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Coffee & Wisdom 02.75: Naive Optimism and Stone Walls Part 1

David Breeden is speaking all week about Naive Optimism


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Hello, I’m David Breeden and the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, and this is Coffee and Wisdom. But starting a new week this week and our theme is Naive Optimism and Stone Walls. The question this week is the nature of truths, the nature of optimism, the nature of naiveté and where we run up against reality. So the first thing I want to kick off with is considering this. This is a phrase that you’re going to see everywhere if you start looking at the models for universities and even on the right, the CIA. And that is “veritas liberabit vos”. “The truth shall set you free.” Now, this comes from the Gospel of John in the Bible, and it is attributed as a saying of Jesus who said, “and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”. In Latin, in the Roman Catholic Bible tradition, “veritas”, truth, “liberabit” that would be “liberate”. And “vos”, us, you. And so there you have the general idea of what’s going on. Now, what would a university and their idea of truth have to do with this nice badge from the U.S. CIA, which you notice tries to make it a little more of an English syntax, but the same Latin pertains. So let’s think for a moment about this, because there are some assumptions built into even something as short, but as big as “the truth shall set you free.”

We can ask just the opposite question. Would it be just as true to say “You shall know an illusion and an illusion will set you free”? What’s freedom? What’s illusion? What’s truth? These are fairly large ideas, and the point and the answer maybe isn’t quite as easy as it might at first appear. That’s what we need to think about because, you know, I mean, what about a big lie? Can a big lie also set you free? Why wouldn’t it? Why would it? Good question, I think. So, one of the books to look at here is an old one. This comes from 1951, “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer. This book is often referred to and it’s often thought of, as it says on the little blurb here, that it’s probably one of the best thoughts in terms of politics and social ideas since Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, because it’s really trying to get at boiled down to absolute ideas of how we deal with social interactions in politics. I have one question there for you is what is what does Eisenhower and Hillary Clinton have in common? And both of them often quoted Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”. Within that book, Hoffer says this, “We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.” Oh, wait a minute. What could that possibly mean? “We can be absolutely certain about only about things we do not understand.”

Well, that’s a good question, and I think he might be right about that. And that is that absolutely, absolute conviction and absolute truth are maybe not the same thing. And maybe often conviction about something that I know this is true is driven by actually the doubt behind it. This is what Hoffer claims anyway, and that’s why his book is still around. Even though it was published in 1951, it’s never been out of print. There have been thousands of different editions printed over time because it’s very intriguing what he has to say about politics and social movements. Well, let’s go to the full context. Let’s go back to the Bible. So let’s see what Jesus was actually talking about here. “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him”, so that the Jewish people around him believe. Now, this is from the Gospel of John, written about 90 years after the purported facts occurred. So these scenes that are said are not exactly the way they would have actually been, but some of the quotes being used are historical or at least part of the folk wisdom of the day. So he says to the Jews who believed on him, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. They answered him, We be Abraham”s seed and were never in bondage to any man. How sayest thou, Ye shall be made free? Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, truly, truly, I say unto you, whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house forever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” Ah, so the actual subject of this particular saying is sin, not just absolute truth and making this phrase a truism. Well, good question there is, is there such a thing as sin? And it’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that one. It is a fairly complicated one. But we decontextualized this particular saying to say “The truth shall make you free”. It’s meant in a very specific context in the Gospel of John. Other places it’s out of context. But we do indeed have Jesus offers freedom from sin. And that certainly is a part of the a part of the Christian tradition that goes through time. But, “Apparently many universities and the CIA believe that saying the same thing is true in other contexts.” “Veritas liberabit vos, the truth will set you free”, says the CIA. So what is the truth that the CIA is finding and why would it make somebody free? Well, also, hey, you can get this publication from the office of the provost of some university or other “veritas vos liberabit”. Well, the truth shall set you free, apparently, because you’re going to pay to go to that university.

Well, that’s a good reason to pay up, maybe to get some truth and be set free. But what’s the truth that this university is going to try to tell us? That’s a different question, isn’t it? And of course, always when we talk about truth, the question is whose truth? This is a famous photo of an autopsy from an alien from Area 51. Or is it a good question? Whose truth are we going to be thinking about here? There are lots of truths. So which one is going to set us free? Well, that’s the question we’re going to be asking this week at something that dwell on a bit, thinking about your thinking as we consider the different ways things can be true. And can illusions set us free? And, you know, what might be an illusion anyway? It’s a good question. That’s what we’re going to be talking about this week on Coffee and Wisdom. Our theme for the month of April at First Unitarian Society is “Becoming”, the idea of how we live in some kind of process of becoming. And that’s the subject that we deal with in our various programs at First Unitarian Society for this month. Thanks a lot. Be thinking about what truth is and what it’s worth, and I’ll talk with you again tomorrow. Thank you.

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