Quaker Universalist Conversations

Discerning the Best and Most Loving Way to Move Forward

James Riemermann responds to Stephen Angell’s question: “Can we attain absolute Truth as Friends?”

I have a feeling–I could be wrong about this–that by “truth” you mean something other than my fairly mundane, conventional understanding of “that which is is the case.” I think you are talking primarily about what is right, what is good, rather than what is true in a conventional sense. I know that truth, and even more so the capitalized “Truth” so often used in religious conversations, has a very established pedigree in this sense of moral goodness rather than factual correctness, but I find it confusing. A thing can be true without being good, or good without being true. Only in a perfect world would they be one and the same, and the world we live in is far from perfect.

Sorry about that rather windy beginning, but I didn’t want to proceed without clarifying what I think we’re actually talking about.

I completely agree, and find it of the greatest importance, that Quakers, and for that matter all human beings, work together to discern the best and most loving way forward in our lives, in our relationships with one another, with all living beings, with the world around us. I also agree that there are times when it is exceedingly difficult to see, and even more difficult to follow, that way forward. I’m not sure I am able to distinguish between relative and absolute here–to my mind it is all about increasing joy and fullness of life, and easing suffering, for all, which is relative in the sense that it is about the moving reality of particular lives and circumstances, but absolute in the sense that all living beings want and deserve full and joyful lives. Any other sort of morality, disconnected from the quality of our lives, is a bit too abstract for me.

I hope I would never claim absolute knowledge of anything, in the realm of truth or goodness. I would say that intellect and science are the best tools for discerning the former, human feeling is the best tool for discerning the latter, and our decisions, corporate and individual, call for the full powers our heads and hearts alike.


Probably we cannot ascertain the Absolute Truth. Science, our most reliable guide, can only assure us of a very high, almost certain, but not absolute, truth. Faith cannot achieve nearly as high a degree of certainty. Faith,as well as science, can reveal what we might accept as Truth, depending on our degree of faith. Frankly, I would trust science before faith. But I accept many "near Truths, on faith - - if I have tested them as best possible by science and reason. If they seem to be inconsistent, I might accept them as hypotheses, but no more than that. Many of the articles of faith in the Quaker way (FGC, that is!) I accept enough to live by, but try to be alert to evidence that might weaken their degree of certainty.
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