9 September 2000
Homily by The Right Reverend Dr. Craig B. Anderson, Rector
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is my sermon prop this morning — my Convocation helper, if you will [holding up statue of St. Paul]. It is a carving of St. Paul, our patron saint, also depicted on our school lozenge. It is my prop because the scroll that St. Paul is holding, along with the sword of righteousness, says, “Speaking the truth in love.” “Speaking the truth in love” is a phrase that we just heard in this morning’s second lesson, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians — “speaking the truth in love so that we can grow up in every way.”
I hope that this address will be guided by the spirit of St. Paul and his understanding of truth, truthfulness, and honesty. But before addressing the question of truth, a preface is required for those faculty members and students who are new to the School, and a reminder for those returning, as to the purpose of Convocation and why we gather in this Chapel as we begin a new session, in this case the 145th session of the School.
A convocation address is intended to set the theme, the tone, for the school year. That which informs such an address comes not only from scripture, but also from the traditions of the School and recent events.
Allow me to illustrate. Two years ago we had a hazing incident at the School that called our attention to the need for respect — respect for God, respect for others, respect for the environment, and respect for self. We talked about respect in the classroom, residential life sessions, and in conversations with one another. We discussed the meaning of respect and how it is central to our life together as a School, as a community, and as a family. Similarly last year, when we were in the midst of looking at strategic plans and changes in structure and schedules, we talked of the need to find the appropriate balance of freedom and responsibility.
The reason I selected “speaking the truth in love” for our theme this year likewise grows out of our life together and is undergirded by the tradition of truthfulness symbolized in this statue of St. Paul and his words addressed to the Ephesians. Truth is the basis for trust and trust is foundational for community and family. Without it, there is no community, only an aggregate of individuals. Without it, there is no family, at least in any significant sense. In the passage from Ephesians, St. Paul states that truthfulness, grounded in love and concern for others, is a sign of maturity and character. Honesty has been a part of this School since its founding, but the need for it was highlighted at the conclusion of last year when an incident forced us to face the fact that we must speak the truth to one another, in love, if we are to be a community and if we are to be a School family.
Let me be specific: no matter what you might do that violates our rules, standards, or expectations as students, or faculty, or staff, there is the possibility of forgiveness. But that possibility is premised on your willingness to confess the fault, tell the truth, and accept the consequences for your actions. Let me say it again. I can think of nothing that would separate you from one another as members of this family or from the love of God that cannot be forgiven if you tell the truth, confess what you have done, and accept responsibility for your actions. But if you do not tell the truth, if you lie and are dishonest, there is no place for you in this community. Zero tolerance for dishonesty. Truthfulness is essential for our life together as a school.
Given that straightforward admonition, let’s examine what we mean by truth. What is truth? Philosophers, theologians, scientists, scholars, human beings from the very beginning of time have asked that question. What is truth? I am reminded of Pilate’s haunting question as Jesus stood before him. Jesus said, “I have come to bear witness to the Truth.” And Pilate said, “What is truth?”
The essence of what I have to share with you this morning comes from an old proverb: “Truth is the daughter of God.” To which I would add, Wisdom is her mother and Jesus is her brother.
What is truth? I suspect that if I were to ask each of you individually, you would answer and define your understanding of truth in a variety of ways. I offer four meanings of truth for your consideration this morning: truth as a proposition, truth as revelation, truth as regulation, and, finally, truth as embodied. Let us look at each briefly because each of us at St. Paul’s School has a responsibility for these four different kinds of truth — in the classroom, in our houses, on the athletic fields, and in our life together.
First, propositional truth — perhaps your very earliest understanding of truth in the classroom; statements that conform to reality. One plus one equals two. Propositional truth is found in the work and language of logicians, mathematicians, and scientists. It is truth that comes from rigorous inquiry; it is truth that requires verification, proof, something that can be repeated. It is the very stuff of education, isn’t it? Truth as proposition is a description of truth that has been emphasized since the Enlightenment. However, far too often we reduce all truth to proposition. Prove it. Show it to me. Point to it. Truth as proposition…
But you know, recently truth as proposition has been challenged in our postmodern world, a world where truth is seen as relative and far too often co-opted by “political correctness.” Postmodern thinkers note that proposition is determined by method and selective intent. Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and others have employed various methods of “deconstruction” to look at our cherished propositions — Are you sure? Can you be certain? Are these truths simply language games? What do you mean by truth? What is the relationship of truth to historical/political/economic interest? What is the relation of truth to power? There is a certain validity in their critique. They underscore the need for us to challenge assumptions and propositions in our search for truth. As Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific “truth” changes with new evidence, discoveries, and paradigm shifts as do all bodies of knowledge. The legacy of Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein remind us of this fact. Werner Heisenberg articulated a principle, the uncertainty principle, in quantum physics that has become an icon of the postmodern era. Heisenberg postulated that there is always a limit to the precision of human knowledge.
