We live in an age of polemics. Choices are presented as mutually exclusive and you're given little time to listen, to be reflective and careful in your judgment, or to acknowledge the validity of different points of view. Don't water your perspective down with nuance. Keep it simple, blunt, and direct, but whatever you do, don’t seem to be of two minds. You're supposed to pick your enemies, not consult with or even love them. You're asked to make a choice and a quick one at that, one that binds you to one camp that is defined by its opposition to another. Where do you stand?
For example, you either love nature or you love people, but you can’t love both because to love one is to hate the other. You either believe in the role of government or you distrust its every move. You either care about individual responsibility or you feel responsible for all of human society.
Such polemics have entered the logic of religious thought like an invisible toxin. You're either secular or religious. You either believe in historical change or you believe in transcendent revelation. You either believe in the infallibility of church leaders or you believe in moral relativism. You must decide to either stand up for moral truth or be compassionate toward those whose lives have taken different directions than your own, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You either believe in the truth of your own religion or you believe that truth is everywhere—or nowhere. Pick a side. And of course, you'll pick right. So will I. We're the good ones, right?
The "Us Versus Them" Conundrum
The problem is that once the game is set up as a polemic, you can’t win. You can’t win because the rules of the game are against your becoming a whole person or seeing others as whole persons. And the rules have been in place for so long that the most vociferous among us have already made the “us versus them” mentality a lived reality. Even if you were meant to admire your own religion and the good people across this planet who will never join your faith, there is too much history suggesting that you shouldn’t, that you can’t. Sadly, stuck in such polemics, you won’t be able to admit the blessings of secularism while also claiming to be religious. All you can do is hold up your corner of truth.
But that’s just it. Reality certainly doesn’t have only two sides, one true and one false. All we possess is a corner, a piece, not the whole of it. Truth is not a trophy in our glass case or award framed on our wall. Truth's value isn’t in possessing it. Truth’s value is manifest by the love we muster to build relationships in its pursuit. Its value is found in the faith it requires to hold steady in the face of uncertainty and questions that inevitably arise when we finally have the humility to understand how much of it escapes us. This is why we need God and each other—even our enemies—to teach us truth. And what we gain isn’t some fact or thing. We gain experiences and relationships that teach us love. The pursuit of truth tethers us to each other.
The famous story of King Solomon’s wisdom embodies what I'm trying to say. The first test of the king’s wisdom was a polemic. A child dies. The mother, in her grief, believes she can find a substitute for her living child by stealing another. She and the mother of the stolen child, each adamant that the child is hers, appeal to the king to resolve their differences. Solomon’s words are chilling: “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other” (1 Kings 3:25).
Failing to Live What We Believe Perfectly
Didn’t Jesus say something similar? Didn’t He say we had to choose the truth and forsake error? That we had to find a way to either be with Him or against Him? How can this be? Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. Although I'm commanded to remember Him always, I never remember Him always. I'm never on His side at all times. Sometimes I find myself wanting what is wrong, or judging the poor, hating my enemy, lusting after things or people to possess, failing time and time again to see and love others as complex flesh-and-bone human beings in all their mystery and wonder. Am I doomed? Is everyone else? If I must choose, as the gospel demands, but I can’t stick with my choice perfectly, am I a hypocrite?
Maybe, but perhaps if I accept my foolishness and learn trust and love and humility, maybe this is a truer choice than expending all of my energy just so I can assert that I'm one of the good ones, that I have already and always made the right choices.
The two women face the impossibility of dividing the truth in two. The woman who is blinded by her pain is willing to divide the child in order to persist in her lie. She thus becomes a living contradiction—she's willing to lose the very thing she desires just so that she can have it dead. But that is what she wanted all along: a divided child instead of a living child, a living soul, a body to which she is answerable. A living child cannot be owned, bounded, or kept from others. She was wrong to believe that there could be an adequate substitute for a living body. The woman who knows and loves her child can see only one choice. She must give up the child to the other woman so that it can remain whole and alive. She has this courage because all along a living being is what she loved and understood could not be replaced. Her love of the child means she must let go of the need to be right so that she can do what is good. Only in this way can the fleshy, indivisible truth in the form of the child’s body be preserved. The cost, of course, is giving the child up altogether. Solomon’s attempt to divide the truth tests her mettle and reveals the truth of her love. She is revealed as the true mother because hers is the true love, and so the child is returned (1 Kings 3:26–27).
Seeing Truth as a Living Child
A Christian interpretation of this story from the Hebrew Bible is the promise of restoration. Solomon’s wisdom represents God’s mercy; a recompense for sacrificing the pride of being right in order to be good.
This story raises the question, with how much more care and humility would we speak and act if the truth were not the result of some game of words or a battle of wills, but a flesh-and-bone living child, a living soul? What if we thought of the truth as something that couldn’t be owned or divided up into broken pieces but was instead something we had to learn to gather and keep together with love? Maybe all truth in the end is measured against the lives of children.
It is worth remembering that a living child is, in fact, the form in which the Truth came to us.
Lead image from Getty Images
Get more profound insights into the nature of truth in If Truth Were a Child.
We live in an age of polemics. Choices are presented as mutually exclusive and we are given little time to listen. You're either secular or religious. you either believe in the exclusive truth of your own religion or you believe truth is everywhere or impossible to discover. The battle over truth rages on.
But what if truth were a child?
With how much more care and humility would we speak and act if truth was not the result of some war of wills, but a flesh-and-bone living child, a living soul? Humanities scholar and Latter-day Saint George B. Handley charitably invites us to put away the false traditions of the fathers while seeking to lay hold of every good thing wherever it may be found in the world, thereby increasing our faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
George B. Handley is author of the new book If Truth Were a Child: Essays, from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He teaches interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as the associate director of the Faculty Center. He received his BA from Stanford University and his MA and PhD in comparative literature at UC Berkeley. His scholarly publications and creative writing focus on the intersection between religion, literature, and the environment.