Truth and Consequences–This Feminist’s Perspective? by Marcia Mount Shoop


Marcia headshotIn John’s Gospel, Pilate’s response to Jesus’ self-identification as the one who “came into the world to testify to the truth” is a simple question:  “What is truth?”  His question hangs in the air as he moves from that conversation to the throngs he sought to please.  Pilate took the temperature of that crowd to decide Jesus’ fate even though he, himself, found no reason to charge Jesus with a crime.  Pilate asks the question from a position of power—literally holding life and death in the ambivalence and maybe even in the sincerity of his words.

The “t” word has been center stage in our collective conversation of late with Lance Armstrong’s Oprah-event confession  and the Manti Te‘o girlfriend-dying-of-cancer hoax at Notre Dame .   The Internet is abuzz with reactions to both confessional moments.  Lance Armstrong’s confession apparently didn’t play well with the general public.   And people are weighing in about whether Manti Te‘o could really be so naïve or if he just didn’t know how to tell everyone the truth when the story got out of hand.  iStock question marks

What is truth?  It’s a hard question to answer.  It was a strange and oftentimes ineffective trump card in the recent presidential election.  Fact checkers developed graphs for how big lies were instead of settling for something being true or not.  The Washington Post had its “Pinocchio Scale”  and Politifact has their Truth-o-meter  and the “pants on fire” label for the most blatant lapses of truth.  The truth may not have had the traction we would hope it would have even when the stakes are so high.  Many political commentators assert that the work of the fact checkers didn’t really have much of an affect on the election at all.

We believe what we want to believe.  Psychologists assert that humans tend to accept information that coheres with our desires and with our assumptions.  And we tend to discredit sources that tell us what we do not want to hear.

Is Pilate’s question moot in light of all of these realities?  Or does it take on another kind of urgency in our postmodern context where multiple and fragmented truths define our public discourse.   I know that word “postmodern” gets thrown around a lot and it can mean a lot of things to different people.   I am referring here to the many layers of blurred boundaries and shifting categories that form and feed our interpretations of the complicated tapestry of human life.

There are surely growth pangs in moving from modernity with its assertion of one big human story to postmodern/postcolonial/post-Christian mentalities with narrative fragments that spring from social locations and multiple cultural lenses.  But just when we thought we knew who in the human family was having the most trouble with the increasing size of the gray areas in our collective human life (e.g. Fundamentalists of many religious types, etc.), it seems that distortion just isn’t the problem it used to be even for those who fashion themselves as defenders of t/Truth if it gets us to the outcome or outlook we most desire.

Where does postmodernity leave the need for absolutes?  Does it create space for standing down from the need to be right?  Or does it create a deeper sense of desperation that in turn legitimizes “rightness” by any means necessary? How do we proceed around this question of truth when we are treading on such dangerous territory?

Not withstanding political pragmatics, postmodernity can deeply wound something in our collective conscience when we stop being worried about what “really” happened when it comes to how people in power operate.   Postmodernity can become what some have dreaded it would—it can become an absolute free for all if we are blind to abuses of power.  If you come in to throw out the good old boys and you just replace them with your own gang of cronies, then you haven’t really changed anything.  You just have a new cast of characters who are drunk on power and short on perspective.  Abuse of power loses its moral currency if you only care when the abuser isn’t on your team.  And, the traction is further eroded if truth is not even an expectation anymore.

I guess what worries me the most about our ambivalent relationship to truth today is not that we’re here in this place where boundaries are blurred and edges are sharp.  What worries me the most is that we may be becoming even more comfortable with our own distortions as long as they work for us.  Even if truth is often provisional, and even if Truth is elusive, postmodernity doesn’t have to mean we don’t need ways to trouble our own biases and assumptions.  And the cacophonous nature of truth must not empty us of the courage to speak truth to power, and to speak truth from our lives.  It may mean we need new skill at creating community and life-giving systems in spaces of conflicting and fragmented narratives.  Without an interrogation of power, these spaces cannot be life-giving—there is too much to risk for those who have truths to tell that people don’t want to hear.

