A consultative approach to investigating the truth
The New Mindscape #A2–5, by Shu Mengmeng & David A. Palmer
Spirituality and religion are topics that are fraught with controversy.
For some people, it’s a purely private or emotional belief that can’t be discussed rationally. Others have very clear ideas, theories and doctrines, and they are absolutely convinced that they are right and others are wrong, even stupid. They might even devote themselves to trashing others’ beliefs. They might be adherents of one religious sect with no tolerance for other religions or non-religious people, or they might be militant atheists insulting religious people.
Is it possible to explore these questions in a calm, rational and respectful manner?
Perhaps this journey of learning should begin with the virtue of humility — to seek for knowledge with patience and an open mind. No matter how much training and education we have received, what we don’t know will always far outweigh what we know. However, when we realize our limitations, we are not discouraged from a lifelong journey of investigation of truth. On the contrary, our faith in truth-seeking is strengthened and our capacity for learning is increased. Humility protects us from intellectual pride and arrogance, and from jumping to hasty conclusions.
The investigation of spirituality and religion touches on the deepest questions of who we are as human beings, the meaning and purpose of life, and the ultimate nature of reality. With a humble posture of learning, we can progress in our understanding of these questions, but we always know that we can never acquire anything close to complete knowledge.
Such awareness comes when we are willing to step out of one’s perspective and to consider the value of others’ experiences. In isolation from others, we may think that our own perspective is complete and correct. But, when viewed from a broader perspective, we will realize that each of our perspectives has its value, but is also incomplete and flawed in some aspects.
On another level, regardless of our values and beliefs, a humble posture of learning protects us from falling into the traps of prejudice and preconceived notions. In exploring various expressions of spirituality and religion, we thus need to avoid ideological and religious prejudice of all kinds: the prejudice of “believers” toward “non-believers”, the prejudice of “non-believers” toward “believers”, and the prejudice of “believers” of different religious identities toward each other.
Reality is so complex that we need to work together to understand it, bringing together our different perspectives. This is a collective effort of investigation of truth through a process of consultation. Consultation here refers to a non-adversarial approach to investigating a question, gathering different experiences and viewpoints, and advancing toward a common understanding.
In this type of consultation, each participant contributes ideas and thoughts to the discussion, as an offering to the whole group. Ideas do not belong to individuals. The clash and combination of different ideas leads to new insights. To approve or to question an idea, is not to praise or to criticize the person who mentioned the idea.
This process of consultation creates a safe and encouraging environment that is conducive to draw out the gems of knowledge and wisdom even from individuals who usually feel shy to speak out their ideas in groups. It seeks to build consensus that unites people of different backgrounds instead of dividing them. Through this method, diversity of opinions is shared; what were once isolated individual thoughts become collective knowledge. Through consultation, we can jointly contribute to our investigation of reality.
In this course, we will explore the spiritual dimension of life, and reflect on its implications for individual and social transformation. These questions touch on the depth of our inner life as an individual, and on the complexity of our life in society. We will refer to the teachings, writings and practices of different religious traditions. There are no simple solutions or “right” or “wrong” answers to discussion questions. We all have different experiences and understandings in life and of religious teachings. They all have their value, while none is complete. In a spirit of consultation and with a humble posture of learning, we will share and learn together. Through this process, we will gradually gain a higher level of understanding and judgment.
This collective and consultative approach does not imply that there is no truth, or that “you have your truth and I have my truth.” Rather, it assumes that there is truth, but that full and absolute knowledge of the truth eludes all of us. Each of us has some partial insights and knowledge of the truth, and the potential capacity to increase our knowledge of the truth. Each of us also has mistaken or incorrect assumptions and impressions. The consultative approach involves striving to listen to and understand new and different ideas and observations, but also questioning them, examining them from all angles, and testing them against opposing views and observations.
The result of this process leads to a fuller collective understanding of the truth, through the conjunction of knowledge coming from different perspectives, and through abandoning ideas that are found to be wrong through questioning and testing. At the same time, some issues will always remain unresolved, and participants may not come to agreement or consensus on some questions, maintaining different understandings or principles. In such a situation, while gaining a better mutual understanding of the opposing principles, we continue to advance together in investigating and building common knowledge on other issues.
The New Mindscape series is a practical exploration of spirituality rooted in the critical perspectives of anthropology and sociology.
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