Excerpted from Michael Eric-Dyson’s “Abraham, Isaac and Us,” reposted from OnBeing.org:
The only meaningful interpretation of transcendence we might propose is to strip the term of its philosophical and theological orthodoxy and offer instead a more forceful definition. Truth can be described as transcendent if it illumines the time and place of its emergence as well as other places and periods. Truth’s transcendence is not pegged to its authoritative reflection of an unchanging reality that everyone would agree on if they had access to it. Truth happens when we recognize the expression of a compelling and irrefutable description of reality. Truth is not irrefutable because it appeals to ideals that escape the fingerprints of time and reason. Truth is irrefutable because it is morally coherent and socially irresistible.
That’s why Martin Luther King, Jr. and his comrades could challenge the transcendent truths of white supremacy and black inferiority, truths seen by their advocates as true for all times and places, and truths that were rooted in religion and reason. But King and company offered a more compelling version of truth that ultimately proved to be more reasonable, more morally coherent, and more socially irresistible than the tribal truths it sought to displace. They didn’t prove their vision of truth was superior by appealing to a transcendent truth that rang through the universe as self-evident, even though King spoke of black folk enjoying “cosmic companionship” in our struggle for equality and justice.
Rather, King and his companions worked to show that they had a more edifying grasp of truth — that their moral vision was clearer, their ethical energy more uplifting, their description of democracy more meaningful, and their alliance with other truth tellers more cogent than those who bonded around the moral and legal justification of oppression. Thus, irrefutability is provisional, and may change with the appearance of other compelling views of truth that are rooted in reason and affirmed by morality. Such is the case, for instance, with gay marriage: traditional views of marriage that rest on religious and social orthodoxy are slowly giving way to superior versions of the truth that support gay and lesbian domestic intimacy and family values.