What foolhardiness! The present writer is a great fool to have undertaken to write so much as a few notes on sincerity. It calls to mind past experience sitting in a group, in a philosophical school where sincerity is one of the values we strive for, raising my hand to ask a question as I try to make an inner effort to remember to ask the real question about this work, and not a question that in some opaque but operative way puffs my vanity to ask, endorses my opinions, attempts to conceal my ignorance. And finding myself, at such times, almost speechless in that effort, as I try to ask something undilutedly real; as I try to ask a question from the part of myself hidden away by buffersthe part I so rarely access. And now, the same dilemma. Is all this protestation about my inadequacy a false modesty, hubris disguised as self effacement? Layer on layer, we peel away the onion and in fact my eyes burn. The frustration mounts.
How to come to a sincere question when were so false? Our falseness is understandable. Besides the primal causation presumably behind it all, some half-identified Fall from the real world, there's the egregiously false world we have created, reinforcing our genius for insincerity. Men have always been dishonest, deceiving themselves and others: it was an ancient writer who advised, "Know thyself." The prescription was called for even thenimplying the ill was there, too. Now, we compound that habitual insincerity with the bombardment of our media, the elevation of the ephemeral, the all too convenient relativity of our "values"a relativity which makes these apparent values valueless. (To be sure, conventional values differ from place to place, but there does seem to be an actual capacity, through sincere application of authentic conscience, to arrive at a more universal system of values).
This is, after all, the society in which millions are spent on swaying voters for elections and referendums, and both the advertisers and the consumers know very well that the ads are insincere, biased; and we accept that, criticizing these slickly prepared falsehoods only for extremes, essentially for bad tastebut accepting their dishonesty as pro forma. This is the society in which three-story-high fake trees are erected along the highway, which are actually cellphone transmitters vaguely designed, like artificial Christmas trees, to seem treeish enough to pass muster since, after all, no one really stops to look at them. Everyone knows they are not treesbut it was necessary to put something up that vaguely resembles trees anyway. This is the society which knows that the psychic hotline on television is bilking a million people a day; all but the suckers know; the networks who accept the ads know. The cynical, slightly educated viewer knowsabout this and about televangelists milking the poor with unauthorized promises--but theres a tacit consensus that its alright to steal from stupid people. This is the society that sends sales circulars designed to look like government envelopes, magazine-sales pitches that seem to suggest youve won a million dollars when you havent, and sentimental Hallmark cards, in handwritten envelopes, which turn out to be from bill collectors trying to trick the unwary into calling them back. This is the society of drive-through churches. This is the society that puts up signs in discount stores that say theyre only searching your baskets before you leave to make sure you havent been overcharged, when both they and you know theyre doing it entirely to prevent shopliftingand this is the society in which we think that flagrant insincerity is normal and right. This is the society that judges the debate of its Presidential candidates on the quality of their strategy in putting their "election message" acrossas if we were critiquing movie directors. This is the society that knows the President wont be speaking to us himself, but will be reading a speech written for him, and this is the society that believes thats normal and the way it should be. This is the society of fragile marriages, majority divorces and pre-nuptial agreements. And this is the society that elevates talk-show hosts and pundits, specialists in slick insincerity, to "star" status. One could go on and on
This is, in short, a society that rewards insincerityas presumably all societies have done. But now we have insincerity squared.
Recently researchers consulted with criminologists about the possibility of discerning lies through facial expressions. Almost impossible, they were told. To confirm this, expert police interrogators were tested in detecting lies, and failed 98% of the time. This suggests that lying is an inborn, instinctual skilland doubtless it has its uses. If its 1942 and Nazis come to your door demanding to know if youre hiding Jews, you do well to lie to them. Alcohol too has its place: but alcoholism is sorrowfully widespread. We are alcoholics steeped in the wine of lies.
Lying, insincerity, is largely protective. It protects against disclosure, from which arises danger, and from danger comes the risk of suffering. Lies protect against suffering. The harsh truth may be that the only remedy for lies is sufferingconscious suffering. The direction in which sincerity lies is uncomfortable. It is unfamiliar, so steeped in lies are we. The unfamiliar path is thorny, unblazed, resistant.
We lie to others; we lie to ourselves. We declare a willingness to undertake a challenging work, when in fact were not really willing to see it throughand we have justifications, qualifiers attached in the back of our minds.
Were often unaware that were insincere. Were outraged, at least on the surface part of our minds where we prefer to dog paddle about, when were accused of insincerity. Certainly, we mutter, we cant be utterly straightforward. We protectively invoke the truism that is hurtful to be foolishly honest. "You ask do I think you look nice in your new dress, my dear? I think you look dowdy, overweight, and like youve spent too damn much of my money."
Is sincerity merely flat-out blunt honesty? It doesnt seem to include being mindlessly, blurtingly "honest". What is it, then, to be sincere, exactlyand why is it desirable?
