Imagine you are walking through the woods with a group of people. You’re in an unfamiliar place you’ve never traveled before. You are responsible for leading the group to your planned destination. But there is one big problem: You are lost.
Fortunately, you have a compass. You know the place you are headed is to the north, so you just take your compass out of your pocket and proceed to head north.
But before you get very far, someone in your group asks, “So how do you know where we’re going?” Your answer of, “We know we need to head north,” is met with another question: “How do you know which way is north?”
“Because I have this great compass that tells us which way we are headed.”
“How do you know the compass is correct?”
“Because it relies on the earth’s magnetic field to get its information.”
“What if it’s wrong?
“But what if there’s more than one north?”
“What if different compasses give different interpretations of north, south, east and west?”
“They don’t. There is only one north, one south, one east, and one west. We’re heading north.”
“Why are you so narrow-minded and intolerant?”
“Why can’t you be open to the idea that there might be more than one north?”
“Because there is only one. If I were open to that idea, I would also be opening us up to being completely lost out here while we guess which north is the right north. Then, what—we draw straws? Take votes on whose north is right? No way. That’s crazy. And by the way, I’m not open to two plus two equaling anything other than four either. Is that intolerant?”
“Wait—what? You don’t think there is more than one answer to two plus two? Why not?”
“Because there is only one answer to that math problem.”
“But what if I want two plus two to equal five, and someone else wants it to equal five thousand?”
“That’s absurd. Math doesn’t rely upon what a person wants. It just simply is.”
“You’re being really closed-minded. What about all the people who really believe those to be the outcomes of adding two and two together?”
“Those people should go back to a first-grade math class—and pay attention this time.”
“So you’re saying you don’t believe in more than one ‘true’ north nor more than one answer to two plus two?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
“Wow. You’re such a bigot.”
“Well, I mean, that’s a really intolerant viewpoint of all the people who really do believe those things are true.”
“It may be intolerant, but I guess I don’t tolerate blatant lies invading my thinking. Here’s why: There is only one true north and there is only one answer to two plus two. If we’re all allowed to just make up our own answers as we go, there will be no way for anyone to, for example, give directions to one’s house or share a fantastic cookie recipe.
“If we all get to decide which way is north, we’ll all be lost. If we decide the answers to each of our own math problems, we should just abolish schools and forget about advancing science and technology—let alone recipes—because we won’t be able to communicate with each other using an agreed upon set of principles. Is that intolerant? Or is it wise?”
“You are such a hater.”
Can you imagine that conversation actually happening? If you have a three-year-old, maybe you can. Except for the part where she called you a bigot. Young children question everything and have to be convinced several times to believe certain basic facts.
That’s good for them. Imagination makes them believe they can do anything. It’s the best deterrent for all the barriers life will throw at them as they grow up. We all need imagination. It takes imagination and creativity to solve some of the world’s most complex problems.
But at some point, children have to learn that they can’t actually fly off of the top bunk, even when wearing their best Superman pajamas. Gravity is real. (I learned that lesson the hard way.)
“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”
And just as there are some basic truths we must learn about as we grow up—things like geography, math, science, and grammar—I don’t believe an education is complete without at least providing some ways to find answers to life’s most important questions.
But as a society, we are not providing our kids either the answers or the means of finding them. Check out what Stephen Colbert recently said to a group of graduating college seniors at their commencement ceremony:
(Relevant comments start around 10:10)
“You fill out your own report card.” “Decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong.” Colbert is of course a comedian. And these quotes I pulled are surrounded by jokes. But these were the bits of “wisdom” sandwiched between the humor.
When he’s saying that creative output is subjective, and the noise of the critics shouldn’t slow down those who take risks to produce, he’s right on. But “decide what’s right and wrong, and then please expect as much of the world around you,” sounds a lot like “there are many different answers to two plus two.” This is a great speech because (aside from the fact that it’s hilarious) it is representative of the greater conversation going on in our culture. He is articulating in a funny way the things we are generally teaching our kids and students:
If it feels right, then it is true—for you.
But if truth is relative and each of us can make our own truth, what is truth? How can we even call something truth if everything is relative? And if that’s what you believe about truth and finding your way, how can you even feel confident telling that to someone else? As Conor Oberst brilliantly wrote, “If you swear that there’s no truth and who cares, how come you say it like you’re right?”
I’d rather believe there is a truth. There is a true north. There is one solution to two plus two. There is gravity. There is a truth and it is discoverable. There are answers to life’s deepest questions. We may not know them all—and neither do Siri or Google—but I’d much rather believe the answers exist, and that there are still some mysteries in the universe, than to believe that I can just make up my own truth.
Because what if I’m wrong in the end? What if my relativist compass points me to previously discovered dead ends? What if my way ends up leaving me lost and stranded?
I don’t know about you, but I trust my compass. I’m heading north.
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”