A couple years ago I posted in the Pithy Quotes thread an excerpt from Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary on the nature of belief which many of us found interesting. Now I’m reading his new book The Matter With Things and he has refined what hr has to say about belief, truth and the sacred. I’m reading that now and am about as far as the author of this review, Rod Dreher, had been when he wrote this review which appeared in The American Conservative about a year ago.
In what follows the passages which he quotes from book being reviewed are in the block quotes provided by this site’s formatting capabilities. The part that he writes is everything else that follows:
“The most exciting thing I’ve learned so far from the new book is how Orthodox Christianity works. I have lacked the conceptual vocabulary to explain it, even to myself. Well, now I get it. McGilchrist’s thesis is that we in the West have allowed our collective mind to be unhealthily dominated by the left brain, which prioritizes propositional thinking, and mistrusts intuition and other noetic ways of knowledge. He writes in this rich passage
We now tend to think of truth as a matter of propositions. The word ‘truth’ in its origin indicates not a proposition, but a disposition. ‘True’ (cf German treu, faithful) is related to ‘trust,’ and is fundamentally a matter of what one believes to be the case. Truth and trust (belief) go together. One cannot have trust in a society where there is no truth; and one cannot be true to a society in which there is no trust. That is of fundamental importance, since, as Confucius told his disciple Tzu-kung, for a stable society a ruler needs three things: weapons, food and trust. If he cannot hold all three, he should forgo weapons first, and food next; for ‘without trust we cannot stand’.
Belief too is about fidelity (Latin fides, faith). The word ‘belief’ has nowhere buried in it the idea of signing up to a proposition, certain or uncertain. It is not a matter of cognition, but of recognition. The word belief comes from the same root as the word ‘love’, a sense preserved in the now archaic word ‘lief’, familiar to us from Shakespeare, with which one once described one’s friend, sweetheart, or lord–someone in whom one believed.
Belief is about relationship, in which by definition, more than one party is involved. The believer needs to be disposed to love, but the believed-in needs to inspire another’s belief or trust. Whether this amounts to being worthy of that belief cannot be fully determined in advance. It emerges only through commitment and experience.
Be that as it may, I think it possible that some of the disagreements in the debate about truth start with these broad differences in whether we see ‘truth-as-correctness’, a thing that can be determined, and into which nothing of us enters; or ‘truth-as-unconcealing’, a process of something revealing itself to us only through our experience. (Heidegger often used the Greek word for truth, aletheia, which literally means ‘un-forgetting’, allowing something to emerge from oblivion.)
How do we decide which way of conceiving truth is truer? First, notice that a process, unlike a thing, suggests the importance of not just the whatness, but the howness. There are no deep truths that are separate from the manner in which they are expressed. As the philosopher Friedrich Waismann puts it:
If you ever try to put some rare and subtle experience, or a half forgotten impression, into words, you’ll find that truth is intrinsically tied up with the style of your expression: it needs no less than a poet to render fully and faithfully such fragile states of mind.
Which is why we honour poetry as a path to truth. As I will argue, the most fundamental truths, of both a physical and psychical nature, can ultimately be expressed only in terms of poetry. And Waismann points out that the meaning of the word truth differs with context, so that it has ‘a systematic ambiguity’, as have deceptively simple sounding words such as fact, statement, knowledge, law and many others.
Very little that we take for granted as most essential to life–love, energy, matter, consciousness–can be convincingly argued about, or even described, without becoming ultimately self-referential. You have to experience it to know it: all we can do is point.
This is why you hear Orthodox Christians telling those interested in Orthodoxy to “come and see”. This sounds dubious from the outside, but once you’ve been in Orthodoxy, you understand it. McGilchrist explains this pretty clearly. Orthodoxy has propositional truths within it, of course, but the emphasis is on truth-as-process. That is to say, all Truth is in Jesus Christ; the Orthodox way of life is a constant, lifelong process of surrender to that Truth, and becoming divinized through it. Orthodox Christianity is knowing-as-poetry, not as syllogism. This is why people who grew up in a left-brained culture view this with suspicion. My experience as an Orthodox Christian is why this line from McGilchrist rings in me like a struck bell: “Whether this amounts to being worthy of that belief cannot be fully determined in advance. It emerges only through commitment and experience.”