There is no objective, absolute truth.
There is no god.
Pencils are scribbling on paper, pages are being flipped as I read the above statements. I rest my forehead into my palm, knowing what my answer will be. I also know that the professor sitting comfortably in his chair, feet reclining on the desk while he scans a slightly crumpled Gazette, is sure to swiftly mark it with a big X. I face a dilemma: answer the poorly worded question in such a way as to have it graded correct or answer the question according to it’s own logic and have it graded wrong. I can’t have it both ways. I grip my pencil and circle False.
In the summer of 2001 I skipped my family’s annual trek to the Wisconsin peninsula on Lake Michigan to take Sociology 101. They set off to the beach house, tucked away in the serene forests of Whitefish Bay, while I worked second shift and took the morning course at the community college. It was a beast of a class…3.5 hours each weekday for 8 weeks, long tests full of 50 to 100 true/false, multiple choice, fill the blank questions, plus 5 or so essay questions each Thursday. My brain felt fuzzy and drained each time I walked out the door. It was one of the most mentally exhausting exercises I have ever participated in.
My professor was a tall, middle aged man with large, squared glasses. He wore his blonde hair to his shoulders, socks with his Birkenstocks, smelled faintly of cigarettes and aftershave, and paired Hawaiian print shirts with khakis. He was openly against the idea of the existence of a god, mostly due to corrupt motivations and behaviors in the church, and had moral indignation toward Christianity in general. Hence, I was the embodiment of everything he disdained: a middle-class white girl with a penchant for silently digging her heels in.
I had considered the soul and the will for the last several years, and I believed in God and the Bible. When I was fifteen my boyfriend declared himself agnostic and shared, very matter of fact, that he simply didn’t agree with the premise of organized religion. Several months later he told me he might be an atheist. I mention it because it was my first encounter with someone I deeply respected and cared for who didn’t hold the same beliefs about origin that I did. I wanted to listen; I wanted to hear what he had to say. Throughout the next several years I encountered friends who asked probing questions of my reasons for believing in God, or to defend my position on why I thought the will might be free (or not). The summer after I graduated a friend declared, severely I might add, that I while I spoke often of loving people unconditionally I had done a bang up job the way he saw it. I had wrestled with belief and subsequent behavior, the supposed idea of science vs. religion, for some time. I knew that my sociology professor was trying to save me from what he deemed as propaganda and brainwashing without understanding or caring that I had thought long and hard about all of this. My basic beliefs were not irrational, blind, or hasty.
Sociology, as a field of study, deals with the origin, development, organization, and functioning of human society. According to the dictionary, it deals with the fundamental laws of social relations and institutions. Fundamental means basic, or primary, implying that there are basic, primary beliefs that humans hold that cannot be proven in infinite regression. What this means is, at some point every person on earth has to take a leap of faith on something. Sociology is highly linked to philosophy, religion, and science because it attempts to answer the primary questions all humans ask in life: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What do I do with that information?
I answered “incorrectly” to a myriad of questions on the test, including an essay question. I went on for a page and a half in scrawling, handwritten thoughts, rationalizing my answer. It didn’t matter. This wasn’t Philosophy 101 or even a course on logic and rhetoric. It was sociology and we were coming from two completely different presuppositions about origins. Apparently there was objective truth in that classroom. I received my test back a week later with a big, red D….and I knew it was coming. There were many more tests and many more poor grades. It was my first, albeit poor attempt at rationally defending my belief system to someone who angrily disagreed, with tangible consequences. My professor held my GPA in his hands.
Regardless of the belief system that I held or he held, I answered False out of mere principle: It is contradictory to claim zero objective truth and demand that your students adhere to that statement. If there was no objective truth, my 19-year old self reasoned, then why should I have to agree with his statement? Apparently, some very real, difficult experiences still tasted bitter to him. He was valiantly going to save the minds of his students, turn the lock, and hope we didn’t desire to find the key. I honestly believe that he honestly believed his motivations were pure and noble. No one in that room could doubt his sincerity. But I just couldn’t figure out why he cared. All I kept thinking was what had made him come to these conclusions? What experiences did he have that caused him to stake his claim the way he did? What fear did he hold against God? I chose to consider rather than to speak out loud. I only voiced thoughts on test questions every Thursday morning from 8am until 11:30am.
He built the entire course’s premise on our need to ask questions rather than blindly take leaps of faith. He told us we were right to question authority and seek answers for ourselves, something I deeply agreed with and supported. But his big, fat “D” in red ink on my test paper told a different story. Even though he wanted me to question authority in theory, he didn’t want me questioning his authority.
I also received a D in that course, learning more about real life than I have in any other. I was searching inwardly on what it meant to see people, to listen, to observe. For all the worth that science holds, human beings do not come to study science (or sociology) value-free. They come at it with presuppositions that form their hypotheses. Human beings do not form basic, fundamental beliefs about life and their existence based on scientific fact, but on experience and observation. What we experience has everything to do with our perspective.
Why do we think the way that we do? Why do we behave as we do? What basic assumptions do we make about one another? I once sat under the teaching of a very wise man who said that just because a Christian believes in a God who controls and designed the universe doesn’t give him a pass to sit back and call case closed. It doesn’t let him off the hook in considering the nature of reality, the basic beliefs that we hold. These questions eventually landed me into the field of psychology in graduate school, where I was forced to look myself in the mirror and consider my relation to others. To listen before speaking. To feel the pain and the brokenness of souls, my own and those around me, and the subsequent desire for freedom and peace. All of these fields of study lead back to the same basic Big Question: What are we and where do we come from?
What do we do with that?
What do I do with the questions that I ask and are asked of me? And then, what do I do with the answers? That is where integration of life begins. Fragments of souls scream out to be assembled cohesively, to make sense of this jarring and magnificent world. People who have been abandoned, unloved, lied to, violated, brushed aside, uncared for. I am also one of these, seeing and feeling their confusion and frustrations.
What do I do with that?