Websters New World Dictionary defines sincere, first, as honest and trustworthy; secondly it offers "being the same in actual character as in outward appearance". Interestingly, the third, "[archaic]" definition is "not adulterated"; once was the phrase "sincere wine". Under synonymous phrases the dictionary offers "without hypocrisy".
Once again, philological roots provide a hint of essence; at least a clue. Sincerity, rather than having rigid rules, appears to have qualities by which we recognize it. Difficult to grasp sincerity might be, but if it has qualities, then attention can locate them, along with the development of a taste for those qualities to help us in returning to them; to help us remember them. To assist us in finding our way back to our own sincerity.
Blunt, mindless honesty does not seem to be requiredbut a quality of realness does seem called for. The dictionary reference to a matching of inward and outward character seems resonant. It is suggestive of unity, of completeness. A man or woman may keep their own counsel, may not consider outwardlybut still theres some quality of realness, of unadulterated genuineness, about him or her. And there are times when those who are capable of real authenticity, who have the fullness, the inner unity to back it up, may show their sincerity as a man chooses to open the shutter of a lantern. It is not something that necessarily is shed everywhere on everything.
But it does necessarily have certain attributes and a particular taste. When we encounter itperhaps in people who, in times of great crisis, as in the recent national tragedy, throw aside their veneers and express their real anguish, a real desire to helpwe recognize it. We know it when we see it, or taste it, or feel its emanation. How is it that were familiar with something so rarefied?
If we know it when we see it, then it must be there, inside us, somewhere. Something within us must respond to it, like to like. And when we respond, its always in accordance with its nature in us, and in the other. We respond to sincerity, and express sincerity, in context.
Perhaps thats the great telling point of sincerity. It has the resonance of authenticity in contextit seems genuinely to be connected to something else, something bigger, grander, that validates it. The sincere is never isolatedit always declares itself in context of some greater, fuller reverberation, which we know from a time before we were capable of lying.
Little children, famously, are at first capable of sincerity. Suffer the little children to come to me, Jesus said, they know the kingdom of heaven. We recognize sincerity in themand they have more of it because they are closer to its source.
Writing rings true, or false. Exceptions will crowd the mind, but, when were attentive enough, it is the case: writing rings of sincerity or artifice. Perhaps because of our inborn trust in the orderliness of context, our sometime-connection to something greater than ourselves, we can choose to be sensitive to sincerity.
False writing can, somehow, be persuasive, if the reader is swayed by a personal attachment to the terms and blandishments employed. But an effort at impartiality can usually ferret out false writing.
Here is Josephus, writing in the first century AD, translated by William Wiston:
So he bade the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous and those that were not, nor did they spare them in the least; and since the people were unarmed and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means and others of them ran away wounded; and thus was an end put to this sedition..
This rings true. The original writers voice emerges even through the refraction of translation. He is a sharp observer, matter of fact, not without a definite point of view and even compassion, but for the most part with the detachment of a historian. Compare the very next passage:
Now there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works--a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold, these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
This is followed by a passage beginning: "About the same time another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder; and certain shameful practices happened about the temple of Isis that was at Rome "
If we remove the passage concerning Jesus, the first and third passage seem to go together rather well. The reference to "another sad calamity" seems more likely written as a comparison to the minor massacre mentioned in the first passage than the "calamity" of what happened to Jesus. Jesus, after all, appeared alive again the third day, in the second passage, and the tribe of Christians continued.
He confirms that Jesus is the Christbut that would seem to call for some explanation, if Jesus is indeed the Annointed, as to why Josephus never converted to Christianity: he acknowledges Jesus miracles, and his resurrectionwhich would seem to confirm his divinity. Thus Jesus, in the account supposedly given by Josephus, should be the culmination of Judaic spiritual historyyet he rates a paragraph only, when Noah and others, much earlier in Josephus, got great booming passages to themselves. This is not the testimony of a Jewunless he is a former Jew.
Would Josephus have said they condemned Jesus to the cross? The term seems a very Christian choice of words, and one not contemporary to Josephus. He would have said, in his own language, "to be crucified", more likely and it would not have likely been translated to English as "condemned to the cross."
More tellingly, the voice of the passage concerning Jesus seems another voice entirely. It seems false, when heard in context of Josephuss account of the doings of Jews at the time. Suddenly, this other Josephus is gushing. His tone before was quite differentand all through Josephus, though he may make reference to sad or joyful events as such, he never gushes or claps his hand in pious glee as here. With all the gushing that goes on here, the remarks about Jesus as "a wise man" and about "the tribe of Christians" seem laid in as an attempt to keep the supposed tone of a Jewish historianthey conflict with the Christian voice within the passage.
