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Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 18: The Truth Seeking Principle — At All Costs

During a televised presidential debate a few years ago the journalist moderating the event asked candidate Fred Thompson to explain his solution for a particular vexing problem in the country, and reminded Mr. Thompson that he had but two minutes to answer. Thompson flatly refused to answer the question, and derided the moderator for suggesting that the problem, which had a long history, could somehow be solved, let alone explained, in two minutes.

“Bravo!” Thompson, in so many words, declared that the bigger problem with society was illustrated by the stupidity of the question and the expectation that truth could be discovered so easily.

I might add that another big part of the problem is the refusal of journalism schools to require their students to successfully pass courses in a wide range of liberal arts courses like logic, statistics, basic science, literature, history, psychological and philosophy.  It seems that sometimes the only courses some of these “journalists” took are “How To Pass Off Opinion As Objective Reporting,” “How To Remove Your Makeup Without Removing Your Arrogance”, and “Hiding Zits In A High Def Era.”

Thompson illustrated one of the great principles of seeking truth that our society has tragically lost — that truth must be sought after at all costs, even if that means talking through a commercial break, and that could cost the network thousands – and the candidate the election.

The Truth Seeking Principle

This series of articles is desperately seeking to explain how reason must be used responsibly in the discovery of truth. All humanity arrives at truth through the application of faith and reason, even if they claim to be atheists, rationalists, or agnostics. Faith and reason are like “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” (John Paul II, Fides Et Ratio). Truth does not come to us by faith alone, nor does it come by reason alone. To rely on one to the exclusion of the other, is to fly blind with only one wing, mostly in circles, before you crash and burn in a pile of irrational assumptions.

This installment is about T. Edward Damer’s The Truth Seeking Principle, the 2nd principle from his “Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion.”

This principle encourages each participant in a discussion to earnestly seek out the truth at all costs, regardless of prejudice, presuppositions, perceived values, emotions, time, hurt feelings, political parties, – - did I leave anything out… oh, yeah – - religion. The Truth Seeking Principle demands that we listen humbly to opposing viewpoints and to demand good evidence with respect and diligence.

How hard can that be? Plenty! Just turn on your TV (…or don’t).

The O’Reilly Factor

Sound bytes, demanded by the mainstream media, are a condemnation of our society and its ability to discover what is true and what will bring us happiness. If the Fred Thompson example wasn’t enough, every night on TV the problem is reinforced by a top rated commentary program — The Bill O’Reilly Show.

Here is a man who claims to be a conservative, a Catholic, and has even named his show “The No Spin Zone”, which in the political vernacular of our day suggests that Bill O’Reilly is trying to apply The Truth Seeking Principle.  But O’Reilly, regardless of his position on the issues, is a demagogue when it comes to seeking the truth, unless it’s his truth.  O’Reilly also demands that his guests pander to his show’s fast paced format, explaining complicated positions or sophisticated concepts in seconds. Recently, O’Reilly’s guest was a Catholic priest whom O’Reilly seemed to enjoy intimidating by demanding that the priest explain the historical basis of a particularly involved Church teaching — in 30 seconds. It was an impossible task that no one could have achieved.  Meekly, the priest began, only to be interrupted by O’ Riley 15 seconds later because the priest wasn’t going fast enough or in the right direction to fit O’Reilly’s pre-conceived opinion. The pope couldn’t have answered the question any faster, except to quickly tell Bill where he (O’Reilly) was heading unless he put The Truth Seeking Principle ahead of The Nielson Rating Principle. I’m imagining O’Reilly at the pearly gates. St. Peter says, “Okay, Bill, you’ve got 30 seconds to explain to me why I outta let you in. After 30 seconds of Bill’s hemmin’ and pawnin’ St. Peter stops him: “Sorry Bill, but times up, and this is the real “No Spin Zone.”

Religion and Talk Shows

Sean Hannity, another well-known talk show host who happens to be “Catholic”, is not so “Catholic” when it comes to certain topics like his embrace of artificial birth control under the fallacy of something called “false alternatives” where he assumes that women have one of two options: artificial birth control or abortion. He totally ignores the option of self-discipline and obedience to the whole moral law. He is a moral relativist on this position. March 9, 2008, Sean’s producer’s invited Fr. Thomas Euteneuer (then Human Life International President) onto Hannity and Colmes show. Fr. Euteneuer challenged Hannity on-air for using the public platform for taking a position that was contrary to Catholic doctrine. In answer to a question about Hannity by Colmes, the Fr. Euteneuer said:

FR. EUTENEUER: One is not obligated to use their public platform for preaching the tenets of Catholicism, but one is simply obliged not to be a heretic in public. That’s the point. If he [Hannithy] doesn’t agree with his Church on that matter he should not be pronouncing on the matter as if he was the authority on that matter.