One of the most potent tools of Christian practice is the invitation in confession to truthfulness around our brokenness and our need for love in our lives.  As a feminist I resist the power dynamics of the sin-guilt-confession-forgiveness habit of mind that has so dominated the Christian story through modernity.  I want to find space for a more incarnational mode of truth telling—one that speaks from the hard and complicated truths of my life and the snarl of systems and institutions that help define me.  And one that speaks truth trusting it will be met with compassion rather than with judgment.   The tenuous nature of truth these days makes an incarnational understanding of truth as pressing as it was when Pilate asked his question of Jesus—the difference between life and death rests in our capacity to speak truth from our experience and to bring that truth to bear on systems that oppress, violate, and destroy.

When my daughter was around four years old she went through a pretty intense stage of lying about things that were obviously not true.  This kind of “magical thinking” is developmentally normal for someone her age—she wanted it to be true so she tried making it true just by saying it.  I explained what a lie is and told her that the consequence of telling lies is that people won’t believe anything you say anymore.  Am I giving her the wrong information for how to make it in this world today?  Surely the lesson of conflicting discourse and located narratives is not that if you say it enough times you really can make it true.  Surely truth means more to us than making sure you are good at hiding the evidence or being convincing enough so that no one cares.

How do I teach her to value honesty even when it doesn’t benefit her?  And how do I teach her that she may speak truth and not be believed?

Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian Minister who lives in Chapel Hill, NC.  Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond.  She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School.  At www.marciamountshoop.com  Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.  



Categories: Abuse of Power, Christianity, Christology, Embodiment, Feminism, General, Jesus, Postcolonialism

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17 replies

  1. But what if Pilate was not being philosophical? What if he was just asking, “What’s the truth about this man? What’s he up do? Why is he here?” Is there a difference between generalized philosophical truth and situational truth?

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    • Dear Barbara,
      Thank you for reading and for commenting. I like your questions and they make me wonder more, too, in the same direction of my original wondering.
      Whether Pilate was asking a meta question about the nature of truth or a situational question about what Jesus was up to, it doesn’t really get me far in how we “know it when we see it” or embrace it when we hear it–especially when it is something we don’t want to hear or know.
      I think of the “colorblind” narratives of many progressive white people and the way situations are navigated through that lens and the chilling affect that lens can have on the actual truths of the lives of those who do not experience the world through the lens of whiteness.
      I think also of the deep complexity of embodied memory in the wake of trauma and the way our justice system demands “truth” in a form trauma renders impossible (e.g. narrative, linear clarity of everything that happened, etc.).
      I think also of the lives of those who can no longer sort out memory or truth because of dementia, etc.
      These situations lift the veil on the seemingly infinite complexity of “what is truth?” I am not sure making a distinction between philosophical truth (a la Kant?) and situational truth gets us anywhere in light of these destructive situations–and many others we could list here I am sure. I would love to hear more about where your questions get you. Thanks again!
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  2. I appreciate your thoughts on postmodernism and t/Truth. But I think the most important part of your post is your closing two questions. I imagine most parents ask those questions in regards to their children.

    I think you have to begin answering those questions by defining what “truth” is. I know it may seem strange to say, but your truths and my truths may be different. Some may say that there are scientific truths (e.g. the speed of light in a vacuum or the atomic weight of hydrogen) that are true for all time and all places in the universe. Some say that there are really an infinite number of universes and that the scientific truths of the one we can perceive might be radically different in another. Some may say God is a truth. Some disagree.

    So, I think the first step is to define what “truths” are so fundamental to you that life would be meaningless without them. Then, teach those truths to your children. Then, teach them to question those truths and develop their own.

    I recognize I am espousing a system where everyone defines their own truth. However, I don’t think that will result in seven billion (or so) sets of truth. I think we will, over time, find that we all end up at the same truth.

    To try and answer your questions, I say that to teach your daughter to value honesty, you need to tell her to value your truths and to voice those always in all situations. When you do that, it won’t matter to her if she isn’t believed. She will know the truth.

    Glad I could solve this crucial philosophical discussion in only 273 words (smile).

