Elizabeth Duke

The 2018 Quaker Lecture (Aotearoa/New Zealand) – Can Religion Speak Truth? – was written and delivered by Elizabeth Duke.

Elizabeth has a distinguished ecumenical and Quaker heritage.  She was born into an Anglican family but joined the Religious Society of Friends in 1976.   She has served as the General Secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation and her academic background is in Classics, Theology and Maori Studies; her lecture strongly reflects her studies and personal background.

Can Religion Speak Truth? is a carefully constructed and thought-provoking address that does not limit itself to a purely epistemic response to the question it proposes for consideration.  It would have been easy for Elizabeth merely to address the question of truth as the correspondence between propositions and reality.  Instead she has a much more expansive and nuanced notion of truth.  “My approach is that truth goes far beyond statements of beliefs; we live it – it is incarnate in action, in relationships and in the nature of all that is.” (p.3)  Her reference here to truth as ontologically incarnate reminded me of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate:  “‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate” (NIV) – and although it was staring him in the face, he didn’t stay around for an answer.  Elizabeth does stay around for the answer.  Truth, she argues is not merely what is taught by religion, it is lived. (p.8)

In dealing with her central concern, Elizabeth knows that she has to do more than address the question of truth; her focus is on truth in religion and therefore she recognises a need to explain the relationship between religion and other human concerns such as science, spirituality and even magic.  For Elizabeth “spirituality” is to do with the “more than….”, it is that which goes beyond the human condition.  Spirituality is relational, it is how we stand in relation to the “more than…”.  She argues that religion is “spirituality done together”.  In defining religion in this way she is linking the concept of religion back to the word’s etymology: “religion” from the Latin religare meaning to bind together.  She writes: “I understand ‘spirituality’ as our relation to what is beyond human, more than human, other than human, and ‘religion’ as ‘doing spirituality together’.  In this sense religion involves some degree of communal practice.” (p.5)

But what of science, and magic?

Both science and religion strive to say and assert that which is true about the Universe.  Both science and religion seek to make claims that are driven by a desire for the truth, as does magic, according to Elizabeth.  The line of demarcation that separates science, religion and magic, however, is humility.  Science makes assertions supported by empirical evidence and tests and observations that are repeatable.  It (i.e. science) stands before truth with humility, magic does not.

Science seeks to understand the material world and to enable us to live in it through material technology; religion seeks to find and to approach power beyond the material, in humility recognising that we cannot control it, and so relating to it through modes such as prayer which subordinate the human to the divine; magic, through formulae and practices, seeks power over the material and the divine. (p.14)

If religion can speak truth, then we must ask “which religion speaks the truth – some, all?” for there exist religions that make competing epistemological and theological claims upon their adherents – they can’t all be “true”.  We also have the problem of morphing semantics over time.  Does the concept of “truth” have the same logical criteria for its application as the concept had 350 years ago? In response to the first of these questions Elizabeth argues that whilst all religions may sometimes get it wrong, all religions and philosophies “incorporate some form of the search for truth.” (p.7)  This sentiment has echoes of Voltaire’s marvellous aphorism – cherish those who seek the truth, beware of those who claim to have found it.  As for the shifting sands of linguistic application, Elizabeth cautions us to be ever mindful of how individual words’ meanings may change over time.

In the central part of her address, Elizabeth turns to the Bible and in particular the first four chapters of Genesis to explore the matter of truth in scripture.  She undertakes an exegetical examination of a number of key narratives: the story of Cain and Abel and the first recorded instance of murder; the naming of the animals by Adam; the temptation of Eve by Satan and the ‘fall’ of humanity and the birth of moral consciousness; the Biblical explanation for the emergence of nomadic humans compared to city-dwelling humans, as well as a number of other stories.  At the heart of this exegesis is Elizabeth’s wish to demonstrate the difference between literal truth and metaphorical or figurative truth.  These stories and narratives contain profoundly important and deep truths about the human condition and humanity’s special relationship with God.  They explore great truths about what it means to be human and what it means to be in this particular world.   She writes:  “The truth in Genesis is not in the historicity of the story, but in the inner meanings it conveys…  These Genesis stories are exemplars of myths, stories which call our imagination to find truths beyond the literal narrative.” (pp. 18&20)  In the exposition and analysis of these foundational stories we note not only the scope of what it means for something to be true, but also the pivotal place of hermeneutics.  It is not merely what the story “says” but what we bring to the story.

In the latter part of her address Elizabeth turns to the relationship between “truth” and “goodness”.  She notes that in the English language the word “true” is sometimes used to mean “good”.  She gives examples: a true friend, a true love.  “Truth in religion merges into a wider concept – integrity.” (p.24)  “Integrity” is, of course, one of the Quaker testimonies and conveys powerfully notions of both truth and goodness,  of “wholeness” and “completeness”.  A bridge, or other structure whose integrity has been compromised is not a good bridge, it is not true.  Elizabeth ponders also the famous Euthyphro Dilemma found in the Platonic dialogue by the same name in which Socrates wonders: Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?  Is the “good” good because God declares it to be good, or does God declare something to be good because of some quality it possesses that transcends God?  If so, that would mean that there is something “greater” than God – Goodness Itself – and such a claim would be to border upon blasphemy and apostasy.

In the last part of her address, Elizabeth turns to the difficulties that arise when we seek to enunciate truth through language and the application of concepts.  It is arguable that all language is metaphor and therefore the relationship between the enunciation of a proposition and the truth is deeply mysterious.  Elizabeth writes: “Using human language and concepts, we are in the sphere of imagery, metaphor, myth or story.  In the end we find ourselves in mystery, in that which is hidden but may make itself known to us.” (p.29).  Her reference here to knowing is salient and interesting.  Any epistemologist worth his or her salt will tell you that “truth” is a necessary condition of knowledge.  But in so doing we come full circle to where Elizabeth began her lecture.  “Truth” is so much more than the mere correspondence of that which is real to propositions.  As intimated by Elizabeth, we move here into deeply mysterious territory.  When Pilate demanded to know what Jesus meant by truth and if truth can, as Elizabeth has suggested, be “incarnate”, then there is a meaningful sense in which the truth was standing before Pilate’s very eyes.  And we remember here that Elizabeth has explained spirituality as that which is “more than…” And the “more than” lies at the heart of what cannot be spoken.  “Of its nature, mystery points to what is beyond knowing.” (p.30)  And here we enter into silence, into what cannot be spoken of.

So what is Elizabeth’s answer to the question she poses – can religion speak truth?  She writes:

Religious thought, expressions, faith and practices can speak truth only if we live the truth in ethical integrity and humility.  Humility subjects itself to the test of reason, and what goes beyond reason; it recognises that we know in part, while being content that ‘the last, the utmost’ is mystery. (p 31) [italics Duke’s]

Elizabeth Duke’s lecture is profound and thoughtful.  It addresses its subject with a broad brush and does not limit itself to a purely epistemic analysis of the concept of truth or knowledge.  She digs deeply into the question examining the nature of truth in relation to other human concerns.  It deserves more than one reading.  She does a marvellous job of attending to an enormously complex question with perspicacity and intelligence.  She concludes via negativa – in the end it is what cannot be said about truth, religion, spirituality and mystery.  In the end we are reduced to silence.  She finishes by quoting Pennington: “And the end of words is to bring [people] to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter.”

Peter H Bennett, Victoria Regional Meeting

The full text of this lecture can be downloaded at http://quaker.org.nz/quaker-lecture

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