I was shown this passage by a fundamentalist Christian, while debating the literal interpretation of the New Testament, as proof that Jesus was recognized by others besides the authors of the Gospels as a wonder-worker who rose from the dead. On reading it, and looking at the context, and re-reading it, I felt it was false. The feeling was something quite sure and certain. The Jesus passage seemed to have been interpolated long after the book was written: Christian propaganda wedged into Josephus by some zealous monk in the Middle Ages perhaps. I warmed myself at the embers of a rather smarmy self justification when later I read that scholars agreed with me scholars do not regard the passage as authentic. The passage concerning Jesus simply (and complexly) rings false.
But the following passage from the New Testament (The New Oxford Annotated Bible), Luke 8:42-47, has always haunted me:
As he [Jesus] went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, "Who touched me?" When all denied it, Peter said, "Master the crowd surround you and press in on you." But Jesus said, "Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me " When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him and how she had been immediately healed.
The passage as it reads in the King James Bible is almost the same, the only salient difference is that instead of power they give virtue. (Interesting, that the word virtue was, at the time of King James, much more associated with power, as power is used here.)
Though they come to us in various translations from the Greek and Aramaic, the Gospels are each written in a definite voice, one which echoes across the centuries with a recognizable character. The differing translations between Oxford and King James did not change that character.
. We can practically feel the eager throng pressing in on us; we see Jesus stop in the midst of it, as if mildly surprised, for normally it is he who disburses the power as he chooses. But this time it has flowed out from him, because of a womans faith, merely because she touched the hem of his garment. He doesnt immediately say, "I felt the power go out of me." No, first he says, "Who touched me?" Naturally Peter points out that hes being touched on all sides. Jesus explains further that he felt the power go out of him. In context he clearly means it has flowed from him to someone else. This detailPeter misunderstanding, Jesus explaining, is a marvelous storytelling device that makes it all seem realer. And rings so true one is inclined to believe it is not a device, but is the verisimilitude of real events.
The woman had touched him meeklyand she continues to show a consistent meekness, in not speaking up, though she has been healed, until he stops and looks for her. Then she comes forward. That is, her character is consistent, as it would be in real life (or in fiction that reflected real life).
The power flows from Jesus through the hem and someones hand, traveling through a medium, a conductor, just as electricity does. This is resonant of some kind of movement of energy almost as it is known to physicsyet energy as something that could flow was not known to most people at the time, if it was known to anyone. This gives the passage another level of verisimilitude.
The passage is in a voice consistent with the rest of Luke. It isnt the voice of someone suddenly trying to convince us of something improbablethis is the voice of someone whos sure, who heard this story from someone certain of what happened.
The passage rings true. Its hard to believe, if we do not believe in the miraculousbut it has such detail it seems true.
A good, imaginative writer, presumably even a couple of millennia ago when the gimmickry and devices of writing were not so well known, could tell a lie believably, if he threw in details that had the ring of truth. Novelists lie constantly to readers, since they fabricate fictionsand yet a good novelist tells the truth in his or her fiction, in several ways. The novelist may make up the story but he cannot make up human nature, since it is observable and confirmable; the novelist may create fanciful settings but they will not ring true unless he or she contrives them out of the stuff of the familiar world, or some believable world. A reader picking up a gaudy romance novel will understandably choose not to be too discerning for purposes of enjoying the books escapismbut readers who want the ring of truth will immediately discern falseness, even in fiction. They may not be prepared to articulate it, but they recognize it. A good fiction writer learns to carefully detail even the most fantastic events in a way that resonates harmoniously with the readers shared experience of the world.
So theoretically, a passage like the tale of Jesus feeling the poweror virtuestreaming out of him could be completely made up using the same means the novelist uses. But the author of Luke does not use this apparent gift for novelistic detail in most other placesand where such details appear they have a quality of seamless meshing in context, with just the right amount of detail but no more, that make them feel more characteristic of journalistic description.
As a writer, with thirty years trying to craft realistic-seeming passages, Ive picked up a sense of what will seem real to people in fictionand beyond that, what is likely fiction, even if convincing fiction, even when it is couched as real.
This passage from Luke feels sincere in the very bones of the account. I believe it happened just as the writer described itand must therefore believe in miracles. True, my belief is provisional: I could be wrong in my assessment. Perhaps Im not objective enough. But I do not think I am wrong.
One wonders, then, if this "taste for things that are true", as Henri Tracol had it, could be applied to oneself; to ones own inner narrative, the tales we spin to reinforce our buffers, our defense mechanisms, our personal fictions. Inwardly, there must be, also, a way to sense what is true, an impartiality that could separate out our fictions from our verities. I think of the story of Joan of Arc being tested, looking past the imposter, using some grace-given gnosis to pick out the dauphin, the true prince disguised in the crowdand wonder if we can use some kind of inner textual search to locate, beyond the false coronation that takes place in the rituals of our vanity, the true king.