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    • Thank you, Scott, for reading and for your thoughtful reply. I agree that truths can have integrity and be very different for different people. The challenge for me is how we apply these truths to life in community in which truth is often a trope manipulated by those in power to entrench their own privilege. How do we calibrate what honesty is when we ask these power questions? And how does speaking truth to power find its traction in this culture these days? Even that exercise seems to be something that carries with it a strange dissonance (I am thinking of things like white complaints about reverse racism and other similar dynamics where those in privilege turn the question back on those who have found their voice and are challenging the power structures of our society). Also as a survivor of sexual violence I can say that I don’t know exactly how to tell my daughter what it’s like to not be believed. It does matter and it does have a chilling effect on speaking out to live in a culture where often women are not believed. “It’s complicated”seems like a real understatement!
      Thank you again for commenting.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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      • I think you do need to tell your daughter what it’s like not to be believed, drawing on your personal experience, and it that brings tears to your eyes, let them flow. At what age… I would say once she gets beyond the stage you call magical lying, you can begin to tell her that you know it can be hard to tell the truth, because sometimes other people don’t believe you when do, mentioning that this has happened to you . Tell her you want to try always to understand what she tells you… At what age you tell her about your sexual abuse, I am not sure, but you should tell her. Nothing made me more angry than a Greek tv program in which the psychiatrist told the audience that a woman who told her 12 year old daughter that she lost her job due to sexual harrassment had poisoned her daughter’s mind against men by telling her the truth.

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      • Dear Nancy,
        Thank you for your response to this comment. Yes, I agree, that being age specific with the way we share perspectives, values, visions with our children is a way to meet them where they are with who we are.
        I actually have a daughter and a son and I am working to make space for my relationships with them to be honest, compassionate, and attentive. Truth is difficult to navigate around things like trauma with children–they don’t need everything, but they need something along the way as they are ready. My daughter is only 8 now so I tell her things as they need to emerge–at the same time, I am sure she can sense the tension I have when she tells me things that happen at school between boys and girls (yes, already even in 3rd grade). Telling her men can hurt her may not be the hardest thing I have to tell her.
        And when it comes to my son (who is almost a teenager) I also work to clear that space for attentiveness, honesty, and compassion. Giving him space to unfold as a person in terms of sexuality is something that needs truth and it needs support. I hope I can give him both. Thanks so much for this conversation.
        Peace,
        Marcia

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    • Dear Carol,
      Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful reply. Yes, I decided a long time ago to work toward transparency with my kids about sexual violence. It is a process of being attentive to their questions, conversations, and worries. I recently wrote a chapter for a book on the sacred in women’s experience about this very issue. I’d love for you to take a look at it sometime.
      Thanks again for your comment, Carol.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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      • My only daughter is now 31 so my child-rearing years are many years back. One of the things that I did in terms of raising a feminist child was to be as age-specific as possible. When she was little I told her — essentially — that the world was her oyster. When she went to school (sometime in her primary school years), I told her that in the “olden days,” men thought that women weren’t as good, as smart, as worthy as they were. When she came home from school (and she went to a progressive alternative school) with stories of experiencing sexism, I told her some people still thought like the people in the past. And when she needed to know, I told her that unfortunately sexism was still alive in our culture, but that there were a lot of us feminists working to change that. I think you could do something similar with the question of sexual violence. I don’t remember when I told her that I was a rape survivor, but it was probably in her teen years, when she needed to know that there were predators out there who would take advantage of her.

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      • I just thought of a song that my daughter learned at school when she was about 8 that I wanted to share with you, Marcia. I wish I had had such a song when I was little. It goes: “My body’s nobody’s body but mine. You run your own body, let me run mine.”

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  3. Your musing remind me of a time when a friend said her pastor simply preached “the truth” and how refreshing she found it. I wondered what he said that other pastors did not, and how we in the pews could tell what “the truth” actually was.

