What is Truth?

–By Sensei Morris Doshin Sullivan

For the past few weeks, I’ve had an old Johnny Cash song playing in my head: “What is Truth?” In the song, which he wrote and released in early 1970, Cash criticizes the Vietnam War and questions the marginalization of 1960s youth culture with the song’s refrain:

And the lonely voice of youth cries

‘What is truth?’

This earworm has been my near-constant companion recently because that is  the central question of this month’s Big Words, the latest in a series of events presented by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.  Each Big Words gathering offers an interfaith exploration of concepts that are universally important in spiritual contexts, and this month’s big word is TRUTH.

The topic is particularly salient at a time when discourse is so often dominated by factoids and “truthiness” that some social critics have referred to our time as the “post-truth era.” We have assembled a multi-disciplinary panel of faculty and staff from philosophy, science, journalism and religion. They will discuss the question of truth from the perspective of their unique disciplines.

This should be an interesting discussion. On the surface, to determine whether or not something is “true” seems fairly straightforward. If you dig into the nature of reality, however, it’s not always as straightforward as it seems. A scientist, journalist, philosopher and minister might have very different ways of describing how they test the truthfulness or reliability of a statement or idea.

As a Zen monk and Buddhist teacher, for example, I’m often asked about the “truth” of stories such as the birth of the Buddha. In this story, the newborn infant is said to have taken several steps in each of four directions with lotus blossoms springing up at his feet, then pointed to the sky and pronounced himself the one who would liberate all beings.

Invariably, whenever I tell this story, someone sidles up to me afterward and asks, “Do you really believe that?” I answer that this is a spiritual lesson, not a history lesson. In Buddhism, as well as some other religions, spiritual stories are not expected to be factual in the traditional sense, but to convey a sort of wisdom that might include non-conventional, spiritual realities. The birth myth works much in the way a poem or a painting might convey an artistic truth—a truth of the heart, rather than a truth of the head.

Big Words: TRUTH is this Thursday, October 18, at 6:30 p.m., in Sage 222. We will have a lively discussion with a wonderful panel—Stetson Director of Communication Cory Lancaster; Director of Biochemistry Harry Price, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Philosophy Ronald Hall, Ph.D., and Rev. Michelle Jouyo Sullivan.

If that’s not enough good reasons to be there, there will be food from Santorini Greek Cuisine and Cultural Credit.

For more information, contact the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life or email msullivan1@stetson.edu.