Project Canterbury

Truth and Honesty: With Some Notes on Gossip.

By Richard S. Emrich.

Cincinnati, Ohio: Foreword Movement, 1955.

Copyright 1955 Forward Movement. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This pamphlet, written in the name of the great moral tradition, which we all share, is on Honesty and Truth; for recent experiences have revealed to me that there is nothing more important and few things more difficult than to be honest and really love the truth.

Think, to begin, how immense is our need for truth and honesty. In all art, science, education, business, life, character, there is no need more obvious. There are few crimes which do not have as their motive or means dishonesty. Our tradition tells us that there is no virtue more basic than honesty; and serious thought about it takes us into every area of human life. The great achievements of science and of art are built upon a patient and humble honesty in the search for truth; and the characters we admire in our history have been me of inward honesty and integrity. Honesty in men means you can predict their actions, and dishonesty means they are shifty and unpredictable. How much we need men whose actions you can trust and predict!

Honesty means there is a basic integrity in a man; dishonesty means his character is beginning to decay. Dishonesty means social chaos; honesty is the basis of order and of peace.

And yet how difficult it is to be honest, and how far we are—all of us as a people—from that integrity we know to be necessary. In politics we have grown accustomed to disbelieving the speeches of public figures, for it is a common thing for a man to speak for the record while hiding his real opinions. In some advertising, with its exaggerations concerning soap and cigarettes, we have grown to the place where we meekly accept a deliberate dishonesty. And a moral sickness comes over us. We are impressed by size, by crowds, by glitter, by statistics, and neglect to ask the great stalwart question, "Is it true?"

I want to make three points which will help us to grow in honesty, three points which have helped me personally. Let our text be from St. Matthew—the words in which our Lord asked a simple honesty from His followers—'let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no."


First of all, it seems to me a weakness in modern thought that we speak of such things as honesty and truthfulness as the ideals of men. By the word ideals we mean that far ahead of us there floats a man-made dream of better things. The real world is here, but the ideal is off there somewhere. Ideals! I don't like that word the way it is used by most people, and seldom have I heard a speaker who used it frequently who did not impress me as being sentimental. Holy Scripture never speaks of ideals; nor, concerned as he is with hard facts, does the scientist as he performs an experiment in chemistry or engineering. Let's be as hard-headed when we speak of honesty, as much concerned with facts, as a chemist in a laboratory. Honesty is not just a human ideal: honesty is a moral law. Its workings can be studied and observed. It says, "If you strive for the truth, love it, speak it, there will be a solid integrity and basis in your character." It says, "If a man is not honest, he is unpredictable, shifty, and his character decays." It says, "If the people of a community love truth and" honesty, that will be a solid and stable community. If a community is dishonest, it has within it the seeds of its own destruction."

When, according to the ancient story, Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments—among them, "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not bear false witness" —he did not say that on Sinai he had learned some fine ideals. He said in effect, "These are divine laws for community life, and if the people disobey them, the people will suffer." Laws and facts! Things as hard and solid in the moral realm as the laws of tension in engineering.

Let's put it another way. What is the purpose of speech? (Before we answer this let's see that speech itself reveals that we are social beings, who give and receive, who communicate with each other.) Because we are social beings the proper purpose of our speech is to convey truth; and, not to speak the truth, but untruth, is a misuse of speech and a denial of our social solidarity. When a public figure, or my neighbor, says an untrue thing for my consumption, when he speaks, in deception, he has misused speech, broken community, and set Himself against me as an enemy. Honesty in speech, then, is a recognition of our social existence; dishonesty is an anarchic denial!

Teach us to bear the yoke in youth
With steadfastness and careful truth,
That in our time Thy grace may give
The truth whereby the nations live.

"Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no".
The first thing, then, that, will help us is the
knowledge that honesty is a law whose workings are observable upon character and community.


Secondly, consider the report on "Arnerican Education and International Tensions" issued by a group of educators under the leadership of President Cohant of Harvard and (then)
President Eisenhower of Columbia. The report said, "Young citizens should have the opportunity to learn about the principles and practices of totalitarianism, including, those represented by the Soviet Union and by the Communist Party in the United States. The study should be accurate and objective, and should make' use of basic official documents." Good! If our fearful age that needed to be said. Intellectual freedom in a free land! No intellectual cowardice!