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    • Thanks, Becky, for reading and for your comment. I think people are hungry for clarity as the world seems to grow more ambiguous. And so it is “refreshing” for people to hear something presented as the non-debatable truth. I continue to wonder more and more what that could possibly look like, sound like, taste like as I grow more in my faith. I find unknowing to feel much more like home to me these days.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  4. Marcia, Thank you for a fascinating post. As you show, the question of t/Truth is fraught in our culture. For me the most important question you ask is: “Where does postmodernity leave the need for absolutes? Does it create space for standing down from the need to be right? Or does it create a deeper sense of desperation that in turn legitimizes “rightness” by any means necessary?” I believe — when I’m feeling optimistic — that we’re having problems with t/Truth, because we’re a society in transition. When I’m feeling cynical, I have the same fears as you.

    I strongly hope that we are moving towards greater tolerance and recognition of, and even celebration of diversity. But there is a very strong counterforce in our culture, as you imply in your post: absolute thinking. In our Christocentric, monotheisitic culture there can be only one t/Truth. If we lived in Hindu India it would be very different. There if something is important — is a truth — it has to be multiple. There are many cities of light (“kashi”), not just one Varanasi/Benares. There are many sacred rivers (“ganga”), not just one Ganges. There are many Gods and Goddesses, not just one God. The story that typifies this insight is the blind men and the elephant, where each thinks he knows what the elephant is, but has only a partial answer (the one holding the tail thinks it’s a rope; the one touching the leg thinks its the trunk of a tree, etc.)

    This multiplicity doesn’t mean that Hindus believe in a fragmented universe as posited by postmodernity. Au contraire, they believe that ultimately all is one, we are all part of the interdependent web of life. But they recognize that we are human (incarnational reality) and that this multiplicity is based on our limitations as human beings to see/understand beyond our own restricted perspectives. This diversity within unity allows for much more nuanced understandings. Hindus don’t have to CHOOSE between Truth and truth, both are available simultaneously. My question is how do we move toward such an understanding in our culture. As a thealogical pagan, it’s part of my thinking (and I believe it is a part of all mystical thought). As an American, I’m always trying to get beyond “my way is the only right way” type of thought, because I was socialized to think this way like everyone else in our country.

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    • Dear Nancy,
      Thank you for reading and for commenting. I agree with you that there are many mentalities, practices, world views, etc. outside of the American context that clear a lot of space for these questions to take on a more life-giving tone. As a Christian feminist who chooses to focus my Christological lens much more through the Incarnation than the crucifixion, I find space within my own tradition for such a healing way of being that is not about being right, but about being present and compassionate and interconnected. I have been helped by the Buddhist teaching of emptiness and by process thought in re-learning and recalibrating toward interdependence and fluidity and away from dogmatism and concreteness.
      Even with all this space around me I still wonder about how truth(s) can find its way into vivid expression in contexts where we desperately need it–most importantly in places where power is abused and violence is fair game. How do these questions hit the ground in those spaces for you?
      Thanks again, Nancy. I hope to continue the conversation.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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      • Very good question, Marcia. I think this is a very long-term project. The places where I see things changing include Eve Ensler’s Billion Women Rising project, especially with her “Man Prayer”; the Men Against Rape movement; the “Idle No More” movement in Canada, where First Nation women are leading the way in a country where many of them are targeted for rape and murder just because they’re Native American; the gift economy women, who are talking about barter as the way women would organize economy; the community projects like the one here in Madison, Wi that bring people of very different politics together to get to know each other and then talk about their understanding of how our society should be structured — those off the top of my head. In some ways I see the polarization of our society as the last gasp of the “my-
        way-or-the-highway” folks.

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      • Dear Nancy,
        Those are great examples. And they are embodying different models of power. I agree with you that there is a lot of “last gasping” going on around us with the exercise of power that is oppressive, abusive, and silencing. I just hope we never stop coupling the power questions with our yearning to tell, hear, and embrace truth.
        Peace,
        Marcia

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  5. This might be slightly off topic, but the University of Notre Dame community worried more about a non-existent dead girlfriend of a star athlete than a dead young woman who committed suicide after she reported being raped by a football player:

    http://www.salon.com/2013/01/17/notre_dames_double_standard/

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    • Dear John,
      I don’t think this is off topic. It’s a good question. What is it about these layers of American culture that create such dissonance around injustice, truth telling, community-building, and accountability? Not off topic at all–and even more reason to keep these questions at the fore. Thank you for reading and for commenting, John.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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