Colmes barely got in another word. Hannity, like an arrogant adolescent, railed at Fr. Euteneuer, interrupting him multiple times:

HANNITY: Reverend….You call me a hypocrite. You question the depth of my faith. Do you know anything about me and my religious beliefs? And my background religion? Do you know anything about me?… Judge not lest you be judged, Reverend. Maybe you ought to spend a little more time that our Church covered up one of the worst sex scandals and I wasn’t involved in it…. You want to ostracize me? You want to excommunicate me? Do you know that I went to a seminary? Do you know that I studied Latin? Do you know that I studied theology? Do you know anything about my background? Anything at all, sir?… So I’m not a good enough Catholic for you? I’m not a good enough Christian for you?” [To read Fr. Euteuner's blog posts about this incident go here.]

For all the good that talk-commentary shows do in the pursuit of truth, this was a tragic moment. In this case Sean Hannity clearly had no interest in truth, but only in the defense of a misguided, heretical position.  Any one of the questions he rhetorically flung at the priest, could have taken at least an hour to resolve in the Confessional, and perhaps longer if Sean can be persuaded to get to Confession. Sean’s wife should be prepared to bring him meals for a few days, except a fast (for Sean) would be more important.

Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be great to see O’Reilly or Hannity come on some night, with a humble look on their face and in a quiet voice declare, “Ladies and gentlemen, I went to confession the other day, it was a long time — not just that I hadn’t been confession in a long time, but how long it took. And my penance is, well, – - I’m not sure how to say this, but —  my penance is that I have to take my whole show tonight, and apologize for all the mean, hateful things I’ve said about people publicly over the last year, and say something nice about each of them, without qualification. If I don’t do this, as Fr. Larry Richards has said (publicly): “You’re going to hell.”  So, here goes. If you don’t mind I’m going to read this so I don’t forget anything or anybody: To Mrs. Clinton….”

Lord, have mercy! As much as I don’t particularly care for Mrs. Clinton, I’d pay $1,000 to see O’Reilly do that, and at least $500 for Hannity. What about you?

Truth is about Deliberate Diligence

Seeking the truth requires diligence, slow deliberate discussion, and the sacrifice of sacred cows, the side-stepping of prejudices, and the demolishing of bully pulpits and soap boxes. Twenty years out of college, I telephoned one of my favorite professors, philosopher Dr. Royal Mulholland, and asked his advice about pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. Mulholland was an Evangelical Christian, and taught within the framework of Protestant denominationalism. I was not expecting the advice that he offered; it was contrary to everything we had been taught as Protestants. Among other things, he said, “Wherever you apply, Stan, my strong suggestion is that you go to a Catholic university. That is the only place you are going to get a solid foundation in philosophy. Because of Catholicism’s long history in critical thinking, and the great philosophers in that tradition like Augustine and Aquinas, they have much more figured out than anyone else.”

That was astounding advice, from a respected Evangelical philosopher. But it clearly revealed his willingness to seek the truth, regardless of institutional suppositions and denominational prejudice.

Pam, my beloved wife, points continually to Mulholland’s inadvertent shove of our minds toward Catholicism in his quest for truth. During his introductory philosophy course, which all students at Greenville College had to take, Mulholland posed a question to us about what constituted truth and, in the process, asked us to identify the essential ingredients of Christianity. He created a scenario that put us on a distant planet as space explorers, and there we observed what appeared to be intelligent life forms. Based on what we observed we were to answer two questions: How can we know if the life forms we observed had souls? And, how might we know if they were Christians?

Imaginary Friends and Martians

Over the weeks that followed, in our search for truth, we hid behind imaginary hills, rocks, trees, and bushes and watched our imaginary friends. What differentiated them from other animals, vegetables and minerals? Did they use tools? Did they plan ahead, and if so, how far ahead? Did they show signs of a moral conscience? Did they seem to possess sophisticated rules of living? Did they bury their dead? Did they practice what appeared to be ritual, and if so what would that tell you? Was there forbearance and forgiveness that you could observe? Did they demonstrate the ability to sacrifice for the good of others? What was their source of their truth, if you could know that? And most importantly, how could we know that the conclusions of our observations were true? That is, two observers could see the same thing but come to different conclusions; so, where was the check and balance of right interpretation?

The purpose of the exercise, that took the form of outside reading and classroom discussion, had really nothing to do with extraterrestrial life, but everything to do with terrestrial life, us, here on Earth, now. The real questions were: What is the truth of whether or not mankind is different from animals, vegetables, and minerals? And if we have souls, what distinguishes the Christian? Or, what is the meaning of human life?

