Everyone shall be remembered, but everyone became great in proportion to his expectancy. One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became the greatest of all. --Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.--George Orwell
The American Dialect Society recently announced "truthiness" to be their choice as 2005 Word of the Year with this citation:
In its 16th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted truthiness as the word of the year. Recently popularized on The Colbert Report, a satirical mock news show on the Comedy Central television channel, truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. As Stephen Colbert put it, "I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart." Other meanings of the word date as far back as 1824.'
Stephen Colbert had this to say about it in an interview he gave about the word to The Onion:
"It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?...
"Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality."
For a thorough discussion of the word and its significance I refer you to the Wikipedia article where I found some of these quotes. The same article also refers to Kierkegaard, who
asserted that religious experience could only be understood subjectively, rather than objectively, so that the nonreligious could never understand the truth of religion. Some religions explicitly teach that faith can never come through rational understanding, but only by gaining a feeling that something is true. A religious impression accepted as truth by a believer might therefore be perceived as truthiness by an outside observer."
This cuts to the heart of the problem that I was addressing in my posts here, here and here about Subjectivity and the Self. If religious truth is ultimately something that can only be subjectively known, and I believe with Kierkegaard that it's true to say so, then how can you possibly know for sure that you're not deluded? How is it possible to distinguish "true" religious knowledge from the kind of delusional religion that is typified in cults? Who's to say that David Koresh and the Heaven's Gate suicides who thought the Comet Hale-Bopp had come to take them to a higher level of existence were not right? Maybe they knew something that the rest of us didn't. They certainly thought so.
But good Christians say to themselves, "Well those people were crazy, and we're not. We're normal." Well is religious faith about being normal as it might be defined in conventional terms? Is it simply about doing what one is told to be a "good person"? Was Jesus normal in that way? Was the Patriarch Abraham normal? He heard voices, and on one occasion the voices told him to kill his only son, Isaac. Today Abraham would be judged certifiably insane. And yet we people of the book honor him as Father Abraham, the one who in risking everything made everything possible.
I bring Abraham in because he was for Kierkegaard the archetypal example of what he called the "teleological suspension of the ethical." In K's thinking about spiritual development there were three stages, or perhaps more accurately, three states of mind or soul: the 'aesthetic' in which one is driven primarily by self-absorption, the 'ethical' in which one discovers oneself capable of transcending one's self interest for the good of another; and the 'religious', in which one can find oneself in a crisis of conscience that may require him to break the moral law. A dramatic example of this was portrayed in the "Lost" episode entitled "The 23rd Psalm," in which the teenaged Mr. Eko shoots an old man so that his little brother, commanded to do it by the local druglord, would not have to. Eko breaks the moral law and commits a horrific act, but does so in an act of love to spare his young brother the choice of either killing or being killed.
The faculty by which we make judgments to suspend the ethical is conscience. Like any other human faculty, it only works well if it is exercised properly. Conscience can be called upon to justify the worst crimes, and anyone who commits a crime for reasons of conscience must be prepared to be proven wrong. None of us is immune from delusion. None of us can be sure with complete certainty of our motivations. Nevertheless there are occasions when we must act, and we must do so fully prepared to accept the consequences if we are wrong.
So can believers ever be certain that they are not deluded? No. But neither can the materialist rationalist be certain that he is not. He's just making what in his mind is a safe bet. But as Kierkegaaard say, your greatness of soul is measured by the greatness of your expectancy. Small, safe bets yield small returns. Abraham is great because of the greatness of his expectancy, and his willingness to risk it all.
An act of conscience is always a profound risk. It is an Abrahamic act. We take the risk in the hope we are right, but never with complete certainty of it. And we must be open to the possibility that we are wrong, and we must accept the consequences if we are. It's the failure to accept the consequences that distinguishes an act done out of truthiness from an act done in faith.
That's what makes the "knowing" that is involved in an act of conscience far superior to an act of knowing in the scientific, objective sense. Scientific knowing is about certainty. Faith knowing is about risk. Faith is an act of moral-courage knowing/not knowing. It is always a leap in the dark trusting that you will land safely without the certainty that you will. And if you were right, your act of faith will bear fruit. If not? Well the best that can be said is that you took the risk and now you must bear responsibility and the consequences for it. It is precisely this failure to accept responsibility for the consequences of his decisions that makes someone like George Bush someone committed to his own self-reinforcing truthiness and therefore someone devoid of moral seriousness.
And so the difference between "truthiness" and faith is that the first is motivated by a need to reinforce one's complacency and need to block out what one does not care to think about, the second by a challenge to ]risk to going beyond what makes sense or what is conventionally acceptable. It is never an act of arrogance, but an act, if genuine, undertaken with no certainty concerning the outcome and a willingness to accept the consequences if proven wrong.
To know that others have leapt and landed safely is useful, but it is no real comfort because that was then and this is now. Just as we must all die our own death, we must leap our own leap. And not just once because the life of faith is a life of multiple leaps into the darkness with a trust that echoes Job: "Even though he slay me, yet will I trust him."