The truth is. . . Poetry explained

2 Dec

My last blog included three poems on the theme, “The Truth Is. . .,” which in turn was inspired by a news item reporting a survey taken during last summer’s political conventions in which people were asked to complete that sentence about what is truth.

I received more response than usual, and I delight in the widely differing interpretations from readers. Some readers are wondering just what the three poems are up to, so I’m taking an unusual step to clarify, briefly, what was in my mind.

What is truth? My starting-point was my own religious tradition, which I think has meaning beyond its own boundaries. Truth is in words, the theme of the first poem–sacred scriptures are vessels of truth for many religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, as well as Christianity. There are many non-religious approaches to truth as words, as well: our American constitution and constitutions in other countries, laws, contracts and legal traditions, literature, especially poetry. One thing all these hold in common is that they often need interpreters. Rabbis, biblical scholars, and lawyers. Words cannot exist without interpreters, even though the words are the base, the “scriptures.” The question arises whether we find truth in the original words or in the interpreters. And of course, this means which interpreter persuades us. My relation to the words of truth is triangular–me, the words, and the interpreter.

Truth is also associated with places, sometimes called sacred space. Jews refer to the Holy Land; Yahweh dwells in Jerusalem. A Catholic theologian once said, “However you think of the Church, for Catholics, it passes through Rome.” The Desert Fathers and Mothers, from the third century onwards, considered the desert to be a place where the Holy is present. As I write, Native American Indians are defending with their lives what they consider to be the sacred lands of North Dakota–against intrusion by an oil pipe line. For Hindus, the Ganges River in India is sacred and hence the place for their bodies to be cremated after death. The list goes on and on.

In the second poem, I reveal the land of my own spiritual home–the Great Western Plains and the mesas of New Mexico. This is the only truly personal disclosure in the poems.

The third poem takes note of truth embodied in individual persons. Many religious figures come to mind: Gautama Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus Christ. Other persons have elicited a kind of religious status, because they embody truth–think of Che Guevara, Mother Teresa (and indeed all saints), Vladimir Lenin, Abraham Lincoln. My own particular Lutheran tradition emphasizes that God’s Word of truth is Jesus Christ. The dogma known as the Two Natures of Christ and the tradition of the theology of the “communication of attributes” (in plainer English, “the co-existence of divinity and humanity”) are centuries-long discussions of how Jesus can be God’s truth.

I wrote the first draft of the poem with a male “person”–you’ll note the names I listed above are mostly male). However, the “Christa” tradition was also in my mind–the effort of some artists to represent Christ as a woman–Edwina Sandys’ 1975 painting is an example (See above). So, I decided to add this nuance.

I asked for comments as to whether the poem’s gender would make a difference. Interestingly, readers were not clear on this, but several suggested it was a personal matter for me. 

My relation to all three sources of truth–not just words–may be dependent on interpreters and tradition. There are dozens–perhaps hundreds–of interpretations of Jesus, for example. Even if living persons, or direct acquaintances are treated as truth-bearers, there is often–though not always–interpretation through media, staged performances, and the like. Similarly, people have to be taught about the community’s holy places. There are personal holy places, like mine, that we have direct experience of. Perhaps that is why I expressed my personal experience only in the second poem.

There is a profound and complex relation between what we experience as truth and what we are taught about truth. One reader asked, “What about the situations in which we ourselves feel prompted to speak ” truth”? We are the truth-bearers?

“The truth is . . .” Each of us has to complete the sentence for ourselves. And the same with my poems–what I had in mind as I wrote them is not necessarily the “correct” interpretation. As Paul Ricoeur wrote, they mean whatever they can mean–in anyone’s mind.

(c) Phil Hefner 12/2/2016

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