democratic principles and laws based on human rights. Each virtue must be updated as the various modes of truth evolve.

Conclusion: Is Truth Progressive? Can Christianity Be Progressive?

The language of change is dividing America into hostile camps. The terms liberal and conservative have changed meanings since emerging after the French Revolution, but they remain a terminology centered on change. They dominate our national discourse to the extent that old loyalties to religious denominations have eroded as conservative groups prevailed and pushed out those in favor of updating beliefs.

Republics with constitutions and legislatures emerged from 18th century revolutions in America and Europe, provoking the formation of conservative resistance to liberal forms of change. Defense of traditional governmental and cultural institutions meant opposition to revolutionary change sponsored by business-dominated oligarchies. Demands for democratic change led to more European revolutions and the emergence of socialism. In the United States, democratic demands from our expanding western frontier lowered oligarchic property qualifications for voting. The Republican party saved “government by the people” by winning a civil war, then fostered the reemergence of oligarchy as a unified national economy emerged under laissez-faire policies openly favorable to industrial business and finance.

Advancing science in alliance with industry brought new forms of material prosperity in 19th and 20th century Europe and America. The belief that Western society was outstripping ancient cultures since the Renaissance fostered increasing confidence in progress as the inevitable direction of our civilization. The facile optimism that came with liberal changes and belief in the goodness of progress was undermined by the horrific experiences of two world wars.

In American history, progress carried less optimistic and ideological associations. Concern over corruption in business and government became widespread in the 1890s, supporting calls for reform. These movements had more in common with the values of the Reformation than with the French Revolution. Removing abuses and updating government approaches to industrial issues of cities and working people were demanded, not revolutions against those in power. Progressivism as realized in the policies of Theodore Roosevelt aimed at modernizing laws through a strengthened federal role with Uncle Sam becoming a neutral referee in economic and political contests rather than tilting the game toward business. The same reforming and modernizing intentions were behind Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal even though it was not called progressivism.

Progressive has reemerged in recent years as a term for political, social, and religious movements. I believe this is a healthy development, for it emphasizes reform and modernization – something consistent with the spirit of the Reformation – rather than change for the sake of change implied by revolutionary associations of liberalism.

Big History, as described by David Christian, explains the emergence of order in the universe through major transformations that introduce new levels of complexity. The appearance of collective learning and culture in Homo sapiens, a transition to agricultural societies, and the spread of industrial-capitalist-scientific culture have been the most significant transformations in human history. In each case, the leap in complexity brought astonishing new capabilities that were also fragile and fraught with danger of collapse. To a certain extent, this explains the dynamic behind progress.

Therefore, the answer to our concluding questions is Yes with qualifications. Life is ever-changing and tending toward increased complexity. Each major transformation changes human realities and the modes of truth related to them. Failure to make adjustments increases fragility in the new order and can lead to collapse. Jared Diamond has documented the perils that led to failed societies which end with mass extinction.

Christianity can also be progressive, especially as it follows the spirit of the Reformation by going back to the fundamental message of Jesus. Radical teachings that were modified as they were harmonized with Roman authoritarianism can be recovered and adapted to modern conditions – as clearly seen in The 8 Principles of Progressive Christianity.

Accelerating change is making a life based on durable values increasingly difficult. Recognizing that truth can be adapted to our changing environment is necessary to support human lives built on values that are durable because they are capable of being updated in a universe that will always be changing.

Will D. Campbell, The Stem of Jesse: The Costs of Community at a 1960s Southern School (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2005).

David Christian, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (Little Brown and Company, 2018).

David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin, Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014).

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015).

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902, Foreword by Jacques Barzun (A Mentor Book from the New American Library, 1958), 391.

Robert D. McFadden, “Rev. Will D. Campbell, Maverick Minister in Civil Rights Era, Dies at 88,” The New York Times, June 4, 2013,

About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He is retired as an expert in the field of organizational management through thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. He returned to his original career by teaching history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. An energetic speaker and presenter of sermons and educational programs, he is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

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