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Healing the desire for truth in an age of misinformation

Sprunt Lectures address interreligious wisdom in the ‘post-truth’ era

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. John Thatamanil in a kafiya scarf given to him by an attendee of the Sprunt Lectures at Union Presbyterian Seminary. (Screenshot)

“What is truth?” Pilate retorted to a Jesus on trial. According to John’s gospel, Jesus had told Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth and to be heard by those who “belong to the truth.” Despite finding no case against him, Pilate consented to Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate was not the first or last person with power to believe truth could be bent to human will.

How, then, are humans to resist the delusions and lies of the ego, media, politics and culture and to “belong to the truth,” as Jesus proposes?

Over the course of four lectures entitled, “Seeking Interreligious Wisdom in a Post-Truth Era,” the Rev. Dr. John Thatamanil, professor of theology and world religions director at Union Theological Seminary, addressed an audience in person and online at the 113th Sprunt Lectures at Union Presbyterian Seminary. He built his case on a medical model defining the diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and therapy for a contemporary existence estranged from truth.

“Our collective incapacity to agree about just what the facts are may strike us as a peculiar feature of our moment in a highly mediated, postmodern world,” said Thatamanil as he explored the most recent examples of how we have become overwhelmed by information, manipulated by social media, polarized by politics, susceptible to conspiracy theories, and incalcitrant to facing inconvenient truths about the destruction of our earth.

While “post-truth” may be a catchphrase of our “post-modern” times, the problem of human susceptibility to lies and delusions is not. The inability for humans to understand what they do not desire to know and the obstruction to embracing the kind of truths that will set us free is not new to our age. In addition to the accounts of our tendency towards falsehood in our ancient sacred texts, alarms are sounded with each innovation in media and geo-political shifts in power. In 1910, Mohandas Gandhi diagnosed his own society under the influence of its newspapers and colonialism with a similar incapacity to see facts outside those that serve self-interest and power. In the 1940s, George Orwell recognized the power that fascist leaders harnessed through the radio and the susceptibility of the masses to their delusionary world views. As our religious traditions have attested to over the course of history, human beings struggle to seek the truth and be transformed by it. Post-moderns may have exposed the limits of truth as universal, but our decentralized, algorithmized and unregulated methods of disseminating information make us vulnerable to defining ourselves by delusions and accepting ideologies that resign us to the Earth’s destruction.

“The post-truth problem in our time revolves around the ways in which the circulation of misinformation and disinformation does not require a central agent or a regime,” said Thatamanil, who explained how, unlike Orwell’s time, “no one compels us by brute force to accept conspiracy theories or lies.” We do so because we want to or are manipulated to want to believe the ideas of those around us as we grant social media agencies and corporations access to our habits, networks, likes and dislikes until “we know only what we want to know and come to inhabit polarized communities, each in possession of its own facts,” said Thatamanil.

The American Right, with its “election denial, vaccine denial, conspiracy theories and QAnon” are not the only ones who give their “tacit of even explicit assent” to other “widely accepted lies,” said Thatamanil. He cited the foundational untruths of global, neoliberal capitalism that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet or that our collective public good can only emerge in a free and unregulated market.

“To imagine that the lie has its grip on them and not on us is itself a lie,” said Thatamanil, as he urged listeners to open their eyes to “the flood of untruth that structures our lives.”

In his second lecture, Thatamanil turned to etiology and how humankind came to be people who as Jack Nicholson’s character said in “A Few Good Men,” “can’t handle the truth.”

“The problem is a bifurcation of mind and heart,” posited Thatamanil, encouraging us to embrace ancient wisdom and recent neuroscience that show that emotions play a role in what we know. Philosophy means “love of wisdom” which suggests that truth is born from both desiring and knowing. “If the problem is a problem of desire,” said Thatamanil, “then it will not do to treat a problem of distorted desire with the remedy of more information.”

He proposed that our religious traditions are designed to tutor the heart, not just the mind. Therefore the prognosis for humankind is good — or such was the hopeful tenor of the third lecture, which explored the sage advice and transformative practices of ancient religions through sources in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Gospels to wisdom passed down through Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana Buddhisms and the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. All these traditions illumine a path in which distorted, self-limiting desires based on untruths can be transformed into positive, other-invested desires based on a reality rooted in relationship and an interconnected existence. “The task of human life is to be trued to the real,” said Thatamanil, who said truth is “more than a set of statements,” but reality itself: “Truth is interbeing. Truth is God.”

The Rev. Dr. John Thatamanil leads a compassion meditation practice at the end of the 2024 Sprunt Lectures at Union Presbyterian Seminary. (Screenshot)

The final lecture centered on the therapy of desire and included a 10-minute contemplative practice of compassion meditation. Thatamanil advised that we “invest ourselves in the reclamation of our attention” so that “our desiring is not left to the mercy of others.” But he also warned that we as individuals are not isolated patients curing personal desires. “The patient in question is the entire culture,” which he described as “a set of intersecting and nested global systems that wound and traumatize persons and communities.”

“We cannot rectify public desire without surrendering the thinking/feeling binary,” said Thatamanil, calling the underlying assumption that has for centuries dominated many cultures, especially in the West, a “deficient anthropology.”

To transform “public desire” requires our collective participation and the wisdom of our spiritual traditions that shape us into truth through mind, heart and body. Our ancient traditions offer “interpretive schemes and therapeutic regimes,” allowing truth to be known, felt and embodied. These traditions don’t characterize our desires in the exact same way, but according to Thatamanil, there are resonances in their vocabularies for affections that foster truthful desire, such as “sympathy, empathy, compassion and love.”

Finding hope in historic movements of nonviolence that shaped public will to desire the liberation of others, Thatamanil imagined how like fluoride in our public water, “the strategic and persistence use of love can prevent truth decay” in our public imaginations and spaces.

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