Talking About our Differing Partial Glimpses of the Truth

This Musing is abstracted out from a longer narrative, titled “Major Obstacles to Inclusive and Respectful Conversations, With the Essential First Step,” presented in chapter 1 of my book  “Let’s Talk.”

I believe that God knows the truth about all things. And, as one who aspires to be a follower of Jesus, I embrace with deep conviction his teaching that he came into the world to “bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37).

But the fact that I am not God presents a considerable challenge. My own quest for the truth and my aspiration to live out that truth are insatiable (sometimes I feel like my commitment to the Christian value of truth will consume me). But as a finite, fallible human being, I have only a partial glimpse of the truth that God fully understands. I “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

I am not alone in my blurred vision of the truth. The same is true for another person whose partial glimpse of the truth may differ from mine. My partial glimpse is deeply informed by my personal story about my experiences during my pilgrimage, as well as by the various particularities of who I am, such as my gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. This leads me to see things in a particular way, which may differ from the perspective of a person who disagrees with me because her partial glimpse of the truth is informed by a different personal story and a different set of particularities.

So how do we seek truth together? We need to “compare notes.” We need to talk to each other about the substance of our differing partial glimpses of the truth, seeking first to understand the reasons for these differences in light of our differing personal biographies and particularities. She may see something that I have missed because of who she is, and I may see something she has missed because of who I am.

Having such dialogue about our disagreements does not succumb to sheer relativism, where one set of beliefs about a given issue is as good as another. Rather, the purpose of talking is to explore whether together we can arrive at a better of approximation of the truth about the issue that is fully known only to God.

The distinguished Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff captures what I say above in more scholarly language when he notes that whereas the modern enlightenment ideal was to seek after “generically human learning,” where the scholar (and everyone else) must be stripped of all her particularities, the academy now generally accepts the view that much learning is perspectival, reflecting aspects of the scholar’s social location, such as her personal story and her various particularities.[1]

In light of this diversity of belief about a given issue, Wolterstorff calls us to participate in “dialogic pluralism.” which he describes as “a plurality of entitled positions engaged in dialogue which is aimed at arriving at truth.”[2]

As my next Musing will reveal, the starting point for this dialogue that aims at arriving at truth is to carefully listen to the other person’s position on the issue and, especially, the reasons she has for her position in light of her personal biography and particularities. It is only at this “deep level” that there is hope for forging some consensus as to the “broader truth” about the issue being discussed that incorporates the “partial truths” proposed by each conversation partner. This deep dialogue will require going beyond politeness.

[1] Wolterstorff, “Scholarship Grounded in Religion,” in Religion, Scholarship, and Higher Education, edited by Andrea Sterk, 3-15.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 2002. See also Heie, “Dialogic Discourse Christian Scholars Engaging the Larger Academy.” Christian Scholar’s Review (Spring 2008), 347–356.

[2] Wolterstorff, “Scholarship Grounded in Religion,” 14.

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