*First read “My First Principle…” which was the immediately preceding blog post. This essay is the second in a series about why I am an “evangelical Arminian Christian.”
2) My Second Principle: Only I Can Decide What Is True (for Me) (by Roger E. Olson)
I do not agree with philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) about everything, but I agree with his imperative “Dare to think for yourself” (“Sapere aude!”). In fact, I would go further and say that, whether they want to or not, everyone does think for himself or herself. Even the decision to allow someone else to think for you is an act of thinking for yourself. And, ultimately, only you can decide what you think is true.
I am no Enlightenment foundationalist, nor am I a strict individualist. But more of that later. All I am saying here, and people should not read more into it, is that it is the responsibility of mature persons to decide for themselves what is true and in fact, whether they know it or not, people do always decide for themselves what is true.
When I lived and studied in Germany I learned a wonderful little German saying about “old style” German (and other) teaching style: “Eat up, little birdies, or die.” In other words, too often, especially in the past, students were expected to listen, read and learn and never question what authorities told them is true. “Truth” was what the right authorities said it was.
I began to think for myself and even question authority before I ever read Kant or any other philosopher. I do not remember when or how I came to the recognition that “authorities” could be wrong, but it was very early in my life. I guess that it came as a result of reading. Reading is dangerous; it can have the effect of causing one to think critically. Even reading the Bible, which I did a lot as a child, can lead a person to think critically. I well remember learning from the Bible that a prophet could be right and a king wrong.
But, ultimately, I think experience itself led me to believe I had to and actually did think about truth for myself. Very early I discovered that some people whose “word” I was supposed to believe without question were wrong about some things. I discovered that I literally could not make myself believe what was, my mind, false.
Always, throughout my life, I have lived and worked in somewhat hierarchicalorganizations—from my birth family, through my schools and churches, and in businesses and corporations. I have often experienced the expectation that I believe something merely on another’s “word,” and repress what I believed to be true. And by “repress” here I do not mean “keep it to myself” but deny it. (I do not believe truth ought always to be expressed, but I do believe it is wrong to expect a person to believe a falsehood.)
Of course, throughout my life, even to today, I have had to accept some things as true simply on others’ authority, but that is always because I believe they have reason to know things I cannot know on my own. Their combined experience, competence in a field, and their character often convinces me that their truth claims are what I ought to believe. But never, since childhood, have I believed something merely on another human person’s “status authority.” This has gotten me into a lot of trouble.
Again, I will go further and say that I do not believe anyone believes something is really true—as opposed to fancy or fantasy—for no reason.
Let me illustrate. Some years ago a student came to me in anguish, confessing that he intended to convert from his Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. He was in anguish because, of course, this would cause some consternation, if not disruption, within his family and among his friends. I asked him why he planned to convert and he said “Because I need someone else to tell me what is true.” He clearly meant (and said) he wanted the pope to decide truth for him. First, with tongue in cheek, I offered to be his desired arbiter, decider, of truth. He declined my offer. Second, I pointed out to him that by deciding to convert he was deciding for himself what to believe about truth. He had not thought of that.
When a mature (or maturing) person decides to submit to another person’s authority for determining truth there is always a reason. My student had come to believe that the pope has the truth because he stands in continuity with Jesus and the apostles by apostolic succession. He told me that and that is why he declined my offer to be his decider of truth. That is thinking for himself whether he knows it or not.
As I grew into early maturity, early in my development process, I realized that the “voices” clamoring for my submission to their versions of truth contradicted each other. And I realized that some of them contradicted themselves. And, of course, some of them did not have the competence to require my submission to their truth claims. Well before I read Kant’s essay I had already decided to think about truth for myself. And part of that process was the realization that I already did think for myself about truth—and so does everyone.
Two caveats are in order here—to avoid misunderstanding. I am not advocating unhealthy, chronic skepticism. I believe many things are true because I have reasons for it. They may not be considered good reasons by others, but they are my reasons and have nothing to do with mindless, uncritical submission of my thoughts to others’ based solely on their status within some hierarchy. Also, I am not advocating rebellion against authority; I often submit my behavior to someone’s expectations in order to maintain peace and progress within an organization of some kind.
However, when it comes to deciding about truth, I am the ultimate “decider” for myself. And if I expect others to believe what I believe about truth, I have to give reasons above and beyond “Because I say so.” And I have always strongly resented it when hierarchical authorities expect me to believe them mindlessly and uncritically, without adequate reasons, and/or expect me to live against what I believe is true. This resentment is right, but it creates tremendous cognitive dissonance in my life as it should in everyone’s.
Finally, and returning to a promise made near this essay’s beginning, I happen to believe it is true that I, on my own, am not capable of deciding what is true without others’ input. I am not taking back anything I said above. I believe, based on my own experience, that “my truth,” my belief about truth, like everyone’s, is conditioned by my felt needs and vested interests (to say nothing of my finitude and fallenness!). Therefore, I need to include in my decision making about truth communities of people with different felt needs and vested interests.
Ultimately, however, at the “end of the day,” when I need to decide what I think is true, that will be (and always is) my task, my responsibility, my decision, my risk and it will always be based on some reasons—whether others agree with them or not.
[Link to original post and comments at Roger Olson’s blog]