Being raised Evangelicals, and graduating from a very good and rigorous Evangelical liberal arts college, Pam and I were indoctrinated to believe that we did have a soul, and that what made us Christians was faith in Jesus Christ, a mental assent in our minds and hearts that we were obligated to also proclaim with our lips. Our souls were the spiritual part of our being, which was fed by our faith (which was spiritual), and what mattered, for eternity, were these spiritual beliefs, ascents, and understandings.

Recounting this exercise now, reminds me of what Catholics may appear like to non-Catholics who are trying to figure us out. We talk and act like Martians who can’t decide if we want to sit, stand, kneel, bow, genuflect or lay prostrate. We kiss statues, crosses, rings, waving our arms in front of us, splashing water on each other fully clothed, are talk in some high-pitched gobbledygook language (that’s what Martians speak I’m told — we call it Latin) and we expect them to think we’re human and Christian. Are we naïve or what?

Where the Spiritual Meets the Physical

Mulholland, however, was after us to seek the truth on a deeper level, in a place where our spiritual faith rubbed up against the broken concrete and tectonic plates of the physical world here on Earth. He led us to a conclusion that what we observed in others, and thus what others observed in us, in the physical realm, had everything to do with our soulfulness and our Christian faith. In other words, you cannot separate the spiritual and the physical realms. They are one, as the universe and all creation is one — as Christ’s divine and human nature could not be separated.

Without ever quoting Scripture, Mulholland reinforced Christ’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, which never once mentions the importance of faith, but reminds us time and time again, that the truth of our salvation lies in what we do in the physical realm: Our works.  We may not come to justification through works, but without works — the behavioral proof of our internal conversion — we have no salvation.

Mulholland was encouraging us to seek truth, as opposed to blindly embracing ideology. What he showed us was that the physical realm mattered, because that is where the proof existed (that is what we could experience with our senses) about what was going on inside our hearts. Looking back, we believe that Mulholland was trying to change a heretical Gnostic perception in Evangelical Christianity that quietly held to a belief that physical matter (such as our bodies) was evil, and the spiritual soul was all that was good.

When Pam and I became Catholic, we looked back at our time with Dr. Mulholland and wondered why he wasn’t Catholic. To us, a critical difference between Catholicism and Evangelicalism, was Catholicism’s embrace of the physical realm as good, through the sacraments and the unrelenting emphasis on the Incarnation (God, a spirit, became Man, a physical being, through Mary’s cooperation). Evangelical’s embrace of the spiritual often excluded the physical.

In the end, the difference in Mulholland’s pursuit of truth was very similar to Catholicism’s pursuit. Whereas in Evangelicalism I was always trying to cram Bible verses into a set of ideological beliefs; it was somewhat like reverse engineering the Bible. Rather than starting from Scripture and forming religious belief, Protestantism started from a series of objections (about Catholicism) and in an effort to replace the Pope’s authority, settled on the Bible Alone (and a lot of misguided interpretation) to reinforce their political suppositions.

What we discovered in Mulholland’s teaching, was that while we cannot avoid starting with presuppositions — there are no truly clean slates — we need to start with basic presuppositions rather than “front-loaded,” circular ones. Protestants — especially Calvinists — often include their theology in their premises without proof, leading to circular reasoning. But Catholicism works very hard at being open to all truth, working relentless to listen to objections and engaging participants in honest rational, slow, deliberate dialogue. In fact, the Catholic sense of reason fully embraces the scientific method, which it helped to establish through scientists such as Roger Bacon, Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, and Blaise Pascal.

“What, what!” you say? “That can’t be! Faith and science are polar opposites. Faith is faith and it’s all about what you can’t see or observe. And science is only what can be observed. They can’t be the same, and there is no way that the scientific method and Christianity go together.”

Hmmm? Sounds like a good place to stop and pick up next time, when we examine more of The Truth Seeking Principle, how science and Christianity are very much cut from the same mold.


Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. is executive producer for SWC Films, an independent film and television production company. He is the author of the motion picture screenplay writing guide, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, as well as owner of media distributor Nineveh's Crossing. He can be reached at sdw@StanWilliams.com.


  • noelfitz

    Reading this I am reminded about the prayer concerning Blessed John Henry Newman.

    “You led John Henry Newman to follow the kindly light of Truth, and he obediently responded to your heavenly calls at any cost.”

    I read here “In fact, the Catholic sense of reason fully embraces the scientific method, which it helped to establish through scientists such as Roger Bacon, Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, and Blaise Pascal.”

    These are interesting folk. Apparently Bacon was imprisoned for his views and banned from writing by his Franciscan order.

    The heliocentric model of the solar system of Copernicus differed from the usual view in Church circles in his day.

    Galileo was persecuted and mistreated by the Church,

    Descartes’ ideas may have undermined the Church’s teachings and fostered materialism.

    Finally Pascal was a heretical Jansenist.