And that brings us to a second kind of truth: truth as revelation. Have you ever been in a situation where you have been wrestling with a particular problem or trying to understand something or someone, and you finally give up out of frustration and say, “God help me.”? Or perhaps you’ve gone to bed and tossed and turned after trying to come up with the answer to a problem after a concerted effort and tremendous work on your part only to be frustrated and baffled. And then you wake up in the morning, or you are walking down the street, or like C.S. Lewis — getting off a streetcar, and all of a sudden it comes to you in a flash. “Of course that’s the answer. How could I have missed it? Of course that’s the truth of the matter.” Hardly propositional, hardly something at which we arrive in terms of a formula or reasoned inquiry. This second kind of truth, truth as revelation, is not so much grounded in reason and logic; it comes from insight, intuition, and imagination. It comes from the deepest levels of the subconscious, unconscious, or preconscious as inspiration; from the heart and through the soul. It is akin to aesthetical truth, truth as beauty — the source of inspired music, of art as truth that reveals to us truthfulness about ourselves, the human condition, and the cosmos in ways in which we never could have arrived through proposition. Such truth is a gift. It comes to us when we least expect it. It grabs, it shapes, it forms us in ways that we could never imagine and we recognize it as profound.
Third, we canonize or codify the truths of proposition and revelation in regulations. Your student policy handbook is a ready example. Contained in those policies, rules, expectations, norms, and standards are certain truths that inform and shape you and your membership in this community — what you are called upon to do and be as a member of this community. Such regulative statements, if you will, point to truth. Regulative truth is the truth of lawyers. It has to do with law, but not simply law in the form of proscription or restriction; it also has to do with the gift of Torah: laws that give meaning and structure to communal life. Laws and guidelines derive from social compacts/contracts that regulate our life together because they have been recognized over the ages to be true, to be meaningful, to build up, or in St. Paul’s words, “To help us be at unity with one another in love.” They are not meant to oppress us, although at times they do so if they become legalistic. They are there to help shape our lives together because over the ages truth as regulative has been an important part of what it is to be a community. We struggled with this aspect of truth last year and the year before and for the past 144 years and will continue to struggle with it this year and in the years to come.
For our new students — when you signed the matriculation book, when you were seated in this Chapel on Thursday night, you were not only “signing in” as an act of matriculation, you were also “signing on” and agreeing to live by our regulations, to become a member of this community. You were signifying, by means of your signature, your desire to invest in the values regulated by our life together, not just in policy handbooks, but in the codes that we live by that are written on the heart; truths conveyed by standards that can never be captured totally in propositions or revelation, but are internalized and become the framework for tradition — what we call the “goodly heritage.”
Finally, such internalization brings me to the fourth kind of truth — embodied truth. Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the Way and I am the Truth and I am the Life.” Truth is something that is embodied. Theologically we talk about it as incarnation. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, St. Paul; great religious leaders from the past, and contemporary religious leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, are persons who represent the embodiment of truth, of goodness, of honesty, of truthfulness, that goes beyond proposition, revelation, beyond rules and regulations, to an honesty within and between persons. Such truth is something to which we aspire here at this St. Paul’s School — for every one of us to be incarnations of truth, to be the embodiment of truthfulness to one another so that unity, justice, maturity, and the love of which Paul speaks can obtain in terms of our common life.
Four truths. Four truths borne of the notion that Truth is indeed the daughter of God. Wisdom is her mother. Jesus and other great religious figures have been the embodiment of Truth. But how do we live such truth together … this year? What can we do to speak the truth in love? What can we do to overcome gossip, exaggeration, rumor, half truths, white lies, cheating, and dishonesty that are destructive of community?
I think that the best way to be truthful and to be honest is to have a passion for truth … the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Intellectually and academically, press your teachers, press one another, in propositions that are offered as truth. Furthermore, I suggest to you that it is incumbent upon us to question revelation and religious statements uttered in this Chapel about truth because those who believe most question the most — St. Paul is a wonderful example. Honest doubt and inquiry in an attempt to better understand and discover temporal and eternal truths are what we hold dear as an academic community that exercises freedom and our god given ability to think and reflect as a community that seeks the truth. For those new to the School, our motto is “to learn those things on earth the knowledge of which will continue in Heaven.” Those things are the eternal verities, lower case truths and Truth with a capital T.
Finally, I invite you to consider not only intellectual and religious truth in terms of a passion for truth through questioning, but also the truth that is revealed and embodied in relationships. Are we being truthful with one another? Are we being honest? Are we being open, not only students to adults, but adults to adults, adults to students, teachers to parents, students to parents? Are we telling the truth about our School, without hyperbole, or hiding the truth from those who wish to join this school family as students, teachers, and staff? Are we honest in disclosing who we are and what we strive to be to parents and alumni? Truth in relationships — a recognition that if I tell you the truth I have nothing to hide, nothing to cover up. And, if I tell the truth even when I do something wrong, if I am woman or man enough to acknowledge that truth, to confess it, there is the possibility of forgiveness, the opportunity for a deepening of trust, and the potential for grace.
St. Paul’s spirit is with us this morning as we begin a new year. He invites us, I invite you, let us invite one another to speak the truth in love so that we can grow up in every way to a unity that is the very essence of this School. Amen.