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(without) speaking the truth

jonathan myers

What is truth? This is question is as old as human civilization at the very least. In some ways I suppose this is an unanswerable question. Pontius Pilate asking this question of a man he did not want to condemn to death at least seems to point to the elusivenss or impotence of this question. Maybe the very asking of the question is a sabotage of truth itself. Words only seem to get in the way.

And...truth seems to be a global and universal value. People seek various forms of truth: justice, authenticity, substance. Truth seems to be something that is known more than it is something that is explicated. Yet, so many in the various contexts I inhabit seem to have a strong commitment to holding onto a truth that I invariably need to adopt in order to be a right (or true) person. Often this truth is explained using words. I have learned to distrust this impulse primarily when it comes from the mouths of advertisers, salespeople, politicians, and preachers. The only words I hear are agenda, coercion, and lies. The sadness of this learned behavior on my part is not lost on me.

Truth is something. It is some thing that can be known and felt. It may not be rational, but it is still knowable. In this sense truth is more like a note that resonates, or rings true. It is the difference between sitting in a comfortable chair that fits the contour of our bodies and one that is painful to sit in for more than fifteen minutes.

I stumbled upon a brilliant book by Robert Grudin, Design and Truth, in a recent trip to Powell's Bookstore in downtown Portland, Oregon. I picked it up largely because my community, Common Table, is working on our website and logo. Grudin works with two hypotheses (sic),

If design is itself a medium of social interactions, overdesign is a sympton of interactions that are dysfunctional. And if, as is generally acknowleged, design is a kind of rhetoric, overdesign is an opportunistic abuse of rhetoric in the application of some of power.

This is a thought I can sit with for weeks. This idea rings true for me. He goes on to say,

Even body language is a form of excess of rhetorical zeal is usually the first sign of manipulation and deception. Mass market advertising, campaign speeches, jingoism, evangelistic tirades, and seductive crooning all display the same link between exaggerated rhetoric and attempted exploitation.

I wonder where my life is overdesigned. I wonder where my vocation as a priest is over reaching. I'm connecting dots between Walter Brueggemann's Sabbath as Resistance and this notion of good design as truth telling, possibly even without words. Living in an urban context that values busy-ness and a Church that conistently keeps people working and going to meetings. I far more often get the question, "How is work going?" than I hear, "How are you?" My life is designed that way because my society values it.

I'm wondering how to re-design my life. How to re-design the church. To take the Episcopal church that I am a part of as an example. I have a foot in the established institution and one in an emerging community. I wonder about the liturgy from Grudin's perspective on design. What truth are we attempting to convey rhetorically? I think of the colors used, the space created, the music, and the words used. Oh, the words used. While I do struggle with kinds of words used, I am mostly thinking now of the sheer volume of words spoken. I look at the thickness of my Book of Common Prayer, which is nothing but words. I wonder if the amount of words we use belies the truth we believe we are telling that aesthetics, presence, embodiment, and even silence actually matter.

Many places have worked hard to redesign their spaces by moving from pews to chairs, reorienting the altar, and so on. And yet, I wonder, do we have an overdesigned liturgy? Have we overdesigned the church? I believe it is. And so, if Grudin is correct, what dysfunctions are masked in our over reaching design of church?

What if our overall design was actually restful? What if sabbath was true in our design? What if community was true in our design? What if justice was true in our design? What would that church look like in an Episcopal/Anglican identity? How can I participate in critical act of designing life and a community that is true?