But Then the report continues, "Members of the Communist Party in the United States should not be employed as teachers." Why? Well, there are many reasons, but let's stick to honesty and truth. Education is built upon the patient, humble seeking for truth wherever it may be found. And no person who follows a "party line" can be honest or a patient and humble seeker for truth. Any follower of the "party line" tidies things all up leaves out facts", distorts them to fit the "line." He twists objective truth into what he thinks it ought to be. Truth is complicated, and he makes it simple. He rewrites history, removing and suppressing. Quick labels are applied to opponents—"reactionaries," "Wall-Street imperialists," War-mongers." A university, college, or school would sell its soul if it permitted that type of mind to teach. You can't be honest, or love truth, and follow a "party line"; and the reason is that every group of people, every institution has its errors and corruptions-which the "party liner" purposely overlooks in reference to his own party.

What we have said about the Communist "party line" applies, of course, to every, “line". There are "party lines" in religion, in, industry, in the labor movement, and even in much so-called "Americanism." Facts are squeezed out, suppressed, and honest self-criticism before a higher truth becomes a kind of disloyalty. The rough edges, the sins, and pretensions of one's own group are suppressed, because men love their own group more than truth. Truth is a precious thing, hard to come by, and the only way to be honest is to love the truth, love God, and let the chips fall where they will. I do not mean, of course, that we should not belong to groups and political parties—of course I don't mean that! I mean that all of us are better members of a political party, better Americans, and better Churchmen when we love truth more than our group; for then our group can improve as new truth is added or old truth judges us.

Honesty requires a certain kind of soul. No bitter little fanatic, no man with hatred in his heart, can be honest; for his bitterness and littleness will not permit him to commend an opponent or to criticize himself. If you follow strictly a "party line", you will sell out truth and sell your soul. Was it Milton who once said something like this?—"Once Truth stood upon the earth in fulness and beauty, but by the hands of evil men she was torn asunder. And now he who loves Truth must search in many places for the broken fragments of her beauty." God give us people who love truth more than party, people with quiet and careful minds, people of integrity, who can say with Kipling,

Teach us to look in all our ends
On Thee for judge and not our friends,
That we with Thee may walk uncowed
By fear or favor of the crowd.

"Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no." Love truth and let the chips fall where they will; and, if they fall on your group, let truth cleanse your group:


Lastly, did it ever occur to you (and I hope it has) that every error in our moral conduct and social behavior roots back in an error about God and the meaning of life? Fascism, and Communism, for example, have their roots in religious errors, chief among which is that the State or Society is not to be worshipped. But let's illustrate our point from, honesty. There are many people around us who find life very interesting but not very full of meaning. Many things in a rich variety happen as the years roll by, but all the fragments of life do not add up to a great and meaningful whole. They look on all the toil, struggle, and fun as a kind of game that has no meaning. "In a few years", they say, "we will all be dead; and the point of life is to have a good time, be comfortable, and make yourself as secure on earth as possible. In the end nothing really matters, for there probably is no God and no life beyond this one."

Now, if in the end nothing matters and there is no final meaning, do you think that is an atmosphere in which the careful love of truth and honesty can survive? Of course it can't! If nothing matters in the end, then a little honesty or dishonesty doesn't matter either. It is in this atmosphere that much of the dishonesty of our day has arisen. Make no mistake-moral error and civic decay are always rooted in religious error. If nothing matters in the end, honesty doesn't really matter either.

Only in another soil can the careful love of truth survive, and fine honesty be nourished. In the great religious tradition which all of us share, God is Truth, and He expects truth of His children. He expects a simple honesty which springs from the heart so that your simple yes means yes, and your simple no mean's no. No matter what the temptations of a corrupt world may be, we are to remember that we are made in the image of God; and that what we are matters eternally. Since we are members one of another, we are to speak the truth with our neighbor, and to remember that dishonesty is an offence against both God and man. And I am pleading with you now, not just for honesty, but for your full support and love of that religious tradition which provides the only soil in which careful honesty can be nourished and grow. Honesty and dishonesty matter here, for "what profiteth it a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

We need today honest and predictable people. It will help you to see that honesty is a divine moral law; that truth is higher than, and should judge, every group to which we belong; and that life is lived before the face of God, who is Himself the Truth.

One more thing I would add about truth and honesty. Some people speak the truth in a brutal fashion. They inflict pain. They are honest without grace. This fact points us beyond honesty to the greatest of all virtues. "Speak the truth," said St. Paul, "in love"—or, we might say today, "love the truth and be kind.” This mixed up and weary world needs honesty, but honesty itself is corrupted if kindness be missing. Love the truth, brethren, and be kind!

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